The Forgotten Torah 11 September 2013

The Anglophone world has only ever been familiar with a single version of the Torah, the Masoretic. But there exists a second version, preserved by the Samaritans for millenia.

When you think of Samaritans, what comes to mind? For many, the parable of the Good Samaritan is perhaps foremost, so powerful is the anti-prejudicial message of the story that it permeates through Western society. Many others perhaps think of the UK-based charity which provides a helpline for those suffering from despair, depression and suicidal thoughts. The community of Samaritans upon which the parable is based and from which the charity takes its name, is usually so far back in one’s consciousness that it comes as a surprise that there is indeed a community of people to whom the name refers.

People of The Book
They are perhaps one of the most unique and intriguing ethnoreligious groups in the world today. The Samaritans live in modern-day Palestine, as they have done for millennia. There are very few of them left – a community of 751 was recorded in 2012, an increase from recent decades but still significantly less than in previous centuries. Their language, worship and ritual faintly echo that of Judaism…or perhaps it is the other way around.

Muslims who came into contact with them considered them People of the Book, a term reserved for the Abrahamic traditions. They are indeed people of the book, a single book, the Torah. Modern Judaism considers a number of books as sacred sources of theology – the Hebrew Bible consists of the Torah (Teachings), the Navi’im (Prophets) and the Ketuvim (Writings), collectively called the Tanakh and roughly equivalent to the Christian Old Testament.

By contrast, the Samaritans only accept the authority of the Torah. The Torah itself has five sections. In the Old Testament, they are called the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy). In the Samaritan and Masoretic Torah, they are the Bereshit (‘In the Beginning’), Shemot (‘Names’), Vayikra (‘He Called’), Bamidbar (‘In the Desert’) and Devarim (‘Words’). Structural differences aside, there are few major differences between the Christian Old Testament Pentateuch and the Jewish Torah. The Samaritan Torah however stands in contrast to both.

Ancient Divisions
The Samaritans’ unique religion has come back into focus following the translation of the Samaritan Torah into English. ‘The Israelite Samaritan Version of the Torah’ is the first time the complete text is available in English, allowing a new generation of Biblical scholars to work with the material.

Ancient Israel was at one point a united kingdom, though it soon fell to political turmoil and was divided into two – the North (Israel) and the South (Judah). The southern Judeans were forced into exile by the Babylonians in the sixth century BCE, however the northern Israelites remained. Put simply, the Judeans are the ancestors of modern Jews and the Israelites are the ancestors of modern Samaritans. Although such a simplistic statement of course hides the diversity of the issue, two distinct communities emerged with differing theologies, differing practices and different sacred canons.

The divergent practices of Jews and Samaritans led to the tensions addressed in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritans maintain that their practices reflect the true Israelite religion and that Judaism is simply an aberration developed by the Judeans in exile. Their differences are reflected too in their respective Torahs. The Samaritan Torah contrasts with the Masoretic Torah used by the Jews; some attempts at calculating the differences list over 6000 points of divergence.

The Samaritans also use a different alphabet than the Jewish Hebrew alphabet. What the Samaritans use is an older and a closer reflection of the alphabet used by ancient Israelites. The Hebrew alphabet is an adoption of the Aramaic. It leads to an interesting question – if the alphabet the Samaritan Torah is written in is truer to the Israelite original, could the text also be an older version, of which the Masoretic is a divergence?

For some scholars, the question of which version is more authentic is misleading. Eugene Ulrich of the University of Notre Dame argued that “finding the Dead Sea Scrolls proved that there were two versions, if not more, of the Torah circulating within Judaism, but they were all dealt with equal validity and respect.” Thus rather than questioning which more closely reflects the Israelite religion, it may be a question of recognising that Ancient Israelites used more than one version and revered all.

The Dead Sea Scrolls added weight to the argument that the Samaritan Torah was not a redacted version of the Jewish Torah, but authentic in its own right. The Septuagint, a translation of Hebrew Biblical texts into Koine Greek (upon which the Christian Old Testament was based) hints at the existence of a third version of the Torah, and many have noted that the Old Testament shares a number of similarities with the Samaritan Torah as well as the Masoretic.

Others however are not satiated by arguments of pluralism, certainly not Orthodox Jews or modern Samaritans. Benjamin Tsedeka, a Samaritan himself as well as a Biblical scholar, argues the Samaritan Torah is more reliable. “It’s more logical that a group of people who’ve lived in one place for thousands of years have kept their Torah preserved as compared to a people who have moved all over the world”.

Understanding Differences
So what are these 6000 differences that exist between the two Torahs? Most are grammatical, others orthographical. The Samaritan Torah is described as having a greater grammatical consistency than the Torah. There are also a number of differences in names. Binyamim (Son of My Days) as opposed to the Masoretic Binyamin (Son of my Right Hand) for example.

More interesting however, are divergences in teachings. The Samaritan Ten Commandments include the injunction to establish an altar on Mount Gerizim. It is Mount Gerizim in the West Bank near Nablus, Samaritans argue, and not Jerusalem that was God’s intended location for the temple. Every year during Passover, the Samaritans sacrifice lambs and goats on Mount Gerizim, different from Jewish practice but noting the story of Moses and the plagues of Egypt too.

Many biblical scholars ignored Samaritan claims regarding the pre-eminence of Mount Gerizim. It was not until the discovery of a fragment of scroll from Qumran, transcribed in Jewish Hasmonian, that noted Mount Gerizim (not Jerusalem) as the location for the creation of an altar. The existence of a text that supported Samaritan claims that was most likely written by a Jewish author forced those who dismissed the Samaritans to look more closely at their holy scripture.

Other differences are qualitative in nature. “The Lord is a man of war” reads Exodus 15:3 in the Masoretic, but the Samaritan avoids the word man and instead reads “God is mighty in war”. Samaritan religion is keenly monotheistic, and the sometimes anthromorphic terms used in the Jewish Torah are absent wholesale.

Sometimes, the differences stem from the diacritical marks and thus read as different interpretations. Most Semitic languages (such as Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic and indeed Samartian Hebrew) are not written with vowels in their alphabet. Rather, constants have marks placed on them indicating their pronunciation. Many of the important differences between the two texts are about vocalisation, namely how a word is pronounced, which can lead to significant changes in meanings.

For example, Numbers 12:1 describes Moses marrying a ‘Cushite’ (South East African, usually associated with modern day Ethiopia) woman. The Samaritan Torah uses the same consonants, but describes his wife as ‘beautiful’ rather than ‘Cushite’. Some have argued that the word was changed in the Masoretic Torah to avoid undue attention being given to Moses’ wife, attention that could attract jealousy and envy. The observation grants us an otherwise hidden glimpse into the culture of early Israelites.

Sharon Sullivan Dufour of the Eastern Michigan University worked closely with Benjamin Tsedeka to translate the Samaritan Torah into English and argues that “it is time now for Biblical Studies to stop showing favouritism to the Masoretic Torah, discontinue ancient allegations that the Samaritans were not original Israelites, and examine variant texts in equal standing”. The translation of the Samaritan Torah into English will certainly help towards these goals.

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About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.

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