Reflecting on Samaritans and Contemporary Christianity

It seems I am often oblivious to the cyclical nature of history, to my shame. The writer of Ecclesiastes revealed a timeless wisdom when he wrote:

9What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. 10Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has already been, in the ages before us. 11The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them. [1]

This conviction is more despairing still if George Santayana was correct when he wrote:

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.[2]

Perhaps the best for which we can hope is that the history that is recorded remembers well the lessons which, if forgotten, would impoverish us as a people. In many ways, this underlies the Hebraic project of canon.  And it remains a foundational conviction of those who follow Jesus and have committed to remembering history as it has been preserved and interpreted by the prophets and apostles who have given us the Christian Bible.

One of the great theological gifts of the last three centuries of the Christian critical tradition in Europe and the United States has been the re-remembrance of the Jewishness of Jesus along with the Hebraic traditions that gave rise to the Old and New Testaments of the Christian Bible. Where the earliest Christian communities seem to have concerned themselves primarily with the place and behavior of Gentile (non-Jewish) believers in Christian communities, in recent decades Christian theologians and pastors have been asking anew what place Hebraic thought and culture should have in the Church’s interpretation of these texts that we have received as authoritative–i.e., canon.

If the epistles of the Apostle Paul are any indication of the timbre of the theological landscape of the Christian communities of the first century A. D., then one of the great challenges faced by the early Christian evangelists was the contextualizing of a Jewish Messiah and an Hebraic perspective on life and history for increasingly non-Jewish, non-Hebraic communities of faith. Christian theologians such as Krister Stendahl, Marvin Wilson, T. F. Torrance, and, to some degree, N. T. Wright have begun to suggest that many of the sacred and historic theological traditions of the Western Church may in fact be undercut by a reading of the Christian Bible that takes the Hebraic context of Christian Scripture into account. In my view, we are discovering at an ever increasing speed that quite a lot of Christian theology has been worked out in unconscious rejection of the cultures that produced the Scriptures we so heavily rely upon for faith and practice.

What I have recently been surprised to discover in my own reading of Christian Scripture is that the Hebrew Bible itself recollects a time in ancient history in which a very similar process unfolded. The story can be found in 2 Kings 17:24ff in the wake of the conquest of the northern Kingdom of Israel by the Assyrian empire.

24 The king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria in place of the people of Israel; they took possession of Samaria, and settled in its cities. 25 When they first settled there, they did not worship the Lord; therefore the Lord sent lions among them, which killed some of them. 26 So the king of Assyria was told, “The nations that you have carried away and placed in the cities of Samaria do not know the law of the god of the land; therefore he has sent lions among them; they are killing them, because they do not know the law of the god of the land.” 27 Then the king of Assyria commanded, “Send there one of the priests whom you carried away from there; let him go and live there, and teach them the law of the god of the land.” 28 So one of the priests whom they had carried away from Samaria came and lived in Bethel; he taught them how they should worship the Lord.

29 But every nation still made gods of its own and put them in the shrines of the high places that the people of Samaria had made, every nation in the cities in which they lived; 30 the people of Babylon made Succoth-benoth, the people of Cuth made Nergal, the people of Hamath made Ashima; 31 the Avvites made Nibhaz and Tartak; the Sepharvites burned their children in the fire to Adrammelech and Anammelech, the gods of Sepharvaim. 32 They also worshiped the Lord and appointed from among themselves all sorts of people as priests of the high places, who sacrificed for them in the shrines of the high places. 33 So they worshiped the Lord but also served their own gods, after the manner of the nations from among whom they had been carried away. 34 To this day they continue to practice their former customs.

They do not worship the Lord and they do not follow the statutes or the ordinances or the law or the commandment that the Lord commanded the children of Jacob, whom he named Israel. 35 The Lord had made a covenant with them and commanded them, “You shall not worship other gods or bow yourselves to them or serve them or sacrifice to them, 36 but you shall worship the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt with great power and with an outstretched arm; you shall bow yourselves to him, and to him you shall sacrifice. 37 The statutes and the ordinances and the law and the commandment that he wrote for you, you shall always be careful to observe. You shall not worship other gods; 38 you shall not forget the covenant that I have made with you. You shall not worship other gods, 39 but you shall worship the Lord your God; he will deliver you out of the hand of all your enemies.” 40 They would not listen, however, but they continued to practice their former custom.

41 So these nations worshiped the Lord, but also served their carved images; to this day their children and their children’s children continue to do as their ancestors did. [3]

Astute readers of Scripture will recognize that the culture that resulted from these initiating events would be called Samaritan by the time of the life and ministry of Jesus. However, it is interesting to note that in the 700s and 600s B.C. a syncretistic religion that was a hybrid of ancient Yahwehism and a number of other local and international religions took root in the very heart of the Promised Land of Canaan. And, the criticism of the resultant pluralistic religion offered by the prophets of Israel was both simple and profound. The prophets who have provided us with the books of 1 and 2 Kings did not go through a comparative conversation of each point of belief. Instead, they simply reminded their Hebrew contemporaries along with us who have been grafted into Israel by faith in Jesus Christ that the revelation given to Israel is the revelation by which even these Gentile Yahwists will be judged.

My fear is that Christian communities of faith today, in all our varied orthodox expressions, have repeated the history of the Samaritan people. The ‘repentance’ suggested by the prophetic tradition of Israel was to forsake the pluralistic, multi-cultural, diversifying homogenization of cultural religions into one universal religious expression, and instead to return to the revelation of God to Israel as the revelation of God to all nations through Israel.

The revelation of God to Israel is the revelation of God to all nations through Israel. Click To Tweet

Of course, as followers of Jesus we recognize that to follow this exhortation today we must return to the revelation of God to Israel as it has been interpreted and fulfilled by the ministry of Jesus and His apostles. With this reality ever before us, however, I do believe it is time for the Christian Church, as decidedly Gentile as it has become in both culture and conviction, to return to the Hebraic Scriptures and the God-elected Hebraic culture that produced them to begin our theological and practical considerations anew. I believe we have forgotten the history of the Samaritans, and so, as prophesied by George Santayana, we have repeated that history uncritically and unawares.

For those who have ears to hear, my suggestion is to begin this journey with Marvin Wilson’s Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith. After that, perhaps Krister Stendahl’s Paul among Jews and Gentiles, T. F. Torrance’s The Mediation of Christ, Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative, and the more recent writings born out of the new perspective on Paul spearheaded, in many ways, by N. T. Wright might help us to find our reorientation, to find our repentance, as we gather anew at the feet of the prophets and apostles of Israel.

~ J. Thomas

[1] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989), Ec 1:9–11.

[2] https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/George_Santayana

[3] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989), 2 Ki 17:24–41.