Daniel in the Critics' Den

Skeptics have been trying for centuries to shred the credibility of an Old Testament prophet.

The prophetic book of Daniel must surely be one of the most extraordinary works of literature ever produced. Its amazing panorama of world history ranges from the sixth century B.C. through the great empires of Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece and Rome; through the period called “the time of the end”; to the second coming of Christ and the setting up of the kingdom of God.

The book begins with Daniel’s arrival in the city of Babylon in 604 B.C. His nation, Judah, with its capital at Jerusalem, has been invaded and occupied by the military forces of the expanding empire of Babylon. Daniel, along with several other talented and well-educated young Jews, has been brought to Babylon to learn the language and culture of the Babylonians. The implication is that he and the others are being groomed for important positions within the administration of the empire.

Max Lucado, in his edition of the New King James translation of the Bible, puts the reader at the scene as he offers this background:

Jerusalem is in ashes. The Temple is in ruins. And you and the rest of your people are in captivity.

Your captors mock you, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ (Ps. 137:3). But you don’t sing. . . . Who can sing songs about the Lord in a foreign country? Daniel can.

Though he was only a teenager when taken captive, he remembers well the songs of his youth. Somewhere in his early years he came to believe that God was sovereign. Nothing happens outside of his plan.

But even Daniel could not have imagined the plans God had for him. Prime minister of the court. Interpreter of dreams. Prophet. Teacher. Ruler. A lifelong voice for God among pagan people.

But though the central character of the book is Daniel, the hero is God. ‘There is a God in heaven . . . ,’ Daniel told the king (2:28), and it was that God in heaven who sustained Daniel and the people while in captivity.

That God, by the way, still reigns.”

A Critical View

It should come as no great surprise that not everyone shares Lucado’s view of Daniel. The story, many claim, is nothing more than an interesting fable from ancient history, having nothing to do with our fast-paced and very different 21st-century world.

Generations of us have been educated in a society that has accepted rationalism as the basis of all its education, literally as a religion in itself. The concept of a real God who controls history and tells men and women how they ought to live is unacceptable to most.

The first recorded critic of Daniel was Porphyry, a third-century A.D. philosopher. He wrote a work titled Against the Christians, in which he denounced the book of Daniel as a fake written in the Maccabean period (167–134 B.C.).

To this day critics follow the lead of Porphyry and question the book’s validity on two key points: first, that it is historically inaccurate; and second, that its prophecies were written after the event. In other words, the book is nothing more than a poor record of history made to appear as prophecy.

Was the book of Daniel inspired by God, or is it nothing more than a “happy hunting ground for religious cranks?”

Was the book of Daniel inspired by God, or is it, in the words of one writer, nothing more than “a happy hunting ground for religious cranks?”

Historically Inaccurate?

In 1850 a German commentary claimed that the name of King Belshazzar was not to be found outside the book of Daniel and that this king of Babylon was just a figment of the author’s imagination.

Four years later, in 1854, a British consul in Iraq was excavating the ancient ruins of a tower on behalf of the British Museum. He discovered some four-inch-long clay cylinders covered in cuneiform script dating to the sixth century B.C. In Discoveries from Bible Times, Alan Millard describes what happened next:

When the consul took his finds to Baghdad, his senior colleague was able to read the inscriptions, for, fortunately, he was Sir Henry Rawlinson, one of those who had deciphered the Babylonian cuneiform script. Rawlinson immediately saw the importance of the clay cylinders.

The inscriptions had been written at the command of Nabonidus, king of Babylon 555–539 B.C. . . . The words they carried proved that the ruined tower was the temple of the city of Ur. The words were a prayer for the long life and good health of Nabonidus—and for his eldest son. The name of that son, clearly written, was Belshazzar.”

The fact that he was described as the crown prince, heir to the throne, as such the number two ruler in the kingdom, fits perfectly with the biblical account, which indicates that he gave Daniel the number three position.

Many of the charges of so-called historical inaccuracies in Daniel result from the lack of hard archaeological evidence in which to ground Daniel’s historical statements. Because of the present rationalistic approach, the Bible, like other historical documents, is considered suspect until proven accurate.

We need to remember, though, that archaeology is an incomplete record, an ongoing process. Nobody knows what might be discovered tomorrow. A mere lack of evidence from archaeology today does not prove that an event described in the Bible never happened. Many ancient sites have been destroyed by events such as wars, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Other sites have simply disappeared under the foundations of modern buildings.

Archaeology is an incomplete record, an ongoing process. Nobody knows what might be discovered tomorrow. 

However, enough evidence has come to light (for example, from inscriptions on the Nabonidus cylinder and the East India tablet, both of which are displayed at the British Museum) for the first chapters of Daniel to be accepted by scholars as a reasonable historic representation of the Neo-Babylonian–Medo-Persian period.

Language Barrier

Another idea is that Daniel could not have been written in the sixth century B.C. because the book contains a few words of Greek, the claim being that the Jews would have had no knowledge of Greek before the time of Alexander the Great.

Although it is true that Greek language and culture did spread over a wide area as a result of Alexander’s conquests, languages are also spread as a result of other factors, such as international trade.

The region in which Daniel lived was not only involved in trade but was also highly cosmopolitan. The Neo-Babylonian Empire existed contemporaneously with the flowering of Hellenic Greek civilization. Cultural and diplomatic interaction between Athens and Babylon would reasonably have occurred. Interestingly, most of the words of Greek origin used in the book of Daniel relate to musical instruments, supporting the idea of cultural intercourse between these peoples.

Daniel held high offices in both the Neo-Babylonian and the Medo-Persian Empire. These empires were multiethnic in nature; Daniel’s positions would almost certainly have required at least some grasp or appreciation of languages.

Prophecy or History?

The second argument against the book of Daniel claims that it was written about 167 B.C. in order to encourage the Jews during the Syrian occupation of their country, when Antiochus Epiphanes sought to institute idol worship and pagan sacrifices in the temple at Jerusalem. (The celebration of Hanukkah relates to the Jews’ overcoming of Antiochus’s pagan practices.)

Many of the most specific prophecies in Daniel are believed to relate to the period before and including this time. If someone could prove that such descriptions were written after the event—making them, in effect, historical accounts rather than prophecies—it would negate any claim to divine inspiration.

One such passage is found in Daniel 11:31–32, which mentions events that parallel the activities of Antiochus Epiphanes: “Forces sent by him shall occupy and profane the temple fortress. They shall abolish the regular burnt offering and set up the abomination that makes desolate. He shall seduce with intrigue those who violate the covenant; but the people who are loyal to their God shall stand firm and take action” (New Revised Standard Version).

The Jewish historical works titled 1 and 2 Maccabees provide a record of what happened at this time. The Maccabees were Jewish resistance fighters who refused to abandon God’s law and convert to the Syrians’ religion. Critics identify the Maccabees as “the people who are loyal to their God” in order to support their classification of the book as history.

The historical accuracy of the account in Daniel 11 is indeed borne out by 1 and 2 Maccabees. But was it written after the fact, or before? One of the Maccabees, Mattathias, gave a speech in 166 B.C. to rally the Jews to the Maccabean cause. In it he included a list of ancestral figures of the Bible from Abraham down to Daniel (1 Maccabees 2:51–60). If Daniel was a contemporary of Mattathias, or the book of Daniel had been written the year before, would Daniel have been described as one of the ancestors?

This is a point worth examining further.

Another Daniel

Critics claim that there was another Daniel or that the writer of the Maccabean period used Daniel’s name and reputation to pen a pseudepigraphical work.

The book of Ezekiel was written in the sixth century B.C., during the Babylonian captivity, and provides evidence of a prominent “Daniel” living well before the second century B.C. Ezekiel links this Daniel with ancestors who were noted for their righteousness (Ezekiel 14:13–14). The critics’ response to this is that the Daniel mentioned here is not the Daniel of the Bible but a different Daniel—a figure from pagan antiquity who lived about 1400 B.C. Who is the Daniel to whom Ezekiel refers?

In Ezekiel 28:3 we find another reference to Daniel. In describing the prince of Tyre, Ezekiel states: “You are wiser than Daniel! There is no secret that can be hidden from you!” The Daniel of the Bible is presented as the wisest of the wise men of Babylon. He was also able to interpret the secret or hidden meaning of dreams. This reference by Ezekiel to Daniel is clearly to the same Daniel presented in the book by that name. Unger’s Bible Dictionary describes the theory of two Daniels as “highly plausible but certainly unsound.”

Daniel and Alexander

Alexander the Great’s campaign reached Jerusalem in about 332 B.C. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus, in his Antiquities of the Jews, records what happened:

Now Alexander, when he reached Gaza, made haste to go up to Jerusalem; and Jaddua the high priest, when he heard that, was in an agony, and under terror, as not knowing how he should meet the Macedonians, since the king was displeased at his foregoing disobedience.”

Jaddua’s response to the crisis was to offer sacrifices and seek God’s help. God appeared to him in a dream and urged him to take courage, to open the city gates and, dressed in his white priestly garments, to go out to meet Alexander. The latter responded well to the high priest and offered a sacrifice to God at the temple. Josephus records that “when the book of Daniel was shown him, wherein Daniel declared that one of the Greeks should destroy the empire of the Persians, he supposed that himself was the person intended.”

Josephus was clearly of the opinion that the book of Daniel was in existence prior to the arrival of Alexander in the fourth century before Christ. 

Josephus was clearly of the opinion that the book of Daniel was in existence prior to the arrival of Alexander in the fourth century before Christ.

Daniel as Scripture

Perhaps the most important point to ask in dating the book of Daniel is when it began to be regarded as Scripture.

It is clear that by the early first century A.D. Daniel was commonly accepted within the canon of Scripture. Matthew’s Gospel refers to Daniel both as a prophet and as a part of the Hebrew Scriptures (Matthew 24:15). At the Council at Jamnia, held after the A.D. 70 fall of Jerusalem to discuss whether certain books should be maintained as Scripture, the place of Daniel was clearly secure. From what we know of the deliberations of the Jewish religious leadership, Daniel’s place in the canon was never even a matter of discussion. It had already been fully accepted. This is established even more firmly by the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered at Qumran in 1947. Not only were several copies of the book of Daniel discovered, but other scrolls were found which were based upon Daniel-related material. These include the Prayer of Nabonidus, Pseudo-Daniel and the Book of Giants.

Recently published studies on the theme of Daniel at Qumran indicate that the coming of the Messiah was a subject of great interest to the Essene community, which is generally thought to have lived at Qumran. Qumran writers, like most Jewish sects of their day, used the 70-weeks prophecy in Daniel 9 in an attempt to calculate when the Messiah would appear.

In his book Calendar and Chronology, Jewish and Christian (1996), Roger T. Beckwith states that the Essenes’ “interpretation of the 70 Weeks is first found in the Testament of Levi and the Pseudo-Moses Documents . . . , which probably means that it was worked out before 146 B.C.”

These considerations do not make easier but more difficult the problem of the origin of the book of Daniel.” 

Roger T. Beckwith, Calendar and Chronology, Jewish and Christian (1966).

Having also examined dates based on Daniel 9 as calculated by Jewish sects other than the Essenes, Beckwith concludes: “These considerations do not make easier but more difficult the problem of the origin of the Book of Daniel. Nevertheless, they are among the data which, especially since the Qumran discoveries, have been accumulating to necessitate a reconsideration of the common Maccabaean dating of that book.”

The latest studies indicate that much of the messianic Qumran literature that depends on Daniel can be dated to before 150 B.C. In other words, by the time of the Maccabees, Daniel had clearly already been accepted as Scripture. On that basis the writer of Daniel could not have been contemporaneous with the Maccabees and the writers of the Qumran material. This adds credence to the Jewish Talmudic teaching that the book was written and included in the canon of Scripture by the Great Synagogue before it ceased to operate during the time of Simon the Just (circa 300 B.C.). Jews believed that the canon of Scripture was closed at that point—nothing more could be added. This would also suggest that, contrary to critics, Josephus’s claim about Alexander the Great and the high priest cannot simply be dismissed as patriotic propaganda.

Arguably the most telling statement about Daniel, however, is the way his record was accepted by Jesus Christ and the apostles. Clearly it was seen by them as prophetic. The number of references and allusions to Daniel in the New Testament make it one of the books most used by the early Church.

If the historical questions can be answered and the date of writing clearly established as prior to 167 B.C. and the actions of Antiochus Epiphanes, then the book of Daniel is one of the most extraordinary works of literature ever produced. It is, as one scholar noted recently in a major study on the subject, sui generis, a unique book. Perhaps, then, we need to pay much closer attention to what it still has to say about the future of human society.