Israel, Judea . . . and Palestine
Marcus Jastrow's Dictionary of the Talmud, part 13 (1900)
There appears to be a great deal of confusion about the name “Palestine.” Some believe it was invented by the Roman emperor Hadrian to replace the name “Judea.” Some believe it was imposed on the Arabs of Mandate Palestine by the British. Where did “Palestine” (and “Judea” and “Israel”) come from? What does it tell us about the people who use it? What, exactly, is in a name?
There is a famous verse in the book of Qohelet (Ecclesiastes) that runs, “One generation passes away, another generation comes, but the earth (ha’aretz) stands forever.” The medieval Jewish geographer Estori Haparchi added a twist: for him, “the land (ha’aretz) stands forever, with most of its names.” He was referring to how many ancient place names have been preserved in the Land of Israel. Place names are often very durable, but even so they can be hard to pin down. They may move around or change their meaning. Many names we use today for countries (England, Greece, Holland, Persia) originally referred to much smaller regions, and their ranges expanded only as groups of people and kingdoms spread. Given how we are usually taught to think of them, it might be surprising to realize – it was for me – that the same is true of the names Israel, Judea, and Palestine.
All three of these place names first appear in the historical record about the same time, around the ninth and eighth centuries BCE. (The names Israel and Philistines both appear earlier, c. 1200, as groups of people, Israel in the famous Merneptah Stele discovered in Egypt by British archaeologist Flinders Petrie in 1896.) And all three applied only to small regions. Israel was centered on the northern hill country in what is now the West Bank, Judea (Hebrew Yehudah, Judah) on the southern hill country, and Palestine (Hebrew Peleshet, Philistia) the southern coastal plain. Over the following several centuries, each name expanded in its scope until it encompassed the entire country: the Land of Israel as a central geographic term in Judaism, Judea as a political name for a small province of different empires and then an expanded Hasmonean kingdom. When the Romans incorporated the land into their empire, it was natural that they would adopt the term “Judea” (or Judaea) for its name.
And starting with Herodotus in the fifth century BCE, classical writers regularly used Palestine (Greek Palaistinē) to cover an area clearly greater than the southern coastal plain of the country. As with any name, there was some variation in its use, but overall that use was roughly consistent: Palestine covered much if not all of the land between Syria and Egypt. It was sometimes considered southern Syria, sometimes paired with Syria as a separate entity. Aristotle described tales he had heard of the Dead Sea (“they say . . . the lake is so bitter and salty that there are no fish in it”) and located it in Palestine. Jews used the name too. For Jewish writers like Josephus and Philo (first century CE), Palestine could be either the southern coastal plain or an alternate name to Judea for the entire region. So, when Hadrian substituted the name Palaestina for Judaea, he was in fact swapping one expanded regional name for another.
The name “Palestine” never went away, either. For hundreds of years it was the name of the Roman and Byzantine province. The rabbis, too, used Palestine (Hebrew-Aramaic Palastini) in Midrash as both the name of the province and a name for the southern coastal plain. The Umayyads (the seventh to eighth century rulers of the Middle East) inherited it, in the form of Arabic Filasṭīn, as a province from the Romans and Byzantines. Afterwards it no longer served as the name of an administrative unit, but as a geographic term in common use, again for a fairly well-defined area: most of area west of the Jordan and south of Galilee, plus a small part of what’s now Jordan. Important writers who lived in Jerusalem, from Muqaddasi in the 10th century to Mujir al-Din in the 15th and beyond, all knew the term and used it repeatedly in this way. They were often even aware that the land was named in some way after the Philistines. The use of “Palestine” by people in all different classes and parts of the country continued to the end of the Ottoman period. The influential Jaffa-based Arabic newspaper named Filastin was first published in 1911 – prior to the British Mandate, not imposed by it. Familiar with both this modern use and classical texts, it is no wonder that people around the world routinely used Palestine to describe the land in this period, including Jews (alongside their other names for it).
So why do we think of these three names in such different ways? For Jews, Israel and Judea are “our” names, the names we originated in some way and preserved over some 3000 years. For most of the last 1900 of these, this has happened largely – but certainly not exclusively – in the Diaspora. Palestine became the primary name used by its inhabitants after the Roman province was renamed, and it is the name Arabs living in and around the country have continually used for more than a millennium. It is “their” name. But the land doesn’t discriminate; it continues to stand, together with all these names.
Nameplate of Filastin, July 15, 1911