Public Comment

Jesus the Palestinian

By Jack D. Forbes
Thursday December 17, 2009 - 08:44:00 AM

I thought it might be helpful to recall that Yehoshu’a (Jesus) was a Palestinian. The district of western Asia long known as Palestine has a history which needs to be understood as we try to sort out the conflicting claims of Jews, Muslims, and Christians in the present day. 

Anciently the name “Canaan” (Kanaan) was applied to roughly the same region, except that the Canaanitish dialects or languages were spoken as far north as Beirut, Lebanon. The northern-most Kanaan people came to be called Phoenicians (Funi) by the Greeks, but they also were part of ancient Canaanitish civilization. 

The name Palestine came to be applied first in ancient times to the coastal region, an area occupied by a sea-going people known as the Filistines (Philistines). They created a very advanced kingdom that dominated southwestern Palestine and the coast as far as Joppa. It was so famous that outside powers, such as the Assyrians, began calling the southern part of Kanaan “Palastov” or Pilista-Filistia. 

Later empires, such as Alexander’s Makedonian and the subsequent Ptolemaic and Seleucid, adopted the name Palestine for the old Kanaan. Sometimes referred to as “Palestina Syria,” the region also often came to include the country east of the Jordan River and the whole territory between Lebanon and Sinai. 

When the Romans came to dominate the area, they used the name Palestine. Thus, when Yehoshu’a was born, he was born a Palestinian as were all of the inhabitants of the region, Jews and non-Jews. He was also a Nazarene (being born in Nazareth) and a Galilean (born in the region of Galilee). 

At the time of Yehoshu’a’s birth, Palestine was inhabited by Jews—descendants of Hebrews, Canaanites, and many other Semitic peoples—and also by Phoenicians, Syrians, Greeks, and even Arabs. There were many Greek settlements, some dating from Alexander’s empire but most from the Seleucid period. The Arameans were dominant linguistically since their Aramaic language (closely related to Hebrew) had replaced Hebrew as a spoken tongue (except in Jewish ritual). Earlier, Aramaic had become the official tongue of the Assyrian Empire but, in addition, numbers of Arameans had migrated into Palestine over the centuries. 

The Greek language dominated government in the eastern half of the Roman Empire, Latin not being used there. Thus we see two major languages, Aramaic at the folk level and Greek at the official level. But also it seems that Phoenician (Canaanite) survived along the coast from perhaps Haifa north and probably somewhat into the interior. 

Yehoshu’a was, therefore, born into a highly multi-ethnic and multi-cultural environment, especially since a Greek city, Tiberias, had been founded near the Lake of Galilee. It seems likely that he was able to understand liturgical Hebrew, but his only recorded words in a non-Greek language are in Aramaic. 

Since Yehoshu’a was said to have been a carpenter, it is likely that he traveled about and learned other languages on the job. Even more likely is his use of Canaanitish (Phoenician) or Greek since he stayed in a private home on one of his several trips to Tyre, a Phoenician city. He also visited Sidon, another Phoenician port farther north than Tyre. 

Yehoshu’a also was able to converse with a woman at Tyre described in Mark as “Greek, by race a Phoenician from Syria.” In Matthew she is called a Canaanite “from these parts.” This is the case of the woman who chided him for being concerned only with curing Israelites. It is a crucial biblical passage because it would seem to be genuine—one which contradicted later Christian theology but had to be left in the emerging New Testament because of its perceived authenticity. 

Aramaic would seem to have been his own personal language as he uses it when praying to his Deity (Eloy) while suffering on the cross. This would be a time when one would use one’s own, first language, I would have thought. 

Yehoshu’a was indeed a Palestinian, perhaps the greatest one of all. He was not a strictly orthodox Jew, but his belief system seems to fall within the broad parameters of the Judaism of that time period, I would think. 

Perhaps he has returned to the Palestine of today and if so, where would he be? I would suggest that he would be working with those other Palestinians, no matter what their formal religion, who seek spirituality over form, kindness over cruelty, love over hate, sharing over exclusion, and mercy over murder. 

He certainly would be with the poor and the suffering. 


Jack D. Forbes is a retired professor of Native American Studies at UC Davis and has for many years studied about Yehoshu’a and the Palestinian-Israeli issue since both topics are very relevant to Native American religious beliefs and struggles for self-determination.