The Samaritans are a distinct ethnic and religious group found today mostly in Israel. The history and origins of the Samaritans are actually a bit difficult to pin down, as many of their writings have not survived to this day, but genetic evidence clearly indicates that they are descended from the Israelites. In addition to sharing a genetic heritage with the Israelites, the Samaritans also share a religion; their religious faith is very similar to Judaism, although there are a few disputes between the two religions regarding holy sites and religious texts.
Today, under 1,000 Samaritans are known to be alive, coming from four different families. Many of them live on Mount Gerizim, a holy site under their religious beliefs, and others can be found scattered in various regions of Israel and the Occupied Territories, where they are treated as a religious minority. Out of concerns that the rich cultural history and traditions of the Samaritans would die out, the group approved intermarriage to members of the Jewish faith, in the hopes of preventing the genetic problems associated with a small gene pool.
As a distinct group, the Samaritans emerged around the time that the Assyrians invaded Israel, in 722 BCE. Their version of the Torah emerged in the 300s BCE, reflecting a schism between the Samaritans and the Jews, and relations between the two groups remained extremely hostile. Understanding the history of relations between Samaritan and Jewish people can explain some of the appearances of the Samaritans in the Bible, especially in the story of the Good Samaritan, a parable which was meant to illustrate that all people had the potential for compassion.
Many people believe that the Samaritans are named for Samaria, a city in Northern Israel. However, they are actually named after a term which means “keeper of the law,” reflecting the importance of the Torah and other religious texts in Samaritan culture. The Samaritan and Jewish versions of the Torah have a number of differences, and they also differ on a few key issues. The Samaritans, for example, view Mount Gerizim as a holy place, as opposed to members of the Jewish faith, who venerate Mount Zion.
In addition to appearing in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, the Samaritans are also found in the Torah, where they are known as the Kuthim. Like other modern residents of Israel, the Samaritans speak Modern Hebrew, and the residents of the Occupied Territories speak Palestinian Arabic. In religious worship, the Samaritans speak their own versions of Hebrew and Arabic, keeping these languages alive for future generations to study, learn from, and enjoy.