Back to the Bible - A Former Believer Re-Reads the Old Testament
The first half of the book of Daniel relates six stories about Daniel and three other young Judeans taken in captivity from Jerusalem to Babylon where their faithfulness to God is repeatedly tested. They come to the attention of Nebuchadnezzar and are made officials in his court. When the Persians succeed Babylon as the dominant power Daniel is again made an important official. Chapters 7-12 describe four apocalyptic visionary experiences of Daniel which make it the most outstanding example of apocalyptic literature in the Old Testament books as well as the source of endless speculation.
There seems to have been a long established tradition of someone named Daniel who is mentioned in the book of Ezekiel (14:14; 28:3) along with Noah and Job as a worthy wise man. A wise man named Dan’el also appears in a 14th century BCE Ugaritic text. Within Judaism there were stories about Daniel that are not included in the book as we know it. The Septuagint, and therefore the Apocrypha version of Daniel has three additional sections not in the Masoretic Text. Among the Dead Sea Scrolls are seven fragmentary Daniel scrolls dated between 125 BCE and 50 CE, which for the most part agree with the Masoretic text. But there is additional Daniel material in some other Dead Sea Scrolls that isn’t in either the Septuagint or Masoretic book of Daniel.
Apart from perhaps the stories of “Daniel in the lions’ den” and “the three Hebrew youth in the fiery furnace” for most Christians and Jews the book of Daniel, especially the last six chapters with their weird beasts, is pretty obscure. But not so for Seventh-day Adventists who trace their origins to a 19th century interpretation of Daniel’s visions. Growing up immersed in Adventist culture I of course encountered the stories of Daniel and his three companions. In addition, via SDA church school, sermons, evangelistic meetings, and church literature I learned detailed explanations for the strange beasts, mysterious events, and, most of all, time periods presented in Daniel’s dreams and visions. I still have the now rather dilapidated Bible that I “earned” by attending a “prophecy crusade” series of lectures featuring projected images of Daniel’s visionary beasts. In the back of that old Bible are my notes from long ago, including a chart outlining the “2300 day” (which Adventists maintain represents 2300 years beginning with the date of Cyrus’ decree to rebuild Jerusalem and ending in 1844) prophecy complete with dates of relatively obscure events fit into the various time spans mentioned by Daniel.
However most non-fundamentalist biblical scholars believe Daniel’s visions are not about future events but are a disguised commentary on historical events that occurred in second century BCE Judea (the Greek form of Judah). According to scholarly consensus the book was most likely written in its present form sometime between 167-164 BCE, which would make it the last written book in the Old Testament.
While apocalyptic elements can be found in Isaiah, some of the the minor prophets, and most of all Ezekiel, Daniel goes far beyond them in its extensive use of symbolism, hidden meanings, and expectation of a climatic “time of the end.” While Daniel is one of only two explicitly apocalyptic books (the other being Revelation in the New Testament) in the Protestant Bible, apocalyptic tradition was well-established by the time of Jesus. One first century CE source mentions seventy Jewish apocalypses most of which have been lost. Others were preserved with a few making it into Catholic and some Eastern Church versions of the Bible. For more about apocalyptic tradition and literature including the setting of Daniel see my article, “The Apocalyptic Background of the Seventh-day Adventist Church: Zoroaster to William Miller” at .
Apocalyptic thinking tends to arise during times of uncertainty and oppression. Which certainly was the case in second century BCE Judea. The Persian Empire which succeeded Babylon had been overrun by Alexander the Great in his quest to conquer the world. After Alexander’s death his empire was divided into four continually quarreling dynasties of Greek descent. While Greek rulers, like the Persians before them, were for the most part tolerant of local customs, foreign rule and the inevitable intrusion of alien culture was widely resented by native peoples. Such resentment found expression in many subjugated cultures via pseudonymous writings that, like the book of Daniel, claimed to have been written in ancient times to foretell future events which involved overthrow of an often disguised alien oppressor.
In the second century BCE Judea was once more a vassal kingdom caught between rival dynasties to the north and south. Initially the Ptolemaic dynasty based in Egypt controlled Palestine. Then in 198 BC, Antiochus the Great of the Syrian Seleucid dynasty wrestled control of the area away from the Ptolemaics. Taxes were increased and treasures from the Jerusalem temple seized to pay for the cost of Antiochus' wars. In 174 BC Antiochus IV Epiphanes gained the Seleucid throne through murderous intrigue, and created an even worse nightmare for the Jews.
Antiochus took advantage of a conflict over control of the Jerusalem temple to replace the legitimate high priest with a Jew sympathetic to Hellenic (Greek) culture who gained the office via bribery. He was in turn replaced by another Hellenizing Jew who had also bribed the Seleucids and then sought to ensure his position by assassinating the legitimate high priest. Some Jews identified with the dominant Hellenistic culture. Others were outraged and rejoiced when false reports of Antiochus' death while campaigning in Egypt were circulated. Emboldened by the rumor, the deposed high priest attempted to regain power. Antiochus, who was issuing coins stamped with his image and the inscription Antiochus Theos Epiphanes - "Antiochus God made manifest," responded by pillaging Jerusalem.
In 167 Antiochus was humiliated when Roman intervention forced him to give up his designs on Egypt, and seemingly took out his anger on the Jews. The Jewish religion was outlawed, the temple profaned, and sacred scrolls destroyed. Worst of all, the image of a pagan god was installed in the temple and swine sacrificed to it. This was the gravest crisis for Judaism since the Babylonian captivity, and would not be matched until the Roman destruction of the temple in 70 AD.
A Jewish revolt was started by a father and his five sons, members of a priestly family who fled Jerusalem after killing a Hellenized Jew who was offering a sacrifice on the pagan altar in the temple. One of the sons, Judas, nicknamed Maccabaeus - "The Hammer", proved to be an outstanding battlefield commander and the uprising is remembered in history as the Maccabaean Revolt. Seemingly blessed by God, the Jews won one victory after another against the far stronger Seleucid state. In 164, three and a half years after its desecration, the temple was liberated and Jewish sacrifice restored. Not long after that Antiochus died.
Most Biblical scholars not bound to a literalist interpretation of the Bible, agree that Daniel, was written in its present form was written in response to the crisis provoked by Antiochus. By combining stories of faithfulness to Jewish practices during earlier persecutions by the Babylonians and Persians with prophecies of better times to come, the writer of Daniel provided reassurance that the present time of trouble would end, the faithful would be rewarded, and the enemies of Israel forever destroyed. Repeated assertions that the time of understanding and fulfillment of the revelations given to Daniel had not yet come placed what was actually a commentary on current affairs in the remote past as prophecy which was being fulfilled.
There are a number of compelling reasons, some of which are discussed below, for assigning a second century BC date to Daniel. In addition the narratives make many mistakes in recounting historical events, mistakes that someone active in the royal courts of Babylon and Persia, as Daniel is said to be, would have been unlikely to make.
The stories in the first six chapters may well have been older narratives which were reshaped to reflect the second century situation and provide hope for a better future. The testing of Daniel and his companions offered reassurance that God would reward those Jews who remained faithful despite the temptations of Hellenization and threat of persecution. Nebuchadnezzar’s demand that the Hebrews worship his golden idol and Darius’ decree that only he could be petitioned/worshipped parallel Antiochus’ installation of a pagan god in the Jerusalem temple and his claim of divine status.
In the Tanak, Daniel is included in the Hagiographa or "Writings" rather than the Prophets. This seems to indicate a late date for Daniel, as Jewish tradition maintains that the prophetic books were closed in the fifth century BCE with the composition of Malachi. The apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus or Sirach, written about 180 BCE, contains a long section (chapters 44-50) in praise of "famous men" from Jewish history that does not include Daniel. However I Maccabees, composed about 100 BC, repeats much of that list with the addition of Daniel and his three companions, leading to the conclusion that their stories were most likely added to Hebrew literature sometime after 180 BC.
I am not very familiar with non-Adventist interpretations of Daniel. But the detailed footnotes in the Oxford Annotated Bible closely connecting the symbolism in the visions to events in ancient Judea are very compelling, and nowhere near as convoluted as the explanations I learned so long ago.
To cite all the instances in which the visions fit the known events of in second century Judea would take a longer article than this one. But here are a few. The three and a half years that are expressed in several different ways are a near exact fit for the time from the desecration of the temple - “the transgression of desolation” (8:14) - to the rededication of the temple. What Adventists read as “twenty three hundred days” and, via rather unconvincing proof texts from elsewhere in the Bible, take as symbolically meaning years rather than literal days, is described in Daniel as “two thousand and three hundred evenings and mornings” (8:14). Which can be understood as a reference to the evening and morning sacrifices of the daily temple routine, making one thousand one hundred fifty actual days or three and a half years.
The description of the “little horn which grew exceedingly great” (8:9) matches Antiochus’ rise to power, conquest of Palestine and sacrilege of the temple. Details of the prophecy for the most part match the history of the Seleucids and Antiochus as well as the desecration and restoration of the temple. But Daniel departs from the historical record in describing further conquests of Antiochus and his death (11), leading to the conclusion that the book was written before Antiochus’ 164 death in Persia while campaigning against the Parthians.
There were some interesting things that I noticed this time in reading Daniel. The story of Nebuchadnezzar’s madness (4) is told as a first person account in the form of a proclamation inserted into the text. God’s throne is described, like in Ezekiel, as a fiery chariot (7:9). A major part of Daniel, 2:4b-7:28, beginning in the middle of a verse with the Babylonian wise men’s response to Nebuchadnezzar’s request that they explain his dream, is written in Aramaic rather than Hebrew. Some scholars maintain that the whole book was originally written in Aramaic, which rather than Hebrew would have been the common language in second century BCE Judea. Or it may have been that an Aramaic text was incorporated into the book when the scroll that became the book was sewn together.
“One having the appearance of a man” named Gabriel is dispatched by a voice to tell Daniel what the visions mean (8:15-16). In 10:13 Gabriel explains that his response to Daniel’s distress was delayed for twenty one days because of a conflict with “the prince of the kingdom” of Persia in which he was aided by “Michael, one of the chief princes” who is later described as “the great prince who has charge of your people” (12:1). These “princes” apparently are angels. This is the only mention in the OT of Gabriel and Michael who became important entities in Islamic and Jewish () as well as Christian tradition.
The term “one like the son of man,” (7:13) which in Ezekiel refers to the prophet himself, in Daniel is descriptive of a human-like messianic kingly figure. In later apocalyptic writings the descriptive label would become a messianic title, “the Son of Man.”
The final chapter of Daniel describes a “time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time” which will end when “Michael the great prince who has charge of your people” arises and “your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (12:1-2). This is the only reference in the OT to resurrection of the wicked as well as the righteous. Daniel is told to “shut up the words, and seal the book, until the time of the end” (12:4). The book ends with three differing time periods given in response to Daniel’s inquiries as to when the time of the end will be, leading to speculation that the final verses are a later addition attempting to correct the earlier numbers.
© 2021 James Moyers
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