In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Samaria/Samaritans

  • Introduction
  • Origin of the Samaritans
  • The Samaritans in Rabbinic Literature
  • Sects
  • Geographical Distribution

Biblical Studies Samaria/Samaritans
Reinhard Pummer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 February 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 February 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0176


Both in the Bible and in nonbiblical sources, the name “Samaria” occurs numerous times, either as the appellation of a city or as the designation of the region of which the city was the capital. Already at the end of the 19th century, the site of the city was associated with that of the Arab village of Sebastiya, located six miles northwest of Nablus and thirty-five miles north of Jerusalem. The city was built on a hill that rises 1,410 feet above sea level and was ideally situated to control the north–south and east–west routes, although it had no well of its own (only the Romans built an aqueduct to bring water from a source southeast of Samaria). The first excavations of the city were undertaken by Harvard University in 1908 and 1910; the latest were carried out from 1965 to 1967 and again in 1968. In the course of its history, the city was destroyed and rebuilt several times. In the Bible the district of Samaria is called Mount Ephraim. Geographically, it consists of the central region of the mountains of western Palestine, bordered in the east by the River Jordan, in the west by the Plain of Sharon, in the north by the Plain of Jezreel (Esdraelon), and in the south by the valley of Ayalon. Politically, the boundaries, particularly in the north and the south, varied at different times. The name “Samaria” was applied to the region when the city of Samaria became the capital of the northern Israelite kingdom under King Omri in the 9th century BCE. In the biblical period, the majority of the population in the region were Yahweh worshipers (even after the Assyrian conquest in the late 8th century BCE), just as the Judeans to the south of them. Those Yahweh worshipers of the region of Samaria who eventually rejected Jerusalem and its temple as sacred centers are the Samaritans. For them, Mount Gerizim in the vicinity of ancient Shechem (modern Tell Balatah, near Nablus) and the temple on it became the focus of religious life. They do not, however, consider their identity to be tied to that of the city or province of Samaria but see it based on the concept of guardians (Hebrew: shomrim); that is, they think of themselves as the guardians of the Torah.

Samaria, the City and Province

Samaria (Hebrew: Shomron) is mentioned in the Bible in 1 Kings 16:24 as the name of the mountain on which Omri, ruler of the northern Israelite kingdom in the 9th century BCE, built his capital, naming it also Samaria. After the conquest of the Northern Kingdom by the Assyrians in 722/721 BCE, the district surrounding the city was likewise called Samaria (Assyrian: Samerina). The Bible presents an etiology or folk etymology when it claims that the city was named after Shemer, the original owner from whom Omri bought the hill. It is more likely that the name is derived from the root šmr, to “watch, to guard”; that is, the hill was a point from which particularly the north–south route could be watched and guarded. In today’s terms, the ancient city of Samaria was located close to the Arab village of Sebastiya, whose name is derived from Sebastos, the Greek equivalent of Augustus: Emperor Augustus gave the city to Herod the Great, who named it after his benefactor. The second most important city in the region of Samaria was Shechem, modern Tell Balata, c. 1.2 miles southeast of Nablus and 6.2 miles southeast of Samaria/Sebaste. It was identified at the beginning of the 20th century and first excavated in 1913 and 1914. Later, the excavations were resumed several times until the early 1970s. In 2010 and 2011, four areas were (re)excavated. The name “Shechem” is derived from the root škm, meaning “shoulder,” “neck,” or “back,” from its location between Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal. Frequently, ancient Shechem is equated with Nablus. Strictly speaking, this is incorrect. Nablus, Roman Flavia Neapolis, was founded in 72 CE by Emperor Vespasian on the location of the village of Mabartha (see Josephus, War 4:449), which lay c. 1.2 miles northwest of ancient Shechem. When Josephus, speaking about Alexander the Great, calls Shechem the capital of the Samaritans in his Antiquities 11:340, he has ancient Shechem (modern Tell Balata) in mind. On the whole, in the late 20th and early 21st centuries the region of Samaria has been the focus of renewed interest and archaeological research, leading to revisions of how its standing in ancient Palestine is assessed by scholars.

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