The Book of Daniel is much beloved by Christians for it contains a amazing prophecy concerning the coming Messiah – or so we are told. In Christian-Muslim debates over the meaning of the crucial chapter 7 of Daniel I have always been struck by the complete absence of any awareness of what Old Testament historians have to tell us about this Book’s authorship and date.
I had a rummage in my library in order to share with you what reputable Biblical scholarship has to say about the Book of Daniel. It may shock you.
The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (published by Oxford University Press) under the entry to the Book of Daniel tells us:
‘The traditional belief that the Book was written in the 6th cent. BC by Daniel, one of the Jewish exiles in Babylon, is now almost universally regarded as untenable. A number of historical errors make it next to impossible to believe that it dates from the period of the Exile, and a much later date is borne out also by its doctrinal standpoint, by its position in the canon of Scripture, and by its language (the section 2: 4-7: 18 is written in Aramaic, not Hebrew, and even Greek loan-words occur). The consensus of modern critical opinion is that it was written between 167 and 164 BC. On this hypothesis the purpose of the Book was to encourage the reader during the persecution of the Jews at the hands of Antiochus Epiphanes (175-164 BC).’ (p. 449).
The Jewish Study Bible (Second Edition) published by Oxford University Press tells us the following:
‘The Book of Daniel, probably written in its final version in 164 BCE, is thought to be the latest composition of the Hebrew Bible. Its narrative, however, is set much earlier, during the reigns of the powerful kings of Babylonia, Media, and Persia in the 6th century BCE.’ (p. 1635)
The New Jerome Biblical Commentary is by Raymond E. Brown and Josepth A. Fitzmeyer. Having discussed the genre of Daniel and concluding it is ‘haggadic’ ie a ‘story having little or no basis in actual history but told for the sake of inculcating a moral lesson’ (p. 408) the Commentary continues,
‘Date and Authorship. Having lost sight of these ancient modes of writing, until relatively recent years Jews and Christians considered Daniel to be true history, containing genuine prophecy. Inasmuch as chapters 7-12 are written in the 1st person it was natural to assume that the Daniel in chapters 1-6 was a truly historical character and that he was the author of the whole book. Few modern biblical scholars, however, would now seriously defend such an opinion. The arguments for a date shortly before the death of Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 164 are overwhelming. An author living in the 6th cent. could hardly have written the late Hebrew used in Daniel, and its Aramaic is certainly later than the Aramaic of the Elephantine papyri, which date from the end of the 5th cent. (p. 408)
The Commentary adduces other unassailable historical facts and concludes that Daniel’s composition date is probably in 165 BC. The Dictionary of the Christian Church has no peer as a one-volume encyclopedia of the Bible and is written by the best scholars in the field. The NJBC is likewise a scholarly classic. I used it with much profit as a theology undergraduate.
So when we debate and argue about the meaning of a word or phrase in Daniel 7 (or elsewhere in the Book) it is wise to bear in mind that this is almost certainly not a prophecy uttered by the Prophet Daniel but a composition by an unknown Jewish scribe pretending to be Daniel. Should it matter?
That is the question…