James Cooper

Is Palestine the Ancient Greek Name for the Children of Israel?

The Biblical patriarch Jacob - renamed as Israel - wrestling an angel of the Lord by the Jabbok River. Illustration by Gustave Dore.
The Biblical patriarch Jacob - renamed as Israel - wrestling an angel of the Lord by the Jabbok River. Illustration by Gustave Dore.

In a paper published in 1999, David M. Jacobson noted that the Greek name for Palestine – first entering the historical record in the writings of Herodotus in the fifth century B.C.E. – bore a striking relationship with the etymological origin for the name Israel.

Herodotus had written about “a district of Syria called Palaistinê”, describing the region stretching from Phoenicia to Egypt, and among whose residents he noted the practice of circumcision.

Jacobson had observed that the first seven letters of the name Palaistinê were found in the Koine Greek word for wrestler – palaistês.  As is well known, the biblical patriarch, Jacob, had been renamed Israel – which in Hebrew means one who struggles, or wrestles, with God – after Jacob had spent all night wrestling with an angel by the river Jabbok.

According to Jacobson, a Greek visitor to the region would have likely learned about the etymology for the name of the people who were once dominant in the area, and, noting the similar-sounding term for the Hebrew word for Philistines – Palashtim – would have chosen a Grecian form for the name that “punned” on the similar sound, while explicitly bearing the Greek meaning connected to Israel’s etymological origins.

The argument is compelling, and yet, there remains a consensus among many scholars that the Greeks of Herodotus’ time merely transliterated a long-standing name for the coastal region that was largely occupied by the Philistines.

As early as the 12th century B.C.E., the Egyptians had described a tribe of the Sea Peoples who had immigrated to the coastal region of Canaan, called P-l-s-t.  The Assyrians of the 8th century B.C.E.  had referred to the northern Kingdom of Israel as Bit Humri – the House of the biblical Israelite King Omri – while referring to the southern kingdom of Judah as Ya’udi. They had referred to the Philistines as Palashtu or Pilisti.

Historically, both the kingdoms of Israel and Judah roughly corresponded to the area of the West Bank, encompassing Jerusalem, while the coastal region around Gaza, Ashkelon, and Ashdod was associated with the Philistines.

In Greco-Roman writings after the time of Herodotus, the term Palaestina, or Syria Palaestina, was often used to refer to a region much broader than the narrower coastal domain of the Philistines. Aristotle, in the 4th century B.C.E., for instance, used the term to describe the region encompassing the Dead Sea, which was far inland from the Philistine coast.

With the Jewish Hasmonean conquest in the second century B.C.E. – followed by the Roman conquest close to seventy years later – the area roughly described as Palestine comprised most of the region that would encompass the Herodian Kingdom (later governed by a Roman prefect) of Judaea, stretching much further north, south, and west than the classical boundaries of the former Kingdom of Judah.

In coins minted in the Hellenistic era, Palestine was never used to describe the area, though the name continued to be used by many Greco-Roman writers to describe the broader region between Syria and Egypt, most likely because Herodotus by then had long since entered the classical literary canon, and so, his geographical designations continued to carry sway among the educated class.

In 135 C.E., after the Jewish rebellion by Simeon Bar Kochba, the Emperor Hadrian renamed Jerusalem Aelia Capitolina, and from then on, the region’s Roman rulers stopped referring to Judaea, reverting back to the pre-Hasmonean classical Greek designation of Syria Palaestina.

To get at a more contextual understanding behind the initial Greek choice of the word Palaistinê for this region, it is important to consider a number of historical facts in the development of Greek and Jewish history, both during and before Herodotus’ time.

By Herodotus’ time, the Israelite kingdoms of Israel and Judah had long since vanished from history. In the case of the northern kingdom, Israel had been been conquered by the Assyrians around the time that Greece had just come out of its dark ages. In fact, much of the court histories of both Jewish kingdoms had been initially compiled – and later preserved in the Hebrew Bible – prior to the Greeks adopting their alphabet.

It’s not a small point. Due to the dominance of the bible in historical awareness, it is often overlooked that over 99% of ancient writings as recently as Roman times are forever lost to us.

Outside of the dry climate of Egypt – and except for the odd fragmentary stone inscriptions – the spotty surviving historical record we have of Hellenic and Hellenistic times has been mostly preserved through brittle, perishable manuscripts that have been copied and recopied through generations.

The oldest surviving complete text of Homer’s Iliad, for instance, dates to the tenth century C.E., more than 1,500 years after it was first committed to writing. Many writings of once-famous Greek writers are only known to us through paraphrases and as excerpts from later writers whose manuscripts have come down to us.

By the time the essential classics of Greek myth – the Iliad and the Odyssey – had been committed to writing (having started off their lives as orally transmitted epics), the monarchical histories of Israel and Judah had come to an end.

And yet, Israel and Judah’s court histories were remarkably preserved in a manner that Herodotus – commonly feted as the father of history – could only have envied.

However, by Herodotus’ time, the people of the former Kingdom of Israel were long gone, with but a remnant of Samaritans hanging on in Samaria, while a small colony of Jewish exiles returning from Babylonia – proto-Zionists, one might say – were struggling to rebuild their Temple in barren Jerusalem, with but a small residential footprint in the Persian administrative province of Yehud.

Meanwhile, a long-standing military colony of Judean mercenaries had been thriving in southern Egypt, on the island of Elephantine. It is worth keeping in mind that we only know about these fifth century B.C.E. Jewish returnees to Jerusalem because of the preservation of the historical record through the Bible. We only know about the contemporaneous existence of the Jewish colony in Elephantine because of the happenstance that archaeologists were able to discover fragments of surviving papyri, preserved in the dry climate of the Egyptian Delta.

In both instances, Herodotus was likely unaware of the specific conditions of these contemporaneous Jewish colonies. In his time, Herodotus was restricted to the places he personally visited, the people he talked to, and the sources that were then available to him.

The surviving remnants of circumcised residents in the region of 5th century B.C.E. Palestine – whether Samarians, Judean returnees, or the mixed, religiously syncretic (and partially Israelite) populations that never left – may have had little in common with one another at the time, except for the historical memory that they had all once long ago been bonded together as tribal members of a larger ancestral confederation.

In Herodotus’ time, Aramaic would have been the dominant language of the region of Palestine, which was then administered by Persia. Many, if not most, of the circumcised residents of that region might have described themselves as B’nai Yisrael – the children of Israel.

In this respect, of particular note is the Greek suffix that follows the word palaist – ine. The suffix is descriptive, and is generally translated as being “in the nature of” or “the product of.”

If, then, one were to venture a translation of the Greek word Palaistine, the closest one could get would be “the product of, or in the nature of, a wrestler.” Essentially, it’s the kind of name one would use to describe a very particular (and once dominant) group of circumcised people living between Phoenicia and Egypt. If one were to choose the closest etymological Hebrew cognate to this Greek word, it would be B’nai Yisrael, which can conceivably be translated as the children of a wrestler.

Intriguingly, the ancient Greek usage of the word Palaistine extends beyond the boundaries of the Land of Israel, in a domain once known as Illyria (encompassing modern-day Albania and Bulgaria). In classical times, there existed a small town by the name of Palaist, considered to be Illyrian.

In the late Antiquity writings of Pseudo-Plutarch (third to fourth century C.E.), an ancient Greek myth is preserved about the Strymon River in the Balkans, once called Palaistinos, after a man who threw himself into the river and killed himself, upon learning of the death of his son.

It may very well be that behind this myth is a memory trace that the river had been named after a colony that had once settled along this river, known as Palaistinos, since the suffix is very clearly an ethnic tribal designation, particularly in its Illyrian usage.

If so, what could possibly be the connection between an Illyrian colony of Palaistinos and its similar Greek designation for the circumcised inhabitants of the Land of Israel? As we’ll see, there is indeed an Illyrian connection with the founding myth of a major Greek city of antiquity and a particular Israelite tribe in the northeastern region of the Land of Israel.

Early Encounters Between Theban Greeks and the Israelite Tribe of Dan

By the fifth century B.C.E., the record of earlier Greek history – particularly the Greek history that ran contemporaneous with the time of Israel’s early conquest and expansion throughout the Land of Israel in the centuries preceding – had been obscured by layers of orally transmitted poetry and myth, with succeeding layers added once the Greeks came out of their dark age and started to create a literary canon, employing an alphabet that was widely understood to have come from Phoenicia.

To the Greeks of Herodotus’ time, Phoenicians were often considered as south Syrians, whether on the coastal plain of Canaan or further inland.  That the Greeks had adapted their alphabet from the area of Canaan – particularly its northern region – is indicative of a level of cultural pollination that can perhaps inform our understanding as to whether the Greeks had an early encounter with the Children of Israel, subsequently preserved in their myths, with echoes down through the ages that led to their peculiar choice to designate the region below Phoenicia as Palaistinê.

According to Greek legend, the Greeks received their alphabet from a Phoenician named Cadmus ,who is considered to be the founder of the Greek city Thebes.   Cadmus had a son named Illyrius, who is considered the founder of Illyria and the ancestor of the Illyrians.

The name Cadmus is of Semitic origin, with its root, kedem, signaling a person from the east.  It bears a phonetic similarity with a people known in Hebrew as the Kadmoni, or Kadmonites, who lived in the northeastern part of the Land of Israel, at the foot of Mount Hermon.

The first century B.C.E. Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus, quoted the 4th century B.C.E. Greek historian, Hecataeus of Abdera, in connecting Cadmus with another founding Greek figure of legend by the name of Danaus, but in the context of both being exiled from Egypt after a plague of pestilence:

Hence the natives of the land surmised that unless they removed the foreigners, their troubles would never be resolved. At once, therefore, the aliens were driven from the country, and the most outstanding and active among them banded together and, as some say, were cast ashore in Greece and certain other regions; their leaders were notable men, chief among them being Danaus and Cadmus.

But the greater number were driven into what is now called Judaea, which is not far distant from Egypt and was at that time utterly uninhabited. The colony was headed by a man called Moses, outstanding both for his wisdom and for his courage.

We cannot be sure whether Diodorus has accurately quoted Hecataeus, who lived three centuries before him. By the first century B.C.E., the Greek world was well acquainted with the religious canon of the Jews, as the Bible had by then been translated into Greek.

It is a telling detail, however, that a Greek historian would specifically single out Danaus and Cadmus as having their origins in what is clearly the founding Jewish story of the Exodus. In Greek legend, Danaus was the ancestor of the tribe of the Danaoi, who had founded the Mycenaean city of Argos. His mother was Sida, the eponym for the Phoenician city of Sidon.

Many scholars have speculated about a highly revealing connection between the Greek Danaoi and the Israelite tribe of Dan. For one, Danaus was noted as being a ship builder and expert navigator. In the Song of Deborah, recorded in the Book of Judges, the tribe of Dan was singled out for staying by its ships instead of joining the other Israelite tribes for battle.

Even more curious was the Danite relationship with the Philistines, whose material culture has long been noted by archaeologists as having Greek Mycenaean influences. The earliest mention of a tribe roughly cognate with the Danites were the Denyen, who are  mentioned in a 12th century B.C.E. Egyptian inscription as being one of the Sea Peoples who – like the P-l-s-t – left Egypt to settle on the coast of Canaan.

Initially, the Tribe of Dan lived near the coast of the Land of Israel, by the Philistines. The most famous Danite is Samson, whose resemblance to the Greek god Heracles has long been noticed. Heracles, incidentally, was of the Danaoi bloodline, by way of the royal family of Argos.

At some point, in or around the 12 century B.C.E., the Danites took up residence in the north eastern portion of the Land of Israel, by conquering a town located at the foot of Mount Hermon, known as Laish. Laish had previously been allied with the Phoenicians of Sidon. Was this the same area around Mount Hermon in which the Kadmonites were believed to have lived?

The archaeological remnants of this Danite settlement, now called Tel Dan, are most famous for bearing the earliest known mention of the House of David, dating to the ninth century B.C.E.

The Israeli archaeologist, Yigael Yadin, was the first scholar to seriously consider the possibility that the Greek Danaoi and the Israelite Tribe of Dan may have been one and the same. His colleagues at the time had mostly dismissed his speculations, but more recently, in 2016, excavations at Tel Dan revealed the existence of artifacts that, by chemical analysis, were found “to mostly originate in the Argolid in Greece, the center of Mycenaean culture during the Bronze Age.”

According to Haaretz, the discovery revived speculation that the Danites may have initially come to Canaan as Egyptian-hired mercenaries, eventually forming ties with the other Tribes of Israel as they settled into Laish by Mount Hermon.

Whatever the case, this raises the intriguing possibility that the Tribe of Dan – at some point, unequivocally identifying itself as being among the Tribes of Israel – maintained the prior Kadmonite trade in Laish with Mycenaean Greece by way of continuing links with the Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon.

The Hebrew memory of a long-standing mercantile trading link between the Tribe of Dan and Greece (in Hebrew, Yavan) has been preserved in the Book of Ezekiel, in which it is observed:

Dan and Javan paid for your wares, traversing back and forth. Wrought iron, cassia, and cane were among your merchandise.

During the Greek Dark Ages, while the northern town of Laish was under the Kingdom of Israel, it could very well have been that additional Israelite trading colonies were established in Illyria, and that a trace of historical memory was preserved by the Greeks in their myths surrounding the personage of Cadmus, who is credited with founding the Mycenaean city of Thebes, along with bequeathing the Mycenaean Greeks with their Canaanite/Phoenician alphabet, which would have been indistinguishable from the Israelite alphabet used at that time.

Intriguingly, one of the founding figures in the legend of Thebes was King Laius, in whose name one can phonetically detect the traces of the city of Laish.

Through the Danite settlement at Laish, then, the Greek legendary figures of Danaus and Cadmus may have come together in various traces of Greek historical memory, that would linger on and perhaps explain why Hecataeus of Abdera would explicitly link these two Greek founding legends with the foundational story of Israelite origins in Egypt.

But rather than coming directly to Greece by way of Egypt, it may very well be that an Israelite tribe of settlers, originating from the foot of Mount Hermon, established founding colonies in Thebes, Argos, and Illyria, leaving various traces of memory in Greek oral traditions that became more obscure with the passage of time.

It is intriguing to consider the possibility that a Greek-speaking Israelite colony in Illyria may have preserved the memory of its etymological origins in the choice of its name, and that at some time in the mists of history prior to Herodotus, it was a Greek tradition to similarly employ this name as the prevailing ethnonym for the circumcised residents occupying the region stretching between Phoenicia and Egypt.

As for the River Strymon, formerly named Palaistinos in ancient times, it would go on to be called the Struma River, and would enter the annals of the history of Mandatory Palestine as the namesake for the ship, the Struma, which was torpedoed while en route to Palestine, killing 781 of its Jewish refugee passengers.

About the Author
James Cooper is a practicing lawyer in the Greater Toronto Area. He has written and spoken publicly on matters of interest to the legal profession and to the Jewish community at large.
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