Agnosticism, Atheism, Bible History, Bible Study, Christianity, God

Family Ties: Nebuchadnezzar, Nabonidus, Belshazzar, and Nitocris

Regular readers of this blog may know that one of the first lines of evidence that caused me to begin questioning my Christian faith had to do with the Book of Daniel. There are a number of issues within the book that have led the majority of scholars to conclude that it was not written by a Jewish prophet living during the reigns of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon and Cyrus of Persia, but that it was written some 400 years later during the Maccabean period. Over the last several days, a few of us have been having an in-depth discussion about those issues at this thread. One of the items we discussed had to do with a woman named Nitocris.

In Daniel 5, we’re told that Belshazzar is now king, and we’re given the impression that he is the son of Nebuchadnezzar. However, from a number of primary sources (some that even date from the Babylonian empire itself) we know that Belshazzar’s father was actually Nabonidus — a king who was not related to Nebuchadnezzar. Christian apologists have suggested a couple of different ways to resolve this issue.


One is to say that when Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar are talked about as father and son, it simply means in the sense that Belshazzar is a ruler of Babylon and Nebuchadnezzar was a former ruler of Babylon. It’s just talking about succession, in other words, not actual parentage. As an example, they point to the Obelisk of Shalmaneser III, which has a section that talks about “Jehu of the house of Omri.” That’s significant because Jehu was not related to Omri. Instead, he was a usurper that took the kingdom from Omri’s grandson. Presumably, Shalmaneser III’s court would have known that Jehu was not related to Omri; therefore, Daniel may not have been in error to refer to Belshazzar and Nebuchadnezzar as father and son.

However, the phrase “house of” is not quite the same as “father and son”. It’s important to note that it’s no accident Omri was still being referred to a couple of generations after his reign. As Omri’s Wikipedia entry states:

The short-lived dynasty founded by Omri constitutes a new chapter in the history of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. It ended almost fifty years of constant civil war over the throne. There was peace with the Kingdom of Judah to the south, and even cooperation between the two rival states, while relations with neighboring Sidon to the north were bolstered by marriages negotiated between the two royal courts. This state of peace with two powerful neighbors enabled the Kingdom of Israel to expand its influence and even political control in Transjordan, and these factors combined brought economic prosperity to the kingdom.

Omri presided over a period of substantial growth for Israel, which caused many in the region to view Israel as Omri’s kingdom, even after he died. As the previous Wikipedia page goes on to say, even over 100 years after his death, Assyrian scribes were referring to Israel as “Omri-Land.” To me, that kind of situation seems rather different from the one we see in Daniel 5. “House of Omri” doesn’t sound as intimate as the words “father” and “son.” To help emphasize that a bit more, let’s look at how many times and in what ways the father-son connection is made in Daniel 5:

Belshazzar, when he tasted the wine, commanded that the vessels of gold and of silver that Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken out of the temple in Jerusalem be brought — v. 2

There is a man in your kingdom in whom is the spirit of the holy gods. In the days of your father, light and understanding and wisdom like the wisdom of the gods were found in him, and King Nebuchadnezzar, your father — your father the king — made him chief of the magicians, enchanters, Chaldeans, and astrologers — v. 11

The king answered and said to Daniel, “You are that Daniel, one of the exiles of Judah, whom the king my father brought from Judah” — v. 13

O king, the Most High God gave Nebuchadnezzar your father kingship and greatness and glory and majesty. — v. 18

And you his son, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, though you knew all this — v. 22

As you can see, the father-son connection was not just some throw away line that was barely mentioned. Within 20 verses, that connection is mentioned 9 times. If the writer of Daniel really did think Nebuchadnezzar was Belshazzar’s father, he couldn’t have said it any plainer. Belshazzar’s actual father, Nabonidus, is never mentioned in the Book of Daniel. What’s also striking is that the father-son connection is made by 4 different people in this chapter. Verse 2 is the voice of the narrator. The narrator had already written about Nebuchadnezzar in the first 4 chapters of the book, and he never wrote about Nabonidus. It seems strange to me that he would use the “father” description without more clarification, considering his audience wouldn’t likely know the actual relationships between these two individuals. In verse 11, Belshazzar’s mother (we presume) is speaking. She’s actually just referred to as “the queen,” so she could have been Belshazzar’s wife or Nabonidus’s. It’s possible that Nabonidus had more than one wife, so this queen might not even be Belshazzar’s mother. We really don’t know who she is, but she also makes the father-son connection, and she does so more emphatically than anyone else. In verse 13, we have Belshazzar refer to Nebuchadnezzar as “my father,” and in verses 18 and 22, we finally have Daniel make the reference as well. If the father-son connection weren’t real, but just a metaphor, it seems strange to me that all four individuals would use it.

Grandfather – Grandson

The other explanation is that Belshazzar’s mother is Nebuchadnezzar’s daughter. Initially, someone might object by pointing out that Daniel 5 says “father” not “grandfather.” But sadly, Hebrew apparently uses the same word for both. It’s a shame that God didn’t preserve his word in a language that would eliminate this kind of confusion, but there you go. It’s important to note that in the Bible this isn’t usually an issue, because lineage is either talked about in order (Abraham begot Isaac, Isaac begot Jacob, etc), or a distant enough ancestor is named that it eliminates any confusion (like referring to “son of David” centuries after David’s death). I can’t think of another instance in the Bible where the words “father” and “son” are used for a grandparent relationship that are as ambivalent and misleading as what we see in Daniel 5, but perhaps there are some. Either way, the words here do technically allow for a grandfather-grandson relationship.

Because the grandfather-grandson connection is a cleaner fit for what we find in Daniel 5, this claim is made quite often in apologetics circles. It’s not uncommon to see it referenced as though it’s fact, without even giving a reference to the original source of the information (like here). But what evidence do we have for this view? Is it just speculation in an effort to rationalize Daniel 5, or are there real reasons for thinking that Belshazzar was the grandson of Nebuchadnezzar?

It turns out that the Greek historian Herodotus records information about a Babylonian queen named Nitocris. According to him, she completed a number of construction projects in and around Babylon. She was married to a ruler of Babylon named Labynetos, and her son (also named Labynetos) ruled Babylon when Cyrus came against it (Histories I, v. 185-188). For many years, the general consensus was that the younger Labynetos must have been Nabonidus, since he was king when Cyrus took Babylon, and that the older Labynetos must have been Nebuchadnezzar. However, we’ve since discovered that Nabonidus’s mother was not Nitocris, but Addagoppe of Harran. We also know that Nebuchadnezzar was not the father of Nabonidus, and we’ve discovered that Belshazzar was a real individual and the son of Nabonidus. Therefore, it’s much more likely that Nitocris was the wife of Nabonidus and the mother of Belshazzar. That means Herodotus’s older Labynetos is most likely Nabonidus, and the younger Labynetos is Belshazzar.

But what makes us think that Nitocris was related to Nebuchadnezzar? I finally found that most articles that make this claim refer to a book by Raymond Philip Dougherty called Nabonidus and Belshazzar, published in 1929. Luckily, a university in my area has a copy of this book in their library, so I was able to read portions of it for myself. On pages 46-51 of the book, Dougherty establishes that Babylon and Egypt had occasional trade, diplomacy, and military cooperation during Nebuchadnezzar’s lifetime. It’s also known that there was a Nitocris of Egypt who lived around that time as well. It is not believed that she’s the same individual as Belshazzar’s mother. However, both her father and brother served as Pharaoh, and she was a fairly influential person during her time. Perhaps the Babylonian Nitocris was named after her. Dougherty suggests 3 possibilities for the identity of Babylon’s Nitocris (pg 52). Nabonidus might have married:

  1. an Egyptian woman not of royal rank.
  2. an Egyptian princess from Pharaoh’s court.
  3. a descendant of an Egyptian princess who had become the wife of a Babylonian king.

Dougherty thinks the first option is unlikely, because Nabonidus was so ambitious. While he wasn’t royal, he was of noble descent and held a prominent place in the Babylonian government. I don’t know why he couldn’t have married an Egyptian noble, like himself, but that’s not an option that Dougherty addresses. He feels that the second option is also unlikely for the exact opposite reason that he dismissed the first: Nabonidus wasn’t of high enough station to marry an Egyptian princess.

Dougherty spends most of his time discussing the third option. He points to the conflict that Nebuchadnezzar had with Babylon in 605 BCE. A treaty of some kind was agreed upon, because the two nations seem to have had peaceful relations for decades after that incident. Dougherty suggests that Nebuchadnezzar may have picked up an Egyptian wife to solidify that treaty (pg 57). Belshazzar began serving as co-regent with his father around 560 BCE, roughly 45 years after the treaty with Egypt. Conceivably, that’s enough time for a grandchild from this supposed union between Nebuchadnezzar and an Egyptian princess to be old enough to help rule. Dougherty also refers to the descriptions of all the construction and defense projects that Nitocris performed, according to Herodotus, and suggests that her active leadership aligns with the fact that Nabonidus spent time away from Babylon toward the end of his rule. He also argues that a Babylonian princess would have incentive to conduct such projects. I didn’t find that particular point very convincing, though. Regardless of where she came from, a wife of the Babylonian king and mother of the future king would be very invested in the kingdom.

Dougherty’s arguments are interesting, but they don’t change the fact that the argument for Nitocris being Nebuchadnezzar’s daughter is shear speculation. No historical document tells us that Nebuchadnezzar ever had an Egyptian wife, nor is there a document telling us that he had a daughter named Nitocris. Furthermore, despite considering Dougherty’s three possibilities, we have no idea how Nabonidus got his wife. She could have been an Egyptian noble, an Egyptian commoner, or even a Babylonian or Canaanite woman whose family had some ties to Egypt. The possibilities are nearly endless. As one reviewer said, only a year after Dougherty’s book was published:

Anyone who likes arguments will follow with interest the process by which the author, after presenting a hypothesis which is at best merely possible, immediately proceeds to assure us that he knows his case is not proved and that a probability only remains a probability. Practically nowhere in the book does the author use a doubtful argument without warning the reader that the case is not proved. Thus a single section of the book might carry conviction. But the real trouble comes when all these probabilities are finally linked together. To one assumed conclusion is added another which is also more or less doubtful. The first two serve as the basis for a third assumption which in itself is not their necessary corollary; and so the house of cards goes up, ready to come down at the first little touch. (Chiera, pg 401)

And the apologists’ claim that Belshazzar was Nebuchadnezzar’s grandson through Nitocris rests solely on this “house of cards.”

It also occurred to me that Nitocris might create an additional issue within Daniel. Christians often point to the fact that Belshazzar offers Daniel the third place in the kingdom as evidence that the writer of Daniel knew that Belshazzar was only co-regent, since his father Nabonidus was still living. But if the queen in Daniel 5 is Nitocris, it’s evident from Herodotus that she carried a great deal of authority in the kingdom. So how could Belshazzar have offered Daniel third place? The top three spots in the kingdom would have already been filled by Nabonidus, Nitocris, and Belshazzar.

In the end, there’s no good, substantial reason to think that the father-son connection that Daniel creates for Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar can be resolved in this way. We have no evidence linking Nitocris to Nebuchadnezzar. And considering how often and in what ways the father-son connection is spoken of in Daniel 5, the most likely explanation still seems to be that the writer was incorrect and actually did think they were father and son.



217 thoughts on “Family Ties: Nebuchadnezzar, Nabonidus, Belshazzar, and Nitocris”

  1. I had always read that Daniel was written in the 2nd century, about a 4th century literary character – the book itself presents two different writing styles, implying it had more than one author.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes, that’s true. There’s reason to think some of the stories in the book were likely oral traditions that had been passed down for a while. And as you said, some sections may be older than others. It’s a really interesting book. Nowhere near as cut and dry as I was led to believe when I was a Christian.


  3. Sorry, I’ve been watching a lot of “NYPD Blue” reruns recently, and in that last comment, I was channeling Dennis Franz’s ‘Sipawitz’ —

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Nate,
    Did you ever encounter any prior records that might explain the author’s confusion? I saw that the author of Baruch probably copied this mistake from Daniel, but I don’t recall ever seeing any prior precedent for the father-son link. Though it is interesting to note that Qumran’s ‘Prayer of Nabonidus’ puts the correct name on the “gone crazy” episode, which is attributed to Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel. So it seems like Daniel has merged Neb and Nab into a single character, which then makes the father-son relation correct, in a round-about sort of way.


  5. That’s a great question. No, I didn’t run across anything that would help explain that. My own opinion, which is strictly speculation, is that the Belshazzar story was an old story that had been passed down for a long time. The writer of Daniel already knew about Nebuchadnezzar from the Old Testament books that talked about him. Either the writer or someone prior to him made the assumption that Belshazzar was Neb’s son. Exactly how or when that happened, I don’t know.

    And good point about the possible conflation of Neb and Nab. That insanity story is another that must have been passed down in some form or another. Either the name was changed at some point (they’re similar enough that I could see it happen) or it just got dropped.

    Who knows, maybe one day we’ll get lucky and some team of archaeologists will uncover a cache of ancient documents that solves all this. 🙂


  6. Hi Nate,

    I debated with myself whether I would comment on your previous “Skeptical Bible Study” post, and decided not to because my comments generally provoke discussion that goes around the same circles. But I couldn’t resist this time, but I want to confine myself to one matter – your comments, which opened both posts, that these matters were instrumental in your deconversion.

    FRom the content of this blog, you seem to base a lot of your unbelief on the matters you raise in these two posts, so I want to start by setting out how the argument might go (please feel free to offer a more accurate version!):

    1. If the christian God exists, he would communicate perfectly.
    2. Such perfection would certainly include the Bible, which is claimed to be his “Word”.
    3. The Bible clearly contains errors, including historical inaccuracies and failed prophecies.
    4. Therefore the christian God doesn’t exist.

    So how does this argument stand up?

    Well, #1 and #2 would certainly be held by the church you used to be a part of, but wouldn’t be held by anywhere near all christians. CS Lewis, arguably the most influential English speaking christian of the last 100 years, believed the Bible began in legend and gradually became more historical, but he still allowed for factual, errors even in the Gospels. You know christians scholars like Peter Enns, NT Wright, wouldn’t agree with these premises as stated. I don’t either. So while you might think this way, it is by no means obvious, and you have some work to do if you want to convince others that this is how God “should” operate – especially as most of the scholars say he hasn’t done it that way.

    Many christians would contest #3, and this is really the main issue you are addressing in these posts. I think you have made a few unjustified assumptions here too – e.g.

    * you have assumed a definition of “inspired” that comes not from the dictionary but from conservative christianity – I would contest that;

    * you assume a view of prophecy that owes more to conservative christianity than to scholars – see e.g. this discussion

    * you conclude that Ezekiel’s prophecy against Tyre doesn’t “come even close”, but I think he got about three quarters right, and he only fails your criteria because you insist on 100% accuracy – which is in keeping with your assumptions at #1 & #2;

    * finally you dispose of a real problem for your argument with the statement “It’s a shame that God didn’t preserve his word in a language that would eliminate this kind of confusion, but there you go.” which is unworthy of your usual high standards of accuracy and fairness, and dodges rather than explains the difficulty.

    But having said all that, I respect your research and that of the recognised scholars, and don’t personally contest #3 (only the degree with which you think it holds).

    So I conclude that all you write here and in other places about prophecy and OT inaccuracy is a reasonable argument against the sort of fundamentalist christianity you grew up with, but says very little about christianity as believed by many thoughtful christians and most scholars.

    From where I sit, it looks like you are shooting an easy target while pretending you are hitting a much harder target. So what can I suggest constructively? I have two suggestions.

    1. You offer a “buyer beware” codicil on all posts which attack fundamentalism that makes it clear that you know it is not a useful attack on thoughtful christianity. I think if you did you might be surprised at how much you write hits this target.

    2. I’d love to see you write about thoughtful christianity. I’d love to see you start with the consensus of scholarship and try to build a case from that. I think you’d find it a lot harder.

    So that’s my challenge. What do you say? Thanks again for your usual courtesy and willingness for me to critique what you write.


  7. @unklee

    “believed by many thoughtful christians and most scholars”

    Quite arrogant for you to say that, don’t you think?

    Or perhaps no true scotsman?

    Perhaps you may be right, but at least I do think that majority of christians actually do believe the bible as inerrant and infallible, so the “many” may not be as many as you think.

    Also another note, the question of why there are so many “non-thoughtful” christians who also profess that the holy spirit speaks to them clearly?

    Lastly, I have a different view with regards to the consensus of scholarship with regards to Daniel. I’m assuming you think that Daniel is legit, but my readings have led me closer to what Arch as said: “I had always read that Daniel was written in the 2nd century, about a 4th century literary character – the book itself presents two different writing styles, implying it had more than one author.”

    And since we are referring to consensus, what about Ark’s issue of Exodus account, and also scientific consensus of many other fields that directly contradict theistic claims? Don’t think your challenge to Nate is as hard as you might think.


  8. @Arch

    “Or better yet – maybe the time will come when people cease to care.”

    This is so true. Painful but true.

    What Matt wrote in his blog:
    resonated strongly with me.

    I think it’s good that if people like us can cease to care, but right now to think about it sounds sad. Cuz it does make our struggle meaningless. I guess it’s akin to winning a war. Peace is great, but most veteran just end up hollow despite their victories, with many wishing they might have just died in the battlefield.

    Not sure where I’m going with this.

    Rant over.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Hi unkleE,

    I’m very glad you felt you could comment here — thanks for offering your thoughts!

    First of all, I largely agree with the 4 point analysis you made of my view. On the notion of inerrancy, you said this:

    You know christians scholars like Peter Enns, NT Wright, wouldn’t agree with these premises as stated. I don’t either. So while you might think this way, it is by no means obvious, and you have some work to do if you want to convince others that this is how God “should” operate – especially as most of the scholars say he hasn’t done it that way.

    That’s a fair statement. While I don’t believe any flavor of Christianity is true, you have to remember that most of the people I encounter lean toward inerrancy. It’s also been my experience that more moderate Christians aren’t quite as anti-science, and they also tend to be more accepting of other points of view. They tend to embrace equality, even with non-Christians. Not all, certainly — but the percentages are far better than what you find among fundamentalist inerrantists. So I tend to not be as bothered by moderates. I wouldn’t be upset if many of them stopped being Christians, but I don’t necessarily feel the need to dissuade those kinds of Christians.

    From where I sit, it looks like you are shooting an easy target while pretending you are hitting a much harder target.

    Mmm, I don’t know that I really agree with you here. I guess it depends on what you mean by “much harder target.” What target is it that you think I’m aiming for?

    As for your challenge, I may take you up on that. Or at least do another post about my thoughts on the importance of inerrancy. For instance, I don’t know that I’d agree with your label of “thoughtful” Christianity. In some ways, the more moderate versions seem more reasonable, because they simply aren’t as dogmatic. But I don’t know that I’d say they’re automatically more thoughtful or accurate than fundamentalism. In some ways, I think fundamentalism is more consistent. But I’ll say more about that when I tackle that post you’re suggesting.

    As always, thanks for giving me some stuff to think about!


  10. @powell,

    I totally get what you’re saying, and I have really mixed feelings about it, too (the possibility of general ambivalence toward Christianity). I thought Matt’s post was excellent, and it’s something I’ve thought about with my own kids as well. I’m thankful they aren’t being raised in it the way that I was, and I’m glad that there’s not a need for them to know as much about it as I do. But I also find myself thinking that they should still know something about it. If nothing else, so they know what to guard against.

    Liked by 3 people

  11. Unk is generally a bit nebulous as to the authorities he cites: “many,” “most,” but rarely if ever a specific citation.


  12. Hi Powell, do you believe most scholars hold a fundamentalist view of Daniel? If you do, then I’m surprised, but if you don’t then my view is no more arrogant than yours. Your assumption that I think Daniel is “legit” is not correct. I haven’t studied Daniel, but I understand some of the critical issues associated with it and I am willing to accept the consensus of historians. I feel Nate would have done his research competently and I specifically said I wasn’t contesting his broad summary (though I might contest the degree of his scepticism) , and we might disagree about exactly what “legit” means.

    I’m not going to get into all the earlier OT stuff, but I’ll say again that I accept the consensus of scholars, the only disagreement I’ve had with people here is what that consensus is. I’d base my view on something like this review of the Exodus.


  13. Hi Nate,

    It is good that we agree on quite a bit. I think there is actually quite a lot of common ground between us, in politics, ethics, history, etc, and in views on religion. But blogs tend to lead to emphasising the disagreements. 😦

    “What target is it that you think I’m aiming for?”

    Well, it’s a blog named “Finding Truth” and in many posts, including the last two, you talk about your reasons for deconverting. So I think it is reasonable to think you are offering reasons why you think atheism or something close to it is true. But I am suggesting that the reasons you give here have very little bearing on whether christianity is true or false, though they are very relevant to a fundamentalist form of christianity. That’s why I suggested you make it clearer what you are arguing against – as you did in your reply.

    “I don’t know that I’d agree with your label of “thoughtful” Christianity.”

    I’m quite happy to change the word, but I think we know what I’m getting at – christians who accept the historical evidence and don’t dogmatically hold to a hardline doctrinal view such as inerrancy. Some people use the word “progressive” christians, I don’t really mind. Perhaps “non-fundamentalist” would work, but I think fundamentalist has some connotations that I prefer not to get into.

    I’ll look forward to your post if you get that going. Thanks again.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. @Unklee,

    “Hi Powell, do you believe most scholars hold a fundamentalist view of Daniel?”

    No of course not. But the problem is that in many churches (I can testify that 100% of all the church I attended which is 8 across 4 different denomination) teach a fundamentalist view of Daniel despite most scholars disagreeing, and furthermore with a large portion of the pastors that I dealt with being through seminary colleges themselves.

    So, the arrogance I was referring to is saying that you are right, and the majority of christians are wrong – despite them also having the same holy spirit and worship the same god as you.

    That is something I cannot wrap my head around. What if I told you that perhaps it’s the fundamentalist people who are right and actually the minority such as yourself (and of course the rest of us) are wrong? They definitely have more people praying fervently on their side compared to yours. So even if we establish that God is real, I think I’ll probably side with them even though my rationality lean towards us being correct.

    Then again, like I said perhaps you are right, and perhaps you are right all the way, which is also why Jesus said not all who call me Lord Lord, I will know them.

    No worries about the Exodus bit. Was a cheap shot from me. I apologize.


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