Monday, May 25, 2015

Daniel Remains A Major Problem For Skeptics

In late 2014, Carol Newsom, an Old Testament scholar at Emory University and president of the Society of Biblical Literature in 2011, published a commentary on the book of Daniel (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014). She takes the position that's now the majority view on the dating of Daniel, placing the composition of the closing chapters of the book in the middle of the second century B.C. John Collins, one of the foremost Daniel scholars of our day, calls Newsom's work "the first major commentary on Daniel of the twenty-first century" (front flap).

I've read the introduction and some other portions of the commentary, but I haven't read the large majority of it. So, these are my tentative first impressions. But I found it striking that "the first major commentary on Daniel of the twenty-first century", written by such a prominent Old Testament scholar, published just recently and with all of the resources of a scholarly majority behind it, has to concede so much to a traditional dating of Daniel.

I didn't notice much interaction with conservative scholarship. Many recent articles and books on Daniel by conservative scholars, like Andrew Steinmann's commentary, aren't even listed in the bibliography. I ran some searches with the relevant names at Amazon's page for Newsom's book, and it doesn't look like she interacts with those scholars, at least by name, in the portions of the book I haven't read. I've read the entirety of the introduction, where you'd expect her to interact with counterarguments to her views on subjects like authorship and dating if she had much interest in doing that sort of thing, and the introduction is generally characterized by ignoring the other side of the argument. The same is true of the other portions of the commentary that I've read.

When commenting on a particular portion of Daniel, Newsom tells us that it "cannot" have been written earlier because of the supernatural implications of an earlier date (9). Supposedly, we know that another portion was written later than traditionally thought "since" an earlier date would have supernatural implications (11). She offers no justification for her reasoning, even though a term like "cannot" is so strong and even though there's so much evidence for an earlier date for Daniel.

She denies the unity of the book, dating the initial chapters to multiple pre-Maccabean periods and the later chapters to the Maccabean period of the second century B.C. (8-12) She repeatedly speculates about alleged interpolations in the text (11, 17) in order to dismiss apparent problems with her dating of the material. She refers to a long series of authors and editors, with the text often being changed and rearranged over time. As she acknowledges, this modern tendency of critics to break up the book of Daniel is a contradiction of the tendency of critics to argue for the unity of the book in the nineteenth century (7). The fact that she has to break the book up into so many pieces is a significant problem. That sort of breaking up of the book is highly speculative, is so much less parsimonious, and offers a weaker explanation of the internal evidence for unity and the book's treatment as a unity so early in the manuscript record and in external sources. Why is it that so many liberal speculations about highly fragmented and fluid Biblical texts keep eluding confirmation from the manuscript record and external sources?

Newsom acknowledges some common themes between the earlier and later chapters of Daniel (18-9). But she doesn't think those common themes are significant evidence of common authorship.

She acknowledges that her late dating of the closing chapters of Daniel requires a "relatively rapid process" of redaction in order to account for the earliest manuscript evidence (12). In other words, the manuscript evidence suggests an earlier date for those chapters, so she has to appeal to an unusual pace of redaction in order to reconcile her dating with the manuscript record.

Her attempt to connect the opening chapters of Daniel to a Maccabean context is weak. Why would Jews writing in the context of the Maccabean era want to connect their struggle against Antiochus with literature like Daniel 1-6? Daniel and his companions offer no armed resistance to the Babylonians, and they're often highly cooperative instead. Newsom refers to themes like "endangerment because of faith" (14), "resistance to the ideology of empire" (16), "the mantic talents of Daniel" (18), and "divine sovereignty" (18) in the opening chapters of Daniel, but those themes don't offer much of a parallel to the Maccabean context. Jews writing apocalyptic literature against Antiochus in the second century B.C. probably wouldn't have attached their work to the first several chapters of Daniel and have made Daniel their central character.

She acknowledges that Danielic material is widespread in the Dead Sea Scrolls (3-4). She refers to how there were already multiple editions of Daniel circulating in the second century or early first century B.C. (4) An earlier date for Daniel would better explain the widespread acceptance and use of Daniel, including its closing chapters, among such diverse and separated Jewish groups so early on.

Newsom argues that the author(s) of Daniel 12 knew of the alleged inaccuracy of chapter 11 (27-8). She refers to how the closing of Daniel is like "successive editions of newspapers updating breaking events" and how the final predictions "spectacularly failed" (28). Why didn't they alter the predictions after their failure, then? She appeals to supposed alterations of other portions of Daniel. Why not here? That doesn't make much sense. And if chapter 11 was known to contain false prophecy, how did the book's prophetic and scriptural status ever get off the ground in a context in which the book's falsity would have been so easily known and demonstrated? How did the book get to be so widely accepted and so highly regarded early on in such a context? She appeals to a scenario in which Daniel was repeatedly reinterpreted (28), but the earliest audience would have known what the book of Daniel meant in its original context. Even people a generation later and beyond would have been in a good position to know that the book made false predictions. After all, Newsom claims that the "coded symbolism" of Daniel was "easily understood" by the initial audience (2). Newsom's explanation of how the alleged false prophecies became so widely accepted so early is horrible. Ironically, the idea of people rapidly changing their positions in a succession of reinterpretations describes modern liberal scholarship, like Newsom's, better than it describes the early history of Daniel's reception.

Newsom appeals to Josephus for information on Alexander the Great and Jewish history (23-4). But she rejects what Josephus reports about the existence and use of the book of Daniel in Alexander's day. Josephus refers to how Jewish interactions with Alexander were shaped by Daniel's predictions of Alexander and his empire. According to Josephus, the predictions preexisted Alexander's rise to power and were made known to him by the Jews of his day.

Newsom's attempt to explain Daniel's seventy weeks prophecy in the context of the Maccabean era is terrible. She has to deny that Daniel was concerned about "a strict chronology" (300), since her interpretation so poorly aligns with the text. The author of that portion of Daniel "was not intending to make a precise chronological calculation but simply to connect important events in history by means of a symbolic heptadonal system of time" (303). The strong language used to refer to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in Daniel 9:26 is said to refer to "the assault on Jerusalem under Apollonius the Mysarch" (306). But that assault destroyed neither the city nor the temple. The events of 70 A.D. align far better with the text. I've only given a couple of examples here, but Newsom's attempt to interpret the seventy weeks prophecy in a Maccabean context is highly problematic. Notice that if the seventy weeks passage is supposed to be fulfilled in the Maccabean era, then that passage is yet another one that contains a series of false prophecies that were never altered and didn't prevent the book from being so widely accepted as scripture, including among people living just after the falsification of the prophecies. Yet, we're supposed to believe that so many other portions of Daniel were altered.

If anybody is interested in reading more about these issues, see the collection of Steve Hays' posts on Daniel here. And in a post here I've explained how Daniel is problematic for skeptics even if it's dated to the second century B.C.

There's good evidence that much of what Daniel predicted was fulfilled later than the Maccabean era. The fourth of Daniel's four predicted empires seems to be Rome. The kingdom of God that Jesus refers to so frequently in the gospels seems to be a good initial fulfillment of Daniel 2:44, especially with Christianity now spread over the world with billions of followers. Jesus' atoning sacrifice aligns well with Daniel 9:24 and 9:26. As I explain in my post linked above, Jesus' crucifixion lines up with the timing of Daniel's seventy weeks prediction. The destruction of Jerusalem and its temple occurred well after the Maccabean period. The idea that the rise of the Roman empire, the rise of Jesus' kingdom that spread across the world with billions of people, Jesus' bringing about a final atonement for sin, Jesus' alignment with the timing of the seventy weeks prophecy, and the destruction of both Jerusalem and its temple all just happened to look like fulfillment of Daniel's predictions, without anything supernatural having actually occurred, is ridiculous. If these are common occurrences or ones that easily could have been faked, then where are all of the other individuals or events widely believed to have made a final atonement for sin, aligning so well with Daniel's seventy weeks timeframe after a decree to rebuild Jerusalem, followed by a destruction of both the city and the temple, etc.? Even if we single out one portion of what Daniel predicted, like the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, the last two thousand years have demonstrated that such events can easily not happen. The idea that all of the events I've referred to just happened to occur in alignment with Daniel, or were orchestrated that way in a naturalistic manner, doesn't make sense.

The book of Daniel is similar to the book of Isaiah in that it's highly evidential for Christianity even if you grant a skeptical dating of the book. For skeptics, it's a lose/lose scenario.


  1. The whole attempt to divorce chapters 1-6 from 7-12 makes not an inch of sense, its borne out of the fact that it is clear that these stories don't fit a Maccabean context, so what they try to do is put it at an earlier time, but then that begs the serious question of why would a 2nd century Maccabean author attach them then if they're not fitting to his context? Wasn't the book of Daniel composed for 2nd century Jews?, I recently read through the whole book of Daniel and realised how far out of for it for a 2nd century audience, Daniel is literally serving and cultivating positive relationships with pagan kings some of whom like Darius is portrayed in a mostly positive light. Why couldn't he at least redact these stories better? and everything she says about these stories that are fitting to a second century context are just as fitting to an exilic context if not more, furthermore major themes in those early stories themes like maintaining the worship of god in a pagan land and keeping in line with the commandments of Moses under exile and not conforming to paganism, are all these themes fit right into a 6th century exilic context far better than a Maccabean one.

  2. If one is a Christian and believes what God has revealed about Himself in the rest of Scripture (namely His attributes), there should be no problem accepting His omnipotent use of human vessels to record what He omnisciently knows. Good article brother. May the Loed continue to bless the work He has given you to do.