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. It’s really rather irrelevant, as Paul hijacked Christianity and strayed so far away from the messages ascribed to Yeshua that god Jr. himself wouldn’t recognize it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It is very interesting to me how easily it can viewed that way.

    When I was a Christian, I saw it as a God Approved evolution and planned progression of the religion through the new apostle paul.

    But now that i’m unplugged from the Matrix, I see several hints where Paul was an outlier, making real changes; from his frequent defenses of apostleship, to his quibbling with the other apostles, and how he’s the only one who says it’s alright to eat meat sacrificed to idols which had been condemned in Acts multiple times and again in Revelation 2 or 3 where one of the 7 churches of Asia had a crooked and wicked member who was coercing disciples to eat meat sacrificed to idols…

    But all that being said, Paul still had several good points, one just has to cut it out of everything else.

    But I am very interested in Paul’s Christianity compared to the rest of the NT.


  3. Here’s something to consider, William.
    Paul claims he received his authority through revelation; Galatians 1 ( I think).
    Yet Paul is claimed to have met Jesus’ brother, James, who was supposedly head of the Jerusalem church; the mantle being passed to him by his kid brother. So I wonder what Paul and James talked about?


  4. Though I have not finished reading Ehrman’s latest book, I would like to share a passage he wrote, “There are 2 billion people today who are committed to the memory of Jesus. How many of those 2 billion people have what I, as a historian, would consider to be a historically accurate recollection of the basic facts of Jesus’ real life and ministry? Some thousands? It’s a tiny fraction. The historical Jesus did not make history. The remembered Jesus did. “

    Liked by 4 people

  5. I wonder how Peter, “the rock upon which I will build my church,” felt about that —


  6. I found an interesting question in Bart Ehrman’s The New Testament: a historical introduction to the early Christian writings:

    ‘Matthew’ (5:17-20) said that Jesus commanded his followers to keep the entire law even better than did the Pharisees and the scribes. Paul urged the Galatians (5:2-3) not to become circumcised, because if they did, they would be obligated to follow the entire law.

    Ehrman asks, suppose ‘Matthew’ and Paul had been brought together and instructed to produce a joint position paper on whether believers in Jesus were to follow Jewish law – would they have been able to hammer out a consensus?


  7. yeah, but believers won’t be bothered by this.

    My brand of christianity explained this by saying that the Old Law stayed in effect until the Church was established, which didn’t actually happen until the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2 when the Apostles were baptized with fire and converted 3000 souls.

    We didnt believe that Peter was “the rock” upon what christ would build his church, but rather the rock was the essence of perter’s confession, that Jesus was the son of god.

    The Gospel was to the Jew First and then to the Gentile.

    SO when Matthew wrote, he wrote of pre-church rules, where Paul not only wrote of post-Church establishment, also after acceptance of Gentiles which came in, when, acts 10, with Cornelius?

    but there are other differences to be sure.

    But why believe either Matthew or Paul, strangers to all of us, who claimed wild and outrageous supernatural things? Should we believe such claims at the word of any man, much less the word of strangers?


  8. Well, I believed you were replying to Nate:

    william commented on Family Ties: Nebuchadnezzar, Nabonidus, Belshazzar, and Nitocris.

    in response to Nate:

    So, why not?


  9. william — I think you were giving examples of what your church believed, but I can’t help but ask … you do know that it was Paul who claimed “The Gospel was to the Jew First and then to the Gentile..”, yes? Yeshua never said this nor did he support it. But as has been pointed out numerous times and in numerous places, Paul said and taught many things that Yeshua never mentioned and, in fact, would not even have recognized.


  10. Smart a__! 😉

    Since we both feel the same way about Paul, isn’t it rather obvious we might cross paths in our comments and opinions? Sheesh.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. oh sure, yeah, it’s what my church taught and what i believed when i was a believer. But even though Paul was the one who said that, that is the way it played out in Acts. And even if that was the apostles and not Jesus, Jesus did say that whatever they bound on earth would be bound in heaven, etc.

    I’m just saying that somethings speak to me now as a disbeliever that wouldn’t have spoken to me while I was still a believer.

    But really, we didnt even know what jesus actually said – we only know what a couple of guy said that he said – so it’s hard to take as complete gospel either way.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Hi Nate, thanks for your comment. Yes I agree with what you say. I made it clear that I was talking about basic facts, not my beliefs, that I was talking about what people believed about Jesus’ miracles, not whether they were genuine miracles, that I was talking about the broad shape of Jesus’ life and teachings, not the historicity of each individual story.

    Ken, I’d be interested to hear more of what your learn from Ehrman’s book. He says himself he changed his views during the writing of ‘How Jesus became God’, so what have you learned so far from ‘Jesus before the gospels’?

    Hi William, we seem to be on different wavelengths. I certainly wasn’t talking about Jesus’ divinity. There is a lot of argument here and elsewhere about Jesus, and experts in conflict resolution have identified different causes of conflict. And one is “data conflict” – differing views and understandings about the facts. They say if there is a data conflict, that has to be resolved before most other matters can be addressed, otherwise protagonists have no common basis and will be at cross purposes. So before anyone can discuss Jesus’ divinity, the basic historical facts about him have to be accepted. Thus Nate and I can discuss other matters about Jesus because we are broadly agreed on what the historians say. What about you?


  13. “Ken, I’d be interested to hear more of what your learn from Ehrman’s book.”

    I am more concerned that I quote him correctly. 🙂 Initially Ehrman says, ” For about 2 years now I have spent virtually all my free time doing nothing but reading about memory–what cognitive psychologists have to say about individual memories , what sociologists can tell us about collective memory , and what anthropologists have written about oral cultures and the ways they preserve their unwritten traditions.”

    “The more I read the more I became surprised that so many scholars of the New Testament–the vast bulk of them, so far as I can tell — have never explored this research, even though it is so fascinating and most immediately relevant. Ehrman says in his conclusion, “But even though I do deal with the Bible as a historian, I do not personally think that is the only way to deal with the Bible, and I find it unsettling when readers think that once the Gospels are shown to have discrepencies, implausibilities, and historical mistakes, we should just get rid of them and move on to other things.”

    “In my view, the early Christian Gospels are so much more than historical sources. They are memories of early Christians about the one they considered to be the most important person ever to walk the planet. Yes, these memories can be recognized as distorted when seen from the perspective of historical reality. But–at least for me–that doesn’t rob them of their value. It simply makes them memories. All memories are distorted.”

    I would be interested in your take on this book should you decide to read it, unkleE.


  14. The problem I have with the Gospels as being different memories is the so-called synoptic problem. The evidence that Matthew and Luke relied on Mark’s Gospel as a source is overwhelming. There is also clear evidence that the later Gospel accounts subtly changed the picture of Jesus to make him more in control, more divine and less human.

    These factors cause me to ponder whether we are seeing different memories or rather the development of a legend of sorts.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Hi Ken, as soon as I read your quotes, I knew I had seen them before, but had forgotten. I must have looked at Ehrman’s book on Amazon, or something like that, I can’t remember now.

    The idea of personal and collective memory are very interesting to me. The ideas are not new, although this is apparently the first time that Ehrman has addressed them. I have a book, Historical Jesus by Anthony Le Donne (2011) that addresses these questions. I will have to re-read it.

    It is clear that the gospels present accounts of Jesus’ life that reflect the beliefs of the writers. It could hardly be otherwise, and the experts say that most writings of the time had definite political or personal aims and viewpoints. Le Donne argues that rather than seeing the personal perspectives as getting in the way of knowing history, we should see them as revealing history. I note that a review of Ehrman’s book concludes with this quote: “The historical Jesus did not make history,” he writes. “The remembered Jesus did.” Le Donne is saying something similar.

    The other author I have read on the subject is Richard Bauckham, and his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (2006), which builds on the research of Birger Gerhardsson, Samuel Byrskog and others on oral societies. In such societies, important stories are not passed down individually, but collectively, with checks and corrections, and so the important details are preserved even while some of the settings and fringe detail are allowed to vary. Again, the review of Ehrman’s book suggests a similar thought: “Readers of the Bible can, however, assume that “gist memories” are based in solid reality. Gist memories reflect the basic situation (e.g., Jesus was crucified) without potentially distorted qualifications (e.g., dialogue at the site of the crucifixion).”

    This fits with what we see in the Gospels – agreement about the important facts but sometimes the setting is lost or changed or details vary. That doesn’t bother me unduly, as I’ve said already here – the broad scope of Jesus’ life and teachings is quite clear, and if the Gospel of John (for example) expresses some of what Jesus said but in John’s words, I see no difficulty. It is content that matters to me, not the actual words (which we don’t have anyway because they were in Aramaic, and have been twice translated to Greek and then English before I get to read them).

    It is fascinating stuff, and I think it is worth reading several approaches to the topic. How are you seeing it so far?


  16. “The other author I have read on the subject is Richard Bauckham, and his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (2006), which builds on the research of Birger Gerhardsson, Samuel Byrskog and others on oral societies. In such societies, important stories are not passed down individually, but collectively, with checks and corrections, and so the important details are preserved even while some of the settings and fringe detail are allowed to vary. Again, the review of Ehrman’s book suggests a similar thought:”

    Well unkleE, not so fast. Ehrman knows people like you would read and agree with people like the author you just mentioned (Richard Bauckham). Sorry for being lengthy but here is what Ehrman says about Bauckham. “Outside the ranks of conservative evangelical Christians, very few if any biblical scholars have found Bauckham’s case persuasive. It founders on numerous grounds, not the least of which is its steadfast refusal to take seriously scholarship on eyewitness testimony undertaken for more than a century by such experts as legal scholars see the real-life importance of the question.”

    Ehrman goes on to say about Bauckham, ” The book is also not persuasive that the Gospels are either eyewitness reports themselves (e.g., John) or reports directly based on eyewitness testimony.”

    unkleE, “It is fascinating stuff, and I think it is worth reading several approaches to the topic. How are you seeing it so far?”

    I think reading Ehrman’s book is a different approach than your Mr Bauckham . Are you planning on reading this book too ?

    Thank you for the exchange of ideas .


  17. @Unklee.
    Once more, you continue to use the terms fact and facts.

    I think as a matter of intellectual honesty it would be very helpful if you could list at last a few of these facts to which you continually allude.

    Obviously you will not respond to my comment, but for the sake of others here, Nate, Ken, etc who have all been officially christian at some point in their lives.
    Again, I am not asking for a treatise, just a short list of some of the facts about the character, Jesus of Nazareth.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Hi Ken,

    Yes I saw that comment in Ehrman’s book. He interacts with Bauckham’s and Gerhardsson’s ideas a bit judging by the index. (But he seems to have not referenced the LeDonne book I have read.)

    His criticism is of course only one side of the story. There are many scholars who praise Bauckham’s book (e.g. Wright, Dunn, Stanton, Hengel are featured on the cover), and most of the reviews I have read praise sections and disagree with other sections. It is such a wide-ranging book that is a likely outcome. Ehrman too gets both positive and negative reviews, with some critics saying he tends to overstate his case.

    I think both the praise and the criticism of both authors seem to have some reasonable basis – that’s why I think it is good to read several viewpoints, as you are doing.

    I don’t always agree with Ehrman, but I quoted him because I think in discussion with people I disagree with, it is best to go more than halfway towards them, and not mostly quote people who agree with me.


  19. unkleE , “I don’t always agree with Ehrman, but I quoted him because I think in discussion with people I disagree with, it is best to go more than halfway towards them, and not mostly quote people who agree with me.”

    unkleE, maybe I am missing something, but where have you gone more than halfway in our discussion ? You listed Ehrman (a professing agnostic) which might be considered a person representing my side. Then you mentioned Bauckham, Gerhardsson (Swedish theologian and Priest), Wright (Anglican bishop), James Dunn (minister of the Church of Scotland), Graham Stanton (licensed by the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand ), Martin Hengel ( Lutheran parish minister), Anthony LeDonne (Mission Statement:To recruit and educate faithful leaders for the mission of Jesus Christ in the world), and Samuel Byrskog .

    I don’t hardly see where you have gone more than halfway here. Where am I wrong ?

    Liked by 3 people

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