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This article is about the ethnic group. For the derogatory term, see Philistinism. For other uses, see Philistines (disambiguation).

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The Philistines (/ˈfɪlɨstnz/, /ˈfɪlɨstnz/, /fɨˈlɪstɨnz/, or /fɨˈlɪstnz/;[1] Hebrew: פְּלִשְׁתִּים, Plištim), Pleshet or Peleset, were a people who as part of the Sea Peoples appeared in the southern coastal area of Canaan at the beginning of the Iron Age (circa 1175 BC), most probably from the Aegean region. According to the Bible, they ruled the five city-states (the "Philistine Pentapolis") of Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron and Gath, from Wadi Gaza in the south to the Yarqon River in the north, but with no fixed border to the east.[2] The Bible paints them as the Kingdom of Israel's most dangerous enemy.[2] Originating somewhere in the Aegean,[3] their population was around 25,000 in the 12th century BC, rising to a peak of 30,000 in the 11th century BC, of which the Aegean element was not more than half the total, and perhaps much less.[4]

Nothing is known for certain about the original language or languages of the Philistines; however, they were not part of the Semitic Canaanite population.[2] There is some limited evidence in favour of the assumption that the Philistines were Indo-European-speakers either from Greece and/or Luwian speakers from the coast of Asia Minor. 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.[5] By the beginning of the first millennium BC, they had adopted the general Canaanite language of the region.


The etymology of the word into English is from Old French Philistin, from Classical Latin Philistinus, found in the writings of Josephus, from Late Greek Philistinoi (Phylistiim in the Septuagint) found in the writings by Philo, from Hebrew Plištim, (e.g. 1 Samuel 17:36; 2 Samuel 1:20; Judges 14:3; Amos 1:8), "people of Plešt" ("Philistia"); cf. Akkadian Palastu, Egyptian Parusata.

Biblical scholars often trace the word to the Semitic root p-l-š (Hebrew: פלש‎) which means "to divide," "go through," "to roll in," "cover," or "invade."[6] The name of the Philistines in their own language is not known; however, the Bible also relates them as the people of "Kaftor" (Hebrew: כפתור‎, i.e. Jeremiah 47, Verse 4). "Kaftor" is not of Hebrew or Semitic origin, which supports the possibility that this word is similar to the name they called themselves.

Another theory, proposed by Jacobsohn and supported by others, is that the name derives from the attested Illyrian locality Palaeste, whose inhabitants would have been called Palaestīnī according to normal grammatical practice.[7]

Another historian suggests that the name Philistine is a corruption of the Greek "phyle histia" ("tribe of the hearth", with the Ionic spelling of "hestia").[8] He goes on to suggest that they were responsible for introducing the fixed hearth to the Levant. This suggestion was raised before archaeological evidence for the use of the hearths was documented at Philistine sites.


(Dates are approximate)

  • 1475 BC: Thutmose III conquers Canaan; beginning of Egyptian domination of southern Canaanite plain.
  • 1175 BC: Ramses III defeats the Sea Peoples including Philistines and settles captives in fortresses in southern Canaan (alternatively, Philistines invade and settle the coastal plain for themselves).[9]
  • 1150 BC: final Egyptian withdrawal from southern Canaan.
  • 10th–7th centuries BC: Philistines lose most of their distinctive culture and absorb that of surrounding peoples.[10]


Canaan and the Late Bronze collapse (1550–1200 BC)

Canaan (meaning the area covering roughly modern Israel and southern Lebanon) in the Late Bronze Age was a collection of city-states under the authority of the Egyptians. The cities were very small, really no more than towns, and were concentrated along the coast and in a few inland valleys. They were ethnically diverse, so far as can be judged, but they spoke languages of the West Semitic language family (probably mutually intelligible) and shared a common culture in many respects, including religion, diet, and economic and political organization.

This common Late Bronze culture collapsed at the end of the Late Bronze period. The collapse was gradual rather than sudden, extending over a century or so between 1250 and 1150 BC. Many, but not all, of the Canaanite cities were destroyed, international trade collapsed, and the Egyptians withdrew. At the end of this period a new landscape emerges: the northern Canaanite cities still existed, more or less intact, and became the Phoenicians; the highlands behind the coastal plains, previously largely uninhabited, were rapidly filling with villages, largely Canaanite in their basic culture but without the Bronze Age city-state structure; and along the southern coastal plain there are clear signs that a non-Canaanite people had taken over the former Canaanite cities while adopting almost all aspects of Canaanite culture.

Settlement in southern Canaan (c. 1175–1100 BC)

In about 1175 BC, Egypt was threatened with a massive land and sea invasion by the "Sea Peoples," a coalition of foreign enemies which included the Tjeker, the Shekelesh, the Deyen, the Weshesh, the Teresh, the Sherden, and the PRST; the last group are commonly regarded as identical with the Philistines. They were comprehensively defeated by Ramses III, who fought them in "Djahi" (the eastern Mediterranean coast) and at "the mouths of the rivers" (the Nile delta), recording his victories in a series of inscriptions in his mortuary temple at Medinet Habu. An additional Egyptian source, Papyrus Harris I, records how the defeated foe were brought in captivity to Egypt and settled in fortresses.[11] The Harris papyrus can be interpreted in two ways: either the captives were settled in Egypt and the rest of the Philistines/Sea Peoples carved out a territory for themselves in Canaan, or else it was Ramses himself who settled the Sea Peoples (mainly Philistines) in Canaan as mercenaries.[12] Archaeological evidence indicates that the Philistines originally settled in a few sites in the south, such as Ashkelon, Ashdod and Ekron.[13] It was not until several decades later, about 1150 BC, that they expanded into surrounding areas such as the Yarkon region to the north (the area of modern Jaffa, where there were Philistine farmsteads at Tel Gerisa and Aphek, and a larger settlement at Tel Qasile).[13] Most scholars therefore believe that the settlement of the Philistines took place in two stages. In the first, dated to the reign of Ramses III, they were limited to the coastal plain, the region of the Five Cities; in the second, dated to the collapse of Egyptian hegemony in southern Canaan, their influence spread inland beyond the coast.[14]

Iron Age (8th–5th centuries BC)

The Bible paints the Philistines as the main enemy of the Israelites (prior to the rise of the Assyrian Empire between the 10th century BC and late 7th century BC) with a state of almost perpetual war between the two peoples. The Philistine cities lost their independence to Assyria, and revolts in following years were all crushed. They were subsequently absorbed into the Babylonian and Persian empires, and disappear as a distinct ethnic group by the late 5th century BC.[15]

The Philistine pentapolis were ruled by seranim (סְרָנִים, "lords"), who acted together for the common good, though to what extent they had a sense of a "nation" is not clear without literary sources.


It has been suggested that the Casluhite Philistines formed part of the "Sea Peoples" who repeatedly attacked Egypt during the later Nineteenth Dynasty. Though they were eventually repulsed by Ramses III, he finally resettled them, according to the theory, to rebuild the coastal towns in Canaan. Papyrus Harris I details the achievements of the reign of Ramses III. In the brief description of the outcome of the battles in Year 8 is the description of the fate of the Sea Peoples. Ramses 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 (the Pentapolis) of the Philistines.[16] Israel Finkelstein has suggested that there may be a period of 25–50 years after the sacking of these 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 Ramses III would they have been allowed to settle Philistia.

Mycenaean archaeology

The connection between Mycenaean culture and Philistine culture was made clearer by finds at the excavation of Ashdod, Ekron, Ashkelon, and more recently Gath, four of the five Philistine cities in Canaan. The fifth city is Gaza. Especially notable is the early Philistine pottery, a locally made version of the Aegean Mycenaean Late Helladic IIIC pottery, which is decorated in shades of brown and black. This later developed into the distinctive Philistine pottery of the Iron Age I, with black and red decorations on white slip known as Philistine Bichrome ware.[17] Also of particular interest is a large, well-constructed building covering 240 square metres (2,600 sq ft), discovered at Ekron. Its walls are broad, designed to support a second story, and its wide, elaborate entrance leads to a large hall, partly covered with a roof supported on a row of columns. In the floor of the hall is a circular hearth paved with pebbles, as is typical in Mycenaean megaron hall buildings; other unusual architectural features are paved benches and podiums. Among the finds are three small bronze wheels with eight spokes. Such wheels are known to have been used for portable cultic stands in the Aegean region during this period, and it is therefore assumed that this building served cultic functions. Further evidence concerns an inscription in Ekron to PYGN or PYTN, which some have suggested refers to "Potnia", the title given to an ancient Mycenaean goddess. Excavations in Ashkelon, Ekron, and Gath reveal dog and pig bones which show signs of having been butchered, implying that these animals were part of the residents' diet.[18][19] Among other findings there are wineries where fermented wine was produced, as well as loom weights resembling those of Mycenaean sites in Greece.[20]

It has been theorized that the latter Philistines originated among the "Sea Peoples." Modern archaeology has also suggested early cultural links with the Mycenaean world in Greece. Though the Philistines adopted local Canaanite culture and language before leaving any written texts (and later adopted the Aramaic language), an Indo-European origin has been suggested for a handful of known Philistine words that survived as loanwords in Hebrew.

Philistine language

Main article: Philistine language

Nothing is known for certain about the language of the Philistines.[2] 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, 'seren', may be related to the Greek word tyrannos (thought by linguists to have been borrowed by the Greeks from an Anatolian language, such as Luwian or Lydian[5]). 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 BC with two names, very similar to one of the suggested etymologies of the popular Philistine name Goliath (Lydian Alyattes, or perhaps Greek Kalliades) was found in the excavations at 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.

Culture and religion

Philistine culture was almost fully integrated with that of Canaan and the Canaanites. The deities they worshipped were Baal, Astarte, and Dagon, whose names or variations thereof appear in the Canaanite pantheon as well.[2]

The Philistines were also renowned for both their production and consumption of alcoholic beverages. Numerous finds have exposed a well-managed spirits industry, from breweries and wineries to retail outlets that advertised beer, wine, and strong drink. Among the most numerous artifacts unearthed from Philistine ruins are beer mugs and wine craters (large drinking bowls). The story of Samson's wedding feast alludes to the Philistine practice of engaging in week-long drinking parties, as the Hebrew word mishkeh, translated as "strong drink" in Judges 14:10, indicates a "drinking feast."[21]

Extrabiblical inscriptions

Inscriptions written by the Philistines have not yet been found or conclusively identified; however, their early history is known to scholars from inscriptions in other ancient documents, such as Ancient Egyptian texts.[22] The Philistines appear in four different texts from the time of the New Kingdom under the name Peleset.[22] Two of these, the inscriptions at Medinet Habu and the Rhetorical Stela at Deir al-Medinah, are dated to the time of the reign of Ramses III (1186–1155 BC).[22] Another was composed in the period immediately following the death of Ramses III (Papyrus Harris I).[22] The fourth, the Onomasticon of Amenope, is dated to some time between the end of the 12th or early 11th century BC.[22]

The inscriptions at Medinet Habu consist of images depicting a coalition of Sea Peoples, among them the Philistines, who are said in the accompanying text to have been defeated by Ramses III during his Year 8 campaign. Scholars have been unable to conclusively determine which images match what peoples described in the reliefs depicting two major battle scenes. A separate relief on one of the bases of the Osirid pillars with an accompanying hieroglyphic text clearly identifying the person depicted as a captive Peleset chief is of a bearded man without headdress.[22]

The Rhetorical Stela are less discussed, but are noteworthy in that they mention the Peleset together with a people called the Teresh, who sailed "in the midst of the sea". The Teresh are thought to have originated from the Anatolian coast and their association with the Peleshet in this inscription is seen as providing some information on the possible origin and identity of the Philistines.[23]

The Harris Papyrus which was found in a tomb at Medinet Habu also recalls Ramses III's battles with the Sea Peoples, declaring that the Peleset were "reduced to ashes." Egyptian strongholds in Canaan are also mentioned, including a temple dedicated to Amun, which some scholars place in Gaza; however, the lack of detail indicating the precise location of these strongholds means that it is unknown what impact these had, if any, on Philistine settlement along the coast.[23]

The first mention in an Egyptian source of the Philistines in conjunction with three of the five cities that are said in the Hebrew Bible to have made up their pentapolis comes in the Onomasticon of Amenope. The sequence in question read: "Ashkelon, Ashdod, Gaza, Assyria, Shubaru [...] Sherden, Tjekker, Peleset, Khurma [...]" Scholars have advanced the possibility that the other Sea Peoples mentioned were connected to these cities in some way as well.[23]

Philistines in the Bible

The Hebrew text of Genesis 10:14, with regard to the descendants of Mizraim, reads "we'et Petrusim we'et Kesluhim 'esher yats'u misham Filishtim we'et Keftorim." Literally, it says that those whom Mizraim begat included "the Pathrusim, Casluhim (out of whom came the Philistines), and the Caphtorim." There is some debate among interpreters as to whether this verse was originally intended to signify that the Philistines themselves were the offspring of the Casluhim or the Caphtorim.

The Torah does not record the Philistines as one of the nations to be displaced from Canaan. In Genesis 15:18-21 the Philistines are absent from the ten nations Abraham's descendants will displace as well as being absent from the list of nations Moses tells the people they will conquer (Deut. 7:1, 20:17). God also intentionally directed the Israelites away from the Philistines upon their exit from Egypt according to Exodus 13:17. In Genesis 21, Abraham agreed to a covenant of kindness with the Philistine king Avimelech and his descendants.

Also, Samson killed many Philistines and had many skirmishes with them.

A few biblical texts, such as the Ark Narrative and stories reflecting the importance of Gath, seem to portray Late Iron I and Early Iron II memories.[24] They are mentioned over 250 times, the majority in the Deuteronomistic history (the series of books from Joshua to 2 Kings), and are depicted as the archenemies of the Israelites, a serious and recurring threat before being subdued by David.

The following is a list of battles recorded in the Bible between Israel and the Philistines:[25]

See also




Further reading

External links

  • List of Biblical References to Philistines or Philistia
  • Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project Website
  • Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project Blog
  • Penn State University - The Sea Peoples and the Philistines
  • (1992)
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  • The Center for Online Judaic Studies: Ramesses III and the Philistines, 1175 BC
  • Biblical Archaeology Review - Yavneh Yields Over a Hundred Philistine Cult Stands

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