How Philistine Became a Dirty Word
by Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil
It’s a story nearly everyone knows: The young shepherd boy uses nothing but his wits and a slingshot to take down a giant, sword-wielding warrior. As the First Book of Samuel describes, Goliath stood nearly 10-feet tall, wearing a bronze helmet and a coat of armor, carrying a javelin, spear and sword over his shoulders. Every morning he emerged from his camp to taunt the Israelites: “Give me a man and let us fight each other!” Throughout the story—in which David accepts the challenge—Goliath’s name is rarely used, and he is instead referred to by his tribal affiliation—Philistine.
The Philistines are portrayed throughout the Bible as the archenemies of the Israelites: In Genesis, they are the ones who destroyed Abraham’s wells by filling them with dirt, and later, in Judges, they are the people the Israelites are most often battling. While David’s slaying of Goliath is the most famous clash between the two groups, at least 13 others are described in the biblical record, including the Philistines’ capture of the Ark of the Covenant and the wars led by Saul and his son, Jonathan.
But for all the animosity directed toward the Philistines, the Bible is vague about who, exactly, they were, and where they came from. The historical record is only slightly clearer. According to ancient Egyptian sources, the Philistines were one of several groups of seafaring raiders that migrated into southern Canaan—possibly from Crete—at the end of the Bronze Age, around the 12th century BCE. While the Israelites and Egyptians referred to this group as the “Philistines”—and the land they lived on as “Philistia,” which biblical scholars say comes from the Semitic root pe, lamed, shin, meaning to divide, go through or invade—it is unknown what they called themselves. “We know nothing about their language and almost nothing about their script,” says Israel Finkelstein, professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University.
One thing Finkelstein is sure of is that the wars depicted in the Bible are based on fact. “There can be no question that there was some animosity between Judea and the Philistines,” he says. “They were neighbors, and there were clashes on the borders.” Especially after the King of Assyria attacked Judea in 701 BCE, Finkelstein explains, shifts in territorial lines would have inflamed tensions.
Other evidence of the groups’ differences lies in an unusual source: pigs. Finkelstein recently led a DNA testing of modern and ancient pigs, which revealed that the wild boars living in Israel today are the descendants of the Philistines’ swine, which they likely brought with them from Europe. Since the consumption of pork is prohibited among Jews, Finkelstein says the Philistines’ ownership of pigs may have perpetuated an “us versus them” mentality among the Israelites.
Over the centuries, the Philistine identity gradually eroded, and by the 9th century BCE, the Philistines had completely assimilated, so that it became impossible “to separate them from other people in the other parts of the country,” says Finkelstein. Although the Philistines as a people disappeared, the name lived on, thanks to the Roman Empire, which invaded the region several centuries later. One of the Roman administrative districts, according to Camelia Suleiman, author of Language and Identity in the Israel-Palestine Conflict: The Politics of Self-Perception in the Middle East, was given a Romanized version of “Philistine”—Palestine.
The name Palestine stuck and continues to be used today, even though modern-day Palestinians have no connection to the biblical Philistines. “Palestine” is not mentioned in the Qur’an, although it was used in early Muslim texts as the name of the geographic region and also as the name of a sacred site.
As Arabs and Muslims infused the word Palestine with new meaning, the definition of “philistine” was also evolving in the Western world. In German universities in the late 17th century, philister was used as a derisive slang term for local townspeople—i.e., non-students—and soon took on the connotation of someone who was anti-intellectual, uncultured and boorish. By the late 18th century, German writers Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller appropriated philister as a literary term. This new meaning was popularized by British poet and cultural critic Matthew Arnold, who explained the term in his 1883 work, On the Study of Celtic Literature: “We are imperiled by what I call the ‘Philistinism’ of our middle class. On the side of beauty and taste, vulgarity; on the side of morals and feelings, coarseness; on the side of mind and spirit, unintelligence—this is Philistinism.”
Russian-born novelist Vladimir Nabokov used the word frequently in his 20th-century writings in English. He defined it as a person “whose interests are of a material and commonplace nature” and added another dimension: “Philistinism implies not only a collection of stock ideas but also the use of set phrases, clichés, banalities expressed in faded words,” he wrote in his essay, “Philistines and Philistinism.” “A true philistine has nothing but these trivial ideas of which he entirely consists.” This definition lives on today. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a philistine is “a person who is guided by materialism and is usually disdainful of intellectual or artistic values.”
The modern definition has nothing to do with history, says Finkelstein. Archaeological research shows that the Philistines weren’t as different from the Israelites as the Bible makes them out to be. “The Philistines developed a material culture not very different from other groups in the area,” he says. The Philistines are now known to have developed sophisticated architecture and ceramics, as well as advanced construction techniques and wine presses. “As an archaeologist, when I look at the material culture of the Philistines,” says Finkelstein, “I see nothing philistine about the Philistines.”