Cahiers du Cercle Ernest Renan, no. 11 (1956)
Edited and translated from the French by R. Salm (April, 2012)
Note: Editorial additions are in green.
Simon and the Taheb or “Messiah”
It was in Samaria that the belief in the messiah, which was very old, appeared most coherently. This messiah—the Taheb—would return divine favor to Samaria (that is, to “Israel”), would return the tabernacle and the cult to Mt. Gerizim and would live one hundred and ten years. He was Moses returned to save his own, a conception opposed to that of the Jews of Jerusalem. At his death evil would multiply until the Day of Judgment at the end of the world. On that day the wicked would be hurled into the fire and the just admitted into the Garden of Eden. Thus would end the period instituted by the schism which Eli caused by transferring the tabernacle to Shiloh.10
The information that we have does not make it clear that the messiah would belong to the tribe of Joseph, but it is certain that the Samaritans refused to accept the passage which stipulates that the messiah would come from Judah:
The sceptre shall not pass from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute be brought him and the peoples render him obedience. (Gen 49:10)
Simon of Samaria, called “the Magician,” claimed past incarnations, conforming to the Samaritan belief in the pre-existence of the soul, a doctrine according to which the soul of Adam was reincarnated in Seth, Noah, Abraham, and Moses. Hence, the existence of a prophet in Samaria—a Christ or Messiah—is not at all surprising but, on the contrary, is to be expected.
A summary of Samaritan history
Historians of Christian origins have apparently succumbed to a fascination for the history of Judah and Jerusalem and have, at the same time, neglected the teachings of the Samaritans—at least, they have neglected the history of the Samaritans and of their temple. This seriously unbalanced view has deprived us of a range of hypotheses, including one which could give us a satisfying explanation of data which remain obscure or even incomprehensible.
After the return from the Exile in 537 BCE, Samaria (the Northern Kingdom of Israel) was a prosperous region, open to both commerce and ideas. It found itself opposed to Judah, and its capital was the refuge of all the malcontents from the Yahwistic community in Jerusalem, particularly after the reform of Nehemiah.
Thanks to priests from Jerusalem, there was a constituency in Samaria which succeeded in constructing a rival temple with a legitimately pedigreed priesthood serving the Torah.11 During the time of Alexander the Great, the construction of a temple on Mt. Gerizim brought about the religious rupture between Samaritans and Jews.
Towards 200 BCE, the Samaritans attacked the Jews (under the weak High Priest Onias II, Josephus, Ant. XII:4.1) and took a number of them as slaves. Under Antiochus Epiphanes their temple was dedicated to Jupiter Hellenicus (167 BCE—Josephus, Ant. XII:5.5).
During the Maccabean Revolt, the Samaritans allied themselves with the enemies of Jerusalem. John Hyrcanus destroyed the Samaritan temple in 128 BCE, and their capital about 108 BCE. Friendly to the Romans, the Samaritans obtained from Pompey permission to reconstruct Samaria (63 BCE) which was declared a free city. The city was further restored and embellished by Gabinus (towards 56 BCE). Finally, Herod the Great himself named the city Sebaste and constructed a large temple there.
The Samaritan-Jewish conflict
During the deposing of Archelaus in 6 BCE, some Samaritans entered Jerusalem at night and defiled the rival temple by placing cadavers in it, while in 44 CE, the Samaritans rejoiced at the death of Herod Agrippa. Then, in the year 51 some Galilean pilgrims were attacked on the road as they passed through Samaria [on their way to Jerusalem]. The incident degenerated into civil war which the Romans suppressed by punishing the Samaritans.
In the foregoing we possess the accounts of (1) Jews and (2) the accusations of Josephus—both enemies of the Samaritans. The Samaritan rebuttals have disappeared from the record.12
Jews and Samaritans excommunicated one another. Each considered the other a repository of pestilence with which even contact was prohibited. Conflicts between the two groups were not limited to Palestine but extended throughout the diaspora, particularly in Egypt (Alexandria). A Jew could never eat Samaritan bread, which was likened to “the meat of pigs.” … Samaritan wine was absolutely forbidden the Jew. But ordinary food was tolerated as long as it was not accompanied by wine or vinegar. It is interesting that both these elements apply to the Christian eucharist.
The Jew could use the roads, wells, and lodgings of Samaria, but Samaritans were later excluded (along with Christians) from Capernaum, Nazareth, and Sepphoris. For the Jews of the first century CE, Samaria was not part of the “Holy Land.” Finally, the witness of a Samaritan was to be rejected. If not, it rendered the entire proceeding void. (Some Rabbis did not go this far in their intransigence.)
For their part, Samaritans considered Jews to be heretics and schismatics. They despised Jerusalem and considered Mt. Gerizim the religious center for true Israelites. In turn, the Jews accused their neighbors of having corrupted the Law and of having violated scripture.
Samaritan religious ideas, apart from the Pentateuch, are not known with any precision. The Samaritan written sources that we possess are late. We know at least that they strictly observed the three mosaic holidays: Passover, Weeks, and Tabernacles (Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot). During these times the entire community lived in the mountain. Only at Passover did the Samaritans offer sacrifices, and their rites were more primitive than the Jewish.
Rabbi Simeon, the son of Gamaliel, recognized that “every commandment preserved by the Cutheans [Samaritans] is observed more strictly among them than among the Israelites” (Bab. Chullin 4a). This did not prevent the Rabbis from accusing the Samaritans of worshipping a dove on Mt. Gerizim (Chullin 6a), and of worshipping the idols which Jacob had buried under the oak at Moreh (Gen 35:4; Ber. Rab 81) in order to venerate Ishtar.
The Talmud wavers as to whether the Samaritans are to be classified with the Sadducees or not, for both declare “that the resurrection is not written in the Law.” Nevertheless, the Samaritans may still have believed in the resurrection of the soul, even if they denied the resurrection of the body.
The sole scripture of the Samaritans was the Pentateuch or the “Law” (comprising the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). They did not consider the other books of Jewish scripture to be canonical. Nevertheless, they venerated the book of Job and the Psalms, and esteemed Joshua and Judges as apocrypha.
The Samaritan Pentateuch contains the following conclusion to the commandments (Ex 20:17; Deut 5:21):
“And this will be when the Lord your God will lead you into the land of Canaan of which you will take possession; then you will set up for yourselves large stones, and you will plaster them and write on them the words of the Law, and this will be when you cross the Jordan.13 I command you today that you will set up these stones on Mt. Gerizim and you will construct there an altar to the Lord your God and you will sacrifice offerings of peace, and you will will eat them and you will rejoice before the Lord your God. This mountain is on the other side of the Jordan as the sun rises over the land of Canaan, to the West facing Gilgal, next to the oak of Moreh, before Shechem.”
Such is the Samaritan version of the tenth commandment. One can readily appreciate why a Samaritan would consider the temple in Jerusalem to be schismatic—as also the tabernacle at Shiloh in Ephraim, including the Jewish priesthood which later settled in the region.
On their sacred Mt. Gerizim, Adam and Seth had erected altars, as also did Noah following the flood. There Absalom offered up his son in sacrifice, and Joshua set up the twelve stones which he had brought from the Jordan and on which he inscribed the words of the Law. Finally, it was in Samaria that Elisha and Obadiah were buried.
Too often the Samaritans are viewed as a Jewish sect. In fact, they considered themselves to be the only true religion of Israel and in possession of the true temple.
10. This is according to the Samaritan version in, e.g., The Book of Joshua chp. 43. (See R. Anderson and T. Giles, Tradition Kept: The Literature of the Samaritans, p. 111. Cf. 1 Sam 3:12-14.—R.S.
11. The Samaritan High Priests belonged to the line of Aaron until 1624, after which the office was assumed by levites of a junior branch who no longer assumed the title of High Priest.—G.O.
12. We now possess the Samaritan Book of Joshua and several Samaritan Chronicles (see bibliography). These, albeit in garbled form, give the Samaritan version of history. Several of these texts became accessible in translation only since Ory wrote in the 1950’s.—R.S.
13. The significance of “crossing the Jordan” is gnostic (see here). It represents crossing over from ignorance to understanding, wherein the “water” represents gnosis. In other words, the origin of both Samaritanism and Judaism is gnostic— in both religions crossing the river symbolizes entry into the “promised land.” The related gnostic significance of water is also very ancient and goes back to Neolithic times. It is preserved in many Jewish Pseudepigrapha and Christian heretical writings—many of which are unfortunately little studied even today.—R.S.