Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Bible Reading Plan: The Book of Daniel and the evils of the historico-critical school



If you are following the Bible in a year reading plan I suggested a few weeks back for the Year of Faith, it is time, tomorrow, to turn to the Book of Daniel.

Daniel is a great read, with some of the most memorable stories in the Bible, such as the three young men in the fiery furnace (Chapter 3), the invisible had writing doom at Belshazzar's feast (Chapter 5), Daniel in the lion's den (Chapter 6), the story of Susannah (Chapter 13), and Bel and the dragon (chapter 14).

And Catholic, and most other contemporary commentaries on it, are a nice illustration of the destructive force of historico-critical Scriptural scholarship that is thankfully waning.

Prophet or historian?

Daniel is set in Babylon during the time of the Exile, and is not included in the prophets in the Hebrew canon probably because although he had visions, recorded in the book, he did not play the usual role of prophetic intermediary between God and his people.  Rather, Daniel was a Jew who became successful at the Babylonian court and who recorded important events there, as well as his own visions of the future.

The book of Daniel is extremely important from a Christian point of view, because it prophesies, amongst other things, the coming of the Messiah (see especially Chapters 7 and 9). 

Yet the book itself clearly claims to be genuine history as well as prophesy, and there are several New Testament statements to that effect, including a reference by Jesus to Daniel as a real historical person, and references one of his prophesies.

Unsurprisingly the work has attracted a long string of attackers.

The Jewish anti-Christian reaction in the late first/early second century saw some inconvenient-to-their -case parts of Daniel excluded from the Jewish canon on the grounds they were written in Aramaic.

In 285 the pagan Porphyry wrote a tract called Against Christians in which he claimed that as prophesy is impossible, the book was really written at the time of the Maccabees, in order to justify the struggle against Antiochus Epiphanies. 

That theory that became popular again in the seventeenth century (some sections of the book were excluded from the Protestant Bible).

And Porphyry's theory became de rigeur even for Catholic scholars, under the influence of rationalist and modernist Scriptural scholarship in the twentieth century.  Indeed, even the Navarre Bible claims that  - despite the author's claims to have actually witnessed the historical events he describes - it was actually written in the second century BC not the sixth; that the events are not meant to be regarded as historical; and that there is no evidence 'Daniel' is a real person rather than simply a literary device.

How Catholics should approach the claims of Scripture

Recent archaeological and linguistic evidence has however, in my view at least, pretty much demolished all of the claims for the late authorship of Daniel.

In 1893, Pope Leo XIII wrote the Encyclical Providentissimus Deus in which he wrote that where Scripture appeared to be contradicted by science or archeology, theologians should not assume the mistake lies in Scripture, which after all is inerrant (para 29). 

Of course, that did not stop the modernists in this particular case.

They claimed Daniel must be a late composition because (apart from being correct in his prophesies) he uses a few Greek words (which, it was claimed, would be impossible for him to know prior to the invasion of Alexander the Great); uses of Persian loan words that would have been unknown; wrote partly in Aramaic; refers to people who clearly did not exist such as Belshazzar, and made historical mistakes.

All of these arguments have now been comprehensively debunked: the archaeological evidence shows that the Greeks had a presence in the Middle East long before Alexander the Great came along; the Persian words used by Daniel are entirely consistent with the place and era he lived in'; the use of an Aramaic 'core' embedded in Hebrew was a known literary device of the sixth century, and the linguistic features of both the Aramaic and Hebrew text mark it as suitably ancient; Belshazzar was indeed a real historical person; and Daniel is right about his history.

The most important evidence is archaeological.  First the dating of Dead Sea Scrolls versions of the Book of Daniel make the second century BC dating of the text pretty much untenable.  The claim that Belshazzar didn't exist was demolished by nineteenth century archaeological discoveries.  And indeed all the other claimed historical inaccuracies in the book have actually turned out not to be inaccurate at all in the light of recent archaeological evidence.

Further reading

So if you are going to read a commentary to help you as you read the Book of Daniel, make sure it's not one infected by modernism!  Fortunately Haydock is as usual a sound starting point.  Or you could read St Jerome's commentary on Daniel.

Modern (and orthodox!) commentaries on sections of Daniel that you might find of interest include:
There is a huge literature on the scholarly debate on Daniel, but a couple of useful sources for further reading available online include:

1 comment:

Tancred said...

I first encountered the Biblical Critical School at a "Catholic" High School and I've always hated it.

It always struck me as cowardly and dishonest.