Skeptical Bible Study: Daniel Chapter 5

First post in this series can be found here.
This article is not my own, but was originally posted by Darwin’s Beagle. The author has given permission for the article to be reposted here.

This post deals with Chapter 5, which contains many errors. Many of these errors are of a sort that would be inconceivable for someone to make if he had actually been a high-ranking member of the Babylonian court as Daniel is portrayed as being.

5.1 Summary of Chapter 5
This story takes place after Nebuchadrezzar has died and is replaced as king by Belshazzar, his son. Belshazzar had a party with thousands in attendance. He decides to show off some of his treasures and uses some of the wine goblets of the Jews that had been ransacked following Nebuchadrezzar’s destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE. During the feast Belshazzar sees a hand materialize and write something on the wall. Belshazzar brings in “the astrologers, Chaldeans, and soothsayers” to interpret, but they are unable to do so. The queen remembers that Daniel had been useful in this type of thing during the reign of Nebuchadrezzar. Belshazzar brings him in to interpret and offers to give Daniel many gifts and set him up as the third highest ruler in the kingdom.

Daniel says that he does not need the honors but he will tell Belshazzar what the writing means. The writing is “MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN” which means “NUMBERED, NUMERED, WEIGHED, DIVIDED”. This, in turn, means that God has numbered Belshazzar’s days, he has weighed his worth and found him wanting, and lastly that his kingdom will be taken away and divided between the Medes and the Persians.

Belshazzar does fulfill his end of the (unaccepted) bargain giving Daniel expensive robes and gold chains and appointing him to the number three position. However, that very night Belshazzar is killed and the kingdom comes under control of Darius the Mede, who is 62 years old.

5.2 Analysis
5.2.1 Minor problems
It seems strange to me that none of Belshazzar’s “astrologers, Chaldeans, [or] soothsayers” could tell him the meaning of the writing. MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN is Aramaic which was the language of the Babylonians at the time. Surely someone there could have come up with a story that would have satisfied Belshazzar as well as Daniel’s. This is especially true since there were high rewards to be obtained if one was successful.

5.2.2 Major problems
First, Belshazzar did not succeed Nebuchadrezzar. Second, Belshazzar was not Nebuchadrezzar’s son. Third, Belshazzar was never king of Babylon. Fourth, the overthrow of Babylon was accomplished peacefully without bloodshed. Fifth, Darius the Mede did not conquer Babylon. Sixth, Darius the Mede is not even an historical person.

Nebuchadrezzar ruled until 562 BCE when he died. He was succeeded by his son Amel-Marduk who ruled for 1 year before being assassinated by his brother-in-law Nergal-Sharezer. Nergal-Sharezer reigned for 7 years and resigned. His son, Labsi-Marduk took his place. Labsi-Marduk was deposed by Nabonidus, a member of the priesthood. It was Nabonidus who was king of Babylonia when it was conquered. Belshazzar was his son, and was not related to Nebuchadrezzar at all.

Extreme bible-believers have a scenario in which they dismiss the above paragraph. They do so at the expense of making words mean what they do not actually mean. First, they point out that Nabonidus, the real king of Babylonia, had moved out of Babylon and made Tema in Arabia his capital. He left his son Belshazzar in Babylon as co-regent, and even though Belshazzar was not king in reality, he was acting king and that is what Daniel actually meant when he referred to Belshazzar as king.

While it is true that on rare occasions this is done, it always done in such a way that the context makes it clear. Otherwise misinformation is being communicated and it brings up the disturbing question of why a document supposedly divinely inspired would do that. In Daniel, Belshazzar is only referred to as king. He has princes of his own. He has a king’s palace. He has a queen. Daniel is referred to a “man of [his] kingdom”. Daniel tells Belshazzar that God has numbered the days of his (Belshazzar’s) kingdom. And that his (Belshazzar’s) kingdom will be divided between the Medes and the Persians. Belshazzar has the power to promote someone to third highest ruler of the land on his own accord. In short, there is absolutely nothing in the book of Daniel to suggest that Belshazzar is a co-regent. Everything suggests Belshazzar is a full-fledged king.

Next, extreme bible-believers say that while Belshazzar was not the biological son of Nebuchadrezzar, since he was acting as king of Babylon, he was in the same ruling line which means that it is perfectly OK for Daniel to refer to him as the son of Nebuchadrezzar.

Again, this is done on rare occasions, but again, it is always done in such a way that the context is clear. In the book of Daniel, every reference to Belshazzar suggests he is the biological son of Nebuchadrezzar. At the feast Belshazzar uses the goblets “his father, Nebuchadnezzar, had taken from the temple”. The queen tells him, “There is a man in thy kingdom in whom is the spirit of the holy gods; and in the days of thy father light and understanding and wisdom, like the wisdom of the gods, was found in him; whom the king Nebuchadnezzar thy father, the king, I say, thy father, made master of the magicians, astrologers, Chaldeans, and soothsayers”. Daniel tells him, “O thou king, the most high God gave Nebuchadnezzar thy father a kingdom, and majesty, and glory, and honour” and “And thou his [Nebuchadrezzar’s] son, O Belshazzar, hast not humbled thine heart”. In short, every reference in Daniel suggests that Belshazzar is the biological son of Nebuchadrezzar and has succeeded Nebuchadrezzar to the throne. There is no way Daniel could have portrayed Belshazzar more like a king or more like the biological son of Nebuchadrezzar. In other words, there is no way the book of Daniel could have portrayed Belshazzar more wrongly.

According to the book of Daniel, Belshazzar is killed the very night Daniel tells him the meaning of the writing on the wall. This suggests the overthrow of Babylon was violent. However, we know this is not the case. The Cyrus cylinder is an archaeological artifact containing Cyrus’s own version of how he took Babylon. Cyrus had sent agents into the city. They discovered that there was a great deal of resentment of Nabonidus (the real king of Babylonia). The agents talked up the character of Cyrus and by the time Cyrus’s army was ready to enter the city, the people of the city were ready for a new ruler. His army entered the city peacefully with their swords sheathed. There was no killing, nor is Belshazzar even mentioned.

From the above, it is apparent it was not Darius the Mede who conquered Babylon but it was Cyrus. And he did this in 539 BCE. There is no other independent historical reference anywhere to Darius the Mede. In a later chapter of the book of Daniel, Darius the Mede is referred to as the son of Ahasuerus. Ahasuerus is an alternate name for Xerxes. Xerxes was Cyrus’s great-grandson and ruled from 485 to 465 BCE. His son was not Darius, but Artaxerxes I. Xerxes’ FATHER was Darius I, but that Darius was a Persian and not a Mede, and if Daniel had been alive during his time, he would have been well into his 100’s.

Extreme bible-believers have answers for the problem of Darius the Mede as well. Some say that like Ahasuerus being the alternate name for Xerxes, Darius the Mede is the alternate name for Cyrus. This ignores the fact that Daniel also refers to Cyrus, and this Cyrus is obviously a different person. Furthermore, Cyrus was Persian and not a Mede. Nor is there any independent reason to believe that Darius the Mede was an alternate name for anybody.

Others say that Darius the Mede was Gobryas, the governor of Babylon during the reign of Cyrus. But there is no indication that Gobryas was a Mede either. Furthermore, the book of Daniel portrays Darius the Mede with kingly powers. In the next chapter we will see that Darius the Mede signs a law that cannot be changed no matter what. Darius is tricked into doing this and bitterly regrets it. Surely, if he is only the governor of Babylon he can get Cyrus to overrule the law. Also every reference made to Darius the Mede clearly implies he is the king.

Quite obviously the author of Daniel did not know the history of the time in which Daniel was supposed to have lived. Daniel was supposed to have been a high ranking official at this time; it is impossible for such a person intimately involved in these events to make these gross mistakes. Daniel could not have been written when extreme bible-believers say it was. But there is going to be even more evidence for this as we go along.

5.2.3 How could the author of Daniel have made these mistakes?
But wait a second here. These seem to be gross mistakes. Why didn’t the author of Daniel know better? For one thing, as we will see, the author of Daniel was separated in time from the events by almost 400 years. His ideas of history were skewed by other biblical writings.

The prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel both predicted the violent overthrow of Babylon by the Medes. That was as about as good a prediction as anyone could do at their time. The Medes were the only empire that seemed to have a chance against the Babylonians. What these prophets of God could not foresee is that before the Medes would ever get the chance to overthrow Babylon, the Persians would become strong and overthrow the Medes. The author of Daniel was evidently an extreme bible-believer. Isaiah and Ezekiel predicted it, therefore it must have happened. The Medes must have overthrown Babylon. What Mede did it? The author has only a hazy knowledge of the Persian period. There are several Darius’s and some of them were pretty powerful, so he invents Darius the Mede and a Median kingdom to rule over Babylon for a while. Is it any wonder that he concludes that this Median kingdom is inferior to that of Nebuchadrezzar’s?

Furthermore, there is convincing evidence that at least some of this misinformation was commonly believed during the Maccabean times that Daniel is thought to have been actually written. There is a group of non-canonical books written at this time. Many of these are also forgeries that were trying to be passed off as the real thing, but these didn’t make it. They are called the pseudepigrapha. Baruch, one of these books (supposedly written by Baruch the secretary of the prophet Jeremiah, but was actually written during Maccabean times), has a section in it in which contributions from Jews taken into Babylonian captivity are sent to priests who remained in Jerusalem. The pertinent section is quoted below:

The money we are sending you is to be used to buy whole-offerings, sin-offerings, and frankincense, and to provide grain-offerings; you are to offer them on the altar to the Lord our God, with prayers for King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon and for his son Belshazzar, that their life may last as long as the heavens are above the earth. So the Lord will strengthen us and bring light to our eyes, and we shall live under the protection of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon and of Belshazzar his son; we shall give them service for many a day and find favor with them (Baruch 1:10–13).

There is no denying that whoever wrote this book (which has been dated contemporaneous to the Maccabean time that Daniel was actually written in) thought that Belshazzar was the biological son of Nebuchadrezzar and next in line to the throne.

In the next installment we will look at the story of Daniel in the Lion’s Den. Unlike the discussion of Chapter 5, it will be a rather brief interlude.

Links to the other articles

To read more about the father-son relationship between Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar created by Daniel 5, you can read this article: Family Ties: Nebuchadnezzar, Nabonidus, Belshazzar, and Nitocris.

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22 thoughts on “Skeptical Bible Study: Daniel Chapter 5”

  1. Interesting analysis. I only skimmed it, but the inaccuracies do seem to support a hypothesis that this chapter was written well after the events, and that even then they had the facts wrong. Or, more likely, maybe were deliberately trying to change the facts.

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  2. Yeah, when I first read these articles, this was the one that really hit me. Daniel chapter 5 refers to Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar as father and son 7 times. 7 times in one chapter. Hard to see how that could mean something other than a literal father-son relationship. The Darius the Mede thing really threw me too.

    I think whoever wrote Daniel was trying to make the Jews of his time (who were undergoing some serious persecution by Antiochus Epiphanes) feel that God was on their side and would eventually deliver them. So he tells this story set during a similar period of Jewish subjection about a man who remains faithful to God and is rewarded because of it. In fact, the story of Daniel is very similar to that of Joseph in the book of Genesis. And the writer causes Daniel to prophesy about the coming time of Antiochus Epiphanes, who despite his great strength, will be humbled by God. This guy is trying to encourage his fellow countrymen, but like most of us, his knowledge of events 400 years before his time is less than perfect. But his knowledge of current events is quite good, as we’ll see in the next several chapters.

    When I first ran across these problems, I was floored at how many clues in Daniel point to a later date of authorship. It was really amazing to me, considering I’d always been told that history and archaeology had never contradicted anything in the Bible.

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  3. I’m glad you suggested I take a look at these. I simply do not have time to go through and deal thoroughly with each so I’ll take a whack at Darius the Mede since it is one many struggle with.

    Simply put this is a mystery. We do not know who this person is historically speaking at this time. This does not mean however that the bible is wrong and it is as simple as that. There was also not a shred of historical evidence for a real King David until 1992! Thus we are dealing with historical probabilities or improbabilities, not facts.

    You present your information like the historical account is completely settled and beyond dispute. Your series of major problems present the information like is is settled fact and beyond reproach. This is simply not the case. You mention the Cyrus Cylinder, but there are at least four other accounts. The Babylonian Chronicle, Berossus, Herodotus, and Xenophon all offer various accounts of Babylon’s fall. Both Xenophon and the Babylonian account (though this is debated) describe a king being killed on the night of the attack. So which is true? Who knows. The important point to remember is that ancients did not perceive history as an objective, scientific rendering. On the contrary they saw its retelling as useful only so far as it furthered their goals or enlarged their greatness. We cannot impose on ancient writers the constraints of modernity no matter how badly we might want to, and that includes the bible. The bible writers use historical records when it serves their purposes and skip over stuff when it doesn’t to make a theological point. Thus, the argument that the bible contradicts Cyrus in saying their was violence that night is irrelevant. Other accounts say there was. So we’re back to square one.

    Are there other feasible possibilities besides Daniel being ignorant? Yes. You mention some in your article but I must say I feel they are caricatured and not dealt with seriously.

    Option 1: You mentioned this but quickly dismissed it, that Darius the Mede is the general Gobryas. While I don’t think this is the best option it is feasible. Daniel 5:31 says Darius received the kingdom. Who did he receive it from? Cyrus perhaps? Also, you assume a governor could appeal to Cyrus to change a law and that seems logical, but do you know it for a fact. No, you are assuming it. Additionally, there is evidence from Akkadian texts that Gobryas is actually two people, Gubaru and Ugbaru. Confusion arose over their names because in one of the original translations of the Nabonidus Chronicles they are transliterated the same. Ugbaru is Cyrus’ general who takes Babylon, but dies a few days later. Gubaru is actually the governor. While not conclusive, the point is that there can easily by confusion over ancient names and everyone needs to be careful with dogmatism.

    Option 2: Darius the Mede is Cyrus. You also dismiss this option without really dealing with its potential. Yes, Daniel does mention Cyrus elsewhere, namely in 6:28. Normally translated that Daniel prospered during the reign Darius and Cyrus, the “waw” normally translated “and” could grammatically by an explicative rather than a conjunction. This move would identify without question Darius with Cyrus. 1 Chron. 5:26 is another example of this exact use of “waw” in scripture. There are also plenty of historical sources describing kings ruling different nations with different names. Additionally, Cyrus was 62 when he took over and who is to say he was not part Median? This is impossible to prove, but it is very likely. Indeed there is evidence that Nabonidus referred to Cyrus of “king of the Medes,” and Herodotus claims Cyrus’ mother was in fact a Mede. Furthermore, the burden of proof must lie with those seeking to disprove the clear testimony of an ancient document. If there is a possibility of veracity, veracity must be the default position.

    Option 3: Cuneiform evidence suggests an unusual situation during the first years of Cyrus’ reign in Babylon. Cyrus does not take up the title “king of Babylon” upon his ascension as did the neo-Babylonian kings before him. He was simply “king of lands,” the Persian custom. However, towards the end of his first full year of rule, he begins going by both names. Why the change? Why did he wait almost two years after his armies took Babylon to be called the king of Babylon? A possible explanation given by W. H. Shea is that another held a vassal kingship. Shea proposes this vassal was in fact the general Gubaru (he rejects the possible dual identity above) and interprets the Nabonidus Chronicle to mean Gubaru died a year and a few days after the conquest of Babylon, not just a few days. While, this doesn’t prove anything it is certainly interesting.

    Option 4: Daniel refers to either Cyrus or a vassal king as Darius the Mede independently in order to make a theological point. Namely that Babylon is finished and the time for restoration is at hand (Jer. 51:11, 28; Is. 13:17; Is. 21:2). He is writing for ancient Jews who would not mistake the reference, not for 21st century skeptics and apologists to arm wrestle over.

    There is one last point piece of the puzzle to identify this guy. I do think the Darius of 9:1 is our same Darius the Mede from chapters 5-6. This seems like a problem as you aptly point out. Once again however there are a variety of options, the most likely being the Ahsuerus/Ahashweros/Khshayarsha is a throne title meaning “hero among rulers.” Thus it could apply to any number of Persian kings. The book of Tobit offers another possibility, namely that Ahsuerus is the Median who took Ninevah in 612 BCE and thus is a predecessor or ancestor of Darius. Either way Xerxes is the Greek name of a Hebrew rendering of a Persian word. It is not as simple as saying this must be Xerxes the grandson of Cyrus.

    Conclusions: I lean towards Darius being a throne name for Cyrus, while admitting there is simply no way to know for sure. I hope I have demonstrated however that the historical record of this time is anything but certain and to say Daniel is flat out wrong is a philosophical statement about one’s beliefs rather than driven by reason and logic alone. Could he be wrong? Sure, but he also could be right. There is simply not enough evidence either way. Whichever conclusion one lands on is indicative only of that persons preconceived notions of the bible, God, etc. I am not trying to say I am right about all this stuff. I’m just trying to demonstrate that the issue is not as simple as you are making it out to be and that there is evidence for a multitude of positions. One simply cannot prove conclusively from history Daniel is wrong. . . or right.

    Obviously Darius the Mede is only one issue of many one must deal with in interpreting Daniel and I wish most Christians took their bible reading half as seriously as you do. I wish I could take the time to deal with others, but I need to go buy groceries now. If you wish to explore these issues further I suggests the following works from which the above information came:

    John Goldingay’s Daniel in the Word Biblical Commentary series (liberal evangelical approach)

    Stephen Miller’s Daniel in the New American Commentary series (conservative evangelical approach)

    Tremper Longman’s Old Testament Introduction (moderate/conservative evangelical approach)

    Also, an books or articles by Stephen Yamauchi.

    Peace,

    Ben

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  4. Hi Ben, thanks for your comment. I really appreciate the in-depth treatment you offered — it’s rare to get something like that in a comment!

    First, let me say that I didn’t write these articles myself. I mention that in a few of the posts (and I have a short tag line at the beginning of each one), but it would be easy to get the impression that I wrote these. I didn’t. But they were instrumental to me in that they were the first things I read that actually made credible claims against the Bible’s inspiration. So the author of these articles gave me permission to repost them here.

    That being said, I agree that the circumstances are more convoluted than the way they might appear in these articles. For instance, I agree that whether or not Belshazzar was killed on the night the Persians took over isn’t too big of a deal. I think the question of Darius the Mede is much more important. I do still think these articles make a good case, but they’re not meant to be exhaustive.

    I don’t believe I’ve read any of the authors you mentioned, but I’ll try to get hold of their works. When I began researching these issues in more depth, I did a lot of research online. I read several papers, and I don’t have those authors in front of me now. I also read a commentary on Daniel by Bob Waldron, and I found a book by HH Rowley that was very detailed. I highly recommend that one to you too — it’s called Darius the Mede and the Four World Empires in the Book of Daniel.

    I’ve decided to break up my response into separate comments, because it was running really long. So here’s the first — the next one will be right up.

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  5. Now that all that’s out of the way, there are a couple of points I’d like to bring out. First of all, I’m aware that several people have been suggested to fill the place of Darius the Mede. In addition to the Cyrus Cylinder, Xenophon, Herodotus, etc, we also have several contract tablets from the first year that Babylon had fallen to Persia. In these, Cyrus is called “king of lands” as you mentioned, and his son Cambyses is referred to as “king of Babylon.” This would explain the point you brought up about why “king of Babylon” wasn’t assigned to Cyrus initially. It would make Cambyses a good candidate for Darius the Mede, except he doesn’t fit with some of the other details Daniel provides. For instance, Daniel 9:1 says “in the first year of Darius” which indicates his reign extended at least beyond one year. But Cambyses only served as king of Babylon for less than a year. There’s also the problem that Cambyses was not 62 years old, as Daniel 5:31 says.

    The Gobryas/Ugbaru/Gubaru thing is also complicated, as you mentioned. If Gubaru is the governor, and therefore Darius, there are still problems. We know that Cyrus was the king of Persia, Cambyses served as king of Babylon, and Gubaru was governor. Let’s say that Darius is just another name for Gubaru. If Daniel (as told in 6:1-3) is the foremost of 3 “presidents” under Gubaru, then it starts to make that passage look a bit ridiculous. It’s impressive when we imagine Daniel as the highest ranking official under the king. But when he’s actually the highest ranking official under a governor, who serves a vassal king, who serves the actual king, it starts to lose some of its grandeur and doesn’t seem to fit the description in 6:1-3.

    I think saying that Darius the Mede is another name for Cyrus is problematic since Daniel talks about them both. He certainly seems to think they are different people. Since we do have a later line of kings that are Darius the Great and his son Ahaseurus, I still think the most likely explanation is that the writer of Daniel just made a mistake here. I don’t think Darius the Mede ever existed. But you’re right that this is something we can’t know for certain.

    I think there are a couple of ways to look at the Bible. When we talk about its reliability, are we talking about it in the way we’d examine any other ancient work, like Herodotus, Xenophon, Tacitus, or even Homer? Or are we talking about its reliability as the word of God? I think that Christians sometimes try to conflate these two things when they talk about reliability. For instance, Christians will often say that we tend to take other ancient works at their word when it comes to history, so why don’t skeptics give the same credence to the Bible? But this is misleading. No one believes the miraculous details found in Tacitus or Homer — we only give credence to the plausible things. In this way, skeptics treat the Bible no differently.

    However, if we’re going to say that the Bible is the divine word of God, then that sets the bar quite a bit higher. Could God have inspired Daniel to write his book in a way that would agree with our other historical sources? Could he have inspired Daniel to not refer to Belshazzar and Nebuchadnezzar as father and son? Could he have inspired Daniel to use the other name “Darius the Mede” was known by? I believe he could have — so why didn’t he? We have historical sources that say Cambyses helped rule Babylon around this time. Other sources tell us that Gubaru was also involved in the rule. If Daniel had used one of those names instead of Darius — a name that no other historical source uses at all — then this would not be an issue.

    Taken on its own, the Darius the Mede thing doesn’t really prove anything. You’re right, there’s no way to know for sure that he never existed, or that it’s not just some obscure throne name. But no one can deny that it does create a major difficulty. And when taken in conjunction with all the other clues in this book, it becomes much more difficult to hang on to the idea of inspiration. I agree that neither of us probably has time to go really in-depth on each of these issues. But if you have time to look at the articles on chapters 8 and 10-12, I think they make an incredibly strong case that the writer of Daniel was very focused on Antiochus Epiphanes, which indicates Daniel wasn’t really inspired.

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  6. Finally, I’d like to comment on this point:

    The important point to remember is that ancients did not perceive history as an objective, scientific rendering. On the contrary they saw its retelling as useful only so far as it furthered their goals or enlarged their greatness. We cannot impose on ancient writers the constraints of modernity no matter how badly we might want to, and that includes the bible.

    In one way, I agree with you. I think we have to remember that this was just written by ancient people. But I think this only reinforces the notion that the Bible is not inspired at all. Since you probably didn’t mean it that way, let me tell you why I think this.

    First of all, we only have to give this caveat because the Bible doesn’t jive with history. If it did, this wouldn’t be an issue.

    Secondly, I don’t buy the argument that God spoke to prophets and performed signs and miracles so people would believe, then inspired people to write his message so the rest of us would believe, but he only inspired them to do it in a way that ancients would understand. Would God really think so little of the rest of us? Why don’t we get miracles or direct revelation? Why is the Bible written to people who are no longer alive — people who did receive miracles and direct revelation? All that we modern people have is the Bible, and it’s not even written to us? I think that makes no sense.

    Thirdly, are we saying that ancient people wouldn’t have understood the message if it was completely historically and scientifically accurate? If God had inspired Daniel to write in a way that did not contradict historical sources in any way, would ancient people have been confused? No, I think a god that could speak the universe into existence could figure out a way to write a book that is understandable to both ancient and modern people.

    Finally, if the Bible is written in a way that its contemporary audience would understand, this is only further reason to think it’s not inspired. To say that it’s written with an ancient mindset means that it’s just like the kind of thing an ancient person would write. So then why should we think it’s anything more than that?

    Thanks again for your comment. It’s really nice to discuss this kind of thing with someone who obviously has an in-depth understanding of it.

    Take care!

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  7. Thanks for your comments.

    I agree Darius the Mede is a difficulty and that there are others in the book and the rest of the bible. But what I was trying to do is demonstrate these are not reasons to disregard the reliability of the text. All supposed contradictions do have feasible explanations and just because we cannot explain them for certain doesn’t mean we must assume Daniel was wrong. It just means we don’t know.

    I’ll touch on this point briefly. I agree the majority of the book is focused on Antiochus IV and that time period. And why shouldn’t it. That was the most traumatic experience in Jewish history when it happened. However I also believe there are indications the prophecy “telescopes” out to cover other similar events such as the temple’s final destruction and perhaps a still future ruler for whom Antiochus serves as a type. Another example of this telescoping is John the Baptist’s predications describing both the first and second comings of Jesus at the same time. Consider this one last point. If Daniel is only about the Maccabean period, why was it included with scripture? The HB was translated into Greek only a few short decades after Antiochus. If Daniel 12 is solely focused on him then it is wrong, a false prophecy. Would it not have thus been rejected as were the numerous other similar works of the time?

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  8. I’m glad you widened the lens a little to the big picture. We could go around and around all day on each little detail but if we don’t agree on inspiration there’s no point.

    Let me clarify what I meant by posting a few relevant statements from the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy:

    We affirm that God in His Work of inspiration utilized the distinctive personalities and literary styles of the writers whom He had chosen and prepared.

    We deny that God, in causing these writers to use the very words that He chose, overrode their personalities.

    We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations.

    We affirm that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historicaI exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices, and that Scripture is to interpret Scripture.

    I never said the bible doesn’t jive with history. I’m saying there is no objective history. All we have are a collection of subjective, separate accounts all with their own agenda. The bible is one of these, yes, but it has the added bonus of truthfulness. Nothing false was allowed in. Those biblical books which it turned out contained false information were rejected. Regardless of how much people want to rail against this or mock the bible’s presentation the fact remains nothing it claims as true has been conclusively proven false.

    That being said, as the above statements show we must be careful in being dogmatic about our interpretations especially in books such as Daniel because we understand so little about it. We can’t just open it up and interject our own understandings of its words and concepts, but must carefully understand the specific social/political/cultural context. Daniel expressing himself on his terms doesn’t make mean he is wrong it just means he is an ancient Jew with a theological agenda and not a modern day scientific historian. The book is a witness to God’s work at a specific time and not a wikipedia entry with straight forward black and white facts. Even more importantly we must understand the scriptural context. In other words, we should scour the bible for other references to Daniel’s imagery and allow those other passages to inform our interpretation instead of pulling things out of history that “seem” to fit as many Christians do.

    You bring up a good point about why would God make it so difficult for modern people understand. I cannot fully tackle this question. I’m not him. But here are a few thoughts. First, we have to think about the point of the bible. It is about God seeking to recover and redeem his people from the effects of our sin. It is the witness of his action on his people’s behalf. This action of course culminates in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The entire HB is pointing to him and preparing people for his coming. The entire NT is looking back and answering the question, “OK, that happened, now what?” Why is there no more direct revelation? Well, because we now know the whole story. All that’s left to do is take part in building his kingdom until he comes back and finishes the job. So from this perspective we not the ancients are the lucky ones. We have the full story. The people of Daniel’s day were utterly confused about what was going on and why God would allow them to go into exile. Secondly, from this perspective miracles are entirely overrated. Despite all the wild miracles the vast majority of people in the bible still did not believe. Most of the HB miracles are pointing ahead to Christ and most of Christ’s miracles are to fulfill HB prophecies, not just to make people believe. So it’s not miracles that make people believe, it’s hearing the word (See Luke 16:19-31 for an illustration of this).

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  9. You ask why couldn’t the ancients have understand science or history? I’ve already stated I don’t think the bible says anything wrong, I just think it says it on its own terms. Its not that they wouldn’t have understood, its just that the point of scripture’s writing was to explain God’s working. For example:

    “In the beginning there was a singularity that exploded into swirling gases which eventually cooled. . .” The ancients would have understood that fine, but Genesis was written to explain that the true God created the universe and not the petty warring gods of their neighbors. It is making a theological, not a scientific point.

    The same is true with history. The 1 and 2 Kings include some facts shape, them how they want, and exclude others. In fact, the books repeatedly say in effect, “if you want to know the rest of this story go read this or that other book.” In other words they are taking elements of Israeli history and using it to tell people about God’s work not writing a straightforward history. In Daniel’s case he utilizes apocalyptic literature which was a popular medium of the day. It was for them primarily and us secondarily. He also apparently used some historical sources and excluded others in order to make a theological point like 1 and 2 Kings. Nothing he says is untrue, its just that its not his purpose to write an exhaustive history.

    Again, all this is not to say anything in the bible is false. I’m just saying we have to judge it by its own terms and culture not ours. A modern day historian would not dream of excluding some of the facts, but the bible writers are not historians. They are primarily theologians. And while we may argue over this or that specific detail of the beasts or the dreams, is there really any doubt over the point or moral message of Daniel. No, he is perfectly clear that God will vindicate his people if they trust him. So even though we might not know everything we want to know about the book, we know all that we need to know.

    I’ll look forward to your response.

    I would also highly recommend Letters from a Skeptic by Greg Boyd. He is a Yale PhD and deals very well with many of these questions.

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  10. @bburleson

    “the fact remains nothing it claims as true has been conclusively proven false.” The fact also remains that none of the supernatural claims of the bible have been been proven true. I will say that a few things in the bible have been proven false, if you take the bible at its word – the failed prophecy of Tyre is one example.

    “miracles are entirely overrated.” Huh? They seemed to convince Paul, Thomas and the rest of the apostles. And does it really make sense that miracles, which were to confirm the Word in Biblical times, isn’t as convincing as a book, with apparent errors, that claims that there were miracles at one time? Not mention the likelihood that if the “miracles” didn’t produce that many believers back in that time, then they probably weren’t as grand as the bible makes them sound. I don’t think anyone wouldn’t be impressed by seeing a man, whom they all knew was dead, raise from the grave. That would be convincing.

    But if you begin with the assumption that the bible is true no matter what, then you can always find away to bridge across the discrepancies.

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  11. @bburleson

    And I don’t think the problem is finding the point of the passages, necessarily. And I’ll admit that in sense that “we have the complete Word” we’d be better off, but what do we have to confirm that “Word”? We cant count on history or science. God isn’t sending any more miracles as verification. Do we trust everyone that claims to have performed a miracle through the Spirit of God, and anyone who’s claimed to have seen a miracle?

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  12. I’ve got to agree with William here.

    Also, the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy sounds very weak to me. When you get down to it, it basically says God inspired the writers of the Bible, but not in a way that would overrule their writing style, personality, or tendency to make mistakes. Nor will God ensure they remember or recount events perfectly. In other words, it’s going to look exactly like these guys just wrote things of their own accord, but God still inspired them, really.

    Sorry, I know that might be a slight oversimplification, and I’m not trying to be flippant. But I do think that’s the nutshell of what they’re saying.

    In several places, you mention that they sometimes skipped events, etc, but we shouldn’t view that as being inaccurate. I agree with you. My problems aren’t with omission, they’re with contradictions. William brought up Tyre, which is an excellent example. The different birth narratives for Jesus, or the different genealogies for Jesus provide other good examples. I’ve seen many explanations of these things, but never good ones. Of course, what’s acceptable varies with the individual, so perhaps you have seen explanations that satisfy you. I haven’t.

    I’ve always believed the entire point of the Bible was to save the lost. But there are so many reasons to be skeptical of it, I don’t see how it would convince anyone who became aware of those issues. And how can you tell it apart from any other religious text? Anytime you find an error in the Book of Mormon, that doesn’t mean anything — I’m sure a Mormon could come up with an explanation for why that isn’t really an error. This just shows something about human nature: if you want to believe something, you can find a reason to.

    “In the beginning there was a singularity that exploded into swirling gases which eventually cooled. . .” The ancients would have understood that fine, but Genesis was written to explain that the true God created the universe and not the petty warring gods of their neighbors. It is making a theological, not a scientific point.

    But Genesis still could have talked about the Big Bang and just attributed it to God. Then, instead of the narrative being a stumbling block to people who came later, it would be a marvelous proof. Instead, Genesis 1 tells us about things being created over a 6 day period. Then Genesis 2 tells us about it in what seems to be a different order. It seems to me that either God is trying to trip us up, or this was just written by people.

    I know I’m skipping all over the place, but I want to go back to the Book of Daniel for a second. You make a good point when you ask why Daniel was included in the OT if it wasn’t written until the Maccabean period. But then, why was Tobit and Baruch included? Or the Maccabees? You also ask why wasn’t it thrown out if people could see that Daniel’s prophecies about Antiochus Epiphanes didn’t come true. Great question. But I imagine it’s for the same reasons that they don’t today. After all, why do you think Daniel begins prophesying about someone other than Antiochus? Or why do you think that these things are typological prophecies that can refer to later events too? Not to sound disparaging, but I think you believe that because you have to. If you maintain that Daniel is only talking about Antiochus Epiphanes (as I think the context indicates), then we have to conclude that Daniel was wrong. It’s hard to accept that as a Christian. The people that included it in the Septuagint probably felt the same way.

    You are obviously well-versed with these issues. You understand that the Bible is very much tied to the time in which it was written. The oldest parts fit in well with other ancient Canaanite writings; the newest parts fit in well with the Hellenistic culture of Palestine and Greece during the Roman Empire. There are parts of it that seem incorrect or contradictory, even if you believe there’s some unknown explanation for that. You’ve come to see the creation story in Genesis as more allegory than fact. You probably view the story of Noah the same way. So why do you still think the Bible was really inspired by God?

    Thanks

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  13. William,

    Perhaps I overstated my case. I just meant miracles were always less important than the written word of scripture. The were intended to signal the confirmation of scripture. I think the miracles described in scripture were every bit as wild as described in the bible. But people who don’t want to believe will always find a reason not to believe. People don’t want a God. We don’t like being told what to do. If some huge, awesome miracle happened today it would have the same effect. Most people would dismiss it just as they did then. Please see Luke 16:19-31 for more on this.

    Nate,

    I do think the bible is tied to its time, but its not defined by the time. The similarities are immensely overshadowed by differences and theological novelty. That is something that skeptics must deal with. What exactly happened out there in the desert? Where did this stuff come from? And later on, why the sudden explosion of Christianity across the known world? Would people really have been willing to risk and lose their lives for a hoax or warm memory of good times? On the contrary Paul says if the resurrection is false then we are all fools. And as for both science and history, we can argue over details but you must admit the general contours of both follow that outlined the bible. For example, the order of creation in the bible is the same as science describes it, and there are numerous cities or nations in the bible not thought to have existed and it turns out they did.

    You say I believe and interpret the bible a certain way because I have to. Perhaps in a way this is true. I cannot pretend my upbringing and life experience does not influence my interpretation. But neither can you. You also bring an agenda to the text. we all do. But I must also say that I too have attempted to examine the bible and evidence for and against God honestly and while I can’t explain everything and can’t answer every question there is too much evidence and too much going on for me to walk away. People have been discussing these difficulties for thousands of years and have not found them as reason for walking away from faith in the bible. This is also a reality that cannot be lightly dismissed. For example the prophecy of Tyre, have you read or inquired as to how others have interpreted this fact throughout history? I’m sure your not the first to observe the fact that it is still inhabited.

    In Genesis I do tend to lean towards the “old earth” and a “localized” flood. I freely admit these interpretations are influenced by science. But science is also God’s revelation. We must hold both natural and special revelation together to form an accurate picture of the world. I have no problem with that. However, I do think there are indications in the text of both positions as well. It is only in the English speaking world that Christians have become obsessed with the 6 day creation. Ancient and more recent Jewish interpreters as well as early Christians have no problem saying creation happened in the distant past.

    As for the Chicago Statement, they are not saying God allowed the writers to make mistakes. I never said that either. They are saying they are products of their time and reflect the conventions of their time as I have said. Thus, we must respect the nature of the literary style and genre and not force them to say things they could not have meant or understood. For example this means God allowed them to express creation in terms they were familiar with rather than in physics equations about the big bang.

    I think Daniel is talking about something more because that’s what I think it says. It may not be entirely clear in chapter 12. However, the events of 12 did not happen, thus Daniel would have been rejected from scripture. Tobit, 1 and 2 Maccabees and the others are not included in the HB or in the Protestant bible. The might be beneficial works but they are not scripture. Daniel was included for a reason. I think the events of ch. 12 combined with the iron and clay beasts and the 70 weeks indicate something is still to come.

    Lastly, I think the bible is inspired because it claims it to be so and nothing in my experience has led me to believe otherwise. This might seem simplistic but I have either found a satisfactory possibility for the contradictions I have come across (including Gen 1 and 2 and Jesus’ genealogies), but more so the bible’s ability to dissect so perfectly the human condition and the remedy for it testifies powerfully to its inspiration. Every other religious system is about do this or do that, but the bible teaches that it is done.

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  14. @bburleson

    I get what you’re saying, and I understand that the message would be more important than the miracle/verification/validation. But the problem is that we have no verification that the bible is actually from God – in fact there is a lot evidence to the contrary, unless of course you’re going to argue that it’s okay if God makes mistakes.

    How do I know that the bible is from God and that I should be following it? because the bible says I should, or for some other, perhaps better, reason?

    and I don’t think that people don’t like being told what to do, so much as they don’t like being told what to do by someone or something that really has no authority over them. Like if one sibling tries to boss around another sibling as if he/she was the parent – that breeds resentment. if people were so against being told what to do, then no one would work for someone else, or ally themselves with someone else. If the bible is god’s word, then fine – but what shows everyone that it is? If there is a sign on absolute power and promise of absolute punishment, then i think people would be inclined to follow the leader.

    If a guy in civilian clothes told a marine that he could leave his guard post, that a general said he could leave his guard post, should the marine immediately obey? Would the marine be questioning the general’s order if the marine asked the civilian for verification/proof that the general actually gave the order? Or would the marine be thought a fool for blindly taking a stranger at his word? Now, again, what shows that the bible is from God, besides the bible’s own claim?

    William

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  15. @William
    I’d be curious, if you’d be willing, to see your top ten reasons for believing the bible is in fact God’s word. Not so I could argue against it, and not that I think that if someone could poke holes in your reasons
    (as I am sure you have more than 10 reasons), but I’d like to see if your reasons are the same or very similar to the reasons that people of other faiths hold on to their words from their god.

    I think of this because you mentioned the spread of Christianity, and how long it’s been around. Can’t other religions claim the same? And even if they werent popular ones, would that matter (narrow is the way and few there be that find it)?

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  16. Hi Ben, thanks for the reply.

    I disagree with you that people don’t want a God. I think if one is there, the vast majority of us want to know. However, if religion is just a sham, then most of us don’t want to be misled or tied to it. That accounts for our tendency to be skeptical. Even you would say that Christianity is the only true religion, which means you’re skeptical of all the rest. It’s not that you don’t want a god, you just aren’t convinced that any of the others are true. Atheists are exactly the same, we just add one more god to the list. The real problem is that God is hidden (if he exists). So it’s not that people don’t want to know about God — they just aren’t convinced that he’s there.

    As far as miracles go, do you believe the miracle of the sun really happened (you can find it on Wikipedia)?

    And as for the rest of your comment, I can see where you’re coming from. It’s not a position that resonates with me, but I respect anyone who has actually studied and thought about the issues, even if I disagree with that person’s conclusion. It’s true that Christianity is different from other religions. But I think all religions are different from one another anyway. In fact, if we’re looking for something that stands out, I’d say something like Buddhism fits a little better. But that’s a very subjective criteria, so I don’t put a lot of stock in it.

    It’s a good point to wonder how Christianity began if it’s not true. I still think this is a good question for most religions, but I’ll leave that aside for now. First of all, as I understand it, the historical evidence that says Christians were horribly persecuted is not very certain. We do know that it happened some, but probably not on the scale that is sometimes claimed. Even so, people do all kinds of things when they believe something. Mormons put up with persecution when they first started out in this country, and Muslims are willing to die for their beliefs.

    Paul is an interesting example, because he should have had first hand knowledge. As you point out, why would he put up with persecution unless he really believed? I think Paul did really believe, but I don’t think that means he was right. I’m not saying that just to discount him. To me, the problems in the Bible (and the problems with some of the doctrines) are too great for me to believe it was inspired by God. If it weren’t for that, I would probably believe that Paul was legitimate, and therefore, Christianity was true. But the issues with the Bible make me doubt Paul, especially since he never knew Jesus in life.

    The creation account is not a huge deal to me, and I could see it being allegorical. However, I disagree that it lists the order of creation in the same way that science does. Genesis says the Earth was created before the sun, stars, etc. We know that’s not true. It also says fish and birds were created before land animals. While science would agree when it comes to fish, it would disagree that birds came before land animals. I’d say that Genesis is either myth, or God was not trying to convey any real fact about creation, but was instead trying to make a theological point.

    Daniel, Tobit, and the Maccabees were all included in the Septuagint, which is what I thought you were referring to. Either way, I’m not too surprised that it remained in the canon. You can see that the events in chapter 12 didn’t happen the way they sound, but instead of seeing that as evidence that Daniel wasn’t inspired, you think it must be referring to something else. That’s pretty easy to do with prophecies, because the language isn’t very exact anyway. I think the people that kept it in the canon just looked at it the same way.

    As I said, I respect your position even if I don’t agree. You obviously care about the issues, and you’ve studied them carefully. I just wanted to lay out why I view things differently. I appreciate the time you’ve taken so far to comment, and I look forward to any other comments you might still have.

    Thanks

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  17. William, You raise several good points. I think I can boil my list down to the following (obviously each opens into an entire world of discussion, but I’m going to leave it brief. I’ve already taken up enough of Nate’s board with my drivel):

    1. Grace and the human condition- The is the most beautiful thing about Christianity and the biggest reason I am continually drawn to Scripture. There is no explanation for it. So much of human behavior is drawn from trying to find security and acceptance, but the God of the Bible offers it freely to us. Once we have acceptance and our identity in him we can truly learn to live as we are designed to be. Grace cuts against everything we are. It is completely antithetical to human nature and yet there it is. You brought up other religions. While all have superficial similarities and differences, they are all different from Christianity in this sense. They all offer a path back to the way things should be (however defined), but Christ came down the path to where we are and offers to carry us himself. Nate brought up Buddhism. There are good things about Buddhism. I’m not going to pretend to be an expert (though I have met several Buddhists and sort of wanna be hybrid New Age/buddhist types), however I do know there is no forgiveness. You pay for everything through karma. That is a major difference. That is not grace.

    2. Historicity – For time and brevity’s sake I will focus on the four gospels here. Also, I believe the rest of the bible stands or falls with them. There is overwhelming objective evidence to support their historicity. I understand there are many textual variants, but the original texts can be constructed to about 97-98% accuracy and do not cover any major doctrines or events (with the possible exception of the ending of Mark). If they were made up or exaggerated would other witnesses not have corrected the story? Would the disciples have made themselves to look like bumbling fools? Would they have depended on the testimony of women (a cultural no no)? I understand they sometimes tell slightly different versions of some stories, but that simply represents different perspectives and audiences and anyway if they were contrived would they not have had a much smoother picture but together? We could keep going but I will stop. Those rejecting the gospels have much more explaining to do than those accepting them. If they are indeed historical then the ramifications are huge and lead me to my next point. (see Tim Keller’s Reasons for God or Greg Boyd’s Letters From A Skeptic for more on this issue)

    3. The best explanation of reality – I believe the bible offers the only coherent explanation of why things are they way they are. If the gospels are historical documents then that of course means the resurrection of Christ is a true and historical event. The ramifications of this fact are of course that he is God and should be followed. Varying explanations for how the resurrection story made it into the gospel and deluded so many are much more fanciful and hard to believe than a guy rising from the dead in my opinion. I’m not saying there are not times when I don’t doubt or have issues but in the end I cannot come up with any other explanation for what happened in the tomb and on that cross and that is worth giving my life to. The reality of the resurrection also ties in perfectly for me with the evidence for design in nature and the universe as well as with the reality of the human condition already discussed. (for more see Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis). Thus it is my opinion that no other belief system addresses all of this comprehensively.

    4. Tradition – Look, I would be kidding myself if my upbringing and education didn’t play a part in my beliefs. Of course it does. That being said, I have honestly questioned and sought answers as best as I can. I hope you are doing the same.

    Thanks to both of you for a great conversation.

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  18. Thanks for posting this Ben. I’ve also really enjoyed this discussion.

    I thought I would offer my view on a few of these points, but I’m not trying to argue with you on them — they’re your reasons and I respect that. I just wanted to briefly explain why I’ve come to a different position on some of them.

    1) I agree that the idea of grace is neat, but I’m not convinced that there’s such a thing as sin that we need to be forgiven of in the first place. So Christianity offers a cure for a sickness that I don’t believe exists, if that makes sense.

    2 & 3) I think the historicity of the gospels is a bit more convoluted. We have some good reasons to think that they weren’t actually written by any of the apostles, just later Christians. I agree that they weren’t written in collusion, but I think they often used the same sources (sometimes using each other as a source). And I think that the varying description of events is more than just different perspectives. I think there are some outright contradictions that make me think they couldn’t all possibly be divinely inspired. I just don’t think that an actual resurrection is the best explanation.

    4) Upbringing and education is a major factor — I completely agree. I was raised in a very conservative version of Christianity, and I was very dedicated to it. I only stopped when I began to see problems with the Bible. It was scary and extremely difficult. The fallout has been pretty rough. But going through that experience showed me how difficult (and rare) it is for someone to actually turn away from the religion they were raised in. I don’t think most people could do it — yet, Christianity teaches that all the people in other religions must if they want to be saved. That realization made a big impact on me.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

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