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A Tentative Philistine Timeline

Here is an outline of Philistine history based on tentative conclusions presented in previous posts:

Cretan Pelastoi

The ultimate origins of the Philistines lie in Lower Egypt or Libya among a tribal group known to the later Hebrews as either the Casluchim or the Caphtorim. They were somehow affiliated with a “foreign elite” that had arrived from Mesopotamia in Egypt’s Naqada II period. I would place this incursion at about 3200-3150 BC: a bit earlier than Rohl, a bit later than conventional chronology. Were these tribes literally descendants of “Mizraim” (Ge 10:13-14), or were they peoples that were absorbed into the Egyptian cultural horizon? I see know way of answering this question definitively, as the terminology of sonship or descent was often used in the ancient world to describe other sorts of relationships, including intermarriage, migration into a new territory, or even conquest in war. Eventually (starting ca. 2990 by my estimation), Upper Egypt became unified after the victory of the “Followers of Horus” over the related “Followers of Seth.” For the next 200 years, Upper Egypt’s power expanded throughout the Nile Valley until eventually Upper and Lower Egypt were united under a single king, remembered to later history as Menes.

If Sir Arthur Evans (the first excavator at Crete) was right, about this time some refugees from Libya or Lower Egypt emigrated to Crete, perhaps in a bid to preserve not only their autonomy but also certain aspects of their predynastic culture. These were the Casluchim/Caphtorim. Of course, if the unification of Egypt took place gradually through cultural diffusion rather than suddenly in a military conquest (as modern scholarship seems to accept), the migrations may also have taken many generations.

On Crete, the Casluchim/Caphtorim eventually split into two distinct groups: the Eteocretans and the Kydonians. Although one of these tribes called themselves (or were later remembered as) “native Cretans,” they were not the first settlers there—unless we posit an even earlier wave of migration from Africa. Already present was an indigenous population, the Pelastoi, that had migrated to the island from Anatolia in Neolithic times. Homer’s Crete was still populated by these three groups, plus members of two later waves of Greek-speaking settlers: the Achaeans and the Dorians.

All of these, according to Homer, spoke a different language, although it seems they eventually forged a unified culture that Evans dubbed “Minoan.” Perhaps a local creole language developed based on the original Pelastian substrate with later proto-Berber, Egyptian, and Indo-European borrowings. Or, each group maintained its own language, but spoke Pelastian as a lingua franca for intra-island commerce and diplomacy. The answer to this puzzle lies in Crete’s still-undeciphered Linear A script, but I would suggest that the Pelastian language came to predominate in one way or another, such that later immigrant Cretans were called Pelishtim by the Israelites. In the same way, the Pennsylvania Dutch refer to those outside their communities as “English,” not because of their ethnic stock or citizenship but the language they speak—and there are plenty of people who think of the cuisine of Mexico as “Spanish food” because of the language of the cooks!

Little or nothing is known of the Philistine language. Although some have sought Indo-European roots for the few items of vocabulary that can be extracted from the Old Testament, the range of evidence is simply too small to offer a definitive solution to the problem. Almost the totality of what is known of Philistine vocabulary consists of:

  • Koba’, the word for Goliath’s headgear (1 Sa 17:5; a “feathered” headdress?) might be cognate to Hittite kupahhi, “helmet” (cf. Greek kephalos or Latin caput, both meaning “head”)
  • Seren, the title of the Philistine rulers (1 Sa 5:8; 6:4, 16-18) is almost universally agreed to be cognate with Greek tyrannos, the term for the ruler of a city-state. It should be noted, however, that there is no clear Indo-European etymology behind this word.
  • ‘Argaz (“box,” “crate,” 1 Sa 6:8) is a total mystery.

The Pelastian language of the Aegean was almost certainly not Indo-European. Some have made a case for affinities with Etruscan. In classical sources, the Pelastoi are in fact said to be related to the Tyrsenoi, the Greek name for the Etruscans. The word Tyrsenoi may also be related to the Tursha or Teresh, one of Ramesses’ “Sea Peoples.” On the other hand, classical sources do not always clearly distinguish between the Pelasts and the Minyans, a later group often seen as the first Indo-European inhabitants of Greece. Minyans and Pelasts apparently intermixed quite extensively, and the presence of Gray Minyan ware on Crete in the Middle Minoan II period suggests contact with these early Indo-Europeans. It may be that later Greeks used the term “Pelasgian” as a shorthand term for all the pre-Hellenic peoples of the Aegean, regardless of their ethnolinguistic background.

Later biblical evidence would also point to a mixed heritage for the Philistines. In the period of the Judges and especially the united monarchy, we see the coastal area of Canaan inhabited by Caphtorites, Cherethites, Pelethites, and others, including apparently even Hurrians from northern Mesopotamia.

The Philistines certainly appear to be a people comfortable with the presence of other ethnic or linguistic groups in their midst. They shared certain cultural affinities with the other so-called “Sea Peoples,” who no doubt spoke a variety of languages and worshiped any number of gods. Their distinctive feathered headgear was copied by the (probably) Greek-speaking Danuna and the (probably) non-Indo-European Tjekker. Perhaps after their arrival in Canaan they gradually absorbed all of these other groups into their society just as the Minoans had integrated black Africans and Indo-Europeans into theirs. At the very least, they lent their name to the conglomeration, at least in the usage of outsiders like the Israelites.

A similar example of a mixture of peoples being called by one name comes out of the Exodus: Israel left Egypt as a “mixed multitude” (Ex 12:38) composed both of ethnic descendants of Jacob and other, foreign elements (Nu 11:4; Jos 8:35). The entire group came to be called Israelites, since the descendants of Jacob were dominant.

Cypro-Minoan Pelishtim

At some point, a Cretan trading colony was established on Cyprus. It was there that the earliest bichrome ware was created and eventually imported to the Levant by a “first wave” of Philistine immigrants. This outpost may have been established as late as the beginning of the Late Bronze Age, but possibly a fair bit earlier. By this time, there was already a Philistine presence in Gerar, as indicated by a Minoan graffito discovered at Tell Haror (biblical Gerar). From this time to the first sustained narratives dealing with Philistines associated with the later Judges and the reigns of Saul and David, this first wave of Philistines became thoroughly Semitized. All of the Philistine gods mentioned in the Bible (Dagon, Ashtoreth, Baal-zebub) are clearly Canaanite, indicating the extent of their assimilation. Furthermore, the Medinet Habu relief seems to show two different kinds of “Philistines”: the traditional feather-crowned warriors as well as bearded men in Semitic-style caps. In Bimson’s interpretation, the difference is between the more Semitized Philistines of the first migration wave and others who were new comers from the Aegean.

Aegean Peleset

Much later, the Mycenaean Bronze Age civilization collapsed in the aftermath of the Trojan War (Rohl’s dates are ca. 872-863; Goldberg would say early 10th century) and the Dorian invasions. This catastrophe propelled a second wave of Philistines toward the Levant after first being defeated in Egypt by Ramesses III in his 8th regnal year (856 BC in Rohl’s chronology; ca. 989 in Goldberg’s). These invaders were known as Peleset in Egypt. Along with the Danuna, Tjekker, and others, they constituted one of many “Sea Peoples” that spanned the eastern Mediterranean as mercenaries, pirates, and plunderers. In conventional chronology, these Peleset were the Philistines that oppressed Israel at the end of the period of the Judges, although in Rohl’s new chronology this dubious honor belongs to the Cypriot Philistines, acting as Egypt’s “police force” in the region. In Goldberg’s chronology as well they may have been operating in Canaan on behalf of Egypt, as “Sea People” mercenaries are attested during the reign of Ramesses II (mid-11th century in this model).

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