According to the book that bears his name, Daniel was a pious and wise Jewish youth who was deported to Babylon by King Nebuchadrezzar (spelled Nebuchadnezzar in the book), together with his three young friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the royal household, and other prominent citizens. Presumably, this was the first deportation ordered by Nebuchadrezzar in 597 BCE (2 Kings 24.10–16; the date implied in Dan. 1.1 is 606 BCE). In Ezekiel 14.14, 20, a Daniel (Hebr. dānīʾēl) is mentioned alongside Noah and Job as one of the outstandingly righteous men of history; in Ezekiel 28.3, the wisdom of the king of Tyre is said to exceed even that of this Daniel. Many commentators believe that the Daniel of the Ezekiel text is to be identified with the Canaanite Danʾil (dnʾil) of “The Tale of Aqhat” preserved among the fourteenth‐century BCE texts found at Ras Shamra (Ugarit) in Syria. There, Danʾil is described as one who “judges the cause of the widow/tries the case of the orphan.” It would therefore appear that Daniel was a legendary figure, represented in this book as a youth of outstanding wisdom and piety who matures into a seer capable of receiving visions of the future.

Content.

The structure of the book of Daniel is straightforward:

  • I. Six tales from the Babylonian exile
  • A. Daniel and his friends at the table of the king (chap. 1)
  • B. Daniel interprets the king's dream of the colossal statue (chap. 2)
  • C. Three young men in the fiery furnace (chap. 3)
  • D. Nebuchadnezzar's madness (chap. 4)
  • E. The handwriting on the wall (chap. 5)
  • F. Daniel in the lions' den (chap. 6)
  • II. Apocalyptic visions and Daniel's prayer
  • A. The vision of “the one like a son of man” (chap. 7)
  • B. The vision of the ram and the he‐goat (chap. 8)
  • C. Daniel's prayer and the meaning of the seventy years of “the devastation of Jerusalem” (chap. 9)
  • D. The final vision and the promise of resurrection (chaps. 10–12).

The internal dates throughout the book show that the narratives of Part I partially overlap the visions of Part II. The latter culminates in the final vision dated in “the third year of King Cyrus of Persia” (10.1), 535 BCE. In effect, the book records both the external and the internal history of Daniel, the former (chaps. 1–6) consisting of the stories of his virtuous deeds and wonders, and the latter (chaps. 7–12) his visionary experiences and revelations regarding the future of the world.

It should be noted that the Daniel tradition in ancient Israel was considerably larger than what is now preserved in our canonical text. We know this from the additions to the book of Daniel found in the Septuagint (the older Greek translation of the book of Daniel, ca. 100 BCE) and in Theodotion (a more literal Greek version of the first century CE, and the one usually included in ancient Greek manuscripts). These include the Prayer of Azariah and Song of the Three Young Men (inserted after 3.23 of the Hebrew text); the story of Susanna and the elders (chap. 13 in the Septuagint), and the story of Bel and the Dragon (chap. 14 in the Septuagint). (See also Apocrypha, article on Jewish Apocrypha.) In addition, a number of extracanonical Daniel materials have appeared among the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran, the most interesting of which is the “Prayer of Nabonidus.” Although put in the mouth of a different Babylonian king, this text parallels the story of Nebuchadnezzar's madness and recovery found in Daniel 4.

Unity and Language.

The artful arrangement of the diverse subject matter of the book might suggest a single redaction, if not a single author. But the problem is further complicated by the circumstance that the book of Daniel is written in two languages, Hebrew and Aramaic.

The Hebrew text of Daniel 2.4a begins: “The Chaldeans said to the king (in Aramaic).” From that point until the end of chap. 7, the Masoretic text of Daniel is written entirely in Aramaic, in the same dialect as that found in the other Aramaic texts of the Hebrew Bible (Ezra 4.8–6.18; 7.12–26, the single verse Jer. 10.11, and two words in Gen. 31.47). Why the text of Daniel switches so suddenly from Hebrew to Aramaic and back again, no one has ever been able to determine. One obvious solution would be that another writer, living at a different time and place and more deeply rooted in the literary culture of Official Aramaic, composed these chapters. Composite authorship is not the only possible solution, though. For centuries, Aramaic, a linguistic cousin to Hebrew and possibly even the language of the ancestral period (see Gen. 31.47; Deut. 26.5), was the lingua franca of the Babylonian and Persian empires, and it continued in use throughout the Hellenistic period in Palestine. Jews knew it well and used it freely—so freely, in fact, that by the Roman period it was displacing Hebrew as the language of Palestine. Perhaps a single writer of Daniel freely moved from Hebrew to Aramaic for no reason other than to tell the stories of the Babylonian diaspora in the language that was in fact being used there at the time.

Were the Aramaic portion of Daniel exactly coequal with the narrative portion, chaps. 1–6, the case for at least dual authorship would be almost irresistible—but it is not. Not only is the first tale (down to Dan. 2.4a) written in a late biblical Hebrew enriched by Persian loan words, but chap. 7, the first of the apocalyptic visions and in many ways the most central chapter in the whole book, is written in Aramaic. Literary genre and theological intention thus do not correlate with language.

One of the most frequently offered explanations of the bilingual character of Daniel is that the entire book (except for the prayer of 9.4–20) was originally written in Aramaic, and that 1.1–2.4a and chaps. 8–12 were later translated into Hebrew, perhaps in the interest of rendering the book more acceptable and authoritative to a community whose estimate of the sacredness of the Hebrew tongue waxed even as its vernacular use of that language waned. The case is supported by the fact that the Hebrew of the last five chapters in particular contains many Aramaisms and can often be clarified by translation “back” into Aramaic. While such a view of the bilingualism of the book would certainly imply an ongoing history of development of Daniel even after the text was essentially fixed, it would not necessarily demand that the book be regarded as composite in authorship. And even this modest theory faces the difficulty that the earliest fragments of the text of Daniel among the Dead Sea Scrolls of Qumran, written perhaps little more than a century after the composition of the book itself, already exhibit the same Hebrew/Aramaic/Hebrew transitions at the same points in the book.

The strongest arguments for multiple authorship are these. First, the literary style of chaps. 1–6 differs radically from that of chaps. 7–12. The former have all the flavor of heroic tales of the kind that would emanate from courtly or wisdom circles (compare Daniel 2 with the Joseph story and with Esther); the latter chapters belong to that late descendant of prophetic eschatology, apocalyptic literature. Second, the stories about Daniel in chapters 1–6 reflect a diaspora outlook. By their language and their knowledge of cultural details, they show considerable exposure to both Persian and Hellenistic influences. In their essentials, these stories are assumed to come from the third century BCE or even somewhat earlier. The apocalypses of Daniel 7–12, on the other hand, focus on Judah, Jerusalem, and the sanctuary. They can be dated rather more precisely (see below) to the first quarter of the second century BCE. If they were not composed by one writer who supplemented and revised the earlier work several times during a period of two or three years, then they were composed by persons working in close proximity in time and place. The writer(s) of Daniel 7–12 knew of the earlier cycle of Daniel stories, and for reasons of their own they used that collection as a basis from which to extend its ministry into their own realm of apocalyptic dreams and visions.

Date.

The book of Daniel is one of the few books of the Bible that can be dated with precision. That dating makes it the latest of all the books of the Hebrew Bible, and yet it is still early enough to have been known by the sectarian community at Qumran, which flourished between the second century BCE and 68 CE.

The lengthy apocalypse of Daniel 10–12 provides the best evidence for date and authorship. This great review of the political maelstrom of ancient Near Eastern politics swirling around the tiny Judean community accurately portrays history from the rise of the Persian empire down to a time somewhat after the desecration of the Jerusalem Temple and the erection there of the “abomination that makes desolate” (Dan. 11.31) in the late autumn of 167 BCE by the Greco‐Syrian king Antiochus IV Epiphanes. (The story of this first of all pogroms of the Jews is told in 1 Macc. 1.41–61; see Maccabees, The Books of the.) The portrayal is expressed as prophecy about the future course of events, given by a seer in Babylonian captivity; however, the prevailing scholarly opinion is that this is mostly prophecy after the fact. Only from 11.39 onward does the historical survey cease accurately to reproduce the events known to have taken place in the latter years of the reign of Antiochus IV. The most obvious explanation for this shift is that the point of the writer's own lifetime had been reached. Had the writer known, for example, about the success of the Jewish freedom fighters led by Judas Maccabeus in driving the garrison of the hated Antiochus from the temple precincts (an event that occurred on 25 Kislev, 164 BCE, according to 1 Macc. 4.34–31), the fact would surely have been mentioned. But evidently it had not yet happened!

The discussion of the date of the book of Daniel can be summed up as follows. With the possible exception of minor glosses, the book reached its present canonical form approximately in the middle of 164 BCE, though the translation of 1.1–2.4a and chaps. 8–12 from Aramaic into Hebrew may have taken place later. One of the best pieces of evidence available for the rapid acceptance of the book of Daniel as scripture is the inclusion of Daniel and his three friends in the list of the heroes of the Jewish faith in 1 Maccabees 2.59–60, thought to have been written in Hebrew about 100 BCE. In contrast, in Ben Sira's similar list (Sir. 44–49), written about 180 BCE, Daniel figures not at all.

Audience.

To determine to whom the book was addressed in the first place, and in what circles the author or authors might have moved, two bits of internal evidence must be taken into account. First of all, the heroes of the stories of chaps. 1–6 must represent the kind of piety that would have been considered exemplary by the book's audience. These were observant Jews, heroes of the faith who refused to compromise with idolatry or, to put it another way, to participate in the syncretizing practices of the upper classes of their people during the Hellenistic reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (see 1 Macc. 1.41–43). In Daniel 7–12, the heroes are “the people who are loyal to their God” (11.32), “those who are wise … those who lead many to righteousness” (12.3). To these “holy ones of the Most High” (Dan. 7.18) is awarded the everlasting kingdom to be their dominion forever.

Given these clues internal to the book, modern commentators have frequently identified the authors of Daniel and the audience to which they spoke with the observant party of the “Hasideans” or hasidim, a title variously translated “the righteous ones,” “the godly ones,” or even “the saints.” These people are known from 1 Maccabees 2.42 and 7.13–17, where they are presented as devout persons who reluctantly join in the war of liberation raised by the Maccabean rebels and who stay with that rebellion until they are convinced that the desecration of the Temple has been removed and that the authentic Zadokite priestly line has been restored. According to some scholars, their descendants among the observant wing of Judaism of the first century BCE branched into the covenanters at Qumran, on the one hand, and into the Pharisees, and perhaps even the Zealots, on the other. For several centuries, this party in Judaism stood against syncretism and accommodation and may even have organized themselves into secret conventicles to oppose the corruptions in worship and in politics indulged in by the priestly classes.

Significance.

The theological value of the book of Daniel does not lie in its ability to predict the future. According to the text of Daniel 7.9–27, the great judgment of the kingdoms of the earth and the establishment of “one like a son of man [NRSV: human being]” (7.13)—who may be “the holy ones of the Most High” themselves (7.19)—should have occurred during the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the “little horn” with the “mouth speaking arrogantly” (7.8). Such an eschatological crisis did not, of course, happen in the reign of Antiochus. The canonizers themselves must have known this; perhaps they had already reinterpreted the four beasts who rise out of the sea in chap. 7 in such a way as to make Rome the fourth beast and the little horn some Roman emperor. By means of reinterpretation of the symbols of the apocalypse, it would have been possible to keep the timetable of events leading up to the last judgment open, and it was that openness that enabled the writer of Revelation 20 to transform Daniel 7 into a vision of the imminent worldwide crisis known as the day of judgment.

But all attempts to discern an actual timetable in the apocalyptic scenario of Daniel finally are doomed to failure. As Jews and Christians affirm, the Bible is a human word, and therefore cannot accurately predict events of the distant future in the manner of history written in advance. As Jews and Christians also affirm, however, the book of Daniel is at the same time a word from God to God's people. It teaches that the God of justice and righteousness is not mocked by the powers of oppression that hold sway in the world. God will emerge from history as the victor, and those who choose to serve the causes of justice and righteousness are on the victor's side. In their own lives they can give a foretaste of life in the kingdom of heaven, just as Daniel and his three friends do in the stories of chaps. 1–6. In prayer and proclamation, God's people can announce the good news that those who hope for equity and the vindication of the just need not wait forever. Although our age no longer shares the confidence of an earlier age that it is possible to give a timetable or to write a historylike narrative about God's coming victory, the deep faith remains fundamental to our western theological tradition that history is meaningful. It gains its meaning from the end of history, which is God's triumphant intervention on behalf of God's own goodness. And it gains its meaning in movements along the way in which the saints have opportunities to enact in their own lives of righteousness and obedience the reality of God's coming kingdom.

W. Sibley Towner