1,000 Years of Biblical Literature (pt. 3): … to Daniel

I’ve said that the Bible is an anthology of literature that was written over the course of 1,000 years—and that (paradoxically) it’s the middle part of that literature that we understand the best, not the latest part. Last time, I discussed what’s believed to be the earliest text in the Bible, Judges 5; this time, we’ll turn to the Book of Daniel, which contains the latest texts in the Bible.

It’s not surprising that a text more than 3,000 years old should have some difficulties. But by the time of the book of Daniel, “history” is in full swing. Alexander the Great has come and gone, as have the great playwrights and philosophers of ancient Greece. “Rome” is getting ready to happen. Much of the life of the Near East is happening in cities now, and it is connected with the wider world, commercially and intellectually, in a way that we would recognize. So what’s the difficulty in understanding this book?

The answer is provided here by Lawrence Wills, courtesy of the Jewish Study Bible:

Chs 7–12 are made up of four apocalyptic visions, told in the first person, that are revelations of the events that lead to the cataclysmic end and transformation of history.… Chs 7-12 are most likely written compositions, datable to the last year of the Maccabean revolt (164 BCE).

To find a text in the Bible dated to a particular year—rather than to a century or even a “period”—is absolutely amazing. In fact, it’s the obscurity of the book of Daniel that gives us the date. Wills explains:

Because of the detailed nature of apocalyptic timetables, the dating of at least the last chs of Daniel can be established precisely. Scholars consider the predictions in this book, as in other apocalypses, to be prophecies after the fact, purportedly written down centuries earlier and kept secret in order to give credence to other predictions about the end of history. The recounting of history, then, though symbolic, can be matched quite easily with the history of the ancient Near East in the Greek period. The predictions are detailed and accurate until the end of the Maccabean revolt in 164. At that point, however, they veer dramatically from what we know of the actions of the Seleucid king (see annotations to ch 11), and scholars assume that the author lived and wrote at the precise time when the predictions become inaccurate.

See Dan 11:36-45, where things begin to go out of kilter. The apocalyptic vision is no longer constrained by reality, and it begins to predict this writer’s personal vision of the “end-time.” The New Testament book of Revelation follows a similar path and (I believe) is to some extent based on Daniel.

The Daniel character of the first 6 chapters of the book lives during the Babylonian exile, and his name may have been taken from that of a much earlier, pre-Israelite hero (see Ezekiel 14). For the Hebrew Bible, history more or less ends with the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem; I’ll have more to say about this in a future post. So these last chapters of the book of Daniel must first recount later history in symbolic rather than straightforward fashion and eventually turn to sheer fantasy. So it is not the beginning or the end of the Bible that is the most “normal” and easiest for us to cope with. It’s the big chunk of Bible written smack dab in the middle of the biblical period—the books from Genesis to Kings.

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