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The Book of Daniel in the Diaspora

The variety of languages and genres employed in the book of Daniel hints at its roots in the Jewish Diaspora.

Matthäus Merian the Elder
Matthäus Merian the Elder

The book of Daniel presents readers with some of the most interesting problems in the entire Bible. Reading Daniel as a product of the Jewish Diaspora may provide solutions to many of them. But what are the problems?

First, the book is written in two different (although related) languages: Hebrew and Aramaic. Dan 1 and Dan 8-12 are in Hebrew, whereas Dan 2-7 are in Aramaic. Second, there are two radically different kinds of literature (three if you count the unique prayer in Dan 9:3-19) in Daniel: “resistance stories” and apocalyptic. The first six chapters are resistance stories of Daniel and his three Jewish friends, Azariah, Mishael, and Hananiah (better known by their Babylonian names Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) as they face challenges to their religious beliefs and practices in the foreign settings of the Babylonian and Persian Empires. The stories could be dated to the late Persian or early Hellenistic periods (400–300 B.C.E.).

Dan 7-12 makes a radical change to apocalyptic visions that feature typically bizarre imagery (“… the first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings …”). Dan 7, Dan 8, and Dan 10-12 present three distinct examples of apocalyptic visions that are typical of apocalyptic literary style (similar to Revelation in the New Testament and to a few dozen examples of apocalyptic not in the Jewish or Christian canons, such as 1 Enoch). This style involves visions experienced by a seer identified with the “Daniel” of the previous stories and presents an interpretation of historical events in the Hellenistic Period (200–150 B.C.E.) in highly emotive and symbolic language.

Finally, Dan 9 features a long prayer that is a classic example of a postexilic form known as a penitential prayer—a confession of the historical sins of the Jewish people that asks for God’s guidance and forgiveness in the Diaspora context (see the other “classic” examples of the penitential prayer in Ezra 9:5-15 and Neh 9:5-37).

The Greek translations of the book of Daniel added three more stories: Bel and the Dragon, Susannah, and a long poem added to Daniel 3. Lastly, a fragment of a story called “The Prayer of Nabonidus” was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, and sounds very much like yet another Daniel tale.

 It seems that our book of Daniel is a compendium of “Daniel ” materials—stories and visions. The stories share certain thematic similarities: profound threats of punishment and pressures to give up treasured Jewish traditions. Even if the stories are unlikely to be historical, they certainly reflect contexts of subordination and mistreatment that are likely to reflect historical realities faced in the Jewish Diaspora under the Babylonian, Persian, and Hellenistic regimes.

The visions, too, reflect worries about potential threats. But the visions, like the stories, advise confidence in the ultimate power of God over all earthly dominions, despite their apparent strength at the moment. In fact, one of the comforts of apocalyptic visions is surely the profound sense that world events are not beyond God’s control.

Finally, the very fragmentary nature of the book—emerging as a compendium over time—points to the Diaspora setting of the Daniel material. These stories and visions likely circulated among communities as “rumors” and “gossip,” even jokes (Dan 2 and Dan 4 are actually quite satirical, as is Bel and the Dragon in the Greek editions), before being gathered into the book we know today as Daniel. It is, in short, a characteristic product of disparate communities, spread out and in Diaspora settings.

  • Daniel L. Smith-Christopher

    Daniel L. Smith-Christopher is professor of Old Testament at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. A Quaker, Smith-Christopher has a particular interest in the biblical literature of Exile, issues of peace and nonviolence, and also in indigenous and diasporic interpretations of Scripture.