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How would a Samaritan woman know the Messiah might soon come?

John 4:25: "The woman said to Him, 'I know that Messiah is coming (He who is called Christ); when that One comes, He will declare all things to us.'”

Was it common knowledge among the Samaritans (who seemed to base their understanding solely on the Pentateuch) that Messiah's arrival might be close at hand? How could she have such anticipations from a few oblique passages from the first Five Books of Moses?

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    That the "Messiah is coming" and that the "Messiah's arrival was close at hand" are not the same thing. The woman at the well believed the former but not necessarily the latter. Here's an analogy for us today: Christians know that Jesus is coming again, but as for whether his second coming is close at hand or not, is not for us to know. Only the Father knows when that will be. Jun 16, 2021 at 23:15
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    @rhetorician Good point. However, it seems to me that the Samaritans may have taken notice of John the Baptist. Even though generally considered anathema to the Jews, perhaps John might even have spoken to some of them about it? The woman seems quite confident in her conviction.
    – Xeno
    Jun 16, 2021 at 23:19
  • @rhetorician Depends on what she meant by 'us'. 'Us' as in the people she knew? If so, the Messiah was coming soon. Or 'us' as in people in general, possibly in the distant future? Sep 21, 2022 at 21:33

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How would a Samaritan woman know the Messiah might soon arrive (Jn. 4:25)?

Their acceptance of the Pentateuch, by and large, gave the Samaritans the basis for believing that a prophet greater than Moses would come.

Deuteronomy 18:18-19 NASB

18 I will raise up for them a prophet from among their countrymen like you, and I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them everything that I command him. 19 And it shall come about that whoever does not listen to My words which he speaks in My name, I Myself will [a]require it of him.

In the first century, Samaritans were looking for the coming of Christ the Messiah, and some of them recognized him; others rejected him. (Luke 17:16-19 , Luke 9:52-56 , John 4:9-43 )

Luke 17:16-19 NASB

16 and he fell on his face at His feet, giving thanks to Him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 But Jesus responded and said, “Were there not ten cleansed? But the nine—where are they? 18 [a]Was no one found who returned to give glory to God, except this foreigner?” 19 And He said to him, “Stand up and go; your faith has [b]made you well.”

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  • Good points. I would also suggest that the Samaritans may have heard (perhaps 2nd hand) about John the Baptist, and his teaching that the Messiah would soon arrive, "[One] whose sandals I am not worthy to untie".
    – Xeno
    Jun 18, 2021 at 20:02
  • Correct, point noted TKS Jun 18, 2021 at 20:06
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This requires some knowledge of the cultural context. If you read the Old Testament, there is nothing obviously in there about a Messiah, as commonly understood in rabbinical judaism today. There are lots of proof texts, if you start digging into Psalms, Isaiah, and other passages, where if you already belive in a Messiah, you can say "the branch of Jesse" is a reference to Messiah, or "the seed of holiness" in Isaiah 6 is a reference to Messiah and the prophecy of seventy weeks in Daniel is a reference to Messiah, as is the stone that becomes a mountain, etc. Many other references. But if you just read those books with a blank slate view, nothing in them ties all these passages together as referring to the same man.

That process, of a growing awareness that there was a special man coming and all these different references from the branch of Jesse and seed of holiness, and stone of David, etc, all referred to this one man, was a belief that became popular in the intertestemental period.

During that time, a kind of Messiah-mania struck the region where people were going back over the scriptures and finding almost every verse as some reference to Messiah, re-interpreting the Psalms and the prophets in a new light. At the same time, a new genre of literature was created -- that of the Apocalyptic book. From the Book of the Watchers and Apocalypse of Weeks that form 1 Enoch, to Apocalypse of Zephanaiah, 2 Baruch, 2-3 Esdras, The Testament of Abraham, the Dead Sea Scroll War Scroll, and many others -- and these are just the ones that have been passed down to us. The Apocalypse of Christ to St John is the most famous example and in some sense is the culmination of this genre which began a few hundred years before christ and began to pick up rapid steam. Even the Essenes, responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls, was a group that moved to the desert to await the coming of Messiah and was just one of many groups that began dropping out of society, forming communes, and waiting for Messiah to come. At the same time religious groups like the Zealots viewed the Messiah as a military leader who would throw off the yoke of Rome, and these groups of zealots were forming rapidly and growing as well.

So suffice it to say that Palestine by the time of Christ was abuzz with talk of a coming Messiah ushering in the end of the age. There were several people claiming to be the Messiah that came both before and after Christ, and these people gained large followings because everyone from the Pharisees to the ordinary man on the street believed that the Messiah was imminent. See the speech of Gamaliel in Acts 5.34-39 when the disciples of Christ were arrested:

But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in honor by all the people, stood up and gave orders to put the men outside for a little while. 35 And he said to them, “Men of Israel, take care what you are about to do with these men. 36 For before these days Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. 37 After him Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him. He too perished, and all who followed him were scattered. 38 So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; 39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” So they took his advice,

So once you understand this background context of the beliefs of people in that society, it's not at all suprising to see the Samaritan woman at the well express these commonly held views. Pretty much any person would have said the same thing. It also provides background context for the warnings of Christ in Mark 13.20

“If the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would survive. But for the sake of the elect, whom he has chosen, he has shortened them. At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.

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  • Good points. This is what I thought as well (as I commented above). I'd suggested that the Samaritans may have heard (perhaps 2nd hand) about John the Baptist, and his teaching that the Messiah would soon arrive, "[One] whose sandals I am not worthy to untie".
    – Xeno
    Jun 21, 2021 at 3:25
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The Samaritans lived in what has been thought as the Northern Kingdom of Israel.The kingdoms capital was called Samaria, and was placed between Galilee to the north and Judea to the south.

They affirmed only the first five books of the Bible as canonical, considered their temple as Mount Gerizim rather than Mount Zion in Jerusalem (John 4:20).

The Samaritans were ethnically intermingled with northern Israel. They had somewhat a basic bible understanding with the five books of Moses and oral teachings that followed by interpretation and by walk it out.

Conclusions that can be made from the first five books;

And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel. (Genesis 3:15)

  • The power of the serpent will be crushed. (Gen 3:15)
  • Hope will come through the child of a woman. (Gen 3:15)

And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice. (Genesis 22:18)

  • Salvation will come through Abraham. (Gen 22:18)

The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be. (Genesis 49:10)

  • A ruler shall come out of Judah (Gen 49:10)
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I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” (John 4:25, ESV)

This doesn't necessarily mean she knew the Messiah would soon arrive. In fact, the Samaritans only had the Torah, not the rest of the Tanakh. They looked for the prophet Moses predicted, but not the Jewish Messiah as a descendent of David. They were more accepting of Jesus' mission because they didn't have the Jewish Messianic traditions.

They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.” (John 4:42, ESV)

Though a later Samaritan text speaks of a Messiah-like figure (Taheb, Marqah Memar 4: 7, 12), the Samaritans of Jesus’ time only expected a great teacher-prophet. The “Messiah” as King and Priest was a Jewish Israelite, and not a Samaritan Israelite concept, as far as we know. For that reason, the reply of the Samaritan woman shows this was not an imaginary or symbolic conversation (“ he will explain everything to us”). In view of this, it seems that now the woman graciously used distinctly Jewish terminology to relate to Jesus – the Jew. Just as Jesus was choosing to climb the wall of taboos, so now was the Samaritan woman. -- Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, Eli. The Jewish Gospel of John: Discovering Jesus, King of All Israel (p. 57). Jewish Studies for Christians. Kindle Edition.

The Samaritans looked for a Messiah, a prophet like Moses (Deut. 18:18). -- Robertson, A. T. (1933). Word Pictures in the New Testament (Jn 4:25). Nashville, TN: Broadman Press.

The Samaritans were not anticipating a messianic ruler, as were the Jews, but rather a Taheb who was modeled after Deuteronomy 18:18, which says, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brethren; and I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.” This taheb was to be a teacher like Moses. After spending some time with Jesus, their vision was stretched to look beyond a teacher to a Savior. -- Bailey, K. E. (2008). Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (p. 214). Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.

The Samaritans, e.g., who considered as “scripture” only the first five books of the Bible, invested no hopes in a king from the line of David. Their future was invested in a Taheb (“restorer”) in the form of a new Moses, whose coming was understood in terms of such passages as Deut. 18:15–20. -- Juel, D. (2000). "Messiah",. In D. N. Freedman, A. C. Myers, & A. B. Beck (Eds.), Eerdmans dictionary of the Bible (pp. 889–890). Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans.

The messianic hope of Samaritan theology also reflects this narrow canon. A Messiah from the house of David could not be anticipated, as no evidence for such could be found in the Pentateuch. Rather, the Samaritans awaited a “prophet like Moses” based on Deuteronomy 18:15–18. This anticipated prophet was also designated the “Taheb,” the Restorer, for he would in the last days restore proper cultic worship on Mt Gerizim and bring the worship of the heathen to that site. -- Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Samaritans. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 2, pp. 1887–1888). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

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There is no suggestion in John 4:25 that Messiah's advent was soon. The only sense is that Messiah is "coming" at some indefinite time in the future. This was presumably based in the well-known Messianic prophecy in Gen 3:15 -

And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed. He will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.

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We know from historical sources that messianism was a live factor in Samaritan politics. In fact, according to Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews (18.4.1–2), Pilate's removal as governor occurred after he massacred a group of armed Samaritans probably lead by Dositheos, a messiah-like figure among them.

The nation of the Samaritans did not escape without tumults. The man who excited them to it... bid them to get together upon mount Gerizzim: which is by them looked upon as the most holy of all mountains: and assured them, that when they were come thither, he would shew them those sacred vessels which were laid under that place; because Moses put them there. So they came thither armed; and thought the discourse of the man probable. And as they abode at a certain village, which was called Tirathaba, they got the rest together to them, and desired to go up the mountain in a great multitude together. But Pilate prevented their going up, by seizing upon the roads, with a great band of horsemen, and footmen: who fell upon those that were gotten together in the village... But when this tumult was appeased, the Samaritan senate sent an ambassy to Vitellius; a man that had been consul, and who was now president of Syria; and accused Pilate of the murder of those that were killed. ...So Vitellius sent Marcellus... and ordered Pilate to go to Rome, to answer before the Emperor.

The Samaritans used the Pentateuch, slightly modified from the Jewish version. They based their expectations mostly on the Torah plus Joshua, which they also accepted. They also traded with Jews and lived among them, especially in the Galilee. Jews sometimes confused Galileans with Samaritans as in John 8:48 - “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” So even though Samaritans did not rely on the same sources that Jews did for their messianic hope, Jewish hopes likely rubbed off on them to a degree.

We can thus be fairly certain that Samaritans generally accepted that a messiah was coming. However, they did not expect a "messiah son of David." They did not recognize David or any of the early kings of Judah and Israel as legitimate. In Samaritan historiography, the high priest Eli was an apostate. Eli anointed Samuel, and all of the kings of Judah trace their legitimacy to him. Samaritans did not believe that God had not authorized the kings of Israel either. For Samaritans, during that period, the highest authority resided in their high priest.

They also did not accept the other prophets of the Hebrew scriptures who were important factors in the evolution of Jewish messianism. But like the Jews their messianic hope was motivated by nationalism as well as scripture. They had once been an independent nation, more powerful than Judea at the time, and they shared with Jews a feeling of oppression by the Romans.

Samaria emerged again into history four centuries after its capture by the Assyrians. By this time Samaria was once again an important city, with its Samaritan Temple at Gerizim rivaling or exceeding the competing Yahwist Temple of Jerusalem, which had been rebuilt after the Jews of Judah to returned from Babylonian exile.

The Samaritan Messiah's characteristics included: "The Messiah will be a prophet, and will be acknowledged as a prophet. That will be his title, as the prophecies give it. But he will also be a king." He would not be a descendant of Judah or David, however, but would come from the tribe of Joseph.

The Samaritan woman certainly knew that "a prophet like Moses" was coming. Since many of her countrymen expected his advent soon and messianism was a live issue among the Samaritans, she may well have shared that expectation.

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First, she understood Jesus as a Jew from Jesus’ attire, mannerism, and conversation, hence asked Jesus, “How is it that You, being a Jew ask a Samaritan for a drink?” (John 4:9). Her conversation with the Messiah enlarges her curiosity. Jesus enlarges her curiosity “to know Him more” with a curiosity phrase, “if you knew”. “If you knew the gift of God, and if you knew who it is who says you (4:10). Second, suddenly she wonders if this Jesus is greater than Father Jacob (4:12) as all her acquired traditional knowledge of Father Jacob comes crashing down the more Jesus converses with her. Third, she recognizes Jesus, meeting her for the first time was fully aware of her life and recognizes Him as Prophet for a regular person would never be able to achieve such a feat, thus she regarded Jesus Christ as prophet. Interestingly as Moses was the Samaritan’s last prophet and as they were waiting for another Prophet like Moses (Deu 18:15), it was just a matter of plausible reasoning that she quickly arrived at the conclusion that Jesus was the Prophet whom they were waiting for since Moses, and so He, Jesus Christ was also the Messiah!

Her source of understanding the identity of Jesus was Jesus Himself. Remember how the disciples going to Emmaus understood Jesus’ identity (Luke 24:13). The more they conversed and reasoned with Jesus Christ (24:15) the more Jesus revealed Himself (24:27) and finally their restrained eyes opened, or unbelief vanished when Jesus reveals Himself in the action of breaking bread, when they saw Jesus’ pierced hands and Jesus vanished from their sight (24:31). They testify later that their “hearts burned” when Jesus was conversing with them. Surely the same happened with the Samaritan woman. The more she conversed with Jesus, her heart burned to know Him more. It was just a matter of time and conversation before she understood the One who can give her living water is the Messiah Himself!

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    Sep 21, 2022 at 19:25

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