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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Historical Context.

1.

After the Exile, and the return of exiles to Judah, the Judeans lived under Persians (until 331) then under Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic-Egyptian kingdom of the Ptolemies. In 199 Judah was captured by the Hellenistic-Syrian kingdom of the Seleucids. Daniel deals simultaneously with the beginning and end of that timespan. Daniel's lifetime lasts from the beginning of the exile of Judeans under Nebuchadrezzar (always called Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel) until the reign of Cyrus. Daniel's actual dates of birth and death are not given, but the fact that his life coincides with the exile of the Judeans is the significant point. The other period is that which the visions clearly point to: the time of the last kingdom, the final persecution and ultimate deliverance of the righteous: in other words, the end of history. Is the book, then, a prediction of events centuries ahead of its time, or a history veiled in the form of prediction? Those who dislike the idea of what one commentator called a ‘fraud’ argue for a sixth-century BCE date, and a real Daniel as the author. The majority of scholars, however, accept that the visions, at least, betray a knowledge of the time at which the ‘end’ is set, which can be deduced as the reign of the Seleucid (Syrian) king Antiochus IV, known as Epiphanes. Antiochus banned Jewish practices, desecrated the temple, and provoked a war of resistance under the leadership of the Maccabees which, after his death, succeeded in restoring the temple and traditional Jewish religious practices.

2.

The main reasons for assigning a Maccabean date to the book (at least in its final form) are (a) some inaccuracies that a sixth-century writer ought not to have made, (b) the presence of a genuine prediction at the end of the book which we now know to be incorrect, and (c) the popularity of a kind of pseudo-historical writing among Jews of the Maccabean period and later, in which figures of antiquity were made to foretell the future (e.g. Enoch, Noah, the twelve sons of Jacob).

3.

However, it seems probable that while the visions come from the second century BCE, the stories (chs. 2–6 ) may be a good deal earlier. For they represent foreign kings as foolish but ultimately persuaded, while Jews are promoted to high office at court. The climax of the tale is usually the king learning his lesson. In the visions, however, we are presented with an ever-increasing hostility towards the Jewish God and his people, which only their total destruction will solve. The perspective of the stories seems to be that of Jews living under a relatively benign rule (the Persians?) while that of the visions suggests Jews in Judah under a malign ruler. It is therefore likely that the book of Daniel has a long and complex history. This possibility is supported by the discovery of a story about an unknown Jewish exile and the Babylonian king Nabonidus, found among the Dead Sea scrolls and remarkably similar to the story of Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel ch. 3 (4QPrNab). Yet, the story of Belshazzar's feast (ch. 5 ) marks a contrast to the theme of the other stories with its negative portrayal of the king who dies for his insolence, and may well have been inspired by the figure of Antiochus.

4.

Finally, it is worth contrasting the relatively serene and optimistic mood of the stories, in which one High God is in supreme control and succession from one kingdom to another passes smoothly with the very different world-view of the visions, where the succession of power is violent—not just on earth but in the heavenly realm too, as the celestial patrons of each nation fight it out among themselves. The departure of the one supreme God from participation in this scenario (marked by ch. 7 where he hands power to another figure) is both remarkable and disturbing, suggesting an underlying view of the world's subsequent history that is rather pessimistic.

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