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What is the Samaritan Pentateuch?

Samaritan Pentateuch
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The Samaritan Pentateuch, or Samaritan Torah, is the text of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible written in the Samaritan script for the Samaritan people. It is the only text the Samaritans consider inspired, rejecting Joshua through Malachi and the entire New Testament.

The Samaritan Pentateuch stems from an ancient version of the Hebrew Bible written in a pre-Samaritan text style that existed in the Second Temple Period (c. 515 BC—AD 70). That text was edited to emphasize the beliefs of Samaritanism and preserved as the Samaritan Pentateuch, probably in the first century BC through the first century AD. The Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., displays a manuscript dating from c. 1160, containing part of the Samaritan Pentateuch, making it one of the oldest surviving Torah scrolls from the Samaritan tradition.

The Samaritan Pentateuch is fairly similar to the Masoretic Text. Most of the six thousand differences between the two come down to variations of spelling or grammar. This resemblance is quite remarkable because the documents were developed and passed down independently—Jews had no dealings with Samaritans (John 4:9). The Samaritan Pentateuch ultimately attests to the reliability of the Torah.

However, there are several discrepancies between the Samaritan Pentateuch and the Masoretic Text with much bigger implications. One of these is found in Deuteronomy 27:4: “And when you have crossed over the Jordan, you shall set up these stones, concerning which I command you today, on Mount Ebal, and you shall plaster them with plaster” (ESV, based on the Masoretic Text). The Samaritan Pentateuch replaces Mount Ebal with Mount Gerizim in accordance with the view of Samaritanism that the site of God’s temple should be Mt. Gerizim.

Samaritans believe that theirs is the original reading of the text of Deuteronomy 27:4, claiming that Ezra later changed the wording to counter Samaritan claims that Gerizim and not Jerusalem was God’s holy mountain. This is the same issue the Samaritan woman referenced in John 4:20 when she was speaking with Jesus about worship. Jesus told her that the location of worship does not matter because “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him” (John 4:23). Samaritans, Jews, and Gentiles can now worship God as one Church through the redeeming blood of Christ.

From ancient times, Jewish people rejected the worship practices of the Samaritans, as well as the Samaritan Pentateuch’s presentation of Mt. Gerizim as God’s holy mountain (see Rabbi Eliezer’s refutation in Sifre D. 56 and y. Soṭa 7.3 of the Talmud). Interest in the Samaritan Pentateuch waned in the Middle Ages, but it was published again in the 17th century, reigniting both attention and debate.

The Samaritan Pentateuch is a useful resource in textual criticism. Some scholars—mainly Catholic—consider it a more authentic text than the Masoretic Text. This is mainly due to the vast agreement between the Samaritan Pentateuch and the Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate, two translations that Catholics consider authoritative. Others—generally Protestant—argue that the Samaritan Pentateuch is a useful but sometimes unreliable derivative of earlier Hebrew texts.

Based on discoveries in the Dead Sea Scrolls, identified as “pre-Samaritan,” it is now generally agreed that the Samaritan Pentateuch represents a legitimate ancient textual tradition despite the variations included by the Samaritans. The Samaritan Pentateuch can be a useful tool to get a better idea of the original text that Moses wrote down.

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Questions about the Bible

If Scripture is supposed to be our sole authority, on what authority do we base the canonicity of the books of the Bible - since the Bible does not say which books are canonical?
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This page last updated: March 3, 2022