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From Mi Yodeya

The Samaritans themselves claim to be descended from the original Israelite inhabitants of northern Israel. The biblical account (II Kings 17:24ff) states that they are descended from foreigners imported into the land by Sennacherib after he had destroyed the northern Israelite state and exiled its people, but who learned the Torah from Israelite priests whom Sennacherib brought back at their request. Either way, then, the Samaritan scriptures must derive from earlier Israelite originals.

However, Ezra considered them foreigners and did not allow them to help in the building of the temple, or worship with the people of Judah. [1]

Which claim is correct?

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3 Answers

Yes, the Samaritans are Israelites.

Samaria, the Samaritan kingdom, is in this context the Kingdom of Israel, i.e. the northern part of the Biblical United Kingdom of David and Solomon. The Samaritans, and other Jewish groups living in the Kingdom of Israel are listed as Israelites and descendants of Abraham in the Bible.

However, here is the Judean account from the Book of Kings of the the Assyrian rule over Samaria:

In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria took Samaria, and carried Israel away unto Assyria, and placed them in Halah, and in Habor, on the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes.

...

And the king of Assyria brought men from Babylon, and from Cuthah, and from Avva, and from Hamath and Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria instead of the children of Israel; and they possessed Samaria, and dwelt in the cities thereof.

In other words, it is claimed that during the Assyrian period, all of the people of the Kingdom of Israel were replaced with people not descended from Abraham, and that the Samaritans later acquired the Jewish religion from the Kingdom of Judah.

The account of the Assyrian King Sargon in the Nimrud prism at first glance seems to agree:

I repopulated Samerina more than before. I brought into it people from countries conquered by my hands. I appointed my eunuch as governor over them. And I counted them as Assyrians.

However the prism also says that 27,290 persons were deported, and numbers in texts such as the prism, written to extol the power and might of a king, tend to be inflated. Still, 27,290 represents only a small fraction of the apparent population of The Kingdom of Israel at that time.

As such, the Nimrud prism does not support the claim that the people were replaced by foreigners. Instead it's likely that only the aristocracy was deported and replaced by people from other lands, in a "divide and conquer" style replacement.

This is typical of all ancient claims of one people coming in and replacing another, from the Exodus, to the claims of Anglo-Saxons invading England. Neither genetics not archeology tends to support these claims. There are seldom any cultural changes in the archeology, and the genetic influences are generally only in a small percentage of the population. This is true also for the Assyrian invasion, where there is continuity in occupation of the sites before and after the Assyrian invasion. [ref]

So there is truth in both accounts: People were deported, and other people brought in. But the claim that all of the people were replaced by foreigners is supported neither by the Assyrian accounts nor the archeology. Undoubtedly the vast majority of the people living in The Kingdom of Israel before the Assyrians arrived remained there, and the Samaritans therefore have as a good a claim to be Israelites as mainstream Jews do. This is also supported by genetic studies indicating that the Samaritans have a closer paternal genetic relationship to other Jews, than to non-Jewish middle eastern peoples..

However, when it comes to the question of whether the Samaritans are in fact descendants from one of the twelve tribes of Israel, this claim is much harder to verify, for the simple reason that we can't verify the existence of these twelve tribes.

It is claimed that Israel and Judah was made up of twelve tribes and that these tribes were united into one kingdom sometime before 1000BC, a kingdom that then was split up into Israel and Judah after the death of Solomon. But there is no way to verify this. The texts that claim this are written many hundreds of years after the claimed events took place, and there is no cultural difference between these tribes that is detectable in archeology. Hence, discussing if the Samaritans are descended from one of these tribes makes little sense.

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So samaritan are genetically related to jews? –  Jim Thio Sep 13 '13 at 9:47
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@JimThio: We are all genetically related. :-) But yes, according to the research done by Shen P, Lavi T, Kivisild T, et al. (September 2004), Samaritans are more closely related to other Jews than their are to other non-Jewish people, yes. I don't know if this has been verified by other research. –  Lennart Regebro Sep 13 '13 at 9:50
    
@JimThio the people living in Samaria are ethnic Jews, and for centuries were religious Jews as well until the Ottomans stamped out all religions except Islam (almost, there were isolated small groups of religious Jews and Christians left). –  jwenting Oct 7 '13 at 18:43
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In Jewish tradition, the Lost Tribes are not "lost" in the sense that your car keys might get lost. They are "lost" in the sense that a dead friend is "lost". What happened was that after Israel split into two countries, the Assyrians invaded the northern one in 740 BC and carted off the balance of the population (after the war) to Assyria as slaves. This population was never allowed to return, and after several generations became completely assimilated into the population and culture of Assyria. As far as the Jews are concerned, those people are totally lost to them.

However, there is another story. According the the Samaratans themselves, not everyone was carried off, and they are those folk's descendents. Genetic Studies don't refute the Samaratan's story.

The Assyrian accounting of things was that they deported the entire population, and repopulated the land with other people. This essentially matches the Jewish account.

Linguistically, the Samaratans definitely spoke a very closely related language to Hebrew. There doesn't seem to be much research looking into when the two diverged (I'm a great believer in language as a marker of culture, so for me this would be decisive).

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+1 - Language as a marker. Still, aren't genealogical studies better? –  Vector Sep 13 '13 at 16:39
    
@Vector - I don't think so. For instance, the USA is full of folks with genetic material from all over the earth, however, they almost universially speak a dialect of AmE, so language is a far better marker of who is an American. Perhaps this is an exreme example, but examples of folks migrating and either assimilating or developing their own culture abound, even in ancient history. So for my purposes I'm almost always more interested in the cultural heritage of a people, not their genetic heritage. Language is much more useful for that. –  T.E.D. Sep 13 '13 at 17:40
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The assyrian account says "I settled the rest of them in the midst of Assyria". The rest of whom? The rest of the whole population, minus the 27,280 counted as spoil, or the rest of the 27,280 minus the "unit with 200 of [their] chariots for my royal force"? My vote is for the later one. ;-) Also archaeology disproves the idea that the whole population was exiled for both Israel and Judah. There is no discernible archaeological break in the Israelite occupation of these areas. –  Lennart Regebro Sep 13 '13 at 18:27
    
@T.E.D.: Over the short term, IMO language is a better marker, as per your example of the USA: Distribution of language occurs far more rapidly than distribution of genetic material. But over the long term, genetic material will tend to be distributed over an entire population-call it genetic entropy. Then, genetic markers will be more precise than language. So each of these markers has its application. Re the Samaritans today, perhaps 2k+ years after the events, languages have come and gone, but their gene pool has arguably reached some degree of entropy-so perhaps genetics trumps language? –  Vector Sep 14 '13 at 4:47
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This question is based on an "unforced error", due perhaps to a poor translation of Scripture1: Here is the relevant text from the Book of Ezra, Chapter 4, as I have translated it directly from the biblical Hebrew, which I know fluently, along with the help of some of the classical commentators and reliable modern translations to smooth the language:

  • 1) The enemies of Judah and Benjamin heard that the people of the Exile (the Jews of the Babylonian Exile, now under Cyrus's rule) were building a Sanctuary for Y-H, God of Yisroel.
  • 2) They approached Zerubabbel and the Chiefs of the Families and said to them, "Let us build with you, for like you, we will seek your God; it is to Him that we have been sacrificing since the days of Esar-haddon, king of Assyria, who brought us up here."
  • 3) But Zerubabbel, along with Yeshua and the rest of the family chieftains of Yisroel said to them, "It is not for you to build with us a House for our God; instead we, as a group, will build it for Y-H, God of Yisroel, as King Cyrus, King of Persia has commanded us."

So:

We will put aside the mistake of the questioner in attributing the refusal to build the Temple with "enemies of Judah and Benjamin" to Ezra2, when it was in fact the act of Zerubabbel - Cyrus's Jewish governer of the territory and the "Chiefs of the Families of Yisroel", and instead focus on this passage:

since the days of Esar-haddon, king of Assyria, who brought us up here.

Here, those who requested permission from Zerubabbel explicitely refer to themselves as Assyrians who were transported there: Explicitely not descendants of the Tribes of Yisroel.

That is the reason their request was rejected, and also why they are referred to as "enemies of Judah and Benjamin" in verse 1, a term that would not be used with respect to descendants of the Ten Tribes: It was not Zerubabbel who determined that they were not from the Ten Tribes - it was by their own admission. Thus, Zerubabbel and company continue:

instead we, together as a group, will build it to Y-H, God of Yisroel, as King Cyrus, King of Persia has commanded us

That is, Cyrus commanded the Jews who were under his jurisdiction - "we, as a group" - to build the House of God - it was not an order to be executed by the Assyrians.

Since the Samaritans themselves claim to be descendants of the original Ten Tribes, the reference to this account in the Book of Ezra has no bearing whatsoever on their claims.

As other answers have aptly demonstrated, there was at the time a mixture of peoples in the former Kingdom of Yisroel, some descended from Ten Tribes, including perhaps the contemporary Samaritans, and others who were Assyrians.

Be that is it may, the verses in Ezra under examination refer explicitly to Assyrians, and are irrelevant to the Samaritans' claims, so the question as stated, based on an alleged scriptural account of rejection of the contemporary Samaritans by "Erza" (Zerubabbel) is moot.

1Most translations of the Bible (perhaps anything later than the Septuagint) tend to be notoriously inaccurate, sometimes by intent, sometimes by mistake. I am not familiar with NT sources. As far as Hebrew sources go, I can recommend two noteworthy and quite accurate, well annotated translations: Tanach the Stone edition and The Living Torah : The Five Books of Moses and the Haftarot - A New Translation Based on Traditional Jewish Sources, with notes, introduction, maps. One should not make assumptions about what the Bible actually says without consulting sources as close to the original as possible.

2 Erza the scribe compiled, wrote and edited parts of the Book of Ezra-Nechemiah

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+1 Another perspective rounding out the picture. What is your take on the Bible as a book of history? Should it be used only as a prod for asking questions of archaelogists who can then confirm or disconfirm what is written in it, or does it stand alone as historical record, or something in between. –  Eugene Seidel Sep 14 '13 at 4:21
    
@EugeneSeidel - "...the Bible as a book of history?". Friend Eugene: Consider an entire SE site:"The Bible As History": The Bible is a very long book, with many components, spanning minimally 2000 years of History. IMO, it is not a work that can be judged "as history" or not "as history" as a whole. Each point must be analyzed individually with respect to the verses in question, other historical data, the historical context at large, etc. I am quite familiar with the OT in Hebrew: Parts appear to be virtually pure history, other parts may be myth or allegory, or a mixture of all three. –  Vector Sep 14 '13 at 5:13
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Unexplained down-votes are not constructive. Please state your reason - I often edit or even remove posts in response to comments. Answers, and the site at large, are improved thereby. –  Vector Sep 14 '13 at 5:37
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if you don't understand why people downvote something like this there's no saving you... Don't even bother, just flagged it for mods to delete. –  jwenting Oct 7 '13 at 18:44
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