Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Dust to Dust

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief. It is a response to Ashes to Ashes.


I am sorry that my writing has not lived up to your standards of clarity, and that I have not responded satisfactorily to your attempts to guide the discussion in the direction you wanted. Without your guidance, where would we be? Thankfully, you have no unarticulated assumptions or we would be in real trouble. Better yet, we can be certain that your philosophical understanding is well-grounded.

As you might gather from the previous paragraph, I found the tone of your last post occasionally condescending.

I will readily admit to being an amateur in matters of philosophy, and between my developing understanding and my imperfect communication skills, it comes as no surprise to me that you might have trouble tracking me. On the other hand, I have gotten feedback from people that do have backgrounds in philosophy, and they have not found my writing difficult to understand or out of line.

Have you considered the possibility that you might have implicitly-held, unarticulated assumptions that prevent you from understanding? I suspect you have considered the possibility, just as I have. The funny thing about such assumptions is that they can be very difficult to uncover, and I think our ongoing discussion has been helpful in this regard. What I object to is the insinuation that I am insufficiently reflective on such matters. Please take care of your own speck.

When I described Universal Utilitarianism as "metric, not imperial", the paradigm that I was attempting to describe is one in which we can assign moral value to our actions by reference to some metric. Different moral systems described within this paradigm will be differentiated on the basis of their metrics. In this paradigm, assignment of moral value is not the same as saying that we have an obligation to act morally, and so I denied that UU was "imperial". I have not said that the metric defines the paradigm. I did say that "the metric defines morality." While perhaps a poor choice of words, my intent was to communicate that under a moral system like UU or DU, we make moral judgements by reference to the metric defined in that system. In general, these systems require no reference to God or intrinsic value; that is, while a metric could be defined in reference to God or intrinsic values if they existed, there exist sensible metrics that do not.

Now, for the last six months we have been focusing on the first of two "goalposts". As I have noted several times now, you said you were willing to defend the proposition that "belief in a transcendent moral purpose for the universe is as well-justified and essential for social inquiry as belief in the transcendent mathematical nature of the universe is for scientific inquiry." You later described this as "Ontological dependence on an omnipotent, benevolent Deity as the ultimate source of virtue and truth". Is it so surprising then that I would attempt to show that a transcendent moral purpose is not essential, or that morality can exist independent from God? How can you now say that you are "simply trying to get [me] to articulate [my] underlying assumptions"? Were your assertions mere rhetorical devices that you did not really intend to defend or support, despite your claims to the contrary?

Looking back at your Shared Paradigm of Morality, my question about its utility derived from my perception of its inability to help us make progress toward or away from the proposition under discussion. You were describing the metric as a means by which we can evaluate moral systems or moral theories. I would describe the metric as a means by which we can evaluate actions. Under this paradigm, the metric is not separate from a moral system; it is the core of a moral system. If we agree on the metric, we are basically agreeing on what it means to act morally (assuming we can actually evaluate the metric in practice).

The only kinds of systems that the metric can evaluate are systems of concrete guidance on how to act in various situations; that is, the metric could be used to evaluate prototypical actions or prescriptions for actions. These evaluations will depend on what is true about the situations and actions described. The evaluation may be different in a reality where God exists compared to one where he does not. This is possible because the metric is defined without reference to God, and since the metric is defined without reference to God, it can neither have nor demonstrate ontological dependence on God. In my mind, if we agree on a metric such as has been suggested, we would be denying the very statement you said you would defend.

I guess that would be progress.

You suggested that I take the next month to reflect on why I "hate Christianity so much" or why it is "something evil to be opposed, rather than merely something imperfect to be improved". I have thought about that for far longer than a month already.

Briefly, it comes down to two things. First, that the core truth-claims of Christianity are very probably false. Second, that those holding these false beliefs frequently (though perhaps not necessarily) bring harm to themselves and others.

How this plays out varies of course, since there is a broad spectrum of beliefs held by Christians of various sorts. This is a point on which I disagree with Sam Harris, who faults moderate Christianity more than Christian fundamentalism, on the grounds that such moderate Christians provide legitimacy for fundamentalists and further, that the continuing existence of religious moderates will stand in the way of progress towards a truly rational spirituality. (See, for instance, the third-to-last paragraph here.) While there may be some truth in that, I do not think we can hold one group morally responsible for the actions of another on these grounds. While I still disagree with some of the beliefs of liberal Christianity, I do think that many people arrive there by exercising the kinds of reasoning and reflection that are likely to be associated with better social behavior; that is, while they may still hold false beliefs (and who doesn't?) they will generally cause less harm than those of more conservative and especially fundamentalist bents.

As I hinted above, Christians are obviously not alone in holding false beliefs. Everyone does, including atheists, including me. So why should I pick on Christianity? Because that is where I came from and where a significant part of my "world" remains. I made significant life decisions on the basis of my prior beliefs, decisions that cannot now be undone but which were based on falsehood. I spent precious time (and yes, money) on a lie. While I know you disagree on the question of truth or falsehood, I would hope that you could understand how a person who makes this kind of transition would feel hurt and angry. It is not at all uncommon. The reference to Sam Harris above was taken from an ongoing dialog he is having with Andrew Sullivan, a Catholic writer. Later in the dialog, Sam writes:

I have received thousands of letters and emails from people describing just how painful it was for them to finally admit that they were duped by Christianity, and that they duped their children in turn. I have heard from many ministers who have ceased to be ministers, and even Christians. More commonly, I hear from people who are terrified to articulate their growing skepticism about the doctrine of Christianity for fear of being shunned by friends and family. I do not doubt how much psychological and social pressure religious people are under. I don't think you should doubt it either.

I have also seen the influence of Christianity on various political and social issues, and frankly the results have not been pretty. Was it inevitable that Christian beliefs would lead to these problems? Perhaps not. If Christianity were not a factor in American politics, would something else cause similar problems? Perhaps so. In a sense, the problem is not with Christianity itself, but with the kinds of thought processes (or lack thereof) that sustain Christianity and other religions or ideologies here and elsewhere. But Christianity forms a substantial part of the problem here and now, so that is another reason to address its problems rather than something else.

You asked why I do not treat Christianity as something to be improved. The answer is simple. The foundation is rotten. I do not mean by that that the foundation is evil, just that it is broken. The factual basis is not there. What is there gets in the way.

To be sure, there is room for improving Christianity even on the foundation it has, and I can appreciate that there are those who are trying to do so, including yourself and, if his book is any indication, Brian McLaren. Similarly, I can appreciate the work that some Christians do to educate others on (for instance) evolution, even when they wrap it in theological trappings. And I can appreciate that there are Christians that are doing important work helping other people, motivated by their beliefs. My concern, however, is that human psychology will make it difficult to counter the more pernicious varieties of Christianity while preserving the comparatively healthy sorts. Plus, I believe it is still suboptimal.

(It may sound like I am now agreeing with Harris on moderate religion, but this is not the case. I recognize moderate religion as progress, but have no wish to make it a particularly comfortable place to stop.)

I hope that that clarifies my motivations somewhat. If further explanation is necessary, I would be happy to attempt it. And if you need to take a break, we can pick up here or elsewhere in a month or so.


Tuesday, February 20, 2007

More on Daniel

I thought I would follow-up on a couple of things related to my previous post, On Daniel, but to do so, I want to back up a little bit and consider very briefly the subject of miracles. David Hume, an 18th century philosopher, wrote about the subject of miracles and one of his arguments is relevant here. He argues that in order for us to accept someone's testimony about the occurrence of a miracle (a highly improbable event), all other possible explanations for that testimony (including human fallibility and deceit) would need to be even less probable. That is, even if a miracle did occur, it would be nearly impossible to have sufficient reasons to believe that it occurred.

This argument, and others that Hume presented, are not uncontroversial, not least because they appear in some cases to beg the question. My goal here is not to dive into that mess, but simply to introduce the idea that when we are confronted with testimony of a miraculous or supernatural event, we ought to have very good reasons for finding that testimony reliable before drawing any conclusions from the occurrence of the event itself. If the testimony to an improbable event is questionable, we ought not rely on that testimony to draw important conclusions.

Now, as I mentioned in my introduction to Daniel, the prophecies recorded in Daniel are often used as evidence for the inspiration of the Bible and the truth that it therefore contains. Relating this back to the point of the previous paragraph, the prophecies are said to be supernatural in origin, and we have a conclusion being drawn (or at least supported) by the supposed reality of those supernatural events. This motivates the question, then, whether we really have good reasons for finding the testimony sufficiently reliable to justify the conclusion that the prophecies were inspired.

An important point to keep in mind is that we are not talking about absolute proof one way or the other. It is not the case that we can prove with 100% confidence either that the Daniel was written about 630 BCE and contained actual prophecies, nor is it the case that we can prove with 100% confidence that Daniel was written about 165 BCE and contained only successful retrodictions (and failed prophecies). Rather, we are looking for a conclusion best supported by the evidence available to us, and the degree of certainty that we can reach will restrict the certainty with which we can make further conclusions. If we could be 99% confident (whatever that means) that Daniel was written in 165 BCE, then despite the 1% chance that Daniel is authentic, we would be unjustified in relying on its authenticity to draw further conclusions. According to Hume's argument, we would need to be nearly 100% certain that Daniel is authentic before accepting its miraculous accounts as true. Rather than quibbling about how close to 100% we need to get, let us use a very generous threshhold of 51% certainty, that is, barely more likely than not.

But how do we establish, or calculate, the degree of certainty afforded by the evidence? One way is to use Bayesian inference, which involves assigning probabilities to various alternative hypotheses with or without each piece of evidence. In some situations the probabilities involved can be determined with a fair degree of precision; in other situations, assignment of probabilities is more problematic. I will not try to assign probabilities related to the hypotheses and evidence concerning the authenticity of Daniel. Instead, I will only point out that, qualitatively, a piece of evidence E makes a hypothesis H0 more certain if the probability of E given H0 is higher than the probability of E over all possible hypotheses Hi.

(The probability of a hypothesis being true, independent of any evidence, is called its prior probability. Hume's argument can be understood in terms of Bayesian inference by assigning low prior probabilities to miraculous explanations, and higher prior probabilities to non-miraculous explanations.)

Suppose, for example, that we observe a sequence of coin flips, but we do not know if the coin is fair or if it is two-headed. So long as the result of each successive coin-flip is heads, the evidence grows stronger and stronger that the coin is two-headed, since the probability of (say) ten heads in a row is far higher under the hypothesis that the coin is two-headed compared to the hypothesis that the coin is fair. We can never be absolutely certain that the coin is not fair so long as the flips continue to result in heads. However, as soon as tails is observed, the evidence for a two-headed coin drops to zero since the probability of a tails occurring under the two-headed hypothesis is zero. In other words (and in line with our intuition), since the probability of a long string of heads is high for a two-headed coin and low for a fair coin, the observation of a long string of heads is evidence for a two-headed coin.

Now (without bothering to assign precise probabilities) we can look at how the various pieces of evidence contribute to the conclusion that Daniel was written about 165 BCE. Let's call that hypothesis H165 and the competing hypothesis H630. (And we will pretend that these are the only two hypotheses.)

Consider the point concerning Daniel's description of Darius the Mede. Under H165, the author of Daniel was mistaken about the identity of the king who conquered Babylon. You can immediately see how it might be difficult to assign actual probabilities. What is the probability that an unknown author would make a mistake about events that occurred almost 400 years previously? It would depend on the background and resources available to that person. The value would certainly be greater than zero and less than one but it seems folly to attempt to assign a value with any precision. On the other hand, we may still be able to make a meaningful comparison with the probabilities associated with other hypotheses.

Under H630 there are (at least) three sub-hypothesis alternatives. First, Daniel may have simply been mistaken in what he wrote about Darius the Mede. He was incorrect about the identity and nationality of this ruler. Since (under this hypothesis) Daniel is supposed to have been intimately acquainted with the rulers of Babylon, the probability of his making this kind of mistake must be very nearly zero. Second, perhaps it really was an otherwise-unknown Darius the Mede that conquered Babylon and all of the other sources that indicate otherwise are incorrect. An evaluation of this possibility requires information about the nature and volume of contrary sources. The third possibility is a mixture of the first two with an additional twist: that there really was a Darius the Mede involved in conquering and ruling Babylon that somehow was never mentioned in the other records available to us, and that either Daniel was mistaken about the scope of his role or that we have misinterpreted the text as it describes that role.

In both of the last two cases we are faced with the possibility that there was an actual person of some importance who was Darius the Mede. No mention of this person has been found in contemporaneous Babylonian records or in other comparably ancient accounts. Are we justified in assigning a very low probability to any hypothesis that requires the existence of such an important yet unknown person?

If we stated that based on the lack of evidence of such a person that he (probably) did not exist, a critic might accuse us of an "argument from silence". "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." Is this criticism valid?

There are certainly cases where an argument from silence is fallacious. Just as certainly, there are cases where it is not. If I stated that there was an elephant in my living room, and when you looked, you could not see one, you would hardly give me any credit for saying "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" and continuing to believe that there was an elephant in my living room. On the other hand, if I stated there was an invisible, incorporeal elephant in my living room, then the lack of visual and tactile evidence would not be evidence against my claim. (Of course, it is hardly evidence for my claim either.) How can lack of evidence be conclusive in one case and not the other?

We can frame our answer to this question by going back to Bayesian inference. The probability we would assign to the piece of evidence "no elephant is visible in my living room" given the hypothesis that there is an elephant in my living room is very low compared to the hypothesis that there is no elephant, so the lack of evidence strongly confirms the no-elephant hypothesis and disconfirms the elephant hypothesis. However, the "no elephant is visible in my living room" evidence is equally probably under the invisible-elephant and no-invisible-elephant hypotheses, so that this evidence fails to provide suppport for either. To put it another way, we do not expect visual evidence for an invisible entity, so the lack of such evidence is not meaningful.

In a similar fashion we can address the second and third sub-hypotheses concerning Darius the Mede and the lack of evidence for his existence. If we have reason to expect that we would have found such evidence had he actually existed, then the lack of such evidence is meaningful. Not conclusive, but meaningful. Since we do have evidence for the identities of both the Babylonian kings as well as their actual conqueror (Cyrus the Persian), and since this evidence has no temporal gaps where another king might fit in, the lack of evidence for the existence of Darius the Mede as ruler of the empire that conquered Babylon is meaningful. Further, since we also have evidence regarding names of other officials of the empire, including the name and nationality of the governor of Babylon under Cyrus, the lack of evidence for someone named Darius the Mede in such a capacity is meaningful. So, these sub-hypotheses are not certainly false, but they are probably false.

To take another example, consider the facts that the earliest manuscripts of Daniel (from the Dead Sea Scrolls) come from late in the second century. Is this evidence of late authorship? This, in a sense, is another argument from lack of evidence. The late manuscript dates (compared to 630 BCE) would only be strong evidence for later authorship if we had reason to expect to find earlier manuscripts. In this case, the oldest manuscripts we have of any Old Testament book (so far as I know) are less than one hundred years older than Daniel manuscripts, so this is a case case where the lack of evidence is not particularly meaningful. On the other hand, like the coin-flipping example above, a single contradictory result would have been a tremendous blow to the case for late authorship. Also, beyond there being no earlier manuscripts for Daniel, there are no references to Daniel from earlier sources, while such references do exist for other books, and that does have some evidentiary value.

(I should note that the Dead Sea Scrolls contain fragments from all of the Old Testament books except Esther and Nehemiah. If it were the case that all of the other books were represented in manuscript fragments from the earliest part of the second century BCE, the later dates of the Daniel fragments would be more significant. However, I have not found any indication that this is the case.)

As a final example, consider my treatment of Josephus' account of Daniel being shown to Alexander the Great. Under H630 this could be true and if so it is not particularly improbable that Josephus would have reported it. Under H165, this event could only be a legend (or perhaps an outright lie) that was incorrectly reported as fact by Josephus. Assuming H165, is this improbable? No. Josephus was not himself witness to the events; they occurred nearly 400 years before he reported them. The story could have developed as a legend. Josephus had a fairly obvious apologetic purpose in writing his history; he has a recognizable bias that attempts to present the Jews and their religion in a positive light to the Romans. Further, he represents other demonstrably incorrect statements as facts. So under both H630 and H165, it is not improbable that Josephus would have included the account of Daniel being shown to Alexander the Great, which means that these statements cannot be taken as strong evidence in favor of H630. This is not an outright rejection of Josephus. We might even conclude that, as an individual piece of evidence, Jospephus' account provides more evidentiary value to H630 than to H165. But it cannot provide significantly stronger support to H630 than to H165, and it is not our only piece of evidence. The weight of the larger ensemble of evidence, most scholars conclude, is for H165.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

On Daniel


In my ongoing dialog with Ernie, we have not yet addressed something about which I am most curious, which is his stance on the reliability of the Bible. One of the more curiosity-provoking statements he did make was:

... I trust the Bible because it explains the divinity I observe, not vice versa. To me, the Bible is a reflection of belief in God, not the cause; a subtle but crucial distinction...

He also later said he was willing to defend this statement:

Belief in the Biblical narrative regarding God's role in shaping religious faith is as central and well-justified as belief in the scientific narrative regarding evolution's role in shaping anatomically modern humans.

From these statements (and a few others) I think it is safe to say that Ernie continues to place great weight on the Bible, even if he will not defend absolute inerrancy. From my occasional readings of the devotional posts he includes on Radically Happy: A Transformational Bible Blog, it also seems safe to say that, in practice, his treatment of scripture is fairly conventional.

While it has not been my intent to provide commentary on his devotional posts, his most recent series has been covering the Book of Daniel. I am not sure how aware he is of the controversy surrounding Daniel, but the purpose of this post is to give an overview of the reasons that the authenticity of Daniel should be doubted, including rebuttals to some of the common arguments offered in defense of Daniel by Christian apologists.

A Brief Introduction to Daniel

The Book of Daniel purports to be written by a Jew (named Daniel obviously) that was taken as a captive to Babylon when Jerusalem fell to Nebuchadnezzar. He becomes an advisor to Nebuchadnezzar and also to later kings, being found "ten times better [in wisdom and understanding] than all of the magicians and conjurers who were in all his realm." (Daniel 1:19-20) His importance to Christian apologetics is due primarily to his prophecies, which are intended to illustrate the inspiration of God.

The (non-prophetic) events described by Daniel occur between about 597 BCE and 530 BCE. The prophecies cover events for at least 370 years after that, and possibly (depending on one's interpretation) much farther. If these were true prophecies (and they were accurate), this would indeed be impressive.

On the other hand, if the Book of Daniel were not actually written during the 6th century (all dates will be BCE unless otherwise noted) but instead much later, the "prophecies" would not really be prophecies and their accuracy meaningless. What reasons do we have to suppose this might be the case?

First Verse, First Problem

The first major problem is that, despite Daniel's supposed role near the center of power for nearly sixty years, he demonstrates substantial ignorance of the period that he describes. In fact, the problems start with the very first verse of the first chapter, because he claims that Jerusalem fell to Nebuchadnezzar during the third year of Jehoiakim, king of Judah. Jehoiakim reigned from about 608 to 597, so the third year of his reign would have been around 606-605. Jerusalem did not fall to Nebuchadnezzar until 597; according to 2 Kings 24:6-12 this was three months afterJehoiakim died and his son Jehoiachin had ascended to the throne. So right away, Daniel is off by eight years and one king. But this is hardly the most serious problem.


In chapter five, Daniel relates the famous story of the disembodied hand writing mysterious words on the wall during a banquet held by King Belshazzar, words that Daniel is able to interpret. Five times during the dialog that ensues, Nebuchadnezzar is described as Belshazzar's father, and once Belshazzar is described as Nebuchadnezzar's son. This is false. Nebuchadnezzar was succeeded by his son Evilmerodach (or Avil-Marduk or Amel-Marduk), who was succeeded by Neriglissar (Nergal-ashur-usur). Neriglissar was followed by Laborosoarchod (Labashi-Marduk), who was usurped by Nabonidus (Nabu-nahid) whose father was Nabu-balatsu-ikbi (as found in Babylonian inscriptions). Nabodinus had a son Belshazzar. It is not possible that Nebuchadnezzar was Belshazzar's father; we have no reason from contemporary sixth century records to even suspect they were related since the line of succession was broken by usurpation.

Worse than that, Belshazzar was never king! Nabonidus was the last Babylonian king before the kingdom fell to the Persians in 538. Belshazzar did rule in his father's stead while Nabodinus more or less abandoned his post to pursue archeological studies. However, contemporaneous records are clear that Belshazzar was not actually king. Belshazzar also died before his father, and he died in the tenth month of the year, four months after the kingdom fell, not the same night as Daniel reports.

Is it credible that Daniel, having ten times the wisdom and understanding of anyone else in the Babylonian kingdom and being a member of the royal court, would get these facts wrong? Certainly not. But even that is not the end of the problems of Daniel's supposed history.

Darius the Mede

Daniel states, at the end of chapter five, that Babylon fell to Darius the Mede. As I stated above, Babylon actually fell to the Persians, and it was Cyrus who conquered Babylon, not Darius. Cyrus the Persian, not Darius the Mede. (The Medes had already fallen to the Persians in 550.) The first known Darius was Darius the Great, a Persian king that reigned from 522-486. That Darius did organize the empire into satrapies, but only 20 of them, not 120 as Daniel 6:1 reports.

Why would Daniel believe Babylon fell to the Medes? Interestingly, both Isaiah (13:17-19) and Jeremiah (51:11,28) had predicted that this would occur, but they were wrong. Daniel writes in 9:2 that he was reading Jeremiah. (Humorously, some apologists have used the predictions in Isaiah and Jeremiah to defend the accuracy of Daniel on this point.) Similarly, the apocryphal pseudo-epigraphical book of Baruch, thought to have been written in the second or early first centuries, recorded that Belshazzar was Nebuchadnezzar's son (Baruch 1:11). This is the first small clue of when Daniel was actually written.

Prophecy: Success and Failure

The other clues derive from the accuracy of Daniel's prophecies. Starting with his interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar's statue dream in chapter two, and then from chapter seven through chapter twelve, various visions and prophecies constitute a substantial portion of the book. Without going into all of the details, and while there are disagreements about how to interpret some of the visions, cases can be made that the visions do correspond to actual events that followed the time that Daniel supposedly lived. Of particular interest in this post, however, are the events described in Daniel 11 and 12.

This chapter begins with the ascendency of the Persian empire, followed quickly by a Greek empire led by a mighty king, clearly a reference to Alexander the Great. When Alexander died, the Greek empire was split into four pieces, ruled by men who were not his descendents, just as verse 4 states. Verses 5-20 trace out an accurate (if brief) reconstruction of events that followed Alexander's death, particularly related to the Ptolemaic and Seleucid dynasties. In verse 21 we pick up with "a despicable person", who can be seen to refer to Antiochus IV (or Antiochus Epiphanes) whose acts include looting the Jewish temple, erecting an altar to Zeus in the temple and sacrificing a swine there, forbidding Jewish sacrifices and other rituals, and generally behaving very badly. The historicity of these events is supported by (at least) the deutero-canonical book of I Maccabees, and I know of no reason to doubt them.

Again, Daniel's description of events related to Antiochus IV is very accurate -- to a point. Verses 21-39 track very closely with what is known about Antiochus IV from the time he took the throne in 175 until 165. At that point, the predictions go completely off the rails. In verses 40-45 (the end of the chapter), Daniel predicts that Antiochus IV will again invade Egypt and that this time he would succeed. Daniel also predicts that, due to "rumors from the East and from the North" he would "go forth with great wrath to destroy and annihilate many", only to die between the sea and the "Holy Mountain" (Jerusalem). However, Antiochus IV did not invade Egypt again, and he died in Persia (according to I Maccabees 6:1-16)

The troubles continue into chapter 12, which more or less predicts the end of the world which (to my knowledge) has not occurred yet. As Ernie points out, there are a variety of interpretations among Christians (and Jews, I suppose) of what this all means. The one possibility he neglects to mention is that the prediction was intended to be relatively straight-forward and immediate, but was also incorrect.

Because of this sudden transition from successful "prediction" to failure (and also because of the historical problems above), we have good reasons to believe that the Book of Daniel was in fact written somewhere around 165 BCE, not 530 (or so). The amazing predictions would not be predictions at all, but instead recent history.

Evidence of Early Authorship?

Of course, dating Daniel this late would be impossible if we had clear evidence of its existence prior to this date. Is there any such evidence?

Ernie refers his readers to an article on the prophecies of Daniel that includes this defense of authentic authorship:

The Book of Daniel is a stunning example of Bible prophecy. The book claims to have been written sometime in the 6th century BC, but because of the accuracy of its detailed predictions, Daniel's critics insist that it must have been written after the events described. They contend that it must have been written sometime after c.160 BC. Nevertheless, Flavius Josephus, court historian for three successive Roman Emperors, documents Alexander the Great receiving a copy of Daniel upon his annexation of Jerusalem in the autumn of 332 BC (Antiquities of the Jews XI, chapter viii, paragraphs 3-5). Furthermore, according to both the pseudo-aristeas account and Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews XII, chapter ii), Ptolemy Philadelphus (308-246 BC) commissioned the translation of the Septuagint (a.k.a. the LXX) from Hebrew into Greek in the 3rd century BC. Daniel is included in the LXX. Daniel is also included among the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) which date from about 200 BC (the oldest Daniel manuscript, 4Q114, dating from the late 2nd Century BC). [hyperlinks added]

The first reference from Josephus does specifically say that the Book of Daniel was shown to Alexander the Great. But it is important to remember that Josephus was writing in the late first century CE, over 400 years later. He cannot be regarded as a primary source, certainly not as a source that predated 165 BCE, and there was ample time for this story to develop as a legend. Josephus also reports a great many other things from Jewish history that we have good reason to disbelieve including, in Book 10, Chapter 10, the story of Daniel, though he merges the story with information gleaned from other sources, and not all of that correct either. (For instance, he does include the other Babylonian kings that followed Nebuchadnezzar, but substantially mis-states the lengths of their reigns.) As a source on Jewish history of the first century CE, Joseph has some authority, but we have little reason to trust him on the issue of Daniel.

As far as the Septuagint (LXX) is concerned, yes, it was commissioned in the 3rd century. However, the sources listed above do not enumerate the contents of what was to be translated and certainly there is no explicit mention of Daniel. (And again, both of the sources listed were written considerably later than the events described.) While the LXX was commissioned as early as 285 (early in the third century), it was not finished until the first century, around two hundred years later. This leaves plenty of time for Daniel to originate in 165 and still become part of the LXX.

The final claim above is a bit disingenuous. What does it matter if some of the Dead Sea Scrolls were dated from about 200 BCE if the oldest manuscript of Daniel was not dated until the late second century?

(While I cannot find it right now, I think I remember reading that the earliest known reference to the Book of Daniel and/or the earliest known manuscript was from about 130 BCE, not early enough to challenge authorship in 165 or so.)

Other Apologetical Defenses

There are apologetical defenses offered to explain the various difficulties I described above. Regarding the relationship (or lack thereof) between Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar, I am familiar with two explanations. One is that the use of the terms father and son were figurative, not literal, and simply reflected that they were both in the same succession of leaders of a single kingdom. The second suggestion is that they were in fact related (though not actual father and son) and that the terminology used was flexible enough to cover this kind of relationship.

It may be true that occasionally one man was called the son of another due to successional relationship. But reading Daniel 5, the usage, even emphasis, of the relationship suggests an actual family (and specifically father-son) relationship. Look at verse 11, where the queen addresses Belshazzar:

In the time of your father he [Daniel] was found to have insight and intelligence and wisdom like that of the gods. King Nebuchadnezzar your father —- your father the king, I say —- appointed him chief of the magicians, enchanters, astrologers and diviners."

If the successional relationship between rulers was intended by the word "father", why did the queen need to emphasize that the father was king? It would have been implicit. Additionally, it is not until the second sentence that we find out that "father" refers to Nebuchadnezzar. If a successional relationship or non-father-son relationship was intended, this would have been ambiguous as any of the previous kings could have been meant and I suggest that, more likely than not, such a reference would have been disambiguated immediately if it was in fact ambiguous.

Keep in mind as well that Daniel shows no awareness of the Babylonian kings that followed Nebuchadnezzar, though there were four (and Belshazzar was not one of them). While the omission of any mention of these other kings is not by itself crucially significant, if they had been mentioned it would be far easier to make the case that the author of Daniel was actually aware that Belshazzar was not the literal son of Nebuchadnezzar. Because they are not mentioned, making the case becomes harder.

As far as a more distant family relationship is concerned, that cannot be disproven, but yet no archeological finding suggests that such a relationship existed. One cause of difficulty, however, comes from the Greek historian Herodotus, who lived during the fifth century BCE. Herodotus apparently gives a somewhat confused account of the Babylonian rulers, referring to two kings (father and son) named Labynetos, which some have identified as Nabodinus and Balshazzar, although others have identified the younger Labynetos with Nobodinus, and in some cases the older with Nebuchandnezzar. Additionally, Herodotus briefly mentions a Babylonian queen named "Nitocris" who some believe was the wife or daughter of Nebuchadnezzar and also the mother or grandmother of the younger Labynetos. In this way, some defend the existence a family relationship between Nebuchadnezzar and Balshazzar.

Unfortunately, the various sources I have found have fairly divergent accounts of what Herodotus actually said, and I have not read his accounts directly. I get the impression, though, that what began as conjecture by earlier apologists attempting to reconcile the difficulties in Daniel is now being repeated almost as established fact, without correspondingly strong evidence (and not just in the case of the relationship between Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar). As an example, look at the Wikipedia article for Belshazzar and then read the discussion. A fair amount of what is stated as fact in the article is contested there and the disagreements seem to be fairly typical. So at this point, I can only recommend skepticism and further research about what support Herodotus can provide to those claiming a relationship between Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar.

And what of the fact that Belshazzar was never actually the king? Most apologists admit that he was just second in command, and not truly the king. However, he is plainly referred to as king, repeatedly. The text refers to his nobles. It is his reign that will be ended by the Medes and Persians (according to Daniel) and his kingdom that will be divided. To him the queen says "live forever", a phrase reserved for actual kings. And here again we must observe that there is absolutely no indication that the author of Daniel was aware of any other king. Resolving the contradiction between the text and historical fact in this way is ad hoc, and still unsatisfying.

A similar problem is encountered when we examine the common defense of the problem of "Darius the Mede", the fictitious conqueror of Babylon. Since we know for sure that there was no such king, apologists have suggested that perhaps there was a general, governor or viceroy who ruled Babylon under Cyrus that was named Darius and who was a Mede. This suggestion fails for several reasons. First, as with Belshazzar, the text of Daniel clearly refers to Darius as king, including again the phrase "live forever" (in 6:6 for instance). Second, right away in 6:1 we are told that Darius appointed satraps to rule throughout the kingdom. A local or regional ruler would not have this authority. Third, no reference to a person named Darius has been found that might refer to a person in such a position. Fourth, we do know the name of the governor of Babylon during the reign of Cyrus: Gubaru (or Gobyras), a Persian.

As I said above, there was a Persian king named Darius that followed shortly after Cyrus, Darius Hystaspes or Darius the Great. This was the king that actually introduced the satraps, and he was the father of Xerxes (Ahasuerus), where Daniel reports that Ahasuerus was the father of Darius. These hint at the possibility that the author of Daniel had this Darius in mind, but was mistaken on a number of key facts. Mistakes of this nature are understandable for an author at a later date, but not for someone who was personally involved, as Daniel is supposed to be.

Additional Considerations

This post has gotten rather long, but I should quickly mention several other items. First, this is not an exhaustive list of all of the problems with Daniel that suggest later authorship. Some hints come from vocabulary, for instance. There are problems with other "prophecies" of events that occurred between the sixth century and the second; as prophecies they fail and as history they demonstrate that the author of Daniel was relying on other faulty or incomplete sources of history (such as other books of the Old Testament).

Second, the Book of Daniel is unusual because various parts were originally written in two different languages, Aramaic and Hebrew. Partly for this reason, some scholars believe it had multiple authors, and possibly the various parts were written at different times (but still not by or about an actual historical figure).

Third, none of the other books of the Old Testament contain any reference to Daniel. There is a "Danel" mentioned in Ezekiel 14:14,20 and 28:3, mentioned along with Job and Noah. This suggests the person referenced here was from the more distant past, and in fact such a person is mentioned in the Ugaritic texts of the late second millenium BCE as "The Legend of Dan-el".

Fourth, I have to mention that, according to Matthew 24:15, Jesus referred to Daniel as a prophet. If Daniel is fictional, then either Jesus was wrong about him being a prophet, or Matthew was and he put words in Jesus' mouth.


The case against the authenticity of the Book of Daniel is strong. The apologetic defenses are ad hoc and unsupported by evidence.

Additional Resources

I spent somewhere around ten hours over the course of several nights reading about this subject and writing this post, including the articles to which I linked above. Some other articles that I read include:

Daniel in the Debunker's Den,

Revealing Daniel,

Beware of Bible Fundamentalists "Quoting" Sources,

Dating Daniel: A Response to Everette Hatcher III,

The Point That Hatcher Keeps Evading,

Lions 1, Daniel 0,

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Missing: One Goalpost

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief. It is a response to SPOM, spom, Spom, SPoM....


If I understand your goal in introducing a "Shared Paradigm of Morality" (SPoM), you are trying to establish a framework that would allow us to compare "moral theories" and determine when one theory is superior to another. In particular (if I understand you) we would use the "means" of "our cognitive, perceptive ... and evaluative faculties" to evaluate moral theories according to a chosen metric, with "maximize happiness and minimize suffering" being an example which is probably not ideal, but at least illustrative and not too far wrong.

Unfortunately, I fail to see how this helps us.

The primary reason that I do not believe your SPoM will help is that, from my perspective, the metric defines morality. I do not have a separate moral theory that can be evaluated against the metric. The metric defines what is good and what is bad. Sure, we can construct derivative theories about what kinds of actions best satisfy the metric, and such theories have practical significance. But since they are derivative, they cannot challenge the metric itself, except perhaps to demonstrate that the metric has undesirable properties that might lead to a revision of the metric.

What you appear to be proposing are what I would call derivative theories. Yes, we can evaluate various derivative theories according to the metric. Suppose we could demonstrate that the best response to anger is love and forgiveness. Fine. That would be good to know (if it were true). However, so far as our dialog is concerned, such a finding helps little to not at all, because nothing in either the metric or the derivative theory demands that God exists or that Christianity (in any meaningful form) is true.

You could even demonstrate that some particular action is good under the metric, given Christianity or even just deism, and bad otherwise. But that does not help either, because the truth of Christianity or even just deism is just what is in question.

You might try to demonstrate that the moral precepts of Christianity satisfy the metric so well that they must have divine origin. This would be a different sort of argument, one that perhaps has some chance of traction. You would have to account, though, for various highly sub-optimal precepts in the Bible. And of course, you would actually have to demonstrate, not just assert, that the moral precepts of Christianity are really superlative in relation to the metric.

From my perspective, I think there exist sufficient grounds for objective moral truths without ontological dependence on God. Those grounds are established by defining morality in terms of metrics applied to other objective truths. What those moral truths are may depend on whether or not God exists and other related questions that are objectively true or false, but the existence of moral truths by itself is insufficient to require a deity. I do not see how further discussion on the subject can help us make any progress, unless we independently establish sufficient reasons to believe or disbelieve that God exists and has particular characteristics. Or do you question that sufficient grounds for objective moral truths can exist without ontological dependence on God?

I will give brief answers to the five questions that you raised:

  1. If moral principles are not absolute, then what are they relative to? If they are relative to something which differs among potential observers, then in what sense are they objective?
  2. Do we accept that emotions are a valid way to perceive reality? If so, do we only include "positive" emotional states like empathy, or also "negative" emotions like anger or hatred?
  3. Why do people fail to act morally? Is moral failure primarily intellectual, emotional, or volitional? And how can it be prevented/corrected?
  4. Is there a unique solution which globally maximizes happiness and minimizes suffering? Or are there multiple local maxima which maximize the happiness of one particular population at the expense of others?
  5. Is it it our moral duty to choose an Operative Depiction of Reality that maximizes our motivation to do good, even if that conflicts with an ODoR that better fits the available evidence? Or is it possible -- within our existing paradigm -- to prove that no such conflict exists?

I am going to answer these from the perspective of Desire Utilitarianism (DU), as I understand it. According to DU, desires that promote other desires are good and desires that thwart other desires are bad. Actions can be evaluated in the same way. Also, desires are the only reasons for action that exist.

So, to answer (a), moral principles are relative to (the interconnected network of ) desires that exist. They are also relative to environmental factors which affects how some desires and actions affect other desires. For instance, gaining the technological capability to prevent some undesired consequences can affect the moral evaluation of desires and actions that might otherwise lead to those consequences. The moral evaluation of pouring CO2 into the atmosphere would change if a cheap and effective method for later capture and sequestration of CO2 were found.

Since we have experiences of emotion (and these experiences are real), we are perceiving a small part of reality when we experience emotion. This is true regardless of whether the emotions are "positive" or "negative"; labeling them as such is irrelevant to their reality. The reality of emotional experience is relevant to DU both we have desires to experience some emotions and not others. They are also relevant because they may cause, reflect or amplify desires to promote or thwart the desires of others.

Why do people fail to act morally? Alonzo suggests the following "formula":

Desires + Beliefs -> Intentions -> Intentional Actions

So, immoral actions can result from either immoral desires (desires that tend to thwart other desires) or false beliefs. Of course, in some cases moral actions can result from immoral desires combined with false beliefs, but only by accident, as it were. Similarly, moral desires and false beliefs can still lead to moral actions. However, moral actions will result most reliably when one has good desires and true beliefs.

How one prevents or corrects failure to act morally depends on whether the failure was rooted in bad desires or false beliefs (or both). If rooted in false beliefs, the beliefs need to be corrected (replaced with true beliefs). If rooted in bad desires, either the desires must be modified (if possible) or the action must be physically prevented. Alonzo argues that reason is ineffective at modifying desires, and that other tools like praise, condemnation, reward and punishment are needed.

Your question (d) is an interesting one, one that I have thought about. Under DU, the question would be stated a bit differently, but the same general flavor to the question would remain. I do not know what the answer is. It seems possible that either a single global maximum could exist, or multiple local maxima. Possibly, the existence of multiple local maxima might be reason to adjust the metric we use. Or, it may simply be a feature of reality.

Question (e) is also interesting. Before I answer, please recall the formula relating desires and beliefs to actions above and the subsequent discussion. The process by which desires get translated into intentions and then to actions is mediated by beliefs about how those desires will be fulfilled by various actions. An ODoR that conflicts with available evidence may change our expectations about the outcomes of various actions (and so, in effect, increase our motivation to do good), but the false beliefs (or at least probably false beliefs given the evidence) could corrupt our understanding of what is in fact good. Additionally, the false beliefs may interfere with our ability to bring about the good we desire.

Suppose my ODoR contains the notion that that Christianity is true and that we are all going to spend eternity either in heaven or hell. Because I desire happiness and lack of suffering both for myself and others, my desires and my beliefs would combine to create a strong motivation to do whatever is required to reach heaven and avoid hell, both for me and others, even if it meant enduring net suffering in this life. If this ODoR is false, this suffering will never be countered by eternal happiness, and what was thought to be good (and what would have been good if the ODoR was true) was in reality evil.

The issue is more complicated than that, but I hope you can see that motivation alone is not the only important factor.

Here is another way to look at the question. I have various desires with varying strengths. These desires will combine in various ways according to the expected outcomes of various actions, which I evaluate according to my beliefs. One of my desires is to know the truth, and this particular desire is strong, strong enough that I am not able to choose an ODoR that conflicts with my understanding of truth. Even if the desire were not quite so strong as that, promoting a desire for holding this ODoR would thwart my desire to believe truth (making it morally objectionable under DU). While not quite a proof that no conflict of the sort you describe exists, I think this hints at the approach such a proof might take.

I hope those answers are sufficient to help you understand where I am coming from.