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.