In the Hebrew Bible (known to Christians as the Old Testament), the Philistines are the consummate enemy of the Israelites — an uncircumcised barbaric tribe intent on destroying God’s chosen people. The giant Goliath was a Philistine and so was the evil temptress Delilah who cut mighty Samson’s hair.
For centuries, the word “philistine” has even been shorthand for people who are uncouth and uncultured, as in, “The school board members who want to cut funding for art and music programs are a bunch of philistines.” The term was first coined by a 17th-century German university chaplain who defended a brawl between his Christian students and the townspeople by branding the uneducated locals as no better than “Philistines.”
But do the Philistines deserve their bad biblical reputation? Who were these people who ruled the coastal plain near the Gaza Strip in modern-day Israel for six centuries, and for whom the land of Palestine derives its name?
We spoke with Aren Maeir, an archaeologist at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and director of the decades-long excavations at the ancient Philistine city of Gath. As Maeir explains, the biblical accounts are heavily biased against the Philistines, whom the authors of the Hebrew Bible needed to cast as Israel’s arch enemy and the “ultimate other” in order to contrast with the chosen status of the Israelites.
The archaeological record, however, tells a very different story about the Philistines, a highly cultured people who were frequent adversaries of the Israelites, but who also freely intermingled with them over centuries of cultural exchange.
The Mysterious Origins of the Philistines
The Bible says that the Philistines originated in either Egypt or Crete (referred to as “Mizraim” and “Caphtor” respectively in Genesis 10:13-14), and it’s clear throughout the biblical accounts that the Philistines were foreigners who worshipped foreign-sounding pagan gods and often waged war on the Israelites. (Their reputation as being “uncouth” is not really mentioned in the Bible, unless through extrapolation from such characters as the lumbering Philistine giant Goliath.)
Historians agree that the Philistines arrived in the biblical land known as Canaan (roughly modern-day Israel) around the 13th and 12th centuries B.C.E., which corresponds to the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age, but where exactly they came from is up for debate.
As recently as 30 years ago, the consensus was that the Philistines were one of the mysterious Sea Peoples who wreaked havoc in the Mediterranean around 1200 B.C.E. That theory identified the Philistines as originating in Mycenaean Greece and invading the Canaanite coast around 1177 B.C.E. as a cohesive and destructive military force, and it fit very well with the biblical descriptions of the Philistines as foreign barbarians.
But Maeir says that excavations in Philistia, the ancient name for the coastal region where the Philistines settled, show no record of destroyed Canaanite towns dating from that time period. Instead, Maeir and others argue that the Philistines weren’t one cohesive culture that invaded Canaan “D-Day style,” but rather a mélange of different peoples — Mycenaean Greeks, certainly, as well as Egyptians and pirates — who arrived in Philistia at a moment when civilizations around the Mediterranean were collapsing.
“The result was an ‘entangled culture’ [in Philistia], what you might call a ‘Mediterranean salad,'” says Maeir.
These assorted peoples quickly absorbed aspects of the local cultures and Semitic languages of the region, which is known broadly as the Levant. And very soon, the mixed cultural bag known as the Philistines coalesced into a distinct people set apart from their Israelite neighbors.
DNA evidence recovered from ancient Philistine cemeteries shows that while Iron Age inhabitants of Philistia had 14 percent more European ancestry than earlier inhabitants of the region — which supports the idea that at least some Philistines came from the Aegean — those genetic differences disappeared in just 200 years. This DNA evidence goes against the biblical account that Hebrew intermarriage with the Philistines was avoided at all cost. There was clearly a lot of intermingling between the Philistines and their neighbors.
Philistine Culture and Religion
Archaeological excavations like those done by Maeir in the Philistine city of Gath paint a picture of an Iron Age culture that was in many ways superior to that of the Israelites. Philistine settlements were more urban, they made more refined pottery and conducted more international trade compared with the pre-monarchy Israelites.
“In the earlier part of the Iron Age at least, the Philistines were more sophisticated and the Israelites were the hillbillies,” says Maeir.
The Philistines may have spoken a distinct language when they first arrived in Canaan, but there are scant written fragments that offer clues to what it sounded like. More likely, says Maeir, many languages were originally spoken in Philistia, but the various groups comprising the original Philistines eventually settled into the existing Semitic languages like Phoenician and biblical Hebrew.
“I’ve dreamed for years of discovering a Philistine ‘Rosetta Stone’ with the original non-Semitic language, a Semitic language and a bilingual inscription,” says Maeir, laughing, “but it hasn’t appeared yet and I have a feeling it’s never going to.”
The religion of the Philistines is equally shrouded in mystery. According to remnants of Philistine temples and religious figurines, the chief Philistine goddess appears to have been named Dagon. In the Bible, Dagon is mistaken as being a male deity.
As for the Philistine diet, it wasn’t as wildly different and “unclean” as the Bible would have you believe. Yes, the Philistines ate pigs and dogs, but so did some Israelites according to Maeir. After the death of King Solomon in 930 B.C.E., the kingdom split into Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Maeir says that while the Judahites were much less likely to eat pork, the Israelites weren’t as strict.
“The biblical narratives about the Philistines are ideologically tainted,” says Maeir. “The idea of the Philistines as this strong and fierce group is not strongly indicated from the archeological remains. And that’s because the biblical text is trying to portray the enemies of Israel as these horrendous, ferocious people that could only be overcome through the help of God.”
Yet there are even clues from the Bible that the Philistines and the Israelites commingled. The biblical character Samson battles and kills great numbers of Philistines, but he also falls in love with one, Delilah, who ultimately betrays him. Maeir says that archaeological excavations support the story of two peoples, Philistine and Israelite, with a lot of cultural commonalities and crossover.
“This image of a wall or fence separating the cultures with barbed wire on top of it is highly questionable,” says Maeir, who compares it to the relationship between modern Israelis and Palestinians. From the outside, they’re cast as enemies, but they often work together, live together and share much in common culturally.
After the Babylonian conquest, the Philistines were sent into exile and never recovered their homeland. Over the ensuing centuries, their distinct culture dwindled and disappeared, absorbed into other groups they intermarried with.
As for the region where they came from, when the Roman Emperor Hadrian put down a revolt in Judea (in 132-135 C.E.), he renamed the land Palestinia to minimize the Jewish connection to the land. Before modern Israel became a state in 1948, the land was called Palestine, an echo of its ancient Philistine past. The subject of whether modern-day Palestinians are descended from the Philistines is a controversial one, having implications for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over whom the land that used to be called Palestine belongs to and who were its original settlers.