The discovery of a large Philistine cemetery is making waves across the field of archaeology. In the biblical account the Philistines were the archenemies of the Israelites for many years. This was especially the case for the last judges of Israel, including Samuel, and during the reigns of its first kings Saul and David. The most famous Philistines were Delilah (the wife of Samson), and the giant Goliath who was slain by a young David.
As he talked with them, behold, the champion, the Philistine of Gath, Goliath by name, came up out of the ranks of the Philistines and spoke the same words as before. And David heard him. – 1 Samuel 17:23 (ESV)
Despite the prevalence of the Philistines in the Bible, archaeologists have not been able to throw much light onto the question of where these people came from before they showed up in Canaan. Decades of excavations have uncovered many artifacts that were left behind, but few gravesites that could provide more clues as to their place of origin.
Excavation staff discuss what they estimate to be a 9th-10th century BC burial at the Philistine cemetery outside the walls of ancient Ashkelon. (Photo: Tsafrir Abayov/Leon Levy Expedition.)

That may change with the discovery of a large Philistine cemetery just outside the ancient remains of the major port-city of Ashkelon. The remarkable discovery of burials from at least 210 individuals was announced at a press conference in Jerusalem on July 10th, 2016.

According to Breaking Israel News, the discovery was made by the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon, which has been digging at the city for thirty years. The cemetery has undergone excavation during the last three years but is only now being announced as work concludes. The expedition at Ashkelon, as well as other digs taking place at other sites such as Ashdod, Ekron, and Gath, have shown the culturally uniqueness of the Philistines from their neighbors. However, clues of their origins have previously been few.

Directed by Lawrence E. Stager, Dorot Professor of the Archaeology of Israel, Emeritus, at Harvard University, and Daniel M. Master, Professor of Archaeology at Wheaton College, the Leon Levy Expedition has found remains that they say stretch from the 11th–8th century BC. Other scholars have since challenged the excavation team’s claim of this being the first Philistine cemetery ever discovered, but the find is certainly a major event.

“After decades of studying what the Philistines left behind, we have finally come face to face with the people themselves,” said Master. “With this discovery we are close to unlocking the secrets of their origins.”

While most scholars have long believed the Philistines originated from the Aegean region, it has been hotly debated whether that means mainland Greece, Anatolia (Turkey), or the islands of Crete or Cyprus. The team is now performing DNA, radiocarbon and other tests on the bone samples to gain clues pertaining to the origin debate. It will take decades of research to fully evaluate the finds.

Another Major Issue

This discovery is also linked to another major issue that affects the credibility of the Bible’s historical account in the eyes of the world – what period should we be looking in for corresponding evidence of the biblical Exodus, Conquest, judges, and united monarchy of the Israelites? Conventional thinking today connects the arrival of the Philistines in Canaan to the Sea Peoples, who were a mysterious confederation of tribes that conquered much of the eastern Mediterranean around 1200 BC and led to the collapse of Late Bronze Age culture. Many Internet articles on the Ashkelon cemetery finds even state that the biblical view is that the Philistines came in at this time. But is this really the biblical view?

See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This association of the Philistines with the Sea Peoples arriving in Canaan has been the source of some of the greatest criticism of the film Patterns of Evidence: The Exodus. This objection has come from Bible-believing scholars as well as others.

The film highlights evidence matching the biblical Exodus and Conquest that exists some 200 years earlier than would be expected, even when using the “early Exodus date” around 1450 BC. One possible explanation for the earlier-than-expected evidence that was profiled in the film is the idea that the timeline of the ancient world is faulty and may need to be shifted forward by hundreds of years. When this is done, the evidence, which at first appeared to be too early, actually could line up with a 1450 BC Exodus date.

A significant objection to shifting the timeline seen in the film, is that it would require shifting the Philistines forward by hundreds of years as well. Since the conventional thinking has the initial incursion of Philistines into the Promised Land happening in conjunction with the Sea Peoples around 1200 BC, a shift forward would put the Philistines arrival after 1000 BC, which is after the time of Samuel, Saul and David’s early reign. Therefore, they say, shifting the timeline is not an option, no matter how good the earlier evidence appears to be.

The Philistines in the standard view only arrive in Canaan with the invasion of the Sea Peoples. Click here for an overview of the Wall of Time.
After the shift – In conventional thinking, if the dates in Canaan are shifted forward by 200-300 years, this would remove the Philistines from the time of the latter judges and kings Saul and David. NOTE: The Biblical timeline is not affected by the timeline shift.

However, might this objection be another example of a historical assumptions getting in the way of seeing evidence for the early history in the Bible? Using conventional dating, there is a major lack of evidence fitting the biblical account from the time of Solomon back to the Exodus and Conquest. One popular assumption that seems to be preventing people from recognizing evidence for the Exodus is the idea that the Exodus must have happened around the time of Ramesses II (c. 1250 BC in conventional dating). But as seen inPatterns of Evidence: The Exodus, both the Bible and archaeological evidence point to the Exodus actually happening centuries earlier. The same thing might be going on with the Philistines-to-Sea Peoples link that is the basis of the objection highlighted above.

The problem with the Sea Peoples link is that the Philistines are mentioned by the Bible as being in Canaan 14 times before the Sea Peoples arrive in Canaan in the conventional view (during the latter Judges period). Importantly, the Bible’s references to the Philistines go all the way back to the time of Abraham and Isaac around 1900 BC, they continue during the time of the Exodus and Conquest, and up through the time of the early judges. According to the Bible, the Philistines were in Canaan at least 700 years earlier than the Sea Peoples’ invasion when using standard chronology.

And Abraham sojourned many days in the land of the Philistines. – Genesis 21:34

And Isaac went to Gerar to Abimelech king of the Philistines. – Genesis 26:1

Now the Philistines had stopped and filled with earth all the wells that his father’s servants had dug in the days of Abraham his father. – Genesis 26:15

If the Philistines were in Canaan for 700 years before the Sea Peoples invaded, then we can’t say that the Philistines first showed up at the time of the Sea Peoples, and then use that as a reason why we can’t consider a major shift in the timeline of the ancient world. If the Bible’s history is true, then the conventional thinking must be wrong on this point and there is no basis for the objection that a shift in the ancient timeline can’t be considered because it would push the Philistines beyond the time of kings Saul and David.

The evidence we see in coastal Canaan after 1200 BC may have been related to a second incursion of Philistine-related people, but Philistines must have been present there long before 1200 BC if the Bible’s account is accurate.

Physical anthropologist documenting skeleton in the Ashkelon excavation. (Photo: Melissa Aja/Leon Levy Expedition)

Archaeology sides with the Bible in that the five Philistine cities mentioned in the text were indeed major centers during the earlier period before 1200 BC. Scholars have labeled these populations “Canaanite,” yet this idea needs to be reevaluated. (For evidence in Canaan prior to the conventional date of 1200 BC matching the Bible’s description for events in King Solomon’s day, see this previous Thinker Update on the David Rohl Lectures.)

After the appropriate amount of research, evidence from the newly discovered Philistine cemetery may well show signs of activity well before 1200 BC. Even if the remains are confined to the later period, study needs to be done to compare finds in this area to what came before, and how they both relate to the history of the Bible and the surrounding world. New ideas need to be addressed based on the evidence and without the artificial constraints forced on the evidence by previous constructs, which are the very things being questioned.