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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

The Revelations

The Apocalyptic Genre

Daniel's visions belong to the genre of apocalyptic literature, which takes its name from the book of Revelation in the New Testament. “Apocalypse” (apokalypsis) is simply the Greek word for revelation, but the word has come to be associated with a particular kind of revelation, with certain recurring characteristics.

One trademark of the Jewish apocalypses (though not of the book of Revelation) is pseudonymity—that is, the real authors (whose names are not known) wrote under the names of famous people who had lived long before. Enoch, the most popular visionary, was supposed to have lived before Noah and the flood. (Enoch appears in Gn 5, 18–24 .) Surprisingly, the people of the second century BC do not appear to have been skeptical about his authorship. Rather, his great antiquity added to the prestige of his writings.

Another trademark of an apocalypse is the presence of a mediating angel. An angel explains the visions to Daniel. In other apocalypses, which are not included in the canon, a visionary such as Enoch is taken on a tour of the heavens, accompanied by an angel as tour guide. The presence of the angel emphasizes the supernatural character of the experience and adds to the sense of mystery. (The interpreting angel first appears in biblical literature in the book of Zechariah.)

Apocalypses also have a typical subject matter. This deals on the one hand with the heavenly world of the angels, and on the other with predictions of the future, especially of a final judgment. This kind of writing was developed in Judaism from the third century BC on and was very popular in early Christianity. The most important Jewish apocalypses are 1 Enoch, 2 Enoch, 2 Esdras, 2 Baruch, 3 Baruch.

No genre of biblical literature is more difficult for the modern reader than the apocalypses. This literature is exceptional even within the Bible. In the modern world liberal Christians tend to avoid it, while fundamentalists too easily adapt it to their own ends. Several factors contribute to the difficulty.

The Heavy Use of Symbolism

Apocalypses do not speak directly but veil their meaning in symbolic language, which is closely related to the language of dreams. All scholars agree that King Antiochus Epiphanes is a major figure in Daniel 7–12 (see note on 7, 7). Yet the king is never mentioned by name. Instead we read of a beast with ten horns, which sprouts an eleventh, and we can infer from other historical information that the eleventh is Antiochus. The text gives us a clue. It tells us that the four beasts, of which the horned beast is the last, are four kingdoms, but it never identifies them explicitly. The lack of specificity is typical of oracles in the ancient world. It adds a sense of mystery, and strengthens the impression that the prophecy is of supernatural origin. It also has an effect on the long‐term interpretation of the apocalypse. Two hundred years after Daniel was written, people could interpret the fourth kingdom as Rome, and the eleventh horn as a Roman emperor. Down through the centuries the beast could be interpreted as the villain of the day. This kind of reinterpretation is helpful if it is done with proper understanding. The apocalyptic vision describes types of characters who reappear in history. Antiochus Epiphanes was not the only tyrant worthy of being described as a beast. One of the uses of an apocalyptic vision is that it gives us language to describe new situations: the scene of beasts rising from the sea could be applied appropriately to the outbreak of World War II. It is important to realize, however, that Daniel was not predicting this war. He was speaking of a persecution in the second century BC, and his vision can be applied to other situations only by analogy. Fundamentalists often read Daniel or the New Testament Apocalypse as if they were written to predict our modern situation. In fact, they were written for their own time and place, but they can help us understand our modern situation because they describe patterns that recur throughout history.

Angels and Demons

Some modern Christians find the prominence of angels and demons in apocalyptic literature to be a problem. For Daniel, the battles between Jews and Greeks are only a reflection of a battle in heaven. Moreover, it is not God who fights for the Jews but the archangel Michael, who is mentioned here by name for the first time. Most people in the ancient world believed that the heavens were peopled with supernatural beings. Usually these were called “gods,” but Jewish and Christian tradition makes a sharp distinction between the supreme deity and the lesser heavenly beings, called angels. The modern secular world, with its scientific approach to the heavens, has little room for such beings. An apocalypse, however, is not a scientific treatise but a work of imagination. To say that there is a battle in heaven between the patron angels of Greece and Judah is to say that earthly war is not entirely subject to human control. Angels provide a vivid way of dramatizing providence or divine control. To understand an apocalypse, we should not ask, “Do these angels exist?” but “What do they stand for?” and especially, “If we imagine a world with angels, what effect does this have on the way we view human life?”


We have noted above that all Jewish apocalypses are pseudonymous. This device added to the authority of a book. In an apocalypse it had another advantage: it enabled Daniel to “predict” four hundred years of history, which were already past when the book was written. Since the prediction was demonstrably accurate over these four hundred years, people were more likely to believe the real prediction of what was still to come. From a modern viewpoint this practice seems deceptive and therefore unethical. We consider pseudonymous writing a forgery. The practice was widely accepted, however, in the Greek and Roman world as well as in Judaism. While the common people presumably believed that the revelations were genuinely old, the real authors must have been known to an inner circle. It is difficult for us to reconstruct the mindset of people who wrote pseudonymous books, but it is certain that they did not regard their work as deceptive. It is possible that the authors put themselves in the place of Enoch and Daniel, and imagined that they were actually describing the visions of these ancient worthies. In any case, the enduring value of the apocalypses does not lie in the accuracy of their predictions but in the kind of conduct they inspired and supported. In the case of Daniel, the question is not whether Daniel really predicted all these things in advance, but whether his stance in the face of religious persecution is a good one.


Apocalyptic literature typically assumes that history has a fixed duration and can be divided into a set number of periods (for example, four kingdoms or seventy weeks of years). The course of events can be predicted centuries in advance. Consequently, history appears to be predetermined. It is important to realize that this does not mean that human decisions are predetermined. On the contrary, the book of Daniel is basically a call for decision in a time of crisis. The course of history is set, and the fate of the righteous and the wicked is predetermined. The fate of any individuals, however, remains to be decided and will be determined by the kinds of decisions they make.

Predictions of the End

Perhaps the aspect of apocalyptic literature that most offends modern sensibilities is the attempt to predict exactly the time of the end. (In Daniel, the end in question is the end of the persecution. In later apocalypticism it is often the end of the world.) Down through the centuries, apocalyptic groups have often set a date for the end of the world, only to see it come and go. Naturally such predictions have been discredited by their frequent failure. The book of Daniel actually gives three very precise dates for the end of the persecution. In 8, 14 , an angel says that the Temple will be desolate for 2,300 evenings and mornings, or 1,150 days. At the end of chapter 12 , however, we are given two different figures: 1,290 days and 1,335 days.

Presumably the number was increased when the end was delayed. We can understand the function of these numbers in the time of persecution: it was easier to keep going if one believed that relief would come on a specific day. Remarkably enough, however, the failure of these exact predictions did not discredit the book of Daniel. Later interpreters assumed that the figures must have some symbolic meaning and were not to be taken literally. In fact, the attempt to predict the end is only a very minor element in apocalyptic literature, and its importance should not be blown out of proportion. It served a limited purpose in its historical setting, but it must be admitted that such attempts were ultimately counterproductive. This is not an aspect of apocalyptic literature that anyone should try to imitate in a modern setting.

Information or Exhortation?

The problems of interpreting apocalyptic literature in the modern world can be summarized by asking whether we should read these books for information or for exhortation. It is a fact that any apocalypse combines the two aspects. It tries to teach us a view of the world, and if we accept that view we will be disposed to act in a certain way. The problem is that the apocalyptic view of the world is no longer acceptable. Angels and demons are not part of our universe, and we can no longer believe that the duration of history is coming to an end. Much of the “information” provided by an apocalypse is now incredible if taken literally. It still has value, however, if we regard it as symbolism and focus on the attitudes and actions it was designed to support. Such an ethical focus is fundamentally important for understanding the book of Daniel and its relevance to modern times.

A Symbolic Vision

Chapter 7 is one of the most famous and influential of all apocalyptic visions. In part it resembles Nebuchadnezzar's dream in chapter 2 : it describes four human kingdoms, which will be followed by a kingdom set up by God. The imagery, however, is very different. Instead of four metals, Daniel 7 describes four beasts that rise out of the sea. In biblical poetry the sea is often a symbol of chaos, of all that is opposed to God, and it is sometimes said to be inhabited by monsters (for instance, Is 27, 1 : God “will slay the dragon that is in the sea”; compare Is 51, 9f ). When chapter 7 in Daniel represents the pagan kingdoms as beasts from the sea, then the point is that they are rebellious and opposed to God. This represents a view of the pagan kingdoms, which is much more negative than anything in Daniel 1–6 .

After the vision of the four beasts, Daniel sees a judgment scene in which an “Ancient One” sits on a throne, surrounded by thousands of angels, and the fourth beast is condemned to the fire. Then “one like a son of man” appears on the clouds of heaven. Christian tradition, beginning with the Gospels, identified this figure as Jesus Christ, but the passage could not have been understood in that way by Jews in the second century BC. Jewish tradition identified the “son of man” as the messiah. Modern scholarship is divided between two interpretations: some see the figure as a collective symbol for Israel, others as the archangel Michael. It is quite clear that he represents the triumph of the Jewish people over their persecutors. The issue in dispute is how that triumph was understood. The view that the son of man figure is Michael relies on the analogy with Daniel 10–12 , where Michael represents Israel in a heavenly battle with the angelic prince of Greece. The triumph of the Jews, then, is imagined in the apocalypse as a victory by their heavenly patron. The son of man is always understood as a heavenly individual in other Jewish apocalypses (1 Enoch, 2 Esdras).

Daniel 7 was written during the persecution of the Jews by Antiochus Epiphanes of Syria, which is described in 1 and 2 Maccabees. The experience of persecution colored the author's perception of all Gentile kingdoms. The message of the vision is that pagan rulers are evil and in rebellion against God, but that they will be defeated by the power of God. The symbolism of the vision, however, with its beasts and fire and figure riding on the clouds, expresses this idea with exceptional power and vividness. Consequently, the imagery has been used over and over again in new situations. It provides language that can express the evil, which erupts from time to time in human affairs (think of the Holocaust as a modern example) and which can also express a hope that does not depend on human power. The message of the vision is one of hope. Although the forces against us may be demonic, the power of God and the angels will ultimately prevail. The imagery of this vision is used repeatedly in the Gospels and most elaborately in the book of Revelation.

Daniel 8 is a symbolic vision very similar to chapter 7 . Even some of its imagery (the little horn) is taken from the earlier chapter. In this case the central episode of the imagery concerns the revolt of the little horn against the host of heaven. There is a reminiscence here of the morning star, son of the dawn in Isaiah 14, which rises above the stars of God but is then cast down to the depths. Antiochus Epiphanes is identified as an example of the general pattern represented by the Isaianic passage. Again, the prophecy is one of hope since the pattern guaranteed the fall of the rebel.

A Prophecy Reinterpreted

A different kind of revelation is found in chapter 9 . In this case, a biblical prophecy provides the point of departure. Jeremiah had prophesied that the land would be subject to Babylon for seventy years. According to 2 Chronicles 36, 20f , this prophecy was fulfilled by the restoration under Cyrus of Persia (although only fifty years had elapsed). Zechariah 1, 12 related it to the rebuilding of the Temple (about sixty‐six years after its destruction). The author of Daniel evidently did not think that the restoration of the Persian period satisfied the prophecy. Rather than discard the prophecy as a failure, however, he reinterpreted it. Seventy years really means seventy weeks of years, or 490 years. The way of interpreting Scripture here is basically the same as the way of interpreting dreams and visions in the previous chapters. (It is also typical of the Pesharim, or biblical commentaries, found among the Dead Sea Scrolls.) The numbers in Jeremiah's prophecy are taken as symbolic. The implications of this procedure are far‐reaching. When the visionary says that only three and a half years are left before the end, we cannot be sure that this will not turn out to mean three and a half weeks of years. In short, the impression of precise prediction, which we get from the use of numbers, is misleading. What Daniel ultimately affirms is not the particular timetable but the reliability of the promises of God, however mysterious their timing may be.

Chapter 9 also includes a remarkable prayer on the lips of Daniel. The prayer is of a type common in the postexilic period. (See for example Neh 9 .) Its theology is typical of the tradition influenced by the book of Deuteronomy. Israel is punished for its own sin and can only appeal for the mercy of God. This theology is rather different from the usual theology of Daniel. The primary cause of Israel's suffering in apocalyptic theology lies in the wickedness of the nations that rebel against God, and indeed in the predetermined plan of history. In response to the prayer, Daniel receives a revelation, but there is no question of forgiveness, or of shortening the time of trial because of repentance. From the viewpoint of the book of Daniel, it is appropriate to express repentance, as Daniel does, but we should not expect our prayers to alter the course of events.

Another Dimension of History

Daniel's apocalyptic view of history is most fully laid out in chapters 10 through 12 , which make up one long vision. There, an angel explains to Daniel that there is an ongoing battle in heaven between the archangels Michael and Gabriel on the one hand and the angelic “princes” of Persia and Greece on the other ( 10, 13.20f ). This battle is reflected on earth in the wars of the Hellenistic age, which are described at length in chapter 11 , and especially in the career of Antiochus Epiphanes who takes up approximately half the chapter ( 11, 21–45 ). At the end Michael will arise in victory ( 12, 1 ), and the resurrection will follow.

This long passage makes several claims about history, which would not be apparent to the typical observer:

  • First, what is involved is not just warfare between human kingdoms, but a battle between angelic powers, and the outcome of this cannot be decided by human power.

  • Second, the course of history is fixed in advance. The battles of the Hellenistic age can be revealed to Daniel in the Babylonian exile. In fact, the passage was written during the persecution under Antiochus Epiphanes. It gives an accurate account of history down to that time ( 11, 39 ). Such “prophecy after the fact” implies that the course of history is predetermined, and it inspires confidence in the actual prediction with which the passage concludes (in this case, the imminent death of the king 11, 40–45 , and the resurrection, 12, 1–3 ).

  • Third, history culminates with the resurrection of the dead. Daniel is the only book in the Hebrew Bible that clearly affirms the resurrection of individuals. Earlier prophecy sometimes uses the language of resurrection for the restoration of the Jewish nation, as in Isaiah 26, 19 and Ezekiel 37 . The book of Wisdom, which was composed in Greek about the time of Christ, also has a clear doctrine of immortality. The idea of resurrection had probably been introduced into Judaism before the time of the Maccabees. The noncanonical 1 Enoch, chapter 22 , which describes the abodes of the dead as they wait for resurrection, is probably older than Daniel. There is no doubt, however, that the experience of martyrdom in the time of persecution made the Jews more receptive to belief in resurrection than they had been before. The importance of resurrection in that setting can be seen from the story of the seven brothers in 2 Maccabees 7 .

Belief in resurrection made an enormous difference to Judaism, and was essential to the origin of Christianity. Traditional Jewish religion had taught that the reward for a just life was to see one's children's children, to the fourth generation, and the welfare of the nation as a whole. In the time of the Maccabees, however, pious Jews were put to death precisely for obeying the Law and so were cut off from the traditional reward for a just life. Belief in life beyond the grave, in the company of the angels, provided an entirely new perspective. Martyrdom was no longer an absurdity, but the means to a greater end. So Daniel announced that the wise would take their stand in the time of persecution, even though some of them would fall ( 11, 33–35 ). These “wise” do not, apparently, join the Maccabees to fight for national independence. Rather, they put their trust in Michael and the heavenly world and choose the way of passive resistance. The stand of these wise teachers exemplifies the ethical stance of the book of Daniel, which is the most enduring message of the book.

There is clear continuity between the apocalyptic message of Daniel 10–12 and the older stories of the fiery furnace and the lions' den. On the one hand there is the belief that God rules all kingdoms and has the power to save. On the other is the conviction that one must act with integrity even at the cost of life itself. The belief in resurrection makes this conviction easier to maintain.

The apocalyptic visions offer a much less optimistic view of the Gentile world than the tales of chapters 1 through 6 . This again is not a view for all seasons but for situations of crisis, which we should hope are exceptional. Pagan powers are not always “beasts from the sea,” although they may be so on occasion. The ethical stance advocated by the “wise” in Daniel 11 , that of passive resistance, is not necessarily normative for all situations either. The militant revolution of the Maccabees is also canonized in the Old Testament. The book of Daniel exemplifies one possible way in which a faithful Jew or Christian may respond to a situation of oppression and persecution. Whether it is the right way can only be decided in light of the specific circumstances of each situation, but it always demands serious consideration.

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