Was Jesus Being Racist and Harsh When He Told the Woman at the Well That the Samaritans Didn’t Know Who They Worshiped?

There are some wonderful spiritual lessons in John’s story about the Woman at the Well. We learn that salvation comes to those who recognize their spiritual thirst. We discover that Jesus is the source of this salvation and that only he can answer our spiritual needs. And it doesn’t matter if we’ve marred our own lives with sin, Jesus is willing to accept anyone. 

But some might complain that Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman were too harsh. They smack with religious and racial superiority. Here are the passages in question: 

“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.

John 4:19-22

So what’s going on here? Is Jesus being racist here? Why so harsh? Critics of this passage miss the historical context. So let’s take a look at some of the backstory before we jump to conclusions. 

Was Jesus being religiously smug and racist?

The Books of Maccabees tell us about the Jewish persecution of the Greek ruler Antiochus IV. While he was busy fighting in Egypt, gossip spread that he died. So in Judea, the former High Priest Jason led 1000 soldiers to attack the Greeks in Jerusalem. Menelaus, the High Priest that King Antiochus appointed, had to run away from Jerusalem. 

Antiochus returned from Egypt in 168 and laid down the hammer on the Jews. 

When these happenings were reported to the king, he thought that Judea was in revolt. Raging like a wild animal, he set out from Egypt and took Jerusalem by storm. He ordered his soldiers to cut down without mercy those whom they met and to slay those who took refuge in their houses. There was a massacre of young and old, a killing of women and children, a slaughter of virgins and infants. In the space of three days, eighty thousand were lost, forty thousand meeting a violent death, and the same number being sold into slavery.

2 Maccabees 5:11–14

Antiochus sided with the Hellenized Jews to fortify his hold over the region. Jewish sacrifices and traditions were banned. Worse, the King ordered the worship of Zeus as the god above all. (2 Maccabees 6:1–12) As you can imagine, this led to huge problems and the faithful Jews put their foot down. So Antiochus sent an army to enforce his orders. Massive destruction happened in Jerusalem, with thousands of Jews murdered. 

Coin of Antiochus IV, Wikimedia Commons

So what about those Samaritans?

The Samaritans took the opposite and more cowardly route. According to Josephus, they sent the King a letter, and it was quite the kiss-up. They disassociated themselves from any similarities to the Jews. And they went so far to dedicate their Temple to the worship of Zeus. 

Josephus gives us some record of their letter: 

“And when they had erected a temple at the mountain called Gerrizzim, though, without a name, they offered upon it the proper sacrifices. Now, upon the just treatment of these wicked Jews, those that manage their affairs, supposing that we were of kin to them, and practiced as they do, make us liable to the same accusations, although we are originally Sidonians, as is evident from the public records. 

We, therefore, beseech thee, our benefactor and Savior, to give order to Apollonius, the governor of this part of the country, and to Nicanor, the procurator of thy affairs, to give us no disturbance, nor to lay to our charge what the Jews are accused of since we are aliens from their nation, and from their customs; but let our temple, which at present hath no name at all be named the Temple of Jupiter Hellenius.”

Josephus, Antiquities 12.5.5

Wow. Talk about kowtowing. Jesus, knowing the history, wasn’t letting the Samaritans off the hook of recent history. He wasn’t going to let her make a claim that their beliefs were just equal and no one really knows. The Jews fought to defend their land and took it on the chin. The Samaritans were quick to change teams in the face of threats. Plus it was through the Jews that the Messiah would come. (2 Sam 7:12-16, Isaiah 11:1, Jeremiah 23:5-6)

In spite of his blunt honesty, the more the woman talked with Jesus, the more she saw that he was merciful in spite of being uncompromisingly truthful. He told her that the time was coming where all cultural hostilities and differences would come to an end — disputes over who had the true Temple of God would be over. Those that worship God would worship in spirit and in truth. (John 4:22-24) Jesus talking to a woman, let alone a Samaritan was shocking to his disciples. (Jn 4:27)

Later in John’s Gospel, he refers to him having other sheep that were outside of Israel: “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” (John 10:16) For that time and culture, the idea of non-Jews being fully included in God’s flock would be highly subversive.

 Mt. Gerizim from Jacob’s Well, Wikimedia Commons

So what’s the big deal? 

This little incidental factoid shows that the writer of John knew his history. This is a somewhat obscure fact that’s casually mentioned in passing. And it fits perfectly in the historical setting. It’s little bits of evidence like this, taken together, that show the Gospel writers get difficult details right. The Evangelists knew their stuff. Fictions and forgeries aren’t usually like this.

There are dozens of little historical facts like this that the Gospel writers get right. I learned about this particular incidental confirmation from this lecture by Dr. Tim McGrew, a philosophy professor at Western Michigan. The man is a walking encyclopedia regarding all things related to historical apologetics and I highly recommend you give it a watch.

Also, the great 18th-century apologist William Paley gives over 40 examples of incidental historical confirmations like this found in the Gospels and Acts. Just pick up his book A View of the Evidences of Christianity and check out Part II, Chapter 6. You can read it for free right here.

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