Why do people call Israel “Palestine”?

Anyone studying biblical history or reading books about this topic, may have noticed that the common name to refer to the country of Israel in the academic literature is not “Israel”, nor “Judah”, but “Palestine”. Why is this name so commonly used? Where did it come from?

Paul Lawrence, in his “Atlas of Bible History” explains:

Before the Israelite conquest the name of the Promised Land west of the Jordan was Canaan. Its inhabitants were Canaanites.

To avoid confusing we use the term “Palestine” to designate that region after the conquest, but this should not be interpreted a modern, political sense.

“Israel” and “Judah” are used to denote the historic nation states that later emerged.

Lawrence Paul, The IVP Concise Atlas of Bible History (IVP Academic, 2013), 48

Even if we agree that the term “Palestine” does not have a political meaning, it surely has a theological meaning, as we shall explain below.

Palestine in c. 350 AD according to Eusebius and Jerome (map as reconstructed by George Adam Smith, 1915)

When was the term “Palestine” first used?

Although many biblical history scholars call the land “Palestine” in their articles and books, this term was never used in the Bible itself. The first to call the land of Israel “Palestine” were the Romans in the 2nd century AD, after they defeated the Bar-Kokhba revolt in 135 AD.

After the war against Judah ended, Hadrian, the Roman emperor, decided to officially change the name of the province “Judaea” to “Syria Palaestina”. Some scholars claim that this name was already known before Hadrian. But nevertheless, the change of the name of the province came only after the Judean nation was completely destroyed and exiled.

Another proof of the Roman intention to wipe out the name Judaea and the bond of the Judeans to the land is the fact that they also changed the name of Jerusalem. The Roman exiled the Jews from Jerusalem and renamed it Aelia Capitolina.

There is no doubt that the Romans, in the period they called “Pax Romana” – the Roman peace – wiped out Judah and made sure no remains are left of that nation. From this point in time, the name Judea was replaced in all maps by Syria-Palaestina, and all history books started to use the new name: Palaestina. Until this very day…

The origin of the name “Palaestina”

This name is derived from Philistia (Hebrew: פְּלֶשֶׁת), the name of the coastal area of Israel that was held in biblical times by the Philistines (Hebrew: פְּלִשְׁתִּים). Philistines were people that arrived to the land of Canaan around the same time the Israelite arrived. They were in their peak around the rein of the kings Saul and David, and then started to decline, until destroyed completely in 604 BC by King Nebuchadnezzar II.

In this small land, there were Canaanite, Philistines, Phoenicians, Edomites, Hellenists, Samaritans, and of course: Israelites and Judeans. How then, from all those nations, it is after the name of the Philistines that Hadrian chose to call the land?

After all, the Philistines held a very small part in the southern cost of the land, and they were gone more than 700 years before Hadrian time.

Political or Theological?

An act of political renaming of countries was used since ancient times. The name of the land affects how it is publicly known. Many countries changed their names after a change of regime to denote that they are different entity. (e.g., Russia to USSR and back to Russia, Burma to Myanmar, and many more examples).

So it makes a lot of sense that the Romans changed the name of Judaea. Did the name that they chose as the new name had any meaning for them? was it just the most logical name to choose?

But the bigger question is, how come this name, that was invented as a “replacement” name by Rome, is still the name used today by scholars to refer to the land in the time of the Bible, when this name was not used?

An answer to the above question may be attributed to the early church in the first centuries. The early theologians of the church had the idea that the Christian Church replaced Israel of the Bible. So, Israel is no more, and the Church is the “New Israel”. This replacement theology was the mainstream Christian perception of Israel and the Jews until the 20th century and until the new state of Israel was founded. The new state of Israel brought great questions to the Church, and even the Catholic church had to reconsider its approach to the Jews.

Then why this name, “Palestine”, is the name that the Arabs choose to identify with today? After all, this name has nothing to do with any Arab or Muslim legacy, and it is a memory of the Roman conquest and the Roman Catholic church.

Do the Arabs who call themselves “Palestinians” affiliate with the Roman conquest of Judah or with the early church?

What is Palestine?

If we look at the history of the use of this name – Philistines/Palaestina/Palestine, we can see a “crimson thread” throughout time.

  • The Philistines killed the first ‘anointed one of Israel’ – the first Messiah (Hebrew: מָשִׁיחַ), king Saul. They also tried to kill David, the anointed one who was a man after God’s own heart, but without success.
  • The Romans used the name of the Philistines and renamed the land to “Palaestina”, hoping to eradicate the name of Israel and Judah forever.
  • The early church followed Rome by trying to abolish the memory of historical Israel believing that God abandoned His people.
  • And in our modern era, the name “Palestine” is attributed to an entity that aims to replace the state of Israel.

What is common to this name throughout history, is an attempt to destroy God’s plan of salvation through Israel and the Jews! Whenever this name is used, it comes to replace the role of Israel in God’s plan.

For thousands of years, from King Saul up to our day, trying without success, to abolish the plan of God that cannot be changed.

The death of King Saul by Gustave Dore

Why do the nations rage,
And the people plot a vain thing?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
And the rulers take counsel together,
Against the Lord and against His Anointed, saying,
“Let us break Their bonds in pieces
And cast away Their cords from us.”

He who sits in the heavens shall laugh;
The Lord shall hold them in derision.
Then He shall speak to them in His wrath,
And distress them in His deep displeasure:
“Yet I have set My King
On My holy hill of Zion.”

Psalms 2:1-6 [NIV]

So next time you use the name “Palestine”, be sure you understand what you are saying.