The People That History Forgot
Chapter 6 

Samaritans in All Parts of the Empire

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It must be remembered that there were Samaritans scattered all over the Roman world in the 1st century of our era. Only recently have historians begun to realize just how extensive the Samaritan population was in central Palestine, but also in Phoenicia, Egypt, Arabia, North Africa, Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, and even in Rome and throughout Italy. At first, many Romans when coming in contact with these Samaritans simply thought them to be a Jewish sect and often they were classified as Jews on that account. Indeed, some early fathers of the Christian community continued to confuse the Samaritans with Jews from the third to the early fifth centuries (I will show this in a moment). After all, the Samaritans carried with them wherever they went their doctrines and religious symbols which were in many basic cases the same as the Jews.

As for the population of the Samaritans, recent studies suggest that there were as many as half a million Samaritans in central Palestine in the 1st century and about three times that many in the other areas of the Roman Empire and other areas mentioned above (Alan, Crown, The Samaritans [Tubingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1989], p. 201). Two million Samaritans in the 1st century represented a large group of people to the Romans and they would have been politically important to the government of Rome as well as to their neighbors who lived near them or among them.

What happened to that population of Samaritans which numbered up to two million people in the time of the apostles and for the next six hundred years that followed? This is one of the things I hope to show in the remainder of this book. This vast number of people have simply disappeared from history. That is, they have vanished as far as being denominated as "Samaritans."

Today the number of identifiable Samaritans is drastically reduced to a small community (about 600) still living in two locations in Israel in Nablus and near Tel Aviv (some in Nablus I have come to know personally during the many times I have been to the area). They have told me that they have early records of their forefathers showing at one time that there were Samaritans all over Europe as well as Egypt, North Africa and even India. They once represented a large population of the Roman world and they became influential among the Romans.

This dispersion of Samaritan peoples to many areas of Europe (and even Asia) has been known by the remnant Samaritans who still live in Palestine. As long ago as 1865, Robert Mimpriss in his Gospel Treasury, Expository Harmony of the Four Evangelists (New York: M. W. Dodd, 1868), stated:

"In ages past we find them [the Samaritans] inhabiting various cities in Palestine, and extending even to Constantinople. There was a tradition among them that large numbers of their brethren were dwelling in various parts of the world ― in England, France, India, and elsewhere and they have written concerning them from time to time, in the hope of becoming acquainted with these their brethren.”

• p.545

The evidence in the 20th century for a large Samaritan dispersion has become certain. In the new book referred to above (Alan Crown, ed., The Samaritans [Tubingen: J.C.B. Mohr] 1989), we have some following quotes and observations,

"Egypt and Phoenicia, North Africa, Greece and even Rome, all offered refuge or homes for Samaritans as well as for Jews. ... Observers made little distinction between Samaritans and Jews."

• p.201

"Samaritans appear to have been located in every major coastal city of Palestine, and we find them in Italy and throughout Asia Minor."

• p.207

"We are aware that early in the Byzantine period Jamnia, once the seat of the Sanhedrin,, was almost entirely Samaritan. [There were] dense settlements in small farming villages across the Sharon, Shephelah and into the hill country of Samaria."

• pp.59–60

"Samaritan troops seemed to have served in the Roman armies and may have settled overseas even at the frontiers of the Roman Empire."

• p.209

"At Thessalonica, the [Samaritan] community was sufficiently large to have maintained a synagogue, one portion of which was named ‘the Tower of the Samaritans’."

• p.211

"Before the coming of the Moslems the Mediterranean basin was virtually ringed by Samaritan settlers, some as free men including merchants, officials, artisans and colonists, and others as slaves, including, apparently, a large number of mine workers."

• p.212

"In the Mediterranean basin, the Samaritan Diaspora was lost to sight for ever soon after the Moslem conquest, with the single exception of a Samaritan refugee at Trieste in the eighteenth century."

• p.213

In summation: Crown states that there were Samaritans,

There are three major factors that must be understood by historians of the Samaritan people.

Firstly, that from the 1st century to the 6th century of our era there were at least two million Samaritans in various parts of the Mediterranean basin.

Secondly, in many cases the Samaritans were confused with the Jews as far as the Romans and others were concerned because the Samaritans used many of the same symbols that the Jews used in identifying themselves. Some examples of this confusion between Jews and Samaritans are found in the quotes from early Christian scholars. In the early 3rd century Hippolytus said the Sadducean branch of the Jews still existed but they were now residing in Samaria. He said, "This sect had its stronghold especially in the region of Samaria" (Refutation of All Heresies, IX.24). Origen (Celsus I.49) and even Jerome (Comm. on Matthew 22:31–33) thought the Samaritans were a Sadducean sect of the Jews. Epiphanius in the 4th century also confused Samaritans with Jews. M’Clintock & Strong’s Cyclopaedia, states:

"Epiphanius (Against Heresies, Book One) considers them to be the chief and most dangerous adversaries of Christianity, and he enumerates the several sects into which they had by that time divided themselves. They were popularly, and even by some of the fathers, confounded with the Jews, insomuch that a legal interpretation of the Gospel was described as a tendency to Samaritanize or to be Judaistic."

• vol.IX, p.287 [bold lettering mine]

And even some of the Jewish authorities in the Talmud accepted some Samaritans as proselytes though in most cases it was recognized that they were basically heathens (Kiddushin 75b, 76a).

Thirdly, these Samaritans throughout the Empire (like the Jews) were accustomed to meet in synagogues and to use burial grounds that other eastern peoples used (including the Jews). Recall that the followers of Simon Magus and his successors (who became identified with the Gnostics) were also meeting in synagogues.

It should be noted that just because the ruins of a synagogue are found that goes back to the period from the first to the sixth centuries, it is precarious business to assume that it is always Jewish. Reinhard Plummer (in Crown, ed., The Samaritans) makes the proper observation that the few remains from synagogues in Lower Galilee do not necessarily mean that the synagogues were Jewish. He suggests that in some cases they may be Samaritan even when the square script of the Hebrew letters is used (p.156).

There is no proof whatever that the Samaritans always used the ancient script while the Jewish authorities always used the square script from the time of Ezra (5th century B.C.E.) onward. In fact, with the Jews the opposite is the case. Jewish coins from the Maccabean period, those at the time of the first revolt and even those coins minted at the time of the second (and final) revolt in C.E. 132–135 were inscribed with the ancient script. Some writings from the Dead Sea area also were written in the earlier script. In Jerusalem in a burial cave at Giv’at ha-Mivtar is a Herodian period inscription in the ancient letters written by a Jew who had just buried his friend (see Joseph Naveh, Early History of the Alphabet, pp.120–121).

All of this shows that there remained a penchant among Jews to use the older script alongside the square script. And while the Samaritans seemingly continued to use the old script for making manuscripts of the Torah, there is every reason to believe that they often resorted to the square script in other literary environments such as on tombs and dedicatory inscriptions (S. Safrai, Samaritan Synagogues in the Romano-Byzantine Period, Cathedra 4, p.86, Hebrew).

And speaking of tombs or cemeteries, just because there are found inscriptions or carvings that suggest biblical themes from the Old Testament, this is no guarantee whatever that the tombs and cemeteries are to be reckoned as exclusively belonging to Jews within mainline Rabbinic fellowship. In many areas the identification of certain cemeteries as being Jewish (or Samaritan, etc.) is often based on literary sources that mention Jews or others as living in the region. This is fine, but in the region of Lower and Upper Galilee, the literary sources are not sufficient to properly identify either synagogue remains or cemeteries. Galilee was a pluralistic society. As Professor Crown reminds us, in the area of Scythopolis/Beth Shean where some of the synagogues of which we have been speaking are located, there was an important Samaritan population, as well as in Sepphoris in Upper Galilee and in the Decapolis (The Samaritans, p.60).

In such pluralistic societies it was common for all religious groups to use in many of their inscriptions the normal languages spoken by the ordinary people. Thus, we find Greek and Aramaic writings in the synagogues and we should equally expect such inscriptions in burial grounds and commercial buildings and homes. Artifacts and religious objects would also be inscribed with the normal speech of the community. And this is what is found. Goodenough found such inscriptions all around the Mediterranean area and if they showed any "Jewish" types of symbols or had what he considered "Jewish" names or themes, he would most often classify them as "Jewish." This is understandable, but with what I am presenting in this research, we need to be careful in such identifications.

And let us not forget that there was a large Samaritan population in Galilee and they also had an extensive diaspora which was scattered over the Roman Empire. These Samaritans were often mistaken as a Jewish sect. It is this continual confusion between the two peoples that is important in our present study. The confusion even extended to racial appearances. When the Jerusalem Jews were upset with the teachings of Jesus, they looked him over and said, "Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan" (John 8:48). Now Jesus was clearly Jewish and reckoned to be from the House of David, but the Jewish authorities felt it proper to call him a Samaritan. Had the two peoples looked dissimilar to one another in physical appearance, they would not have been able to make such a comparison of Jesus. The simple truth is, the Jews and Samaritans at large often resembled one another in physical appearance. This was another reason for the confusion between the two peoples.

What we need to ask, however, is what happened to this large group of people called the Samaritans who seemingly (by the 7th century) disappeared from the face of the earth? This is what we need to look at in this historical survey. When we do, and believe what the evidence reveals, we will realize that the Samaritans are The People That History Forgot.

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