On the Mountain or in Jerusalem?

ARGUMENTS ABOUT RELIGION are a favorite Middle Eastern pastime. Some are simply talk for talk’s sake: my faith is the oldest, the truest or the best. Sometimes these disagreements have become causes for acrimonious divisions between believers as the number of Jewish, Christian and Muslim factions show. One of the most vehement in the ancient world is mentioned in the Gospel passage about the Woman at the Well (John 4:5-42): the conflict between Jews and Samaritans.

The division between Jews and Samaritans can be traced to the division of David’s kingdom into northern and southern realms after the death of King Solomon. The northern kingdom, known as Israel, was overrun by the Assyrians in the 8th century BC. The South was called Judah and its inhabitants ultimately became known as Jews. The southern kingdom would remain until conquered by Babylon almost 200 years later.

The Samaritans claimed that they were the true Israel, descendants of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh who survived the destruction of the Northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians in 722 BC. To this day Samaritans prefer to call themselves Istraelites (the word Samaritan means “Keeper of the Law”).There was reputedly one million of them in the 1st century AD. Only c. 750 remain as a distinct community today.

Both Jewish and Samaritan religious leaders taught that it was wrong to have any contact with the opposite group, and neither was to enter each other’s territories or even to speak to one another. This is why the Samaritan woman responded to Jesus’ request for a drink by saying, “‘How is it that You, being a Jew, ask a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?’ For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans” (John 4:9). Given this relationship, Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan was especially forceful.

Samaritans only accept as Scripture the first five books of the Old Testament, the Torah (the Law), rejecting the authority of other sections of the Old Testament (the prophetic/historical books) as well as the Talmud, a principal source of Jewish Tradition. Their text of the Torah differs from that used by the Jews as well. The Samaritans claim that their version of the Torah was the original and that the Jews had a falsified text produced by Ezra during the Babylonian exile. Modern Scripture scholars point to considerable editing of the Jewish Scriptures at that time; perhaps the Samaritans have a point.

Question of the Temple

Both Jews and Samaritans believed that God had a unique dwelling place on earth. It was there that the glory of God was manifested just as it had been to Moses on Mount Sinai. They disagreed, however, on the location of this holy place. Jews looked to Jerusalem, where Solomon had built his temple before the division between northern and southern kingdoms. Samaritan worship was focused on Mount Gerizim, near Shechem (modern Nablus), which they asserted was the original sanctuary, in use since the time of Joshua. This was the place, they believe, where Abraham was commanded by God to offer Isaac, his son, as a sacrifice (Genesis 22:2).

When the Jewish leadership, which had been deported to Babylon in the 6th century BC, were allowed to return, they rebuilt the Jerusalem temple and codified their Scriptures and ritual practices. While in earlier centuries sacrifices were regularly offered in shrines associated with Abraham and other early figures, the newly emergent Jewish leadership insisted that the Jerusalem temple was only legitimate place of sacrifice.

In the first half of the 5th century BC the Samaritans built a temple on Mount Gerizim and offered sacrifices there. This temple was destroyed in 128 BC by the Jewish high priest John Hyrcanus who captured Samaria and enlarged the Jewish kingdom.

Samaritans were not associated with the Jewish revolts against the Romans so, while the Romans expelled the Jews from Jerusalem in 135 AD, the Samaritans were allowed to remain. The Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim was rebuilt at that time and remained until the 5th century AD when the Samaritans revolted against Rome. They were defeated and barred from Mount Gerizim.

Samaritans continued to oppose Rome; they were recognized as a legitimate community under Islam. While they never rebuilt their temple, they still celebrate Passover every year at the “altar of Abraham,” at their ancient temple site.

Christ and the Temple Question

In Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman He touched on the issue of the temple. The woman said, “‘Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father… But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth…’” (John 4:19-23). Jesus dismissed the importance of a physical temple as necessary to worship God. God’s relationship with mankind was changing.

When Jesus was in the Jerusalem temple He made this cryptic announcement: “‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ Then the Jews said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?’ 21 But He was speaking of the temple of His body” (John 2:19-21). The place of sacrifice would not be in a shrine or a temple; it would be the very body of Christ Himself. Here the one definitive sacrifice would be offered for the forgiveness of the sins of all mankind.

While Christ’s earthly body would be the temple of His sacrifice on the cross, His spiritual body, the Church would also share in His role as the new temple of God. Since the Church is the Body of Christ, in which the Holy Spirit dwells, it is a temple made up of living stones, the first of whom is Christ, the Head of the Body.

And so it is as the temple of the Living God that we are reminded, “Coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:4-5). Those who are united to Christ in baptism become this holy priesthood whose sacrifice of praise, the Divine Liturgy, whose alms, whose gifts of fasting and other offerings are united to Christ’s own sacrifice. The community of Christians throughout the world is the spiritual house built of living stones and joined to the Precious Stone chosen by God.