Daniel: Prophet or Historian?

Critics say the book of Daniel is a historical rather than a prophetic book. After all, how could any man have accurately predicted the rise of successive world empires?

To many in the Western world, the Bible is an archaic book that holds little or no authority. It has come to represent at best the pious musings of superstitious people who lived far away and long ago. While its teachings might be considered enlightened for their time, for the 21st century they’re viewed as hopelessly out-of-date.

But the Bible claims God, not men or women, as its ultimate author. In its pages, God is ostensibly giving people of all eras instruction on the true nature of human existence and how life should be lived. To those who are determined to discard the Bible, not much can be said to convince them that it truly is what it claims to be: the Word of God. But for those who may be undecided, the Bible does contain evidence of its divine origin. One must simply be willing to look into the matter with an open mind.

The Prophetic Record

One line of evidence supporting the Bible’s claim to be the Word of God is the fulfillment of prophecies outlining individual events well in advance of their occurrence—not vaguely worded predictions with a multiplicity of possible outcomes, but detailed statements that have had clear fulfillment. Given the difficulty of correctly predicting the outcome of events over which we have a degree of control, we can readily agree that it would be impossible for human beings to predict the course of history over hundreds and thousands of years. The Bible nonetheless contains such predictions, and history records their fulfillment.

In the book of Isaiah, the God of the Bible points to the fulfillment of prophecies as evidence of His divine power. He says: “For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure. . . . I have spoken it; I will also bring it to pass. I have purposed it; I will also do it” (Isaiah 46:9–11).

Remarkable examples of the Bible’s verifiable predictions are found in three interconnected prophecies in the book of Daniel. Daniel was a Jewish captive taken from Jerusalem to Babylon around 604 B.C.E. by Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. Trained by the Babylonians to serve in the royal court, Daniel continued throughout the reign of Nebuchadnezzar and his successors and into the beginning of the rule of the Medo-Persians, who conquered Babylon.

Although the authority of the book of Daniel has been challenged by at least one ancient Greek philosopher, and more recently by critical scholarship, it was a very important document to the Jews who lived before and after the time of Christ. It was also foundational to the beliefs of Jesus Christ’s followers.

Dreamers of Dreams

The book of Daniel relates that Nebuchadnezzar had a dream about a statue whose head was fashioned of gold; chest and arms of silver; belly and thighs of bronze; legs of iron; and feet of iron mixed with clay. The image was struck and crushed to powder by a stone that had been “cut out without hands” (Daniel 2:31–35). God gave Daniel the interpretation of the dream to pass along to Nebuchadnezzar: the statue represented four great human kingdoms, which would follow one another and would ultimately be conquered and replaced by the kingdom of God (verses 38–40, 44).

Some years later, Daniel, too, was given a dream. This time four great beasts—a lion, a bear, a leopard with four heads and four wings, and a fourth beast with great iron teeth and 10 horns—came up out of the sea (Daniel 7:2–7). Like Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, this one pictured four kingdoms that were to arise out of the earth (verses 17–18).

Two more years passed, and Daniel had a second dream. This time a ram with two horns was attacked and destroyed by a goat with a single large horn. The goat’s horn was subsequently broken, and in its place grew four smaller horns (Daniel 8:3–8). Again the dream describes great kingdoms, but it contains specific information that enables us to understand the other dreams. Verse 20 clearly states that the ram with two horns pictures the Medo-Persian Empire. The following verse identifies the goat with the single horn as the subsequent Greco-Macedonian kingdom.

When we look at the symbolism of the dreams and compare it with the historical record, their message becomes clear.

Of course, the interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream centered on not two but four successive empires (Daniel 2:38–40). But when we look at the symbolism of the dreams and compare it with the historical record, their message becomes clear. Daniel specifically states that the head of gold on the image in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream pictures Nebuchadnezzar himself, along with his kingdom (verse 38). This same empire is depicted in Daniel 7:4 as a lion to whom a man’s heart was given. (Daniel 4 records that Nebuchadnezzar was driven mad and became like an animal, but that his sanity was eventually restored).

This Neo-Babylonian Empire was conquered and replaced by the Medo-Persian Empire. The book of Daniel relates this change of government as a historical event because Daniel witnessed it and continued to serve as a royal advisor to the new rulers.

In turn, in 333 B.C.E., the Medo-Persian Empire was conquered by Alexander the Great. More than 250 years had passed since Daniel wrote about the dreams. It is important to note the fine detail of the historical fulfillment of the dream recorded in Daniel 8. The goat (the Greco-Macedonian kingdom) that destroyed the ram (the Medo-Persian Empire) had “a notable horn” that represented its first king, Alexander the Great (Daniel 8:21). The dream also related that when this horn was broken, four smaller horns representing four other kingdoms were to arise in its place (verse 22). This, too, happened. After Alexander’s death in 323, all of his natural heirs were killed and some of his generals divided the empire into four parts: Macedon, Greece and Thessaly were claimed by Cassander; northern Asia Minor fell under Lysimachus; Syria, Babylon and Media were ruled by Seleucus; and Egypt and Cyprus became the territory of Ptolemy.

The visions recorded in Daniel 2 and 7 predicted a separate, fourth empire to follow, which was to be “dreadful and terrible, exceedingly strong” (Daniel 7:7). The next empire—the Roman Empire—certainly fulfilled that description and was seen by the Jewish people of the time of Jesus in such a light. In addition to its crushing power, this fourth beast had another characteristic: it was to have 10 horns. As can be seen from the description of the ram and the goat in Daniel 8, the symbol of a horn was used to represent a kingdom. The 10 horns of the fourth beast also represent kingdoms that were to grow out of this empire. Daniel 7:24 states it clearly: “The ten horns are ten kings who shall arise from this kingdom.”

This latter feature of the Roman Empire (10 subsequent kingdoms) is unique among those predicted by Daniel. The Roman Empire fell to barbarian tribes in 476 C.E.; however, its central idea, the Pax Romana (the “peace of Rome”) lived on in Europe. But as with the original Roman Empire, the various successors to this system also brought about immense suffering, oppression and destruction.

By looking at the historical record, we can find a series of kingdoms that succeeded in establishing rule in the spirit of the Roman Empire. Among them would be the Vandals, the Heruli and the Ostrogoths, who contributed to the fall of Rome and then established their own short-lived kingdoms. These were followed by the Imperial Restoration under Justinian; the Frankish kingdom under Charlemagne; the (Holy Roman) empire under Otto the Great and later the Habsburg dynasty; Napoleon’s kingdom in the 19th century; and the axis powers of Mussolini and Hitler in the 20th century.

It becomes increasingly difficult to ascribe human authorship to the stunningly accurate prophetic statements contained in his book.

Dating Daniel

Internal evidence within the book of Daniel points to these dreams or visions and their interpretations being received and recorded in the sixth century B.C.E. (roughly between 605, when Daniel was taken captive, and 539, when the Medes and Persians conquered the Neo-Babylonian Empire). The transition from the Babylonian Empire to the Medo-Persian Empire, though first spoken of during Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, took place decades later under a subsequent ruler but still within Daniel’s lifetime. Although a skeptic could conclude that Daniel wrote what he did based on his own knowledge of current events, from that point on it becomes increasingly difficult to ascribe human authorship to the stunningly accurate prophetic statements contained in his book.

The destruction of the Persian Empire and the division of Alexander the Great’s empire into four parts as predicted in Daniel 8 took place between 333, when Alexander left Macedonia, and the time immediately following his death in 323. This was more than two centuries after Daniel’s lifetime. It would have been impossible for a mere human being to make these predictions. When Daniel wrote, Persia was a powerful empire. The Greeks, on the other hand, were merely a collection of competing city-states. It would not have been reasonable to guess that the Greeks would come to utterly defeat the Persians. To then predict the breakup of Alexander’s empire into four parts would be undeniably beyond a human prognosticator’s ability. A modern parallel would be someone at the founding of the United States in the late 1700s predicting the breakup of the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War in the late 1900s.

It would have been impossible to predict that the small city-state of Rome would come to dominate the entire Mediterranean region and beyond. 

Skeptics, following the lead of the third-century Greek philosopher Porphyry, have also recognized this. They have therefore attempted to counter the idea of divine inspiration of the book of Daniel, claiming it was the work of an unknown author in the second century B.C.E. who wrote historical events in the guise of prophecy. However, there is neither proof for a late authorship of Daniel nor a statement from anyone who knew the supposed second-century author and exposed the book as a fake.

The idea is further discredited by a statement from Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, writing in the first century C.E. to a Roman audience. Josephus relates an account of the Jewish high priest showing Alexander “the book of Daniel . . . wherein Daniel declared that one of the Greeks should destroy the empire of the Persians” (Antiquities of the Jews 11.8.5). Josephus clearly accepted that the book of Daniel existed at the time of Alexander and that it was respected among the Jews of the fourth century B.C.E. as a divine prophecy. (A general discussion of the dating of the book of Daniel, including evidence to show that Josephus was not just involved in patriotic propaganda, may be found in “Daniel in the Critics’ Den.”)

The Once and Future Rome

It is notable that the foretelling of geopolitical events in Daniel didn’t stop with the Greeks but went on to include a fourth kingdom that historically could only be the Roman Empire and those kingdoms that followed over the next two millennia, which were built along the same lines as the Roman Empire.

When Daniel wrote down the dreams and the interpretations given to him by God, the Roman Empire didn’t even exist. It wasn’t until 509 B.C.E. (well after Daniel’s death) that the people of Rome overthrew their Etruscan rulers and founded their republic. During the 400s, Rome and its neighboring cities formed the Latin League to defend themselves from their common enemies. Even then it would have been impossible to predict that the small city-state of Rome would come to dominate the entire Mediterranean region and beyond. Ironically, had Daniel’s book been written about the middle of the second century B.C.E., as the critics claim, there would still have been no way of anticipating the rise of Rome to displace the Grecian empires in Egypt and Syria more than a century later.

The Pharisees of the Second Temple period certainly regarded the fourth kingdom as the Roman Empire. This understanding undoubtedly helped foster the kinds of messianic expectations that led to a number of disastrous revolts against their Roman overlords.

Only God could have inspired the prophecies found in Daniel chapters 2, 7 and 8. Only God knows the end from the beginning and is able to work out events to bring to pass exactly what He predicts.

The fulfillment in great detail of prophecies contained in the Bible is one reason this book can be relied upon as the Word of God and not of human authors. It is for this reason that Vision often refers to the Bible in the discussion of current topics. The inspiration that underlies the publication of Vision comes from the Bible. And the principles found in that book are enduring because they come from God, not man.