Yet the most exciting indication of how history actually transpired has now been unearthed by Yitzhak Magen. Working behind security fences, the archaeologist has been digging on the windswept summit of Mount Gerizim.
His findings, which have only been partially published, are a virtual sensation: As early as 2,500 years ago, the mountain was already crowned with a huge, dazzling shrine, surrounded by a 96 by 98-meter (315 by 321-foot) enclosure. The wall had six-chamber gates with colossal wooden doors.
At the time, the Temple of Jerusalem was, at most, but a simple structure.
Magen has discovered 400,000 bone remains from sacrificial animals. Inscriptions identify the site as the "House of the Lord." A silver ring is adorned with the tetragrammaton YHWH, which stands for Yahweh.
All of this means that a vast, rival place of worship stood only 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Jerusalem.
It is an astonishing discovery. A religious war was raging among the Israelites, and the nation was divided. The Jews had powerful cousins who were competing with them for religious leadership in the Holy Land. The dispute revolved around a central question: Which location deserved the honor of being the hearth and burnt offering site of God Almighty?
Revising Holy Scripture
Researchers have a long way to go before they uncover all the details of this conflict. It's clear, however, that it was extremely acrimonious. Each side reviled the other. There was murder, mayhem and, ultimately, even the Holy Scripture was revised.
At first -- so much is clear -- the Samaritans had the upper hand. Indeed, compared with Jerusalem, Mount Gerizim enjoyed significantly older rights: In the great tale of the history of the chosen people, the mountain plays a key role.
Abraham, the progenitor of the Israelites -- who, according to legend, roamed through the Orient as a shepherd around 1500 BC -- stopped there because God had appeared to him in a wondrous vision. Later, Jacob the patriarch traveled there to build the original shrine.
In the fifth book of Moses, the mountain summit finally earns a prominent place in biblical history: After the flight from Egypt, the Israelites wandered through the Sinai desert for 40 years. At last, they reached the Jordan River from the east. Their old and weary leader gazed across the river to the promised land, where "milk and honey flow."
Shortly before his death, Moses issued an important command: The people must first travel to Mount Gerizim. He said that six tribes should climb it and proclaim blessings, while the other six tribes should proclaim curses from the top of nearby Mount Ebal. It was a kind of ritual taking possession of the promised land.
Finally, the prophet tells the Israelites to build a shrine "made of stones" on Mount Gerizim and coat it with "plaster." Indeed, he said, this is "the place that the Lord has chosen."
No Mention of a 'Chosen Place'
That, in any case, is what stands in the oldest Bible texts. They are brittle papyrus scrolls that were made over 2,000 years ago in Qumran, and have only recently been examined by experts.
In the Hebrew Bible, which Jerusalem's priests probably spent a good deal of time revising, everything suddenly sounds quite different. There is no longer any mention of a "chosen place."
The word "Gerizim" has also been removed from the crucial passage. Instead, the text states that the Yahweh altar was erected on "Ebal." "By naming the mountain of the curses," says Schorch, "they wanted to cast the entire tale in a negative light, and deprive Gerizim of its biblical legitimacy."
Schorch dates the intervention to around 150 BC. The researcher stops short of calling it fraud, though, preferring to label it an "adaptation of the Bible to their own religious view."
But why was this ruse ultimately successful? Why did the minority win out? Didn't the opponent have the more populous country? A palace already stood in their capital city, Samaria, in the year 1000 BC. Ivory has been found there. At the time, Jerusalem was still little more than a village, with barely 1,500 inhabitants.
Researchers have solved this puzzle, and the answer even has a face: It sports a curly beard and wears a bronze helmet. Starting in the year 732 BC, the Assyrians used their chariots to advance to the Mediterranean and subjugate the state of Israel. The inhabitants were either impaled or taken into captivity.
This devastated the country. The land of the Lord had been overrun by violent hordes. Many fled to their cousins in Judah. Jerusalem's population soared to 15,000.
Drinking and Whoring Heathens
Strengthened by this influx, the priests there decided it was time for them to play the leading role in religious matters. Only a few years after the invasion, King Hezekiah persuaded all Israelites -- Jews and Samaritans alike -- to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He said this was the only place that still retained the freedom and purity to worship the Almighty. The neighboring country was, of course, occupied by drinking and whoring heathens.
To underscore their claim, the Jewish people wove an entire biblical tale around their small, southern kingdom. According to this story, around 1000 BC the biblical King David ruled from Jerusalem over a glorious kingdom. His son Solomon allegedly built in the city a temple made of cedar, "completely overlaid with gold." According to the Bible, over 180,000 workers toiled to build it.
Total nonsense: Not a single shred of archaeological evidence has ever been found to confirm the existence of Solomon's Temple.
The goal of the deception was clear, though: Judah's priests sought to magnify the glory of their own city. And they passed up no opportunity to vilify their rivals: In the Bible the Samaritans were nearly always portrayed as unsavory characters. They were also said to be ethnically impure because their blood had supposedly been mixed with that of foreign colonialists.
The book of Ezra even recounts that these "enemies" tried to hinder the reconstruction of the destroyed Temple of Jerusalem -- out of pure envy, because they didn't have one of their own.
In reality, though, at that time, a shining divine fortress had already stood for many years on Mount Gerizim. Magen, the archaeologist, has discovered jewelry, silver, a fine cosmetics set and a small golden bell from the splendid robe of a high priest.
Living in Peace
Around the year 180 BC, the ceremonial building grew to a size of roughly 200 by 200 meters. The Samaritans added a monumental staircase and rooms for "thousands of pilgrims." There were apparently huge crowds of devout visitors. None of this is mentioned in the Bible.
The dispute finally came to a head. In the year 128 BC, John Hyrcanos, a Jewish prince, ascended Mount Gerizim with an army and burned the proud sanctuary to the ground. Archaeologists have found a "burn layer" along with arrow heads, swords, daggers and lead missiles for slings.
The Samaritans never rebuilt their temple. From then on, the victors wrote the (biblical) history books and forced their rivals into oblivion.
And yet the "guardians of the law," as they call themselves, still exist today. When Mark Twain visited the region in 1867, he encountered the "sad, proud remnant of a once mighty community," which he stared at "just as one would stare at a living mastodon."
Today, this astounding religious community is better off. They have a seat in the Palestinian parliament and they maintain contacts with the United Nations. "We want to live in peace with everyone," says the high priest Ab-Chisda.
Despite their tragic history, the spiritual leader has not lost his sense of humor. In response to the question as to what the Samaritan paradise looks like, the old man hesitated briefly. Then, he said mischievously: "It must be a wonderful place. Nobody has ever returned to make a complaint."