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Notes on the Book of Daniel: Introduction

Posted by lehunt on August 10, 2015

Daniel in the Lions' Den //


The book of Daniel falls roughly into two sections.  The first section (chapters 1-6) is narrative and focuses on the story of Daniel, a Jew who was carried into exile as a youth by the Babylonians in 605 B.C.  The second section (chapters 7-12) is apocalyptic and contains prophecies which are attributed to this same Daniel.  The author of the first section is unknown.  This section refers to Daniel in the third person, so perhaps he did not write it himself, although referring to oneself in the third person is not uncommon.  (Christ referred to himself in the third person sometimes for rhetorical effect.)  The second section presents itself as the work of Daniel, and I am content to believe that this is true.  Those who reject the idea that Daniel himself was responsible for this section do so because the prophecies in it so closely match events which were centuries in the future (relative to Daniel).  In other words, such people usually do not believe in the possibility of prophecy.  They do not dispute the interpretation of most of the prophecies since the events to which the prophecies refer are so clear in most cases; they are, therefore, forced to conclude that this section of the book is actually history, masquerading as prophecy either for poetic/creative purposes or for outright fraudulent ones whose aim is essentially political.  The Oxford commentary provides one additional argument for believing that the prophecies were written much later than Daniel’s lifetime:

The accounts of Daniel and his friends…reflect a time in which the imperial rule is ignorant and often dangerous rather than malevolent, and in which Jews can live at peace with the non-Jewish neighbors, though not perhaps with a complete sense of security.  Consequently, the tales are regarded as products of the Persian (539-333 B.C.E.) or early Hellenistic (333-168 B.C.E.) periods. (1253)

But this argument seems very weak to me, even cosmetic, its principal purpose being to support the preheld conclusion that “the visions are presented pseudonymously, that is, under the name of an ancient figure who ‘foresees’ what is to come…” (1253).  Along these same lines, Oxford also writes, “The increasingly detailed descriptions of the period following the division of Alexander’s empire up to the Hellenization crisis under Antiochus in 167 B.C.E. suggest that the apocalyptic sections were composed on the eve of the Maccabean revolt…” (1253). Note that the latest date Oxford assigns to the book’s composition is 167 B.C.  Their assumption is that any “prophecy” referring to events beyond this point in history will be vague or erroneous because the “prophet” is no longer writing history masquerading as prophecy; instead, he is trying to predict the future by using his own reason and imagination.  Thus, of 11:40-45 they say, “[N]o longer reporting what happened, the author envisions what will occur.”  Then, to support this view they point out that Antiochus IV (Epiphanes), whom they take to be the king in 11:45, died in Persia, not Palestine as the prophecy says.[1]

But those who follow this line of thinking (which I will hereafter refer to as the Skeptical Argument) run into serious problems when they attempt to identify the fourth kingdom that certain visions refer to.[2] This fourth kingdom first appears in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in chapter 2.  Daniel says that the dream refers to four kingdoms, each succeeding the previous one.  Daniel himself reveals the identity of the first kingdom.  It is Babylon:  “You O king [Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon]…are the head of Gold” (2:37-38).  There are only three reasonable candidates for the remaining three kingdoms.  They are the Medo-Persians, the Macedonians (i.e., the Greeks), and the Romans.  There are no other kingdoms to choose from.  Each succeeds the previous one as the dominant world power.  More importantly for the book of Daniel, each succeeds the other in ruling over Judea.  The difficulty of reconciling this fact with the Skeptical Argument’s theory of dating the book is that Roman rule of Judea succeeds Macedonian rule nearly one hundred years after the date which that theory assigns for the book’s composition: Pompey captures Judea for the Roman Empire in 63 B.C., and yet nobody that I am aware of claims that the book of Daniel was written that late.  This means that even if the Skeptical Argument’s dating is correct, the book of Daniel still accurately prophecies events in the future relative even to the skeptics’ date of its composition.

Additionally, the central theme of all the visions of Daniel is the coming of the Messiah and the establishment of his eternal kingdom.  According to Daniel, this event takes place in the time of the fourth kingdom and is symbolized by the rock which strikes the feet of the statue in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream.  To me, the proper interpretation of this element of the dream is as straightforward as that of many other visions in the book.  It refers to Jesus and the establishment of his kingdom in the first century A.D., while Judea is under the dominion of the Roman Empire, the fourth kingdom.  But this event is nearly two-hundred years after the latest date that the Skeptical Argument assigns for the book’s composition.

To attempt to explain this, skeptics must reject Rome as the fourth kingdom.  They replace it with Greece and thus list the four kingdoms as Babylon, Media, Persia, and Greece (Oxford 1258).  This is an incredible stretch.  Media and Persia are usually considered a single empire.  Notice that Daniel’s vision clearly treats the Medes and Persians as a single empire in 8:20 (See notes on 8:3 for further reasons to see Media and Persia as a single empire.)

I am aware of no linguistic arguments against believing that the book was composed in Daniel’s lifetime.  The language itself is certainly no barrier to such a belief.  Chapters 2:4b-7:28 (corresponding roughly to the first section, the narrative one) are in Aramaic, “the common language of the Near East from the time of the Babylonian exile until the conquests of Alexander the Great” (Oxford 1253).  The rest is in Hebrew.


[1] See notes on 11:40-45.

[2] See notes on chapters 2 and 7.


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