On the Name Palestine

The name Palestine is in the news a lot lately and it has different historical and political associations for different people. Strange conclusions are often drawn from the term. With that in mind, I thought some basic historical information about the origins of the name Palestine might be worth reading.

In or about the year 132, the Jewish people launched their third revolt against persecution and abuse by the Roman colonizers of Judea. (The first revolt was in the year 60, leading to the destruction of the Temple; the second occurred in the year 110, mostly in the diaspora.) The emperor at the time was the Jew-hating Hadrian. The leader of the revolt was Simon Bar Kochba. His name translates as “Simon, son of the star” and, pursuant to Numbers 24:117,  has messianic implications. “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near— a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.” Tradition holds that the name was bestowed on Simon by the great Hebrew sage Rabbi Akiba.

The fighting was quite heavy and the Romans took severe casualties. Hadrian, in addressing the Roman Senate after the fighting, omitted the traditional greeting, “I and the legions are healthy.” After three years of major conflict, the Romans prevailed and severe punishments were heaped upon the Jewish people. The name of Jerusalem was changed to Aelia Capitolina, Jews were barred from entry and from engaging in various religious practices, and the Jewish territories of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee were all incorporated into a larger province renamed Syria Palestina. Why Palestina?

Palestina is a Roman word that should be translated as Land of the Philistines. In the bible, the Philistines were one of the major enemies of the Jewish people. But who were the Philistines?

Based on archaeological records and Egyptian inscriptions, the Philistines were one of several Greek peoples immigrating into Canaan in the thirteenth and twelfth centuries B.C.E. This was not a military invasion but a mass movement of families into a new homeland. Nevertheless, the Egyptians had a number of military encounters with these immigrant groups, whom they referred to collectively as the Sea Peoples.

The Philistine contingent was among the later group of arrivals in the twelfth century. Their strongholds were based in five cities on the Mediterranean coast. But after just a couple of centuries they become thoroughly integrated and enmeshed within Canaanite culture and for all practical purposes, ceased to exist as a distinct people. So, not only did the Romans name the Jewish homeland after a traditional enemy of the Jews, that particular enemy no longer existed, a double-whammy insult to the rebellious Jews.

Coincidentally, as these Greek immigrants were pouring into western Canaan, archaeology shows that a large movement into then uninhabited territories in the central highlands took place. The lack of pig bones in these areas leads most scholars to see those people as the Jews.

An Egyptian stela erected in the last third of the thirteenth century by Pharaoh Merneptah records, on one side, Egyptian conflicts with some of the Sea Peoples. On the other, the stela describes Pharaoh’s battles with several Canaanite nations. Interestingly, Israel is mentioned as one of these nations, and it is the only nation described grammatically as not being associated with a specific territory. (“Israel is laid waste and his seed is not”) It is the first known mention of Israel by name in the historical record and the name doesn’t appear again for almost four hundred years. But Israel was obviously strong enough to be considered a military rival. Not all Egyptologists believe that the battles described on this stela actually took place. Rather, they were more in the nature of braggadocio.

The name Palestine, therefore, signifies nothing more than an insulting Roman name for the Jewish homeland, and throughout history, Palestine was never understood as anything else than a name for the Jewish homeland. Because much of Christianity, with its anti-Jewish biases, was rooted in Rome, there was never any concern to change the name back to Judea. But Palestine was always thought of as the Jewish homeland. Among the Muslims, Palestine was still understood as the Jewish homeland, but the Muslim conquest of Palestine established, in their minds, that they continued to be God’s replacement for the Jewish people.

After Bar Kochba, the Jewish homeland became a barren wasteland down to the late twentieth century with little interest from any nationality other than those who could claim title, such as the Ottoman empire. At no time after the Roman renaming of the Jewish territories did any native population establish independent political control over any significant portion of Palestine until Israel liberated the territory from British colonial rule. (There was a brief period in the Crusader era when the Holy Roman Empire appointed a King of Jerusalem, but that was hardly a native regime.) During the Jewish struggle to liberate its homeland, Israel offered to share control of the territory with the Arab inhabitants there, but the Arab leaders (who were Hitler’s allies) refused to allow this to take place and threatened violent retaliation against Arabs who colluded with Israel.

When the British agreed to free up the Jewish homeland, part of the land went to the Jews and the other part was assigned to the Arab nation of Jordan. The Jordanians found the people now identified as the Palestinians, to be more trouble than they were worth and severed the relationship with them.

So, Palestine means land of the Philistines. The Philistines were Greeks and never ruled more than a few coastal cities for a brief period of history before disappearing from the historical record several centuries before the Jewish revolts against Rome. Palestine had always been understood by its occupiers throughout history as a name for the Jewish homeland. It was so-named by the Romans as an insult to the Jewish People.

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