Islam in History: Ideas, People, and Events in the Middle East

By Bernard Lewis | Go to book overview

12
Palestine: On the History
and Geography of a Name

The word Palestine comes from ‘Philistine’ and originally denoted the coastal region north and south of Gaza which was occupied and settled by the Philistine invaders from across the sea. The name was familiar to their ancient neighbors, occurring in Egyptian as Purusati, in Assyrian as Palastu, and in the Hebrew Bible as Pĕleshet (Exodus 14:14; Isaiah 14:29, 31; Joel 3:4). In the English Authorized Version, Peleshet is rendered Palestina or, in Joel only, Palestine. In the Revised Version, followed by the New English Bible, Palestina and Palestine disappear from the Old Testament and are replaced by Philistia, an obvious gain in accuracy.1 In the New Testament the name Palestine does not occur at all.

The coast and its hinterland were known by a number of names in antiquity, and several of these are attested in Egyptian, Assyrian, and other writings. The earliest in common use was Canaan, an ethnic term. The Jews called the country Eretz Israel, ‘the land of Israel,’ and used the names Israel and Judah to designate the two kingdoms into which the country was split after the death of King Solomon. The latter name, in the forms Ioudaia and Judaea, passed into Greek and Latin usage.

The form Palestine, used by Greek and Latin authors, is first attested in the history of Herodotus and occurs in a number of later classical texts.2 It occasionally appears as a noun but more commonly as an adjective in apposition to Syria. In normal usage Palaistinê Syria or Syria Palestina seems to have meant the coastal plain formerly inhabited by the Philistines. It was sometimes extended to include territories further east but was not usually applied to Judaea, which in Roman times was still officially and commonly known by that name.3

Official Roman usage of the name Palestine to designate the area of

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