Evangelical Eisegesis: A Dalliance with Daniel, part 1

“Fulfilled prophecies are what distinguish the Bible from other holy texts and are evidence of direct revelations by God.” – SJ Thomason.1


In a bid to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity and the significance of Jesus of Nazareth, pop-apologists often appeal to so-called prophecies found in the Hebrew scriptures that are “fulfilled” in the events described in the New Testament. Theirs is a hermeneutic born of the New Testament authors themselves as those first and second century writers frequently appealed to passages in the Tanakh as proof of Jesus’ divine authority.2 More often than not those appeals are eisegetical; they read into the text what they want to get out of it. This tendency has plagued Christianity for the entirety of its history as it sought to place itself into the Jewish stream in which the historical Jesus and his teachings first arose.

Not that long ago pop-apologist SJ Thomason wrote a piece wherein she claimed that the Triune God of Christian orthodoxy could be found in the items located in the Jewish tabernacle.I wrote a response demonstrating that Thomason’s claims were unfounded for a variety of reasons4 as did DM Spence, a blogger and YouTuber who is currently writing a book responding to Christian claims concerning Jesus’ resurrection and whether the Nazarene fits the description of a messiah.5 Thomason’s woefully inadequate exegetical skills were on full display in her piece and she has not (to my knowledge) responded to either Spence or to me.6 Consequently, she continues unabashed in her ignorance of the biblical texts and writes blog posts to that end. Recently she produced another example of evangelical eisegesis in a post entitled “Did Daniel the Prophet Accurately Predict the Timing of Jesus’ Death?” In it Thomason claims that the text of Daniel 9:24-27 predicted that the death of the messiah would occur in 33 CE.

This response to Thomason will be broken down into three posts: a general introduction to the book of Daniel, a brief examination of Daniel 9:24-27, and a reply to Thomason’s claims regarding the passage. I would ask readers to please excuse the length of these posts as I tend to be verbose in the interest of explaining things some of my readers may know little about and to make sure I am thorough in my response to Thomason.

DANIEL IN CONTEXT

The book of Daniel can be divided into two main sections: a cycle of stories (chapters 1-6) and a cycle of visions (chapters 7-12). The first cycle opens with the historical events of the fall of Jerusalem (1:1-2), though the Danielic version differs in some ways with the Deuteronomic version as well as that of the Chronicler. Regardless, the author wants us to envision the events of the first cycle as taking place during the Babylonian exile, mostly during the reign of Nebuchadrezzar.7 Daniel and a few others – children of nobility – were taken from their homes and sent to live in Babylon where they were to be “taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans” (1:4) and would be placed in prominent positions in the court of the king (1:5-6). It is clear from the get-go that Daniel is a legendary figure, the quintessential Jew living under the domination of pagans. He is described as one who is exceptional in every way: appearance, wisdom, knowledge, and insight (1:4, 1:20). Because of his exceptional abilities, Daniel serves from the time of Nebuchadrezzar all the way to Cyrus the Great (1:21).

Historical Errors

But within the cycle of stories we see a number of historical errors such that it has led many scholars to believe that the book of Daniel was not composed during the time period it describes. Let’s enumerate a few.

Jehoiakim and the Siege of Jerusalem

The Danielic story opens in the third year of Jehoiakim’s reign on the throne of Jerusalem around 606 BCE at which time Nebuchadrezzar brings the Babylonian army to the city and lays siege to it (1:1). Consequently, “[t]he Lord let King Jehoiakim of Judah fall into [Nebuchadrezzar’s] power, as well as some of the vessels of the house of God” which he took back to Babylon (1:2). But there are a few problems with this sequence of events.

For starters, there was no siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadrezzar during Jehoiakim’s reign, let alone the third year of it. According to the Deuteronomistic Historian, it was during the reign of Jehoiakim’s son Jehoiachin that Nebuchadrezzar came and besieged the city (2 Kings 24:10-11). Jehoiachin, his family, and many others in Jerusalem were hauled off to Babylon as were both temple and palace treasures (24:13-16). Nebuchadrezzar places Jehoiachin’s uncle, Mattaniah, on the throne in Jerusalem and renames him “Zedekiah” (24:17). This all took place in the spring of 597 BCE.

In general terms, the report of the Deuteronomistic Historian is corroborated by Babylonian sources.

Year 7. The month Kislev. The king of Akkad [i.e. Nebuchadrezzar] mobilized his troops and marched to Hatti. He encamped against the city of Judah and in the month Adar, day 2, he captured the city; he seized the king. He appointed a king of his choice; he took its rich spoil and brought it into Babylon.8

Other Babylonian sources confirm that Jehoiachin and his children were provided for in their captivity.9

With regards to the first siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadrezzar, the author of Daniel is spectacularly wrong.

Belshazzar and Nebudchadrezzar

In Daniel 5:1 we read of another Neo-Babylonian king named Belshazzar who is described as the son of Nebuchadrezzar (cf. 5:11, 5:18, 5:22). Daniel suggests that because of his own pride, Nebuchadrezzar was “deposed from his kingly throne” and went insane (5:20-21), leaving Belshazzar to rule in his place. But this is problematic for a couple of reasons.

For starters, the Uruk King List makes it clear that Nebuchadrezzar’s successor was not Belshazzar but Amel-marduk, his son.10 And according to that list, there never was any king named Belshazzar. Nor was Belshazzar Nebuchadrezzar’s son; he wasn’t even related to him! Rather, Belshazzar appears to have been the son of Nabonidus, the final king of the Neo-Babylonian empire. While Nabonidus was away in the Arabian city of Tema, Belshazzar took control in his stead.11 But Belshazzar was not referred to as a “king” but as “the crown prince.”12 When Persian forces began to encroach upon Babylonian territory, Nabonidus returned to Babylon and relieved Belshazzar of his duties.

Darius the Mede

Also in Daniel 5 we read where at a feast Daniel tells Belshazzar that the kingdom would be taken from him and given to “the Medes and Persians” (5:28). That night Belshazzar is killed (5:30) and we are told that Darius the Mede takes over at the age of sixty-two (5:31). However, this simply doesn’t fall in line with the historical record.

The Chronicler notes that what Jeremiah had prophesied concerning the Babylonian exile (see Jeremiah 25:11-2; 29:10) was fulfilled in that the exile lasted for seventy years (2 Chronicles 36:20-21). That exile ended when the Persian empire took control of Babylon and its territories such that in the first year of Cyrus the people were authorized to return to Judah (36:22-23; cf. Ezra 1:1-4). So the portrait painted by the Chronicler and others is that Babylon fell to Cyrus the Great. This is in line with Babylonian sources which state that in the seventeenth year of Nabonidus’ reign over Babylon Cyrus attacked Babylonian forces at Opis, forcing them to retreat to the city of Babylon itself. Shortly thereafter, Cyrus enters Babylon, arrests Nabonidus, and appoints Gubaru as governor of the city.13 There is no mention of a “Darius the Mede” anywhere nor is there any indication that Cyrus was known as “Darius.” What is more is that we do know about Persian kings named Darius: Darius I also known as Darius the Great (522-486 BCE) and Darius II (423-404 BCE). And while Daniel 6:28 implies that Cyrus came after Darius’ reign, other biblical texts are aware of the correct chronological order of Persian kings (i.e. Ezra 4:5).

Dating Daniel 

Despite the attempts by various inerrantists to remedy these problem texts,14 these errors reveal that the cycle of stories probably does not date to the time of Daniel but is instead the product of a later era.15 But the cycle of stories is not the only thing to be found in the book of Daniel. As mentioned before, there is also a cycle of visions that makes up chapters seven through twelve. Can we date those?

In fact, we can. The eleventh chapter of Daniel contains a series of “prophecies” that make it very apparent that it was written during the second century BCE. They are an example of vaticinium ex eventu, a phenomenon whereby an author, writing after specific events, recounts them as if they are yet to happen.16 Daniel 11 is a textbook example of it.17

  • 11:2-4 describe the end of the Persian empire,18 the rise of Alexander the Great, and the aftermath of Alexander’s death (323 BCE) which caused his vast empire to become divided into four regions.
  • 11:5-6 describe the rise of Ptolemy I, “the king of the south,” as well as that of Seleucus I who rules in Syria. The “daughter of the king of the south” is Berenice whose father was Ptolemy II. She marries Antiochus II, the Seleucid king, in 252 BCE. However, she and the “offspring” she produces with Antiochus are killed in 246 BCE.
  • 11:7-9 describe how Ptolemy III, the brother of Berenice and the “branch from her roots” attacks the Seleucid kingdom (“the fortress of the king of the north”) and wins in 241 BCE. It also describes how Seleucus II (“the king of the north”) attempts to invade the Ptolemaic kingdom with mixed results.
  • 11:10-13 describe how Seleucus’ sons, Seleucus III and Antiochus III, continue to wage war which causes Ptolemy IV (“king of the south”) to respond in force. Ptolemy defeats Antiochus in 217 BCE but due to his pride his son, Ptolemy V, would face ultimate defeat at the hands of Antiochus in 198 BCE.
  • 11:14-19 describe how Jewish supporters (“[t]he lawless among your own people”) join forces with Antiochus to defeat the Ptolemaic forces. At the city of Paneas in 200 BCE Antiochus defeats Ptolemaic forces causing some of Ptolemy’s forces to flee to nearby cities, including Sidon, Jerusalem, and others. Antiochus then turns his attention on to other regions to conquer but is effectively cut down by Lucius Cornelius Scipio, a Roman general (“a commander”) in 187 BCE.
  • 11:20-28 describe how after the short-lived reign of Seleucus IV (“within a few days he shall be broken”) Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) takes the throne of the Seleucid kingdom by usurption (“obtain the kingdom through intrigue”). He kills the high priest Onias III (“prince of the covenant”) in 171 BCE. In 170 he invades Egypt successfully and on his way back to Syria he attacks Jerusalem (“his heart shall be set against the holy covenant”).
  • 11:29-35 describe how Antiochus attempts to invade the Seleucid kingdom again but is prevented by Roman emissaries (“ships of Kittim”). Following this Antiochus attacks Jerusalem in 168 BCE and his forces enter the temple, prohibit sacrifices to Yahweh, and “set up the abomination that makes desolate,” a reference to a foreign altar to a false deity (cf. 1 Maccabees 1:54). This results in the Maccabean revolt (“the people who are loyal to their God shall stand firm and take action”).
  • 11:36-39 describe Antiochus’ terrible personality, in that he shows no respect for the true God or even his own ancestral gods.

In 11:40-12:13 we read material that is strictly prophetic in nature. That is to say, what follows is not something experienced by the author or in historical memory. This means that the writing of this and other visions in the cycle can be dated to around 168 BCE after Antiochus IV attacks Jerusalem in that year. This also means that the legendary material of the cycle of stories was probably combined with the cycle of visions sometime after 168.

Summary

Many of the so-called prophetic utterances in the book of Daniel are rooted in the historical circumstances around which the work was written and compiled. Various historical errors reveal that the cycle of stories was not written in the time period about which they describe and the very specific details of the vision of Daniel 11 gives us reason to believe that these texts originated in the second century BCE. This is important because it means that the prophecy of 9:24-27 is rooted in a specific historical circumstance and its interpretation depends on it. As we will see next time, 9:25-27 is another example of an ex eventu text.

NOTES

1 SJ Thomason, “Did Daniel the Prophet Accurately Predict the Timing of Jesus’ Death?” (11.18.18), christian-apologist.com. Accessed 21 November 2018.

2 For example, the author of Matthew’s Gospel explicitly quotes from the Hebrew Bible fourteen times (i.e. 1:22-23, 2:5-6, etc.) and makes numerous allusions to it.

3 SJ Thomason, “Is the Holy Trinity Found in the Old Testament?” (9.26.18), christian-apologist.com. Accessed 21 November 2018.

4 Amateur Exegete, “Evangelical Eisegesis: SJ Thomason, the Tabernacle, and the Trinity in the Old Testament” (9.30.18), amateurexegete.com. Accessed 21 November 2018.

5 DM Spence, “The Trinity IS NOT Found in the Old Testament” (10.8.18), dmspence.com. Accessed 21 November 2018.

6 She has, however, referred to me as a “drain on humanity.”

Screen Shot 2018-11-27 at 1.48.46 PM

7 The common spelling for the king of the Neo-Babylonian empire in the Hebrew scriptures is “Nebuchadnezzar.” However, unless quoting from the biblical texts themselves, I will use the more accurate rendering of Nebuchadrezzar.

8 “Chronicle of Nebuchadrezzar II, King of Babylon,” in Michael D. Coogan, A Reader of Ancient Near Eastern Texts (OUP, 2013), 83.

9 “Administrative Text of Nebuchadrezzar II,” in Coogan (2013), 83.

10 Uruk King List,” livius.org. Accessed 26 November 2018.

11 Amanda H. Poday, The Ancient Near East: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2014), 121.

12 See “Chronicles of Nabonidus, King of Babylon,” in Coogan (2013), 83. See also Donald J. Wiseman, “Belshazzar,” in Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, The Oxford Companion to the Bible (OUP, 1993), 77-78.

13 “Chronicles of Nabonidus, King of Babylon,” in Coogan (2013), 83-84.

14 For example, pop-apologists Josh and Sean McDowell devote an entire chapter in their recent edition of Evidence That Demands a Verdict (Thomas Nelson, 2017) dealing with some of the historical issues within the book of Daniel. Yet even they cannot escape the fact that their solutions are speculative:

Our survey of the critical claims about the historicity of the book of Daniel offers a brief series of possible solutions to the major objections made by critical scholars. In some cases, the best possible solutions are not concrete proofs that guarantee the validity of conservative, evangelical thought. (585)

15 Douglas A. Knight and Amy Jill-Levine note that the cycle of stories dates either to the Persian era (539-331 BCE) or the Hellenistic era (331-168 BCE). They write,

Chapters 2:4b-7:28 are written in Aramaic, the common language of Southwestern Asia from the Babylonian exile until the incursion of Hellenism; chapters 1, 8-12 are in Hebrew, which was experiencing a renaissance in the late second century. (Knight and Jill-Levine, The Meaning of the Bible: What the Jewish Scriptures and Christian Old Testament Can Teach Us [HarperOne, 2011], 384.)

16 This phenomenon is found in various places throughout the Old and New Testaments. For example, in the Gospel of Luke we read of a siege against Jerusalem that results in the destruction of the city (Luke 19:43-44). This passage and others make sense if they were written after the events of 70 CE when Luke is writing to his community.

17 See Lawrence M. Wills, “The Lead Up to Chanukah in the Book of Daniel” (12.6.15), thetorah.com. Accessed 27 November 2018. See also Leonard J. Greenspoon, “Between Alexandria and Antioch: Jews and Judaism in the Hellenistic Period,” in Michael D. Coogan, editor, The Oxford History of the Biblical World (OUP, 1998), 317-351.

18 Though the claim that “three more kings shall arise in Persia” and a fourth would stir up trouble with Greece is problematic. Considering Daniel purportedly served under Cyrus (Daniel 6:29), there were far more than four kings who reigned over the Persian empire after him. It is possible that the author was not up to speed on his Persian history.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

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