hills of Samaria seen from Sebaste (Sabastiya)

Samaria

Province in central Palestine just north of Judea & south of Galilee, named for the capital city of the ancient kingdom of Israel. The northern border with Galilee was relatively fixed by the valley of Jezre'el that ran diagonally from the Mediterranean coast at Carmel towards the Jordan river south of Scythopolis. The southern border with Judea fluctuated over the centuries but in the 1st c. CE extended from just north of Joppa on the Mediterranean to about 10 miles north of Jericho on the Jordan. The region covered an area about 40 miles NS by 35 miles EW. 

Three ancient NS routes passed through Samaria: a coastal route from Tyre to Egypt via Caesarea Maritima, another down the west side of the Jordan valley, & a third from the eastern end of the valley of Jezre'el through the central hill country to Jerusalem. Rich soil & abundant rainfall made this one of the most fertile areas in all Palestine. The coastal plain produced ample wheat, while the the central hills were ideal for vineyards & olive groves. The central mountain ridges rose to over 3000 feet at the twin peaks of Mount Gerizim & Mount Ebal overlooking Shechem.

During the early Israelite occupation this region was settled by the "Joseph" tribes of Ephraim & Manasseh, which played a leading role in the formation of the ancient Israelite confederacy. After Solomon (922 BCE), this territory became the heart of an independent Israelite kingdom that rejected the Davidic regime in Jerusalem. Opposition to the syncretizing religious & social policies of its rulers by supporters of the Mosaic Torah gave rise to a series of prophets [from Elijah to Hosea] who left a lasting impression on Hebrew tradition.

Samaritan Torah scroll (9th c. CE), 
oldest Hebrew ms. known before discovery of Dead Sea scrolls

When Assyria conquered the territory under Sargon II (722 BCE) they deported 27,000 Israelites & settled captives from Babylonia [Kutha] in the region. This created the Judean myth of the ten "lost" tribes of Israel & led later Jews to refer to all inhabitants of Samaria as Kuthim. So, Judean exiles returning from a similar deportation to Babylon (597-537 BCE) regarded any people they found there as foreigners & excluded them from worshipping at the temple in Jerusalem. The inhabitants of the land, however, claimed to be true Israelites. Thus, under Persian & Hellenistic rulers, Samaria remained an independent province with a population hostile to Judea. 

Although this province was conquered by Johanan Hyrcanus (127 BCE) & became part of the Jewish state for almost two centuries, ingrained religious & ethnic hostility between Samaritans & Jews led to frequent & even violent conflicts. So Jews traveling between Judea & Galilee often preferred the more circuitous route through Perea than the three NS routes through Samaria. Despite such animosity, some gospel stories assume Jesus traveled through Samaria [Luke 9:51-56, John 4]. And in contrast to typical stereotypes, a Samaritan is portrayed as a humane benefactor of a Jew in one of Jesus' most famous parables [Luke 10:29-37].

For further information about archaeological & historical evidence, see:

  • Buttrick, G. A., ed. Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible. vol. 4 (NY/Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962) p. 188-190.

Other resources on line:

 Perspective on the World of Jesus 

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