More than Just a Parable: The Genetic History of the Samaritans

Upon hearing the name “Samaritans,” many people are immediately reminded of the famous passage from the Gospel of Luke (10: 25-37), the so called ‘Good Samaritan’ parable. Jesus tells of a Levite (a Jew) who is beaten and left on the side of the road. None who pass by the injured man stop to help, save a Samaritan. This parable was originally meant to highlight the fact that, even when two groups of people disapprove of each other (as did the Jews and the Samaritans), a single person from one group can still show kindness towards a member of the other.

Many people who know this parable or the term ‘Good Samaritan’ are unaware of who the Samaritans really are. In actuality, the Samaritans are a unique people whose history can be traced to Biblical times. They are not considered ethnically Jewish or Arab, despite the fact that Samaritans have lived in close proximity to both groups for thousands of years. Though they used to be numerous, there are now only about 700 Samaritans left, divided between two towns near Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. They rarely marry non-Samaritans, and their religious practices are distinct from all Jewish sects. Their ability to remain both (seemingly) genetically and culturally isolated in one of the most diverse regions on Earth has piqued the interest of both geneticists and historians, who have spent years trying to understand this unique group of people tucked away in the Levantine desert.

The origins of the Samaritans have always been clouded in uncertainty. The traditional view is that, when the Jews were captured by the Assyrians in 721 BC as part of the infamous Babylonian Captivity, the Assyrians then repopulated Israel with people from the land of Samaria to the east. Then, when the Jews finally returned from exile 200 years later, they found these Samaritans already living in their ancestral homeland. As can be expected, tensions between the Samaritans and the Jews quickly escalated, and would persist for the next several hundred years.

However, recent archaeological findings, coupled with deeper examination of religious texts, have led researchers to propose that the Samaritans were Jews themselves.

Specifically, researchers argue that during the Babylonian Captivity, not all Jews were rounded up by the Assyrians. Some stayed behind, possibly marrying other Assyrian exiles who themselves had been relocated. This would make sense given that, even though Samaritans are not considered Jews, they share many of the same ancient Hebrew rituals. While these rituals have evolved for hundreds of years among most Jewish sects, they remain unchanged among the isolated Samaritans, even to this day. This also fits well with the historical animosity of Jews toward Samaritans because of their association with non-Jews.

But what do the genetic data reveal about the Samaritans’ origins? Luckily, there have been many genetic studies of the Samaritans, both to uncover their origins and to understand how they have survived so many generations of isolation. One such study by Peidong Shen and colleagues in the Journal Human Mutation has used both mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosome DNA of modern-day Samaritans to discover their origins and genetic relationship to Near Eastern Jews. Their results are fascinating.

The mitochondrial DNA results, which show maternal history (i.e. your mother’s mother’s mother, etc.), reveal no major difference between the Samaritans, Jews, or Palestinians in the Levant who were also sampled. These three groups have relatively similar maternal genetic histories. However, the story of the Y-chromosome, which shows paternal history (i.e. your father’s father’s father) is quite different. Indeed, not only are the Y-chromosomes of the Jews and Samaritans more similar to each other than either is to the Palestinians’, the Y-chromosomes of the Samaritans show striking similarities to a very specific Y-chromosome most often associated with Jewish men. Although the Samaritan type is slightly different from the Jewish type, it is clear that the two share a common ancestor, probably within the last few thousand years.

As a result, Shen and colleagues argue that the traditional hypothesis, that the Samaritans were transported into the Levant by the Assyrians and have no Jewish heritage, is largely incorrect. Rather, these Samaritan lineages are remnants of those few Jews who did not go into exile when the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom of Israel in 721 BC. Those who remained in the Levant may have take non-Jewish wives, which would account for the genetic admixture on the female side. But according to the authors the Y-chromosome clearly shows that the Samaritans and the Jews share common ancestry dating to at least 2,500 years ago.

The similarity between the Y chromosomes of Samaritans and Jews illustrates that groups considered quite distinct today can actually have relatively recent genetic connections. Indeed, we are all connected to each other in some way through our shared genes, shared ancestry, and shared history. The research into the origin of the Samaritans is just one example of this connection.

Photo: flickr