Did Jews Travel Through Samaria in the Time of Jesus?
by Wave Nunnally
For hundreds of years, pastors, teachers, professors, and authors have taught that Jews in the first century avoided travel through Samaria due to the hatred that existed between them and the Samaritans. Robert Gundry provides an excellent example of this position when he says,
One [main road] led…from Jerusalem past Bethany to Jericho, then north up the Jordan Valley and the west side of the Sea of Galilee toward Capernaum. To avoid Samaria, whose inhabitants the Jews despised, Jews often traveled this road in going between Galilee and Judea (A Survey of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012, p. 47).
In fact, Bible commentaries, dictionaries, introductions, and websites will quickly reveal that the overwhelming majority of published works contain similar statements. Such a strong consensus of authorities would suggest that this is a slam-dunk, but the ancient evidence suggests otherwise.
Evidence from the New Testament
It appears that historically, the “jumping-off” point for this teaching is John 4:3-7, which reads simply,
3He left Judea, and departed again into Galilee. 4 And He had to pass through Samaria. 5 So He came to a city of Samaria, called Sychar, near the parcel of ground that Jacob gave to his son Joseph; 6 and Jacob's well was there. Jesus therefore, being wearied from His journey, was sitting thus by the well. It was about the sixth hour. 7 There came a woman of Samaria to draw water. Jesus said to her, "Give Me a drink" (NASB).
Historically, most interpreters have understood this passage as an example of Jesus’ foreknowledge: He knew the Samaritan woman would be at Jacob’s Well at a certain time, and planned His itinerary to meet her there. According to this interpretation, this explains Jesus’ presence in Samaria, a total anomaly in terms of Jewish behavior.
This popular interpretation, however, it is not without its problems. First, John 4 gives every evidence of focusing on the historical situation and geographical realities associated with the event. Second, at the beginning of chapter 4, he does not emphasize the divine foreknowledge/insight of Jesus as he does elsewhere in this gospel (John 2:24, 25; 5:6; 6:6, 64; 13:1, 3, 11; 16:19; 19:28), and as do the other gospels as well (Matt. 9:4; 12:25; Mark 12:15; Luke 6:8; 9:47; 11:17, etc.). In verse 1, John notes that Jesus “knew” that the Pharisees had heard that His popularity had exceeded that of John the Baptist’s, but he does not repeat that verb in reference to Jesus’ motivation to make an appearance at Jacob’s Well. Third, the text explicitly states that Jesus’ primary intent was to “pass through Samaria” (v. 4), the presence of Jacob’s Well only happening to “be there” (v. 6). For all these textual reasons, it should be concluded that Jesus’ journey through Samaria was not due to an exercise of His foreknowledge or divine insight, but was a common-sense decision dictated by geographical realities. The reality was that cutting through Samaria going to and from Jerusalem could cut off almost a week of travel — on foot!
Further, it should be observed that this was not the only time that Jesus intentionally travelled through Samaria. We hear of Jesus and His disciples passing through Samaria in Luke 9:52-56 and 17:11-19, and in these instances also, the concern appears to be a reasonable itinerary rather than divine foreknowledge/insight. Jesus’ standard operating procedure was followed by His earliest disciples. Philip the deacon is found traveling to and from Samaria (Acts 8:5, 26), as are also Peter and John (Acts 8:14-15, 25), and Paul and Barnabas (15:3). From all these passages, three points should be clear: 1) Jesus and His disciples were all Jewish; 2) nevertheless, they regularly traveled to and through Samaria; and 3) none of them demonstrate the least concern about Jewish-Samaritan hatred, violence, or concern about contracting ritual impurity.
Evidence from Rabbinic Literature
Passages in Rabbinic Literature (RL) corroborate the first-century reality that, like Jesus and His immediate disciples, the ancient rabbis also travelled through Samaria. “Rabbi Shemon ben Eleazar went to a certain town inhabited by Samaritans” (Jerusalem Talmud Avodah Zarah 5:4). Elsewhere we read, “Rabbi Ishmael ben Yose went to the town of Neapolis [modern Nablus, in northern Samaria]” (Jerusalem Talmud Avodah Zarah 5:4). The Tosefta states that Jewish herdsmen were allowed to leave cattle in the care of Samaritans when they were being driven through that region (Avodah Zarah 3:1). In light of Pharisaic scruples concerning ritual purity, such behavior would seem out of place, but Rabbinic Literature is clear, “Samaritan territory is [ritually] clean and its ritual immersion pools, dwellings, and paths are assumed to be [ritually] clean” (Tosefta Mikvaot 6:1; Jerusalem Talmud Avodah Zarah 5:4). In fact, “Cooked food prepared by Samaritans is permitted” (Jerusalem Talmud Avodah Zarah 5:4)!
Evidence from Josephus
The first-century historian Josephus was a contemporary of the apostles and wrote about the same time the NT was being written. He was born and grew up in the land of Israel and therefore possessed first-hand familiarity with its geographical, religious, cultural, and social dynamics. He states, “For rapid travel, it was essential to take that route by which Jerusalem may be reached in three days from Galilee” (Life of Josephus 269). Elsewhere, Josephus explains, “It was the custom of the Galileans, when they came to the holy city [Jerusalem] at the time of the festivals, to take their journeys through the country of the Samaritans” (Antiquities 20:118). Like the NT and RL, Josephus provides examples of Jewish travel through the heart of Samaria, “At a village called Gema [modern Jenin], situated in the great plain of Samaria, a Galilean, one of a large company of Jews on their way up to the festival, was murdered” (War 2:232; cf. the parallel account in Antiquities 20:118).
The combined testimony of the NT, RL, and Josephus makes it abundantly clear that Jewish travel through Samaria was permitted and frequent. Josephus’ words in Antiquities 20:118 confirm that it was “standard operating procedure” (“It was the custom…”). In comparison, there is no evidence to support the position that Jews intentionally avoided Samaria due to racial/religious hatred and/or concerns over ritual purity. Although this seems a logical conclusion in light of Jewish animosity and concerns about ritual purity, the ancient literary evidence leads us to the exact opposite conclusion: Jews regularly traveled in and through Samaria. God’s people deserve to know the truth, which is always better than the alternative.
The conclusion offered here 1) makes sense of the numerous times we hear about Jesus and his immediate followers being in Samaria, 2) demonstrates the accuracy and reliability of the Scriptures by comparing its testimony to that of contemporary literature, and 3) this in turn increases our trust in the Scriptures which strengthens our faith, confidence, and witness.