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What is the Proper Name for the Land Occupied by Israel, Jordan, and Other Nations in the Middle East?

November 16th, 2009

Palestine in the Ancient World
In my discussion of first century Christianity I included a section on the conflict between Palestinian and Hellenized Jews as recorded in Luke's New Testament Acts. I have had someone ask me a question regarding my use of "Palestinian" Jew, suggesting that the term "Palestine" was not biblical. This person had found information online that stated in part:

It is clear, then, that the Bible never uses the term Palestine to refer to the Holy Land as a whole, and that Bible maps that refer to Palestine in the Old or New Testament are, at best, inaccurate, and, at worst, are a conscious denial of the biblical name of Israel.

This comes from the Zola Levitt Web site and is written by a Thomas S. McCall, Th.D. Dr. McCall goes on to say, "It appears that Bible-believing Christians have either knowingly or unwittingly followed the world, pagans and haters of Israel in calling Israel by the anti-Israel term Palestine."

Dr. McCall is correct when he states that the term "Palestine" does not appear in the New Testament, thus it is not a "biblical" term. It is, however, an "historical" term referring to the region that included Judea, Samaria, Galilee, and other smaller territories (ancient writers are cited below). McCall goes on,

It was not until the Romans crushed the second Jewish revolt against Rome in 135 A.D. under Bar Kochba that Emperor Hadrian applied the term Palestine to the Land of Israel.

This might be true. I have not looked into this exact claim, but I do want to challenge the overall tone that "Palestine" was somehow never used until Hadrian and that using the term is equal to being a "hater" of Israel (I will be sending this response to Zola Levitt and to Dr. McCall).

Palestine Used by Ancient Writers
Several ancient Greek writers use the term "Palestine," [Palaistinh, Palaistine] referring to the broad region which included Judea. Aristotle, Herodotus, Philo the Jew, and Plutarch all use this term.

The citation from Aristotle is very interesting - he is describing what he has heard about what we call the Dead Sea,

Again if, as is fabled, there is a lake in Palestine, such that if you bind a man or beast and throw it in it floats and does not sink, this would bear out what we have said. They say that this lake is so bitter and salt that no fish live in it and that if you soak clothes in it and shake them it cleans them.    Meteorology II.3

This is a clear example of using the term in a broad sense that includes Israel. Herodotus, speaking of circumcision, gives us an interesting text in Euterpe that includes Syria in Palestine,

The Phoenicians and the Syrians of Palestine themselves confess that they learnt the custom of the Egyptians; and the Syrians...say that they have recently adopted it from the Colchians. Now these are the only nations who use circumcision, and it is plain that they all imitate herein the Egyptians.    Euterpe II.104

Philo is an interesting source since he was a contemporary of Jesus and a Jew. Speaking of the Essenes,

Moreover Palestine and Syria too are not barren of exemplary wisdom and virtue, which countries no slight portion of that most populous nation of the Jews inhabits. There is a portion of those people called Essenes, in number something more than four thousand in my opinion, who derive their name from their piety...because they are above all men devoted to the service of God, not sacrificing living animals, but studying rather to preserve their own minds in a state of holiness and purity.    Every Good Man Is Free XII.75

Philo is also interesting because he represents the Hellenized Jews - Greek Jews scattered around the Roman Empire, unable to worship according to the Laws of Moses. Philo lived in Alexandria, Egypt with around 1 million Jews, the largest Jewish population around Palestine. Notice that he refers to "Palestine" as a region that includes the Jews.

It is clear from these citations that the term "Palestine" was used to refer to the region in broad terms, including Judea. McCall is mistaken when he claims that this term was not used until Hadrian. He says this in another Zola Levitt letter, "it should be recognized that the term ["Palestine"] was never used in the New Testament, and that it was coined much later by the anti-Christian and anti-Jewish pagan Emperor Hadrian." [http://www.levitt.com/newsletters/1998-09.html]

Palestine in Bible Maps
One of McCall's points is that most maps used in Christian Bibles follow this inaccurate usage of "Palestine,"

Why not go back to the terms used in the New Testament? The Gospel writers used the term Israel to refer to the Land. Why should we use any other term when referring to the Land, especially now that the Jews are back in the Land and have re-established the nation of Israel among the family of nations?

As I have already alluded to, the problem with this position is that "Palestine" includes many territories other than Israel.  I am looking at Map 10 in my copy of The New Oxford Annotated Bible with The Apocrypha - this map includes Syria, Galilee, and Samaria.  Map 11 is the same.  Are we supposed to only have Israel on these maps, or are we to name the map "Israel during the time of Herod" and include these other territories, thus doing to Syria what McCall claims is being done to Israel?  This, of course, is absurd.

I learned during my time of doing research in the UK that the Brits (from Britannia, the Roman name for the territory that included what is now Scotland, or Caledonia) are typically far more historically accurate than most when it comes to the Graeco-Roman world. They were, after all, part of that kingdom. When the Oxford Bible uses "Palestine" I am confident that it derives more from an historical perspective than from a political one.

Israel Haters
I am more bothered by the assertion that "Bible-believing Christians have either knowingly or unwittingly followed the world, pagans and haters of Israel in calling Israel by the anti-Israel term Palestine."

So I am now being lumped together with those who are following Israel hating because I refer to the land of Israel and it's surrounding territories as "Palestine?" This is offensive on many levels, but as an historian I am supposed to represent history as...well, history. I know there are those who misrepresent history to promote their particular social, political, or theological viewpoint, but it is not something a good scholar does. I hope and pray that I would not follow this methodology of poor scholarship.

I am certainly NOT a hater of Israel.
In fact, I probably agree with Zola Levitt's position most of the time. What I am is first, a Christian. Secondly, an historian. When I first read the content forwarded to me I had no idea where it had come from, except that it was a pro-Israel source. What I did know was that the source was not being objective enough to qualify as good scholarship. I would ask Dr. McCall to lay aside his pro-Israel position long enough to view this evidence from an historical perspective.

Using "Palestine" to refer to the Judean region in the ancient world is NOT Israel hating. It is the proper way to refer to an historical concept - the way it was used by the historical subjects being discussed.

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