The Samaritans of the Bible Hold Fast to Their Identity the Historic Community Claims to Be the Legitimate Heir to the Kingdom of Israel, but Its Struggle Today Is for Survival

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LONG forgotten by history is a small Middle Eastern community that claims to be an even more legitimate heir to the Holy Land that the Jews and Palestinians have fought over for a century. But it is too busy trying to stay alive to attempt to assert its rights.

Yet for Levy Atef Nagi, the truth is blatant: "We are the true Israelites," says the 75-year-old high priest of the Samaritans. His long white beard, red turban, and full-length robe bestow upon him an air of authority that belies the chaos and poverty of his office. He ignores the scattered newspapers, the rusty pieces of pipe, and decades of dust in a small room that opens directly onto a back street of Nablus.

"I can trace my ancestors back to 3,600 years ago," says the leader of a 600-member community whose fate testifies to the political and religious history of the Middle East. Rejected by mainstream Jews, massively converted to Christianity and later to Islam, the Samaritan community is split about evenly between Nablus in the West Bank and Holon, near Tel Aviv in Israel.

Contemporary Samaritans define themselves as descendants of the tribe of Joseph, one of the 12 sons of Jacob. They say that they alone respect Moses's Torah and that Judaism is a heresy. From the first-century Roman historian Josephus Flavius until today, the origin of the Samaritans has been a matter of debate among scholars.

Flavius wrote that the Samaritans came from an early schism among Israelites. This thesis, which still has some defenders, competes with explanations offered by such contemporary Jewish historians as Moshe Herr:

"The story told in the Bible, in II Kings 17:24-29, is quite accurate," says this Hebrew University professor. "In the 13th century BC, the Assyrians destroyed the kingdom of Israel. They deported tens of thousands of people to the Western part of Mesopotamia, which is now Iraq. {They also} took a group of people - the Cuteans, who lived in what is now the border area between Iran and Iraq - and moved them to Samaria. These settlers came across Israelite clergymen who had escaped the exile." The clergy converted these people to Judaism.

Beyond the question of the account's historical accuracy, hard to establish, lies an essential dispute over who are the biblical people of Israel. To enforce their claim as the chosen people, explains Etienne Nodet, a Christian specialist who teaches at Jerusalem's le Biblique, "the Samaritans, who had definitively separated from Jerusalem's Judaism in the 2nd century BC, edited their own Pentateuch with some amendments aimed at establishing their exclusive legitimacy."

The relationships between Jews and Samaritans remained tense for a long time. The antagonism had not receded much at the time of Christ Jesus. In the parable of the Good Samaritan (see Luke 10:30-37), for example, Jesus chooses the good deed of the Jews' enemy to make his point.

Today's Samaritans are ill-prepared to join in the scholarly debate. A very modest center began conducting scientific research last year, trying - among other things - to analyze the records the community has kept throughout the centuries.

Levy Atef Nagi is proud of his people's literate past. "Until 200 years ago, we kept a collective record of our community life. Since then, every family does it." As the high priest, he has the largest library with about 400 hand-written volumes. He displays a Samaritan Bible he wrote when he was 18 years old. It took him six months to copy the five books of the Pentateuch, the only text the Samaritans recognize as holy. …