The Samaritans

By J. L. Leifeste

When hearing the word “Samaritan,” we might think of Jesus’ parable about the Good Samaritan or about Jesus talking to a Samaritan woman at a well. Yet, how much do we know about these people?

Two Kingdoms

Under King David, Jerusalem was the capital of the Jewish kingdom. For the formal worship of God, David’s son, Solomon, built a temple in Jerusalem. However, this kingdom was divided around 922 B.C. when Solomon’s son Rehoboam vowed to rule the kingdom very harshly. His words prompted ten of the northern tribes to revolt and claim one of Solomon’s servants, Jeroboam I, as their king. Two kingdoms of Jews then existed. The Southern Kingdom under Rehoboam’s rule was called “Judah.” The Northern Kingdom was called “Israel.” To know of the Samaritans, we must first focus our attention upon the Northern Kingdom.

Origin of Samaria

The Northern Kingdom (Israel) generally encompassed the hill country between the Jezreel plain to the north and the Aijalon valley to the south. A major trade route ran north and south through Israel. For a while, its capital was the city of Shechem (1 Kgs. 12:25). The capital was transferred to the city of Tirzah (1 Kgs. 14:17), where King Omri, sixth king of Israel (1 Kgs. 16:15-23), reigned for six years. He then built the city of Samaria to be the new capital of the Northern Kingdom (1 Kgs. 16:21ff). It was built on a hill. Omri named the city of Samaria after Shemer, the previous owner of the land (16:24).

The two kingdoms were openly hostile toward each other. The worship of God at the temple required going to Jerusalem, inside Judah’s borders. To avoid going to Jerusalem, the Northern Kingdom set up places of idol worship, golden calves, at Dan on Israel’s northern border and at Bethel near its southern border. King Ahab and Queen Jezebel also promoted the idolatrous worship of Baal (1Kg. 16:32ff). Such worship of false gods caused God to send His prophets into the region. Elijah, Elisha, Amos, and Hosea preached in Israel. The people continued in evil worship, and God allowed the Northern nation to fall.

The Intermingling

The Empire of Assyria was at its peak during the seventh and eighth centuries B.C. It was a large, powerful empire in northern Mesopotamia. Its capital, originally in Asshur, was later moved to Nineveh. The Northern Kingdom of Israel became a vassal state under Assyria in 841 B.C. Later, the Assyrians besieged the city of Samaria for three years, and it fell in 722 B.C. The Assyrians transported most of the Jews of Israel to areas along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. This ended the existence of the ten tribes of Israel as a nation. The Assyrians also brought in people from other conquered nations to live in the area that was once the Northern Kingdom (2 Kg. 17:24; Ezra 4:8-10; Neh. 4:7). Many scholars believe that some of these new inhabitants also intermarried with Jews who were left behind, or who later returned to the area. Because of these events, people whom the nation of Judah considered ethnically impure inhabited the region of Samaria.

The Bible tells us that the Samaritans were a mixture of people with combined religious beliefs. In 2 Kings 17:24-41, we find that a priest was sent to teach the Samaritans how to worship God. Yet, they did not respond in pleasing God.


The Southern Kingdom of Judah remained independent until conquered by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. After the fall of the Babylonian Empire, Cyrus founded the Persian Empire. Around 536 B.C., he decreed that the Jews, formerly of the kingdom of Judah, could return to Jerusalem. Zerubbabel led them in rebuilding the temple, which was completed about 515 B.C. The Samaritans offered to help in rebuilding the temple, but the Jews, who considered themselves of pure Jewish blood, refused. The Samaritans then ridiculed and opposed the Jews as they rebuilt the temple and the walls (Ezra 4; Neh. 4-6). These actions of both sides caused great resentment between Jews and Samaritans.

Alexander the Great conquered the area about 331 B.C. He likewise transferred different peoples to and from the area. Later, the Roman ruler, Caesar Augustus, established Herod the Great as king of the area. By about 37 B.C., Herod’s rule included Galilee, Samaria, and Judea. He rebuilt the city of Samaria and called it Sebuste or Sebaste. Today, the site may be Sabastiyah.

It is said that a small group of Samaritans still exist at, or near, the village of Nabulus in the present-day West Bank area near Jordan.

During the time of Jesus, some Samaritans worshiped God on Mount Gerizim. They still resented the Jews. Also, the Jews in Galilee north of Samaria and those in Judea south of Samaria still hated the Samaritans. When possible, most of the Jews in the north would travel around Samaria through Perea to get to Jerusalem and the southern area. It is possible that, to the Jews, calling someone a Samaritan would insult them as much as saying that they had a demon (see Jn. 8:48).

At first, Jesus commanded His apostles to preach only to the Jews and not the Samaritans nor to any other Gentiles (non-Jews) (Matt. 10:5-6). It was not yet time for them to preach to Samaritans. However, God’s love for Samaritans and all people becomes evident in Old Testament prophecies (Gen. 12:3; Ps. 22:27, etc.), and in the teachings of the New Testament (Rom. 1:16). This love is seen in the instances of contact between Jesus and Samaritans (Lk. 9:51-56; 17:11-19; Jn. 4:4-42). He even taught about great goodness by using a parable of a good Samaritan (Lk. 10:30-37). Later, Philip and others took the gospel to Samaria (Acts 8:5-25), as Jesus had instructed (Acts 1:8).