In Search of the Origins of the Philistines - Part 1
They would be immortalized as ancient Israel’s worst enemy in the scriptures of the Old Testament. They are the Philistines. Much like the ancient Israelites, the Philistines were strangers to the foreign land of Canaan. Although to date, their origins still remain a mystery. From where did they originate prior to their settlement in Canaan?
The Old Testament may shed a bit of light on this question. It is recorded in both the books of Genesis and Amos that the Philistines were from Caphtor.
Gen. 10:14 ...the Pathrusim, the Casluhim, the Caphtorim, whence the Philistines came forth.
Amo. 9:7 ...But also the Philistines from Caphtor...
Caphtor, also known as Kaptaru or Kaptar in ancient Akkadian sources and Keftiu in ancient Egyptian sources has been generally accepted by modern scholars to be the island of Crete situated in the southern region of the Aegean Sea (Cline, 19). Despite these Biblical references providing us with an answer, it beckons the further question: “How credible of an answer is it?”
Some of our earliest references to the Philistines can be traced as far back as the 12th century BCE in ancient Egypt. It is from an inscription located at a mortuary temple in Medinet Habu, situated on the western side of Thebes in Egypt. Dating to approximately 1150 BCE and commissioned by the Pharaoh Ramesses III, the inscription speaks of the battle and defeat of a confederation of Sea Peoples. In the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, the inscription specifically identifies an ethnic group from within this confederation and in opposition to the Egyptians called the P-r-s-t which phonetically renders to the Peleset (Dothan, People of the Sea, 22). This is synonymous to the Hebrew ethnic term given to these same peoples of Pelishtim; that is, the Philistines. The inscription continues to state that after their defeat in the battle that took place in Nile delta region, the Egyptian Pharaoh resettled the Philistines in the land of Canaan to the East. The Philistines would then thrive in this region and establish their Pentapolis; that is, the five sites of Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, and Gath (Cline, 157). The inscription of Ramesses III provides yet another valuable resource to these Philistines and that is, a clear image of their appearance.
Wall relief of Philistines captives, mortuary temple of Ramses III, Medinet Habu, Theban Necropolis, Egypt. Photo source: Wikipedia
The battle with Ramesses III took place at a time of great turmoil and change. It was marked by the end of the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1200 BCE) and the beginning of the Iron Age. In this period of history, civilizations such as the Mycenaeans (of the Aegean) and the Hittites (of Anatolia) would disappear completely, paving the way for new ethnic groups that would eventually redefine the Western world. As part of the events that took place during this transition, mass migrations would occur as many ethnic groups searched for a new life and new opportunities. Parts of these migrations were recorded by the ancient Egyptians as they labelled these groups collectively as the Sea Peoples, again, the Philistines being one of them.
Ancient Egyptian portrayal of a Philistine dating to the reign of Ramesses III. Author’s image. Courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.
So, before settling in Canaan and transforming into the rivals of the Israelites, we can archaeologically trace the Philistines back to Egypt. We still do not have a definitive answer to their origins prior to this. From whence did they come?
Castleden, Rodney. Minoans: Life in Bronze Age Crete. London: Routledge, 2002. [Print]
Chadwick, John. The Decipherment of Linear B. New York: Cambridge UP, 1958. [Print]
Cline, Eric H. 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2014. [Print]
Dothan, Trude. "Queen of the Philistines. BAR Interviews Trude Dothan." Interview by Hershel Shanks. Biblical Archaeology Review Sep/Oct. 2010: 58-64. [Print]
Dothan, Trude and Moshe Dothan. People of the Sea: The Search for the Philistines. New York: Macmillion Publishing Company, 1992. [Print]
JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2003. [Print]
Karageorghis, Vassos. “Exploring Philistine Origins on the Island of Cyprus.” Biblical Archaeology Review Mar/Apr. 1984: 16-28. [Print]
Ventris, Michael and John Chadwick. Documents in Mycenaean Greek. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge UP, 1973. [Print]
Featured image: ‘Delilah’s Betrayal and Samson’s Imprisonment by the Philistines’ by Joos van Winghe (1544-1603). Image source: Wikipedia