The Bad Samaritans

Josephus records the roots of the first-century conflict between Jews and Samaritans, giving important context to the gospel stories.

Artwork from the Torah Club Jesus, My Rabbi study, lesson "The Sending of the Seventy". (Image and art © First Fruits of Zion)

As Yeshua and His large entourage of disciples traveled from the Galilee toward Judea, they elected to cut through Samaria.

This detail is in keeping with Josephus, who writes, “It was the custom of the Galileans, when they came to the holy city at the festivals, to take their journeys through the country of the Samaritans” (Antiquities).

He traveled with more than just the Twelve. He may have had many other disciples accompanying Him, along with families and children. As they approached the end of the first day of travel, the Master sent two messengers ahead to prepare lodging in a Samaritan village. Some Samaritans had already proven themselves friendly to the ministry of Yeshua, and He had previously demonstrated that He had no qualms about lodging in their midst. Yeshua sent the two disciples ahead of the larger group to make the arrangements.

The Samaritans of that village may have already been familiar with Yeshua and His ministry from that occasion two years earlier when He had stayed in Sychar. Perhaps they welcomed the disciples of Yeshua: “Let your Master stay with us and celebrate the Passover with us!”

The disciples replied, “No, but we are only passing through on our way up to Jerusalem.”

The Samaritans, who insisted that Mount Gerizim in Samaria was the true Temple of God, resented the Jews for worshiping in Jerusalem. The Samaritans of that village refused to host Yeshua and His fellow pilgrims so long as they were bound for Jerusalem. They sent the two disciples back.

Two decades later, according to Josephus’ Antiquities, hostilities between Jews and Samaritans intensified to the point that Samaritans attacked Galilean pilgrims making their way through their territory near the Samaritan village of Ginea (modern Jenin).

The Samaritans often concocted plans to thwart the Jews and sought opportunities to create tension and cause trouble. The Samaritans believed that they were the true descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but they were actually descendants of the foreign population imported by Assyria. The Jewish people regarded the Samaritans as half-breeds at best, but the Samaritans claimed to have a purer Israelite pedigree than Jews. Their religion mixed Torah and their own peculiar folk customs, and they sported the original “replacement theology,” believing their own practice to be the only true, authentic, biblical faith.

All of that was enough to engender hostility between Jews and Samaritans, but a long history of political wrangling, maneuvering, and sometimes open violence solidified a mutual distaste between Samaritans and Jews.

The first-century Jewish historian Josephus records that the Samaritans once defiled the Holy Temple on the eve of Passover by slipping in through the open gates and throwing the bones of dead men’s bodies all around. On another occasion, according to the Mishnah, they lit signal fires on the hilltops to confuse the Jews so that many Jews celebrated the new moon on the wrong day. They often brought trouble on the Jewish people, sometimes through slanderous accusations against them, and sometimes they openly fought against them:

When the Jews face adversity, the Samaritans deny any kinship with them. Only then do they confess the truth. But if they perceive that some good fortune has befallen the Jews, they immediately pretend to be in common with them, claiming that they belong to the same people, and they derive their genealogy from the sons of Joseph, Ephraim, and Manasseh. (Antiquities)

In the Near East, refusing hospitality is regarded as a deplorable evil. Jewish tradition remembers a Samaritan village in the south called Kefar Bish, which means “Bad Town.” “Why was Kefar Bish called by that name? Because it did not give hospitality to strangers” (Midrash Rabbah). The sages attributed the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah partly to their inhospitable reception of strangers. Likewise, the Master told His disciples that if any village or town refused to receive them, “it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city” (Matthew 10:15). Just as Sodom and Gomorrah received their due for their inhospitality, so too, James and John believed the Samaritan village that refused them lodging should receive its due.

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This year Torah Clubs are studying the Gospels from a Messianic Jewish perspective. Every week Club members encounter Yeshua of Nazareth in his Jewish context. Discover the historical and cultural backdrops of the gospels and be amazed as the teachings of Yeshua snap into focus and clarity. Unravel his difficult words and parables; study Jewish parallels to his teachings; and ultimately know Jesus better.

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