The Samaritans

A Profile

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Reinhard Pummer
  • Cambridge, UK: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , February
     376 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Reinhard Pummer, who has dedicated his research life to the Samaritans, begins The Samaritans: A Profile by quoting a savage review of another, earlier, book on the group, which asked: “Are the Samaritans worth a volume of 360 pages?” (1). The monograph there under review was by James Montgomery (The Samaritans: The Earliest Jewish Sect; Their History, Theology and Literature, J.C. Winston Co., 1907), and is often credited with kickstarting interest in the Samaritans in the English-speaking academic world. Studies of the Samaritans have mushroomed over the past thirty years or so, but scholarly overviews of the Samaritans remained short supply. Since Montgomery’s volume, no affordable English-language treatment with anything like its coverage has been published. Now, with Pummer’s volume, this is no longer the case.

The Samaritans, a minority religious group within the modern state of Israel, trace their origins back, like Jews and Christians, to biblical Israel. They accept the Torah as scripture, though not the rest of the Hebrew Bible, and claim that the God of Israel should be worshipped on Mount Gerizim. Throughout antiquity, they were an important player in regional politics and the development of Jewish and Christian identity. But despite this ancient prominence, they tend to be familiar today predominantly through a few idioms culled from the New Testament—especially that of the “Good Samaritan.”

Resisting this reduction, the twelve chapters of Pummer’s The Samaritans offer a robust survey of recent work on Samaritans in ancient literature (chapters 2, 3, and 4), ancient material evidence (chapter 5), an overview of historical details (chapters 6, 7, and 8); Samaritan literature and traditions (chapters 9, 10, and 11), as well as important definitional questions about what the name “Samaritan” denotes (chapter 1), and the modern existence of the group (chapters 12 and 13).

Pummer deftly provides an expert’s overview of the scholarly output of the last century. The chapters on archaeology (chapter 5), Samaritan literature (chapters 9 and 10), and Second Temple literature (chapter 4) —all subjects on which Pummer himself has published extensively—are particularly strong. The newcomer enjoys clear summaries of key topics, and the scholar of Samaritans finds things they might have missed. In my case, those included detailed engagement with ongoing work by Andreas Lehnardt in German (66-72); the quiet observation that most Greek-language inscriptions from Mount Gerizim remain unpublished (82 n31); three articles in German conference proceedings on Samaritan populations in the crusader kingdoms (151 n90); and the texts of Ottoman fermans (ruler decrees) on Samaritan rights (156-58).

If the book was a hundred pages longer, one might expect more excerpts from rabbinic or early Christian literature. Sections engaging predominantly with this material function less effectively as autonomous overviews compared with other sections, leaning more heavily on a selection of secondary scholarship. For example, while Pummer provides the Greek text of the Hellenistic period Samaritan inscriptions on Delos (92-95), we look in vain for many direct citations from rabbinic literature. Nevertheless, while specialists who use this volume will need to supplement it for Christian or rabbinic writers, Pummer’s choice to provide detailed attention to material evidence and Samaritan literature is welcome, especially since much of the relevant literature remains inaccessible to those without reading knowledge of German, Hebrew, and French.

The Samaritans has a couple of other gaps. Pummer rarely interfaces with scholars of contemporary Jewish studies, despite the potential cross-fertilization holds for understanding the place of the Samaritans vis-à-vis ancient Judaism. There is scarcely a mention of Samaritan liturgical poetry, piyyut—even though Pummer views religious practice as the core of Samaritan identity (257, 289). Similarly, Pummer uses the extensive writings of early Christians only as a staging post from which to extract historically verifiable data points. While he does refer directly to work done by scholars of New Testament studies, Roman law, and early modern history, he often relies heavily on a relatively small number of scholars for his arguments. Although producing a very readable text, this flattens some of the more interesting problems involved, such as how the Samaritans fit into larger patterns of religious difference in antiquity. Finally, despite Pummer’s contemporary framing, the importance of Samaritans within early Zionism remains largely unexamined.

Nevertheless, these omissions are instructive rather than damaging. Each usefully indicates where productive work could be done with scholars with particular expertise in each area, but who might, apart from a book like The Samaritans, have had no idea how to bring this bible-observing group into contact with the better-trodden fields of biblical studies, New Testament studies, rabbinics, or the study of early Christianity. As an accessible reference work, it replaces works from the early twentieth century by Moses Gaster and Montgomery, and supplies a much more affordable overview for a broad audience than the (still authoritative) The Samaritans (edited by Alan D. Crown, Mohr Siebeck, 1989). The volume also has a good index and excellent bibliography—although the latter might have benefitted from an annotated reading section to help orient those unfamiliar with the topic, who presumably are an important audience.

The Samaritans is the book which the study of the Samaritans needed. It distils an unwieldly mass of scholarship into a concise, accessible form. Where there are omissions, they indicate fertile ground yet to explore, rather than any failure on the part of Pummer. In The Samaritans, one of the most erudite scholars of Samaritanism has given to us—scholars researching Samaritans like myself, scholars with general interests, and a reading public to whom the Samaritans are a fuzzy but fascinating overheard name—a wide-ranging, clear, and perhaps most importantly, intellectually generous overview.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew Chalmers is a doctoral candidate in religioius studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

Date of Review: 
October 13, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Reinhard Pummer is professor emeritus of religious studies at the University of Ottawa, Canada. Among his other books are The Samaritans in Flavius Josephus and Early Christian Authors on Samaritans and Samaritanism.



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