WHY Did Rome Really Name Palestine Palestine?
What if Rome did not name Palestine as an act of hatred particularly against the Jews? Would it matter? And what if they really did? Would THAT really matter? First let’s look at why the Romans changed the name of Judea to Palestine.
Do a search on the Internet for “how did Palestine get its name” and you will find some variation of this:
In the 2nd century CE, the Romans crushed the revolt of Shimon Bar Kokhba (132 CE), during which Jerusalem and Judea were regained and the area of Judea was renamed Palaestina in an attempt to minimize Jewish identification with the land of Israel. [emphasis added]
This is a commonly accepted counter to the propaganda claim that Israel stole Palestinian land. If the name, Palestine, was attached to Judea in order to disassociate it from Jews, then the Arabs cannot claim to have had a Palestine to be stolen from them is how the thinking goes. It should be sufficient to note that the Arabs were not in that region at all at the time to dispel the lie of Jews stealing Palestine from them without having to imply antisemitism on the part of Rome, but ….
Let us look at this a bit.
I just read a PhD thesis from Princeton University, 2017, called The Invention of Palestine. Like some other academic works I have come across, this one raised an interesting point (discussed here) secondary to the main purpose. The author, Zachary J. Foster, attempts to show that the Arabs who now call themselves Palestinians form a real national group that has the same right to exist as does the Jewish nation of Israel. And he thinks he shows that the contemporary Palestinian identity was forged over centuries of historical impetus that cannot be denied. What he misses entirely, in my opinion, is any meaningful consistency to his thesis.
What he succeeded in doing is raising the question in my mind regarding whether or not the Roman Emperor Hadrian affixed the name Palestine to Judea with the specific purpose of disconnecting Judea from the Jews because he hated the Jews. That interpretation is a totally ethnocentric view. And this point demonstrates that we have to make a clear distinction between historical fact and historical interpretation: that Rome changed the name Judea to Palestine, Syria-Palestina to be more exact, is fact; why they did so is interpretation.
What is most likely to have happened, according to Foster, is that the Romans did what all other conquerers did – they renamed the places they controlled to names that fit their own language or purposes. Rome often changed place names to a name honouring their emperors or they Latinized local names. Regarding Palestine, he wrote:
But Palestine did not emerge forth from Judaea, it had coexisted with it long before it was putatively changed to it. . . . We have a plausible motive for the change without knowing anything else about Hadrian: he called the place what it was called. (page 100)
The decision to change the name to Palestine may have been a banal bureaucratic choice. (page 102)
What Israel apologists don’t know is that it’s equally likely the name change had little to do with Jew hatred and more to do with Hadrian’s romance with ancient Greece [that called this region Philistia]. (page 105)
The Jews were only one such people that the Romans conquered, enslaved and banished from their homelands. It was really not all that personal. Foster suggests that we Jews have been using that ethnocentric argument as part of our story of ourselves as eternal victims deserving of returning to the land from which we were dispersed because we were hated. But many of the peoples who were conquered by Rome and other expanding empires were dispersed and enslaved by those who overpowered them, especially if these indigenous peoples caused problems for them. It is just the way things were done. Nothing personal. Not because we were Jews, but just because we lost the battle against the Romans, rebelled and lost again and rebelled and lost again for a third time. We Jews really were a troublesome bunch.
I scoured the Internet looking for material that could help me understand what was likely going on back then. I learned a lot about the Roman Empire in the Middle East but nothing that helped me answer the questions I had. Therefore, I searched for experts in the field. I was lucky enough to find Dr. Thomas W. Davis, Professor of Archaeology and Biblical Backgrounds at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He wrote to me:
I believe it is still a punishment, but in terms of removal of Judea, not reaching back to an enemy name. That gives the Jews too much credit in a sense. The Romans are also making a political point here that it [Judea] will never become a client kingdom again. It will continue under direct rule and remain so.
What does client kingdom mean? Some of the regions that fell under Rome continued to rule themselves rather than have a Roman oversee them. And at this point, I turned to an Israeli expert on the Roman Empire who was recommended to me: Professor Emeritus Menachem Mor. We met at a coffee shop; that gave me a chance to ask questions as the conversation developed.
Mor made it clear from the outset that the Romans only did what was good for Rome, obviously. They were looking after their own interests and that is what guided their decisions. They also generally did not interfere in the spiritual lives of the peoples they conquered. As pagans, they were not out to prove any one god better than any other; that came later with competing monotheistic religions.
There were rare, isolated incidents of a Roman soldier committing acts that offended Jewish religious sensitivites but this seemed not to be an overall policy on the part of the leaders of the Empire. In fact, it appears that the Jews were offered religious protection for a time. Mor claims that the prohibition against circumcision, that would have been a causus bellus for Jews, was not directed against the Jews in particular but against some other ethnic groups, such as the Egyptians and the Samaritans. Smallwood, writing in 1959, suggests that circumcision may have been prohibited just as castration was, because the Romans considered it a vile blemishing of the body. After Hadrian’s death, his successor Antonius Pios reversed the decision for the Jews and the Egyptian priests for both of whom circumcision was a religious rite.
When the Romans built a temple in Jerusalem to their gods, they did not do it against the Jewish God, Mor suggests, but just built a temple to their own gods. They likely did not understand why that would be a problem for the Jews since such an act was not a problem for other paganic peoples like themselves. This makes sense to me: I remember when I visited Guatemala almost 50 years ago, I was told that the priests were quite upset with the fact that the response of the indigenous peoples to Jesus was, “We will take Him too” and they continued with their native sacred rites inside the churches the priests built.
Mor also corrected a misunderstanding I had – Judea was not joined with Syria, forming the new, larger province of Syria-Palestina; rather, Syria remained Syria and Judea was given, within its original boundaries, the name Syria-Palestina. He doubts that the change of name had any effect on the surviving Jews who remained in the land after the Bar Kochba Revolt. They likely continued to call their land, Judea.
Rome’s renaming of the land, then, had nothing to do with the Jews as Jews, but with the Jews as troublemakers who needed to be taken down a notch or two in order to deter them from causing problems again in the future. We should not use this as any argument against the Arab claim to Palestine except to say that there were no Arabs in the land when Rome changed the name.
For some reason, the name Palestine stuck; perhaps because it was applied to this region for so long. In fact, before the Romans renamed Judea as Syria-Palestina, the name Palestine was in common usage by the Greeks to refer to the entirety of Israel and the Jews who populated it. And, therefore, the name has nothing to do with the Arabs who now call themselves Palestinians regardless of what Foster writes.
Feature Image Credit: Map of the Roman Empire during the time of Hadrian by Andrein / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0).