Biblical Studies Philistines
Carl S. Ehrlich
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 November 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0144


The Philistines were a people with roots in the Aegean or Anatolian world who settled on the southern coastal strip of Canaan around the year 1200, during the transitional period between the Late Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age. In Egyptian sources dating to this time, they are one among a number of so-called Sea Peoples who came into conflict with Egypt. Although they are mentioned anachronistically in the Hebrew Bible in both the ancestral (i.e., patriarchal) narratives and the exodus traditions, it is only in narratives dealing with the period of the judges (particularly in the Samson cycle: Judges 13–16) and with the rise of the Israelite monarchy, corresponding respectively to Iron Age Ib and IIa, that they play a more central role as antagonists: particularly of Samson and of the first Israelite king, Saul. In spite of the text’s negative attitude toward them, David appears to have spent some time as a Philistine vassal before assuming the mantle of Israelite kingship following the deaths of Saul and most of his sons at Philistine hands. After David’s supposed neutralization of the Philistine threat, the Philistines appear only sporadically in the biblical text, most noticeably in prophetic oracles against the nations. According to biblical literature, the Philistines were organized in a loose confederation of five city-states (the Philistine Pentapolis): Ashdod, Ashkelon, and Gaza along the coast, and Ekron and Gath farther inland, although the latter city does not appear in later texts. From the perspective of the biblical text, the Philistines were the quintessential “other,” distinguished from the other inhabitants of the Levant through their uncircumcised state. Our picture of Philistine history and culture is greatly expanded first by a number of ancient Near Eastern texts, particularly from the late New Kingdom Period in Egypt (13th–12th centuries BCE) and from the neo-Assyrian period (8th–7th centuries BCE), and second by the results of archaeological excavations at Philistine sites. Although a distinctive style of bichrome pottery was associated with the Philistines already at the end of the 19th century, it was not until the 1960s that intensive excavations began to be carried out both at cities of the Philistine Pentapolis (with the exception of Gaza, which is covered by the modern city of the same name) and at smaller and more peripheral sites. These have allowed us to draw a much more nuanced picture of Philistine history, society, and material culture, which oftentimes provides a corrective to the witness of the biblical text.

General Overviews

Studies of the Philistines approach the subject matter from varying perspectives. This category is dedicated to studies with a more global approach. These include both popular and more scholarly works. Bierling 1992 attempts to mesh the archaeological results with an understanding of the biblical text, while Dothan and Dothan 1992 provides an engaging account of this husband-and-wife team’s search for Philistine remains. Emphasis is placed on their own archaeological excavations of Ashdod, Tel Miqne-Ekron, and on Cyprus. Litani 2013 is an illustrated museum catalogue that presents an overview of Philistine material culture. Among the more scholarly works, Noort 1994 provides a comprehensive textual and archaeological study on the Philistines and associated Sea Peoples: presumably owing to its publication in German, this study has not been sufficiently taken note of in the scholarly literature. Margalith 1994 controversially argues for widespread Philistine influence on biblical literature. Niesiołowski-Spanò 2016 builds upon Margalith 1994 and goes far beyond in a provocative synthesis of Philistine influence on Israelite history and culture. Killebrew and Lehmann 2013 provides a relatively comprehensive collection of essays on the complex Philistine and Sea Peoples’ phenomenon. Ehrlich 1996 surveys the history of the Philistines between David and Tiglath-pileser III (c. 1000–730 BCE), more or less at which historical point the Tadmor 1966 study of the Philistines under Assyrian rule takes over. And Finkelstein 2002, whose author has a reputation as a re-dater of both archaeological levels and biblical texts, argues that the depiction of the Philistines in biblical literature is a reflection of the late date of the texts’ composition. Owing to the rapid pace of archaeological discovery in the Philistine world in recent years, many of the archaeological arguments in works older than about a decade have been superseded.

  • Bierling, Neal. Giving Goliath His Due: New Archaeological Light on the Philistines. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1992.

    A popular introduction to the study of the Philistines and their culture and history, written by an educated layman who participated extensively in the excavations of Tel Miqne-Ekron, among other sites in Israel. However, Bierling’s book should be used with caution, since his understanding of the biblical text is somewhat literalist.

  • Dothan, Trude, and Moshe Dothan. People of the Sea: The Search for the Philistines. New York: Macmillan, 1992.

    Written by the scholars who established the modern study of the Philistines, this engaging book documents their personal search for the remains of the Philistines and other Sea Peoples. Drawing on their own excavations, the book reads like a mystery novel, while providing a wealth of information about the Philistines and their material culture.

  • Ehrlich, Carl S. The Philistines in Transition: A History from ca. 1000–730 BCE. Studies in the History and Culture of the Ancient Near East 10. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1996.

    Examines a period of Philistine history that has not often been an object of interest: from the time of their supposed subjugation by David of Israel until their conquest by the Assyrian Tiglath-pileser III during his campaigns to the Levant in 734–732 BCE. Appendixes provide editions of relevant biblical and Assyrian texts.

  • Finkelstein, Israel. “The Philistines in the Bible: A Late-Monarchic Perspective.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 27 (2002): 131–167.

    DOI: 10.1177/030908920202700201

    Finkelstein’s central thesis, which employs both textual and archaeological evidence, is that the biblical texts relating to the Philistines date to the late monarchic period (7th–6th centuries BCE), rather than to the time of which they purport to tell (mainly 11th–10th centuries BCE). This has controversial implications for the evaluation of these texts as historical sources.

  • Killebrew, Ann E., and Gunnar Lehmann, eds. The Philistines and Other “Sea Peoples” in Text and Archaeology. SBL Archaeology and Biblical Studies 15. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2013.

    An important collection of twenty-four essays covering a broad range of topics in Philistine and Sea Peoples studies. Following an introduction by the editors, the first section, consisting of nine essays, looks at “The Philistines in Text and Archaeology.” The second section, consisting of five essays, examines “The Other ‘Sea Peoples’ in the Levant.” The third section, consisting of eight essays, is dedicated to “Anatolia, the Aegean, and Cyprus.” Finally, an appendix provides information on “The ‘Sea Peoples’ in Primary Sources.”

  • Litani, Galit. The World of the Philistines: The Rise and Fall of the Philistine Culture; Beginning of the 12th Century BCE–End of the 7th Century BCE. Translated by Zvi Gal. Ashdod, Israel: Corinne Mamane Museum of Philistine Culture, 2013.

    A bilingual English-Hebrew catalogue of the permanent exhibit at the world’s first museum dedicated solely to the Philistines. Lavishly illustrated, it provides a basic overview of Philistine history and material culture.

  • Margalith, Othniel. The Sea Peoples in the Bible. Translated by Othniel Margalith and Shulamit Margalith. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 1994.

    An intriguing but idiosyncratic attempt to argue for widespread Philistine and Sea Peoples’ influence on biblical literature. The author overstates his case by his uncritical use of both biblical and Greek literature, and by his ignoring of archaeological evidence that would contradict his theories. Stimulating, but to be used with caution.

  • Niesiołowski-Spanò, Łukasz. Goliath’s Legacy: Philistines and Hebrews in Biblical Times. Translated by Maria Kantor. Philippika: Altertumswissenschaftliche Abhandlungen/Contributions to the Study of Ancient World Cultures 83. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 2016.

    A provocative work that seeks to overturn many of the consensus positions in Philistine studies. Niesiołowski-Spanò’s basic thesis is that the Philistines had a much greater and longer impact on Israelite history and culture than previously supposed. Indeed, he attributes to the Philistines the origins of many of the ethnic groups and tribes mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, thus positing Philistine origins for both Canaanites and Israelites. The Philistine influence may also be identified in the vocabulary of Biblical Hebrew. And in distinction to other interpreters of the past, he does not view Nebuchadnezzar’s late-7th-century conquests as bringing an end to Philistine history. While many will disagree with his conclusions, he forces the reader to reconsider old assumptions.

  • Noort, Ed. Die Seevölker in Palästina. Palaestina Antiqua 8. Kampen: Kok Pharos, 1994.

    Noort challenges the dominant orthodoxy that the Sea Peoples organized a massive invasion of Egypt and that Philistine material culture was largely imported from outside Canaan. Instead, the author argues that Philistine settlement does not date to the eighth year of Ramses III and that much of Philistine material culture continues older local traditions.

  • Tadmor, Hayim. “Philistia under Assyrian Rule.” Biblical Archaeologist 29 (1966): 86–102.

    DOI: 10.2307/3211004

    Based on his readings of Assyrian and biblical texts, the author was one of the world’s leading scholars of the ancient Near East. This study provides a political and economic history of the Philistines during the days of the neo-Assyrian Empire in the 8th–7th centuries BCE. Although older, this is still an informative and accessible essay.

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