M. Kartveit, The Origin of the Samaritans

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 12 (2012) - Review

Kartveit, Magnar, The Origin of the Samaritans (VTSup, 128; Leiden: Brill, 2009). Pp. xiv + 405. Hardcover. US$185.00. ISBN 978-90-04-1-78199-9.

One of the most intractable problems concerning the Samaritans is the question of their origin. Much has been written about this subject from antiquity to modern times. As in other areas, however, old certainties based on a traditional reading of the Bible and of Flavius Josephus have tenaciously persisted into the twenty-first century despite a relative plethora of new vistas opened up by recent discoveries and renewed research into the history of this community. Moreover, the Samaritans present us with a double persona: on the one hand, they appear in many respects like an offshoot of Judaism, on the other, they are closely related to the former Northern Kingdom of Israel.

Kartveit has shown great courage to address this complex question in a book. However, he was well prepared for the task since his involvement in Samaritan research spans many years, publishing articles and presenting papers at learned conferences on a variety of topics. Mutatis mutandis, i.e. adapted to the new context, these studies became part of this book.

In chapter one, “Introduction,” Kartveit discusses the question of the definition of “Samaritans.” For various reasons (see below), he does not want to follow the current convention of distinguishing between “Samarians,” i.e., the inhabitants of Samaria regardless of their religion, and “Samaritans,” i.e., the community whose worship is centered on Mount Gerizim. Rather, he uses “Samaritans” in a broad way, meaning by it the group described by Josephus, attacked in the second century B.C.E. texts, and emerging in an earlier period. Anticipating the last chapter, he states that from the moment the temple on Mt. Gerizim was erected, “we have the Samaritans” (p. 10).

In chapter two, “The Legacy from Josephus,” Kartveit discusses what the Church Fathers have to say about the origin of the Samaritans, and how the Samaritans explain the beginnings of the Jews. Origen, Eusebius of Caesarea, and Epiphanius were all influenced by Josephus' interpretation of 2 Kgs 17:24–41, adding some explanations of their own. In the Samaritan “historical” sources, the Chronicles compiled in the Middle Ages, it is the origin of the Jews which is described since the Samaritans consider themselves to be descendants of the original Israelites. Being devoid of historical value for the biblical period, these sources cannot be used to reconstruct the origin of the Samaritans. Rather, these texts “were developed as polemics or self-defence, created from older texts in order to substantiate contemporary self-understanding” in mid-fourteenth and late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries (p. 43).

Chapter three, “State of the Question,” in turn, discusses the influence which the Samaritan version and Josephus had on modern scholarship, but also examines theories that are not founded on either the Samaritan chronicles or on Josephus.

The next chapter, “Josephus on the Origin of the Samaritans,” examines in detail Josephus' War and Antiquities to ascertain his views on the question. After a discussion of terminology, rejecting any a priori definitions of Samaritans, Kartveit discusses Josephus' Tendenz, identifying opportunism as the “most conspicuous trait in Josephus' picture of the Samaritans” (p. 82). He then proceeds to outline one by one what he sees as Josephus' three versions of their origins: “they were brought in from the east; they were expelled from Jerusalem; and they were Sidonians” (p. 85). The three versions are incompatible and confusing, but they serve Josephus' purpose to paint a negative picture of the Samaritans.

Chapter five, “Josephus' Predecessors,” comprising almost one hundred pages, is by far the longest and most intricate of the whole book. Kartveit deals here with a number of writings from the third and second centuries B.C.E. that foreshadow Josephus' polemics: The Septuagint version of Genesis 34, Demetrius the Exegete and Chronographer, Theodotus, Ben Sira 50:25–26, Jubilees 30, 4QNarrative and Poetic Compositiona-c, the Aramaic Levi Document, the Testament of Levi, Judith, Joseph and Aseneth, Philo, Pseudo-Philo, and the Samaritan Pentateuch. Most of these texts make Gen 34, the rape of Dinah and the slaughter of the Shechemites, a subject of discussion, although they do so in different ways due to their distinctive overall goals. In general, however, they carry further the more negative attitude towards the Shechemites expressed in the Septuagint as compared to the Masoretic text of this passage. The following are Kartveit's conclusions for each of the works discussed: Demetrius contains no polemics against the citizens of Shechem in his time. Theodotus' poem would have been offensive to the Samaritans because their holy mountain is not even named, but mentioned together with Mount Ebal, and “their city Shechem is considered Jewish territory” (p. 140). Ben Sira 50:25–26 clearly uses Gen 34 in an anti-Samaritan sense, in fact, the Hebrew text of 50:24–26 is a prayer for the killing of the Shechemites. Jubilees 30 does not present a direct polemic against Shechemites, but by its concentration on Jerusalem and the “pure” people it implicitly is unfriendly or hostile to other peoples. 4QNarrative and Poetic Compositiona-c is a “direct attack on contemporary Shechemites” in the line of Ben Sira 50:25–26 (p. 160). The three fragments of the Aramaic Testament of Levi which have preserved parts of the Dinah story exhibit “no specific edge against the contemporary dwellers in the area around Shechem” (p. 177). The Greek Testament of Levi, a Christian document discussed by Kartveit after the Aramaic Testament of Levi, clearly uses Gen 34 to polemicize against the Shechemites, calling the city of Shechem a city of fools. In the book of Judith, Gen 34 is given a prominent place and the assault on Jerusalem is seen as a re-enactment of the rape of Dinah; Shechem, with its Yahwistic cult so close to Jerusalem, is dangerous for the latter. Joseph and Aseneth “is not a figurative text for the Jerusalem-Shechem conflict”; instead, the “message of the book seems to lie in virtues to be emulated by the Jews of Alexandria” (p. 192). Genesis 34 was used in this work not against the Samaritans, but against the Egyptian fool, i.e., the son of the Pharaoh. Philo portrays Shechem and Hamor very negatively and Dinah and the sons of Jacob positively, but he does not attack the contemporary inhabitants of the city, at least not directly. Pseudo-Philo's Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum shows no negative attitude in its short account of the events in Gen 34, but other passages depict Samaritan sites in a negative light. Since all extant manuscripts of the Samaritan Pentateuch are later than the works discussed in this chapter, Kartveit considers it last. Contrary to his expectations that the Samaritans would have eliminated any traits that could be used polemically against them, Kartveit notes that the Samaritan Pentateuch does not defend the Shechemites and does not alter the chapter “into something which would be based on a defence against attacks” (p. 195). But its reading of Gen 49:5–7 results in an identification of the Samaritans with Simeon and Levi against the Shechemites. Kartveit finds thus an indirect confirmation of antagonism against the Samaritans insofar as the latter “felt the weight of polemics from the second century B.C.E. when the SP developed” and used the identification with the Jewish heroes to extract themselves from it (p. 198). There were, Kartveit concludes, continued polemics against the Samaritans from the second century B.C.E. to Josephus in the first century C.E.

Chapter six, “Samaritan Inscriptions and Related Texts,” reviews recent archaeological excavations at Shechem (Tell Balatah), Tell er-Ras, and Mount Gerizim (Jabal at-Tur) as well as the inscriptions uncovered on Mount Gerizim and on the Greek island of Delos. Next, Kartveit discusses texts in which the Greek term Argarizein (with variants) occurs, i.e. a contracted and transliterated rendition of the Hebrew words הר, “mountain,” and גריזים, “Gerizim,” whose spelling as one word has become a hallmark of Samaritan writings. Some non-Samaritan texts, however, also exhibit this form. It must therefore be asked “if these texts reveal a Samaritan source or Samaritan allegiance through the expression” (p. 230). Contentious cases are, according to Kartveit, 2 Macc 5:23 and 6:2; Josephus, War 1.63; the Masada Fragment 10; and Pseudo-Eupolemos. Kartveit sees 2 Macc 5:23 and 6:2 as highly critical of the Samaritans which proves that “Argarizim” was used in Jewish anti-Samaritan texts in the second century B.C.E. and similarly in Josephus, War 1.63. In all other occurrences Josephus uses simply “Garizein,” possibly in order to “avoid any recognition of Samaritan claims to legitimacy” (p. 241). Masada Fragment 10 also is seen as a Jewish text in which the contracted form is used in a curse on the Samaritans. Pseudo-Eupolemos was probably authored by a Hellenized Jew and adopted by a Jewish, Samaritan or Christian author who added “Argarizin” and explained its meaning. What these texts show is that “Argarizim” was a Samaritan technical term for the temple-mount Gerizim in the second century B.C.E. Jews and Christians could use it in a polemical sense against the Samaritans.

In chapter seven, “The Pentateuch that the Samaritans Chose,” Kartveit presents his view of the origin of the Samaritan Scripture, viz. the Samaritans selected for themselves one of the versions circulating in Palestine and later adapted it in accordance with their theology. In analysing the major additions and transpositions in the Samaritan Pentateuch, he aims to show that they chose a version which emphasizes Moses' position as the prophet; the authority of all other prophets was merely derivative of Moses'. The type of text that the Samaritans made their own was produced from the middle of the third century B.C.E. and remained in use until the turn of the eras, that is, during the period in which the prophetic writings assumed more and more importance.

Chapter eight examines therefore “The Samaritan Attitude to the Prophets.” From the Church Fathers we know that the Samaritans' Scripture of the second and third centuries C.E. consisted only of the Pentateuch. Since no earlier direct evidence is available, Kartveit draws on the Ascension of Isaiah and its depiction of a prophet from Samaria, named variously Belkira or Melcheira or derivatives thereof, who reproaches Isaiah for disagreeing with Moses, possibly a parody of a Samaritan position. Taken together with 4Q339, a list of false prophets compiled before the turn of the eras, and certain Talmudic passages, above all b. Yebamot 49b where Isaiah is again depicted as being in conflict with Moses, the oldest part of Ascension of Isaiah (probably dating from the first century C.E. or earlier) may have preserved a record of Jewish polemics about the prophetic corpus going back to the first or second century B.C.E. This inner-Jewish discussion continued until the turn of the eras and ended with the acknowledgement of Moses as the greatest prophet at the price of including the prophetic writings in the canon. The rejection of the prophets continued only among the Samaritans who, later, disapproved also of the prophets' preference for Zion and reproached them for their inaccurate predictions of the future. From his detailed study of the Ascension of Isaiah and related texts, Kartveit concludes that the “story of the false prophet from Samaria who accuses Isaiah, and occasions his death … may be another case of Jerusalem polemics against the Samaritans” (p. 348). It also shows the Samaritan opposition to the prophets due to the Samaritan elevation of Moses to the position of the supreme prophet.

The first sentence of the last chapter, “The Origin of the Samaritans,” states: “The moment of birth of the Samaritans was the construction of the temple on Mount Gerizim,” most likely in the Persian period (p. 351). Both the Delos inscriptions and Josephus' narratives of the disputes in Egypt about the temples in Jerusalem and on Mt. Gerizim not only show that the Samaritans' identity was derived from their temple, but also that it had “developed long enough before the early second century B.C.E. to have spread into the diaspora by then” (p. 353). Kartveit then asks: “Why was the temple built on Mt. Gerizim and not in Shechem?” He believes the only reason was Moses' command in Deut 27:4–7, ordering the Israelites to set up large stones on Mount Gerizim (original reading), build an altar there, and offer sacrifices on it. Kartveit concludes: “The fatal division between Jerusalem and Samaria was motivated by one specific commandment in the Pentateuch” (p. 357). The erection of the Gerizim temple and the rejection of the Northerners by Jerusalem went hand in hand. Although the Northerners were YHWH worshipers, the fact that they had not been exiled was possibly their “basic flaw” (p. 370). It was the returnees who brought about a split by not accepting the people of the land. Eventually, the returnees became the Jews of Jerusalem and elements of the people of the land came to be the Jews of Samaria, i.e. the Samaritans.

Kartveit's book is well structured and well written, and the documentation is extensive and up-to-date. It is so rich in details that it is impossible to address all the material in a review. In the following I will therefore highlight salient issues.

But before taking up these issues, some corrigenda should be noted: The Samaritan Aramaic term for “the period of Divine Favour” is transcribed in the book as Rawuta instead of Rḥwth or Rahuta (from רחותה; Samaritan pronunciation: rūta). The Samaritan Arabic Book of Joshua in its earliest part is based on a (inferred) text going back to the 13th, not the 14th, century C.E. (p. 34–35). And, still on the subject of chronicles, the reference to “Tolidah and Chronicle Neubauer” (p. 41) must be a slip of the pen since Tolidah and Chronicle Neubauer are two names for the same work.

Scholars will differ in the assessment of some of the texts understood by Kartveit in an anti-Samaritan sense, such as 2 Macc 5:23 and 6:2, or disagree with Kartveit's view that Josephus presents three different versions of the origin of the Samaritans, and that Masada Fragment 10 is a curse on the Samaritans. Similarly, Abū l-Fat's statement that he cut down on Greek expressions in compiling his chronicle more likely refers to individual words, or even to Greek proper names, than it does to abbreviations of Greek sources.

Then there is the question of terminology. As mentioned above, the distinction observed by most contemporary researchers between “Samarians” and “Samaritans” is dismissed by Kartveit because it is “based on modern, and therefore anachronistic, criteria” (p. 9). But in many cases we use terms for antique phenomena for which the ancients did not have an expression or used designations which now have different connotations. Such terms as “Presocratic Philosophers” or “Deuteronomistic History,” for instance, are also based on modern scholarly criteria and we still employ them.

The point after which the Samaritans went their own ways is believed by the majority of scholars today to be in the second century B.C.E. when, from all we can discern, the Samaritans, most likely provoked by the destruction of their temple by John Hyrcanus, rejected Jerusalem and began to see Mt. Gerizim as the only legitimate sanctuary. It seems now probable that the erection of a temple on the mountain took place in the fifth century B.C.E. (Kartveit thinks it was in the first part of the fourth century B.C.E. [p. 359]). The building of the sanctuary alone, however, cannot have been decisive for the formation of a separate community of Israelites. Kartveit himself notes that there were other Israelite groups who had temples outside of Jerusalem in such places as Elephantine, Leontopolis, and ʿAraq el-Emir (whereby the edifice in ʿAraq el-Emir was most likely not a temple; on the other hand, Khirbet el-Qom should probably be added to the list). But he discounts this fact because the Samaritans “constitute the only community with a continued existence down to our own age” and “were more important in the eyes of the NT and Josephus” (p. 352). While this continued existence may be a cause why they have held the interest of later generations of Jews and Christians, it is no reason to ignore the fact that the other temples did not lead to separate communities. In other words, there must have been more than the building of a temple outside Jerusalem that brought about a distinct group within Israelite religion.

Scholars believe that the separation was a gradual process, not a sudden breach, and to indicate this, they use such terms as “proto-Samaritan” or “pre-Samaritan.” Samarians who worshiped at Mt. Gerizim but did not yet reject Jerusalem are called proto-Samaritans. These terms, too, are rejected by Kartveit because they imply a “teleological understanding of history” and are “suggestive of a somewhat linear development in one specific direction” (p. 7). On the other hand, he has no qualms to use the term “pre-Samaritan” in connection with Pentateuchal texts from Qumran (pp. 263–265: “The Predecessor of the Samaritan Pentateuch in Qumran”). After all, we look back at other phenomena too and express in our own terminology that we recognize that some of them display traits that are shared by a later form of these earlier entities and can thus be considered precursors of them. Examples are the development of scripts and languages (“proto-Canaanite,” “proto-Indo-European”), and the development of humans (“proto-humans”).

In reading and interpreting early texts in view of determining whether they contain anti-Samaritan polemics the dangers of Scylla and Charybdis are ever present: either we read too much into the evidence or we overlook possible clues. Kartveit is aware of this (p. 110), but then goes on to ignore his own warning, especially in chapter five. He speaks of “heavy criticism [of the Samaritans] from Jerusalem in the second century B.C.E.” (p. 352), and the discussions in that chapter create the impression that the works treated in it use Gen 34 as anti-Samaritan ammunition when much, or at least, some of the evidence is only “possibly” or “probably” directed against the Samaritans and some are free of any anti-Samaritan animus, as pointed out above when discussing chapter five. It is true, if the antagonism between Jews and Samaritans began at an early date, that even slight hints can have an easily-understood meaning in a hot polemic situation. The problem is that we deduce the existence of a hot polemic situation from the writings whose hints we interpret as proof for the polemic situation. We thus get caught in a circulus vitiosus. A corollary of painting a picture that consists of a mosaic of hypotheses is that the result can take on the appearance of a secured foundation on which others in turn build further hypotheses.

The catch-phrase “Shechem” serves as the identifier of passages that relate in some way to the Samaritans, particularly in chapter five. Behind this association stands Josephus who claimed that Shechem was the Samaritans' μητρόπολις (Ant. 11.340) and who used the terms Shechemites and Samaritans interchangeably. However, the recent archaeological excavations have proven the existence of a city on the highest peak of Mt. Gerizim which must have been the main city of the Samaritans. Kartveit himself casts doubt on the theory of the Samaritans fleeing to Shechem after Alexander had punished them for killing his governor of Samaria, Andromachus (pp. 62–63, 204, 359). And in reference to Theodotus' poem he writes: “In a text from the Hellenistic period, the focus on Shechem instead of on Mount Gerizim is conspicuous, and even anti-Samaritan” (p. 128; cf. also pp. 139–140). Josephus' statement about Shechem can apply only to the time after the destruction of the Gerizim temple and the city around it at the end of the second century B.C.E. In any event, it is questionable whether every mention of Shechem in Jewish writings of the period under discussion can be taken to refer to the Samaritans.

One final point: after the presentation of the evidence for anti-Samaritan polemics dating exclusively from the second century B.C.E. and the first century C.E., the conclusion that the Samaritans originated with the construction of the temple in the early fourth century B.C.E. comes as a surprise despite the anticipation of this result at the beginning of the book. The evidence marshalled by Kartveit up to this point in the book seems to suggest precisely the time in which most scholars now place the parting of the ways, i.e. the second century B.C.E.

The above remarks, however, do not detract from the fact that the work under review, the first book-length study devoted to the origin of the Samaritans in thirty-five years, is a well-informed and perceptive treatment of a difficult question. Anybody studying the issues related to the origin of the Samaritans will have to consult it.

Reinhard Pummer, University of Ottawa