Saturday, 21 April 2012
Israel's Other Temple
Research Reveals Ancient Struggle over Holy Land Supremacy
By Matthias Schulz
The Jews had significant competition in antiquity when it came to worshipping Yahweh. Archeologists have discovered a second great temple not far from Jerusalem that predates its better known cousin. It belonged to the Samaritans, and may have been edited out of the Bible once the rivalry had been decided.
Clad in gray coat, Aharon ben Ab-Chisda ben Yaacob, 85, is sitting in the dim light of his house. He strikes up a throaty chant, a litany in ancient Hebrew. He has a full beard and is wearing a red kippah on his head.
The man is a high priest -- and his family tree goes back 132 generations. He says: "I am a direct descendent of Aaron, the brother of the prophet Moses" -- who lived perhaps over 3,000 years ago.
Ab-Chisda is the spiritual leader of the Samaritans, a sect that is so strict that its members are not even allowed to turn on the heat on the Sabbath. They never eat shrimp and only marry among themselves. Their women are said to be so impure during menstruation that they are secluded in special rooms for seven days.
Outside, on the streets of Kiryat Luza, near Nablus, a cold wind is blowing. The village lies just below the summit of Mount Gerizim. There's a school, two shops and a site for sacrifices. This is home to 367 Samaritans. It's a small community.
Everyone here is required to attend religious services in the synagogue on Saturdays. "Every baby boy has to be circumcised precisely on the eighth day," says the high priest -- not beforehand, and not afterwards.
Most important of all: the sect only believes in the written legacy of Moses, the five books of the Pentateuch, also commonly known as the Torah. They reject all other scripture from the Bible.
Once in the Majority
From a historical perspective, the Samaritans and the Jews have a common lineage. The Old Testament recounts that 10 of the 12 tribes in the region of Samaria founded the state of Israel in the year 926 BC. The two other clans lived farther south, in the mountainous region of Judah, with its capital Jerusalem (see map).
In other words, the Samaritans were once in the majority. In ancient times, there were 300,000 of them -- perhaps even over a million. But their strictest law almost led to their downfall. It states: "None of you may settle outside the promised land."
As a result, while the Jews fled across the globe to escape the cruelty of foreign rulers, their relatives persevered in the land of their forefathers and suffered under Byzantine tyrants and merciless sultans. At the end of World War I, there were only 146 of them.
"Today we are doing better," says Ab-Chisda cheerily, as he gazes out the window. Now, together with another group in Holon near Tel Aviv, this religious community consists of 751 individuals.
But this population increase only took place because they broke with age-old traditions and rescinded the ban against mixed marriages. In 2004, five Jewish women from Ukraine and one from Siberia, all of them ready and willing to get married, were accepted into the community.
Nevertheless, due to inbreeding, they have a wide range of genetic defects. Trade journals have published studies on the forgotten children of God. They often suffer from muscle weakness and Usher syndrome, also known as deafblindness.
A Grim Fate
But their religion is alive and well. They all gather for Passover, a holiday where the men wear white robes and perform a great animal sacrifice.
During the ceremony, a priest cuts the throats of 50 lambs. Streams of blood flow through a stone channel into a hole, where they are burnt along with the intestines. The meat, which is cooked in a large earthen oven, must be completely consumed during the night -- otherwise it becomes unkosher.
But where do these archaic people come from?
It is a question that intrigues an increasing number of religious scholars. Recent discoveries show that the Samaritans suffered a grim fate. They were once the guardians of the Ark of the Covenant and the keepers of the Mosaic tradition. But then they became the victims of a smear campaign.
His hair windblown, Stefan Schorch stands in front of the synagogue in Kiryat Luza. An expert on the Old Testament, Schorch hails from the University of Halle-Wittenberg in eastern Germany and comes here often -- usually armed with a tape recorder. He works like an ethnologist would when studying a remote indigenous tribe.
Above all, Schorch is looking for sacred books.
It's 7:30 a.m., and a priest unlocks a small house of worship and disappears into a niche behind a heavy red curtain. Inside stands a safe filled with old volumes of the Pentateuch. "Unbelievable," says the researcher, as he leafs through "a completely preserved edition from the 14th century." He photographs each page of the tome. Then the priest locks it away again.
'One Main Difference'
There was a time when nearly every affluent family possessed such a precious handwritten book. Some of them reached Europe. Now, the professor, who comes from the historic birthplace of Martin Luther's Reformation, studies these texts, checking them line by line, and word by word. And he compares the Samaritan Torah with the Jewish version.
"Actually there's only one main difference," he says. Among the Jews, Jerusalem is the world's religious epicenter, whereas for the Samaritans it's Mount Gerizim.
But which Torah is the original? Until recently, the generally accepted school of thought was as follows: In the fourth century BC, the Samaritans split off as a radical sect. In the Bible, they appear as outsiders and idol worshipers; they are evil. The parable of the "good Samaritan" (Luke 10:25-37) offers a rather atypical portrayal of a member of this sect.
The historian Titus Flavius Josephus, himself a Jew, mentions that the apostates erected a shrine "in all haste" in the year 330 BC, as a rather dilettantish attempt to emulate the Temple in Jerusalem.
Increasingly, though, it looks as though the Bible has handed down a distorted picture of history. Papyrus scrolls recovered from Qumran on the Dead Sea, as well as a fragment of the Bible that recently surfaced on the market for antiquities, necessitate a "complete reassessment," says Schorch.