🔼The name Samaritan: Summary
- Person From Samaria, Watch Keeper
- From the verb שמר (shamar), to keep or guard.
🔼The name Samaritan in the Bible
The Samaritans originally were the inhabitants of the city of Samaria (in Hebrew: Shomron), which was founded by king Omri of Israel, and from which the kings of Israel ruled. This city grew out to be the central hub of an area called Samaria, which contained several satellite cities (the cities of Samaria; 1 Kings 13:32). The whole area quickly became infested with centers of worship of various pagan deities; a development that culminated when the Assyrians deported the indigenous Samaritans and replaced them with subjects from other parts of the realm (2 Kings 17:24).
The only time that the Hebrew word for Samaritan (שמרנים; Shomronim; Samaritans) occurs in the Old Testament is in 2 Kings 17:29, where the Samaritans are observed to having built shrines for the foreigners to place their idols in. Ezra uses the Chaldee form (שמרין Shamrayin) twice (Ezra 4:10, 4:17).
When the Jews returned from exile, celebrating the fact that they still existed as an autonomous cultural entity, they were so zealous about preserving their identity that they refused to associate with the foreigners as well as the Samaritans (Ezra 4:2, 10:10-11, Nehemiah 13:3). The Samaritans initially responded with envious aggression, but retreated and decided to build their own Yahwistic temple on Mount Gerizim (see our article on Samaria for more details). Post-exilic Judaism evolved into rabbinic Judaism and by the time the Samaritan temple was destroyed around 110 BC, Jewish animosity against the Samaritans had formalized and the Samaritans were viewed as worse than gentiles.
The stance on Samaritans of the New Testament is therefore miraculous and quite telling. Although there is still obvious mutual animosity (Luke 9:51-56), the Samaritan association with multiple deities and Christ's response to that is beautifully expressed in the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). She has had five husbands but is currently unmarried, and awaits only the Messiah. Jesus and the woman discuss the Gerizimite temple (the destruction of which has divorced Samaria from Yahwistic worship), and Jesus explains that an era has begun in which a person's location (= ethnicity) no longer influences his or her relationship with God.
Less abstract is Jesus' shocking story of the Good Samaritan, in which he instructs a theologian to (1) keep the Law, and (2) be like the Samaritan who showed compassion, and not like the Levite and priest who didn't. The story doesn't disclose the reaction of the theologian and his colleagues, and the impact of Jesus' story is nowadays probably much underestimated. Saying to a Jewish legal scholar of the first century AD that he should be like a Samaritan is like telling Richard Dawkins that he should be more like Anne Rice.
The name Samaritan occurs 9 times in the New Testament; see full concordance.
🔼Etymology of the name Samaritan
The ethnonym Samaritan obviously comes from the name Samaria, and that name comes from the verb שמר (shamar), meaning to keep, guard, observe or give heed:
The verb שמר (shamar) means to guard or to exercise great care over. Noun שמרה (shomra) means guard. Noun שמר (shimmur) means night watch. Noun אשמורה ('ashmura) or אשמרת ('ashmoret) refers to the night watch as unit of time. Noun משמר (mishmar) describes the "place or agent" of guarding, which may come down to either a prison or a guard, but it may also describe the keeping on some religious observances or something like that. Noun משמרת (mishmeret), literally meaning "with the function of watching," used in the sense of a charge or obligation; an official function of guarding. Noun שמרה (shemura) describes an eyelid.
Noun שמר (shemer) describes the dregs or residue that collects at the bottom of a bottle of wine. This word may stem from a whole other root, or it reflects the similarity between patiently standing through a night watch and a bottle ageing in a rack. This word may also describe a stagnant heart, either as a heart in which dregs settle out or a heart that's carefully guarded.
Noun שמיר (shamir) describes some kind of wild, thorny vegetation that covers large areas. Again, this noun may stem from a whole other verb, but a hedge of thorns is not unlike a perimeter peopled by armed guards, or even a tender heart that's guarded by sarcasm and a proneness to insult.
The noun שמור (shamor), fennel, equals the Greek noun μαραθον (marathon), and Greece's victory at the Battle of Marathon (490 BC) made the whole world Greek.
The Hebrew name for Samaria, Shomron, is formed by adding the ון (waw-nun) couple to the root, and the name Samaria means Place Of Watching, denoting a watchtower or some other elevation. The Samaritans, therefore, were the People Of The Watchtower, or Those Who Keep Watch.
It's quite clear that the meaning of the word Samaritan itself became a character in the story of the gospel. In Christ it's no longer important in which tradition we grew up, or even with what kind of care we observe rituals and liturgy. What is important is that we acknowledge that we are incomplete, and that we keep a diligent watch for the coming of the Messiah — i.e. the embodiment of the whole of humanity's formal knowledge of natural reality.
This idea is one of the great themes of the New Testament. Compare, for instance the story of the ten virgins; five who kept watch for their coming husband and five who didn't (Matthew 25:1-13). Or Paul's ministry to the Athenians (Acts 17:21). Or even the many references to "eagerly awaiting" a Savior (Philippians 3:20), the Christ (Hebrews 9:28, ) or general righteousness (Galatians 5:5).
Luke's "shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night" were of course the same people as the Matthew's Magi from the east: namely those faithful scholars who preserved the Jewish traditions among the remnant in Persia. This "remnant" was actually much larger than the oppressed Jewish community in Palestine, and the academic output of the Persian Jews (such as the Talmud) greatly surpassed that of their Jerusalem brethren. And when Jerusalem fell in 70 AD, Babylon became the new Jewish center of the world.
This in turn suggests that the New Testament stories about Samaritans may also serve as commentaries on the modern world. When Greece beat Persia at the Battle of Marathon, Greece's golden age began and produced the arts, sciences and political ideas that still shape our world today. Of course, Greek's dominance also set the door wide open for the deadly infection of Roman fascism, which in turn triggered the emergence of the gospel, both as message and as literary genre.