Scriptures and History: What is the Catholic understanding of the State of Israel and Palestine?

I am so confused about what is what and which is which. I mean, I am not indulged with the history of the region. I however searched a little about it, and it seems deeper than what I could know at the surface. I understand that the Old Testament recognizes the place as the land of Canaan. But some maps, not all, in Catholic bibles refer to this as Palestine. Likewise, we all know that the “promised land” was given by God to the Israelites and hence the land of Israel. In this time, when it was given them, was it not recognized (before the division) as the land of Israel already?

What is the Catholic position about this? What are we to believe? As the Holy See now recognizes Palestine as a state, the issue is getting messier and more confusing. :confused:

The name Palestine was never used until the post-Biblical period. The first writer to use the name was Josephus, who explains (in Book 1 of the Jewish Antiquities) that it was the name given by the Greeks. The Romans called it Judea.

You’ve hit the nail on the head!

The Biblical limits of ‘the Land of Israel’ or the Promised Land are far wider than the historical borders ever were for the Kingdom of Israel and later Jewish kingdoms (or the modern-day State of Israel).

When the Hebrews conquered the Canaanites, the land was effectively renamed the Land of Israel. (When ‘Canaan’ and its derivatives is used in the Bible, it is most often used in the sense of looking back ie to when the Canaanites still held the land, before their annihilation). Palestine, which seems to be essentially another name for Canaan/the Promised Land/Eretz Yisra’el as far as I understand, is a smaller part of the larger region of Canaan or the Southern Levant. Palestine primarily refers to the region between the Mediterranean and the River Jordan. So far, so confusing.

From what I gather, it’s perfectly synonymous to refer to the land of Israel or Palestine (and although some Israelis would probably rather you didn’t use the latter, when referring to the region rather than the country, one isn’t making a political point so even nominally vociferous supporters of modern Israel could use Palestine in referring to the land, frankly).

Many maps you find in study Bibles (or at least the decrepit tome I have!) were drawn before the foundation of modern Israel in any case, when the land was known as Palestine anyway.

I don’t know if there is a ‘Catholic’ position on which name we use. Frankly I hope there isn’t because it’s a term of history and the name Palestine (and in some senses Israel) has too much contemporary baggage to insist on using one or the other (and calling it Canaan would be to deny the very real - and Biblically attested - Hebrew conquest of the land and their deliberate renaming of it). As we can’t dig up Joshua to ask him what he would have called the land when he divided it among the tribes, we I suppose should use whatever is appropriate in the context?

The State of Palestine, meanwhile, of course takes its name from the common name for the land before the foundation of Israel. Unless it’s very obvious from context (and more than anything to avoid from accidentally upsetting someone!) it’s probably generally a good idea to refer to the lands of Israel or Palestine (or one of the other names), on the one hand, and the states on the other which are the political entities we have today. I agree it is an ever-more confusing topic…

The land was called Israel after the conquest under Joshua. The land was roughly conterminous with the modem state after 1981 (the post-1967 boundaries without the Sinai).

When the kingdom divided around 930BC, the southern half was renamed to Judah. The descendants of Judah became known as Jews.

After the return from exile in Babylon, Judah became the province of Judaea. It kept that name until the destruction of the temple and the dispersion of the Jews, whence the Romans renamed it to Syria Palestina, “Philistine Syria.” That name stuck ever since, and the people there became known as Palestinians.

There was never, however, until the 2010s, a country of Palestine. It was always a province of someplace else.


The Catholic Church does not accept, at least officially, the idea that the land of Israel belongs forever to the Jews. The historic position is that these promises passed to the Church, in a spiritual sense. There is understandable concern in modern theology about the way this kind of thinking supported anti-Semitism. But on the other hand, the Church is also committed to justice for all human beings and rejects the idea that one group of people should be treated as automatically right or superior because of their ethnicity–even if that group of people are the Jews.

So it’s a delicate business, complicated by the fact that, of course, a number of Palestinians are Christians and many of those are in communion with Rome. The Vatican thus has a natural role as the protector of Middle Eastern Christians. But at the same time, the Popes don’t want to endorse anything that looks remotely like anti-Semitism.

Catholics can take a bunch of different positions without being heretics… The two that would be excluded on each side are, I think:

  1. That there is anything particularly malicious about Jews as Jews (that would be anti-Semitism), or
  2. That Jews, as Jews, are more loved by God than anyone else or have a right to the land of “Palestine” superior to those whose ancestors have lived and farmed there for centuries.



At the same time, the Church, by the Vatican recognition of the State of Israel, accepts its legitimacy and rejects the extreme position that they should not be there. While the Church has taken no official position on the peace question, the Vatican’s policies clearly favor the “two-state solution.”


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