Jason Hensley
Uncovering the Jewish roots of Christianity

Jews Were Some of the First Palestinians


With the war in Gaza, many of us are consistently hearing the term “Palestinian.” The media obviously use the term repeatedly, protestors write it on their signs, and we use it when we talk to our friends about current events. In today’s society, it clearly identifies the Arabs and their descendants, both Muslim and Christian, who lived in the area of Palestine before the establishment of the State of Israel. 

But that isn’t what it always meant – and an understanding of the term creates a better picture of the region and its history. Some of the first “Palestinians” were, in fact, Jews.


“Palestinian” is a fairly broad term, simply meaning a person from Palestine, just as Canadian means a person from Canada, European means a person from Europe, and so on. Therefore, to find the initial meaning and application of the term, we must look back to determine when the region was first called Palestine. Here is where many make a mistake.

A common narrative pits the name “Judea” against the name “Palestine.” Proponents of this approach argue that the area was initially called Judea by the Romans, and then sometime after the Bar-Kochba rebellion, Hadrian changed the name to Palestine (after the Philistines) in an attempt to remove any connection between the land and the Jews. Numerous books about Israel present this version of events.


While this is a tidy approach, that tidiness is its downfall. it’s too simple. It’s true that Hadrian changed the name to Palestine: Roman coins call the area “Judea” in the early 130s and “Palestine” later. Nevertheless, unlike what many believe, neither Hadrian himself nor any of his contemporaries invented the name. 

Instead, by the time of Hadrian, the term had been used for centuries. Herodotus, a Greek historian from the fifth century BCE, wrote about Palestine:

“Now from the Persian country to Phoenicia there is a wide and vast tract of land; and from Phoenicia this peninsula runs beside our sea by way of the Syrian Palestine and Egypt, which is at the end of it; in this peninsula there are just three nations” (Herodotus, Histories, 4.39.2, trans. A.D. Godley, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1920). 

Other Greek writers, such as Aristotle, Polemon of Athens, and Agatharchides also used the term hundreds of years before Hadrian. Clearly, Palestine was a thing before Hadrian himself ever was.


But why does this matter? Because history impacts the way that we understand our world. Because we want to base our thinking on what is actually true. And, because the prevailing narrative argues that Hadrian changed the name as a purposeful dig against the Jews – removing their name of Judea and renaming it after their enemies the Philistines. It’s possible that he indeed named it after their enemies. However, ancient sources suggest that this wasn’t the case, as some of the first Palestinians were actually Jews.

Ovid wrote Latin poetry during the first century BCE. In his poem Ars Amatoria, he too wrote of Palestine:

“You may make a beginning on the day on which tearful Allia was stained with the blood of the Latian wounds; on the day, too, when the festival recurs, observed each seventh day by the Syrian of Palestine, a day not suited for the transaction of business” (Ovid in The Heroides, trans. Henry Riley, London: George Bell and Sons, 1890, 394–395). 

At first read, this appears similar to Herodotus’s reference. Both connect the area to Syria. Yet Ovid adds a crucial detail. Unlike Herodotus, who described the area itself, Ovid described the people. This “Syrian of Palestine” is unmistakable: he or she eschews work every seventh day. These first-century Palestinians are none other than Jews. 

Yet Ovid wasn’t the only author who described the Jews in this way. Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish philosopher from the first century CE, wrote that Moses led the Israelites into Palestine (Philo of Alexandria, On the Life of Moses, trans. C.D. Yonge, 1.29.163). Josephus, one of Philo’s contemporaries and a Jewish historian, described his own community as Syrian Palestinians:

“The Ethiopians learned to circumcise their privy parts from the Egyptians; with this addition, the Phoenicians and Syrians that live in Palestine confess that they learned it of the Egyptians; yet it is evident that no other of the Syrians that live in Palestine, besides us alone, are circumcised” (Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, trans. William Whiston, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1987, 10.3.262). 

These references not only show that Hadrian wouldn’t have changed the name of Judea to Palestine to spite the Jews (since some of them identified as Palestinians), but they also demonstrate that the term “Palestinian” applied to Jews many centuries ago, first, before it ever applied to the Arabs of the 20th century. 

Many protestors claim that Israel is “settler colonialist,” meaning that its founders lacked historic ties or rights to the land, and simply moved there to take the territory and either rule over or expel its Arab inhabitants. Settler colonialism delegitimizes Israel in that it claims that Jews have no connection to the land of Palestine. Some of those who see Israel through this lens have argued that Jews were never historically in the land and that the biblical stories are just myths (indeed, the settler colonialist lens requires this). 


Yet everything considered so far calls this narrative into question. Regardless of one’s stance toward the Bible, Jews were initially the people of the nation of Judah (hence their name). Judah is clearly a historical place referenced in numerous historical documents. The Persians renamed the area Yahud (which still echoes the name Judah), and the Romans eventually called it Judea. The Greeks, while calling it Judea, also termed it Palestine. 

The fact that some of the first Palestinians were Jews doesn’t take away from the Palestinians of today and their ties to their homes and the land itself as well. When someone’s family has lived somewhere for generations, they will have a connection to place. Arab Palestinians have an understandable link to Palestine. Nevertheless, this fact that some of the first Palestinians were Jews makes it clear that settler colonialism cannot cope with the complexity of the situation. 

But many of those who present the settler colonialism lens skip over the ancient history. Rather than considering the history of the Palestinian Jews and the Palestinian Arabs, they begin their study around the turn of the 20th century. Yet when historians start their consideration of Israel with the Balfour Declaration in 1917 and focus solely on whether or not the Balfour Declaration gives Israel legitimacy, they commit a major error. Starting the history of Palestine in 1917 presents a myopic view of the land, and one that skews all of the history toward the Arabs. Histories that begin this way and at this point are biased from the start, and unfortunately, don’t aid in any kind of reconciliation or civil rights for Arab Palestinians. Instead, they infuriate American university students and misinform the world populace at large so that Israel’s very existence is delegitimized. 

And yet, historically, some of the first Palestinians were Jews. 

When forming our understanding of the Levant and Israel’s right to existence, we do well to look further than merely one hundred years ago. The history of the Jews in the land goes back centuries and the roots are deep. Every year, Jews stated at Pesach, “Next year in Jerusalem,” not because they wanted to become settler colonialists, but because they longed to go back to the land that their community had tilled and cultivated for generations. They were some of the first Palestinians – and only once that history is understood and acknowledged can the foundations be laid for peace.

About the Author
Jason Hensley is an award-winning author who specializes in sacred religious texts. He teaches Biblical Hebrew and Biblical Greek, and lectures regularly throughout the world on Judaism, Christianity, and the relationship between them. He holds an MA in Biblical Languages, a DMin in Biblical Studies, and a PhD in Holocaust Studies.
Related Topics
Related Posts