Daniel – a Prophetic Vision Part 1

1642again, Going Postal
Daniel in the Lions’ Den, c. 1615 by Pieter Paul Rubens
Peter Paul Rubens [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Life and Times in a Time of Tribulation

I have purposefully left off addressing the Book of Daniel – can its central character even be regarded as a Jewish prophet who even existed at all? – until last because this book is simply the most controversial and befuddling book in the Old Testament.  One has to tread as carefully with Daniel as one does with the Book of Revelation, works of apocalyptic prophecy which are highly controversial, and which have led many astray into obsession.

While accepted as a major prophet by Christians, he is not by Jews who rather see him as a prominent exile during the Babylonian era.  Modern scholars tend to look at the figure of Daniel in the same way that they do that of Job, whom I covered earlier, i.e. as contemporary concerns and debates projected back on to a much earlier figure in the Hebrews’ past, one mentioned by Ezekiel, one who was a historical figure alongside Moses and Job, i.e. a figure of exemplary piety who was remembered for being  significant in the early days of Judaism.

Even more confusingly half the book is in Hebrew and half in Aramaic in intermixed chapters.  Some scholars regard this as indicating that part of the book is much earlier and was grafted on to the later parts, others interpreting it as a literary device by a later editor.  Furthermore, the early Greek translation contains three additional stories which are not present in the earlier Jewish canonical text which are rejected as Apocryphal by Protestants (not in the St James Bible) but are accepted by the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.  In themselves, these three extras add little other than barely needed additional controversy to the book of Daniel.

Date of Composition

This is important because Daniel is seen in the Christian tradition as a prophetic work concerned with the far future as well as his own time, so please bear with me while I sum up the various arguments.  There are two main interpretations of the date of composition:

  1. The mid late 160’s BC when the Jews were in the midst of a national war of liberation under the Maccabee family against the occupying Seleucid Greek kings Antiochus IV of Syria, who was trying to impose Greek culture and polytheism upon them, including building a pagan temple in the middle of Jerusalem. In modern times this has been the dominant scholarly view, but there are some significant problems with it.
  2. The 550’s and 540’s BC by the eponymous Daniel or one of his close companions, during the Jewish exile in Babylon and the subsequent Persian conquest by Cyrus the Great. This is the traditional view and has in more recent times received some strong empirical support to which I will refer shortly.

Why the 160’s or Mid 6th century BC?

There are several principal arguments and I will address each in turn.  Firstly, those for the later dating comprise four main strands:

  1. All prophetic and apocalyptic literature that has come true must have been composed after the events prophesied as prophecy is not possible.
  2. The prophecy of Daniel chapter 11 describing the conflicts between the ‘kings of the North and South’, and the intervention of the ships of the people of ‘Kittim’ on the side of the South, and then the persecution of the Jews from the king of the North, describes accurately events in the years before 168 BC involving the Seleucids, Ptolemies and Romans, and must therefore be references to the writer’s own times.
  3. Outside ‘his’ book, Daniel is not a ‘known figure’ in the OT other than a dimly recalled figure contemporary with the likes of Moses and Job, and has been used as a vehicle to give ancient credence to a contemporary composition. It seems that the same Daniel appears in a myth of second millennium Ugarit in the northern Levant, so he was clearly an early figure of some renown among the broader Aramaic speaking peoples like Job. We should regard the Hebrews as being a sister people of a larger Semitic Aramaic family of peoples who shared many origin legends and even ideas about the divine which had not yet ossified into the harder distinctions of the first millennium BC.
  4. The book of Daniel was not regarded as a prophetic canonical book by the Jews around 200 BC, by which point the list of major prophets was established in the Hebrew canon, but merely later as ‘a canonical writing’ so it must date from well after 200 BC, probably after 180 BC.

The arguments for an earlier date and have some traction but I will leave it to you to draw your own conclusions.

  1. This is a philosophical premise resistant to argument, so not empirically based. Ancient societies generally believed in such things as omens and prophecy.
  2. This is the central argument to the later dating of Daniel based on evidence within the text referring to events of his own times. If the villainous king of the North associated with the desecration of the Jewish Temple is to be identified with Antiochus IV, it gets the prophesy of his coming death wrong.  He died in 164 BC which the later composition supporters argue shows the book was written between 168 and 165 BC – a very tight window.  The issue is that a number of copies of Daniel have been recovered from the settlement at Qumran (the Dead Sea Scrolls) – it was certainly popular there and regarded as canonical among Jews by he 140s BC, if not earlier, which hardly accords with a major prophecy being proven wrong only a few years before unless the prophecies of Daniel 10-12 were not regarded as referring to the events of their own time by contemporary Jews.

The intervention by the ships of Kittim is regarded by advocates of the late composition argument as matching the Roman intervention on behalf of the Ptolemies to stop the Seleucid conquest of Egypt.  Kittim refers to Cyprus but was used as a catchall by the Hebrews to refer to the lands and islands west of Asia, eg Greece, Carthage, Italy etc so could refer to a wide range of nations, including the Romans or Greeks if literally interpreted, or others to the West.

  1. The identity of the author is predicated on the date of composition. Unlike the book of Job, with which the late composition arguments have certain parallels, the author of Daniel does refer to himself and it is clearly meant to be autobiographical rather than biographical.  Of course, this self-identification could be a contrivance, but is contingent on the date of composition.
  2. That the Jews did not regard the book of Daniel as the book of a major prophet when the canon of such works was fixed about 200 BC does not preclude it being earlier in date. The Jews regarded it as being in a third category of canonical ‘writings’, like Job (clearly dated to the early 6th century BC) which are not about or by anointed prophets (Daniel never held the office of prophet unlike Isaiah, Elijah etc).  An earlier Daniel, if historical, would therefore be a pious figure and interpreter of dreams touched by God, an unofficial prophet.  It was the Greek translators of the Old Testament in the second century BC who classified him as one of the great prophets, which is how he entered the Christian canon.  Interestingly, Jesus seems to have regarded him as a true prophet.

Now, if it were just the arguments above, one might lean to the later composition view, but there is other evidence suggesting an earlier date.

  • Some of the Aramaic words and expressions used in the book are early ones which were obsolete by the second century.
  • There are a number of early Persian loan words in Daniel, again arguing for its writing in an early Persian context rather than later Greek one.
  • The Greek loan words in the book do not argue strongly for a later date given that Greek loan words were increasingly common in western Asia and even southernmost Egypt by the 5th century BC, and probably before.
  • There is a reference to the city of ‘Susa being the capital of Elam, a situation predating the Persian conquest and assigning of Susa to a different satrapy from Elam in south western Iran in the mid 6th century.  Such a minor administrative reorganisation in Iran is unlikely to have been remembered by Jews living three centuries later in Israel – a strong argument that some elements at least of Daniel are original and contemporary with the events they portray.
  • Interpreting the wars between the kings of the North and South to be wars between the Seleucids and Ptolemies clashes with the prophecies of chapters 2 and 7 which describe the empire of Alexander the Great breaking into four kingdoms (it did). The running order of prophesied ancient empires in Daniel as clearly Babylonians, Persians, Greeks – breaking into four kingdoms after the founder’s Alexander’s death – being replaced by the Romans.  The chapter 11 running order would have the Persian empire splitting into four which never happened and thereby invalidating some modern scholars’ attempt to get around the problem by intruding the Medes between the Babylonians and Persians, bumping up the Persians and Greeks by one, and cutting out the Romans as that was still in the future in the 160s BC, although Rome was already the dominant superpower across the Mediterranean and increasingly influential in Asia and Egypt.  This doesn’t work – furthermore the Jews were never subject to the Medes – and undermines the identification of the Seleucids with the kings of the North etc.

So, what’s the answer?  One could of course write it all off as a mess, but oddly that might help inspire the answer.  Just as my earlier commentaries on Isaiah, for example, indicated, these books may be regarded as having an original core written by their eponymous hero or by a close associate as with the case of Jeremiah, to which additional text were subsequently added by later editors to help reveal or explain the ‘truth’ of what the original writers says.  This to us seems dishonest, but in the ancient world it wasn’t because it was concerned with deeper ‘truths’ drawn out of bald facts to aid understanding.

We know this has happened with Daniel for sure, because three stories within the Greek text are not regarded as canonical by Protestants and have been stripped out as being clearly of later date.

The evidence seems compelling that the Aramaic sections (chapters 2-7) are early and have a large autobiographical component about Daniel’s life and dealings with the kings of Babylonia and Persia.  Chapter 1 is in Hebrew and adds little other than as introduction to Daniel’s early life – one can see this being added later to add context.  Only chapters 2 and 7 among the Aramaic chapters are what we might term as deeply prophetic – concerned with the rise and fall of empires into the future.

If these are original, then the remaining Hebrew chapters 8-12 may well be later, indeed as late as the 160s BC, at least in part.  Again, even here there are problems with accepting a purely late date for even these later Hebrew sections as outlined above, but one surmises whether these later chapters were drawn from something original and amplified and rewritten by later scribes to make sense of their own seemingly apocalyptic times, and that the original variants haven’t survived but have been completely written over.

To be honest, in my personal view, chapters 10-12 don’t add a lot to Daniel for us anyway – they seem different and more specific, even laboured, in nature compared with the other chapters.  I would also add that reading Daniel one is reminded of Herodotus’ The Histories with its blend of real history, oracles, dreams and interpreters, tall tales.  Herodotus was mid 5th century BC, an archaic style, very different from the preoccupations of ancient writers three centuries later, yet more weight to the mid 6th century date of composition.

If we want to understand what value Daniel has for us today, it is in the retention of faith when under severe tribulation, and, more difficultly, his portrayal of the rise and fall of great powers, why such things happen, and his deeper prophecies about the far future.  These are themes I wish to cover the subsequent articles.

© 1642again 2019

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