Samaria was the name of the capital city of the northern kingdom of Israel. After it fell to the Assyrians in 722 BC, the land was repopulated with various foreign colonists, who inter-married with the remaining Jews. Over time, the fertile land of central Canaan (around the ruins of the capital) also became known as Samaria. During Jesus’ lifetime, Jews despised the pagan practices and mixed race of the Samaritans and wouldn’t associate with them. Instead of journeying through Samaria, Jews would typically detour east, across the Jordan River, to avoid any contact with their loathsome neighbors. Samaritans were considered unclean, and any cup or dish handled by them was also considered unclean.
Within the land of Samaria, Shechem was the most prominent city. It is now the modern city of Nablus. Shechem was originally the capital of Israel’s northern kingdom, located in the hill country of Ephraim between two mountains: the barren Mount Ebal to the north and the forested Mount Gerizim to the south. Shechem held considerable significance in Israel for a number of reasons: Abram built his first altar to God at Shechem; Jacob built an altar there on his return from a 20 year self-imposed exile; and Joseph’s bones were buried there after Israel’s long journey from Egypt (near Jacob’s well). Furthermore, Shechem was considered a holy city in Samaria because of a Samaritan temple built nearby on Mount Gerizim, even after the temple’s destruction by the Jews in the second century BC. Shechem was later called Sychar, meaning “shoulder.”
Jews and Samaritans disagreed fiercely regarding the significance of the two mountains on either side of Shechem. Upon entering Canaan, Jewish Scriptures record that Joshua built an altar on Mount Ebal and read Moses’ Law to the entire nation of Israel. Emphasis was placed on the blessings of obedience and the curses of disobedience, as reflected in the fertile slopes of Mount Gerizim and the barrenness of Mount Ebal. These two mountains became a major source of conflict between Jews and Samaritans throughout their tumultuous history.
Although Jewish Scriptures identify Mount Ebal as the mountain where Joshua built an altar, Samaritan Scriptures record that the event took place on the other mountain. Thus Mount Gerizim has been considered holy to Samaritans ever since. Samaritan Scriptures don’t include anything beyond the Torah (Genesis through Deuteronomy), and even this has its differences from the Jewish Torah, so the scriptural basis for which mountain was sacred was hotly debated between Jews and Samaritans. Consequently, David’s establishment of Jerusalem as the central place of worship, and the sanctity of Solomon’s Temple, wasn’t recognized by Samaritans. In defiance of Jewish claims, Samaritans constructed a temple on Mount Gerizim sometime after the Babylonians destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, likely around 400 BC. Tensions further escalated when the Jews invaded Samaria in 128 BC and destroyed their temple on Mount Gerizim.
Therefore the issue of where God should formally be worshipped was a bone of contention between Jews and Samaritans, an ancient conflict that spanned centuries.