The Philistines figure prominently in the Old Testament, above all as Israel's worst enemy. Their presence in southern Canaan in the days of the last judges and the first kings was a serious threat to the southernmost Israelite tribes in particular. After the defeats they suffered against David, the Philistines saw their powerful position weaken considerably, however.
In the past twenty years much has been written about the Philistines, primarily on account of the results of recent excavations in Ashdod, Ekron, and Ashkelon, well-known cities which together with Gath and Gaza constituted the Philistine Pentapolis.1 The excavations have produced new interpretations of literary sources describing the period when the Philistines were a strong military nation, as well as a new understanding of their culture, their origins, and their presence in Canaan and Egypt.
This article will concentrate on the origins of the Philistine people. Their settlement in Canaan and their position among the Canaanites, Egyptians and Judeans will be the subjects of two further articles.
It may be said in general that the theories about the origins of the Philistines have not fundamentally changed in the course of time. The idea that the Philistines settled themselves during the mass migration of the 13th and 12th centuries B.C. and that they belonged to the 'Sea Peoples', as the invaders were named in Egyptian texts, is both found in recent and older literature.2 Recent excavations and views on literary sources have only completed and further underpinned the picture as far as the subject of this article is concerned.
The historical books of the Old Testament provide by far the most details about their origins.
The Old Testament
In the Old Testament the Philistines figured frequently during the period between judge Jephtah and the reign of king David. The Philistines constituted a threat to southern Israel and oppressed the Israelites notably during the days of judges Samson and Samuel. The main reason for their expansion was the superior quality of their weapons.3
In the days of king Saul (late 11th century B.C.) the positions of power kept changing, but it was only during the reign of king David - for some time a servant to Philistine king Achis - that the Philistines were thrown back, and even lost part of their territory. Afterwards David went so far as to incorporate many Philistine soldiers in his army.4 Until the Babylonian Captivity of Judah their role in history remained insignificant, and finally they disappeared altogether from the scene. The period of their greatest influence may be dated roughly between 1150 and 1000 B.C.
Nevertheless this was not the only period in which reference was made to the Philistines. They are also mentioned in the book of Genesis: first in the table of nations (Gen.10:14), as descendants of the Casluhites, and next, in Gen.21 and 26, as being ruled by king Abimelech of Gerar, with whom Abraham and Isaac came into contact.
Were these the same Philistines that threatened Judah seven centuries later? Probably not. The settlement of the Philistines in the 12th century B.C. is clearly reflected in the type of pottery and architecture of south-western Canaan and in the historical sources from that period, which indicate that many peoples from the North (the Sea Peoples, and among them the 'Peleset' or Philistines) invaded the region and even reached the very border of Egypt. Egyptian annals do not refer to the Philistines previous to this period. Archaeological evidence of continuous Philistine occupation of this region has not (yet?) been found.
Of course this does not solve the question about the real identity of the people referred to as Philistines. It is possible that trading posts from the Minoic culture existed along the coast of Canaan already in the days of the patriarchs. These posts and their occupants may have become forgotten, and their name may have been replaced by that of the Philistines, who lived in the vicinity in later days. This could also apply to Ex.13:1718, where it is reported that the Israelites leaving Egypt were not led on the road through the Philistine country..... (but) by the desert road toward the Red Sea.5
The Old Testament also offers a clue as to the origins of the Philistines. In Jeremiah 47:4 they are named 'the remnant from the coasts of Caphtor', and Amos compares the exodus of Israel from Egypt with that of the Philistines 'from Caphtor'(Am.9:7)
The question remains what exactly is meant by 'Caphtor'? Usually it is identified with Kephtiu, which is known from Egyptian records, as well as from Ugarit and Mari.
Caphtor is generally taken as synonymous with Crete, but also with Cyprus and the southwest of Asia Minor. The Septuagint and other ancient translations of the Bible identify Caphtor with Cappadocia. The extensive literature on the subject can only be given here in summary.6
The oldest literature about the Philistines points to Crete as their original home. This idea is strengthened by the ancient name of the Philistine city of Gaza: Minoah; the same name was given to several trade stations started from Crete.7 It is furthermore known from the Odyssee that the island was inhabited around 1200 B.C. by a variety of peoples. An argument against Crete as the Philistines' homeland is the fact that iron is not found there at all and copper in no more than traces. Tin is absent as well.8 In their days the Philistines were known for their great skill at metal working, and they guarded their knowledge anxiously (1 Sam.13:19). This is hardly compatible with the available evidence that Kephtiu was a copper exporting country.
Cyprus is named as the homeland of the Philistines especially in recent literature. J. Strange points out that both Cyprus and the Philistines were familiar with metallurgy at a high level and that pottery from Cyprus strongly resembles pottery from Philistea (Mycenaean III C:1b). It is furthermore known from literary references that Cyprus, like Crete, was inhabited in the 13th and 12th centuries B.C. by a variety of
V. Karageorghis adds to the arguments in favour of Cyprus the evidence from excavations on the island (near Pyla and Maa): a mixed population (from Crete, Greece and Anatolia) appears to have lived here in fortified villages during 25 years. The inhabitants were wealthy, but clearly preferred a defendable place over a location that favoured trade and agriculture. After these 25 years both places were abandoned or burnt down. Maa was rebuilt by the conquerors who also manufactured type Myc. III C:1b pottery.11 Karageorghis moreover refers to Cypriotic myths about Greek heroes who founded cities on the island.12 Finally, Raban and Stieglitz showed that the architecture on the island was comparable with that of Philistea as far as the use of ashlars (large building blocks) was concerned.
Another argument in favour of Cyprus is a definite resemblance between Philistine and Cypriotic - Minoic writings from that period.13
The presence, though perhaps temporary, of Philistines in Cyprus or Crete is given wider perspective if the contemporary events in this part of the Mediterranean are also taken into consideration. Literary references and excavations from the Late Bronze period only demonstrate the great importance of such a widened perspective.
The Sea Peoples
It will be clear from the foregoing that a number of non-native peoples lived in Cyprus around 1200 B.C. and that the inhabitants of the eastern Mediterranean apparently were exposed to danger. The reasons for this unstable situation, which lasted from c. 1300 to c. 1170 B.C., are still uncertain. Egyptian relief texts speak about 'Sea Peoples' invading the coasts of Canaan and Egypt from the North and destroying whole kingdoms. Possible reasons for the mass migrations of those days could be, e.g., famine in Greece and Anatolia, invasions of tribes from the Balkans, and earthquakes.14
Anyway, the collapse of the Hittite empire (shortly after 1200 B.C.), the fall of Troy (1185 B.C.), and the invasions into Egypt (c. 1207 and 1175 B.C.) were all part of a major catastrophe that pushed peoples from the North to the South and caused large devastations among Late Bronze (c. 1550-1200 B.C.) cultures. When the mass migrations came to a halt, Greece was left impoverished, while prosperous and highly developed cultures seemed to have moved to the South.15 The Philistines arrived in the south-west of Canaan in the 12th century B.C., and this marked the end of Egypt's domination over the region. Here too Myc. III C: 1b pottery is found after their arrival.
Egyptian reliefs in Medinet Habu tell us that the Peleset (Philistines) were involved in the second raid on Egypt, during the eighth year of Ramesses III (c. 1175 B.C.). It was apparently after these raids that the Philistines settled down in the south-west of Canaan.
Odysseus And Goliath
Homer's epic poems are now increasingly being taken to be serious historiography. As a result of this, more connections are found between the Greek heroes who after the fall of Troy wandered round the eastern Mediterranean, and the Philistines. The Greek heroes wandered about and ended up in Crete, Cyprus, Libya, and Egypt. The fight between these wandering troupes and the Egyptians is described in Odyssee XVII, 420-460, and XIV, 250-290, where the pirates - who came in from Crete - destroyed Egyptian farmland, killed men and carried off women and children. Foot-soldiers and war-chariots soon intervened how-ever, and took vengeance.
Stager points to similarities between Greek heroes like Achilles and Odysseus on the one hand and leading characters from the late Judges period, viz. Goliath, Jephtah and Samson, on the other. The same could perhaps be said of Shamgar, who put an end to an early invasion of Sea Peoples/Philistines by means of an ox goad (Jdg. 3:31). Prominent features are an enormous strength (Goliath, Samson), loneliness (Samson) and the typically Greek suit of armour (Goliath).16 The 'disastrous' decisions of Jephtah could perhaps be added here. Regardless of the way this relationship is interpreted, it can at least be concluded that the stories from the Greek heroic age and the Biblical history describing the period directly thereafter, viz. 1150-1000 B.C., show remarkable similarities.
The Hittite empire, like many Mycenaean-Greek city-states, went down in the period of the invasions of the Sea Peoples. In the foregoing the Philistines were mainly associated with Mediterranean islands and the Mycenean-Greek culture. In a different theory that is certainly worth mentioning, the Philistines are supposed to be of Hittite origin.17 This theory, which is proposed by M. Riemschneider, is based on the following facts:18
1) Jewish and Christian translations of the Bible from the second to fifth century A.D. render Capthor as Cappadocia, a province within the Hittite empire;
2) in 711 B.C. Sargon II used the name Hittites to indicate the inhabitants of the Philistine city of Ashdod;
3) just like the Philistines in Canaan, the Hittites in Anatolia had a monopoly on iron, which was carefully protected;
4) the Hittites called their kings 'judges' ('tarawanas'), as did the Philistines and the tribes of Israel;
5) the Philistine principal god Dagon is also a god of the Hittites: 'Dagan-zipas', and their second god Baal-Zebub is paralleled in the Hittite god 'Zababa' of 'Ziparwa';
6) the types of pottery we call Philistine are found every-
where along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, and thus can hardly be used as evidence.19
The Philistines are viewed as participants in the great migration of the period round 1200 B.C., which caused the fall of so many empires. Belonging to the Sea Peoples, they came from the North and, possibly through Crete or (much more likely) Cyprus, went to the South, where they caused devastation but also established a new culture.20 Philistine pottery, architecture, military power, and certain similarities with Homer's Greek heroes together point to Mycenaean Greece as their homeland.21 Other facts however strongly suggest a Hittite origin: their gods, their king-judges, and ancient translations of the Bible which render Caphtor as Cappadocia. Nonetheless the latter theory finds little support in recent literature.
Anyway, the old theories about the origins of the Philistines have remained broadly unchanged, while new excavations and reinterpretations of ancient literary references have produced new evidence or brought nuance in existing views.
drs. J. Bosland
1. T. Dothan, Ekron of the Philistines, BAR 16, 1990, 1, p. 26-36 and T. Dothan, What we know about the Philistines, BAR 8, 1982, p. 4, 20-44.
2. R. Kittel, Geschichte des Volkes Israel, II, Gotha 1922, p. 86-87 and A.R. Burn, Minoans, Philistines and Greek, 1400-900 B.C., London 1930, p. 145-165.
3. The struggle between Philistines and Israelites is often viewed as a struggle between iron and bronze. It was not until King David that the Israelites manufactured iron weapons.
4. Various heroes of David were Philistines. So e.g. Benaiah and the Kerethites and Pelethites, David's body-guards (2 Sam. 15:18).
5. C.C. Stavleu puts forward the view that the Philistines from the patriarchal time and those from the later days of the judges an kings belonged to the same people. Their absence from, e.g., Egyptian literature is understandable in view of their very small size as a people; C.C. Stavleu, De Filistijnen in het boek Genesis, in: Verkenningen in Genesis, Kampen 1986, p. 103-107.
6. A similar problem is presented by the very term Philistines. J. Strange argues that the Israelites called all Sea Peoples Philistines, whereas in Cyprus the Tjeker and Dananoi were the names remembered; J. Strange, Capthor/Keftiu. A new Investigation, Leiden 1980, p. 165.
7. Castleden, Minoans, Life in Bronze Age Crete, London 1990, p. 122.
8. J. Strange, op. cit., p.114
9. V. Karageorghis, Exploring Philistine Origins on the Island of Cyprus, BAR 10, 1984, p. 2, 28.
10. J. Strange, op. cit. p. 167.
11. V. Karageorghis, op. cit., p.18-27.
12. V. Karageorghis, op. cit., p.27.
13. A. Raban and R.R. Stieglitz, The Sea Peoples and their Contributions to Civilisation, BAR 17, 1991, 6, p. 34-42, 91-92.
14. J. van Gestel, Oude Beschavingen. De Egeïsche wereld, Amsterdam 1993, p.141-143.
15. V. Karageorghis, op. cit., p. 27-28.
16. L.E. Stager, When Canaanites and Philistines ruled Ashkelon, BAR 17, 1991, p. 40-42.
17. M. Riemschneider, Die Herkunft der Philister, Acta Antiqua IV, 1956, p. 17-29.
18. Septuagint, Vulgata, Peshita and Targum; M. Riemschneider, op. cit. p. 20.
19. It is not clear whether M. Riemschneider is referring to type Myc. III C:1b that was found in massive quantities in Philistine cities well after the appearance of her article.
20. The great significance of the Philistines is especially pointed out by Karageorghis, op. cit., and Raban and Stielitz, op. cit. The Philistines exceeded the surrounding nations in their high cultural level. Their high standard of living and novel technology were taken over later by Israel and the Phoenicians (Raban and Stieglitz, op. cit., p. 42).
21. An inscription that was recently found in Ekron may provide evidence that Achis, a Philistine king in the days of David, was named after Anchises, the father of Aeneas from the Ilias. See: S. Gitin, T. Dothan and J. Naveh, A Royal Dedicatory Inscription from Ekron, Israel Exploration Journal 47, 1997, 1/2, p. 1-16.
Latest update: april 17 2019