Though the definite origins of the word "Palestine" have been debated for years and are still not known for sure, the name is believed to be derived from the Egyptian and Hebrew word peleshet. Roughly translated to mean "rolling" or "migratory," the term was used to describe the inhabitants of the land to the northeast of Egypt - the Philistines. The Philistines were an Aegean people - more closely related to the Greeks and with no connection ethnically, linguisticly or historically with Arabia - who conquered in the 12th Century BCE the Mediterranean coastal plain that is now Israel and Gaza.
A derivative of the name "Palestine" first appears in Greek literature in the 5th Century BCE when the historian Herodotus called the area "Palaistinē" (Greek - Παλαιστίνη). In the 2nd century CE, the Romans crushed the revolt of Shimon Bar Kokhba (132 CE), during which Jerusalem and Judea were regained and the area of Judea was renamed Palaestina in an attempt to minimize Jewish identification with the land of Israel.
Under the Ottoman Empire (1517-1917), the term Palestine was used as a general term to describe the land south of Syria; it was not an official designation. In fact, many Ottomans and Arabs who lived in Palestine during this time period referred to the area as "Southern Syria" and not as "Palestine."
After World War I, the name "Palestine" was applied to the territory that was placed under British Mandate; this area included not only present-day Israel but also present-day Jordan.
Leading up to Israel's independence in 1948, it was common for the international press to label Jews, not Arabs, living in the mandate as Palestinians. It was not until years after Israeli independence that the Arabs living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were called Palestinians. In fact, Arabs cannot even correctly pronounce the word Palestine in their native tongue, referring to area rather as“Filastin.”
The word Palestine or Filastin does not appear in the Koran. The term peleshet appears in the Jewish Tanakh no fewer than 250 times.
PRE-STATE ISRAEL: JEWISH CLAIM TO THE LAND OF ISRAEL
A common misperception is that the Jews were forced into the diaspora by the Romans after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 A.D. and then, 1,800 years later, suddenly returned to Palestine demanding their country back. In reality, the Jewish people have maintained ties to their historic homeland for more than 3,700 years. A national language and a distinct civilization have been maintained.
The Jewish people base their claim to the land of Israel on at least four premises: 1) God promised the land to the patriarch Abraham; 2) the Jewish people settled and developed the land; 3) the international community granted political sovereignty in Palestine to the Jewish people and 4) the territory was captured in defensive wars.
The term "Palestine" is believed to be derived from the Philistines, an Aegean people who, in the 12th Century B.C., settled along the Mediterranean coastal plain of what is now Israel and the Gaza Strip. In the second century A.D., after crushing the last Jewish revolt, the Romans first applied the name Palaestina to Judea (the southern portion of what is now called the West Bank) in an attempt to minimize Jewish identification with the land of Israel. The Arabic word "Filastin" is derived from this Latin name.
The Twelve Tribes of Israel formed the first constitutional monarchy in Palestine about 1000 B.C. The second king, David, first made Jerusalem the nation's capital. Although eventually Palestine was split into two separate kingdoms, (See Lost Tribe of Israel)
Even after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem and the beginning of the exile, Jewish life in Palestine continued and often flourished. Large communities were reestablished in Jerusalem and Tiberias by the ninth century. In the 11th century, Jewish communities grew in Rafah, Gaza, Ashkelon, Jaffa and Caesarea.
Many Jews were massacred by the Crusaders during the 12th century, but the community rebounded in the next two centuries as large numbers of rabbis and Jewish pilgrims immigrated to Jerusalem and the Galilee. Prominent rabbis established communities in Safed, Jerusalem and elsewhere during the next 300 years. By the early 19th century-years before the birth of the modern Zionist movement-more than 10,000 Jews lived throughout what is today Israel.
When Jews began to immigrate to Palestine in large numbers in 1882, fewer than 250,000 Arabs lived there, and the majority of them had arrived in recent decades. Palestine was never an exclusively Arab country, although Arabic gradually became the language of most the population after the Muslim invasions of the seventh century. No independent Arab or Palestinian state ever existed in Palestine. When the distinguished Arab-American historian, Princeton University Prof. Philip Hitti, testified against partition before the Anglo-American Committee in 1946, he said: "There is no such thing as 'Palestine' in history, absolutely not." In fact, Palestine is never explicitly mentioned in the Koran, rather it is called "the holy land" (al-Arad al-Muqaddash).
Prior to partition, Palestinian Arabs did not view themselves as having a separate identity. When the First Congress of Muslim-Christian Associations met in Jerusalem in February 1919 to choose Palestinian representatives for the Paris Peace Conference, the following resolution was adopted:
We consider Palestine as part of Arab Syria, as it has never been separated from it at any time. We are connected with it by national, religious, linguistic, natural, economic and geographical bonds.
In 1937, a local Arab leader, Auni Bey Abdul-Hadi, told the Peel Commission, which ultimately suggested the partition of Palestine: "There is no such country [as Palestine]! 'Palestine' is a term the Zionists invented! There is no Palestine in the Bible. Our country was for centuries part of Syria."
The representative of the Arab Higher Committee to the United Nations submitted a statement to the General Assembly in May 1947 that said "Palestine was part of the Province of Syria" and that, "politically, the Arabs of Palestine were not independent in the sense of forming a separate political entity." A few years later, Ahmed Shuqeiri, later the chairman of the PLO, told the Security Council: "It is common knowledge that Palestine is nothing but southern Syria."
Palestinian Arab nationalism is largely a post-World War I phenomenon that did not become a significant political movement until after the 1967 Six-Day War and Israel's capture of the West Bank.
Israel's international "birth certificate" was validated by the promise of the Bible; uninterrupted Jewish settlement from the time of Joshua onward; the Balfour Declaration of 1917; the League of Nations Mandate, which incorporated the Balfour Declaration; the United Nations partition resolution of 1947; Israel's admission to the UN in 1949; the recognition of Israel by most other states; and, most of all, the society created by Israel's people in decades of thriving, dynamic national existence.
I’ve recently condemned the focus on Reza Aslan’s religion – Islam – when talking about his new book about Jesus, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth”. I think there is no room for propaganda when reviewing history. No one is objective. But we can try to be truthful.
Putting aside the thesis of his book i.e., that Jesus was an anti-Roman Jewish revolutionary, in all his interviews, Aslan goes out of his way to refer to Jesus’ Judea i.e., the land of the Jews, as “Palestine”. For all I care, he can call it “Nebraska”, as long as he doesn’t give the impression that this is really what it was called by the inhabitants of Judea in Jesus’ time. But Aslan wraps this “Palestine” name with a veneer of history. When challenged on his use of the name “Palestine” for ancient “Judea”, his answer is that he’s using the “Roman designation” for the area. According to Aslan, this designation was “Syria Palestine”. This is absolutely wrong. More than this, it demonstrates a certain cynicism when manipulating history for the purpose of ideology. Let’s look at this word “Palestine”. Where does it come from?
The archaeology demonstrates that when they arrived around 1200 BCE, they were – in diet, art, and habits – pretty Greek. They resembled, say, the people of Crete or Mycenae.
After the Philistines disappeared from the historical stage, the name “Palestina” lingered on. Meaning, the people were gone, the name lingered. It appears in references here and there in classic Greek writings e.g., Herodotus. By the time Jesus was born, there hadn’t been any Philistines in the area for some 600 years. The name does not appear anywhere in the Gospels. And the people living in Judea at the time of Jesus – including Jesus and all his disciples – would never have referred to their country as “Palestine”. Even the Romans didn’t call the area Palestine. Remember, when they crucified him, the Romans put a plaque over Jesus’ head with the inscription – in three languages – “King of the Jews”, not the “Philistines” (Matthew 27:37; Mark 15:26; Luke 23:38; John 19:19).
Some 35 years after the crucifixion, some 4 years after the stoning of Jesus’ brother James, the area of Judea erupted in a massive Jewish revolt against Rome. The country fought between 66 and 70 CE. In August of 70 Jerusalem, the capital of Judea, was destroyed. The Temple of God which had lasted for some 1,000 years in two incarnations, was now in ruins – a smouldering heap. This was the Temple that Jesus wept over when he imagined its destruction (Luke 19:41). Judea fought for another 3 years at the rock fortress of Masada by the Dead Sea. Then, in 73, as the Romans were about to conquer the fortress, rather than become Roman slaves, the last Jewish defenders took their own lives and the lives of their women and children.
At this point, the Romans felt that there was no one left in Judea that could rise in revolution. They were wrong. From 115 – 117 CE, the Jews – primarily outside Judea – fought a bitter war with the Romans. The main centers of revolution were Alexandria in Egypt, Cyrene in modern day Libya, and Cyprus. The Jewish revolt basically saved the Parthian Empire from a Roman onslaught. After they licked their wounds, in 132 CE the Jews of Judea once again rose in revolution – this time under a leader called “Bar Kochba” i.e., “the son of the star”. When the Bar Kochba revolt was finally put down in 135 CE, the Romans exiled the majority of the Jewish people and renamed Judea “Palestina”. To be clear, “Syria Palestine” officially became a Roman province about a century after Jesus’ crucifixion.
It was a last humiliation. To also be clear, there were no Philistines at the time and even if some had miraculously survived, they were not Arabs but Greeks.
The area of Palestine never became an independent state. In the 7th century, Muslim armies conquered it, precipitating battles with Christian crusaders for the “Holy Land”. These bloody battles are now remembered as the “Crusades”. At the end of World War 1, the province of Palestine passed from the Ottoman Turks to the British. In 1922, the British gifted a chunk of Palestine to the Hashemite clan from Saudi Arabia. In 1946, 80% of British mandate Palestine – the area east of the Jordan River – became the modern Arab Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. One year later, 20% of British controlled Palestine became what is today the State of Israel and the Palestinian territories.
But to return to Aslan, it’s bit of a name game, isn’t it? If the British had called the area east of the Jordan River “Palestine” instead of “Transjordan” i.e., “over the Jordan”, no one today could say there is no Palestinian state. If you write a book about Jesus and you call his country by the name that he called it i.e., “Judea”, the politically correct armies of anti-Israel activists may get upset with you. So Aslan calls ancient Judea “Palestine” and hides behind the reference to the “Roman designation” for the province. This is very cynical. It’s very cynical to fudge the history of the Aegean Philistines 3200 years ago, lingering references to their name, and the Roman province of the second century CE. It’s very cynical to retroactively place modern Arab Palestinians into Jesus’ Jewish Hellenistic world.
But let’s say the Romans had called “Judea” “Palestine” in Jesus’ time – which they didn’t – why would a writer focusing on Jesus as a Jewish patriot i.e., a Zealot, want to call Jesus’ country by the name that his enemies used? It’s as if I wrote a book about a native American hero and kept referring to him as an “Indian”, because that’s what white people called him.
Professor Aslan, you are right to decry the use of propaganda against you. But, as they say; do unto others what you would want them to do unto you. In Jesus’ day, his country was called Judea, and the overall designation for the land was “Israel” – as it is today. You can argue about politics, but let’s not change history to suit our views.
TO SUMMARISE NAMES FOR PALESTINE (1800’s-PRESENT)
1. Independent Sanjak of Jerusalem, Sanjak of: Nablus and Acre (Ottoman Palestine /‘Southern Syria’/Bilad el-Sham) (-1918)
2. Occupied Enemy Territory (1918-1920)
3. British controlled Palestine as a result of the San Remo Conference (April 1920-1922)
4. British Mandate Palestine as a result of the League of Nations (1922-15 May 1948)
Philistia, a name used in the Bible to refer to a pentapolis in the Southern Levant, established by Philistines c.1175 BC and existing in various forms until the Assyrian conquest in 8th century
Paralia (Palestine), the coastal eparchy of Palestine during Hellenistic and Roman times.
Syria Palaestina or Roman Palestine, a Roman province (135-390 CE) (135-330 CE), a province of the Roman Empire following merger of renamed Iudaea with Roman Syria
Palaistinê or Palaestina names used by Greek and Romans to refer to parts of the Levant during the Persian and Hellenic periods
Palaestina Prima, a Byzantine province in the Levant from 390 to 636, comprising the Galilee and northern Jordan Valley
Palaestina Secunda, a Byzantine province in the Levant from 390 to 636, comprising the shoreline and hills of the Southern Levant (Judea and Samaria)
Palaestina Salutaris, a Byzantine province established in 6th century, covering the Negev and Transjordan
Jund Filastin (638 – 10th century), was one of the military districts of the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphate province of Bilad al-Sham (Syria)
Mutasarrifate of Jerusalem (1872-1917), also known as the "Sanjak of Jerusalem", an Ottoman district commonly referred to as "Southern Syria" or "Palestine". The district encompassed Jerusalem, Gaza, Jaffa, Hebron, Bethlehem and Beersheba.
Mandatory Palestine (1920–1948), a geopolitical entity under British administration
Ottoman Syria, divisions of the Ottoman Empire within the Levant
The Book of Exodus refers to a land corridor along the Mediterranean as “Derech Plishtim” i.e., “the highway of the Philistines” (Exodus 13:17). In this passage, the name seems to be generic. In other words, in the late Bronze Age, say, 1500 BCE, “Philistine” seems to be a generic term for Aegean people that we would call Minoans or Mycenaeans today.
So far, so good. There was an Aegean people called “Philistines” in the area of modern Israel from around 1500 BCE when they came as traders to 1200 BCE when they settled down, to the 7th century BCE when they disappeared after the Assyrian invasion of the area. During the 500 years that they were settled there, they became increasingly more “Canaanitish”. During the period of the Judges (14th to 10th century BCE), they were the arch-enemies of the Israelites.