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Ancient Canaan Dwellers – 4 / The Philistines

Original Date
May 18, 2009

The Philistines Invaders

The etymology of the word into English is from Old French Philistin, from Late Latin Philistinus, from Late Greek Philistinoi, from Hebrew P’lishtim, (See, e.g., 1 Samuel 17:26, 17:36; 2 Samuel 1:20; Judges 14:3), “people of P’lesheth” (”Philistia”); cf. Akkadian Palastu, Egyptian Palusata; the word probably is the people’s name for itself. Biblical scholars often trace the word to the semitic root p-l-sh  (palash) which means to divide, go through, to roll in, cover or invade[1] , with a possible sense in this name as “migrant” or “invader” [2] .

Jones suggests that the name Philistine is a corruption of the Greek “phyle histia” (”tribe of the hearth”, with the Ionic spelling of “hestia”) [3] . He goes on to suggests that they were responsible for introducing the fixed hearth to the Levant. Very interestingly, this suggestion was raised before the archaeological evidence for the use of the hearths was documented at Philistine sites.

Israel/Palestine which the Bible describes them inhabiting. The Bible contains roughly 250 references to the Philistines or Philistia, and repeatedly refers to them as “uncircumcised”, unlike the Semitic peoples, such as Canaanites, which the Bible relates encountered the Israelites following the Exodus. (See, e.g., 1 Samuel 17:26, 17:36; 2 Samuel 1:20; Judges 14:3).

It has been suggested that the Philistines formed part of the great naval confederacy, the “Sea Peoples,” who had wandered, at the beginning of the 12th century BCE, from their homeland in Crete and the Aegean islands to the shores of the Mediterranean and repeatedly attacked Egypt during the later Nineteenth Dynasty. Though they were eventually repulsed by Ramesses III, he finally resettled them, according to the theory, to rebuild the coastal towns in Canaan.

Philistine's Pentapolis

Papyrus Harris  I [4] details the achievements of the reign of Ramesses III. In the brief description of the outcome of the battles in Year 8 is the description of the fate of the Sea Peoples. Ramesses tells us that, having brought the imprisoned Sea Peoples to Egypt, he “settled them in strongholds, bound in my name. Numerous were their classes like hundred-thousands. I taxed them all, in clothing and grain from the storehouses and granaries each year.” Some scholars suggest it is likely that these “strongholds” were fortified towns in southern Canaan, which would eventually become the five cities – Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, Gath, and Gaza (the Pentapolis) of the Philistines (Redford 1992, p. 289). Israel Finkelstein [5]  has suggested that there may be a period of 25-50 years after the sacking of the Philistine cities and their reoccupation by the Philistines. It is quite possible that for the initial period of time, the Philistines were housed in Egypt, only subsequently late in the troubled end of the reign of Rameses III would they have been allowed to settle Philistia.

Archeological Findings. Archaeology has brought the Philistines to life more vividly than perhaps any other Biblical people, unless the Israelites and the Egyptians. We now know that the Philistines were one of the Sea Peoples that also included the Tjeker, the Denyen (or Danuna), the Shardana and the Weshesh. At the very beginning of the 12th century BCE—the beginning of the period archaeologists call Iron Age I—the Sea Peoples swept out of the Aegean to make their appearance in the archaeological record and in ancient literary references.

The Philistines ultimately settled on and dominated some of the choicest land in Canaan—the agriculturally rich coastal strip from Gaza in the south to Tell Qasile, near modern Tel Aviv, in the north—through which passed one of the world’s most important inter national trade routes. Soon the Philistines began exerting pressure on the Israelite tribes farther inland. This conflict prompted the Israelites to form a monarchy in the mid-11th century in order to meet the Philistine threat more effectively. After about 150 years of dominance in the area, the Philistines faded from the scene—overpowered by the Israelites under King David—and thereafter played only a minor role in events until, in about 600 BCE., they disappeared altogether.

Exactly how the Philistines arrived in Canaan remains a problem. The regnant theory is that they were placed there by the Egyptians as garrison troops, or mercenaries, at a time when Egypt dominated Canaan. We believe it can now be demonstrated that they came instead as conquerors, replacing the Egyptians as the major power in the region.

Much of what we know about the Philistine appearance in Canaan is based on hieroglyphic texts and pictorial reliefs in the magnificent mortuary temple of Pharaoh Rameses III (c. 1186-1155 BCE) at Medinet Habu in the Theban necropolis in Egypt. There we learn of a major confrontation between the Egyptians and a coalition of displaced groups referred to as the “Sea Peoples.” This confrontation took place in the eighth year of Ramesses III, that is, about 1179 BCE.

Scholars have resolved this discrepancy by theorizing that the Egyptians placed the Philistines in Canaan as military vassals, or mercenaries. This idea appears to have originated with the great American archaeologist William F. Albright. In his seminal excavation at Tell Beit Mirsim from 1926 to 1932 Albright was able to divide the Bronze and Iron Ages due to clear destruction layers. His subdivisions became the standard in Palestinian archaeology and remain so to the present day.

By relating historic events to a number of strata, Albright was able to assign absolute dates to each stratum. Phase B2, for example, was dated to the mid-12th century BCE. since Philistine pottery first appears in this phase. In his discussion of the date of the entry of the Philistines into Canaan, Albright planted the seed of the garrison-troop theory to explain the emergence of the Philistines in Canaan: “The Philistines were evidently settled in the Coastal Plain by permission of the Pharaoh, as becomes clear from his [Ramesses III’s] inscriptions [at Medinet Habu].”

The famous German scholar Albrecht Alt adopted this theme in his writings[6] . Albright later added the idea that the Philistines were probably utilized as military vassals or garrison troops by the Egyptians. Then, in 1959 and 1966, a leading American scholar, G. Ernest Wright of Harvard University, further elaborated on the theory [7]. It has now been generally accepted by most scholars.

The most complete statement of the theory was recently outlined by the Israeli Egyptologist Itamar Singer:

“Rameses [III] settled thousands of [Sea Peoples] prisoners in Egyptian fortresses and allotted clothing and provisions to them from the royal treasuries and granaries. Although the text [Papyrus Harris I] is not explicit with regard to the location of these strongholds, most scholars have assumed that the recruits, or at least some of them, were sent to Egyptian military posts in Canaan, where they served as garrison troops defending Egyptian interests against further sea-borne invasions and hostile elements in Canaan itself” (italics added) [8] .

The text on which the garrison-troop theory rests is found in a scroll known as Papyrus Harris I. This document records in great detail the accomplishments of Ramesses III throughout his long reign of 31 years. Written shortly after his death, it is the longest extant papyrus from ancient Egypt. As such, it constitutes the most complete record of the reign of any Egyptian pharaoh. The section we are concerned with (column 76, lines 6–9) states:

“I extended all the frontiers of Egypt and overthrew those who attacked them from their lands. I slew the Denyen in their islands, while the Tjeker and the Philistines were made ashes. The Sherden and the Weshesh of the Sea were made non-existent, captured all together and brought in captivity to Egypt like the sands of the shore. I settled them in strongholds, bound in my name. Their military classes were as numerous as hundred thousands. I assigned portions for them all with clothing and provisions from the treasuries and granaries every year.”

So how did the Philistines come to settle in Canaan? Archaeological evidence from Israel and Sinai provides some, but not all, of the answers. In the archaeological record, the arrival of Aegean newcomers in Canaan in about 1179 BCE. is well attested. Destruction levels of sites in the southwest coastal region mark the end of the Late Bronze Age architectural tradition. Then Aegean-style pottery suddenly appears. This pottery is usually found in a poor, squatter phase of occupation following the severe destruction of an Egyptian center or a Canaanite city. This is not what one would expect of Egyptian captives serving as garrison troops. Captives, according to Papyrus Harris I, were supplied with provisions from government depots and therefore would not be making their own pottery. This locally made Mycenaean pottery is the mark of immigrants coming into a new area with their culture, and at least a segment of their socioeconomic system, intact.

Even more important is where this Mycenaean pottery appears within the archaeological record. It is not found in functioning Egyptian fortresses, but rather in the next phase of occupation after an Egyptian or Canaanite phase. This new material culture is not found in conjunction with Egyptian artifacts at all. The two material culture assemblages are mutually exclusive!

From the archeological evidences It appears that the Egyptians and the Philistines peacefully coexisted for a time, albeit in different areas, before the Egyptians were forced to abandon their northern holdings altogether. The archaeological data do not tell us how this state of affairs came about; we can only speculate. One thing is certain, however; the archaeological data do not support the theory that the Philistines were peacefully settled in Canaan as Egyptian garrison troops.

It appears that the Philistines systematically destroyed the Egyptian and Canaanite centers in their path as they made their way south along the Canaanite coast toward Egypt. Once at the border, they were driven back by Egyptian forces as depicted in the battle scenes at Medinet Habu and as referred to in Papyrus Harris I. Apparently they then retraced their steps to the southwest coastal region of Canaan where they settled on the ruins of the sites they had recently devastated. Whether this was by treaty arrangement or by tacit understanding we do not know.

Following the Egyptian retreat from Canaan in the mid-12th century (marked by the destruction of Egyptian strata at a number of sites), the Philistines became the major power in the region, a position they maintained until they were finally overpowered by the Israelites in the time of King David.  The entry of the Philistines becomes the most logical time to define the end of the Late Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age in Palestine. Politically, the Philistine invasion marks the end of Egyptian preeminence in the area and the beginning of Philistine ascendancy. The Philistines remained the dominant force in Canaan for the next 150 years, when they were in turn supplanted by the Israelites.

The Philistine language. There is some limited evidence in favor of the assumption that the Philistines did originally speak some Indo-European language. A number of Philistine-related words found in the Bible are not Semitic, and can in some cases, with reservations, be traced back to Proto-Indo-European roots. For example, the Philistine word for captain (lord), seren may be related to the Greek word tyrannos (which, however, has not been traced to a PIE root). Some of the Philistine names, such as Goliath, Achish, and Phicol, appear to be of non-Semitic origin, and Indo-European etymologies have been suggested. Recently, an inscription dating to the late 10th / early 9th centuries BCE with two names, very similar to one of the suggested etymologies of the popular Philistine name Goliath (Lydian Alyattes) was found in the excavations at Tell es-Safi / Gath. The appearance of additional non-Semitic names in Philistine inscriptions from later stages of the Iron Age is an additional indication of the non-Semitic origins of this group.

Biblical tradition. The Hebrew tradition recorded in Genesis 10:14 states that the “Pelishtim” (plištîm) proceeded from the “Pathrusim” and the “Casluhim“, who descended from Mizraim (Egypt), son of Ham. The Philistines settled “Pelesheth” (pléšet or plášet), along the eastern Mediterranean coast at about the time when the Israelites settled in the Judean highlands. Biblical references to Philistines living in the area before this, at the time of Abraham or Isaac (e.g. Gen. 21:32-34), are generally regarded by modern scholars to be anachronisms.

The Philistines are spoken of in the Book of Amos as originating in Caphtor: “saith the LORD: Have not I brought up Israel out of the land of Egypt? and the Philistines from Caphtor, and Aram from Kir?” (Amos 9:7). Later, in the 7th. century BCE, Jeremiah makes the same association with Caphtor. “For the LORD will spoil the Philistines, the remnant of the country of Caphtor, (Jeremiah 47:4). Scholars variously identify the land of Caphtor with Cyprus and Crete and other locations in the eastern Mediterranean.

Papyrus Harris I.  Papyrus Harris I is the largest and most magnificent of the papyri to survive from ancient Egypt. Along with four other scrolls, it was found by natives in 1855, in a hole in the floor of a cliff-tomb near Deir el-Medineh, Thebes. The document was purchased by A.C. Harris of Alexandria, Egypt, hence its name. It is now in the possession of the British Museum.

Organized into seven main sections, Papyrus Harris I is a detailed statement of Ramesses’ benefactions to gods and men during his reign of over 31 years. Ninety-five percent of the document deals with gifts and lists. The first section is an introduction, followed by three sections listing Ramesses’ gifts to the major Egyptian temples at Thebes, Heliopolis and Memphis. At the beginning of each of these sections is a vignette, showing the king worshipping the gods to whom the following section is devoted. The text of each section is then introduced by a prayer, which merges into a recital of the king’s building and other benefactions for the god, concluding with an appeal to him, calling attention to the following lists. These lists contain six different classes of material: (1) the god’s estate; (2) his income; (3) the king’s new gifts to him; (4) grain for the old feasts; (5) offerings for new feasts founded by him; and (6) offerings to the Nile-god.

Papyrus Harris I

The photo at top, for example, is of the beginning of the Theban section of Papyrus Harris. Rameses III (right) is shown facing (from left to right) the Egyptian deities Khonsu, Mut and Amon-Re. The accompanying text states, “I tell the prayers, praises, adoration, laudations, mighty deeds and benefactions which I did for thee, in thy presence, O lord of gods.”

The fifth section is a general one devoted to offerings to smaller temples, followed by a section summarizing the king’s generosity to the gods. Finally, the seventh and last section is a historical recitation of Rameses’ victories over his enemies. This is considered by most scholars to be an accurate record of his successes against the Sea Peoples, the Edomites and the Libyans. Author Bryant Wood, however, suggests in the accompanying article that Rameses’ claims regarding his supposed subjugation of the Sea Peoples is mere boasting and not a reliable historical account .

Misuse of the name. British writers of the 19th century and very early 20th century sometimes referred to the Arabs of Palestine as “Philistines”. This was apparently not due to a belief in a strong connection with the ancient Philistines, but merely reflects the former convention that “Philistine” simply denotes “native of Palestine.” The Arabic word for Palestine,  which is pronounced “Falast?n,” derives from the Latin term Palaestina. After the Bar-Kokhba revolt of the Judeans and the subsequent Roman repression and exile, the Romans renamed the entire district of Judea “Palaestina” as a mark of insult to their defeated enemies. This is because of their knowledge of the region’s history and the fact that the Philistines and the Israelites were warring peoples. The Arabic language’s lack of the “p” phoneme, and the tendency to arabicize the “t” and “k” of foreign words as the corresponding Semitic emphatic consonants, resulted in this nomenclature after the Muslim conquest brought Arabs to the region in 636 CE, often used interchangeably for the entire greater Syrian district (Arabic: “Shaam“).

In non-historical usage, the word philistine was introduced by Matthew Arnold  to denote a person deficient in the culture of the liberal arts, or a smug and intolerant opponent of the bohemian, one who exhibits a restrictive moral code.

The End. The Philistines lost their independence to Tiglath-Pileser III of Assyria by 732 BCE, and revolts in following years were all crushed. Later, Nebuchadrezzar II of Babylon eventually conquered all of Syria and the Kingdom of Judah, and the former Philistine cities became part of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. There are few references to the Philistines after this time period. However, Ezekiel 25:16, Zechariah 9:6, and 1Macabees 3 make mention of the Philistines, indicating that they still existed as a people in some capacity after the Babylonian invasion. Eventually all traces of the Philistines as a people or ethnic group disappear. Subsequently the cities were under the control of Persians, Jews (Hasmonean Kingdom), Greeks (Seleucid Empire), Romans, and subsequent empires.


[1]  Jastrow, Marcus. A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature. New York: Judaica Press, 1989., p.1185
[2]  plš – The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition: Appendix II Semitic Roots (2000).
[3]  Jones, A. 1972. The Philistines and the Hearth: Their Journey to the Levant. Journal of Near Eastern Studies 31: 343–50}}
[4]  Papyrus Harris I is also known as the Great Harris Papyrus and (less accurately) simply the Harris Papyrus (though there are a number of other papyri in the Harris collection). Its technical designation is Papyrus British Museum 9999.
[5]  Israel Finkelstein is an Israeli archaeologist and academic. He is currently the Jacob M. Alkow Professor of the Archaeology of Israel in the Bronze Age and Iron Ages at Tel Aviv University and is also the co-director of excavations at Megiddo in northern Israel. Finklestein is a well known archaeologist worldwide and has been described as being a “lightning rod” for controversy. Some critics see in his writings’ unconventional interpretations regarding biblical history and timelines, especially in regards to when books of the Bible may have been authored and the extent of the Kingdoms of David and Solomon. Finkelstein has explicitly rejected the ultra-minimalist position that places the composition of the Bible in the Persian or Greek period, i.e., after the return from the Babylonian exile, however, his description of tenth century Jerusalem, the period associated with the Biblical Kings David and Solomon, as a mere “village” or tribal center is rejected by most biblical scholars and archaeologists working in the region. The professor has said in regards to the discussions that “New archaeological discoveries should not erode one’s sense of tradition and identity”.
[6]  “Brief writing on the history of the people of Israel”. Selection in a volume; Evangelist publishing house: Berlin 1962 [1963].
[7]  An introduction to Biblical archaeology -Studies in theology- (1960);
[8]  Shlomo Isre’el, Itamar Singer And Ran Zadok (ed.): Past Links: studies in the languages and cultures of the ancient Near East. (Israel Oriental Studies XVIII.) 459pp. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1998.
[9]  Adapted from James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt [Chicago: Univ. Of Chicago Press, 1906], vol. 4, pp. 87–92


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