has science vindicated those nasty Samaritans? looks like it.

has science vindicated those nasty Samaritans? looks like it. February 12, 2015

I knew I should have paid more attention to biology class in high school. “You never know,” mom said. “One day you might grow up to be a biblical scholar, and someone might publish a scientific paper that intersects with your own field and you might want to be able to understand it.”

How right you were, mom. How right you were.

A friend sent me a link an article, made available through Human Biology Open Access Pre-Prints at Wayne State University, entitled “Genetics and the history of the Samaritans: Y- chromosomal microsatellites and genetic affinity between Samaritans and Cohanim.” 

No, I didn’t actually read it. (You really need to ask?) It would be casting pearls before swines.

It took me 45 minutes of Googling to understand the title. And then there are section headings like, “Denaturing High-Performance Liquid Chromatography and Electrospray Ioniza- tion Quadrupole Ion Trap Mass Spectrometry” and “Genotyping of Y-Chromosome Single-Nucleotide Polymorphisms.”

The only section titles I got were “Introduction,” “Discussion,” and “DNA Sequencing,” the latter of which I take it has something to do with the sequencing of DNA (although, if push comes to shove, I don’t really know what DNA is, other than it’s really, REALLY important for life and such).

Most of the article also uses words I never heard of and syntax I never use, like:

The mass accuracy necessary to detect a shift in mass due to an A>T mutation in a 100-mer single-stranded sequence (molecular mass of approximately 31,500) has to be at least 0.014%, which is the standard accuracy of the ion trap mass spectrometers used in this study. As the sizes and molecular masses of all STRs but one, namely DYS426, exceeded 100 base pairs, A>T or T>A mutations might have gone undetected. Still, several single-nucleotide sub- stitutions within and, in particular, flanking the microsatellite sequence, resulting in mass shifts of 15 (G>A) and 24 Da (A>C or C>A), respectively, were detected (Supplemental Table 3). Use of more highly priced time-of-flight mass analyzers would have afforded detection of any single base exchange in nucleic acids with sizes up to 250 nucleotides (Oberacher and Parson 2007). 

I literally could have randomly cut and pasted any section of this paper and it would have been no more or less comprehensible. Then throw in A LOT of graphs and tables like these,

Screen Shot 2015-02-08 at 12.03.08 PM

Screen Shot 2015-02-08 at 12.03.38 PM








…so, no, no. I didn’t read it.

So why bother our little heads over this article?

Because it’s about the Samaritans we read about in the Bible. (Yeah, science.)

The history of the Samaritans–who they were and where they came from–has been a pretty controversial since forever. Ever since biblical times, animosities were high between Samaritans and ancient Judeans over whether the former had to right to lay claim to Jewish identity (e.g., Luke 9:51-56; John 4:1-42, esp. vv. 7-9, 20).

The Samaritans always came up on the short end of that argument (i.e., the winners write the history).

After 2 millennia of encrusted anti-Samaritan sentiment, this article gives scientific support to the idea that today’s Samaritans are closely related genetically to Jews and not descendants of other peoples that the Assyrians imported to the northern kingdom of Israel after the fall of Samaria in 722 BCE. As the (largely readable) abstract puts it (money quote in bold, extraneous sciencey stuff struck through),

The Samaritans are a group of some 750 indigenous Middle Eastern people, about half of whom live in Holon, a suburb of Tel Aviv, and the other half near Nablus. The Samaritan population is believed to have numbered more than a million in late Roman times, but less than 150 in 1917. The ancestry of the Samaritans has been subject to controversy from late Biblical times to the present. In this study, liquid chromatography- electrospray ionization quadrupole ion trap mass spectrometry was used to allelotype 13 Y-chromosomal and 15 autosomal microsatellites in a sample of 12 Samaritans chosen to have as low a level of relationship as possible, and 461 Jews and non-Jews. Estimation of genetic distances between the Samaritans and seven Jewish and three non-Jewish populations from Israel, as well as populations from Africa, Pakistan, Turkey, and Europe, revealed that the Samaritans were closely related to Cohanim. This result supports the position of the Samaritans that they are descendants from the tribes of Israel dating to before the Assyrian exile in 722–720 BCE. In concordance with previously published single- nucleotide polymorphism haplotypes, each Samaritan family, with the exception of the Samaritan Cohen lineage, was observed to carry a distinctive Y-chromosome short tandem repeat haplotype that was not more than one mutation removed from the six-marker Cohen modal haplotype. 

If you wind up reading the article, understand it, and feel the urge to email me to explain the sciencey stuff, please resist that urge. I’m fine with the bottom line.

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  • I think this entire document is bogus. I looked up Kohanim in an undisputedly dependable authority (Wikipedia), and there was no mention of a relationship to Samaritans anywhere. 🙂

    • Benjamin Spurlock

      “Kohenim” or any other similar phrase (we’re spelling phonetically, so it’s always got some interpretative wriggle room) just refers to being descended from the priestly line of Aaron, or more broadly, being a bona fide Jew of one of the bona fide twelve tribes. So in this context, it’s just an exacting way of saying that the Samaritans are genuinely Jewish, and not the mongrel race that the ancient Jews accused them of being. 🙂

      • James Mace

        No, Samaritans are not “Jewish” just as most of Israel was not “Jewish.” Samaritans are “Israelite,” not Jewish. All who care about truth need to learn that Israel was bigger than the Jews. The “Jewish” did not even come into existence until after centuries of Israelites had lived and died and continued to live and became known as Samaritans.

  • I would have titled the study: More Jewish Than Thou. 😉

    Talking about Samaritans, this is a funny take on Jesus’ teaching about that one Good one.

    Jesus Teaches About “The Good Samaritan”

    • James Mace

      The comedians making this blasphemy of a racist Jesus perpetuate ad
      extremis the error that is is about ethics, e.g., nowhere in the text is “good” even mentioned. Rather, the Samaritan shows that he is “loyal” (Luke 10:37, Greek ‘eleos’ = Hebrew ‘hesed’) to his covenant obligation to fulfill Lev 19:17-18 by lovingly helping his fellow Israelite across racial, ethnic, and national boundaries. I am finishing up my doctoral thesis emphasizing the correct view that Jesus therein makes a statement AGAINST racism as practiced by wrongly exclusivist southern Judaean Israelites (such as the Torah-expert asking the question) against their fellow Israelite Samaritans in the north (as the modern sciences of archaeology and DNA studies now prove in agreement with Jesus).

      • “Good” isn’t in there, huh? What trite game-playing. I hope you take yourself to task next time you use words like “Trinity” and others which aren’t even contained in the Bible.

        • James Mace

          What you reactionarily mischaracterize as “trite” is in fact showing, not like the Trinitarian concept’s inductively cohering the text, but instead an obscuring of what is in the text–those are two different things, not your ad hominem allegation of triteness. In other words, it is not “trite” to show that an illegitimately imposed categorization of humanistic ethical altruism (“good Samaritan”) not only obscures but in fact contradicts what the text is actually portraying, faithful enaction of covenant loyalty (“Loyal Samaritan”).

          So, humanistic goodness is not the point but obedience to the law of loving assistance to a suffering fellow covenanter. Those who see that as “trite” are today breaking that love command by ignoring the assitance they owe to persecuted brethren now being horribly slaughtered for the faith. So stop your “game-playing” and get on with obeying Christ as the Parable of the Loyal Samaritan teaches us.

  • Bev Mitchell


    As admonished, I won’t give my attempt to explain the science, which is well outside my field of biology in any case. However, Open Source primary literature prides itself on being free from what many consider heavy handed editors. Much in that literature is just fine and I’m in no position to say if their methods using micro-satellites are top drawer. But, if this whole thing is as ‘eternally’ controversial as you say it is, expect other data and perhaps other conclusions. Not saying this is not the correct conclusion, just that the data are limited (a sample of 12 Samaritans). Wait for confirmation is a good strategy in papers like this.

    I know this is taking your post more seriously than intended, just couldn’t resist. Oh, and take a biologist out for coffee. They will show you that you too can gain a basic understanding of molecular biology (for example) without undue stress.

    BTW, micro-satellite is not some new kind of drone. Just small bits of DNA.

    • Bev’s got a point, Peter. After all, there were only 12 Samaritans sampled. Maybe the researchers just happened to select the only 12 Samaritans out of the entire population that were descended from Jews.

      • Stefan Bosman

        Having samples of 12 Samaritans sounds small, but it is already more than a percentage of the whole Samaritan population. Add to that that we are speaking of males, because of the ” Y- chromosomal microsatellites.” This brings it then already to 2% to 3% of the whole population that could be sampled.

        • Oh I agree – I should have winked when I made that last comment ;^)

    • James Mace

      This journal is peer-reviewed. And it agrees with the findings of earlier studies, e.g., Peidong Shen et al., “Reconstruction of Patrilineages and Matrilineages of Samaritans and Other Israeli Populations from Y-Chromosome and Mitochondrial DNA Sequence Variation,” Human Mutation 24 (2004): 248-60: “Based on the close relationship of the Samaritan haplogroup J six-microsatellite haplotypes with the Cohen modal haplotype, we speculate that the Samaritan M304 Y-chromosome [257-258] lineages present a subgroup of the original Jewish Cohanim priesthood that did not go into exile when the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom of Israel in 721 BC.” See this at http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/humu.20077.

  • And just as the Samaritans are probably genetically linked to the Cohanim, might perhaps, Peter Enns have genetic affinity with Jennfier “here comes the science bit” Aniston?


  • David Lindsay


    You mean the Samaritans had Levi genes before we could ever buy them in the USA ?

  • Dr. Dee Tee

    we already knew this and didn’t need science to tell us about the Samaritans

    • Preston Garrison

      You just thought you knew. 🙂 Now you know. Is is true that language and culture were already good indicators that the Samaritans were who they said they were. The only question was how much admixture was there with non-Jewish populations. Unless ancient DNA of known Samaritan identity is analyzed, we’ll never know the answer to that, and I gather they’re not too keen on having that done.

  • Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

    Peter, hi. Thanks for this fascinating article! Your mom was right ;-). I am now completing a book that argues that the writer of the Gospel of John may have had Samaritans as one of its central audiences. (The Judean Gospel of John: Discovering Jesus, Kind of All Israel). You can see some of the previous research connected to it on my blog Jewish Studies for Christians – http://JewishStudies.eteacherbiblical.com (sorry for the shameless plug, but we we have done a lot with Samaritans and John in our now close to 30,000 people discussion group). eli

    • James Mace

      Shalom and thanks, Eli. I’ve checked out your blog and would love to correspond re my ongoing doctoral work on Samaritans in the NT, esp. the Luke 10 Loyal Samaritan parable. So I’ll likely contact you from there as well.

      • peteenns

        Yes, this project looks amazing, Eli!

  • Preston Garrison

    I’m the biologist who sent this to Pete. I’ve thought about it some more since and here’s a few notes/thoughts.

    1. This is a preprint. I haven’t see the reviewed published form, which may have some minor changes.

    2. There are only 750 Samaritans left today (in four extended families) and that’s up from less than 150 early in the 20th century. This means that the vast majority of the genetic variation that was present when there were roughly a million of them in Roman times is gone.

    3. The people tested were chosen to represent those families. Each has its own type of Y chromosome (E, J1, J2, and J*. (The Samaritans use paternal descent to mark families, whereas Jews use maternal.)

    4. Curiously, the three non-priestly families of Samaritans are closer to the Jewish Cohen Y chromosome than the Samaritan Cohens are, which are in E, a different major haplogroup.

    5. It would be good to see these Y chromosomes characterized at a finer level and then compared to the closest Jewish Y lines to be sure that the Samaritans and Jews are really more closely related than either is to other populations in the Levant. I think they probably are right in their conclusions, but the short tandem repeat marker values can “converge” sometimes by chance because when they mutate, the number of copies can go up or down. Analysis with single nucleotide mutations which employs the large number of sites that are known now could be more definitive. That kind of analysis could identify which Jewish Y lines are most closely related to the 4 Samaritan lines.

    6. Pete can skip this part. A haplotype is a set of numbers, each one which is the number of copies of a short tandem repeat at a particular place (locus) on the chromosome. The modal haplotype for a given closely related population is the most common value for each locus in that population. It’s an approximation of what the haplotype was for their common ancestor.

    I didn’t do this kind of work when I was doing biochemistry, but I’ve read a lot of papers on this stuff in the last year since getting my own DNA tested. The Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA stuff is actually pretty simple. I recently posted an introduction that I wrote at http//:biomattersarising.blogspot.com

  • Jonathan Bernier

    Okay, non-scientist here as well. First, to clarify: am I correct to think that what was being studied was the presence of Y-chromosomes similar to the Cohen modal haplotype? Second, I am intrigued by two observations. First, that non-Cohanim Samaritans are closer to Jewish Cohanim than are Samaritan Cohanim. Second, if I am reading the first of the graphs above Samaritans and Cohanim are closer to Bedouin (I assume that is what “BED” represents, anyways) than to any other group, including Jewish groups. Allowing for the possibility that I am misreading things that is very interesting.

  • James Mace

    Thanks for posting this! I’ll use the article you reference in my doctoral thesis showing that the Luke 10 Loyal Samaritan parable is about healing the wrongful division between northern Samaritan Israelites and southern Judaean Israelites, thus presaging the fulfillment of the prophesied messianic reunification of all Israel.

    The Second Great Comandment is thus unchanged from the OT and remains a requirement for primacy of the special love to be exercised within the covenant people, even (as the parable shows) across racial, ethnic, and national boundaries.

    This will provide a biblical theological foundational for global ecumenicism, increase in relief activities for persecuted Christians, Trinitarian ecclesiology of the incarnate corporal imago Dei in the Church, etc.