‘Palestine’ is an ancient name, for a land of many cultures

‘Palestine’ is an ancient name, for a land of many cultures

by Martin Hughes

What was the Palestine of today called before Roman times?  It was called ‘Palestine’, which was by no means a transient name, being witnessed from around 1175 BCE and often thereafter. There are certainly other names for parts of Palestine and for the wider region to which Palestine belonged and there are yet other names placed on ‘utopian maps’ which describe what should be rather than what is.  Of course all the famous Biblical names, very much including ‘Israel’, play a part in the story of this region. 

What study of these names, perhaps especially of ‘Israel’, reveals is very interesting.  What we perceive is a territory, properly called ‘ancient Palestine’, that had been somewhat multicultural for as long as memory could extend.


The oldest pattern of Holy Land names comes from before 800 BCE, i.e. before names began to reflect the ideas of the Neo-Assyrian empire. 

The name ‘Israel’ occurs in the famous Stela (inscribed stone) of the Egyptian King Merneptah, which is often dated to 1205 BCE.  ‘Israel’ appears as one of many groups in the area concerned. It’s striking that these groups overlap in culture – there are no great differences in their appearance – and that they are all targets of Egyptian displeasure.  Israel first appears in union with other Palestinians.

Another inscription, recording King Ramesses’ conflict with the Sea Peoples, is dated to around 1175.  Here we first meet the ‘Peleset’, who must be the Philistines or Palestinians.  Only a few decades separate Merneptah’s ‘Israel’, of which we never hear the last, from Ramesses’ ‘Peleset’, of which we hear little.  Of the record of Genesis 20 – 21, where we find the kindly Palestinians already in place before Abraham arrived, that is some thousand years before Ramesses, we hear even less.  Admittedly, this is part of the Biblical record that most historians would dispute or dismiss, but there’s something intriguing about it.

We meet ‘Israel’ again around 850 – 800 in the Mesha, Tel Dan and Kurkh Stelae, all linking the name Israel with the royal house of Omri and Ahab and the important but limited realm ruled from Samaria.  Rather later, we have the Black Obelisk, now in the British Museum, not using the name ‘Israel’ but mentioning the tribute of Jehu, ‘son of Omri’: the current king is known not by the name of his land but of his real or supposed – quite recent – ancestor.  This submission to (Jehu would have said ‘alliance with’) Assyria was significant enough to leave threemore inscriptions mentioning it, all using the same ‘son of Omri’ terminology.(Tammi Schneider, Biblical Archaeology Review, 1995).


For a while after 800 the Assyrians dominate the non-Biblical record and its wording. Their preferred term of the Kingdom based on Samaria seems to be‘Mat/Bit Humri-(a)’ – ‘Omria’, we might say.  Adad-nirari, who reigned from 810-783, speaks of King Joash as ‘of Samaria’ and refers to Omria, Palestine and Edom as subsets of the area which paid him tribute.  Tiglath-Pileser around 740 had trouble with Menachem ‘of Samaria’ and Hanno ‘of Gaza’.  Sargon, capturing Samaria in 721, refers to ‘Samaria and all Omria’.   The name ‘Israel’ recedes behind ‘Omria’ in this phase, the Assyrians presumably reflecting the usage of the kings reigning in Samaria.

The first series of Isaiah’s oracles is set ‘when King Uzziah had died’, that is in the years around 740 of growing Neo-Assyrian influence, though possibly they were written later.  Here (XIX, 18) ‘Canaan’ is the name chosen for the area where the prophet’s language is spoken, a word suggesting a region with many races rather than with just one.   But even by Uzziah’s time that name was obsolescent politically. 

‘Canaan’ is attested in the Amarna Letters, an Egyptian archive dated to around 1350 BCE.  Its equivalents are also found in Sumerian records going back to 3000.  ‘Canaan’ is linked with ‘Phoenicia’, both names referring to the red or purple dye from murex snails for which the region was famous.  The area to which the name belongs is never formally defined outside the Bible.  Its use seems to have become infrequent, informal – ‘the dye-producing region’ – and increasingly tied not to the lands assigned to Israel in the Bible but either to a wide trading area where Phoenicians were active or more narrowly to the Phoenician heartland with its snail beds, our Lebanon.  There is only one reference, where Pharaoh Seti around 1400 attacks a city thought by some to be Gaza, to ‘Canaan’ in the whole of James B. Pritchard’s often used anthology, The Ancient Near East.  Later, around 920, another Egyptian inscription (Sheshonq’s – I’m following the translation in R.K. Ritner’sbook picturesquely entitled The Libyan Anarchy, p.201) seems to call this area ‘all the lands of the Phoenicians’.

The convergence in meaning of ‘Canaan’ and ‘Phoenicia’ as time went by is illustrated by the way in which the Septuagint translators of the 200s sometimes (for instance, in Joshua V, 12) use ‘Phoenician’ where the Hebrew text says ‘Canaanite’.  By then the narrower, ‘Lebanese’ idea of Canaan/Phoenicia was becoming dominant.  Around 270 the city calling itself in coinage ‘the mother of Canaan’ was Beirut, the Phoenician Berytus/Laodicea.  ‘Canaan’ was not to be the name that stuck in the last millennium BCE to what is ‘Israel’ or ‘Palestine’ now; neither was ‘Israel’.


We find in Numbers 34 a description delivered to Moses of the land donated by God – ‘the inheritance of the people of Israel in the land of Canaan’, according to the interesting words of the final verse – not regarded as identical with any actual Israelite kingdom.  It is notable that there is no instruction that the name of the land be changed.  Shlomo Sand (Invention of Land of Israel, p.86) cites Jewish scholars from the post-Temple period who explained the persistence in the Bible of the name ‘Canaan’ and the sparing use of ‘Land of Israel’ by saying that it was the privilege of the Canaanites that the land, after it had ceased to be theirs, should keep their name.  But Numbers 34 does not state that ‘Canaan’ is what the land within these borders was commonly called in Moses’ time or later: rather it establishes ‘Canaan’ as a term in Israelite law for the land that God has donated.  But that land continued to be a land of many peoples.

Judges records the terrible crime at Gibeah and refers (XIX, 29) to ‘borders of Israel’, indicating that this was the region where Israelites were found but conveys no implication that the land was ‘of Israel’ solidly.  The picture presented is of a patchwork of populations, Israelite and other, existing within these borders:  disaster befalls travellers who have carefully sought out an Israelite village.  This is the situation shortly before the establishment of the Monarchy, under whose rule no massive ethnic cleansing is recorded.  On the contrary, religious practices outside Israelite tradition – so much linked with other nations – evidently, according to the angry testimony of the main Biblical history texts, which stretch from Deuteronomy to II Kings, continued.

The title ‘King of Israel’ is ascribed to David and Solomon.  However, the story of the rending apart of their United Monarchy would not make sense if all its component kingdoms, Israel, Judah, Edom and perhaps more, were considered to have become effectively one or even to have used one name.  In Sand’s view, this comprehensive, ‘all kingdoms’, sense of ‘land of Israel’ occurs nowhere in Scripture.  I would say that it does occur, though only in a way that confirms, once again, the historic status of non-Israelites, notably in Ezekiel, composed at least in part around 570 under Nebuchadnezzar.  His references to the Land of Israel build up to the specificationfor a land to be divided among tribes- and this is very close to the specification of ‘the Land of Canaan’ in Numbers.  It is with reference to Ezekiel that Harold Brodsky (Jewish Bible Quarterly, 2006) uses the phrase ‘utopian map’: a religious prescription for what should be, not a geographical description of what is. Even in these utopian verses the presence of non-Israelites is recognised: their children are to be treated as if native-born (XLVII, 22). The highly heterogeneous country which is to be the Land of Israel when God wills is not, according to the Bible’s witness, the Land of Israel yet.


‘Yehud’, named after the former Kingdom of Judah, was originally the Persian administrative district around Jerusalem when the Exile ended and the Second Temple period began in the late 500s.  Yehud expanded (Israel Finkelstein Revue Biblique 2010) into the major Herodian Kingdom ‘of the Jews’ (Josephus, Wars I, 14) or ‘of Judaea’ (Luke I, 5): not ‘of Israel’.  The name ‘Judaea’ sometimes expanded to fit the ancient Canaan (Josephus, Antiquities I, 7), sometimes stuck to its original area, particularly when it became the ‘tetrarchy’ of Herod’s son Archelaus.  Herod, King from 40 BCE, moved smoothly into the position of key local ally of Rome, making Roman-Jewish friendship, at least among elite families, into a kernel of policy (Antiquities XV, 11).The emphasis on the Jewish nature of the Kingdom, many of whose subjects were not Jewish, must have implied official disregard, though not necessarily general disuse, of other traditional names.


Herodotus (IV, 39), writing around 450 BCE, refers to the ‘peninsula’, land between waters, that runs from Phoenicia ‘along our sea by way of Palestine-Syria, to Egypt, where it ends’.  This is one of some seven references to Palestine (often ‘Syria-Palestine’) in the Histories. Only three nations inhabit this tract of land, he says, presumably meaning Palestinian Syrians, Syrians living further inland (the Bible’s Aramaeans) and Egyptians.  Here at last we have a name, treated as if in general use and applied unmistakeably and specifically to the whole of the land from inner Syria to the sea. 

Josephus, who himself (Antiquities XX, 11)uses ‘Palestine’, refers (Apion I, 169) to another passage of Herodotus (II, 104) saying that by ‘Syrians of Palestine’ he must mean Jews, since they practised circumcision.  This is another question, quite debatable, since Herodotus himself thinks that circumcision is a sign of Egyptian influence: at any rate, Josephus had no objection to Herodotus’ choice of name.Adequate evidence of continuing use of the name ‘Palestine’ beyond Herodotus’ time comes from Aristotle on the Dead Sea (MetereologyII, 3) – (here the ‘Syria’ prefix is beginning to drop away) – and from other geographical works, of which The Circumnavigation of Pseudo-Scylax has the most entertaining name. 


For Adad-Nirari in 800 ‘Omria’ and ‘Palestine’ were subsets of the Holy Land. With the disappearance of Omria, ‘Palestine’ must steadily have become what it was for Herodotus in 450, the name in general use for the whole land. We commonly hear that the Romans eventually imposed the alien name ‘Palestine’ on Israel or Judaea.  But it would be truer to say that they eventually permitted the re-emergence, as Herodian ‘Judaea’ receded into the past, of ‘Palestine’, the only pre-Roman name of whose use – not as part of a religious plan for future times but as a normal term of reference – for that land specifically, and for all that land, we are sure.  The name remained in use through many turbulent centuries: something to bear in mind when talk arises of historic connections between lands and peoples.  Moreover, the study of ancient names reminds us of how multicultural ancient Palestine was.  The picture of ancient times as all conflict and conquest is a root both of Zionism and of anti-Semitism.  It could do with being re-drawn.

I have consulted The Oxford History of the Biblical World, Lester Grabbe’s Ancient Israel: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It? J.B. Pritchard’s anthology The Ancient Near East, and other recognised works.  

Martin Hughes, a frequent commenter on this site, has degrees in classics, philosophy and theology and was a lecturer in philosophy at Durham University, now retired. He is a past President of the UK Association of University Teachers.

SOURCE:  Mondoweiss http://mondoweiss.net/2013/06/palestine-ancient-cultures.html