Home > Criticism, History, Literature, Study of the Old Testament > Samaritans and Early Judaism: A Literary Analysis

Samaritans and Early Judaism: A Literary Analysis

  • Author:   Ingrid Hjelm
  • Series:  Journal for the Study of the Old Testament. Supplement Series, 303
  • ISBN 10: 1841270725 
  • Publisher: Sheffield Academic Press
  • Published: 2000
  • Pages: 319
  • Language: English
  • Format:  PDF


All tradition is, of course, story. As such, it involves the coherent retelling of beginnings, other past events, and even future ones, interpreted from the center of a people’s experience in the world at a particular time and place. Then again, the story may be told from an outsider’s point of view. Hjelm’s excellent monograph on the historically elusive Samaritans provides yet another lesson that the prevailing tradition offers merely a collective perspective (albeit an ultimately meaningful one for those who celebrate it) on “what actually happened,” and that sometimes other meaningful perspectives are required for bringing a clearer view of historical reality into focus.

Hjelm asserts that the origin and history of the Samaritans cannot be drawn at face value from the accounts of Josephus, literature of the prevailing Pharasaic-rabbinic Jewish tradition, the New Testament, or even the Samaritan sources themselves. Rather, a critical evaluation of authorial intent must be made on the basis of all available sources in order to determine where and to what extent authors and editors have accommodated historical realities for ideological purposes. Carefully applied, this methodology results in a historian’s perspective of the traditions in question, relatively free of the biases produced by meaningful stories competing for preeminence or, as our author puts it, “the problematic presence of past traditions over against present innovations, and two groups who claim authority for each of their own” (p. 266).

Hjelm’s thesis in nuce is that the prevailing view of Samaritan origins and history, often described in terms of questionable heritage, expulsion, and dissidence must be abandoned. Underlying this view is the ideologically revisionist standpoint of a relatively late, Jerusalem-centered Judaism. Indeed, the historical hot spot for any real Jewish-Samaritan conflict is to be found in the second and first century B.C.E., with the emergence and maintenance of an independent Judaean temple state campaigning for political consolidation in the region. On the other side of the polemic, the Samaritan historiography, Hjelm rightly notes, “is as little reliable at face value as the similar Jewish historiography. We cannot simply read such ‘historiographies’ independently of each other’” (p. 272). The methodology is theoretically sound, but it still leaves much to the reader for testing the weight of Hjelm’s assertions.

The chapters of the book follow in logical order. Chapter 1 provides the necessarily selective overview of a century of scholarship on the Samaritan question, beginning with variations of the paradigm that viewed Samaritan origins on the basis of the Assyrian resettlements (2 Kgs 17); one or another later accounts (a priestly expulsion in Neh 13 or the accounts of Josephus or the books of Maccabees concerning the hellenistic period); and, finally, the irreconcilable break resulting from John Hyrcanus’s second-century B.C.E. destruction of the Samaritan temple. Chapter 2 provides the current state of Samaritan studies, focusing especially on alternative theories that, on the one hand, posit a relatively later date for the origin of a distinctive Samaritan tradition or, on the other hand, view the Samaritans as original Israelites. The most notable champion of the latter view is É. Nodet of the École Biblique, whose influence on Hjelm’s own work is apparent. The next three chapters offer a broad but cursory overview of relevant Samaritan and non-Samaritan primary texts. Chapter 3 covers the Samaritan literature from the Samaritan Pentateuch (SP) through the Samaritan Chronicles of the nineteenth century.

Of particular interest is Hjelm’s comparison of SP to readings to non-MT biblical manuscripts, including those recovered from the caves at Qumran. The chapter ends abruptly; it would have benefited from the inclusion of a chapter summary. Chapter 4 examines references to the Samaritans in early Jewish and Christian literature, focusing especially on the former’s anti-Samaritan response due to their rejection of rabbinic authority and practice. Here the investigation leads the reader through a labyrinth of ambiguous textual references in an attempt to identify historical persons and exact chronologies, including an examination of early Jewish treatment of Shechem traditions and matters of priestly legitimacy. This is an important point for Hjelm in light of traditional Samaritan criticism of Pharisaic-rabbinic innovation, a telling issue which, she argues, later rabbinic literature attempts to avoid. In Chapter 5, Hjelm takes on Josephus.

Here our author succeeds in sorting out the historian’s obscure and ambiguous references to the Samaritans in the Jewish War and the Antiquities as well as the motives behind them, arriving at the unsurprising conclusion that the historian has agendas in mind other than an interest in providing a historically accurate picture of the Samaritans. Josephus, especially in the Antiquities, borrows from and contributes to the prevailing tradition that disparages the Samaritans on the basis of questionable background. Although somewhat an argument from silence, Hjelm asserts that the polemic of competing ideologies may be seen between the lines of Josephus’s biased rhetoric.

Chapter 6 returns to the subject of Samaritan literature, focusing specifically on the historiographies, most notably Sepher ha Yamin (also known as the Samaritan Chronicles II) and the fourteenth-century Kitab al-Tarikh. Reliance of these on SP contrasts sharply with the Masoretic tradition especially over the significance of Shechem and matters of priestly legitimacy. The differences call into question earlier assumptions about SP’s dependency on MT and assert the legitimacy of Samaritan claims alongside Jewish claims for who represents “true Israel.” The historical reality that gave rise to these competing traditions is interwoven between them and must be carefully extracted. The final chapter discusses the methodology of moving “from literary to historical reality,” and is so titled. The distillation of Hjelm’s analysis of relevant sources leads her to conclude that “Samaritans and Jews never did form a single state, and that the only historical effort to establish such a state destroyed its basis” (p. 284).

The reviewed monograph is based on the author’s gold medal-winning essay in Old Testament exegesis at the University of Copenhagen. The work maintains a consistently high level of scholarship throughout, yet its content would not be inaccessible to younger scholars. On a negative note, I detected far too many typographical errors than one would reasonably expect from a work of this sort, including inconsistencies resulting from the use of non-Anglicized spellings (e.g., Aj, Hilkija), left over I suppose from the foundational essay’s original Danish. Finally, traditionalist scholars will likely not appreciate the book’s underlying assumptions challenging the historicity of the Biblical text but will benefit from reading this engaging volume nonetheless.

Citation: Nicolae Roddy, review of Ingrid Hjelm, The Samaritans and Early Judaism: A Literary Analysis, Review of Biblical Literature [http://www.bookreviews.org] (2000).

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