Was Jesus Being Racist To the Woman at the Well?

Photo by Mads Schmidt Rasmussen on Unsplash

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:

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.

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:

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.

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 and check out Part II, Chapter 6. You can read it for free right here.

I am the Reasonable Faith Chapter Director in Cedar Rapids and the writer for isjesusalive.com. I’m interested in the intersection of Christianity and history.

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