The Book of Luke relates one of the most famous parables of Jesus, the story of the good Samaritan. In this tale, a man is beaten and left alongside a road, only to be ignored by a Levite and Jewish priest, both prestigious members of contemporary Jewish society. Only a Samaritan, an ethnoreligious minority frowned upon by most Jews at the time, was willing to help the individual. The fable was meant to demonstrate that humanity’s capacity for goodwill, as well as its capacity for indifference, is shared by all individuals within society.
To most passive observers of Christianity, this parable is where their understanding of Samaritan society ends. The source of the prejudice faced by the group is not understood by most church attendees. Even less commonly known is that this esoteric sect of Judaism continues to exist today.
Samaritans trace their origins largely to the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, claiming they are descendants from northern Israelis enduring the Assyrian conquest. Some Levi component of their background is likewise claimed. According to Samaritans, they practice Judaism in its unadulterated form. Samaritans continued to reside within Israel’s borders during the period of Babylonian captivity, when most Jews were forcibly transferred from their homeland. Samaritans contend that Judaism was fundamentally altered by this exile.
To most Jews, by contrast, Samaritans were the group failing to abide by the tenets of Judaism. There are several differences between Samaritanism and Judaism in its typical form. The most potent ideological contradiction with Judaism is their rejection of the Temple Mount’s spiritual significance. Mount Gerizim is elevated in its place.
Samaritans once numbered roughly one million individuals during Biblical times. Since then, however, their numbers have nosedived, a result of years of violent suppression as well as conversion. Particularly devastating were the Samaritan revolts against the Byzantine Empire, during which tens of thousands of Samaritans were killed. By 1786, the Samaritan population had fallen to 100 individuals.
Today, however, the Samaritan population has rebounded slightly to 800 individuals, concentrated almost entirely in Israel and the West Bank. Due to a small population pool and low rates of intermarriage, genetic disorders are frequent. Partially in response to this, Samaritan men sometimes marry Israeli women, in which case their spouses may convert to the faith (most conversions to Samaritanism are disallowed). Samaritan marriages are also required to be approved by a geneticist in order to limit birth defects.
Given their upward population trend, the current outlook for Samaritans is less tenuous than two hundred years ago. As intermarriage rates increase, the Samaritan population, once nearly vanquished, may continue to play a small but significant role in the same region they inhabited in the time of Jesus.