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The First Riddle: Part Two

Above: The 5th century Elephantine papyri provide critical insights into the Aramaic that composes the Book of Daniel.

Daniel answered the king and said, “No wise men, enchanters, magicians, or astrologers can show to the king the mystery that the king has asked, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will be in the latter days. Your dream and the visions of your head as you lay in bed are these: To you, O king, as you lay in bed came thoughts of what would be after this, and he who reveals mysteries made known to you what is to be. Daniel 2:27–29

We are on a quest to understand why nearly half of the Book of Daniel is written in Aramaic, a situation unparalleled in the rest of Scripture. Aramaic is the minor player of the three languages that compose the Bible, appearing infrequently and only in scattered segments (Ezra 4:11–16; 7:11–26), verses and phrases (Jer. 10:11; Mk. 5:41), and a variety of names and words (Gen. 31:47; Rom. 8:15). When compared to the rest of Scripture, the Aramaic half of Daniel stands out as an incredible anomaly, a puzzle that warrants our curiosity and exploration.

Academic Assumptions & Assertions

The Aramaic enigma has taken on new importance in our time due to modern scholarship’s hostility to the Bible. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw a concerted effort by liberal scholars to disprove the inerrancy and historicity of the Old Testament Scriptures. The presence of Aramaic in the Old Testament was presented as evidence that these books must have been composed in the post-exilic period, the heyday of Aramaic influence in the ancient Near East. The presence of Aramaic or Aramaisms—Aramaic influence on Hebrew composition—was presented as proof that the Law of Moses and many of the other pre-exilic books were not eyewitness accounts of history, but the literary products of Jewish movements at work during the divided monarchy, the Babylonian exile, and the post-exilic period.

Daniel Under Fire

Above: The Stele of Zakkur is one of the Old Aramaic inscriptions that has changed our understanding of ancient aramaic and its role in biblical history.

Liberal scholarship argued for an even later date for the Book of Daniel. Daniel’s prophecies are exceptional in that they provide a comprehensive outline of significant events from the time of the Babylonian exile (604 BC; Dan. 2:37–38) to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman general Titus (70 AD; Dan. 9:26). Consequently, skeptics have balked at the historicity of this book, stating, in effect, that the book is too true to be true. However, assumptions are not evidence; stating the Book of Daniel cannot be prophecy because of its accuracy is not a proof but the expression of an opinion that one does not believe that God exists and is active in our world.

Beginning from this assumption, scholars have endeavored to show that the Book of Daniel was not the composition of the sixth century Hebrew prophet, but rather, the work of devout Jews who lived in the second century, around the time of the Maccabees (167 BC); and the Aramaic composition of Daniel has been cited as supporting a late-date composition. Scholars have argued that the Aramaic that constitutes Daniel 2–7 was of a Western dialect that would not have been used in the regions where Daniel lived.1  Some also pointed to Persian and Greek loan words present in these chapters as conclusive evidence that the Book of Daniel must have been composed sometime after the conquests of Alexander the Great, over two centuries after Daniel’s lifetime. The liberal position was summed up in 1897 by S.R. Driver:

The verdict of the language of Daniel is thus clear. The Persian words presuppose a period after the Persian empire had been well established: the Greek words demand, the Hebrew supports, and the Aramaic permits, a date after the conquest of Palestine by Alexander the Great (BC 332). With our present knowledge, this is as much as the language authorizes us definitely to affirm.2 

Driver’s dictum would become the starting point for academic studies of Daniel up to the present day. Ironically, the century of scholastic consensus against Daniel’s prophecies would also bring forth the very discoveries that would call their certainty into question.

Archaeology and Analysis

Aramaic can no longer be cited as proof for a late composition of the Book of Daniel, or any book of Scripture for that matter. Archaeological discoveries of Aramaic inscriptions dating from the eighth and ninth centuries BC have proven that Aramaic and Hebrew share a long history of linguistic and literary interaction.3  The Aramaic present in Daniel has significant literary and linguistic correlations with these Old Aramaic inscriptions, and such a dearth of Greek words and concepts, that a late composition of the Book of Daniel is no longer justifiable.4 

Discoveries of fifth-century documents have established that the Book of Daniel was written in a form of Imperial Aramaic, “an official or literary dialect which had currency in all parts of the Near East” during the time of the Persian Empire, but an early stage of this dialect, as would be expected to come from the time when Daniel lived.5 

Finally, the presence of loan words in Daniel’s Aramaic is not surprising when we recall this language’s sixth-century role as the Lingua Franca of Mesopotamia. Moreover, the nature of the actual words fits what would be expected of a sixth-century composition by Daniel. The majority of the Persian terms refer to government and administration—terminology that we would expect to be used by the sixth-century Persian official that Daniel was! The three Greek words that appear in Daniel are names of musical instruments, foreign items one would expect to find in the court of Babylon’s greatest king. The complete absence of any other Greek terms—especially terms relating to government and rule—are a strong indication that Daniel’s Aramaic was written long before Alexander’s spread of Greek government, culture, and language.6 

A Paradigm Problem

The Aramaic portion of Daniel poses a significant problem for those who insist that the book was written or even edited just before the time of Christ. The portion’s linguistic and literary elements argue against its composition after the post-exilic period. However, to accept traditional authorship of the Book of Daniel is nothing less than an acknowledgment of its prophetic character—a cost that many men and women are unwilling to pay. Tragically, this unwillingness to acknowledge Daniel as prophetic Scripture keeps them from understanding it.

Are we willing to turn the matter inside out? Let’s begin the discussion with a different assumption—that the Book of Daniel is what it claims to be: a book of divine origin and inspiration. That starting point brings us to a different question regarding the Aramaic section of Daniel: Why would God, after centuries of speaking in Hebrew, suddenly speak through His prophet in Aramaic? We will discover the answer to this question in our next post.

Have a question or comment? We’d love to hear from you. Submit your response in the box below.


1.   A.A. Bevan, A Short Commentary on the Book of Daniel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1892), p. viii.

2.   Introduction to Literature of the Old Testament (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1897), pp. 502ff. 

3.   Gleason Archer, A Survey of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Bible Institute, 2007), 117.

4.   Ibid, 368–369; Zdravko Stefanovic, The Aramaic of Daniel in the Light of Old Aramaic (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1992), 108.

5.   Archer, A Survey of the Old Testament, 369; K. A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 78.

6.   Archer, A Survey of the Old Testament, 369

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