When Napoleon was King of England

François_Gérard_-_Napoleon_I_001

Portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) in Coronation Robe, François_Gérard, c.1805-1815, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. In the public domain.

Scholars and apologists have spilled a lot of ink trying to reconcile some historical details in the Bible with actual history. I suspect the urge to eliminate any discrepancy between ‘biblical’ and ‘secular’ history begins with the theological position that the Bible is the inspired word of God and free of any errors. If there is a conflict between the Bible and historical information derived from other sources, then it’s argued (by some) that the Bible must be right and the other sources must contain errors, or there must be some way to reconcile them so that both are right.

Let me give just a couple examples. The book of Daniel dates one of Daniel’s visions specifically to the first year of the reign of “Darius the Mede”.

In the first year of Darius son of Ahasuerus, by birth a Mede, who became king over the realm of the Chaldeans— 2 in the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, perceived in the books the number of years that, according to the word of the LORD to the prophet Jeremiah, must be fulfilled for the devastation of Jerusalem, namely, seventy years. (9:1-2. See also 5:31 where he is called “Darius the Mede”.)

There are several problems here. First, there is no Median king known from history named “Darius”. We do have some Persian kings named Darius, but none from Media. At least half a dozen kings have been proposed from as early as the first century CE as contenders, but there are difficulties with each of them and none are entirely convincing. Second, Daniel places this Darius the Mede between Belshazzar and Cyrus the Great. However, history knows no king between Belshazzar and Cyrus. Third, there is a major problem with the “seventy years” prophecy. Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in 587 BCE, and Cyrus issued his decree for the Jews to return in 538 BCE, and if my maths is correct that is a period of only 49 years. Several attempts have been made to solve the problem, but again there is no scholarly consensus as none of the solutions are very convincing. However, I don’t want to delve further into that particular difficulty here – for now I just want to focus on the problems with kings.

While we are in Daniel, I’ve already mentioned Belshazzar and we have a considerable problem with him as well. He is the main character of the story in Daniel 5 about the “writing on the wall” where he is described as King Belshazzar (5:1), and he calls Nebuchadnezzar “father” (5:2). Apart from the relatively minor problem that Belshazzar was never king (he was crown prince) we have a major problem with the fact that he was actually the son of Nabonidus, a successor to Nebuchadnezzar, and not son of Nebuchadnezzar. There are other historical problems in Daniel, but these are enough to make the point that the writer seems to be very careless with historical facts. However, I think there is another possibility which solves the problem.

Daniel is not alone in confusing his kings, as other biblical books also create problems for scholars and commentators by mixing up their monarchs. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that scholars have tried for centuries to identify King Ahasuerus in Esther, again with no consensus. We also have a problem with the “king of Nineveh” in Jonah 3:6, as Nineveh had no king in the time of the prophet Jonah.

For those who have the book of Judith in their Bible, there are considerable problems there with Nebuchadnezzar being called “king of Assyria” ruling in Nineveh (Judith 1:1) when he was actually king of Babylonia and reigned after Nineveh had been destroyed. However, I think it’s a pity that those who don’t have Judith in their Bible aren’t more aware of it, because we almost certainly have the solution there to our problems in Daniel, Esther, Jonah and elsewhere. Not only does Judith confuse Assyria with Babylonia, the book also completely messes with chronology. We know from elsewhere in the Bible, and from history, that Nebuchadnezzar beseiged Jerusalem and sent its king and many of its inhabitants into exile in Babylon. Yet Judith has Nebuchadnezzar’s general Holofernes coming against the cities of Judah after the return from exile 50 years later! (4:1-3; 5:18-19). By this time Nebuchadnezzar was dead and Babylon was in the hands of the Persians. Judith’s history is topsy-turvy! How could the writer get it so wrong?

It is actually in this topsy-turvy portrayal of history that we have a clue – and a solution – to our problems in Daniel, Esther and elsewhere. Judith deliberately distorts history for literary purposes. Its “errors” are so major and there are so many of them that they have to be deliberate. No one could get history so wrong – especially their own history – unless they intended to do so. As Carey Moore says in an article on Judith [1], to describe Nebuchadnezzar as King of Assyria would be like beginning a story with “It happened at the time when Napoleon Bonaparte was king of England …” Further to that analogy, Judith’s “confusion” about the timing of the seige of Jerusalem and the return from exile would be akin to saying “Hitler’s bombing of London came just a few years after the end of World War II.” It would be so wrong that no one would think it was a simple “mistake” – it had to be deliberate. It’s almost comical. Moore describes the book of Judith as the most quintessentially ironic biblical literature. It abounds in irony, and the historical distortions are a literary device used by the author as part of the ironic effect. The historical “errors” right from the very beginning of the story are unmistakeable signs to the reader or listener that while the story reads like historical narrative it is actually fiction. It is somewhat similar to a modern writer beginining with “Once upon a time …” You wouldn’t start a history book that way, so it’s an indicator to the reader that the story is fictional and even comical in parts, although its underlying message could be serious. In the Judith story it is inconceivable that the writer had forgotten or mixed up the timing of the most cataclysmic event in Israel’s history. However, by appearing to be confused about significant details the writer may be sounding a warning to readers or listeners that if they forget their history or don’t learn from it they are bound to repeat it.

Similarly, in Daniel, it seems to be a feature of the court tales that the writer mixes up or conflates details to give the appearance of historical narrative while also leaving clear markers that they are, in fact, fiction. This is so that the reader/listener is left in no doubt about the true nature of the book. Like Judith (and Esther), Daniel abounds in irony and satire. It shouldn’t be surprising then that these three books (and possibly others such as Jonah) were written, compiled or edited against the same historical background. There are clear signs that Judith and Daniel may have been written relatively close to each other and in response to the same historical events (Antiochus IV Epiphanes’ desecration of the Temple), and Esther too may have been written as a warning against becoming too cozy with the Greeks. In this Hellenistic era the biblical “novel” was beginning to take off as a literary genre, satire was becoming more popular throughout the wider literary world, and irony – a longtime favourite device of biblical writers – was reaching its zenith.

In my view, regardless of one’s ideas or theology about “inspiration” or “inerrancy,” there is no need to stress about conflicts between the Bible and history. They may be opportunities for readers to discover more about the motives of the writers and the literary techniques they used to bring serious issues to the attention of their readers/listeners.

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[1] Carey A. Moore “Judith, Book of” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. III, 1117-1125

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