Dating Daniel

In a contribution to Apocalypses in Context, Christopher Hays recounts the rise of apocalyptic writing during the Hellenistic period. He briefly discusses the historical context for the book of Daniel, a book that, he says, leaves “a series of ‘clues’” indicating that it was not written in the time period of the action recorded: “the book was composed later than the time period in which it is set literarily—and in the case of the visions, much later.”

Hays enumerates several clues. The first is the reference to Susa in Daniel 8:2. “Susa became a capital city of the Persian Empire under Darius I at the end of the sixth century BCE, but prior to this, it was not a place of any significance during the Neo-Babylonian Empire.” Thus, “it would have been a very strange and extremely improbable location for a wise man in an actual Neo-Babylonian court, but for those who lived under later Persian rulers, it is understandable to have imagined a wise man in Susa.”

This is a very strange argument. Daniel 8:2 is written in first person, and Daniel (or, as Hays thinks, “Daniel”) claims to be in the citadel of Susa “which is in the province of Elam.” There is no claim that he lives there, or that Susa is the location of the Babylonian court. On the contrary, the import is that Daniel received the vision when he was away from his main residence.

Besides, Hays’s claim is factually misleading. Ashurbanipal claimed to have destroyed Susa in 646, but within a couple of decades “an Elamite kingdom was rebuilt around Susa” (Pierre Briant, From Cyrus to Alexander, 22). Daniel was among the first Jews deported to Babylon, around 598. At that time, Susa was the capital of an admittedly curtailed Elamite empire. Susa was not what it later became under the Persians, but it was still a significant city.

Whether one believes Daniel to record historical facts or not, an interpreter should allow the book to set its own terms. And the terms are: Daniel was among the young Jewish exiles selected for training in the Babylonian civil service, quickly rose to become a high official, a recognized sage and interpreter of dreams. He remained a high official in Babylon through to the Persian conquest, and beyond: He is still in the Persian court. If Belshazzar wanted to send a seasoned representative to Elam’s capital of Susa, it would be hard for him to find a better representative than Daniel. Alternatively: Daniel 5 suggests that Belshazzar had little use for Daniel, so perhaps the king had been deployed him to diplomatic backwaters. In any case, Daniel 8:2 doesn’t provide the sort of clue that Hays claims.

His second clue is that Daniel “skips Nabonidus, who is known to have succeeded Nebuchadnezzar. This is an historical error of a sort that was very common among authors who were writing about the ANE from the vantage point of the Hellenistic world, such as Herodotus, Xenophon, or Berossus.” This too is a strange objection. If Daniel were claiming to write a chronicle like Herodotus or Xenophon, this would be an oversight indeed. He’s not, so it’s not. Daniel skips Eval-Merodack, Nergal-sharezer and Labashi-Marduk too. That’s not evidence of ignorance; it’s an indication of genre. Skipping Nabonidus is not evidence one way or another about the book’s date.

Hays also points to the stylized periodization of empires in Daniel 7 as evidence: “Such ‘periodization’ of history was a common feature of Greco-Roman historiography, which further suggests that the Daniel traditions come from a later period.” Again, the claim rests on a historical error: Periodization—including the use of metals to identify different ages—didn’t begin with the Greeks, but had more ancient, including Babylonian, precedents (cf. M.L. West’s edition of Hesiod’s Theogony). Given how little we know about literary influence in the ancient world, and about the nature of literary influence in general, it’s precarious to date an ancient text on this basis.

Hays argues that “the way the historical reviews focus on the third and second centuries and culminate with the Maccabean period is enough to locate the composition in this period with confidence. . . . Antiochus’s treatment of the Judean people eventually led to the Maccabean Revolt in the mid-160s. Thus, the appearance of the ‘little horn’ is one clue that this passage in Dan 7 appears to have been written at a late date.”

Though Hays speaks of the “focus” of the text, the argument seems to be that what claims to be prophecy is in fact history ex eventu. After all, if we suppose for the sake of argument that Daniel received visions of future happenings, it’s not surprising that the events surrounding the Maccabean revolt should loom large. That was, after all, the great crisis of Israel’s post-exilic period. Why wouldn’t God give His people prior warning of the coming trauma? If the objection reduces to an objection against future-telling, then we have moved from historical to theological claims and we are no longer in the realm of “clues.” Surely Daniel doesn’t include passages of putative future-telling as a “clue” that it’s actually relating events post facto. The book doesn’t include the supernatural as a clue to the fact that it’s fantasy.

The last of Hays’s clues is also more theological than historical: “There are also ideological differences that divide Dan 7 and 8. In Dan 7, the hope may be breathtakingly and unrealistically ambitious, but it is an ambition for worldly authority, a permanent restoration of Jewish self-rule over the land of Judea. . . . By contrast, the hopes in Dan 8‒12 are for the temple and its offerings (8:12–14) and for individual or sectarian salvation in the afterlife (12:2–3). In fact, the very meaning of salvation changes: after a certain point, the visions do not even look for a judgment that would punish the wicked and effect salvation for the righteous in this world, but instead shift to ‘eschatological’ salvation—i.e., at the end of time.”

I’m far from persuaded that the difference is so stark. After all, there is some connection between the restoration of the temple and hope for worldly restoration and self-rule. Still, I’ll grant that there’s a difference between the two parts of the book and that the difference is roughly what Hays claims. Even so, the two perspectives are not incompatible. Christians believe in a salvation “at the end of time,” but also confess that before the end God will gather the nations to Himself. Why couldn’t ancient Israelite belief be just as complex?

None of this proves that the book of Daniel was written in the neo-Babylonian or early Persian period. But Hays has provided no compelling reason to doubt that the book was written in the period it depicts.

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