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The Second Riddle: Troublesome Toys

Do you remember the first time you encountered a Chinese Finger Trap? Back in the ’80s these colorful, mischievous toys were everywhere, easily alluring the unsuspecting child with their seeming simplicity. The small, woven tube fit loosely over your fingers but compressed as soon as you tried to pull them out. Try as you might, no amount of pulling could free you from the finger trap, but if you took a deep breath and pushed your fingers toward one another, they came out with no problem at all.

A similar snare has disarmed liberal scholarship. Efforts to understand the Book of Daniel’s two genres are making their theories increasingly inoperable.

Tangled Theories

Liberal scholarship continues to grapple over fundamental questions surrounding the Book of Daniel. Consider, for instance, Rainer Albertz’s comments regarding the question of authorship:

We have to concede that we remain far from any consensus among Old Testament scholars as to who its author or authors might have been, and how his or their social setting can be determined … In considering the wide range of scholarly opinions, we have to admit that nearly all the possible social and cultural classifications enjoy some support: Did the Daniel apocalypticist stand in the prophetic, priestly, or the wisdom tradition? Did they belong to “pious conventicles” next to the lower class, as the Ḥasidim were situated by O. Ploger and M. Hengel? Or did they belong to the well-educated upper class? Moreover, were they a part of the Jerusalem establishment? Or did they represent a group of immigrants from the diaspora?1 

Albertz’s comment is striking when one considers that these Daniel studies have been going on in earnest for well over a century and a half. Moreover, authorship isn’t the only unresolved issue; as Albertz’s comment suggests, even the purpose of the book remains elusive. The trouble stems primarily from the nature of the book’s two halves: the stories of chapters 2–6 and the apocalyptic visions detailed in chapters 7–12. These two sections are remarkably different in format, style, and emphasis yet stitched inseparably together in chapter seven, leaving scholars scratching their heads regarding the who’s and the why’s of the Book of Daniel. T.J. Meadowcroft expresses his puzzlement over some of the oddities that simply don’t fit into the current consensus about the Book of Daniel and its alleged history:

A Babylonian/Persian backdrop to chs. 2–6 is evident, yet such is not the case for the later chapters. At the same time it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the Aramaic/Hebrew book of Daniel is intended as a unity. The literary links across a number of form divisions ensure that this is so. The implication is that, although the concerns of chs. 2–6 are early, their incorporation into a unit with chs. 7–12 and redaction into the present shape are almost certainly late. It is surprising that the integrity of the early stories is so well preserved despite the later developments. Moreover, why has the interest in Gentile Nebuchadnezzar been retained in the Masoretic Text alongside the extremely negative view of world rulers contained in the visions?2 

Meadowcroft’s statement exemplifies the trap that’s binding the hands of many scholars today: committed to the consensus opinion that the Book of Daniel was the work of devout Jews who lived centuries after Daniel, they are straining to get a grasp of elements that simply don’t fit into this theory. Literature is created to communicate, so an inability to comprehend the message of the Book of Daniel is no small problem for those who profess to understand it.

The problem is compounded when one brings in the question of language. Several studies have given strong evidence that the Aramaic of Daniel was written earlier than scholars have asserted, and this raises the question of why a final form of the Book of Daniel would contain a seemingly haphazard section of Aramaic text (2:4b–7:28).3  The abrupt entrance of Aramaic at Daniel 2:4 and the fact that it not only composes the stories of the first half but also the first vision of the second half is a riddle that doesn’t fit well into the theory that this book “was itself the precipitate result of a long history of redaction stemming from older Daniel traditions and a cycle of texts from the Hellenistic period.”4 

Moving in the Wrong Direction?

Countless hours, papers, and studies have gone into understanding the origin and purpose of the Book of Daniel. But could the limited success be the result of pulling in the wrong direction? Thus far, scholarship has endeavored to understand Daniel by dissecting it and tracing its individual parts to particular religious and political movements. What has resulted is a mess. What if we put our efforts in the opposite direction? In our next post, we will take one more look at this debacle before turning to address these issues from a different perspective.

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


1.   Rainer Albertz, “The Social Setting of the Aramaic and Hebrew Book of Daniel,” in The Book of Daniel: Composition & Reception, V1, ed. John J. Collins & Peter W. Flint (Leiden: Brill, 2001), 173.

1.  T.J. Meadowcroft, “Aramaic Daniel and Greek Daniel: A Literary Comparison,” in Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 198, ed. David J.A. Clines & Philip R. Davies, (Midsomer Norton: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), 274.

1.  Ibid, 277–278.

4.  Tawny L. Holm, Of Courtiers and Kings: The Biblical Daniel Narratives and Ancient Story-Collections, (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2013), 5.

New to this series? To read the first installment of the Two Riddle series click here or start at the very beginning of the Daniel series by clicking here.

Photo by Carol Spears is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license.

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