Daniel, and Predicting the Past

In the years after the Babylonian exile (587-538 BC) folktales circulated about a Judean sage living under foreign rule. One such story is preserved in a Dead Sea Scrolls fragment containing a story about King Nabonidus.

The words of the prayer said by Nabonidus, king of the land of Babylon, the great king, when he was afflicted with an evil ulcer in Teiman by the command of the Most High God: I was afflicted with an evil ulcer for seven years [...] and an exorcist pardoned my sins. He was a Judean from among the children of the exile of Judah, and he said, “Recount this in writing to glorify and exalt the name of the Most High God.” Then I wrote this: “I was afflicted for seven years with an evil ulcer in Teiman by the command of the Most High God. For seven years I prayed to the gods of silver and gold, bronze and iron, wood and stone and clay, because I believed that they were gods” [...]

—4Q242 (Geza Vermes translation)

The Book of Daniel says the final king of Babylon was Belshazzar, the son of Nebuchadnezzar, who ruled right after his father. In fact, Belshazzar was never 'king', nor was he related to Nebuchadnezzar. Four kings ruled after Nebuchadnezzar, and the last king was Nabonidus, the father of Belshazzar. The Nabonidus Chronicle was rediscovered in the late-nineteenth century, an ancient tablet documenting the rule of Nabonidus and the fall of Babylon to the Persians. This tablet mentioned that Nabonidus was actually absent from Babylon for several years while his son ran the kingdom’s affairs; scholars began to hypothesize the story of Nebuchadnezzar's madness in Dan 4 was loosely based on Nabonidus’ absence.

When 4Q242, the text above, was discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls in the mid-twentieth century, many saw it as vindication for the hypothesis. Nebuchadnezzar’s seven-year madness in Dan 4 bears a striking resemblance to the story, while Dan 5.4 also mentions ‘the gods of gold and silver, bronze and iron, wood and stone’.

In the early twentieth century, Ugarit was discovered, a city destroyed in the early twelfth century BC. Among the ruins were an assortment of texts, which included legends about a hero named Danel, and his son Aqhat. Danel was known for his wisdom and judgment. This Danel is mentioned in the Book of Ezekiel alongside Noah and Job, suggesting Ezekiel considered Danel to be an ancient folk hero. In the Book of Jubilees, Enoch’s father-in-law is a man named Danel.1 Danel’s son Aqhat is mentioned in the Book of Tobit, written around 200 BC, showing Ugaritic stories and characters were still part of Israel’s culture a thousand years after Ugarit fell.

The more we learned about Babylon’s history, the more it became evident the author of Daniel knew rather little about it. That Belshazzar was neither king nor Nebuchadnezzar’s son should have been utterly basic knowledge to an actual contemporary. Between the Nabonidus Chronicle, 4Q242, and the Ugaritic texts, scholars increasingly accepted the theory that Daniel was himself an invention of an author who lived much later than the sixth century BC.2 It appeared that the Judean sage from the folktales was given the name ‘Daniel’ after the ancient legendary hero, and some of the stories about this sage were collected together (what eventually became Dan 2-6), while other stories remained separate for a time (what became Dan 13-14, preserved in Greek), and yet others continued to exist in a form closer to their pre-‘Daniel’ versions (such as 4Q242).

The Four Kingdoms

The second half of Daniel (chapters 7-12) lays out a timeline predicting when the eschaton (or ‘end times’) will occur. It does this by dividing history into a series of four ages, a trope found in ancient literature. In Daniel, each age is presided over by a kingdom. In the later years of the fourth kingdom, the ‘time of the end’ will arrive (8.17,19; 12.4,9). This four-kingdom timeline is introduced in Dan 2, and is then repeated in Dan 7, 8, and 10-12. Chapter 9 also overlaps with these ‘units’, but operates with a different format than the four-kingdom one.

There are countless interpretations by laymen, clergy, and scholars what these four kingdoms should be identified as. Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome are common suggestions. Christians with a ‘futurist’ eschatology sometimes think of America, Britain, Germany, Russia, the European Union, a ‘Revived Roman Empire’, or a future global government.

Among critical academia, however, there is unanimous agreement that the Book of Daniel identifies all four of the kingdoms by name. The court tales in the first half of the book show Daniel serving under three kingdoms in succession: Babylon (1.1-5.30), Media (5.31-6.27a), and Persia (6.27b). Daniel receives his prophetic visions during his service under these three kingdoms: Babylon (7-8), Media (9), and Persia (10-12). Babylon, Media, and Persia are then named in the prophecies themselves. Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon is identified with the first kingdom (Dan 2.36-38), and Media and Persia are identified with the next two kingdoms (8.20).

The thing these three kingdoms shared in common is that they each ruled over the Judean people. Knowing this, an attentive student could easily guess what the fourth kingdom should have been: Greece, beginning with Alexander and continuing with his successors, called the Diadochi. So of course, Greece is named directly, and Alexander and the Diadochi are described as well (8.21-22).

Dan 10-12 depicts the rise and fall of earthly kingdoms as corresponding to an invisible battle of angelic princes. Cyrus of Persia is presented as the current king, and so Daniel is informed that an angel presiding over Persia is currently in power. However, Daniel is told Persia will only have four more kings after Cyrus (there were actually thirteen) before Alexander and the Diadochi come into power (11.2-4); hence, the angel of Persia will be defeated by the angel of Greece (10.13,20). So Daniel’s four kingdoms to reign over the Judean people are: Babylon, Media, Persia, and Greece.3

In Dan 7, the fourth kingdom persecutes Torah-observant Israel, but the kingdom will be destroyed and Israel given an eternal kingdom. In Dan 8, Greece is the kingdom which persecutes the Torah-observant. In Dan 10, the prince of Greece follows after the prince of Persia; no other angelic prince is seen until the prince of Israel arises in Dan 12. All of these point to one conclusion: the author expected the eschaton to happen during the time of Alexander’s successors.

Daniel 11’s List of Kings

So we have two things in our hands: a series of folktales about a fictional sage, and a series of prophecies suggesting the eschaton would happen in the years after Alexander the Great. The prevailing concern of the prophecies is the persecution of Torah-observant Judeans by foreign kingdoms, while the folktales exhibit the wise Daniel remains Torah-observant despite threats of persecution by foreign kingdoms.

This brings us to the genre of Second Temple apocalypses. Daniel is just one of many apocalypses written during the era of Jerusalem’s second temple, and books in this genre tend to fall into one of two categories: cosmological apocalypses, describing the secret aspects of the universe, and eschatological apocalypses, describing the hidden events of the future. As with any genre, apocalypses followed a common set of conventions. Many eschatological apocalypses were written during a time of crisis that the author believed would immediately be followed by the eschaton. The author would write in the name of a hero living centuries earlier (Enoch, Abraham, Moses, Ezekiel, etc.) and pretend to ‘predict’ the historical events that led up to the time of the crisis, before then attempting to predict the aftermath of that crisis. In every one of these cases, the author’s knowledge of the ancient past would be sketchy and incomplete; their accuracy would increase as their ‘predictions’ moved forward in time. When they approach their present, their accuracy would be at its height, but the moment the author began to predict the outcome of the crisis, their accuracy would freefall.4

Daniel is an eschatological apocalypse, written during the later years of Diadochi. As shown above, his knowledge of history centuries in his past is shaky: he combines two Babylonian kings and ignores several others; he invents a Median king who didn’t exist; he skips many Persian kings, and misunderstands Persian government. The prophecies in Dan 7-12 show a fixation on a crisis that will befall the Judean people: a foreign king who will persecute Israel and desecrate Jerusalem’s temple. This is the crisis that the author was living through, which prompted him to write his book.

Chapter 11 is where an angel finally explains to ‘Daniel’ what his symbolic dreams and visions have been pointing to. This is also the chapter where the ‘predictions’ about the future became very sharp and accurate. After the death of Alexander and the rise of the Diadochi (11.4), two opposing kings will emerge: the king of the North and the king of the South. These are the two chief dynasties that grew out of Alexander’s empire: the Ptolemies in Egypt south of Israel, and the Seleucids in Syria north of Israel.

In this document, I take Dan 11.2-12.3 and simply replace the opaque pronouns with the names of the people they refer to.

While Dan 11.2-20 describes the feuding Ptolemaic and Seleucid dynasties in extreme detail, the entire second half of the chapter is focused on Antiochus Epiphanes specifically. The author was not interested in a history lesson, but in establishing the idea that the future is already known, and so he claims to know what this future holds. Dan 11.2-31 is a ‘prediction’ of the author’s past (he glides through these events), while 11.32-39 is his present (he dwells on the major factions of the Maccabean Revolt, conjectures their spiritual rewards, and criticizes the character of Antiochus Epiphanes).

Let’s visualize all the overlapping information we have:

This means 11.40-12.3 is when the author makes his genuine predictions about the outcome of the crisis. It should be no surprise, then, that most of the predictions in this passage failed. The author expects Antiochus Epiphanes to finally conquer Ptolemaic Egypt, as well as Israel, Moab, Edom, Ammon, Libya, and Ethiopia (11.40-43), only to be divinely struck down while seeking to conquer the East and North (11.44-45). This was to be followed by the elevation of Israel (12.1) and the resurrection and judgment (12.2-3). Instead, the Maccabees successfully repelled Antiochus Epiphanes’ forces from Jerusalem, but when Antiochus died from disease in 164 BC, the Maccabean Revolt continued four more years. Israel finally established independence in 140 BC, but was conquered again in 63 BC, this time by the Romans.

Conclusion

When Antiochus Epiphanes became king of Syria, Israel came with his territory. He started a program to Hellenize the Israelites, forcing them to abandon Torah and accept his culture. Some Israelites embraced this Hellenization, while others saw it as persecution; some resisted peacefully, while others responded with violence. The most recognized revolutionaries were the Maccabees, a family of priests.

By the time of the Maccabean Revolt, the apocalyptic genre had been around for about a century, though some of its elements can be detected in biblical literature before 300 BC. It was during the Revolt that a non-violent member of the community decided to write an apocalypse to benefit Israel at large. Gathering a small collection of Daniel stories, he revised them into a linear narrative (Dan 2-6) to show Daniel serving under three consecutive kingdoms (Babylon, Media, Persia). While this author made several mistakes in chronology and politics for these ancient kingdoms, the stories were meant to be illustrations, not history lessons. The author wanted to show a non-violent hero who endured persecution and was rewarded for it, but that was only half the goal. He also wanted to predict the outcome of the Maccabean Revolt, so he wrote a story of Daniel receiving a vision of four monsters, with the last one persecuting the people of Israel, only to be destroyed by God (Dan 7).

As the war developed, the author (or another member of his community) expanded the book. While the original book was written in Aramaic, these new sections were in Hebrew. An introductory story explaining how Daniel was made a member of the royal court in foreign kingdom (Dan 1) and an alternate take on the original vision that included some new details (Dan 8), including a prediction of how long the crisis would last (8.13-14). Then another section was written with more details (Dan 9). Then another section, this time spelling out the when, who, and how in every way except using their actual names (Dan 10-12), including a new prediction on how long the crisis would last (12.11), and then a revision when the original predictions were not fulfilled (12.12).

Dan 11 is so important because it helps us pin down when the book was written within a matter of years: around 167-165 BC. The function of this chapter is to assure readers that the outcome of the Maccabean Revolt — the divine defeat of Antiochus Epiphanes and the resurrection of martyrs — is assured, but it unwittingly reveals not just the time of the book’s origin, but also how the apocalyptic author attempted to predict the future by predicting the past. No matter how noble his intentions to encourage peaceful resistance among his community (the ‘wise’, mentioned in 11.33-35 and 12.3), his efforts were no better than a blind guess.


1 John Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination, 109.

2 Devorah Dimant, The Dead Sea Scrolls in Scholarly Perspective, 171ff.

3 The reality is Media had been conquered by Persia eleven years before Babylon fell, and Daniel’s conqueror of Babylon, Darius the Mede (5.30-31), never existed. To accommodate for this problem, many Christian interpreters seek to identify Darius the Mede with another figure of history: Cyrus of Persia, the actual conqueror of Babylon, or Cyrus’ general Gubaru, or possibly a later Persian king named Darius awkwardly shifted into the past. All such efforts have been fruitless, and these attempts undermine why Daniel pins the fall of Babylon to a Median king. Dan 9 shows the author was a student of the Book of Jeremiah, and Jer 51.11,28 predicted Babylon would be conquered by the Medes. Because the author of Daniel was following a four-kingdom structure, which needed to begin with Babylon, needed to include Persia, and needed to end with Greece, he had no choice but to invent a brief rule of the Judeans by the Medians in an intermediate time between Babylon and Persia.

4 Image adapted from Craig Hill, In God’s Time, 100.