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Daniel in the Historians' Den
by William Sierichs, Jr.

1996 / July-August

The Book of Daniel is one of those "Oops" items in the Bible. It's partly a historical novel and partly an Arabian Nights fairy tale, with a disembodied hand writing on a wall (perhaps the prophet could see The Addams Family before it was made), a man surviving unscathed in a den of starving lions, and three men left unsinged after a trip through a blazing furnace.

The history portions center around King "Nebuchadnezzar" of Babylon, who captures King Jehoiakim of Judah and carries off some Israelites. Nebuchadnezzar becomes a patron to Daniel, presented in the story as a prophet.

Nebuchadnezzar later undergoes a period of insanity before his death. He is succeeded by a "son," Belshazzar, presented as the last king of Babylon. The "thing" [disembodied hand] appears writing on the wall to warn Belshazzar of doom. Daniel 5:30 says Belshazzar died that night when "Darius the Mede" captured Babylon.

Daniel may have survived meat-hungry lions, but fact-hungry historians have ripped him into shreds. Very little is left of him. Archaeologists have pieced together the genuine history of Babylon from records recovered in the last century and a half. The following account is drawn from Babylon by Joan Oates; The Bible as History by Werner Keller; The History of Ancient Israel by Michael Grant; articles on Daniel, Babylon, Belshazzar, and Nebuchadrezzar in The Oxford Companion to the Bible; and chapters 23-25 of The House of Seleucus by Edwyn Bevan. Nebuchadrezzar -- the historians' spelling -- reigned from 604 to 562 B.C.E. (Before the Common Era). He was succeeded by his son, Amel-Marduk, who ruled one year, then Neriglissar, who ruled three years. Labashi-Marduk ruled next, for less than a year.

The last king of Babylon was Nabu-na'id, commonly called Nabonidus. He ruled from 555 to 539 B.C.E., when Babylon was captured by the Persians under Cyrus the Great -- not Darius and the Medes. Nabonidus fled, although he apparently was later captured and killed in Babylon.

Nabonidus had a son -- Belshazzar (or Bel-shar-usur in Babylonian)--who apparently ruled for a decade as crown prince while Nabonidus was in Arabia. What Nabonidus did in Arabia is unknown, but the story of "Nebuchadnezzar's" insanity may be a reference to a bout of insanity or lengthy depression in Nabonidus, who apparently was very unpopular in Babylon -- or so the victorious Persians later claimed.

But Nabonidus returned to Babylon before its capture by Cyrus, so Belshazzar was not the ruler as the Book of Daniel claims, and he was never king.

Scholarship points to the reason for Daniel's bloopers. It was written during the period of the Maccabees, in the middle of the 2nd century B.C.E., or about 400 years after the events it describes. Its origin is betrayed in chapter 11, when Daniel supposedly prophesies about the future. He refers in verse 3 to a "mighty king," identifiable as Alexander the Great. The "king of the south" in verse 5 is the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt, while the stronger prince -- "king of the north" -- is the Seleucid dynasty of the Middle East. Both the Ptolemaic and Seleucid kings (the "Syrians" of the Book of Maccabees) were descended from two of Alexander's officers.

Daniel's description of the 2nd century struggle of these two dynasties is historically useful, much more so than the account of the 6th century dynasty of Babylon, when Daniel supposedly lived. Daniel 11:21 onward is a partial description of the Seleucid King Antiochus Epiphanes' actions which precipitated the Maccabean War.

The Seleucid Empire was under considerable pressure in 167 B.C.E. from the expanding Roman empire, which had inflicted major defeats on the Seleucids; Ptolemaic Egypt -- which formerly had ruled Judea and whose rulers wanted it back; and the Parthians, who were taking Iran from the Seleucids. Thus, international events as well as internal Judean politics played a role in the Maccabean War. The Book of Daniel reflects events in that war, beginning in 167 B.C.E. with a rebellion against a pro-Seleucid Jewish group that ruled Judea and ending in 164 B.C.E., when a native Maccabean army captured Jerusalem.

Daniel can't get Babylonian history straight, but he does pretty well by the Hellenistic era. Obviously, whoever wrote the book was a very solid citizen of the 2nd century B.C.E., whose "prophecies" were wholly retroactive.

To err is human, of course; not to make mistakes would be divine. Daniel's blunders betray a very human origin. Hardly a case of divine inspiration, as the literalists proclaim. An intriguing footnote: In Matthew 24:15 Jesus calls Daniel a "prophet." It's funny that Jesus -- purportedly one-third of an omniscient deity -- should make such a mistake. Maybe Jesus was the Uncle Fester of the Trinity; god didn't figure common humanity needed a visit by a deity with a good memory. Or perhaps it's just that to err is human, indeed.

(William Sierichs, 316 Apartment Court Drive, Apt 44, Baton Rouge, LA 70806.)

EDITOR'S NOTE: In addition to the works that Sierichs cited, The Interpreter's Bible is an excellent reference. Its analysis of the 11th chapter of Daniel will leave little doubt that Sierichs was correct in identifying the king of the north as the Seleucid dynasty and the king of the south as the Ptolemaic dynasty. It also provides other analyses that show the book was a 2nd-century B. C. forgery intended to leave the impression that a 6th-century B. C. prophet had foreseen the Maccabean uprising and had predicted victory for the Jews.

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