The region where Israel is currently located was referred to as “Palestine” at least as early as the 5th century BC. Writings from such men as Aristotle, Herodotus, and Plutarch all refer to the land in this area as “Palestine.” This term is believed to come from Masoretic Hebrew biblical texts. Some scholars think that the word Palestine means “land of the Philistines”—the region definitely included the place where the Philistines lived in Canaan—but there is no consensus on that meaning.
The main difference between Israel and Palestine is that Israel is a nation, and Palestine is a geographical region. Palestine has not been, nor is it currently, a nation. The nation of Israel should be distinguished from the land region of Palestine. Before the kingdom of Israel existed, the region was called “Canaan.” The region delineated as “Canaan” or, later, “Palestine” is not necessarily the same as the boundaries for Israel described in the Bible.
After the exodus, God brought the descendants of Israel/Jacob into the land He had promised to Abraham (Genesis 15:17–21; Joshua 1:1–9). Based upon the dimensions of the land found in the Abrahamic Covenant, Israel’s land promise remains yet to be fulfilled; even at the peak of the Davidic kingdom, the territory occupied by Israel did not match the promise. So we have good reason to think the land promise must be literally fulfilled in the future. The land that Abraham’s descendants will one day occupy may rightly be called “Israel” because it is their rightful inheritance.
The word Palestine only occurs one time in the Bible, and only in the King James Version, in Joel 3:4. (Palestina is found in Isaiah 14:29 and 31 in the KJV.) The Hebrew word Pelesheth means “the land of wanders” or “strangers.” That word is found in Exodus 15:14; Psalm 60:8; 83:7; 87:4; and 108:9. It is usually translated “Philistia” and typically refers to a region on the southern border of Syria to the south and west of Canaan.
The name of the region of Palestine has varied throughout history. Prior to AD 135, the Romans called the land “Judea and Galilee.” That changed when Emperor Hadrian brutally suppressed the Jewish Resistance movement and occupied Judea. The Romans began calling the land “Syria Palaestina” after two of Israel’s historic enemies (Syria and Philistia); Hadrian built a temple to Jupiter on Israel’s temple mount, made Jerusalem a Roman colony, and renamed the city “Aelia Capitalina.” For centuries afterward, the land of Israel was called “Palestine,” following the lead of the Romans, and the term Palestine entered our lexicon—the name became so common that respected Bible commentators have used it (e.g., McGee, Pentecost, Chafer, and Ryrie), and some Bible translations use the term (see the section heading for Joshua 11 in the NASB). Prior to their national independence in 1948, Jewish groups adopted the “Palestine” label for themselves: the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra was originally called the Palestine Symphony Orchestra, and the original name for the Jerusalem Post was the Palestine Post. Both of those entities were founded in the 1930s.
Today, the word Palestine is still used to designate a land region, but it has also taken on political connotations. Considering the context of the term is important, since Palestine is a label often used by propagandists who refuse to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist. Maps published with the nation of Israel labeled as “Palestine” are blatant attacks on the legitimacy of Israel as a modern nation.