Are the Palestinians Descendants of the Ancient Philistines?

Margie Jones

Philistines captives depicted at Medinet HabuThe Philistines are a renowned biblical nation associated with Israel. Did modern Palestinians descend from the Ancient Philistines? Image: Philistine captives depicted at Medinet Habu. Credit: Public Domain

One of the most famous nations associated with Ancient Israel in the Bible are the Philistines. Today, one of the most famous nations associated with that land are the Palestinians. Furthermore, the two nations share a similar name. For this reason, many people wonder, are the Palestinians the modern-day descendants of the Ancient Philistines?

Who were the Philistines?

Before examining the Palestinians, let us first establish who the Ancient Philistines really were. They were a nation that lived on the Mediterranean coast of the land of Canaan. Their territory essentially started from Egypt’s border and stretched partway to the border of Phoenicia. Inland from them were the Israelites.

Map of Canaan, with borders constructed from Biblical descriptions

Map of Canaan, with borders constructed from Biblical descriptions. Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Emmanuelm cc by 3.0

The Philistines appear to have emerged from two waves of migration. From around 2000 BCE, there is evidence of extensive Aegean expansion towards the Levant. The Minoans from Crete appear to have established colonies in this area. Perhaps these started off as trading colonies, but in any case, they became the Philistines known by the Biblical patriarchs.

Centuries later, during the time of the Sea Peoples’ invasion of Egypt, another wave of migration came from the Aegean. This occurred in the twelfth century BCE. These new arrivals may well be the Cherethites mentioned in the Bible as a Philistine tribe.

map of ancient tribes of Israel and Philistine

Credit: Janz / wikimedia commons cc b y 3.0

What happened to the Ancient Philistines?

To understand what connection they may or may not have with the Palestinians of our time, we need to understand what happened to the Ancient Philistines. Throughout most of Biblical history, they were enemies of the Israelites. For this reason, the prophet Ezekiel declared that they would be destroyed.

In the years surrounding 600 BCE, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon waged war against the Levant. Part of this campaign involved an attack against Philistia. During this attack, he devastated the Philistine nation. Some of their most important cities were utterly destroyed. Over the following decades, the Philistines limped on as a nation.

However, by the fifth century BCE, it appears that all historical and archaeological trace of them had disappeared. They may have survived as a group for some time thereafter, but Alexander the Great’s conquests in the following century certainly eliminated whatever trace of that nation was left.

Did the Palestinians come from the Philistines?

Since the Philistines were completely destroyed during the sixth to fourth centuries BCE, it is clear that no modern nation comes from them, including the Palestinians. So where did the Palestinians come from?

The answer to this question is both simple and complicated. It is simple in that the term ‘Palestinian’ refers to the people who historically lived in Palestine (originally including the Jews as well). The Greeks began using the term ‘Palestine’ to refer to the whole region between Egypt and Phoenicia. This term does come directly from ‘Philistine.’ The Greeks used this for the whole region because they were obviously more familiar with the coastal nation (the Philistines) than the inland one (the Israelites).

Eventually, after the Jewish-Roman wars of the first and second centuries CE, the Romans began using the term ‘Syria Palaestina’ for the entire area formerly covered by Judea and Samaria. This term for the region remained popular, evolving into the ‘Palestine’ of modern times. Gradually, in modern times, the people who lived there started identifying as Palestinians.

The diverse origin of the Palestinians

Because the term ‘Palestinians’ emerged in modern times simply as a designation for those who lived in Palestine, it originally included a variety of ethnicities. However, most people living in Palestine when this distinct nationality began to emerge were Arabs. Therefore, the majority of Palestinians are Arabs. In fact, most of them are Muslim Arabs, but Christian Arabs in Palestine also identify as Palestinians.

Traditionally, most Palestinians trace their families back to Arab tribes who settled in the area at the time of the Islamic conquest of the region, or even before. Yet, those Islamic conquerors did not completely wipe out the earlier population. Undoubtedly many of the Jews and Samaritans survived this conquest and had descendants.

Therefore, some of the Palestinians must be of Jewish or Samaritan descent. The Samaritans, for their part, came from an enormous mixture of tribes from all over the ancient Assyrian Empire. They arrived in Samaria after the destruction of the northern Ten-Tribe Kingdom of Israel in the eighth century BCE.

In addition, we can hardly imagine that the Babylonian and Greek conquests wiped out every single Philistine family. Even though these conquests wiped out the Philistines as a national or ethnic entity, there must be some descendants today.

Did the ancient Philistines become the Palestinians?

In conclusion, the modern-day Palestinians did not emerge directly from the Ancient Philistines of Biblical times. Rather, the term ‘Palestinians’ describes the population of modern Palestine. It is a population primarily comprised of Arabs. This population arrived in the area principally during the Islamic conquests of the Levant.

In addition to this primarily Arabic component, many modern-day Palestinians must also descend from Ancient Jewish and Samaritan families. Furthermore, some Ancient Philistine families must have descendants among the modern Palestinians, although they are completely imperceptible as a distinct group.

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