When were Daniel and Esther written, and why? (1)

Antonio Ciseri, Martyrdom of the Seven Maccabees (1863). The painting depicts an unnamed woman whose seven sons were tortured and killed by Antiochus IV Epiphanes for refusing to eat pork (according to 2 Maccabees 7, although according to the Talmud [Tractate Gittin 57b] it was for refusing to worship an idol).

Although they are not mentioned in either the Hebrew Bible (‘Old Testament’) or the New Testament, most Bible-readers are probably familiar with the term “Maccabees” even if they don’t know exactly who they were. That may be because the Apocrypha includes the books of 1 & 2 Maccabees, dealing with historical events which occured “between the Testaments,” that is, between the recorded histories in the Old and New Testaments, and a lot of Bible-readers have at least heard about these books even if they aren’t actually in their Bibles. They may, however, be less familiar with “Hasmoneans.” New Testament readers would definitely be familiar with the “Pharisees” and the “Sadducees,” again even if they don’t know much about them. What they may not realise is that these two religious groups which are mentioned frequently in the New Testament developed in this period “between the Testaments” and are connected to the Maccabees or Hasmoneans. While the books of Maccabees don’t directly name the Pharisees and Sadducees, later historians (such as the Jewish historian Josephus who wrote around the same time as when the New Testament was being written) and the Talmud, provide more information about their origins. Christianity and rabbinical Judaism both have their historical roots in this period and are related to these groups, so it would be good to know more about what was happening.

What many Bible-readers may not realise is that some of the books of the Hebrew Bible were also almost certainly written in this period. That’s another good reason to know more about it. I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I am convinced that the books of Daniel and Esther were both written (or re-written) during this period, as well as some of the books in the Apocrypha such as Judith. In this post I will look at one of the arguments for why Daniel was written during this time, and what was going on in the world of the writer.

While Daniel is set during the Babylonian exile (after Nebuchadnezzar took many Jews captive and transported them to Babylon) the book was actually written considerably later, and not by Daniel (it is a book about Daniel, not by him). The writer may have included some earlier written material, or stories which circulated orally, but we can date the time of writing fairly precisely to within a couple years. We can do this because Daniel 10-12 is a long and detailed description of the conflicts between two powers: the Seleucid Empire (which Daniel calls “the king of the north”) and the Ptolemaic dynasty (“the king of the south”). After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE his Macedonian Empire was divided between four of his generals with Seleucus I Nicator establishing a dynasty (the Seleucids) which would last for over two centuries ruling much of Alexander’s near-eastern territories. Another general, Ptolemy I Soter, became Pharaoh of Egypt and established a dynasty which lasted 275 years (the Ptolemies). The land of Judea lay between these two super-powers and was the scene of many conflicts as the division of territory was repeatedly contested by the Seleucids and Ptolemies. Daniel 10-12 describes these conflicts from the perspective of someone living in Judea. A major player in the visions of Daniel 7-12 and the conflicts between the Seleucids and the Ptolemies is the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes who invaded Egypt twice, in 169 BCE and again in 168 BCE, marching his army through Judea en route. During this second incursion Antiochus plundered the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. This assault on Jerusalem is mentioned in Daniel in the form of a prophecy, in the future tense:

Forces sent by him shall occupy and profane the temple and fortress. They shall abolish the regular burnt offering and set up the abomination that makes desolate. 

Daniel 11:30

This prophecy refers to Antiochus’ prohibition of Jewish religious laws, including the regular sacrifices in the Temple (beginning in 175 BCE), and his setting up a Greek altar in the Temple in 167 BCE (according to 2 Maccabees 6:1-12, he ordered the worship of Zeus as the supreme god). These events were also mentioned in an earlier vision in Daniel, where Daniel asked how long this desecration would last:

Then I heard a holy one speaking, and another holy one said to the one that spoke, “For how long is this vision concerning the regular burnt offering, the transgression that makes desolate, and the giving over of the sanctuary and host to be trampled?” 14 And he answered him, “For two thousand three hundred evenings and mornings; then the sanctuary shall be restored to its rightful state.”

Daniel 8:13-14

The 2300 “evenings and mornings” refers to the evening and morning sacrifices which had been abolished by Antiochus. In other words, 2300 sacrifices would normally have occured during 1150 days, or just over three years. In response to this desecration a resistance movement began, led by a Jewish priest Yehudah HaMakabi [יהודה המכבי] (or Judah Maccabee, or Judas Maccabeus) and his four brothers. The biblical books which provide details of this resistance are therefore known as Maccabees. The Maccabean revolt began in 167 BCE and after a period of about three years of conflict (2300 “evenings and mornings”) they drove the Seleucids from Jerusalem, purified the defiled Temple, and restored services in 164 BCE. This re-consecration of the Temple is commemorated in the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah (referred to in the New Testament [John 10:22-23] as the Festival of Dedication).

The prophetic description of these events in Daniel 8-11 is historically accurate until we come to the prophecy of a final conflict between Antiochus and the Ptolemies and a prediction of Antiochus’ death in Judea (11:40-45), which ends with the words “Yet he shall come to his end, with no one to help him.” In actual fact, Antiochus died in Persia or Babylon, in 164 BCE. As the prophetic details in Daniel of the Seleucid-Ptolemaic conflicts are accurate up to 167 BCE or thereabouts, but do not accurately predict Antiochus’ death in 164 BCE, the scholarly consensus is that the book must have been written in the intervening years, that is, between 167 and 164 BCE during the Maccabean revolt. A reasonable conclusion would be that the book is responding to the situation in Judea leading up to and during the early years of the revolt.

There were two main issues for the writer of Daniel. The first was that Antiochus IV was hostile to the Jewish people and to their religious laws and traditions and desecrated the Temple. The second issue was that the Jewish people themselves were deeply divided between those who favoured Greek/Hellenistic culture and practices, and ‘traditionalists’ who resisted this influence. Before Antiochus IV the Seleucid rulers had taken a tolerant attitude to Judaism, had respected Jewish culture and protected Jewish institutions. For many Jews living in Judea there were distinct benefits in cooperating with their Seleucid rulers and adopting Greek practices, and the relationship worked well until Antiochus IV. For others – the traditionalists – there was a fear that adopting Greek culture would diminish their Jewish identity and threaten their religion. The writer of Daniel was almost certainly on the side of traditionalists and terms such as “those who are wise” and “those who lead many to righteousness” (12:3) probably refer to this group. The book ends with an assurance that at “the time of the end many shall be purified, cleansed, and refined, but the wicked shall continue to act wickedly. None of the wicked shall understand, but those who are wise shall understand” (12:9-10). The writer was no doubt thinking that in just a short time the struggles would be over and the Maccabees would restore traditional Judaism and eradicate “wicked” Hellenism.

To be continued …

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