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Samaritan Pentateuch

This is one of the most significant manuscripts in the British Library's collections relating to the Samaritans, a sect of Judaism that split off from the mainstream over 1600 years ago. It reveals the Samaritan descendants of the Israelites who were not exiled by the Assyrians in 722 BCE.

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Samaritan Pentateuch

Samaritan Pentateuch, Damascus, Syria, 1339. Exodus 20
BL Or. MS 6461, ff. 69v-70
Copyright © The British Library Board

What is the Pentateuch?

The Pentateuch is part of the Torah, one of the three main sections of the Bible in Jewish tradition, and also the most sacred. It comprises the first five books of the Old Testament, sometimes known as the Five Books of Moses, as they are believed to have been first written down by Moses at divine dictation.

The five books making up the Torah are Be-reshit, Shemot, Va-Yikra, Be-Midbar and Devarim, which in the Christian Bible correspond to Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

The Hebrew titles derive from the first characteristic word appearing in each book, while the name used in the Christian Bible (usually of Greek origin) describe the central theme dealt with in each book.

Who were the Samaritans?

The Samaritans (from the Hebrew shomronim, the 'Observant Ones') are a religious and ethnic sect, claiming to preserve the scribal tradition of copying manuscripts of the Pentateuch. Some features of their faith are identical to Judaism (belief in one God, and in the Torah as God's word dictated to Moses) while others differ significantly (they do not accept Jewish laws, or the pronouncements of early rabbis in collections called the Mishnah and Talmud).

The precise date of the Samaritans' split from mainstream Judaism is unknown, but it is likely to have been complete at the close of the fourth century BC. There are still a few hundred Samaritans living in modern-day Israel.

Of the three positive mentions of Samaritans in the Christian Gospels, the most famous is the parable of the Good Samaritan. A Jew has been attacked and robbed and left to die by the roadside. Alone out of the passers-by, it is a Samaritan who stops to help, despite the antipathy between their sects. This has seen the word take on its everyday modern meaning of 'someone who does a selfless good deed', especially to a stranger in distress.


The parable of the Good Samaritan, as portrayed in the 14th-century Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander

Who created this document?

This Pentateuch was copied in 1339 by the scribe Abraham ben Jacob ben Tabya ben Sa'adah ben Abraham of the Pijma family. It is written in Samaritan majuscule Hebrew characters, and is typical of the Damascene scribal tradition. The Decalogue is indicated by an alphanumeric marking in the margin at the left of the text.

What is the Decalogue?

The Decalogue is another name for the Ten Commandments, referred to in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy. In Jewish, Christian and Islamic tradition, Moses received the Ten Commandments directly from God on Mount Sinai, written on two stone tablets. They assert the uniqueness of God, and forbid such things as theft, adultery, murder and lying. In fact, Jewish teaching as recorded in the Torah includes 613 commandments. Different Christian and Jewish traditions have different wordings and groupings for the Ten Commandments (which actually include 14 or 15 statements).