Saturday, December 16, 2023

The Visions of Daniel: Between Myth and Reality

The Book of Daniel, in what Christians refer to as the "Old Testament," is a book I often heard referenced in talks given to youth. Youth pastors love bringing up the courage of the three young men who refused to bow to an idol, and so were thrown into a fiery furnace. Teenagers really soak up talk of resisting the powers that be and taking a stand for something. It speaks to the restlessness, skepticism, and yearning for purpose that they often feel. Children, of course, hear the story of Daniel in the lion's den. In both the case of the three young men in the furnace, and Daniel in the lion's den, God intervened and spared them. In fact, the story of the Book of Daniel has a lot to do with God's intervention, as well as foretelling events yet to come. The trouble with the foretelling, though, is that it isn't real.

In chapters 7 through 11 of Daniel we read some very symbolic and yet straightforward visions of the future. Not our future, but supposedly the future from the perspective of someone in the Babylonian captivity. It is remarkably detailed and accurate, until it isn't. As observed by Dale B. Martin in "New Testament History and Literature," the author of the Book of Daniel accurately foresaw numerous historical events, including battles, royal marriages, shifts in dynasties, and deaths. Notably, he predicted Antiochus IV's failed attempt to conquer Egypt, thwarted by Roman intervention. He also correctly envisaged Antiochus and some disloyal Jews defiling the Jerusalem temple. However, some predictions did not come to pass: Antiochus was not attacked by Egypt, he didn't pass through Judea for a counterstrike, nor did he conquer Egypt, Libya, or Ethiopia. Contrary to the prophecy, he didn't establish a base in Palestine between Jerusalem and the sea, nor did he die there. Instead, he succumbed to illness in Persia in 164 BCE.

What this tells us is that the Book of Daniel was written and circulated not long before 164 BCE. Given that the Babylonian captivity ended in 538 BCE when the Persian leader Cyrus the Great allowed the Jews to return to Palestine, what we have in the Book of Daniel is a historical fiction. Whether any of the events have a basis in reality we can't really say, the 374 year span of time makes any real connection seem tenuous at best. The writer's intent seems to have been to encourage the people of his day with stories of courage from a time of great struggle for their ancestors. 

Further, in chapter 12, verses 1 and 2, we are given to understand that the time of the end of all things would immediately follow the death of Antiochus IV. Since this happened in 164 BCE and we are still here in the early 21st century CE, it would seem that prediction is also wrong. Once again, the purpose for this prediction of an end must have been to encourage people that they would not have to struggle for much longer. They should hold fast to their faith and the customs of their nation, because in not too long they would be liberated by divine intervention.

What I'm sharing here are simply the facts, as best I understand them. It is also a fact that for thousands of years now the Book of Daniel has been considered scripture for both Jewish people and Christians. From it people have drawn encouragement to live faithful lives and press on through great difficulty. Sadly, it has also been used for crackpot theories about when the end times would really come, when it would have been better to expend that energy on trying to make things better, with the assumption that the world will simply continue on. 

Believing that the end is near can bring a false feeling of relief, although as my paternal grandmother once pointed out to me, when a person dies, it is the end of the world for them individually. So yes, in the sense that we are mortal, the end is always near. Victory and vindication, however, are not guaranteed as part of the deal. Not in reality. 

Much of the Bible was not written by the person to whom it is attributed, nor in the time period in which it is claimed to have been written. That does not preclude it from being read through eyes of faith as scripture, though I would argue no one should be shielded from the facts of the origin of any text. It is only through this knowledge that unhealthy zealotry can be set aside in favor of either unbelief (an entirely valid option), or a faith with understanding that is open to diverse perspectives and oriented toward empathy.