Backpedalling in Samaria

One of the chapters in my book, “Missions in Samaria.”

Samaritans gather atop Mount Gerizim in Israel to hold end of ...

In the first century, Samaria was a region with a sizable populace, over a million residents, with a vibrant (Samaritan) faith. Not so today. Why is this? One might wonder what happened to the Samaritan faith. Did it lose the war in the battle of ideas/ideologies? Or perhaps they were lost to assimilation in conversion to Christianity since the Book of Acts describes such a mass conversion. And yes, over 2000 years there were many Samaritans who converted, often willingly and sometimes unwillingly, to Christianity or Islam.

The truth is that the Samaritan faith did not simply die so much as it was murdered. Samaritism did not just fall, it was pushed. This part is a bit sad, but we learn from both the good and the bad.

During the time of the Byzantine Empire, Samaria was a turbulent place. Christian writers often used Samaritans or Samaritanism in negative analogies. The government was oppressive, both to non-Christians and to Christians who were not of the same form of Christianity as the emperor. This was so true that Coptic Christians in Egypt welcomed Islamic invaders in the 7th century to free themselves from the tyranny of the Christian rulers of Byzantium. The oppression often showed itself in violence. Samaritans experienced this oppression in terms of taxes, laws, and violence.

Despite the centrality of Christianity to Byzantium, there seems always to have been a certain savagery in the empire. The belief of the early church that Christianity and killing were fundamentally incompatible had long since been abandoned in Byzantium past as it had in Western Europe. The conversion of Rome to Christianity in the fourth century had led to a rapid reinterpretation of warfare as potentially undertaken in service to God; the Christian soldier could fight for his emperor safe in the belief that the emperor’s cause was that of God. <Endnote 7>

During the reign of Emperor Zeno (474-491AD) tensions grew. According to one account, the emperor had required Samaritans to convert to Christianity. When they refused, they revolted and this led to a violent response killing tens of thousands of Samaritans. Some argue that the story is backward and that the revolts preceded the demand to convert. Either way, conversion was less connected with embracing the good news of Christ voluntarily, and more connected to risk of the sword and death.

During the time of Emperor Justinian during the next century an edict was established that virtually made being a Samaritan by faith, illegal. There were a series of revolts by the Samaritans that led to violent reprisals by the government. This resulted in the Samaritan population reducing from the hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands. <Endnote 8>

The Islamic invasion gave some reprieve, but special taxes and periodic forced conversions and killings, especially during the Abbasid Caliphate and Ottoman Empire, took their toll. By the end of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century, Samaritanism reached its lowest point with just over 100 adherents. Since then, under the British mandate, the Israeli government, and the Palestinian Authority, Samaritanism has grown such that it has in 2020 over 800 adherents.

Today, the people who identify themselves as Samaritans are located in two small communities, both of approximately equal size. One of these is on Mount Gerizim, while the other is in a suburb of Tel Aviv. There seems more of a tendency today to see Samaritanism as a unique sect of Judaism, as opposed to a distinct competitor to that faith. In fact, their similarities to Judaism greatly outweigh their differences. In some ways, the remaining Samaritans are a testimony to the tenacity of faith in the God of Abraham.

Sadly, they are also a testimony to the tendency of Christians not to take the message of Christ seriously. Jesus sought to undermine the prejudices of the Jews regarding Samaritans, and specially commanded His apostles to reach out to Samaritans with the Good News. Yet as Christianity grew in power these prejudices grew in strength and violence, in opposition to Christ’s message.

This should serve as a warning to us. There is often a tendency in religion to focus on power. When the Samaritans appeared to have power, in the 4th to 2nd centuries BC and the 5th and 6th centuries AD, this was when they were attacked most viciously, by the Jews in the first case and by Christians in the second case. Their perseverance was not only a testament to the strength of their faith but also their relative weakness around larger and more aggressive faith groups. Their weakness made them less threatening to those around them.

Christians were called to love friend and enemy, not fear and attack. Why would Christians often choose violence over love? There are obvious answers— sin, selfishness, and tribalism. But these terms are abstract. Sometimes we must personalize it, and try seeing a situation from an uncomfortable position.

Consider some situations from Biblical lands. It is easy to cheer with the Israelites as they marched around the walls of Jericho as the walls begin to give way. It, however, takes a special effort to picture oneself as a father (or mother) in Jericho standing on the walls of the city looking out, fearful for himself and his family and friends, as his world (literally) crumbles around him. The same can be said today as many Christians seem to find it easy to side with the Israelis in the West Bank, while being shockingly unsympathetic of the plight of Muslim and Christian (and Samaritan) Palestinians.

The answer, is not to pick a side. When Joshua was alone (in Joshua chapter 5. read it now if you don’t remember), he saw a soldier dressed for battle. Joshua asked if this soldier was on his side or the enemy. The answer was neither. He was of the army of God. Joshua immediately responded bowing down and taking direction. The question is not whether God was on the side of Israel or the side of the Canaanites. Neither was it whether God was on the side of the Jews or the Samaritans, nor the Israelis or the Palestinians, nor the Christians or the Muslims. The question is are we on God’s side— or not. Jesus has told us that if we truly love Him, we keep His commandments. If we don’t keep His commandments, we are not on His side. Pretty simple, but it is hard to let go of the temptation to try to bargain with God to follow us rather than we follow Him.

This chapter is a bit sad because it looks like what Jesus and the early church did was destroyed. There is some truth to that, but not entirely. Many Samaritans chose to follow Jesus. Gradually they assimilated into the broader Body of Christ, losing their cultural identity. (This is not the book to decide if this lose of cultural distinctives is a good thing or not.) Additionally, there are examples that we can look back on for positive inspiration.

For example, the Byzantine emperor Theodosius forbade special taxes upon the impoverished Samaritans; the Christian Germanus helped the Samaritans continue their rite of circumcision after the authorities had forbidden it; the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem declared to the Ottoman Turks that the Samaritans, like Jews and Christians, were people of the Book and ought not be persecuted; and the American E.K. Warren built medical and educational facilities for the fragile community at the beginning of the twentieth century. <Endnote 9>

These first chapters described a complex history with a wide range of relations between Jew and Samaritan, and between Christian and Samaritan. But what does this mean to us today? Even though Samaritanism has grown almost 700% in the last 100 years, it is still unlikely that many of us will interact with a Samaritan in our lifetime. But since few of us are likely to live in a completely monocultural society, we have the blessing of the story of the many groups, including the Samaritans, that shared Palestine over the centuries. For the Samaritans, there were have painful times (2nd century BC and 5th and 6th centuries AD to name just a couple), there has been (relatively few) highpoints such as the 1st century. We can learn from the 1st century church. Still, our role is not to recreate the 1st century church, but create, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the 21st century church. So the following chapters will suggest some patterns and lessons.

This chapter is more historical. However, the book looks at Samaria as both a historical location where missions was effectively and ineffectively done, and a metaphor for a certain type of missions that we are able to do well or poorly every day.

I have not published the book yet… and maybe never will (we shall see). But if you want to read it, you can access it rhrough my previous post.   https://munsonmissions.org/2020/04/04/missions-in-samaria-book/