Most people assume that the name Palestine derives from “Land of the Philistines” (Peleshetin the Hebrew Bible; see Psalms 60-10; Isaiah 14-29, 31), via the Greek Palaistinê and the Latin Palaestina. But there is evidence, both philological and geographical, that questions this traditional attribution. The name Palestine, surprisingly, may have originated as a Greek pun on the translations of “Israel” and the “Land of the Philistines.”
Let us first consider the geographical problem. The Greek Palaistinê and the Latin Palaestina appear frequently in ancient literature, but for the most part, they appear to refer not to the Land of the Philistines, but to the Land of Israel!
The Philistines—called Pelishtim in the Bible—arrived on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean from Greece or Cyprus by way of Egypt at the end of the Late Bronze Age (in about the 13th century B.C.E.). We know this because Philistine material culture has close affinities with contemporaneous Mycenaean culture, especially their pottery. The earliest references to the Philistines are found in Egyptian inscriptions, where they are referred to as Prst, one of several Sea Peoples. Egyptian reliefs portray Philistines in distinctive headgear engaged in a sea battle aboard ships that clearly differ from those of the Egyptians (see photo).a
In the late seventh century B.C.E., the Babylonian monarch Nebuchadnezzar (the same one who two decades later destroyed Jerusalem and brought an end to the Davidic Monarchy) invaded the Land of the Philistines, leaving a swath of destruction. Some Philistines were even exiled to Babylon, just as the Israelites were. What happened to the Philistines afterward is a mystery. They seem to have lost their ethnic identity, for the Philistines, as we know them, simply disappear from the historical record.b
The Land of the Philistines is clearly demarcated in the Bible. The Israelites’ traditional foes, the Philistines lived in a small area along the Mediterranean coast south of what is today Tel Aviv, an area that embraced the five towns of Gaza, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gath and Ekron.1 The Philistine champion Goliath came from Gath. Samson’s Philistine paramour, Delilah, lived in Gaza.
As early as the Histories of Herodotus, written in the second half of the fifth century B.C.E., the term Palaistinê is used to describe not just the geographical area where the Philistines lived, but the entire area between Phoenicia and Egypt—in other words, the Land of Israel. Herodotus, who had traveled through the area, would have had firsthand knowledge of the land and its people. Yet he used Palaistinê to refer not to the Land of the Philistines, but to the Land of Israel. His understanding of the geographical extent of Palestine is reflected in his reference to the population of Palaistinê as being circumcised.2 However, the Philistines, as we know from the Bible, were uncircumcised. The Israelites, of course, were circumcised. Herodotus seems to have known about the Jewish people and their history because he mentions the destruction of Sennacherib’s army by an act of God.3 This can only be the same natural disaster that relieved Jerusalem of the Assyrian siege in the late eighth century B.C.E. (see 2 Kings 19-35–36).c
Like Herodotus, Aristotle gives the strong impression that when he uses the term Palestine, he is referring to the Land of Israel. In his description of the Dead Sea, Aristotle says that it is situated in Palestine.4 The Land of the Philistines, however, was separated from the Dead Sea by the hills and wilderness of Judea, so Aristotle could hardly have intended the two to be directly connected! He, too, seemed to identify the Land of Israel as Palestine.
In the second century B.C.E., a Greek writer, perhaps the historian Polemo of Ilium, made a similar link between the people of Israel and Palestine. Referring to the Exodus of the Children of Israel, the author claimed that a portion of the Egyptian army “was expelled from Egypt and established itself in the country called Palestinian Syria.”5
Roman writers continued to use the name Palaestina for the whole Land of Israel, just as Herodotus and Aristotle had done. The early-first-century C.E. poet Ovid writes of “the seventh day feast that the Syrian of Palestine observes,” by which he may have meant the Jewish Sabbath observances.6 Another Latin poet, Statius, and the writer Dio Chrysostom use “Palestine” and “Palestinian” in the same sense. Chrysostom, like Aristotle before him, speaks of the Dead Sea being in the interior of Palestine.7
Likewise, the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, who lived in the early first century C.E., occasionally uses the name Palestine when referring to the Land of Israel of his day.8 For example, he remarks that a considerable proportion of Palestinian Syria is occupied by the populous nation of the Jews.
The case of the first-century C.E. Jewish historian Josephus is particularly interesting. In his Antiquities of the Jews, he consistently refers to the Philistines as Palaistinoi. This is the earliest clear identification of the name Palestine with the Philistines. Josephus doubtless believed that the name Palestine was a transliteration of the ancient Semitic name for the Philistines, but even he occasionally uses Palaistinoi in the wider sense. He mentions, for example, that Trachonitis and Damascus are “situated between Palestine and Coele Syria [Syria Proper].”9 At the very end of his Antiquities of the Jews, he remarks that his account details “the events that befell us Jews in Egypt, in Syria, and in Palestine.”10 These remarks indicate that Josephus was aware that Palestine had a geographical meaning that was much wider than the Land of the Philistines.
Now let us turn to the philological problem. The earliest translation of the Hebrew Bible, into Greek, is known as the Septuagint. The work was done in Alexandria beginning in the third century B.C.E. If the Greek Palaistinoi were derived from the Hebrew Peleshet (Land of the Philistines), we would have expected that Peleshet would appear in the Septuagint as Palaistinoi. The Septuagint translators clearly had this Greek word available- As we have seen, it was used as early as Herodotus. But the Septuagint translators did not make use of this word. Instead, they referred to the Pelishtim, the people we call Philistines, as the Philistieim, while the Hebrew Peleshet is rendered as Gê ton Philistieim (literally, the “Land of the Philistines”), rather than a word like Palaistinê.11
Another interesting point- The Septuagint translators tended to translate place-names rather than transliterate them, especially where familiar Greek names existed. (In the transliteration, Grecisms would be substituted where appropriate, as Paris becomes Parigi in Italian or Beijing once became Peking in English). Thus, for example, the Septuagint translates Yam Suf (the Red Sea) as Erythra Thalassa, Greek words meaning “Red Sea.” Likewise, Mitzraim (Egypt) is rendered not with a transliteration of the Hebrew but with the Greek Aigyptos. That the Septuagint school of translators did not do the same in the case of the Hebrew Peleshet (the land) and Pelishtim (the people) is indicated by the fact that the term they used, Philistieim, has a Semitic, rather than a Greek, ending. In other words, Philistieim is a transliterated term from the Hebrew for the Philistine people. Palaistinê and Palaistinoi must therefore signify something else.
Although there is admittedly a phonetic similarity between Palaistinê and Peleshet, the deviations from this simple equation encountered in ancient Greek and Latin literature suggest that it is worth looking for an alternative derivation for “Palestine.”
Startling as it may sound, I would argue that “Palestine” is the Greek equivalent of “Israel.”
The word Palaistinê is remarkably similar to the Greek palaistês, meaning “wrestler,” “rival” or “adversary.”12 This similarity in spelling was noticed over 60 years ago by the German Bible scholar Martin Noth.13 He saw this as a reflection of a practice of transliterating oriental words into Greek words that were easy to pronounce, like referring to Beijing as Peking in English. Noth failed to develop his argument any further. But the similarity between Palaistinê and palaistês would seem to have a significance deeper than a mere transliteration.
The name Israel arose from the incident in which Jacob wrestled with an angel (Genesis 32-25–27). Jacob received the name Israel (Yisra’el in Hebrew) because he “wrestled (sarita’) with the Lord (El).” In the Septuagint, the Greek verb epalaien (he wrestled) is used to describe Jacob’s struggle with the stranger.14 The etymological similarity between epalaien and Palaistinê raises the possibility that Palaistinê may somehow be linked to the name Israel through this Biblical episode.
Jacob’s wrestling with the angel, which explained the origin of the name of the people and of the Land of Israel, would have struck a chord among Greeks who came into direct contact with Jews in the Near East at least as early as the sixth century B.C.E.15 Greeks, well versed in the epics of their heroes, would have been intrigued by the Biblical explanation of the name Israel, as transmitted to them by Jews, probably in anecdotal form and almost certainly in Aramaic, the most widely spoken tongue in the Near East during the early classical period.16 The central event of a wrestling contest by the ancestor of this Semitic people against a divine adversary is likely to have made a deep impression on them.
Wrestling was easily the most popular sport among the Greeks, and it formed an essential part of a Greek education. Its popularity is demonstrated by the frequency with which metaphors drawn from wrestling crop up in Greek literature, especially in poetry.17 And wrestlers are commonly portrayed in Greek decorative art. In addition to appearing on numerous vases, a wrestling pair is depicted on the silver coins of two important Greek cities from the fourth to the second century B.C.E., Aspendus in Pamphylia and Selge in Pisidia.18
Although Yisra’el means “wrestler with God,” and not merely “wrestler,” it is easy to see how the deity may have been omitted from a Greek translation of this word. Place-names with the generic name for god (theos in Greek) are very rare before the Christian era. The only settlement with such a name that occurs in Greek literature at such an early date is Theodosia (“gift [or offering] to the gods”),19 on the north coast of the Black Sea, at the very edge of the Greek world.20 The prefix theo- is used here in the plural, meaning deities in general. While places were named after individual deities—Athens after Athena, Apollonia after Apollo and Heraklea after Herakles—the Jewish God was different. His name could not be uttered by believers. With their abstract concept of the divine being, the Jews were often mistaken for atheists by the Greeks.21 It is thus easy to understand how the Greeks, who had heard stories about the Israelite patriarchs, might have thought of Jacob/Israel as a great hero-wrestler who had stood up to an ethereal adversary who was unknown and unknowable.
The ancient Greeks loved wordplay, puns and double meanings. Take the comedies of the fifth-century B.C.E. playwright Aristophanes- They are studded with double meanings, some quite subtle. Some even include place-names. For example, the name Kardia, a city on the Gallipoli peninsula, is similar to the word for “heart.” In his comedy The Birds, Aristophanes mentions Kardia in connection with a character to indicate that he is without “heart” (that is, without courage).22 Similarly with coins- The coins of Side, on the coast of southern Asia Minor, feature a pomegranate (side). And the earliest silver pieces of nearby Aspendus show a sling (spendonê, punning on the town name). Coins of Melos pun on the similarity between that name and the word for apple (melon), which appears on the coins of this Aegean island. There are many other similar examples.
The striking similarity between the Greek word for “wrestler” (palaistês) and the name Palaistinê—which share seven letters in a row, including a diphthong—is strong evidence of a connection between them. Adding to this the resemblance of Palaistinê to Peleshet, it would appear that the name Palestine was coined as a pun on Israel and the Land of the Philistines. In Greek eyes, the people of Israel were descendants of an eponymous hero who was a god wrestler (a palaistês); the name wrestler also puns on the name of a similar-sounding people of the area known locally as Peleshet. This double meaning finds support from Josephus, who uses the term Palaistinê to denote both the Land of the Philistines and the much larger entity, the Land of Israel.
Hadrian officially renamed Judea Syria Palaestina after his Roman armies suppressed the Bar-Kokhba Revolt (the Second Jewish Revolt) in 135 C.E.; this is commonly viewed as a move intended to sever the connection of the Jews to their historical homeland.23 However, that Jewish writers such as Philo, in particular, and Josephus, who flouris hed while Judea was still formally in existence, used the name Palestine for the Land of Israel in their Greek works, suggests that this interpretation of history is mistaken. Hadrian’s choice of Syria Palaestina may be more correctly seen as a rationalization of the name of the new province, in accordance with its area being far larger than geographical Judea. Indeed, Syria Palaestina had an ancient pedigree that was intimately linked with the area of greater Israel.
Thus, we have a perfectly logical explanation of how Palaistinê originated as a pun on Israel and the Philistines—and eventually became Palestine.
a. See, generally, Trude Dothan, “Ekron of the Philistines—Part I- Where They Came From, How They Settled Down and the Place They Worshiped In,” BAR 16-01; and Lawrence E. Stager, “When Canaanites and Philistines Ruled Ashkelon,” BAR 17-02.
b. See Lawrence E. Stager, “Why Were Hundreds of Dogs Buried at Ashkelon?” BAR 17-03, and “The Fury of Babylon- Ashkelon and the Archaeology of Destruction,” BAR 22-01.
1. Joshua 13-2–3; see Trude Dothan, The Philistines and Their Material Culture (New Haven, CT- Yale Univ. Press; Jerusalem- Israel Exploration Society, 1982), pp. 16–18.
2. Herodotus, Histories 2.104.
3. Herodotus, Histories 2.141, where he mentions the devastation of Sennacherib’s army by a plague of mice while camped at Pelusium, on the road to Egypt. This account differs from the Biblical version of events, in which Sennacherib’s army is decimated by “an act of God”; see Isaiah 37-36; 2 Kings 19-35; 2 Chronicles 32-21. See also Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 10.21. See the reconstruction of these events from the documentary sources in Alan B. Lloyd, Herodotus, Book II (Leiden- Brill, 1988), vol. 3, pp. 102–104.
4. Menachem Stern, Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism, vol. 1, From Herodotus to Plutarch (Jerusalem- Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1974), pp. 6–7 and note 2. Although Aristotle doesn’t actually name the lake, his comment that neither man nor beast could sink in its waters, which are bitter and salty and do not support fish, leaves no doubt that he is referring to the Dead Sea.
5. Polemo of Ilium, Greek History, quoted by Eusebius in Evangelical Preparation 10.10.15; see Stern, Greek and Latin Authors, pp. 102–103.
6. Ovid, Art of Love 1.416. See Stern, Greek and Latin Authors, pp. 348–349; Louis H. Feldman, “Some Observations on the Name of Palestine,” Hebrew Union College Annual 61 (1990), pp. 13–14.
7. Statius, Silvae 2.1.161; 3.2.105; 5.1.213. See Stern, Greek and Latin Authors, pp. 515–520. For Dio Chrysostom, quoted by Synesius, see H. Lamar Crosby, Dio Chrysostom (Cambridge, MA- Loeb Classical Library, 1951), vol. 5, pp. 378–379; also Stern, Greek and Latin Authors, pp. 538–540.
8. Philo, On Abraham 133, On the Life of Moses 1.163, On the Virtues 221 and Every Good Man is Free 75. On the use of Palestine by Philo and Josephus, see Stern, Greek and Latin Authors, p. 349.
9. Josephus, Antiquities 1.145. Admittedly, this reference is made in connection with events in Genesis, before the arrival of the Israelites. See Feldman, “Observations,” pp. 11–12.
10. Josephus, Antiquities 20.259.
11. Philistieim- Septuagint Genesis 26-1, 14, 15, 18; Exodus 23-31. Also Septuagint Joshua 13-2–3. Gê ton Philistieim- Septuagint Genesis 21-32, 34; Exodus 13-17. Elsewhere in the later books of the Septuagint Bible, which were translated subsequently from the Hebrew, the Philistines are referred to as the allophyloi (strangers); see Emanuel Tov, “The Septuagint,” in Martin J. Mulder and Harry Sysling, eds., Mikra- Text, Translation, Reading and Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity (Assen- Van Gorcum, 1988), p. 169.
12. Homer, Odyssey 8.246; Herodotus, Histories 3.137, et al.
13. Martin Noth, “Zur Geschichte des Namens Palästina,” Zeitschrift des deutschen Palästina-Vereins 62 (1939), p. 133. Noth confines his observation of the resemblance of Palaistinê to palaistês to a short footnote (p. 133, n.3).
14. Epalaien- Septuagint Genesis 32-24; see diepalaien in Josephus, Antiquities 1.331. In Septuagint Genesis 32-25, the infinitive palaiein is used. The verb palaio is also used in the same context by Demetrius, the Jewish-Hellenistic writer of a short Greek history of Israel, who flourished in the late third to early second century B.C.E. The passage is preserved in a work of the fourth-century C.E. Christian bishop and theologian, Eusebius of Caesarea (Evangelical Preparation 9.21.7); I am grateful to Dr. Nikos Kokkinos for bringing the reference to my attention.
15. There is considerable material evidence of Greeks in Palestine during the Iron Age. A graphic illustration of direct contact between Jews and Greeks is provided by Hebrew ostraca found in Arad, which date from the first decades of the sixth century B.C.E. These refer to the delivery of food supplies to Kittim, Greek or Cypriot mercenaries in the service of the last kings of Judah; see Yohanan Aharoni, Arad Inscriptions (Jerusalem- Israel Exploration Society, 1981), Ostraca nos. 1, 2, 4, 5, 7–8, 10–11, 14, 17. Imported Greek pottery from the seventh century B.C.E. onwards has been found at 50 sites in Palestine, and it is now generally agreed that this trade was run by Greek merchants; see Ephraim Stern, Material Culture of the Land of the Bible in the Persian Period, 538–332 B.C. (Warminster- Aris & Phillips; Jerusalem- Israel Exploration Society, 1982), pp. 137, 141, 283–286. Circumstances for direct contact between Jews and Greeks in Babylon, Persia and Egypt during the early classical period have been cited by Elias Bickerman, The Jews in the Greek Age (Cambridge, MA- Harvard Univ. Press, 1988), pp. 13–14.
16. Bickerman, Jews, p. 14. For a review of the archaeological and documentary evidence of the use of Aramaic in the Levant during Persian rule, see Fergus Millar, “The Problem of Hellenistic Syria,” in Amélie Kuhrt and Susan Sherwin-White, eds., Hellenism in the East- The Interaction of Greek and Non-Greek Civilizations from Syria to Central Asia after Alexander (London- Duckworth, 1987), pp. 111–113.
17. Michael Poliakoff, Combat Sports in the Ancient World (New Haven, CT- Yale Univ. Press, 1987), pp. 23–53; Harold A. Harris, Greek Athletes and Athletics (London- Hutchinson, 1964), pp. 102–105.
18. George F. Hill, Greek Coins of Lycia, Pamphylia and Pisidia (London- British Museum, 1897), pp. 95–101, plates 19–21 (Aspendus), p. 258 and plate 39 (Selge).
19. Strabo, Geography 15.1.37.
20. On Theodosia in the Bosporus, see Thomas S. Noonan, “Theodosia,” in Richard Stillwell, ed., The Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites (Princeton, NJ- Princeton Univ. Press, 1976).
21. Josephus, Against Apion 2.168–171. For the views of Greek intellectuals about Jewish theology, see Feldman, Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World- Attitudes and Interactions from Alexander to Justinian (Princeton, NJ- Princeton Univ. Press, 1993), pp. 149–153.
22. Aristophanes, Birds, lines 1474–1475. See Nan Dunbar, Aristophanes, Birds (Oxford- Clarendon Press; New York- Oxford Univ. Press, 1995), p. 690.
23. Feldman (“Observations,” p. 19) points out that there is only circumstantial evidence linking Hadrian with the change of the name Judea to that of Palestine, and the precise date when this occurred is uncertain.