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Dating the Book of Daniel

Note: This is a small excursus in my series giving an overview of Biblical criticism. In this entry I want to apply some of the material I discussed about authorship and dating to the book of Daniel. Next, I will write an additional entry on methods of textual criticism in general, and then I will continue my overview of the method by working through the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-9/Mark 4:1-9/Luke 8:4-8) applying the methodologies I’ve been discussing. Then I’ll discuss the individual methodologies in a bit more detail, and then look at Isaiah 24-27 as a block to discuss how they are applied.

In this entry I’m going to focus on the arguments as presented by Alexander Di Lella in the Anchor Bible volume The Book of Daniel. I intend to return to the book of Daniel a number of times as I discuss Biblical criticism and other issues of Biblical interpretation, and I expect to discuss dating further as well, but Di Lella makes an essentially conservative argument for the late dating of the book of Daniel. He is also a bit more respectful of arguments for an early date than are many critical scholars, though he does reject an early date unequivocally.

If you are unacquainted with general issues of dating in Daniel, please read my entry Determining Date and Authorship, in which I discuss the basics of how a Biblical book would be dated, and also make reference specifically to the book of Daniel. There are two major views on dating Daniel, and several compromises between these views. First, there is the view that the book contains narrative history in its stories, and that it should be dated according to its internal chronology. This has generally been the conservative view of this book. This puts it in the 6th century BCE, and therefore sees the prophetic passages as definite and quite accurate predictions of the future. The second major view, which now has the overwhelming support of the scholarly community other than conservatives (and some conservatives as well) is that the book was written during or just before the time of Antiochus Epiphanes (175-164 BCE), king of Seleucia, and that the majority of the prophecy in it is retrospective rather than predictive. Depending on the details of dating and authorship in this second view, some of the final elements of each prophecy may be predictive in nature.

Though I don’t intend to present my own views on Daniel at any length in this entry as I’m interested in methodology here, I will note that I would reject the idea that one can a priori reject the early date because such a date would involve predictive prophecy. Indeed Di Lella does not argue that the predictive element makes the early date impossible, though some scholars would. Norman Porteous, for example, in the Old Testament Library commentary Daniel, pages 169-170 comments on the point at which the book turns to genuine prophecy (in his view Daniel 11:21-45), in which he sees an inaccurate prediction of the death of Antiochus Epiphanes. Thus, the majority of the apparent predictions in the book, in his view, are accurate, but once we arrive at genuine prediction, it is inaccurate.

Di Lella, on the other hand, makes the following statement: “. . . it should be emphasized that in no way at all does the argument presented above [which I will discuss below-HN] impugn or even call into question the sacredness, authority, and inerrancy of the Book of Daniel which are accepted here without question as truths of the Christian faith” (p. 54). Since I do not accept the doctrine of inerrancy, I have a hard time judging this, but this is the first commentary on Daniel that I have read that both affirms inerrancy and also a late date.

Let me summarize the basic arguments, and then look at how they can be evaluated. Let me repeat that I’m not trying to present my own view on dating the book of Daniel, but rather a general set of arguments (using Di Lella in the Anchor Bible [AB] as model), and how they might be evaluated. I will present my own set of arguments in a future entry.

1. Language – AB suggests imperial Aramaic, 700-200 BCE, and more specifically later than the Aramaic of the Elephantine Papyri (late 5th century BCE).

2. Internal chronology – AB rejects the internal chronology of the book on the grounds that there are extensive historical errors that make it difficult to take seriously. The errors include the date of Daniel’s exile, which does not fit any known siege of Jerusalem, and actually comes a year before Nebuchadnezzar’s accession, the presence of the Median empire in the sequence of four empires in the book’s prophecies, the madness of Nebuchadnezzar for seven years (Daniel 4) for which there is no space available in the known history of Nebuchadnezzar. Di Lella would reject moving this to Nabonidus, who is known historically to have suffered a period of madness on the fascinating grounds of inerrancy; such a correction would save the outline of the story, but not the precise setting. Darius the Mede is not identifiable as an historical character, and thus the chronology related to his reign must also be rejected, along with the entire Median kingdom. It is precisely because of these historical errors that Di Lella rejects the sixth century dating. They convince him that the genre is not history, but rather edifying stories accompanied by apocalyptic.

3. Externally, Daniel is quoted by I Maccabees (c. 100 BCE), but is not mentioned in the section of Ben Sira, on praise of the fathers (44:1-50:21) in which he mentions Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the minor prophets as a group, but not Daniel. This seems to comfortably bracket the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-164).

4. Given the interpretation AB espouses of the apocalyptic portions of the book, the predictions lead nicely into the time of Antiochus and end there.

Now this short entry is getting rather long, but I do need to comment on some of the arguments.

1. The language is an interesting argument, and in fact it first caught my attention as an argument in favor of an earlier date. Porteous (p. 13) describes the Aramaic as “late” and states it is not earlier than the 3rd century. (His copyright date is 1965.) The AB volume copyright date is 1978. Why is this significant? Because much evidence has been discovered since then, including the Genesis Apocryphon discovered amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls. Desmond Ford summarizes the linguistic evidence in his commentary (Daniel), pp. 31-33. That dating evidence is clearly in view in the AB comments on the language, which are much less precise, as they should be. (One of his major citations is Gleason Archer, in a book I do not have. I have it on request from interlibrary loan and will likely comment further once I have it in hand.)

2. Internation chronology is much harder to deal with. I’m simply going to comment here that your understanding of the internal chronology is heavily dependent on your understanding of the prophecies of the book as a whole. For example, until I read Porteous’s commentary when I was in graduate school (1980), I was unacquainted with the view that the Median Empire formed part of the sequence of Daniel 2 & 7. Now that may be mostly an indication of my own ignorance, but it does show that one can’t assume that interpretation, and then use it for dating, without providing support. The AB does, indeed, provide support for that view, but before you accept the argument in terms of dating, make certain that you accept the arguments that underlie that point. In addition, note that a number of solutions to historical difficulties in Daniel are apparently excluded by Di Lella’s belief in inerrancy. For example, I’ve already noted the possibility of moving Daniel 4 to Nabonidus rather than Nebuchadnezzar. Is that a valid approach? That is another topic. Here I’m simply noting that it is a possibility that’s excluded.

3. One should be concerned about the possibility of an argument from silence. But Di Lella is not guilty of such an argument here. That Ben Sira does not mention Daniel in his list is significant, in that it indicates that it may be possible that Ben Sira did not know of Daniel. If Ben Sira mentioned Daniel, of course, we could be certain that the book was extant at that time. As it is, the more convinced you are that Ben Sira was trying to be exhaustive in his list, the more likely you are to accept that passage as evidence that Ben Sira did not, in fact, know about Daniel. It cannot, however, prove it. Note that this does put some tension on the language evidence. The latest date for the language is suggested at 200 BCE, while Ben Sira wrote around 180 BCE. One option is to suppose that the author intentionally used archaic language.

4. This point is contingent on interpretation. There will be some circularity here, as the interpretation also depends on the dating to a significant extent. The question will be how does it all fit together best?

Again, let me remind you that I’m just outlining some material here. I will be more forthcoming about my own views in a later entry.

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