Christians are familiar with the story of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), the clear implication of which is that most Samaritans were not good. Indeed, the Old Testament is invariably hostile to these people, who once constituted the inhabitants of Samaria, the northern half of the original Jewish kingdom. When the kingdom split in two, Samaria became known as Israel, while the southern area, centered on Jerusalem, took the name Judah. According to the Bible, Israel was a hotbed of polytheism and idol worship, in contrast to the ever pious Judah, and when Israel was overrun by the Assyrians in 732 BC, it was considered no great loss to the Chosen People. In fact, Samaritan refugees poured south, swelling the population of Judah, and a short time later King Hezekiah invited surviving Samaritans (the Assyrians were not exactly mellow in their occupation of foreign lands) to join the true Jewish state. Thus did the number of Samaritans shrink to a handful of loathesome characters by the time Jesus.
Well, as in a growing number of cases, archaeology has shown the Old Testament to be wrong, so wrong in fact that only deliberate falsification can explain the discrepancies. On the one hand, if there ever actually was an “empire” under David and Solomon, it consisted only of a few crude hilltop forts, and there is zero evidence outside the Bible itself that there ever was a Temple of Solomon. On the other hand, excavation on the summit of Mount Gerizim, near Nablus (ancient Shechem), has revealed a large enclosure (315 by 321 feet) dating to the sixth or fifth century BC. Huge deposits of animal bones and numerous inscriptions and artifacts clearly mark this as a sanctuary of Yahweh, flourishing at a time when any temple in Jerusalem would have been a small, simple building. This Samaritan temple was destroyed in 128 BC by the Hasmonean Jewish king John Hyrcanus, but the mountain remained sacred to the Samaritan sect of Judaism.
It would appear that until its destruction Gerizim, already a holy spot for Abraham, Jacob and Moses, was the actual center of Judaism, at least in terms of antiquity, magnificence and numbers of pilgrims. Archaeology had already revealed that most of what the Bible says about the state of Israel is blatantly false and clearly self-serving for Judah, and the discoveries on Gerizim reveal just how far the smear campaign against Samaria went and how much history was consciously distorted by the Jerusalem priests editing the Testament. The surviving Samaritan Torah in fact tells a very different story from the accepted Jewish canon, one suggesting that Judah was the real backwater of Judaism. But the survivors get to write the history.
So already in antiquity the Samaritan Jews were ill-treated, and time has not been kind to them, primarily because of their own doctrine: the Lord told them, “None of you may settle outside the promised land.” Consequently, while the Jews escaped various conquerors and catastrophes by spreading across the Middle East and Europe, the Samaritans were ground away by a variety of occupiers, especially the Byzantine and Turkish empires. And a traditional ban on intermarriage with others certainly did not help. The result was that by 1918 there were precisely 146 of them, but with the importation in 2004 of five Jewish women from the Ukraine and Siberia the group has since grown to about 700. Incredibly conservative, the Samaritans practice a sort of Judaism that essentially disappeared with the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans, actually sacrificing hundreds of animals on Mount Gerizim to celebrate Passover.
We will never know how Judaism might have developed had the Assyrians not occupied Israel, but since the Samaritans were apparently in the majority, Shechem might have taken the place of Jerusalem as the epicenter of the religion. Certainly, all these discoveries have vividly demonstrated the utter unreliability of the Old Testament as an historical source, and in fact excavations in the West Bank (the only positive aspect of the modern Israeli occupation) and Jordan are undermining the historicity of the core event of the Torah and indeed Jewish belief – the Exodus. All the emerging archaeological evidence supports the idea that the people who became the Hebrews were indigenous to the area, a positive supplement to the complete absence of any inscriptional (the Egyptians were fanatic record keepers) or archaeological evidence that a group of proto-Jews came out of Egypt in the late second millennium. More and more Moses and company appear to be have been manufactured, like the slanders against Samaria.
And the amazing thing is that on the basis of these stories – at least in theory – a modern Jewish state was carved out of territory belonging to other people for the last two millennia. It apparently helps to have more than a billion Christians believing in your stories.