Dating Daniel

Last semester one of my students had an encounter with a literalist. This is not uncommon, but the issue raised ran counter to what we were covering in class, namely, the book of Daniel. Apocalyptically minded literalists use Daniel and Revelation as a two-tiered roadmap to the future, supposing that these books are predictions of the end of time. Scholars who’ve studied apocalyptic literature, however, know that such interpretations misrepresent a fascinating genre of ancient writing that says more about its own time than some unforeseen future (our time). Nevertheless, the myth of Daniel’s foresight persists.

Long ago biblical scholars noted that although set in the period of the Babylonian Empire, the book of Daniel makes several basic errors about that time period. On the other hand, Daniel knows the period of the Seleucid Empire (when it was actually written) in relatively precise detail. We think nothing of it when an author today sets a story in the past, but somehow this is dirty pool in the composition of an evangelical Bible. Apocalyptic was intended to provide encouragement to those under persecution, not to give them a Google-mapped future. It is in the nature of apocalyptic to present the author as a seer, but the future age is a Zoroastrian contribution that gives books like Daniel and Revelation their edge.

Misunderstanding genre is a large concern among literary scholars. A document like the Bible, which contains several distinct genres, must be handled carefully if it isn’t to be misrepresented. I used to point out that if the passages intended to be read ironically were understood literally many Bible-quoters would be in trouble. After all, doesn’t Amos declare, “Go to Bethel and sin; go to Gilgal and sin yet more” (4.4)? Learning to place biblical genres within their proper context makes a world of difference. Instead of Daniel telling us to hold tight because the end is near, he is found to be encouraging those who were suffering in his own day. We have no biblical roadmaps for the end times because the end of the story has not yet been written.

Daniel tells the lions a story about the future

3 thoughts on “Dating Daniel

  1. Matthew

    I guess I must be a literalist then, because I haven’t heard of this idea of Daniel being written during the Selucid Empire. Can you give a bit of a basic outline about this whole idea? I’m not here to argue, I’m just curious.

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    • Steve Wiggins

      Hi Matthew,

      Many, many years ago readers recognized that Daniel makes numerous mistakes about the Babylonian Empire. At the same time, the “predictions” of the Seleucid period show accurate knowledge of events, unlike “prophecy” in the Bible. Prophecy makes only very general predictions; it is a modern preoccupation to look for detailed prognostications in biblical prophecy. There are complex historical reasons for this, but suffice it to note that in the Bible prophecy was not primarily predictive. Apocalyptic, on the other hand, was written during times of persecution. It was unsafe to write material that revealed your disdain for the authorities, so apocalyptic writers set their accounts in the distant past and framed them as predictions. There are many examples of this from the ancient world. Since the book of Daniel keeps revising its dates for the end of the tribulation of Antiochus’s reign, and since it gets the details of Antiochus’s death wrong, it is logical that the book was written just before the death of the emperor. That is not to deny that predictions could have been made, but they were simply not of this type in the biblical world.

      There are many good sources on the book of Daniel that discuss this more than I am able in a brief reply. I would suggest starting out with the work of Paul Hansen and John Collins and going on from there. They will give you a solid basis for exploring apocalyptic and its implications.

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  2. Pingback: The Biblical Studies Carnival LVIII « כל־האדם

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