(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

The Book of Daniel

Book in the Bible's Old Testament and the Jewish Tanakh.

The Book of Daniel stands between the books of Ezra and Esther in the portion of the Hebrew Old Testament known as the Hagiographa. Internal evidence suggests it was written during the Maccabean wars, around 167-64 b.c., although some scholars believe it was written in the sixth century b.c., when the events described took place. The book consists of twelve chapters. The first six chapters are mainly historical and the remaining six are mainly prophetic. The historical section treats Daniel's captivity in Babylon under King Nebuchadnezzar and contains narratives on the lives of Daniel and his friends. The prophetic portion is made up of four apocalyptic visions predicting the course of world history. There were five ancient translations of the book, and the Septuagint version contains stories that have not been adopted as canonical in Protestant editions. Stylistically, thematically, and structurally, The Book of Daniel is a complex work, and there has been considerable scholarly controversy surrounding it. Scholars have debated its authorship and its unity as a single work; disputed its historical veracity; denied its status as prophecy; disagreed on its dating; explored the reasons for and the implications of its composition in two different languages; and discussed its classification as apocalyptic literature.

Textual History

There are two basic views concerning the authorship of The Book of Daniel. Conservative scholars generally hold that the Daniel who figures in the narrative wrote the book that bears his name. If this is the case, then the book would have been written in the sixth century b.c. The early Christian church generally accepted the authorship of Daniel in the sixth century without question, and some contemporary scholars consider the scriptural evidence (Daniel himself claims authorship, and in the New Testament Christ mentions Daniel as the author of the book) sufficient to establish Daniel as having written the book. Others claim that The Book of Daniel was written following the period of Antiochus Epiphanes, many centuries after Daniel's time, during the Maccabean revolt against the Greek occupying forces in 168-64 b.c. The book is considered by these scholars to be pseudepigraphic, that is, written by an anonymous author or authors and attributed to Daniel. At least one commentator has suggested that the authors were in fact Jewish scribes who were employed by the Seleucids in the second century b.c. Evidence in the work to suggest this later date includes the use of Persian and Greek words that would not have been known by sixth-century residents of Babylon; literary style of the Aramaic part of Daniel that was used later than the sixth century b.c.; the use of the word Chaldean to signify a caste of wise men, astrologers, and magicians—a meaning that this term did not generally carry in the sixth century; and a number of historical inaccuracies that would not be expected of someone who was present at the time the events were taking place. Scholars who contend that the work was written by a single author point to the literary and thematic consistency throughout the twelve chapters of the book.

Only the Hebrew and Aramaic sections of the Book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible are recognized by Protestants as sacred and canonical. However, the Vulgate, the Greek translations of The Book of Daniel in the Septuagint and Theodotion, and other ancient and modern versions, contain three important sections. These are the Prayer of Azarias and the Song of the Three Children, usually inserted in chapter 3 with the story of the fiery furnace; the story of Susanna, a faithful Jewish woman accused of adultery, which forms a thirteenth chapter; and the history of the destruction of the Babylonian idol Bel and the dragon that the Babylonians also worshipped, which ends the book as chapter 14.

Plot and Major Characters

The Book of Daniel covers the events in the Hebrew prophet Daniel's life from the third year of the reign of King Jehoiakim in 605 b.c. through the tumultuous Neo-Babylonian era and into the rise of Persia during the reign of Cyrus II, around 534 b.c. The book is divided into two parts. The first part, made up of chapters 1-6, relates a series of narratives in the third person. Chapters 7-12 describe a series of visions, this time in the first person. Chapter 1, which introduces the reader to the principal figures of the work, Daniel and his three fellow captives—Ananias, Misael, and Azarias—can be thought of as a preface to the entire book. The chapter recounts how the four young Jewish nobles obtain a high rank in the court of King Nebuchadnezzar. It is explained that they are given new names by the chief of the Eunuchs: Daniel he calls Belteshazzar, Ananias he calls Shadrach, Misael he calls Meshach, and Azariahs he calls Abenego. Chapter 2 recounts Nebuchadnezzar's dream about a great statue made up of various materials, a dream that only Daniel is able to make Nebuchadnezzar recall and then interpret. In chapter 3, Daniel's friends are cast into the fiery furnace for refusing to bow down to the golden image made by Nebuchadnezzar; they emerge unscathed, leading Nebuchadnezzar to praise their god and advance the fortunes of the three men. Chapter 4 tells of another dream by Nebuchadnezzar in which he is overcome by a mental illness and roams like an animal through the parks surrounding the palace for forty-two months. Daniel interprets the dream, the events of which come to pass a year later. The King is restored to his right mind after forty-two months of living with wild beasts and feeding on grass. At the end of that time, he acknowledges the sovereignty of Daniel's god. The following chapter is about Nebuchadnezzar's son, Belshazzar, after he becomes king. He gives a feast for other nobles as well as his concubines and courtesans and orders that the gold and silver vessels that were stolen by his father from the temple at Jerusalem be used. Suddenly, the fingers of a hand appear and write a message on the wall of the palace. Daniel translates the message to mean that God has brought his kingdom to a close. That night, Belshazzar is killed and Darius the Mede takes over. Thus the Babylonian empire ends and the occupation of the land by the Medes begins. As explained in chapter 6, Darius appoints Daniel as one of three chief ministers in his new kingdom. Several jealous ministers conspire to kill Daniel. They persuade the King to write an edict stating that anyone who petitions any god or human being other than the King during the following thirty days will be thrown into the lions' den. The conspirators catch Daniel praying to his god and present him to the King for execution. Daniel is thrown into a pit of lions but survives. He says that his God had sent an angel to shut the lions' mouths.

The rest of The Book of Daniel deals with Daniel's apocalyptic visions. The first, told in chapter 7, takes place during Belshazzar's reign. It is a dream about four beasts (a lion with eagles' wings, a bear, a leopard with four wings like those of a bird, and a terrible beast with ten horns that later become eight horns). Each of these beasts is supposed to symbolize an earthly kingdom. The second vision, told in chapter 8, also takes place during Belshazzar's reign and is about a powerful ram and a male goat that fight each other. The goat conquers the ram. An angel tells Daniel that the dream is about the end of times, explaining that the two-horned ram represents the Kings of Media and Persia and that the goat represents the Greek kingdom. In chapter 9, which takes place in the first year of Darius's reign, Daniel offers a prayer and confession to God and is visited by the angel Gabriel, who gives him details concerning the Vision of the Seventy Weeks, also about Israel's final days. In the final three chapters, which take place during the third year of the reign of Cyrus, the prophet has a vision of Israel's future, leading to the end of the age some 1,335 days later. He learns that some of the dead will awaken to everlasting life while others will know eternal abhorrence. The vision seems to suggest that after the last days there will be a resurrection of the dead and a judgment and transfer of the resurrected Jews to heaven or hell. In the final verses of the book, Daniel sees a man dressed in linen above the waters of a river who tells him that he should rest and arise again to his destiny at the end of the age.

Major Themes

Biblical scholars, Christian believers, and lay readers take different approaches to The Book of Daniel, so it is difficult to point to particular themes in the work that are considered central by all who analyze it. The primary “messages” of The Book of Daniel according to most Christians is the reassurance of God's people of his sovereignty and his encouragement of faithfulness to him. Throughout the work it is shown that God knows and controls all human events and can reveal them if he so wishes. He saves his people, humbles pagan leaders, and reveals the future. Because his kingdom is eternal, he urges his people to have faith in him. Several stories in The Book of Daniel show how God rescues or rewards those whose faith does not waver.

Most biblical scholars have tended to consider Daniel in its historical context and view the work as one whose general purpose is to comfort the exiled Jewish people who were undergoing the ordeal of a cruel persecution. Although there are disagreements among critics, a widely held belief is that the persecution under question is that of Antiochus Epiphanes in the second century b.c.; the Jews are to be comforted by the revelations about the fate that awaits this tyrant and of the coming of God's eternal kingdom. The stories of the hero Daniel and his friends as they suffer through exile but do not lose faith are thus designed to encourage the same steadfastness in the Jews to whom the book is addressed.

In many regards, The Book of Daniel is a problematic work, and most critics who study the book have tended to concentrate on the mysteries surrounding the work rather than its literary themes and motifs. Most scholars concur that the book exhibits a great deal of literary consistency, particularly in its use of language and images and in the arrangement of its subject matter. However, because the work was composed in different languages and sometimes uses different literary styles, the question of the book's authorship has been an area of intense debate among scholars. The related question of the book's date of composition has also been widely researched and discussed. Other concerns have to do with the work's canonicity and genre. In the Jewish canon, The Book of Daniel is classed with the Writings rather than with the Prophets. This is because Daniel does not play the role of a prophet in the book but is rather a wise man, a diviner, and a counselor to kings. Also, the second half of the book is made up of apocalypses, or revelations about the last days, rather than prophetic oracles of the type found in classical prophecy. Thus the question is how to classify The Book of Daniel—as a prophetic work or a work of apocalyptic literature. Besides discussing the problematic aspects of the work, commentators have also concerned themselves with how to interpret the various visions described in The Book of Daniel, and there has been considerable discussion in particular about the meaning and significance of the Vision of the Seventy Weeks.

Critical Reception

The Book of Daniel is one of the most popular books of the Bible because of its highly entertaining stories and dramatic, almost surreal descriptions of the last days; the story of Daniel in the lion's den and the dream of Nebuchadnezzar are known by even the youngest readers in the Western world. Writers from ancient times until the present day who have found inspiration from the work include the historian Flavius Josephus, the scientist Isaac Newton, and the poet William Blake. Because of its complexities, Daniel has also been of particular interest to historians and biblical scholars, who have debated and discussed the problematic aspects of the work and the difficulties faced in interpreting many of its esoteric passages. Modern scholars have tended to focus on the controversy surrounding the authorship and composition of the work. Some have claimed that the work was not written by the Hebrew prophet Daniel at all, while others, notably the critic H. H. Rowley, have rejected that view and provided scriptural and external evidence to argue for the book's unity. Other areas of discussion have included the work's status as apocalyptic literature, its structure, and the implications of its bilingualism. Critics have also discussed the work's literary characteristics, with some insisting that it is a work of fiction and others claiming that there is historical truth to the events described. There is some controversy as to whether or not the work can be rightly regarded as a book of prophecy because many of the predictions it makes may actually have already taken place before the time of writing—that is, if the dating of the book can be taken to be the second century b.c., which is another source of intense debate. The Book of Daniel continues to generate interest, mostly among Christians and biblical scholars, because it offers lessons about God's supremacy and provokes questions about and invites investigation into the complexities of biblical history, composition, and interpretation.