Where the Defiling Term ‘Palestine’ Comes From

Posted on September 14, 2020

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By David Ettinger

Stubborn Reaction
Back in the 1990s, I approached the pastor of my church to communicate an objection I had with a sermon he had just delivered. The sermon itself was fine, but in describing ancient Israel he used the term “Palestine.” I made clear to him that this term is not biblical and, to make matters worse, is a term used to defile and degrade Israel.

My pastor did not appreciate this correction, but he was wrong, and I needed to correct him. I continued to do so whenever he uttered the word “Palestine” when referring to Israel. He didn’t like it, and I didn’t care.

The Term “Palestine”
The first thing to know about the term “Palestine” is that it is NOT biblical. It does appear in the King James Version, but this is a bad translation. The word in Hebrew, and the intended location of “Palestine” in the KJV, is “Philistia,” which just about every other translation gets right.

So, where does the term come from, and why is it wrong and defiling to use it today with regard to ancient Israel, the modern nation of Israel, and the land mass on which Israel exists?

The English word “Palestine” comes from the Latin Palestina, which is derived from “Philistia” or “Philistine.” The Philistines – from the Hebrew philisti, meaning “to wander” or “immigrants” – were a sea people which in ancient times traveled to the coast of Canaan. They were from the coastland of Caphtor, which is the ancient name for Crete. They settled in the coastal plain of ancient Israel. Their most famous citizen, of course, was the giant Goliath.

rome map

How Did Israel Become “Palestine”?
Because the term “Palestine” is commonly seen on Bible maps and resources, most people are surprised to learn that it is not biblical. The fact is that the term did not come into usage until A.D. 135.

This is how it happened. Three years earlier, the Jews of Israel, particularly Jerusalem, rose up in rebellion against the Roman Empire, which ruled over them. This is known as the Second Jewish Revolt. The uprising was led by Simon bar Kokhba, who many in Israel looked to as their long-awaited Messiah.

After three years, the Romans crushed the revolt. Wanting all nations to know just how foolish it was to mess with them, Rome made an example of Israel, doing so by implementing three major revisions.

The first was changing the name of the capital city from Jerusalem to Aelia Capitolina (in honor of the Emperor Hadrian, whose family name was “Aeila”). The second revision was banning all Jews from the city on pain of death. The third revision was to change the name of Israel to Syria-Palestina, after the ancient Philistine coastal region.

Rome’s goal was to erase the names of “Israel” and “Judah” from the annals of history. Also, because the Philistines were a heathenness people, the name was intended to disgrace the covenant people of God.

flag of israel

Syria-Palestina (shortened to “Palestine”) became the official name for the country of Israel on maps, documents, and scholarly works handed down from the Romans to the Byzantines, through the Middle Ages, the Reformation and the Enlightenment eras, and straight into modern times.

So, though the term “Palestine” is never used in the Bible for the land of Israel (the KJV usage not withstanding), because the Romans established it and circulated it so pervasively, it became the common name for the nation, people, and land mass of Israel. Referring to Israel – past, present, or future – as “Palestine” is wrong, demeaning, and should never be done.

“Palestine” Today
To be clear, “Palestine” is a defiling term in reference to Israel. There is no “Palestine” today. Of course, there is a group of people residing in the West Bank and Gaza Strip of Israel who refer to themselves as “Palestinians,” but this is a separate issue.

However, as Christians, no matter our theological, political, or social leanings, we need to be praying for this region of the world – and particularly Israel, where our Lord Jesus will soon be returning. We are to be praying for both Jew and Palestinian, that their eyes will be open to the true Messiah, and that they will come to the realization that only through Jesus – the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6) –  can true peace be had.