Israel – Whose Land Is It?

The Land of Israel : Palestine and Syria

The name “Palestine” flies around a great deal nowadays in the press and political discussion. Syria too is much in the news. Yet neither Palestine nor Syria is an indigenous name for the country either is nowadays supposed to represent. These were originally names given by outsiders, sailors and merchants coming from the west, to loosely defined regions along the eastern Mediterranean coast and their hinterlands. Syria was the more inclusive term of the two and indeed, as used by early Greeks and by later Greeks and Romans, it included the notion of Palestine, as we see from Herodotos, who wrote of “Palestinian Syria” (using the word as an adjective, not a noun). Hence for him it was merely a section of Syria.

Typically the name “Syria” for classical writers loosely referred to a large region at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. It included the Syria of today, plus Israel, Lebanon, the settled western part of Jordan, and much of southeastern Turkey. Syria was mainly a broad geographic term for the Greeks. It was not seen as the land of one nation or people. Syria was distinct from Assyria, although for some classical writers, Syria included Assyria and Babylonia far to the east.

Yet the indigenous peoples of this region did not see one country but several lands with separate names. The natives called the coastal strip of Lebanon and Syria Canaan (Greeks called it Phoenicia); inland Syria was called Aram; Israel (on both sides of the Jordan) was divided into two kingdoms, Israel and Judah. Also in place were the smaller states of Ammon, Moab, and Edom, northeast, east, and south of the Dead Sea. Pleshet in the Hebrew Bible (Philistia) occupied the coastal strip south of Jaffa. The Bible gives us Canaan, Israel, Aram, and other names, in addition to yet others in various ancient sources, Egyptian, Greek, etc. (including archeological finds).

However, since “Palestine” has come down to the modern West through Rome (and to the modern Arabs through the West), the circumstances of its adoption as a Roman official name need to be considered. On the same grounds, the Roman name for the Land of Israel when Rome had its closest contact with the Jews and their land seems most significant for political discussion today.

Judea (Iudaea) was the Roman name for the Land of Israel during the heyday of the Roman Empire. This meant not only the area called Judea in Israel today; it included the whole area ruled and/or chiefly inhabited by Jews. We can see this usage in various writers in Latin and Greek of that period. Consider Pliny, Suetonius, and Tacitus in Latin, and Plutarch as well as the geographers Strabo and Ptolemy in Greek. Judea stretched along both sides of the Jordan and included, besides Judea proper, most of the coastal plain, Samaria, most of the Galilee, the Golan Heights of today and considerable land to the east of there (areas called in Latin Gaulanitis [=Golan], Batanaea [=Bashan], Auranitis [=Hawran], and Trachonitis). The Romans called this land as a whole Iudaea (from the Greek Ioudaia). The land was mainly inhabited by Jews and was ruled by Jews. Therefore, Lord Robert Cecil, acting British foreign secretary, was right to use the name Judea for the whole land in his famous remark: “Our wish is that Arabian countries shall be for the Arabs, Armenia for the Armenians, and Judea for the Jews” (December 2, 1917).

We should look at what some of the ancient authors had to say about Judea to get the flavor of how they saw the land. Pliny the Elder, whose great work, the Natural History, aspired to present universal knowledge, wrote admiringly of Judea’s capital and religious center: “Jerusalem, by far the most illustrious city of the East, not merely of Judea.” This description reflects a view of Judea as an important country. Pliny described Machaerus this way: “Machaerus, formerly the fortress of Judea next in importance to Jerusalem” (both in Natural History, V:xv:70 and 72). Machaerus was east of the Dead Sea (now in Jordan). It fell to the Romans in 72 AD in the first Jewish revolt, the last stronghold to fall before Masada (in 73 AD).

Tacitus, a Roman historian, also indicates Judea’s geographic expanse. He tells us: “Judaea was divided: the Samaritans came under Felix and the Galileans under Ventidius ” (The Annals, XII:54; M. Grant tr.). Thus Tacitus clearly placed both Samaria and Galilee within Judea. Strabo the geographer does likewise. He writes: “Phoenicia is a narrow country and lies flat along the sea, whereas the interior above Phoenicia [going from west to east-EAG], as far as the Arabians, between Gaza and Antilibanus [from south to north, between Gaza and the Anti-Lebanon mountain range–EAG], is called Judaea” (Geography, 16:2:21; Loeb ed.). Strabo’s Judea is larger than that which Tacitus indicated here. It also includes the Golan and a strip of land on the east bank of the Jordan. Elsewhere in Strabo, Judea’s southern borders reach into the Sinai, touching on Egypt (16:2:34 & 17:1:51). The Latin and Greek authors used Judea in a broad sense, although Rome changed Judea’s outer and inner political borders from time to time, assigning parts of the whole to various Herodian princes or Roman officials. Plutarch, by the way, also used “Palestine,” but in the sense of Philistia, a coastal region adjacent to but distinct from Judea.(1) The name “Palestine” was not used officially by the Romans before Hadrian (135 AD).

Moreover, we clearly see that the Greco-Roman usage of Judea was much broader than the Jewish notion of Judea. The latter was Judah (Yehudah), the southern kingdom after the split of the kingdom of David and Solomon. A certain confusion now arises between the narrow Jewish and the broad Greco-Roman usages. The rough Jewish equivalent for the latter broad usage is the Land of Israel.

The New Testament exacerbates the confusion among modern Westerners, since it uses Judea in both ways, although in different places. It usually follows the Jewish notion, as where it mentions Judea in contrast to other sections of the country. However, several places in Luke and Acts imply the broader Greco-Latin usage (Luke 23:5; Acts 10:37, and several others).

It is of interest, in view of the present attitudes of many churches toward what Israel’s borders should be, that the NT uses the name “the Land of Israel” twice (Matt. 2:20-21) never using the name “Palestine,” nor the adjectival form “Palestinian.” One must wonder about certain supposedly faithful Christians of today, often men of the cloth, who insist on using a name for this country not found in the NT while rejecting the names (Judea and the Land of Israel) that the NT does use.

Before we explain the origin and reappearance of the name Palestine, we ought to trace Judea as a geographic-political name and give a brief political sketch of Israel and the ancient Jews. We also ought to clear up one more complication: Idumaea.

The Israelite kingdom reached its greatest extent under David and Solomon (1004-928 BC). It ruled over much of Aram including Damascus. After the death of Solomon, the kingdom split in two: Judah in the south and Israel in the north, thereby losing much of its power. Nevertheless, the two Israelite kingdoms continued to exist side by side, usually in cooperation, for two hundred years. In 722 BC, Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel. Judah lasted for another 136 years until it was defeated by Babylonia, Assyria’s successor, in 586 BC. In both kingdoms, the leadership of the people were exiled while the common folk remained, although Assyria settled other peoples in Samaria, part of the former northern kingdom. Babylonia in turn was replaced by the empire of Medes and Persians. These were just some of the empires that subdued or ruled over the Jews, although the Jews as a people outlived them all. The same is true for the later empires of Alexander the Great, his Macedonian/Hellenistic successors, and Rome.

The Jews began a comeback under Cyrus the Mede, who allowed the restoration of exiled Jews to Judah, about 538 BC. An autonomous district called Yehud was set up in Judah.(2) This district, called a pahawa in Persian, was actually smaller than the earlier, pre-exilic kingdom of Judah, but expanded later, especially after the achievement of independence by the Maccabbees which brought Jews and others elsewhere in the country (including areas east of the Jordan) into the state of Judea.(3) After Alexander’s conquest, if not earlier, the name Yehud had become known to the Greek-speaking world in the form of Ioudaia(4) and this became the Latin Iudaea (Judea), or perhaps the name came from the people, now called Judeans instead of “Syrians” (as by Herodotos and Theophrastos).

Felix Abel, an erudite scholar (based at the French Catholic Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem), believed that the Greek geographic name Ioudaia derived from Yehoudaié (or Yehudaya), an Aramaic plural meaning “Jews” (consider Daniel 3:8 & Ezra 4:12). In this case, it would have applied to all mainly Jewish-inhabited areas, including and beyond the pahawa of Yehud.(5) Aramaic was the official language of the western portions of the Persian Empire.

Thus from the territory of the Philistines, the name Palestine was extended to the whole hinterland of Southern Syria. By a process familiar to the ancients, the name of the closest, most accessible tribe was applied to the whole country. (6)

Bérard pointed out that Syria is derived from an alternate Greek pronunciation of the name Tyre (consider Tsor in Hebrew and Sour in Arabic).(7) Tyre was long seen by the Greeks as the chief Phoenician city. Adding the Greek suffix -ia to the name, they affixed the newly formed name to the city’s hinterland and subsequently to the whole region, including Israel. Thus the name Syria originally applied to Tyre and its surroundings. One reason that Herodotos could call the Jews/Israelites “Syrians” (specifically “Palestinian Syrians”) was because their language, which we call Hebrew, was linguistically so close to that of the Tyrians and other Phoenicians. Linguists identify Hebrew, Phoenician (some say this includes Ugaritic and Eblaite), Moabite, Ammonite, and Edomite as members of the Canaanite family of languages. Some hold that these were more in the way of dialects of the same tongue, rather than separate languages.

The language group takes it name from Canaan, the apparently original name of the country. Isaiah speaks of the “lip of Canaan” (19:18) as the language of the Israelites. The Egyptians too sometimes used a name for the country derived from Canaan. Bérard and others have pointed out Phoenician linguistic influence on Greek, especially on place names in Greece and the Aegean. However, it was long fashionable to minimize this influence (which suggests cultural influence), despite the identification of Thales, the first Greek philosopher, as a Phoenician by Herodotus. This Aryanist or antisemitic prejudice has given way in some recent studies to the recognition that both Thales and another early philosopher, Pythagoras, were Phoenicians. What is still generally overlooked is the likely Jewish influence on ancient Greek culture. Consider for example the rarely recognized Jewish parallels in Thales and Pythagoras.(8)

After Alexander’s conquest of the Land, the Greek name came to be Ioudaia,(9) however the name Coele-Syria was often used by both Greek and Latin writers. Koyleh-Suria (Coele-Syria) was more inclusive than Ioudaia. It meant Hollow Syria and originally referred to the Biq`a of Lebanon and, apparently, the Jordan Valley –segments of the Syrian-African Rift. Eventually it seems to have included the cities of the Decapolis (that is, Damascus and other Hellenistic cities in Transjordan and their surroundings), and perhaps Phoenicia.(10) For the Greek Polybius and the Roman Livy, it refers to the area between Egypt and northern Syria, the long-disputed battleground of rival Macedonian dynasties, the Seleucids in Syria and the Ptolemies in Egypt.(11)

By the time the Romans conquered the country, in 63 BC, the kingdom of Judea, ruled by the Hasmonean dynasty, stretched along both sides of the Jordan and controlled, besides Judea proper, most of the coastal plain, Samaria, most of the Galilee, and the Golan Heights. While Herod ruled Judea, Augustus Caesar awarded Judea vast tracts of land running far to the east of the Golan of today. The Romans called this land as a whole Iudaea. The land was mainly inhabited by Jews and was ruled by Jews. Herod’s Roman title was “a king, ally and friend of the Roman people” (rex, socius et amicus populi romani), a standard formula for client kings. He had cleverly usurped the kingship from the Hasmoneans through loyalty to the Romans (and married a Hasmonean princess).

After Herod’s death, the Romans divided the kingdom into several parts, giving Herod’s surviving sons a chance to show their capacity for rule. The land as a whole was now called Iudaea by Latin and Greek authors. This meant the lands ruled and/or chiefly inhabited by Jews, as we have discussed above.

Roman hegemony meant several political reorganizations of the country after Herod’s death. The first great Jewish revolt (66-73 AD) ended in Roman victory in the course of which the Temple was destroyed (70 AD). The Romans now again reorganized the country, which was already designated the province of Judea (Provincia Iudaea).(12) Some 65 years later, however, in the year 135 AD, when the Emperor Hadrian’s forces had suppressed the Jewish revolt led by Bar-Kokhba, the emperor renamed the province Provincia Syria Palaestina. The name change had obvious political implications. This becomes even clearer when we bear in mind that at the same time Hadrian forbid Jews to live in a large zone in the heart of Judea around Jerusalem. Furthermore, Rome planted colonists in the zone who belonged to various foreign peoples, chiefly Syrians and Arabs, according to Michael Avi-Yonah.(13) Another historian, Mary Smallwood, writes: “The bulk of the new settlers were Greco-Syrians.”(14) Other colonists were veterans of the Roman legions, no doubt including many Europeans. The Arabs surely deserved a reward from the Romans since the Province of Arabia had “provided the Romans important military support in the suppression of the Bar-Kokhba Revolt and as we know contributed the only complete legion they had for this operation.”(15) Rome was in dire need of manpower, since Bar-Kokhba’s forces had wiped out at least one legion, perhaps two, so it seems from the documents.(16) To appreciate the feelings of some of those who replaced the Jewish population in the forbidden zone we may get some indication from an ancient writer’s remark, which in fact concerns the aftermath of the First Revolt (66-73 AD): “After Titus had taken Jerusalem, and when the country all around was filled with corpses, the neighboring races offered him a crown…”(17) On the other hand, the ancient writer Dio Cassius and some modern historians point to non-Jewish cooperation with the Jewish rebels led by Bar-Kokhba.(18)

The early Christian historian Eusebius (ca. 270-340 AD) captured the poignancy of the situation: “When the Jewish revolt again grew to formidable dimensions, Rufus, governor of Judaea… took merciless advantage… confiscating all their lands… From that time on [of the Jewish defeat, 135 AD], the entire race has been forbidden to set foot anywhere in the neighbourhood of Jerusalem, under… a law of Hadrian which ensured that not even from a distance might Jews have a view of their ancestral soil… When in this way the city [polis] was closed to the Jewish race and suffered the total destruction of its former inhabitants, it was colonized by an alien race.” [Ecclesiastical History, IV:6, tr. Williamson-Louth]

The zone forbidden to Jews took in four toparchies (districts) according to Avi-Yonah (or only three, dixit Smallwood). The zone ran from just north of Hebron to a point halfway between Shekhem (Nablus, ancient Neapolis) and Jifna (ancient Gophna). On the east-west axis it ran from about Kfar Adumim to near Sha`ar HaGai. The name of Jerusalem was also changed. It was now Aelia Capitolina, and had the status of a Colonia (colony) and a polis together with the zone as a whole, which shared the new name of the city. This extreme change in name and demography had profound effects on history. Nevertheless, many Jews remained in the country outside the zone, especially in the Galilee and Golan, but also in Jericho just east of the zone, and elsewhere.

Despite the official change in name, Greek and Latin writers after Hadrian (i.e., Ptolemy the Geographer, Dio Cassius [cf. LV:23; LXIX:13:1 & 14:2], and Eusebius) continued to use Judea along with Palestine. Judea was sometimes used officially by Rome even after Hadrian. Eusebius, writing around 300 AD, summarizes the changes of name: “… Hebrews… inhabited the neighboring country to Phoenicia, which itself was called Phoenicia in old times, but afterwards Judaea, and in our time, Palestine.”(19)

The Arab treatment of geographical names after their conquest of the country (635-640 AD) was paradoxical. The Quran mentions the Holy Land divinely assigned to the people of Israel (Sura V:12, 20-21). However, the Arabs later on did not see this land as a separate country. They typically considered the country merely an undifferentiated part of Bilad ash-Sham (usually translated as Syria or Greater Syria). This view lasted until the end of the British mandate period, as we see from Arab writings and political declarations (such as Arab testimony before the Anglo-American Commission of Inquiry on Palestine, 1946). Before the Crusades the Arabs did use the name Filastin. However, this name referred only to the southern region of the country, what the Romans had called Palaestina Prima.(20) After the Crusades the name was not used by the Muslim Mamluk rulers. The Crusaders had typically called the country the Holy Land (Terra Sancta), sometimes using the Land of Israel (Terra Israel) or other names.

Holy Land was still the usual Western name for the country in the nineteenth century, although it alternated with Palestine, Judea, Zion, the Land of Israel, Land of the Bible, etc., and the Land was sometimes seen as part of Syria, the Levant, or other geographic notions. The highly respected Enciclopedia Italiana (Vol. 26, “Palestina”; ca. 1930) tells us that the name “Palestine” came “to prevail in modern times” over other names. This change apparently took place out of the “scientific” motive to avoid the religious connotations of Holy Land. Thus Palestine was again a Western name as it had been in ancient times. “Palestine” was first officially applied to the country in modern times in 1920 when the peace negotiators at the San Remo Conference juridically established the country as the Jewish National Home. Before World War I, it was an administratively indistinct area of the Ottoman Empire and was shared among various Ottoman administrative departments.

So is Palestine the proper or rightful name of the country?

The name of a country, any country, has to be looked at as a historical object, for if otherwise, a land might as well be called XYZ or No. 14. A country’s name is associated with events and personalities and sentiments. “Palestine” too must be scrutinized in that light. The Roman change of name was part of a complex of related oppressive measures of national despoliation, punishment, and oppression. From the start the name was laden with connotations of Roman hatred for rebels (and for Jews in particular), the slaughter of hundreds of thousands in the war and through the legionaries’ vengeful acts, the ruin of hundreds of villages and towns, the enslavement of survivors, expulsion of a people from its homes and lands (nowadays called “ethnic cleansing”), etc.

The name “Palestine” cannot be divested of the negative overtones of its history, from the circumstances of its Roman official origin. It cannot be considered a “neutral, value free,” purely “scientific” term, as some would have it (regardless of its use even by some Zionists). This is not only because of its current use as an anti-Israel slogan, but because of the context of its origin as a Roman official name. Felix Abel, the noted Catholic historian of the country, frankly states that the name change was “another indication of the anti-Jewish orientation of imperial policy.”(21)


1. See in Plutarch his lives of Pompey and Antony, such as “Antony” 36:3.

2. Yehud, later called Ioudaia, was autonomous to some extent or other under Persians and Macedonians (Alexander, the Diadochi, the Ptolemids, and the Seleucids), a period of some 400 years, though it was an administrative unit forming part of larger governmental divisions (first the Persian satrapy of Eber-Nahara, later the Ptolemaic and Seleucid divisions to be named below in note 11). Seth Schwartz, “On the Autonomy of Judaea in the 4th and 5th Centuries BC,” Journal of Jewish Studies, Autumn 1994. Schwartz points to the distinct coinage of Yehud and Ioudaia as important evidence of autonomy, among other proofs.

3. Michael Avi-Yonah describes this process in his Geografya Historit shel Erets-Yisrael (Jerusalem 1984), pp. 17-48.

4. F-M Abel traces the usage of Ioudaia back as early as 320 BC (by Clearchus of Soli, a pupil of Aristotle). F-M Abel, Géographie de la Palestine, II (Paris 1938), pp. 313-314. Assuming a factual background to Clearchus’ story about Aristotle and the Jewish sage, then the name Ioudaia goes back in Greek usage to before Alexander’s conquest of the Land of Israel (332 BC), albeit otherwise unattested for that period. The story is set in the time when Aristotle was living in Asia Minor (347-344 BC). In another place Aristotle locates the Dead Sea in “Palestine.”

5. Abel, Géographie…, I, pp. 314-315. In a parallel deduction, Abel indicated that the name Arabaya, an Aramaic plural meaning “Arabs,” applied to Arab-inhabited areas. Ibid., III, p. 113.

6. F-M Abel, Ibid., II (Paris 1938), p. 313. “Donc du territoire des Philistins, le nom de Palestine s’est étendu tout l’arrire pays qui forme la Syrie Méridionale. Par un procédé familier aux anciens on appliquait au pays entier le nom de la peuplade la plus proche et la plus accessible…” One may consider other geographic names, such as Asia and Africa which originally applied to countries, not to continents.

7. V. Bérard, Les Phéniciens et l’Odyssée, (Paris, 1927); tome I, p439, and tome II, pp 40, 54 & 376. F-M Abel, unlike Bérard, sees the name “Syria” as a corruption of Assyria. F. Abel, Géographie…, II (Paris 1938), pp. 310 & 313.

8. See Bronson Feldman, “The Genesis of Science,” Midstream (August/September, 1983); Elliott A Green, “Did Pythagoras Follow Nazarite Rules?” The Jewish Bible Quarterly (Fall 1991; Jerusalem).

9. F-M Abel traces this broad usage of Ioudaia back as early as 320 BC (by Clearchus of Soli, a pupil of Aristotle). He adds: “Il est donc vraisembable que ce mot [Ioudaia au sens large] fut en usage parmi les Grecs et surtout chez les Alexandrins ds le IVe sicle avant notre re.” He attributes this to the fact that Jews lived throughout the country outside Judea proper. Abel, Ibid., II, pp. 314-315. However, Menahem Stern dates the broad meaning of Judea to the time of Alexander Yannai (103-76 BC) when the state of Judea expanded. He writes: “Judea now became the accepted designation of the country as a whole and continued as its official name…” EJ, VIII, 632. Perhaps Stern is chiefly referring to official usage. M. Stern, in H.H. Ben-Sasson (ed.), A History of the Jewish People (Cambridge, Mass., 1976), p. 226.

10. For the varying boundaries of Coele-Syria, see, inter alia, Victor Tcherikover, Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews (New York: Atheneum, 1977), p.423 n. 36; Aryeh Kasher, “Milhamot Hordos baNabatim,” Divrey HaAkedemya haLeumit haYisraelit le’Mada`im, VII, Booklet no. 4 (1985-86), p. 121 n. 23; Abel, op. cit., pp. 310-12; Avi-Yonah, ibid., pp. 25-6.

11. Coele-Syria was the common Greek appellation in literature for the area we have described, and this is the usage that we have focussed on here. M. Avi-Yonah, Ibid., pp. 26. The Ptolemaic dynasty’s official name for their holdings in and around Israel, what has been described here as Coele-Syria, was “Syria and Phoenicia.” The official Seleucid name for the same area after they captured it under Antiochus III, was “Coele-Syria and Phoenicia.” Menahem Stern in H.H. Ben-Sasson (ed.), A History of the Jewish People (Cambridge, Mass., 1976), p. 191; cf. Avi-Yonah, ibid., pp. 26 & 32.

12. Stern, Encyclopedia Judaica, VIII, 639; Idem., in H.H. Ben-Sasson (ed.), op. cit., p. 246.

13. Michael Avi-Yonah, The Jews of Palestine (Oxford: Blackwell, 1976), pp. 16 and 31 note 7.

14. Mary Smallwood, The Jews under Roman Rule (Leiden: Brill, 1981), pp.460 and 473. By “Greco-Syrians” she may have meant Greek-speaking Syrians or Greeks living in Syria, or a mixture of both.

15. Aryeh Kasher, Jews, Idumaeans, and Ancient Arabs (Tubingen 1988), p208.

16. Graham Webster allows that one legion “may have been lost… in the Jewish Revolt under Hadrian.” He refers to the Legion XXII Deiotariana, which disappeared from the army rolls after Hadrian’s time. G. Webster, The Roman Imperial Army (London 1969); p. 114.

17. A passage from Philostratos. The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, VI:xxix (Loeb ed).

18. Dio Cassius wrote: “Many outside nations, too, were joining them [the rebels]” (Roman History, 69:13:1; Loeb ed.; S. Safrai’s article in EJ, v.9, 247, gives another translation: “They were moreover helped by non-Jews.” Also see Idem, in H.H. Ben-Sasson [ed.], op. cit., p. 331, for yet another translation).

19. Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel, x:v (Gifford tr.; Oxford: Clarendon, 1903). This quote also points to the identity between Phoenicia and Canaan.

20. See “Filastin” in Encyclopedia of Islam; also see André Miquel in Third International Conference on Bilad al-Sham: Palestine, 19-24 April 1980, II (University of Jordan-Yarmouk University, 1984).

21. F-M Abel, Géographie…, p. 163. “Un autre indice de l’orientation anti-judaique de la politique impériale…”

Resource: What Did Rome Call The Land of Israel by Prof. Elliot A. Green, and as referenced above.