Pummer, Reinhard. The Samaritans: A Profile. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2016. 376 pp. Pb; $30.   Link to Eerdmans

In his introduction to this new history of the Samaritan people, Pummer cites an anonymous reviewer of James Montgomery’s 1907 monograph on the Samaritans that wondered if the Samaritans were worthy of a 360 pages book! The situation has changed one hundred years later. Following the publication of Magnar Kartveit’s The Origin of the Samaritans (Brill 2009) and Gary Knoppers’s Jews and Samaritans: The Origins and History of Their Early Relations (Oxford, 2013), interest in the Samaritans seems to be on the rise. Pummer’s new volume contributes to this developing interest in the history of the Samaritans by going beyond the confines of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament to explore the history of the Samaritans.

Pummer-SamaritansThe first section in the book deals with the identity of the Samaritans. Popular preachers and teachers have denigrated the Samaritans, calling the half-breeds and implying their religion is a subset of Judaism. This mischaracterization is often corrected in scholarly literature, but a full description of “Samaritan” is often lacking. Pummer begins his definition by contrasting what the Samaritans claim for themselves (they are the true heirs of Israel) with the typical Jewish view than the Samaritans are the descendants of the kingdom of Israel as described in 2 Kings 17. Modern scholarship on the Samaritans tends to reject both of these extremes. Kartveit argued there was a split in the fourth century caused by the building of a temple on Mount Gerizim. Knoppers argued for more interaction between two Yahweh sects at Samaria and Judea. The destruction of the Gerizim temple by John Hyrcanus (134-104 B.C.) was the cause of a split, but not an absolute schism between the two similar religions. Pummer thinks the evidence shows the Samaritans were not a sect that broke away from Judaism, not a “branch of Yahwehistic Israel in the same sense as the Jews (25).

The next three sections of the book trace references to the Samaritans in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and early Jewish literature. He adds a question mark to the title of his chapter on the Old Testament since it is possible the polemic in 2 Kings 17 does not refer to a long standing enmity between Samaritans and Jews. In fact, there appears to be an amicable relationship even after the Gerizim temple was destroyed. In the New Testament, Pummer suggests Samaritans are neither Jew nor Gentile, although Jesus did not engage in a systematic mission to the Samaritans (37). Luke for example, does not see the Samaritans as either pagans or syncretists (41), an no text in the New Testament looks back to 2 Kings 17 as an explanation of the origins of the Samaritans. Pummer only briefly deals with the Gospel of John, suggesting that John 4 expresses concern over Christian mission to the Samaritans. He does not think there is any Samaritan influence on Stephen’s speech or the book of Hebrews, although there may be some shared interests. Following the biblical data, Pummer surveys references to Samaritans in other ancient Jewish Writings including the Apocryphal (Sirach and 2 Maccabees), Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus, and Rabbinic literature. Josephus has the most data, although it is possible Josephus has enhances his positive view of the Jews be contrasting them with the Samaritans, an unreliable people from the Roman perspective (55).


The fifth section of the book examines the archaeological excavations at Mount Gerizim. Although today’s Samaritans deny there was a legitimate Yhwh temple on the mountain (89), Josephus reported the presence of a temple as well as the destruction of the temple by John Hyrcanus. Pummer surveys modern excavations on Mount Gerizim and concludes it is “very likely that a temple once existed in this area” (80). There are nearly four hundred fragments with palaeo-Hebrew or Aramaic texts. Among these fragments are words like YHWH, priests, sacrifice, house of sacrifice. In addition to these inscriptions, a small golden bell was found which may have been part of a priestly ephod (84).

Pummer surveys several diaspora synagogues which have dedications implying they were Samaritan synagogues. Of primary importance is the synagogue a Delos where two inscriptions were found honoring a patron who made contributions to a sanctuary on argarizin. Pummer takes this as a reference to the temple on Mount (har) Gerizim, concluding this is evidence for “Samarian Yahwehists whose religious center is Mt. Gerizim” (93). This chapter includes many photographs and diagrams illustrating Samaritan synagogues both in the diaspora and in Palestine. Pummer admits the number of excavates Samaritan synagogues is small compared to Jewish synagogues, he asserts there is enough evidence to support the existence of these religious centers among the Samaritans in antiquity. Finally, Pummer briefly summarizes smaller discoveries such as amulets and oil lamps and Samaritan ritual baths (miqvot). Pummer believes the fact no mikvoth were found on Mount Gerizim is an indication they were not used until after then temple was destroyed (116).

Despite the extremely small number of Samaritans, there are some subgroups which can be described as sectarian. In the sixth section of the book, Pummer gathers this information from Samaritan, Muslim and Karaite sources, supplemented with a few Patristic sources. This evidence is sketchy, but seems to indicate there were as many as four types of Samarians in the fourth century. This is reported by Epiphanius of Salamis (312-403), but by the early nineteenth century Samaritans denied some of this evidence as relating to their history (127).

Perhaps the most useful section of the book is Pummer’s history of the Samaritans from Hellenistic and early Roman times through the modern period. Most introductions to the Samaritans are content to deal with the biblical period, Pummer traces the Samaritans through the Early Muslim and Crusade, Mamluk, and Ottoman periods. One of the most fascinating aspects of this history is what Pummer calls the “Modern Period,” introducing the reader to the current state of the Samaritan people. This short section of the chapter should be read alongside chapter 12, the Samaritans today. Chapter 8 concerns the geographical distribution and demography Samaritans over their history, in both Palestine and the Diaspora. Although estimates for the total number of Samaritans in antiquity vary from ninety thousand to as many as five hundred thousand in the Hellenistic-Roman periods, the numbers today are extremely low. In 1954 there were as few as 313 Samaritans but in a 2013 study, the number had risen to 756.

Chapters 9 and 10 concern the literature of the Samaritans. Of primary interest to most readers is the Samaritan Pentateuch (SP) and the differences between this ancient translation and the Masoretic Text (MT). Pummer contributed a monograph on the topic (Early Christian Authors on Samaritans and Samaritanism: Texts, Translations and Commentary, Mohr Siebeck, 2002). Although most readers will be familiar with the “sectarian changes” introduced to the Pentateuch in order to support Gerizim as the location for the Temple, but there is far more to the SP than this popular characterization. It is true there are minor modifications to increase the sanctity of Mount Gerizim, but other differences between the SP and the MT are found in the Dead Sea Scrolls and it now appears the Hebrew text behind the SP is older than the MT. Pummer offers examples of both in this chapter. For example, in the SP expands on the Decalogue to include a command to build an altar at Gerizim (205).  As with other sections of the book, Pummer includes a short history of the study of the Samaritan Pentateuch western scholarship.

No Samaritan literature has survived from the Hellenistic or Roman periods, and even the hints such a literature existed in patristic sources is debatable. For most Samaritan literature available today, there are no critical editions or translations available. Pummer summarizes a few examples of exegesis, halakhah and liturgy as well as some historical chronicles and folktales. Of some interest is the dialogue with European scholars. Since the Samaritan religion was virtually unknown at the time, Robert Huntington (1637-1701) wrote a series of letters to Samaritan leaders asking questions about their beliefs and practices. This sort of interaction continued into the twentieth century and is rarely considered in introductions to the Samaritans.

Chapter 11 summarized what is known of Samaritan rituals and customs, including the unique Samaritan calendar, their practice of Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the Feast of Weeks and the Day of Atonement. Some practices are similar to Judaism (pilgrimage to Mount Gerizim, circumcision, redemption of the first born and reading of the torah). Pummer includes a few short sections on the culture of Samaritans (betrothal, weddings and funerals, prayer, music and art). Overall these descriptions are dependent on modern practice since it is virtually impossible to know anything about Samaritan culture in antiquity due to the total lack of literature or material evidence. The brevity is frustrating to the reader, but given the available data, Pummer is not to be faulted for this.

The book concludes with a few comments the challenges the Samaritans face today. Since the Samaritan community is very small it is difficult to know how they can survive in the modern state of Israel.

Conclusion. Pummer’s introduction to the Samaritans goes beyond the usual topics to include the whole history of Samaritan culture. By blending literary and archaeological sources, Pummer presents a clear and concise picture of the Samarians both in antiquity and in the modern world. Although the arrangement of topics is sometimes odd, this book will be a useful contribution to the ongoing study of the Samaritans.


NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.