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. Hi Nate.

    “…according to the Bible he (Yahweh) had never previously resurrected anyone in all of human history.

    I intentionally used the word “resurrection” in my statement because even Christians admit there has only been (at most) ONE resurrection in all of human history. Yahweh and Jesus may have “raised from the dead” several people, but neither had ever resurrected anyone (immortal body, supernatural powers, etc).

    Christians often accuse skeptics of discounting the possibility of miracles and the existence of a Creator God in their discussions about the Resurrection. However, in my discussions with Christians, I argue that even if we accept the existence of Yahweh as a fact, and we accept that he is all-powerful, and we accept that he sometimes violates the laws of nature to perform miracles, the odds that natural explanations, such as vivid dreams/visions, are behind the early Christian belief in a Resurrection are still much higher than a literal resurrection for the simple reason that no resurrection, prior to Jesus death, had EVER occurred.

    I believe that in order for Christians to say that natural explanations for an empty tomb and for the alleged appearances of Jesus are implausible and much lower in probability than a miracle, they must assume a priori that Jesus was God or at least divine in some sense. But that is begging the question. Jesus’ divinity is only proven if he was bodily resurrected. If he wasn’t bodily resurrected, he was just one in a long line of false messiahs.

    The Christians on TW don’t like that and are furiously insisting that they are not assuming Jesus divinity a priori in their argument…but I believe they very much are. What I have told them is this: There are millions of people on earth who believe in miracles, believe in Yahweh, and believe that Yahweh sometimes violates the laws of nature to perform miracles, but who agree with skeptics that the evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus is very, very weak. These people are called…JEWS.


  2. Ah, okay. I think I see the distinction you’re making.

    You make an interesting point about the a priori assumptions they’re making…


  3. The stories of “the empty tomb and for the alleged appearances of Jesus” were written by anonymous authors who never met the man, but were writing on the basis of multiple-hand information.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I agree Arch. The evidence for a historical Jesus is ify. But since I am trying to “convert” these people to the truth, I am using a different strategy other than a full frontal assault to blow them out of the water.

    So I accept as much of their position as I can, including an empty tomb, and then I try to show how a natural explanation for the early Christian belief in a resurrection is STILL much more probable.

    If I told them that it is doubtful that a real Jesus existed, they wouldn’t even listen to me.


  5. I can’t argue with that, but it’s been my observation that most Christians, having done no extracurricular reading or research, believe that the gospel authors really were Mark, Matthew, Luke and John (the son of Zebedee), and that they were all contemporary with Yehsua and were reporting events as they personally witnessed them. Once I inform them as to how it actually was, some are prompted to look it up, if for no other reason than to prove me wrong, and come away quite surprised that in all of the years they had been attending church, no minister had ever bothered to mention that to his congregation. In some instances, that experience marks the beginning of the end – a little research often leads to more, then the who thing begins to unravel.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. The guys I’m up against consider themselves “apologists”. They are very well read when it comes to NT scholarship. They will admit that not all the gospel authors were eyewitnesses but they believe some of them were.


  7. Which ones? “Mark,” who wrote in 70 AD? “Matthew,” who wrote in 75 AD, and copied 90% of his entire gospel from “Mark”? Or “Luke,” who wrote about 85 AD and copied 60% of his gospel from “Mark,” or maybe “John,” who wrote between 90 and 105 AD?

    You know what? If I believed I had met the actual son of a god, watched him die and saw him alive again, I’d be shouting it from the rooftops! The earliest of these guys wrote 40 years after the fact – maybe he was a slow writer —

    Liked by 1 person

  8. A thought on another facet of the Christian belief system:

    I and my children have been learning German for the last five years. One of the best ways to improve your vocabulary in a foreign language is to read children’s books because the words used in children’s stories are basic, common words. When we started learning German five years ago, we were still Christians. At that time, I bought a lot of Bible story books in German to read to my kids.

    I still read these stories to my children for several reasons. It is good German practice; the stories are fascinating; and there are good moral lessons in the stories…but not always in the ways we were taught to see them when we were Christians. Tonight we read the story of Yahweh testing Abraham’s love and loyalty to him by ordering him to take his son up to a mountain to kill him and then burn his body on an altar.

    My young children were horrified.

    We had quite an interesting discussion about the morality of any being, god or otherwise, ordering a father to kill his child as a test of loyalty.

    I strongly encourage every Christian parent to get out their children’s Bible story books and read them. Really read them. Is the morality displayed by Yahweh and his followers the morality you want your children to adopt?

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Yeah William, that’s a distinction I’d never heard before either. For those who view resurrection and being raised from the dead as different things, I think they view being “raised from the dead” as someone being brought back to life, but that individual will die again some day. Resurrection, on the other hand, is when someone comes back from the dead but will never die again. One site I found quoted Luke 20:35-36:

    But they which shall be accounted worthy to obtain that world, and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry, nor are given in marriage: Neither can they die any more: for they are equal unto the angels; and are the children of God, being the children of the resurrection.


  10. Gary, have you read Peter Boghossian’s book A Manual for Creating Atheists? I think you’d find his approach really fascinating. He advocates focusing on how we know or believe things vs the beliefs themselves. I’m about halfway through it right now, and I plan to start working some of his strategies into my conversations with people.

    There’s also a guy on YouTube who takes the Boghossian approach — pretty interesting:

    Liked by 1 person

  11. “Believe God and not man.”

    But the only things you know about your God is what some man has told you. So you have to believe in man before you can believe in God or believe what those men have said that God said.

    “Oh, well, Jesus is special because now that he’s risen, he’ll never die again, where as the others who’ve been claimed to have come back from the dead did die again.”

    How do you know? Say my older brother lives longer than me, does that mean he’ll live forever? Again, believing these stories and claims is first believing the men that told them, before it is believing in God.

    it’s just stories. Far fetched stories and the only evidence for these outrageous stories are more stories and people who believe them.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Posted by Apologiaphoenix (apologist, Nick Peters) on TW:

    It’s more probable (the bodily resurrection hypothesis) because it better explains all the data we have, is more in line with what is already known, is not ad hoc, and has better illuminating power. No. You don’t need Jesus’s deity for this at all. (I had suggested that Christians assume the divinity of Jesus, a priori in their Resurrection argument) You really need to give up mind reading. You kind of suck at it.

    Gary: What you already know comes from four anonymous books, written decades after the alleged event, two of which copy much of the first! Possible explanations for a missing body and alleged sightings of dead people are not ad hoc if we present them as POSSIBLE explanations, not THE explanation. If I suggest that a missing cow is probably the result of theft, and not an alien abduction, that is NOT ad hoc.

    Better illuminating power??? Maybe in the world of Science Fiction!

    -There were no guards.
    -The body was left unguarded for some part of 72 hours.
    -Someone, for unknown reasons, takes the body.
    -Someone finds the empty grave.
    -The empty grave triggers the disciples memory that Jesus had predicted he would rise from the dead after three days.
    -In the excitement, bordering hysteria, people begin to “see” Jesus in vivid dreams, visions, and false sightings.

    And the Resurrection story takes off, with multiple details added over the next thirty to sixty years.

    That is what most educated, non-Christians would consider as the most probable explanation for the early Christian Resurrection belief. There is nothing ad hoc about it. It is no different than surmising the probable explanations for a missing milk cow

    Liked by 3 people

  13. Christians are confused, insulted, and even infuriated that skeptics do not accept the list of eyewitnesses to the bodily resurrection of Jesus, as listed in the Early Creed quoted by Paul in First Corinthians chapter 15, as historically reliable. “Do skeptics think that the early Christians would make this list up? The early Christians were risking their lives by preaching this stuff! That makes no sense!”

    Most skeptics accept the early dating of the Creed, and, most skeptics do not believe that early Christians just made up this list of eyewitnesses. Most skeptics believe that early Christians sincerely believed that they had seen the resurrected Jesus. However, we skeptics believe that the most probable explanation for this belief is not a miraculous, once in history resurrection, but some natural phenomenon, or collection of phenomena, which the early Christians innocently confused for a miracle.

    Some Christians demand that we skeptics give evidence for any alternative explanation for the early Christian resurrection belief, but we skeptics are under no obligation to prove an extra-ordinary claim to be false nor are we under any obligation to provide evidence for any one naturalistic explanation. The onus is on Christians to provide the evidence for their extra-ordinary claim, and, to demonstrate that all possible naturalistic explanations are impossible. If even one naturalistic cause is possible to explain the event, and it can be shown that this naturalistic cause has happened more than just once in human history, then by simple mathematics, a naturalistic explanation is more probable than a once in history miracle resurrection.

    So what possibly gave rise to the early Christian belief in the post-death appearances of a resurrected Jesus? Here is one possible scenario:

    The chief disciple, Peter, has a vivid dream, or a trance, in which Jesus appears to him and tells him that he has been resurrected by the power of God and shows him his wounds as proof. The next day, Peter announces to the disciples that Jesus has been resurrected and that Jesus has appeared to him! The disciples who had been in deep despair since the sudden death of their leader are jolted with excitement bordering on hysteria. Soon several other disciples receive similar appearances by Jesus in dreams or trances. And shortly thereafter as the Twelve (including Matthias) are sitting on a hillside, a bright light appears at the top of the hill. It is so bright it is blinding. It takes the shape of a cross then it disappears!

    “It was Jesus! He has just appeared to the Twelve!”

    A few weeks later, a similar phenomenon happens to a group of five hundred believers!

    And it is these events upon with the Early Creed is based, and from which, many decades later, embellished stories of groups of women coming to an empty tomb, multiple earthquakes, multiple celestial beings, and multiple dead saints roaming the streets of a major city, emerge to give us the Gospels.


  14. Extra-ordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

    “If it is a miracle, any sort of evidence will suffice, if it is a fact, proof is required.”
    — Mark Twain —


  15. Oh boy, where do I start (having just seen your ‘witnesses’) – the testimony of the four anonymous gospel authors don’t count, as they wrote from 40 to 75 years after the fact, never met Yeshua and have no idea what he said or did, operating as they were on multi-hand information.

    The term in Revelation, “like the Son of Man,” could be, and has been, interpreted by apologists as being Yeshua, but the OT is full of references to “the Son of Man,” and it has never been established that Yeshua WAS the Son of Man.

    As for any statements in Acts, it has been confirmed by “The Acts Seminar,” that the Acts was written by yet another anonymous author, even later, in the second century AD, who did not follow Paul and corroborate his travels, but rather used Paul’s letters over half a century after the death of Paul, to write his testament.

    There were no evidentially-confirmed witnesses to the resurrection of Yeshua.


  16. We have more evidence for Jesus than we have for almost anybody from his time period. Prof Bart Ehrman, University of North Carolina in an interview by The Infidel Guy

    What I find disturbing with such forthright statements is those that make them never seem to tell us exactly what this evidence is.

    This becomes even more confusing when you read other statements like this:
    Although there is overwhelming evidence that the New Testament is an accurate and trustworthy historical document,

    And when you read an encyclopaedia you are told that while there are a few extra biblical references these cannot be substantiated.
    In fact, there is doubt cast over their veracity. This includes references by Josephus and Tacitus. In reality, the only ‘evidence’ we have is the bible, and that is not evidence at all. Especially when supporters of this erroneous text write nonsense as recorded above pertaining to this ”trustworthy historical document”.
    And the second this is show to be absolute twaddle why on earth should we trust anything else ”biblical”.

    This problem of verification is compounded by the fact the is not a single scrap of contemporary evidence for the character, Jesus of Nazareth. Nothing!

    So, can anyone here actually provide a list of this evidence, this iron-clad, unimpeachable documentation or archaeological evidence that I can read?


  17. You are absolutely correct, Ark. Christian apologists make me nuts. Even if one allows for the existence of Yahweh, and allows for his ability to perform miracles, Christians must admit that Yahweh has never before or since performed a resurrection. So if there are any natural possible explanations for the early Christian belief in Jesus’ resurrection, the probability that these natural explanations are the cause of the belief is much higher than a once in history resurrection. It’s simple statistical probability: math.

    They still don’t buy it. They then dive into philosophical and metaphysical arguments to show that prior-probability is irrelevant for this claim, arguments that they would never use for any other event in their daily lives.

    To me it shows that most apologists have no interest in the truth. They are only interested in defending their ancient tall tale to the death, regarding of the evidence.


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