I’ve recently condemned the focus on Reza Aslan’s religion – Islam – when talking about his new book about Jesus, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth”. I think there is no room for propaganda when reviewing history. No one is objective. But we can try to be truthful.
Putting aside the thesis of his book i.e., that Jesus was an anti-Roman Jewish revolutionary, in all his interviews, Aslan goes out of his way to refer to Jesus’ Judea i.e., the land of the Jews, as “Palestine”. For all I care, he can call it “Nebraska”, as long as he doesn’t give the impression that this is really what it was called by the inhabitants of Judea in Jesus’ time. But Aslan wraps this “Palestine” name with a veneer of history. When challenged on his use of the name “Palestine” for ancient “Judea”, his answer is that he’s using the “Roman designation” for the area. According to Aslan, this designation was “Syria Palestine”. This is absolutely wrong. More than this, it demonstrates a certain cynicism when manipulating history for the purpose of ideology. Let’s look at this word “Palestine”. Where does it come from?
In the 13th century BCE, the Egyptians speak of “Sea People” arriving on the Mediterranean Coast from the Aegean. It’s widely accepted that one of these “Sea People” are the people that the Bible, in Hebrew, calls “Plishtim”. In English, they are called “Philistines”. They roughly occupied an area on the Mediterranean Coast from Gaza northward, to Ashdod in modern Israel, and inland to the city of Gath. These are the people of Delilah and Goliath. I repeat, they were an Aegean people from the area of modern day Greece.
The archaeology demonstrates that when they arrived around 1200 BCE, they were – in diet, art, and habits – pretty Greek. They resembled, say, the people of Crete or Mycenae.
The Book of Exodus refers to a land corridor along the Mediterranean as “Derech Plishtim” i.e., “the highway of the Philistines” (Exodus 13:17). In this passage, the name seems to be generic. In other words, in the late Bronze Age, say, 1500 BCE, “Philistine” seems to be a generic term for Aegean people that we would call Minoans or Mycenaeans today.
So far, so good. There were an Aegean people called “Philistines” in the area of modern Israel from around 1500 BCE when they came as traders to 1200 BCE when they settled down, to the 7th century BCE when they disappeared after the Assyrian invasion of the area. During the 500 years that they were settled there, they became increasingly more “Canaanitish”. During the period of the Judges (14th to 10th century BCE), they were the arch-enemies of the Israelites.
After the Philistines disappeared from the historical stage, the name “Palestina” lingered on. Meaning, the people were gone, the name lingered. It appears in references here and there in classic Greek writings e.g., Herodotus. By the time Jesus was born, there hadn’t been any Philistines in the area for some 600 years. The name does not appear anywhere in the Gospels. And the people living in Judea at the time of Jesus – including Jesus and all his disciples – would never have referred to their country as “Palestine”. Even the Romans didn’t call the area Palestine. Remember, when they crucified him, the Romans put a plaque over Jesus’ head with the inscription – in three languages – “King of the Jews”, not the “Philistines” (Matthew 27:37; Mark 15:26; Luke 23:38; John 19:19).
Some 35 years after the crucifixion, some 4 years after the stoning of Jesus’ brother James, the area of Judea erupted in a massive Jewish revolt against Rome. The country fought between 66 CE(AD) and 70 CE. In August of 70 Jerusalem, the capital of Judea, was destroyed. The Temple of God which had lasted for some 1,000 years in two incarnations, was now in ruins – a smoldering heap. This was the Temple that Jesus wept over when he imagined its destruction (Luke 19:41). Judea fought for another 3 years at the rock fortress of Masada by the Dead Sea. Then, in 73, as the Romans were about to conquer the fortress, rather than become Roman slaves, the last Jewish defenders took their own lives and the lives of their women and children.
At this point, the Romans felt that there was no one left in Judea that could rise in revolution. They were wrong. From 115 – 117 CE, the Jews – primarily outside Judea – fought a bitter war with the Romans. The main centers of revolution were Alexandria in Egypt, Cyrene in modern day Libya, and Cyprus. The Jewish revolt basically saved the Parthian Empire from a Roman onslaught. After they licked their wounds, in 132 CE the Jews of Judea once again rose in revolution – this time under a leader called “Bar Kochba” i.e., “the son of the star”. When the Bar Kochba revolt was finally put down in 135 CE, the Romans exiled the majority of the Jewish people and renamed Judea “Palestina”. To be clear, “Syria Palestine” officially became a Roman province about a century after Jesus’ crucifixion. The idea was to erase the Jewish presence from Judea and to designate their homeland with reference to their Biblical enemies. It was a last humiliation. To also be clear, there were no Philistines at the time and even if some had miraculously survived, they were not Arabs but Greeks.
The area of Palestine never became an independent state. In the 7th century, Muslim armies conquered it, precipitating battles with Christian crusaders for the “Holy Land”. These bloody battles are now remembered as the “Crusades”. In modern times, the province of Palestine passed from the Ottoman Turks to the British. In 1922, the British gifted a chunk of Palestine to the Hashemite clan from Saudi Arabia. In 1946, 80% of British mandate Palestine – the area east of the Jordan River – became the modern Arab Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. One year later, 20% of British controlled Palestine became what is today the State of Israel and the Palestinian territories.
But to return to Aslan, it’s bit of a name game, isn’t it? If the British had called the area east of the Jordan River “Palestine” instead of “Transjordan” i.e., “over the Jordan”, no one today could say there is no Palestinian state. If you write a book about Jesus and you call his country by the name that he called it i.e., “Judea”, the politically correct armies of anti-Israel activists may get upset with you. So Aslan calls ancient Judea “Palestine” and hides behind the reference to the “Roman designation” for the province. This is very cynical. It’s very cynical to fudge the history of the Aegean Philistines 3200 years ago, lingering references to their name, and the Roman province of the second century CE. It’s very cynical to retroactively place modern Arab Palestinians into Jesus’ Jewish Hellenistic world.
But let’s say the Romans had called “Judea” “Palestine” in Jesus’ time – which they didn’t – why would a writer focusing on Jesus as a Jewish patriot i.e., a Zealot, want to call Jesus’ country by the name that his enemies used? It’s as if I wrote a book about a native American hero and kept referring to him as an “Indian”, because that’s what white people called him.
Professor Aslan, you are right to decry the use of propaganda against you. But, as they say; do unto others what you would want them to do unto you. In Jesus’ day, his country was called Judea, and the overall designation for the land was “Israel” – as it is today. You can argue about politics, but let’s not change history to suit our views.