Daniel is a legendary figure of wisdom and righteousness who features in Ezek. 14: 14 along with the OT characters Noah and Job. The book of Daniel was published under his name as an appropriate pseudonym, as was usual with apocalyptic writing, some of whose characteristics are shared by this book.
The book is placed by Christians, following the LXX, in the section of the OT after the major prophets; but in the Hebrew Bible it is included among the Writings. The first six chapters contain the popular stories of the Burning Fiery Furnace, Belshazzar’s Feast, and the Lions’ Den. The second group of six chapters takes the form of visions which purport to be predictions at the time of Babylonian supremacy of what would happen to the four kingdoms of Babylon, Media, Persia, and Greece. Finally (Dan. 12: 1–4) the culmination of all history is proclaimed with God reigning supreme over a kingdom of the saints. Both the stories and the visions follow a chronological order denoted by the reigns of Nebuchadnezzar to Cyrus.
The heathen kingdoms are symbolized by ‘beasts’ under whom the Jews suffer, but in the face of death Daniel’s companions display loyalty to their God (Dan. 3) who miraculously preserves them in the furnace and, later, Daniel in the lions’ den (Dan. 6). The message to the readers is: remain faithful to the covenant and ultimately Israel will be vindicated. It was a book which could be updated to accord with changing historical conditions. Thus Josephus, at the end of the 1st cent. CE, interpreted the fourth beast as the Romans and assumed that Daniel’s reference to ‘the abomination of desolation’ (Dan. 11: 31) must have been a prediction of the desecration of the Temple in 70 CE; while Christians—for whom the coming of the Son of Man (Dan. 7: 13) meant the death and exaltation of Jesus—were equally aware of the eschatological significance of the abomination (Mark 13: 14).
When was the book of Daniel written? It was long assumed, and is still assumed by some conservative students of the OT, that the book is describing the faithfulness of Jews to their religion under Babylonian and Persian overlords in the 6th cent. BCE and was prophesying further horrors in the future. However, modern critical scholarship compares the book to similar stories found in neighbouring cultures where the main character, through a number of foreign courts, enjoys promotion, as in the OT Esther. The view taken here is that this book is a biased account from the 2nd cent. BCE and that its references to the empires is an impression by a Jew of the past up to the vivid account of the outrages of the ‘little horn’ who committed the transgression of the sanctuary (Dan. 8: 13). This last event corresponds precisely to the outrage perpetrated by the Seleucid conqueror Antiochus Epiphanes when he installed a pagan altar in the Temple in 167 BCE. A modern reader is aware of the transition from the optimistic tone of the stories in Dan. 2–6 to the darkness of ch. 7 when God relinquishes power in favour of the Son of Man. Then there is distress for the nation until, in the final chapter Dan. 12’s exclamation of ultimate triumph over death and there is justice for the righteous.
Dating the book in the 2nd cent. is not exclusively a modern theory. The pagan philosopher Porphyry at the beginning of the 4th cent. CE derided the idea that the visions of Daniel were prophecies of the future. Modern critics notice the comparative accuracy of the ‘predictions’ up to the time of the ‘little horn’ but then what is recorded does not correspond with historical fact—for example, the account of the death of Antiochus (Dan. 11: 45)—which implies that the book was composed before his death in 164 BCE, during the Maccabean period. The literary device of the pseudonymous author (or authors) serves to support his contemporaries in their present sufferings under the guise of lauding the faithfulness of those in the past.
The Seleucid king Antiochus was determined to create a common Greek culture throughout his dominions; and indeed even in Jerusalem some of the younger men welcomed his ideas (Dan. 11: 30; 1 Macc. 1: 11–14). The religious practices of loyal Jews were ferociously repressed, but after the ‘abomination’ a rebellion was led by Mattathias; and under his son Judas Maccabaeus a military success enabled the Temple to be rededicated in 164 BCE, three years to the day after its desecration in 167 BCE. It is still commemorated by the annual festival of Hanukkah. But beyond this temporary victory, the book has a promise for the suffering people: death is not a final word. There will be resurrection and restoration (Dan. 12).
Much of the book of Daniel (2: 4–7: 28) is written not in Hebrew but in Aramaic. There were also the Greek translations of the LXX and of Theodotion (2nd cent. CE); these versions included certain additions—the Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Young Men inserted at Dan. 3: 23, and the stories of Susanna and of Bel and the Dragon after 12. These few items are included within the canonical text of Catholic Bibles (as NJB); but in NRSV and REB they are placed in the inter-testamental Apocrypha.