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During yesterday’s discussion of the Kairos Palestine Document, there was a bit of a scuffle over the proper use of the term “Palestine”. One gentleman (whose name I didn’t catch, due to a somewhat frustratingly inconstant internet connection) made the exact same argument that I quoted in my previous post on the subject, citing the Bible, Josephus, and Philo (at least, that’s what the argument I quoted cited; again, I didn’t catch the precise nuance of the speaker at General Assembly). Another gentleman disputed this point, citing… Wikipedia.

After I picked myself up from the floor (where I was alternately howling with laughter and pounding my head in despair), I put the computer away and went to sleep. And this morning, I awoke to find a Twitter response from Colin Carmichael, saying “I feel compelled to defend the Wikipedia reference – if only because the info referred to had 4 primary source citations.”

Thus I dutifully took myself off to Wikipedia to gaze upon its primary sources and prepare to swallow my foot.

The Wikipedia article in question has, as of this morning, no fewer than five citations following the opening statement “Palestine (Greek: Παλαιστίνη, Palaistinē; Latin: Palaestina; Hebrew: ארץ־ישראל Eretz-Yisra’el, formerly also פלשׂתינה, Palestina; Arabic: فلسطين‎ Filasṭīn, Falasṭīn, Filisṭīn) was a conventional name, among others, used between 450 BC and 1948 AD to describe a geographic region between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, and various adjoining lands.” However, not a single one of them points to an actual primary source. The secondary and tertiary sources used for in support of that statement include the Palestine Exploration Fund‘s statement clarifying the geographical area of its exploration (this is presumably the source of the Wiki’s conflation between ארץ־ישראל–which carries distinct nationalist-religious implications inappropriate for the article’s stated focus on “the historical geographical area”–and פלשׂתינה, which is just this side of sensible for a rather old-fashioned society dedicated to the exploration/understanding of the Levant, and dangerously misleading when removed from that context), the Jewish Encyclopedia article on Palestine, and print books by an Israeli New Historian, an historian of Islam, and a Swedish scholar of the ancient Near East. The latter three may indeed be good, reliable sources which assess the historical evidence on its merits and deliver a fully supported, reasoned conclusion–or they could actually have nothing to say on the issue one way or another; absent page number citations which might point to exactly what part of the books in question the Wikipedia editor saw as support for that statement, I have no way of knowing, and neither does anyone else.

The Wikipedia-citing gentleman need not despair entirely, however, as both the Palestine Exploration Society and the Jewish Encyclopedia do actually point to a real primary source which might support his point. Herodotus, in the 5th century BCE, wrote the following passage in his History of the Greco-Persian wars:

Of the triremes the number proved to be one thousand two hundred and seven, and these were they who furnished them:–the Phoenicians, together with the Syrians who dwell in Palestine furnished three hundred; and they were equipped thus, that is to say, they had about their heads leathern caps made very nearly in the Hellenic fashion, and they wore corslets of linen, and had shields without rims and javelins. These Phenicians dwelt in ancient time, as they themselves report, upon the Erythraian Sea, and thence they passed over and dwell in the country along the sea coast of Syria; and this part of Syria and all as far as Egypt is called Palestine.

Herodotus, History 2:89

Certainly, had the gentleman cited Herodotus, rather than Wikipedia, there would have been grounds for at least a conversation, rather than laughter. I’m not convinced that a glancing reference to a relatively minor player in the much bigger story that Herodotus is trying to tell in the History is enough to overturn the volume of evidence that points to Palestina and Philistia being equivalent and distinct from the inland regions (Judea, Samaria, etc.); the above quoted passage seems, to me, to be quite clearly describing the coastal, and not the inland, regions (“… they passed over and dwell in the country along the sea coast of Syria”). But I am also not a classicist–and this is a point on which reasonable and educated minds may easily differ.

The Jewish Encyclopedia also points to Pliny and Ptolemy, both of whom are much later writers than Herodotus, and who may be better choices for someone wishing to make an argument about the designation of the area at the time of Christ. Of course, then that person would need to wrestle with, at the very least, Josephus, and questions about local knowledge (Josephus actually lived in the area in question, while Piny wrote in Rome, and Ptolemy in Egypt) and political motivation: Josephus, the survivor of the Jewish rebellion in 70 CE, after which the Romans destroyed the Second Temple and re-named the entire region “Palestine”, has a set of understandable reasons to prefer to retain the designation “Judea”, while Pliny, writing slightly later and in the capital of the empire that won the war and renamed the territory, has a set of equally understandable reasons to favour the imperially-imposed designation.

The point is not that one way of referring to a piece of land that’s had its name changed multiple times is clearly correct and one is clearly wrong. The point is precisely that (will all hermeneutics scholars please stand for the refrain?) there is no clear, decisive, and unambiguous citation that will settle the matter for once and for all; every source has traces of the author’s geographical, temporal, political, and ideological situatedness–and every source must also be interpreted by its reader, who will also bring their own geographical, temporal, political, and ideological background to their reading. The argument at General Assembly really isn’t over Josephus vs. Pliny vs. Herodotus vs. the Bible (King James or Hebrew or Septuagint), but over how the Church wants to think about the place I’m sitting right now. The exercise of picking a suitably ancient text and waving it around to prove that this has “always” or “never” been Palestine or Israel or Judea or Mars seems to be more of an attempt to obscure the fact that the speaker’s interpretative choices do not just carry political implications, but are already grounded in politics.

All that being said, I’m going to stand by my assertion that Wikipedia is a laughable source to be using in this conversation.

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