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, http://www.atheists.org/christianity/daniel.html

Revealing Daniel, http://www.2think.org/hundredsheep/bible/comment/daniel.shtml

Beware of Bible Fundamentalists "Quoting" Sources, http://www.infidels.org/library/magazines/tsr/1999/5/995bewar.html

Dating Daniel: A Response to Everette Hatcher III, http://www.infidels.org/library/magazines/tsr/2001/1/011dan.html

The Point That Hatcher Keeps Evading, http://www.infidels.org/library/magazines/tsr/2001/1/011point.html

Lions 1, Daniel 0, http://www.infidels.org/library/magazines/tsr/1998/6/986lions.html

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good post. Thanks for the effort.