When were Daniel and Esther written, and why? (2)

Antiochus IV Epiphanes, Altes Museum, Berlin

For traditionalists in Judea – those Jews who maintained a strict adherence to the laws attributed to Moses – the initial successes of the Maccabees would have provided hope that the dark days of Greek oppression would be over. They were not necessarily opposed to Greek influence per se, and in fact were attracted to many of the features of Greek culture and philosophy. The translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek – known as the Septuagint – was made, for example, by Jews in Ptolemaic Egypt and was in regular use by the large Jewish community in Alexandria. Even the book of 2 Maccabees which records the history of the Maccabean revolt was written in Greek! However, under the authoritarian rule of Antiochus IV the Seleucids interferred too much in Jewish religion, initially by appointing the High Priest – a role which had previously been hereditary – and making that position a political appointment. That ‘interference’ developed into outright suppression of many Jewish religious practices, a move which was uncharacteristic of Seleucid rule elsewhere. It seems that Antiochus wasn’t so much opposed to Judaism as he was to those practices which were most closely associated with a traditionalist group whose politics posed immense problems for him. The conflict was not between Antiochus and Judaism, but rather was between differing groups of Jews, and Antiochus pragmatically sided with the group whose politics were most closely aligned with his own.

It was also not as simple a matter of two different groups (e.g. ‘traditionalists’ versus ‘Hellenists’) disagreeing with each other. There were several groups involved and Judaism was spintering into multiple factions. Among them were the Essenes who rejected the Seleucid-appointed High Priest as illegitimate, as well as the Hasmonean High Priests who followed. Their strict rules about purity, and their opposition to the desecration of the Temple by illegitimate priests, led them to withdraw from society in general and live in isolated communities. It is thought by many scholars that the community who preserved the Dead Sea Scrolls in caves near Qumran were members of this group. Purity was an important issue for another group, the Pharisees (whose name פרושים Perushim probably derives from the verb פרש paras, to precisely declare, to split and divide, and came to mean “the separated ones”), although they didn’t go to the same extreme as the Essenes and withdraw from society. They were mainly scribes and sages – “rabbis” – regarded as experts in the laws, traditions and Scriptures, rather than being a priestly group (although some of them were priests). They were popular with the common people although their interpretation of purity laws meant they often refused to eat with them. Their popularity was probably due to the fact that the other main group – the Sadducees – were mainly wealthy aristocrats and corrupt priests. Their name probably derives from צְדוּקִים‎ “Zadokites” – a caste of priests who controlled the Temple and the High Priesthood. Sadducees were the most Hellenistic of all the groups and worked closely with the Seleucids to maintain their control. We don’t know precisely when these groups originated, or why, but we do know that modern Rabbinical Judaism has descended from the Pharisees as the other groups did not survive the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, and we owe the preservation of the Hebrew Bible to them.

The Triumph of Judas Maccabeus, Sir Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1635, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes

It looks like 1 Maccabees was written by a Pharisee, or at least by someone with Pharisaic sympathies. It’s likely that the revolt by Judah Maccabee and his brothers against the Seleucids would have been closely aligned with Pharisaic ideals. While we might initially identify the Maccabees as ‘traditionalists’ and the Sadducees as ‘Hellenists’ the situation became more complicated with time. “Maccabee” wasn’t a family name – it was more of a nickname derived from Yehudah HaMakabi – “Judah the Hammer.” The family name, according to Josephus, was derived from the Hellenised name Asmoneus (or Asamoneus – several Hebrew originals have been proposed), and so the descendants of the Maccabees became known as the Hasmonean dynasty. Without going into too much detail, the Hasmoneans made themselves Kings and, beginning with John Hyrcanus, also ruled as High Priests, thus combining the offices for the first time. They weren’t opposed to Greek culture: in fact, many of them took Greek names. The Pharisees, however, opposed the Hasmonean wars of expansion (for example, they conquered Idumea [aka Edom] and forced the Idumeans to convert to Judaism, something opposed by the Pharisees’ interpretation of Torah), they opposed the Hasmoneans taking the title “King” when they didn’t descend from David, and they opposed them taking the title of “High Priest.” The Hasmoneans consequently began to side more with the Sadducess than with the Pharisees. Little would the Hasmoneans know that the forced conversion of Idumeans would ultimately result in an Idumean who also had Maccabean ancestry – Herod “the Great” – becoming King of Judea and ending the Hasmonean dynasty. All this would have been a huge disappointment to the Pharisees and other traditionalists who had such high hopes for the Maccabean revolt.

So what does any of this have to do with the books of Daniel and Esther? I mentioned earlier that there is good evidence for Daniel being written between 167 and 164 BCE during the Maccabean revolt. The book ends with an expectation that the writer, together with “the wise” and “those who lead many to righteousness” – probably the writer’s own group – “shall rise for your reward at the end of the days” (Daniel 12:13). At the end of what days? The previous verse says “Happy are those who persevere and attain the thousand three hundred thirty-five days.” That’s a period of about three and a half years, about the same length of time as the Maccabean revolt. Daniel mentions a few other time periods around the same length and making sense of the precise beginning and end of each one is a job for the experts! The important thing, I think, is that they are all about the same length as the revolt and no doubt refer to stages of it. What does the writer mean by “rising” at the end of these days? A general assumption is that the writer is referring to resurrection at the end of time, but the only time that is mentioned is the end of the 1335 days “at the end of the days” (i.e these 1335). Did the writer expect a resurrection of martyrs – those of his group who died under Seleucid oppression? The words “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake” (12:2) certainly sounds like a physical resurrection of the dead. Or did he expect that they would “rise” to positions of power, prominence or influence? “Rising” certainly can have this meaning in the Hebrew Bible, such as in Ezekiel’s prophecy of the coming to life of dry bones (Ezekiel 37). What Ezekiel was describing was the national resurrection of a people which had “died” in exile. It was the nation which was being revived, not individuals who had died. If the writer of Daniel is referring to a physical revival of dead bodies, it’s uncertain what he means by “Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever” (12:3). Shining like a star after resurrection suggests something different to a dead body coming to life again – if it’s a physical resurrection then it’s a different kind of body to the one which died. Whatever the writer meant it seems fairly clear that he expected it to happen soon. So what was his main message to his readers/listeners in the midst of a rebellion?

The main purpose of the visions of Daniel 7-12 seems to be to re-assure the writer’s audience that there is a divine plan, history is not “random” but is controlled by God. They should take comfort in the knowledge that whatever they are going through is progressing towards an end when they – the wise who lead others to righteousness – will be vindicated and rewarded. But they should also know that their struggles will end very soon. These visions are prefaced by a series of stories – “court tales” – which describe how Jews in exile maintained their identity in a foreign land. Yes, they assimilated to a certain extent, benefitting from a Babylonian education, taking Babylonian names, and rising to positions of prominence in the empire. These stories of Jews who assimilated while maintaining their Jewish religion and identity no doubt served as lessons to Jews living in Judea under Greek Seleucid control that they could benefit from Greek culture and adopt Greek ways and names, but must be careful not to lose what was truly most important – their religion and Jewish identity.

The story of Esther is similar in many ways. Set in a foreign land, in the court of the King of Persia, the main Jewish characters also take Persian names and rise to positions of prominence, even inter-marrying (in Esther’s case) with a Persian, something which was contrary to the teachings of Torah. The risks were enormous, and the Jewish people were almost annihilated. Perhaps one of the main lessons from the story was that Jews need to use their wits in order to survive, but there is also a warning that there is a risk that assimilation will result in becoming too much like the dominant culture. I made the point in an earlier post that there is an irony in Mordecai ending up becoming like Haman and orchestrating the massacre of tens of thousands of people. It may have been intended as a warning to Jews in Judea that the conquered run the risk of becoming like their conquerors, and that Jews living under Greek rule who become too ‘Hellenised’ can easily lose their Jewish identity.

The Joseph story also deals with someone living in a foreign land, taking an Egyptian name, and rising to prominence in the most powerful nation in the world. All three stories – Joseph, Daniel and Esther – have these things in common. Joseph’s rise to power in Egypt ultimately led to his family’s descendants being made slaves in Egypt. Daniel’s visions detail the desecration of the Temple and the end of Jewish religious observances at the hands of a power with whom they had become “friendly.” Jews survive the threatened genocide in the book of Esther, but in the process become too much like the Persians. The relevance of all these stories to Jews in the Maccabean period – at least from the perspective of the Pharisees and other traditionalists – would primarily have been as a caution against becoming too Hellenised, becoming too much like their overlords, and risking losing all that was most important.

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 …