In John 4:1-18, Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman by a well. Their discussion begins with a simple request for water, but quickly develops into a theological allegory of the waters of life (see last week's exploration). When Jesus correctly notes that the woman has had five husbands (4:18), she replies, "I perceive you are a prophet" (4:19). This recognition that Jesus is a prophet leads the woman to ask one of the most controversial theological questions of the first century.
Which Temple? (Jn. 4:20)
To most modern readers, living in a templeless age, with only a vague conception of the function, mythos, rituals, theology, and importance of ancient temples, the question of the Samaritan woman seems rather odd. She finally meets a man whom she accepts as an authentic prophet, and the most important question she can ask is about the controversy between Jews and Samaritans over the legitimacy of the temple. To first-century readers, however, such a question would have made perfect sense, since the rivalry between the Samaritan and Jewish temples was symbolic of the greater rivalry over Samaritan and Jewish claims of authenticity. The underlying question she is asking is: which branch of Israelite religion is the authentic successor to the ancient Mosaic-Sinai covenant? Which has the true priesthood? Which has the proper interpretation of the Law? (These, by the way, are among the same questions that would eventually divide Jews and Christians.)
The time of Jesus was an age of sectarian controversy, both within Judaism and between rival branches of the Israelite tradition. Just as in contemporary Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, first-century Judaism was composed of a number of different sects. Readers of the New Testament are familiar with the Pharisees and Sadducees, but there were many other Jewish sects and movements as well. Although most modern Christian readers don't think of it in this way, for several centuries Christianity was a essentially one of these Jewish sects, which distinguished itself from other Jewish sects by its acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah, and its distinctive interpretations of Jewish scripture and Law. Issues that divided first-century Jews included conflicting understandings of scripture, law, prophecy, messiah, temple, eschatology, priesthood, Hellenism, kingship, and resistance to Rome. Each of these topics is discussed in one way or another in the New Testament.
For Jesus and the Samaritan woman, however, only one among these many contentious issues was explicitly raised: which is the authentic temple of YHWH? In fact, at the time of Jesus there were three rival Israelite temple sites: Jerusalem, Mt. Gerizim in Samaria, and Leontopolis in Egypt (and possibly the 2nd-century B.C.E. site of 'Araq el-Emir in Jordan). Each temple was established at different times for different reasons. The Samaritan temple at Mt. Gerizim, however, seems to have been the most ideologically distinctive.
The temple rivalry between the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah goes back to the late 10th century B.C.E. with the construction of rival temples at Dan and Bethel by King Jeroboam of Israel (1 Kg. 12:25-33). Recent excavations show that Samaritan temple building on Mt. Gerizim dates back to at least the 5th century B.C.E., perhaps in response to the Jews forbidding Samaritans to worship at the newly restored temple in Jerusalem (Ezra 4:1-5; Neh. 6, 13). It was restored (or rebuilt?) around 300 B.C.E. (Josephus, Antiquities, 11.302-347). The temple was destroyed by the Jewish Hasmonean king John Hyrcanus I in 128 B.C.E. when many of the Samaritans were forced to convert to Judaism (Josephus, Antiquities, 13.255-283). The Samaritan temple was apparently not active at the time of Jesus, though there was probably makeshift Samaritan worship there.
Having recognized Jesus as a prophet, the Samaritan woman asks: "Our fathers [the Samaritans] worshiped on this mountain [Gerizim], but you [Jews] say that Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship" (4:20). She is asking Jesus for prophetic clarification of this hotly disputed issue. The foundation of the dispute is twofold. First, the Jewish version of Deuteronomy 27:4 relates to the commandment to establish an Israelite shrine: "And when you have crossed over the Jordan, you shall set up these stones, concerning which I command you today, on Mount Ebal" (cf. Josh. 8:30, where Joshua fulfills this command). The Samaritan Deuteronomy, however, reads Mt. Gerizim instead of Mt. Ebal. Thus, for the Samaritans, Mt. Gerizim is the place chosen by YHWH to build his sanctuary. Since in Deuteronomy Mt. Gerizim is the mountain of blessing while Ebal is the mountain of cursing (Dt. 11:29, 27:4, 12), many scholars feel the Samaritan Gerizim may be the original reading, which was later changed by anti-Samaritan editors.