Saturday, November 4, 2017

Who were the Samaritans?

I've always thought that the term Samaritans in the Bible was referring to all inhabitants of the northern ten-tribe kingdom of Samaria, right after the division of united Israel (after King Solomon's death). I got interested more about them while reading the account in John chapter four where Jesus spoke with a Samaritan woman near a well, revealing that he is the foretold savior of the world. I got intrigued by the fact that Jews in Jesus' time looked down upon Samaritans. If Samaritans were simply from the northern ten-tribe kingdom then why would Jews look down upon their own brothers and relatives? So I thought I would do some personal study on this.

Until the time of Solomon, all Israel was under a united monarchy with one king ruling from Jerusalem. The division, as pronounced by Jehovah's prophet Ahijah happened during the time of Solomon's son Rehoboam. God was displeased by the presumptuousness of Rehoboam in his later years when he abandoned pure worship and led his own tribe, Judah, into a course of badness prevalent among neighboring nations (1 Kings 14:22-24). So it came about that Israel was split into two kingdoms with only the two tribes of Benjamin and Judah in the south giving allegiance to rulers from David's offspring and the remaining ten tribes in the north (Samaria) under a different king, Jeroboam, one of Solomon's officers (1 Kings 11:29-31). It can be said that the majority of the prophetical books in "Old Testament" (Hebrew/Aramaic scriptures) starting from the book of Isaiah are dealing with God's message to unfaithful people in both kingdoms that unless they turnaround they will be taken as captives for their sins. But people in both kingdoms willfully continued practicing what was bad.

The destruction of the ten-tribe northern kingdom of Samaria happened in 740 BC; king Shalmaneser V of ancient Assyria invaded and took most of them as captives. Later in 607 BC the two-tribe kingdom of Judah was also invaded and taken as captives by Babylonians under King Nebuchadnezzar II till their liberation from exile by the decree of Mede Cyrus the Great in 537 BC.

Coming back to my original question on the origin of Samaritans here is something I found from Insight on Scriptures, a Bible encyclopedia. Apparently, my assumption that the term Samaritans was used in the Bible to refer ten-tribe kingdom of the north was correct, but only until their conquest in 740 BC. After that, the term started to have a different meaning. Assyrians had a practice of removing captives from the conquered territory and transplanting in their place peoples from other parts of the empire to avoid future uprisings. So in this instance, other national groups brought into northern territory eventually became intermingled both racially and religiously with remaining minority Israelites in the north. At some point later, the name carried more of a religious rather than racial or political connotation. Samaritans acknowledged only the first five books of the Bible (Pentateuch or Torah) by Moses as authentic. The division is very clear when Samaritans opposed Jews reconstructing their temple and walls of Jerusalem after Jewish return from exile in 537 BC. This new religion can be traced back to the northern kingdom's first king Jeroboam's efforts to alienate his people from the southern kingdom by encouraging calf worship in the name of Jehovah. This was so that he could prevent people from north visiting Jehovah's temple in Jerusalem located in the southern kingdom and getting reunited. In time, religious and political differences between Jews and Samaritans widened to the point they didn't mingle with each other. Jews looked down on Samaritans as having an inferior and polluted form of worship whereas Samaritans believed the opposite. Then I had my aha moment.

In a similar line, the term Jews was originally applied to those from the tribe of Judah in the southern kingdom. After the end of exile in Babylon, this included all Israelites joined them in their restoration of worship, which came to be known as Judaism. People of the nations who adopted Judaism as circumcised proselytes also identified themselves as Jews. People of the other nations were referred to as Gentiles.

What is more interesting is that Samaritans exist even today in modern Israel! Like their ancient counterparts, modern Samaritans only regard the first five books of the Bible from Moses as being authentic. Their version of the first five books is called Samaritan Pentateuch (Samaritan Torah), which is almost identical to the first five books of modern Bible translations. In fact, it is quite accurate that some modern Bible translations use Samaritan Pentateuch as a comparative reference in their translation work. One peculiar belief of Samaritans is the special importance to Mount Gerizim, which they consider as a holy mountain of God. Even today, the majority of Samaritans live nearby this mountain and consider it holy.

Mount Gerizim is the place near which Jehovah promised Abraham (forefather of Israelites) that he will bless his offspring and give them "this land". Jacob, Abraham's grandson also once camped in its vicinity. Later, under Moses' instruction in the 14th century BC, the tribes of Israel assembled at Mount Gerizim and Ebal. The people heard the reading of the blessings they would receive if they obeyed Jehovah and the maledictions that awaited if they disobeyed. Modern archaeologists have confirmed that due to the excellent acoustics in this area even today a large group of people could hear the words from positions in front of either mountain Gerizim or Ebal.

This all makes sense when rewinding forward to 1st century CE, especially when we compare the account in John 4:7-26 when Jesus was in Samaria. A Samaritan woman said to Jesus, "Our forefathers worshipped on this mountain, but you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where people must worship". In reply, suggesting salvation not just belongs to Jews, he said, "the hour is coming, and it is now, when the true worshippers will worship the Father [Jehovah] with spirit and truth, for indeed, the Father [Jehovah] is looking for ones like these to worship him".

The Samaritans, like the Jews, believed in the arrival of a savior. This is because they took note of what Moses said about another great prophet, who will be raised by God after his death. (Deuteronomy 18:18-19) That's why she replied to Jesus, "I know that Messiah is coming, who is called Christ. Whenever that one comes, he will declare all things to us openly." And then Jesus revealed to her, "I am he, the one speaking to you". When touching historical facts the internal harmony of the Bible is amazing, even though it was written over a long time period and the writers were not contemporaneous.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Treasure in home town

About five years ago, I woke up with the news that surprised many in the city of Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram). It is the capital of the state of Kerala located in extreme southwest India. I grew up around 15 miles down south from the city, I lived there until my move to the United States in 2011. Archaeologists just unearthed treasures worth over $1 trillion US dollars in a much-overlooked temple in the middle of the city. 

Who in the world would have thought that just another Hindu temple—among the thousands in Kerala—that anybody can walk in anytime hosted a grand treasure in its secret vaults underneath? Looks like a perfect setting for another Indiana Jones movie is in making. The temple in the spotlight is called Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple. It was built around the 16th century and was dedicated to Padmanabha Swamy, a Hindu deity revered by the erstwhile royal family of Travancore. When India got independence from the British in 1947 both the Travancore and neighboring Cochin kingdoms joined the Indian Union, and later, the Malayalam speaking region all together formed the state of Kerala. Since then the temple's glory diminished; as the royal family lost its grandiose their chief deity became less relevant to people. 

As a boy, I have been personally around the temple many times for attending the teaching programs of Jehovah's Witnesses in a close-by auditorium. The temple had no guards and it was easily accessible to the public anytime. Of course not after the discovery; now protected with machine guns, security cameras, motion detectors, and seismic sensors. To mention a few, the items discovered in four vaults included golden idols studded with diamonds and other precious stones, a gold sheaf weighing over 1000 pounds, an 80-pound golden veil, hundreds of thousands of gold coins, golden artifacts, necklaces, diadems, rubies, sapphires, emeralds, and other precious gemstones. Upon objection from temple priests who cited "bad omens", the remaining two vaults were left unopened.  Subsequently, the Supreme Court of India which had earlier directed archaeologists to make an inventory of the vaults put the matter on hold.

To give a comparison, being one of the largest economies in the world the net GDP of the present Indian economy is around $1.87 trillion USD. But researchers are estimating this treasure by antique value to be worth over $1 trillion USD. It is believed that the treasure is an accumulation of wealth over the past two millenniums by trade, tax, and gifts to the royal family and their predecessor kingdoms. Gold has a major role in Indian women's adornment, and even today India's obsession with gold and precious stones is well-known. Likely, when British colonies were established around the 17th century, the rulers who were aware of this treasure put it in secret vaults underneath their much-revered temple to protect against plundering. Today, there is already a debate among the public as to how this treasure should be used. While some suggest that it should be used for public welfare, others dissent, and opine that it belongs to the temple and should be left alone. Meanwhile, the descendants of the royal family are also claiming a stake in the wealth, opposing the current ownership by the Kerala state government. The entangling legal dispute is currently pending before the Supreme Court of India.

As someone interested in the history of Christianity and biblical archaeology in general, among the discoveries that particularly stroke me were over one hundred thousand gold coins dating back to the 1st century Roman Empire with imprints of contemporary Caesars. No wonder, Roman politicians and historians are on record decrying the loss of silver and gold to buy commodities from India to pamper Roman wives. 

It is undisputed that Christianity in India existed at least from the 5th century AD. However, Saint Thomas Christians, an ancient community of Christians in Kerala, trace back their origins to the 1st century AD. The doctrines and practices of modern-day Saint Thomas Christians don't differ much from that of Roman Catholics, with tradition and creed superseding scriptural authority. They assert by tradition that Thomas the apostle of Jesus traveled to South India and convinced their ancestors to convert to Christianity. Though it is a possibility, there is no solid evidence or record for this. The Bible does mention India a few times such as in the Book of Esther as a boundary for the 4th century BC Persian empire by Xerxes I, and in the Book of Revelation using the words "Indian spice". Neither does it mention much about the activity of Thomas the apostle after Jesus' death and resurrection. Regardless, a number of 3rd and 4th-century Roman writers mention Thomas's trip to India. 

Another fact is that there is an ancient body of Jews in Kerala called Cochin Jews, most immigrated to modern Israel after the independence of India from the British in 1947. They claim that their ancestors arrived in Kerala during the time of King Solomon to do trade. In the Bible, we read accounts of King Solomon having a fleet of trading ships which bought from far lands among other things peacock, notorious to the Indian subcontinent. Though we are not sure if they lived in Kerala during Solomon's time in the 10th century BC, historians agree that Cochin Jews existed at least since the 1st century AD. So it is possible that Jewish missionaries in the first century joined Jewish merchants, to reach the shores of Kerala via the Arabian Sea.

I read in one of The Watchtower magazines some years ago that an apostle could have easily taken a trade ship to reach India or even further southeast to Thailand, Cambodia, Sumatra, and Java. Jesus' disciples were commissioned to preach the good news to the most distant parts of the earth and later in his epistle to the Colossians Paul mentions that the good news was preached in all creation under then heaven.

This discovery bolsters the claims by both Cochin Jews and Saint Thomas Christians, however, only the apostle knows if he ever visited India.