Prophet Daniel & Archaeology

Prophet Daniel & Archaeology January 25, 2022

I recently wrote an article on the prophet Jeremiah (c. 650-c. 570 BC) and a similar one on the prophet Isaiah (c. 740-c. 681 BC). Now I shall examine some secular, non-biblical evidence that backs up the text of the book written by the prophet Daniel (6th-5th c. BC).

The Wikipedia article on Daniel bluntly states: “The consensus of most modern scholars is that Daniel is not a historical figure and that the book is a cryptic allusion to the reign of the 2nd century BCE Hellenistic king Antiochus IV Epiphanes.” That’s fine. A lot of scholars didn’t think King David existed, either, till in the 1990s an artifact was found with “House of David” written on it. As I noted in my article on Isaiah, now a seal has been found with his name, probably (one letter is missing) followed by “prophet.” So we live and learn.

Remember, just 70 years ago, most astronomers believed in a “steady state” universe; that is, an eternal one that had no beginning. Even Einstein agreed with that, before he changed his mind. Then Big Bang cosmology came along and virtually all of them (a complete turnaround) now believe that the universe had a beginning. I won’t reiterate where that notion had been residing for the last three thousand or more years.

Virtually all scientists believed in Newtonian physics, before Einstein came around and overthrew it. Etc. Many more such examples could be given. Thus, the mere fact that there may be a particular scholarly consensus at any given time is significant, but not compelling. In fact, technically it is the ad populum fallacy (“a lot of [smart] folks believe in x; therefore x must be true“).

Persian Kings Cyrus and Darius

Wikipedia, “Cyrus Cylinder” states:

The Cyrus Cylinder . . . is an ancient clay cylinder, now broken into several pieces, on which is written a declaration in Akkadian cuneiform script in the name of Persia‘s Achaemenid king Cyrus the Great. It dates from the 6th century BC and was discovered in the ruins of the ancient Mesopotamian city of Babylon (now in modern Iraq) in 1879. . . .

The Cylinder’s text has traditionally been seen by biblical scholars as corroborative evidence of Cyrus’ policy of the repatriation of the Jewish people following their Babylonian captivity (an act that the Book of Ezra attributes to Cyrus [see Ezra 1:1-4]), as the text refers to the restoration of cult sanctuaries and repatriation of deported peoples.

By implication, this (at least indirectly) supports the historical accuracy of the book of Daniel, which portrays Daniel as a servant of King Darius I (“the Great”), who ruled over the Achaemenid Empire from 522 to 486 BC, and (seemingly) also of the prior King Cyrus the Great (r. 559-530):

Daniel 6:1-2 (RSV) It pleased Darius to set over the kingdom a hundred and twenty satraps, to be throughout the whole kingdom; [2] and over them three presidents, of whom Daniel was one, to whom these satraps should give account, so that the king might suffer no loss.

Daniel 6:28 So this Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius and the reign of Cyrus the Persian.

Daniel 11:1 And as for me, in the first year of Darius the Mede, I stood up to confirm and strengthen him.

Daniel presents King Darius as being tolerant of Judaism, just as Cyrus had been:

Daniel 6:25-26 Then King Darius wrote to all the peoples, nations, and languages that dwell in all the earth: “Peace be multiplied to you. [26] I make a decree, that in all my royal dominion men tremble and fear before the God of Daniel, for he is the living God, enduring for ever; his kingdom shall never be destroyed, and his dominion shall be to the end.

Secular history broadly agrees with this picture. Hence, Wikipedia (“Darius the Great”; “Religion” section) noted:

In many cuneiform inscriptions denoting his achievements, he presents himself as a devout believer, perhaps even convinced that he had a divine right to rule over the world.

In the lands that were conquered by his empire, Darius followed the same Achaemenid tolerance that Cyrus had shown and later Achaemenid kings would show. He supported faiths and religions that were “alien” as long as the adherents were “submissive and peaceable”, sometimes giving them grants from his treasury for their purposes. He had funded the restoration of the Israelite temple which had originally been decreed by Cyrus, was supportive towards Greek cults which can be seen in his letter to Gadatas, and supported Elamite priests. He had also observed Egyptian religious rites related to kingship and had built the temple for the Egyptian god, Amun.

The book of Ezra likewise recounted how King Cyrus had ordered — in his first year (approximately 559 BC) — the rebuilding of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem (6:3), with restoration of stolen temple items that the Babylonians had carried away (6:5), and that Darius followed this policy (6:6-14). Ezra 6:15 proclaims that the temple was “finished . . . in the sixth year of the reign of Darius the king.” This would be approximately 516 BC.

Flavius Josephus (c. 37-c. 100) was an eminent Roman Jewish historian. Wikipedia describes his stature:

Josephus’s works are the chief source next to the Bible for the history and antiquity of ancient Palestine,  . . .

Josephus’s writings provide the first-known source for many stories considered as Biblical history, despite not being found in the Bible or related material.

In his Antiquities of the Jews: Book XI, chapters 1-4, Josephus verifies the biblical accounts of Cyrus and Darius regarding the Jews and specifically the rebuilding of their temple.

King (?) / Regent Belshazzar

Belshazzar was a figure formerly only found in the Bible, and so scholars could and did question his historicity, since he couldn’t be documented anywhere else. He is mentioned eight times in Daniel, chapters 5, 7, and 8, and nowhere else in the Bible. Bible scholar Edwin M. Yamauchi, in his article, “The Archaeological Background of Daniel” (Bibliotheca Sacra, January-March 1980) noted:

As Dougherty recounts, before the discovery and publication of cuneiform documents demonstrating that Belshazzar was N abonidus ‘s son, scholars proposed that Belshazzar was (a) a pure invention, (b) a brother or son of EvilMerodach, or Evil-Merodach himself, (c) Neriglissar, (d) a grandson of Nebuchadnezzar, or (e) another name for Nabonidus. [footnote: Raymond F. Dougherty, Nabonidus and Belshazzar (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1929), pp. 13-14.]

But lo and behold, in 1854, four cuneiform cylinders with inscriptions from King Nabonidus of Babylonia (r. 556-539 BC) were found in Ur, in the foundation of a ziggurat. And they contained a mention of Belshazzar, who was Nabonidus’ eldest son:

As for me, Nabonidus, king of Babylon, save me from sinning against your great godhead and grant me as a present a life long of days, and as for Belshazzar, the eldest son -my offspring- instill reverence for your great godhead in his heart and may he not commit any cultic mistake, may he be sated with a life of plenitude. (Wikipedia: “Cylinders of Nabonidus”)

[Footnote: The translation of the Nabonidus Cylinder was made by Paul-Alain Beaulieu, who is also the author of The Reign of Nabonidus, King of Babylon 556-539 B.C. (1989).]

Nabonidus was not mentioned in the book of Daniel or anywhere in the Bible, as far as I can tell. Why would that be, seeing that he was the last king of Babylon before it was conquered by Cyrus the Great and the Persians? Instead, we have a chapter (5) devoted to Belshazzar, who is called “king of Babylon” (Dan 7:1) and “the Chaldean king” (5:30), and “king” ( 5:1, 5-10, 13; 8:1). Is this not a serious historical error?

No, it’s not, once the full story is understood. It turns out that Nabonidus wasn’t even present in Babylon for nine or ten years (552 to 543 or 542 BC), according to the Wikipedia article devoted to him:

Nabonidus was in self-imposed exile in Tayma in Arabia for unknown reasons, possibly due to disagreements with the Babylonian clergy and oligarchy. During this period, Belshazzar acted as regent in Babylonia, while Nabonidus continued to be recognised as the king.

Thus, Belshazzar, ruling in his absence or stead, could sensibly be called “king” since he was the regent: the one in charge during the true king’s absence. And this is what the prophet Daniel called him. The regency itself is documented in another artifact called the Nabonidus Chronicle: acquired by the British Museum in 1879. It contains cuneiform descriptions mostly concerning Nabonidus’ reign. The Wikipedia article on it states:

The chronicle goes on to describe in several entries the self-imposed exile of Nabonidus in the Arabian oasis of Tema (mentioned as Teiman in Hebrew in the Dead Sea Scrolls fragment 4Q242 known as the Testimony of Nebonidus dated to 150 BC) and the disruption that this caused to the Akitu (New Year) festival for a period of ten years. The king spent ten years in Arabia and left Babylonia administered by his son, Bel-shar-usur (Belshazzar of the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament).

Conclusion?: The book of Daniel was historically accurate. The Bible is always very “blunt” and pragmatic and phenomenological in its approach. Belshazzar was acting as regent in place of the king (which has happened many times in history), and so he was called ‘king” based on the appearance that he was a king.

We do the same thing today. The sun looks to us like it rises and sets in relation to the horizon, and so we refer to it that way, when in fact it is only the appearance of same, since the sun’s seeming “motion” is determined by the rotation of the earth. In fact, it is stationary. If the Bible had called Belshazzar king, yet he was in fact not even a regent, and could not be shown to be a king’s son, who was indeed a regent, or not independently verified at all, then that would be a serious error, or at least potentially so. But it was not the case. And we know this from direct archaeological evidence.

Chief Eunuchs

Daniel 1:1-3 In the third year of the reign of Jehoi’akim king of Judah, Nebuchadnez’zar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. [2] And the Lord gave Jehoi’akim king of Judah into his hand, with some of the vessels of the house of God; and he brought them to the land of Shinar, to the house of his god, and placed the vessels in the treasury of his god. [3] Then the king commanded Ash’penaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility,

While undertaking an excavation of the Babylonian city of Sippar (Tell Abu Habbah) 1880-1882, Assyriologist Hormuzd Rassam discovered almost 130,000 inscribed cuneiform tablets: presently housed at the British Museum. One of these is called the Nebo-Sarsekim Tablet, dated 595 BC.  It includes the following section:

[Regarding] 1.5 minas (~850 grams / 27 troy oz) of gold, the property of Nabu-sharrussu-ukin, the chief eunuch, which he sent via Arad-Banitu the eunuch to [the temple] Esangila: Arad-Banitu has delivered [it] to Esangila. In the presence of Bel-usat, son of Alpaya, the royal bodyguard, [and of] Nadin, son of Marduk-zer-ibni. Month XI, day 18, year 10 [of] Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. [my italics]

The Wikipedia article on the Tablet explained:

[I]t had remained in storage unpublished until Michael Jursa (associate professor at the University of Vienna) discovered its relevance to biblical history. He noted that both the name and the title (rab ša-rēši) of the official closely matched the Hebrew text of Jeremiah 39:3. Additionally, the tablet is dated just eight years before the events in Jeremiah. According to Jursa, the rarity of the Babylonian name, the high rank of the rab ša-rēši and the close proximity in time make it almost certain that the person mentioned on the tablet is identical with the biblical figure.

A Christian Bible study site, dealing with this topic, offers further related insight:

The Akkadian name Nabu-sharrussu-ukin, phonetically Nebo-Sarsekim, was equivalent to the Hebrew name Sar-sekim, and to this name, the Bible attached the title “the Rab-saris,” which meant “chief eunuch.”

Eunuchs were common in Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian courts, and there were several with the title of “chief eunuch” functioning as officials for the king (2 Ki 18:17; Jer 39:13).

Jeremiah 39:3 When Jerusalem was taken, all the princes of the king of Babylon came and sat in the middle gate: Ner’gal-share’zer, Sam’gar-ne’bo, Sar’sechim the Rab’saris, Ner’gal-share’zer the Rabmag, with all the rest of the officers of the king of Babylon. (cf. 39:13: “Nebushaz’ban the Rab’saris” and 2 Ki 18:17: “the Rab’saris”)

Once again, the Bible reflected actual history, in fairly minute details, like the office of “chief eunuch.”

King Nebuchadnezzar Eating Grass

Daniel 4:33 . . . Nebuchadnez’zar . . . was driven from among men, and ate grass like an ox, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers, and his nails were like birds’ claws.

Oddly enough, doctors and psychiatrists have identified an odd malady called boanthropy that likely describes Nebuchadnez’zar’s bizarre condition. The website, Online Psychology Degree Guide has an article, “15 Scariest Mental Disorders of All Time”, including a section on this disorder, which reads:

Those who suffer from the very rare — but very scary — mental disorder Boanthropy believe they are cows, often going as far as to behave as such. Sometimes those with Boanthropy are even found in fields with cows, walking on all fours and chewing grass as if they were a true member of the herd. Those with Boanthropy do not seem to realize what they’re doing when they act like a cow, leading researchers to believe that this odd mental disorder is brought on by dreams or even hypnotism. Interestingly, it is believed that Boanthropy is even referred to in the Bible, as King Nebuchadnezzar is described as being “driven from men and did eat grass as oxen.”

Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego and the Fiery Furnace

Daniel 3:14-15, 21 Nebuchadnez’zar said to them, “Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed’nego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the golden image which I have set up? [15] Now if you are ready when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, to fall down and worship the image which I have made, well and good; but if you do not worship, you shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace; and who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands?” . . . [21] Then these men were bound in their mantles, their tunics, their hats, and their other garments, and they were cast into the burning fiery furnace.

James A. Montgomery, in his volume,  A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Daniel (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1927), stated on p. 202 (it can be seen at the PDF link provided) that the fiery furnace “must have been similar to our common lime-kiln, with a perpendicular shaft from the top and an opening at the bottom for extracting the fused lime, . . .” and noted “the existence of similar ovens in Persia for the execution of criminals”.

Tawny L. Holm, in his article, “The fiery furnace in the book of Daniel and the ancient Near East” (J. of the American Oriental Society, 1-1-08) provided further examples of execution by burning in Mesopotamia:

In the Code of Hammurabi [c. 1750 BC], there are at least three instances where burning to death is a fit punishment: in law 25, in the case of someone trying to steal from a burning house; in law 110, the case of a naditu or an ugbabtu priestess who, living outside the cloister, opens or enters a tavern; and in law 157, in the case of a man who lies with his mother after the death of his father. Furthermore, treason at Mari is punished by burning the traitor along with his family: “Let him (the man who has thought up or knows about the plot) and his house be burnt”  . . .

Neo-Assyrian [911-609 BC] penalty clauses for breaking a contract include the burning of heirs before a god . . .

With regard to historical inscriptions, one finds the burning of prisoners in Neo-Assyrian texts, especially from the ninth-century [883-859 BC] reign of Assurnasirpal II [one of his inscriptions read: “Saulmagina my rebellious brother, who made war with me, they threw into a burning fiery furnace, and destroyed his life.”]. As another example, one notes the Assur ostracon, an Assyrian letter written in Aramaic, in which an Assyrian military officer considers the fate of defectors; he asserts that the practice of past Assyrian kings was to burn them  . . .

An Old Babylonian letter records that a king (Rim-Sin) [r. 1822-1763 BC] decreed a murderer to be thrown into a brick kiln (utunu) because he had killed his victim by throwing him into an oven (tinuru) . . . the manner of death was chosen by the king in a talionic gesture to make the execution fit the crime, and thus probably does not indicate a wider practice of execution in a furnace. . . . Edict 19 from the time of Assur-resa-isi (ca. 1132-1115 B.C.E.) threatens witnesses who fail to inform on those who are breaking the rules of the harem with being thrown into an oven: . . . “Whether a woman or a man, they shall throw the eyewitness into the oven.”

After noting that Mesopotamian use of this type of execution was uncommon, he added that “In Egyptian texts and iconography, references to and depictions of punishment by burning and particularly burning in a furnace are quite common.” But the point is to overcome the objection that such things “never happen” or happen so rarely as to cast doubt, prima facie, on the Daniel story. Enough evidence has now been shown (of such a thing actually happening) to overcome hostile claims that the text of Daniel is mere fiction or legend.

Daniel in the Lion’s Den

Daniel 6:16 Then the king commanded, and Daniel was brought and cast into the den of lions. . . .

The British Museum has an article entitled, “Lion hunting: the sport of kings“. It states:

Some of the most spectacular depictions of the hunt were found in the palace of king Ashurnasirpal II (883–859 BC) at the city of Nimrud (in the north of present-day Iraq). They show the king hunting lions and wild bulls from his chariot, followed by a ritual scene where the king poured an offering of wine over the dead animals. . . .

Although Ashurbanipal represented himself hunting animals in the wild, the hunting scenes that decorated Ashurbanipal’s palace were staged events within the game parks of the city. These were public spectacles, comparable to Roman arena games. A scene from a wall panel shows a small boy releasing a lion from its cage, which had been captured for the purpose of the hunt. He is protected from the lion by a smaller cage.

The Joy of Museums website and its article, “Lion Hunting Scene – 750 BC” concurs:

The Lion Hunt of Ashurbanipal, a sequence of Assyrian palace reliefs from the North Palace at Nineveh dating from about 645 BC, shows King Ashurbanipal hunting lions.

The Assyria “royal lion hunt,” was the staged and ritualized killing by the king of lions already captured and released into an arena.

The idea, then, in light of the above information, was that Assyrian kings necessarily had to keep lions in some sort of confinement (in the above instance, a “cage”) for the purpose of having spectacles of lion-hunting in their arenas (much as the Romans later did, to kill Christians for the purpose of morbid spectacle). In the Bible, 2 Samuel 23:20 and cross-reference 1 Chronicles 11:22 refer to a man who “went down and slew a lion in a pit.”

The Persians followed this practice. A 159-page article, “The Horse and the Lion in Achaemenid Persia: Representations of a Duality” (Eran Almagor, Arts 202110(3), 41; 23 June 2021; special issue, “Animals in Ancient Material Cultures (vol. 1) )” verifies the Persian continuance of the glorification of royal lion-hunting:

There are some echoes . . . of the staged lion hunting imagery in the Persian palaces, which displays the lion as a dangerous creature. At Persepolis, its presence is recurrent: in several buildings there are images in the Palace of Darius showing a figure fighting beasts, including lions. . . .

The adaptation of the Neo-Assyrian hunting iconography in a manner which suppresses the instant suggestions of monarchical power, may indicate the significance given to the hunt by the royal and noble families in the Achaemenid period, and how they partially received the Mesopotamian chase of lions as fighting the forces of chaos. One might conclude that the lion hunt was identified with the imperial power of the Assyrians to such an extent that it was forever tainted and branded as repugnant for the elite families in Media, Persia and Elam. The reality was, however, that the lion hunt was practiced by the king and his court.

The argument, then, is that Daniel was cast into one of these places of confinement of lions, for the purpose of staged spectacle-hunting.

Aramaic Chapters

2:4 through chapter 7 of the Book of Daniel are written in Aramaic. This has been used as an argument for the book having supposedly been written in the 2nd century BC rather than in the 6th or 5th century BC. But the underlying assumption is fallacious. It was clearly in use in the earlier period in Mesopotamia. Wikipedia (“Aramaic”) confirms this:

Due to increasing Aramean migration eastward, the Western periphery of Assyria became bilingual in Akkadian and Aramean at least as early as the mid-9th century BC. As the Neo-Assyrian Empire conquered Aramean lands west of the Euphrates, Tiglath-Pileser III made Aramaic the Empire’s second official language, and it eventually supplanted Akkadian completely.

From 700 BC, the language began to spread in all directions, but lost much of its unity. Different dialects emerged in Assyria, Babylonia, the Levant and Egypt. Around 600 BC, Adon, a Canaanite king, used Aramaic to write to an Egyptian Pharaoh.

Gleason L. Archer, Jr., in his “Old Testament History and Recent Archeology from the Exile to Malachi” ( Bibliotheca Sacra 127: 508 (1970): 291-298) elaborates:

Some interesting statistics are given concerning the vocabulary of the Aramaic chapters of Daniel in Kitchen’s article, “The Aramaic of Daniel. He reports that nine-tenths of this vocabulary is attested in texts of the fifth century B. C. or earlier (including the Akkadian inscriptions). Of the remaining one tenth, there is slender assurance that those words, so far attested only in later Aramaic literature will not turn up in future discoveries, just as has happened in the past. For example, the word hemer (wine), which the Brown-Driver Briggs Lexicon labeled as “late,” has since turned up in fourteenth century Ugaritic.

Zdravko Stefanovic, in his doctoral dissertation, Correlations between Old Aramaic Inscriptions and the Aramaic Section of Daniel (Andrews University, 1987), analyzed 9th-7th c. BC Old Aramaic inscriptions which exhibited a significant similarity to Daniel’s Aramaic.

Persian Words

The Book of Daniel contains about fifteen Persian words. Linguist S. R. Driver famously contended:

The Persian words presuppose a period after the Persian Empire had been well established; the Greek words demand, the Hebrew supports, and the Aramaic permits, a date after the conquest of Palestine by Alexander the Great (332 B.C.)’ (An Introduction to the Literature of the Old Testament’ , page 508, reprint of 1956, originally published in 1891)

Typically of skeptical arguments of Bible critics, this has been regurgitated for now over 130 years, even though it has long since been refuted. It was refuted before it was even asserted, in the 651-page Daniel the Prophet, by Professor of Hebrew E. B. Pusey, in 1868. But Driver seems to have been unaware of Pusey’s arguments (or, probably just as likely, simply ignored them).

None of Daniel’s Persian words are found in Persian literature after 300 BC. Two of them have been found in 6th and 5th century BC texts. Archaeologist and linguist Kenneth Kitchen noted that “the Persian words in Daniel are specifically, Old Persian words” (“The Aramaic of Daniel,” in Notes on Some Problems in the Book of Daniel [London: Tyndale: 1970], p. 43; italics in original).

Wikipedia (“Old Persian”) concurs as to the dates of the evolution of the Persian language:

By the 4th century BCE, the late Achaemenid period, the inscriptions of Artaxerxes II and Artaxerxes III differ enough from the language of Darius’ inscriptions to be called a “pre-Middle Persian,” or “post-Old Persian.”

It cites as a scholarly source for this opinion, Prods Oktor Skjærvø,  An Introduction to Old Persian [PDF] (Cambridge: Harvard, 2nd ed., 2005). The argument is simple, decisive, and devastating. Daniel couldn’t have used Old Persian words that were obsolete by the 4th century, two centuries later: the time that he (or more accurately, some unknown person called “Daniel”) supposedly wrote his book, according to the skeptics.


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Photo credit: Daniel in the Lions’ Den (c. 1615), by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


Summary: I present eight separate arguments regarding the book of the prophet Daniel & archaeology, which demonstrate its trustworthiness & historical accuracy in details.

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