The region where Israel is 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 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 has historically been a geographical region with unofficial, fluctuating boundaries. The nation of Israel should be distinguished from the land region of Palestine, defined as an “area of the eastern Mediterranean region, comprising parts of modern Israel and the Palestinian territories of the Gaza Strip (along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea) and the West Bank (west of the Jordan River)” (Fraser, P., Bickerton, I., et al., “Palestine,” Encyclopedia Britannica, www.britannica.com/place/Palestine, accessed 10/24/23). 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.
God brought the descendants of Israel/Jacob out of Egypt into the land He had promised to their ancestor 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. We believe the land promise must be literally fulfilled in the future.
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 refers to a region along the south Mediterranean coast of Israel. That word is found in Exodus 15:14; Psalm 60:8; 83:7; 87:4; and 108:9. It is usually translated “Philistia.”
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 area 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 as a regional designation: 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.
Arabs who live in the former mandated Palestine, excluding those who live in Israel, are often called “Palestinians” today, but the idea of Palestinians as a distinct people group is relatively recent. Arab inhabitants of Palestine only began to refer to themselves as “Palestinians” in the early 1900s. They never had a separate state and largely considered themselves as part of the larger, global community of Arabs or Muslims.
Today, the word Palestine is still used to designate a land region, but it has also taken on political connotations. In November 2012, the U.N. General Assembly voted to upgrade the Palestinian Authority’s observer status at the United Nations from “entity” to “non-member state” (see www.reuters.com/article/us-palestinians-statehood-idUSBRE8AR0EG20121201, accessed 10/24/23). The vote gave informal recognition of the existence of the sovereign state of Palestine.