The Name Palestine

Why do some insist that the name Palestine has a Hebrew origin although Hebrew was not spoken when the term was coined? Isn’t “the land of Baal” the most probable translation?

This “land of Baal” translation is totally fantastical. I would guess that the implication is that since Arabs pronounce the ‘p’ phoneme as ‘b,’ then the word “Balestine” would mean “land of Baal.” That is all total nonsense. Firstly, the name in Arabic and Turkish is Filasteen, which is associated with the ancient name Philistia. The Arabs used the name Filasteen ever since conquering the region in 635 from the Christian Byzantine Empire. The Byzantines had been ruling the area, which had become Christianized since AD 390, using the name that had been common for the place since 450BC and splitting the area into three regions: Provincia Palaestina Prima (ἐπαρχία Πρώτη Παλαιστίνης), Provincia Palaestina Secunda (ἐπαρχία Δευτέρα Παλαιστίνης) and Palaestina III Salutaris (επαρχία Τρίτη Παλαιστίνης). Filasteen is the endonym used by the natives, whilst Palestine/Palestina is the exonym. The “Balestine” inanity is simply an infantile way to dissociate the Palestinians from their land.

To be factually accurate, the name Palestine, Ancient Greek Παλαιστίνη, was coined by Herodotus, the Greek historian when he visited the region and wrote of it in his Histories circa 450BC: (Book 7) "[The Phoenicians and the Syrians of Palestine], according to their own account, dwelt anciently upon the Erythraean Sea, but crossing thence, fixed themselves on the seacoast of Syria, where they still inhabit. This part of Syria, and all the region extending from hence to Egypt, is known by the name of Palestine." Later Greek authors consistently used the name Παλαιστίνη thereafter and the Romans adopted this term, calling it Palaestina, whence our modern usage in the West and other nations except for the Arabic speaking ones.

The first extant reference is from Egypt. The term "Peleset" (transliterated from hieroglyphs as P-r-s-t) is found in five inscriptions referring to a neighboring people or land starting from circa 1150 BC during the Twentieth Dynasty of Egypt. The first known mention is at the temple at Medinet Habu which refers to the Peleset among those who fought with Egypt in Ramesses's reign.

Pharaoh Ramesses III leading the captive Peleset (a.k.a. the Philistines) before Amun: Relief in the first court of the funerary temple of Ramses III, Medinet Habu, Egypt. Olaf Tausch, Wikimedia Commons:

Ancient Egyptian portrayal of a Philistine dating to the reign of Ramesses III. Courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago:

The Assyrians called the same region "Palashtu/Palastu" or "Pilistu", beginning with Adad-nirai III in the Nimrud Slab in c. 800 BC through to an Esarhaddon treaty more than a century later. The Israelites were carried off by the Assyrians circa 732 BC, when the northern kingdom was destroyed leaving only the southern kingdom of Judah. That is how the name passed eventually into Hebrew.

There are no records of Hebrew writing from that era, so the Egyptians are the first to mention the name. The term was adopted by Jewish scribes when they began recording their scriptures much later. It is mentioned in what is known as the Hebrew bible as פלשת, Pleshet. The word is supposed to mean "the land of wanderers" or "of strangers." Another interpretation is that the root is from the Hebrew word “to wallow.” In the Greek version called Septuagint (mid-3rd century BC), the equivalent term Phylistiim occurs 12 times in the Pentateuch. The Hebrew term Plištim occurs 286 times in the Masoretic Text (between 7th and 10th centuries AD) of the Hebrew bible (of which 152 times are in 1 Samuel). It also appears in the Samaritan Pentateuch. In secondary literature, the Aramaic Visions of Amram (4Q543-7) further mentions "Philistia” (prior to Antiochus IV and the Hasmonean revolt). In the remainder of the Hebrew bible, ha-Plištim is attested at Qumran (last three centuries BC and the first century AD) for 2 Samuel 5:17. In the Septuagint however 269 references instead use the term allophylos ("of another tribe"). The first century historian Josephus calls the people Παλαιστῖνοι, "Palaestines" (Ant. 5:1, 8).


A people called the P-r-s-t(conventionally Peleset). From

a graphic wall relief on the Second Pylon at
Medinet Habu, c. 1150 BC, during the reign of
Padiiset's Statue "the impartial envoy/commissioner/messenger of/for Canaan of/for Peleset"

Assyrian period

  • c. 800 BC: Adad-nirari III, Nimrud Slab [32]
  • c. 800 BC: Adad-nirari III, Saba'a Stele: "In the fifth year (of my official rule) I sat down solemnly on my royal throne and called up the country (for war). I ordered the numerous army of Assyria to march against Palestine (Pa-la-áš-tu)... I received all the tributes […] which they brought to Assyria. I (then) ordered [to march] against the country Damascus (Ša-imērišu)." [33]
  • c. 735 BC: Qurdi-Ashur-lamur to Tiglath-Pileser III, Nimrud Letter ND 2715: "Bring down lumber, do your work on it, (but) do not deliver it to the Egyptians (mu-sur-a-a) or Palestinians (pa-la-as-ta-a-a), or I shall not let you go up to the mountains."[34][35]
  • c. 717 BC: Sargon II's Prism A: records the region as Palashtu or Pilistu [36]
  • c. 700 BC: Azekah Inscription[37] records the region as Pi-lis-ta-a-a[38]
  • c. 694 BC: Sennacherib "Palace Without a Rival: A Very Full Record of Improvements in and about the Capital (E1)": (the people of) Kue and Hilakku, Pilisti and Surri ("Ku-e u Hi-lak-ku Pi-lis-tu u Sur-ri")[39]
  • c. 675 BC: Esarhaddon's Treaty with Ba'al of Tyre: Refers to the entire district of Pilistu (KUR.pi-lis-te)[40]

The name `Palestine’ is thought to derive from either the word plesheth (meaning `root palash,’ an edible concoction carried by migratory tribes which came to symbolize nomadic peoples) or as a Greek designation for the nomadic Philistines. The author Tom Robbins has suggested the term `Palestine’ originates from the ancient androgynous god Pales who was worshipped in the region of Canaan. If this is so then `Palestine’ means `Land of Pales’.

An androgynous deity named Pales (referred to in texts as both a god and a goddess) was venerated by the Romans as the patron deity of shepherds and sheep and whose festivals were celebrated on 21 April and 7 July in Rome in the area of the Palatine Hill (Adkins & Adkins, 269). However, this is purely speculation. The name ultimately derives from the Greek for `the Land of the Philistines.’ Scholars J Maxwell Miller and John H. Hayes conclude:

Along the southern coastal plain of the Eastern Mediterranean seaboard (roughly south of present-day Tel Aviv) were settled the Philistines. They came to that region as a part of the general `Sea Peoples’ migrations at the end of the Bronze Age and inhabited five main cities – Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ekron, Gath, and Gaza. Although historically the Philistines are to be associated specifically with the coastal plain, during Classical Times the name `Philistia’ (“Land of the Philistines”) came to be applied more generally to the whole southern end of the Eastern Mediterranean Seaboard…In short, then, the English term `Palestine’ derives ultimately from `Philistia’. (39-40)

Following Herodotus’ use of the term in his work in the 5th century BC, other writers adopted it in their own and `Palestine’ gradually replaced `Canaan’ as the name of the region.

According to another spurious correlation, the emperor Hadrian renamed Judea after the traditional Israelite enemies, the Philistines, as an insult to the Jews who had unsuccessfully rebelled in the Bar Kochba revolt circa AD 134. This story is clearly and demonstrably false by accident if one only reads some classical texts written well before that revolt which mention the name Palestine. It is true that the Romans implemented the name Palestine as an administrative provincial category only after the Bar Kochba rebellion, which is no doubt the source of much confusion. But more than a century before Bar Kochba and before the Romans had any political use for the term, the Roman poet Ovid wrote that a primordial mythological character “sat by the edge of the waters of Palestine,” contextually referring to a region west of Mesopotamia. Tibullus also mentions Palestine as well as the historian Josephus. Let us throw that apocryphal floss into the fire.