Did the Biblical authors jump the gun on the Philistines? The conventional theory is that there were few if any Philistines in Canaan before the eighth year of Ramesses III, ca. 1177 BC, at which time they began to settle in coastal Palestine. This disqualified not only the references to the patriarchs Abraham and Isaac having dealings with the Philistines (Ge 21:32-34; 26:1-18) but also references to Philistines present in Canaan around the time of the exodus and conquest (Ex 13:17, 15:14; Dt 2:23; Jos 13:2-3). If the earliest date for a Philistine presence in Canaan is the early 12th century BC, they arrive at some point during the period of the Judges: in time to harass Israelite leaders from Samson to David, but certainly not early enough to divert the Israelite migration out of Egypt or to concern Joshua a generation later.
Earlier Evidence of Philistines in Canaan
The conventional theory, however, is subject to criticism. First of all, several groups of “Sea Peoples” are known to have served as mercenaries of Ramesses II, notably at the Battle of Kadesh (ca. 1275 or earlier in conventional chronology). Other kindred groups are attested in the Amarna Letters as being present in Canaan up to a hundred years before this. The presence of Cypriot immigrants in Canaan in fact predates even the Amarna period. Might “Philistine” have been an anachronistic catch-all name for all of these related groups?
Furthermore, John Bimson has drawn attention to the presence of a unique form of pottery called Cypriot bichrome ware that was introduced into coastal Palestine several centuries before the supposed Philistine arrival. This bichrome ware, some of which was made with clay from the island of Cyprus rather than being made locally, is seen as a precursor to the later “Philistine ware” of the Early Iron Age. Its presence in Canaan demands a Cypriot presence there dating from the Late Bronze Age on (ca. 1550 BC in conventional terms). Since the Philistines came from Cyprus (see the article by Karageorghis), Bimson sees this bichrome ware as evidence for a prior Philistine migration.
Two waves of migration would also account for the differences one might note between the Philistines of Genesis and those of Judges and Samuel. The former are depicted as friendly (indeed, the Bible depicts King Abimelech as a righteous man), having Semitic names, and based in Gerar. The latter are militant, seem to have Hurrian names, and are based along the coast in the “Philistine Pentapolis.”
For those who accept the orthodox chronology of the ancient world, the Amarna Letters and Ramesses II’s Battle of Kadesh inscriptions are sufficient in themselves to locate “Philistines” in Canaan in plenty of time for a thirteenth-century exodus. The patriarchal references may still pose a difficulty. Bimson’s work solves the problem of exodus/conquest-era Philistines rather nicely, whether one prefers a fifteenth- or a thirteenth-century dating for the exodus.
A bigger difficulty, however, has to do with the trustworthiness of the conventional chronology. I suspect the conventional chronology of the ancient world is off, leading to anomalies in the archeological record in which artifacts supposedly separated by centuries are found in the same strata.
There are several competing models that seek to revise ancient chronology downward by several centuries. The most popular (or notorious) are those of Peter James et al., who suggest a down-dating of around 250 years; and David Rohl suggests at points a down-dating of 200-250 years up to Egypt’s Second Intermediate Period, but up to 350 years for some time after that! (Reviews of both models may be read here). Also, Jeremy Goldberg has proposed a chronology, building on Rohl’s, that imposes a more uniform down-dating of around 200 years. Rohl posits a 200-year down-dating of the beginning of the Late Bronze Age, from 1550 to 1350 BC. I’ve yet to acquire Centuries of Darkness, so I’m not sure where James et al. come down on this point. From what I understand, he may also have a 1350 BC Late Bronze Age. Presumably, so would Goldberg.
Such a chronological adjustment doesn’t pose a problem for date of the exodus in the thirteenth century, but the only reason scholars even proposed a thirteenth-century date was a speculative identification of Ramesses II with the Pharaoh of the exodus. Once you accept the possibility of radical revision of ancient chronology, that identification goes out the window! All options must then be put back into play.
It is not likely that there was a strong cultural connection between Crete and Cyprus much earlier than the beginning of the Late Bronze Age. The Minoans may well have traded with Cyprus for copper in earlier centuries, but there does not seem to be evidence of cultural borrowings that early. Still, it might be possible, or even probable, that there would have been Minoan/Aegean settlements in Canaan before that. In particular, the Tell Haror Minoan graffito and associated Minoan-style chalice I mentioned previously might date ca. 1400 BC in the revised chronologies under consideration.
Even so, there are some references to the Philistines that are “borderline” in that they pose no problem at all for conventional chronology, but may demand a bit more fine-tuning for those who prefer one of the new chronology models:
“When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, ‘If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt” (Ex 13:17)
“The peoples heard, they trembled; pangs seized the inhabitants of Philistia” (Ex 15:14).
Both of these references, it must be noted, are more geographical than ethnographical. The verse from the Song of the Sea (Ex 15) in particular could very naturally be construed as an application of a later geographical term more familiar to readers at some distance from the events being narrated. It would be no different than speaking, to use a classic example, of the Roman colony at York. The “inhabitants of York” in the first century included exactly zero Danes (who eventually gave the city its name) and a great many Romans and Britons who would have been quite surprised to find that they lived anywhere but Eboracum! For readers today, however, it would be pedantic to insist on the less familiar but technically more accurate designation in a work intended for a general readership.
The “way of the land of the Philistines” is also called the “way of the sea.” It was the main coastal thoroughfare from Egypt into Canaan in ancient times. Technically, the biblical writer did not say Israel might have given up if they faced war from the Philistines. If they had followed the way of the Philistines, they would likely have been opposed by any number of peoples along that well-traveled road. Still, the writer did use the word “Philistines,” which does not leave as much wiggle room as “inhabitants of Philistia.”
“As for the Avvim, who had lived in settlements in the vicinity of Gaza, the Capthorim, who came from Caphtor, destroyed them and settled in their place” (Dt 2:23)
“This is the land that still remains: all the regions of the Philistines, and all those of the Geshurites” (Jos 13:2).
These references more clearly speak of a people, not a place. Furthermore, the Deuteronomy passage tells us where these people came from: Caphtor! These are clearly Philistines, and they are clearly depicted as being present in Canaan at the time of the Conquest and apparently for some time previously.
These Philistines cannot, however, have been Bimson’s emigrants from Cyprus under the new chronology unless it can be pushed a century or so higher than it stands at present. If, however, Caphtor is permitted to designate Crete itself rather than Cyprus (which is, it will be remembered, the majority scholarly opinion), then evidence such as the Tell Haror Minoan graffito must count for evidence of “Caphtorim” settlement in the Gaza region at the very beginning of the Late Bronze Age if not somewhat earlier. This might rehabilitate the historicity not only of the conquest references but even those of the exodus as references to actual Philistines and not merely to the regions that would eventually be named after them.
The Patriarchal Period
Finally, what about the Philistines of the patriarchal period? Genesis reports Abraham (Ge 21:32-34) and Isaac (Ge 26:1-18) both having dealings with the Philistine king of Gerar, called “Abimelech” in both cases. Abraham was likely born near the beginning of the Middle Bronze Age, or about 1900 BC in Rohl’s chronology. Is it plausible to find Philistines in Canaan this early? It certainly cannot be proven: to my knowledge there is no archeological evidence for Cretan settlers at this time. But neither can it be ruled utterly impossible. First, it should be noted that Crete became a major commercial hub for the Aegean and later the entire eastern Mediterranean precisely in the Middle Bronze Age. There is nothing inherently impossible about an early Minoan trading outpost in southern Palestine at this time, although there is no proof, either. Furthermore, the early depictions of Philistines in Genesis with Abraham and Isaac do not suggest the kind of powerful nation known from the period of the Judges on. Even the city in which the patriarchs meet them, Gerar, is not one of the traditional five Philistine cities in the Gaza region (although it is within what would later become Philistine territory). Rather than inhabiting the coastal region, Abraham’s Philistines lived seventeen miles inland, with a capital at Gerar and territory apparently extending westward toward the Sinai peninsula.
Even if the presence of a Philistine king in Middle Bronze Age Canaan is not an anachronism, the name he is given poses problems of its own. It is hard to imagine that a leader of the earliest phase of Minoan settlement in Canaan would have a Semitic name. We might, however, suggest the following:
- It is possible that the king of Gerar adopted a Semitic name (perhaps a translation of his birth name) in order to ease his dealings with his new neighbors.
- If he was of the second or third generation of Cretans in Gerar, his father may have married a Canaanite woman who gave him a Semitic name.
- Far more likely than either of these options is the possibility that “Abimelech” is not a proper name but a title, similar to Pharaoh, Caesar, Kandake, etc. Literally, “Abimelech” means “My Father is King,” which may be the title of the crown prince or perhaps a name claiming an inherited right to rule. It might also be taken as “My Father is [the god] Molech” and thus perhaps give a nod to the idea of divine kingship.
- There was an Abimelech ruling Gerar in the time of Abraham and a generation later at the time of Isaac. It could be that father and son bore the same name, or it could be that every king of Gerar was called “Abimelech.” This possibility in enhanced by the superscription of Ps 34, which reads: “Of David, when he feigned madness before Abimelech.” This “Abimelech” is actually Achish, the Philistine king of Gath. It may have been that pretty much any Philistine king had “Abimelech” as one of his titles.
Furthermore, it may be that this title was originally used by the native Canaanite rulers of Gerar and only later embraced (one might say “stolen”) by foreign overlords. Such would have been no different than Alexander the great being anointed as “Pharaoh” of Egypt some 1,500 years later.
Finally, it should be noted that there is no biblical requirement that an otherwise unattested Cretan colony at Gerar persist all the way from the time of Isaac to the Late Bronze Age. Abraham and Isaac’s Philistines may have represented a trading venture that failed after only a few decades’ existence. Only later might the kings of Crete have re-established a presence in Gerar.
Next: A Philistine Timeline