When Was the Book of Daniel Written and Why Does it Matter?


When Daniel was written is the subject of great debate. At the heart of the matter is the question of whether the Bible can predict the future. In this post, we introduce the topic of the date of Daniel.

Who wrote Daniel and when it was written is a controversial topic, but it can be broken down into two different views. One view, the Early Date, holds that Daniel was written by a Hebrew named Daniel in the 6th Century BC (during the events described in the book). The other view, the Late Date, holds that Daniel was written several hundred years later during a period known as the Maccabean Revolt (167-160 BC) and was written by an author or authors pretending to be a Hebrew named Daniel.

An Early Date: A Traditional View

In the Early Date view, the book was written by Daniel, the main character of the book. Daniel was the son of Jewish nobility and lived from approximately 620 BC to at least 537 BC. He was deported from Jerusalem as a young boy and rose to prominence as an official of first the Neo-Babylonian Empire and later of the Archaemenid, or Persian Empire. During his life, Daniel was given a series of prophetic visions that predict future events, including the campaigns of Alexander the Great and the following Hellenistic kingdoms that ruled the eastern Mediterranean. At some time, probably toward the end of his life, Daniel wrote down his visions and his experiences and these writings became the book of Daniel.

A Late Date: A Higher Criticism View

In the Late Date view, Daniel was written by an anonymous author as encouragement to the Jews during the Maccabean revolt, a rebellion of the Jewish population of Israel against the ruling Greek Seleucids.

After the sudden death of Alexander the Great, his newly conquered empire was divided amongst his surviving generals. These generals went on to found ruling dynasties. Two of these dynasties included the Ptolemies, who ruled Egypt in the South and the Seleucids who ruled Syria and modern-day Turkey in the north. Toward the end of the Seleucid rule, during the rise of Rome as a regional power, a Seleucid names Antiochus Epiphanes came to power. During his rule, he persecuted the Jewish faith and promoted Greek, or Hellenistic culture. Antiochus went so far as to enter the Jewish temple and sacrifice a pig to Zeus.

The Jews responded by rebelling against Seleucid rule. The rebellion is chronicled in the 1st book of Maccabees, but ultimately it was successful and led to the founding of the Hasmonean dynasty. Late Date proponents believe Daniel was written during the rebellion, as a means of encouraging the Jewish fighters.

Can God Predict the Future?

There are several arguments for each view, but at the heart of the contention is portions of Daniel predict events that were still in the future in the 6th Century BC, but had occurred by the time of Christ. There are multiple predictions in Daniel, but the most striking occur in Chapter 11, which details the political rivalry of the Ptolemies and the Seleucids over several generations. The prophecy culminates in the rule of Antiochus Epiphanes, his persecution of the Jewish faith, and his desecration of the temple in Jerusalem.  These predictions are so specific that it is undeniable they describe events as they actually happened during a period of 300-164 BC. 

Since Daniel lived somewhere between 620-537 BC, there are only two explanations for the detailed predictions of chapter 11: either Daniel was written before the events described and the predictions are clearly supernatural, or Daniel was written after the events and is merely a retelling of history. Since many scholars are unwilling to accept the idea of supernatural prophecy, they are forced to accept a later date.

The debate about when Daniel was written mirrors the larger debate about the nature of the Bible. Is the Bible supernaturally inspired by God, the creator of the Universe who uses it to communicate with us, or is it a collection of fictional writings written by fallible men over the span of centuries? If Daniel was written by anonymous men as a piece of 2nd Century BC propaganda, then what value does Daniel, or even the Bible have, except as an example of ancient literature?

But if Daniel was written in the 6th Century, as Jews and Christians alike have believed for thousands of years, then it is clear evidence that the Bible is supernaturally inspired. It provides concrete proof that God exists and the book of Daniel can be trusted. If Daniel can be trusted, then what about the rest of the Bible? What about the gospels? What about Revelation? What about Genesis? The implications of a 6th Century BC date of Daniel are mind blowing.

Arguments for a Late or Early Date

So when was Daniel written? Is there clear evidence to support either an early or late date? It would be great if we had a copy of Daniel from say, 500 BC, but we don’t. The oldest copies of Daniel are eight scroll fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls. 

The Deas Sea Scrolls are a collection of hand-written manuscripts recovered from a series of caves near Qumran. Many of the manuscripts were books of the Bible and collectively they are the oldest known copies of the Old Testament. The scrolls have been dated to between 300 BC and 100 AD, using both writing style (paleography) and carbon14 dating. The eight Daniel scroll fragments, including sections of all chapters of Daniel except chapter 12, have been dated to the Hellenistic period (after Alexander the Great), the Herodian period (around the time of Christ), and importantly, two fragments have been dated to between 150 and 100 BC.

Since the Essenes, the Jewish sect that is thought to be the source of the Dead Sea Scrolls, included manuscripts they believed had religious value, it is interesting that Daniel was included in the collection. Antiochus Epiphanes died in 164 BC, so it is questionable if a document that had been forged around that time would be considered an important religious document so close to the time of its writing.

Proponents of a late date do offer other evidence in support of a 2nd Century BC date. These arguments for a late date can be broken down into three major categories: historical inaccuracies, linguistic problems, and miscellaneous arguments. Each of these arguments, and responses to these arguments, will be the subject of future posts. As we progress through the study, we’ll keep a table with a running tally of the arguments. Here is the beginning of the table.

Argument for an Early DateResponse
Daniel could not predict the future.God can predict the future.
Table 1: Early versus Late Date for Daniel

Even if Daniel was written in the 2nd Century BC, and we believe the evidence for a late date is not persuasive, it does not explain the prophetic power of the 70-weeks prophecy contained in chapter 9. In the 70-weeks prophecy, Daniel is told when the Messiah would arrive. When calculated from the decree to rebuild Jerusalem was given by the Persians, it predicts to the very day when Jesus presented himself as the Messiah to Jerusalem. While there is some debate about the exact correct dates and calculations, none of the proposed dates vary by more than a few years, which is amazing precision. Since Jesus was crucified sometime between 31 and 33 AD, there is no way a 2nd Century BC author could have predicted this event.

Finally, there is a prediction that Jesus made while standing on the Mount of Olives overlooking the temple in Jerusalem. When asked by his disciples what the signs of the end times would be, Jesus replied,

When, therefore, you see the abomination of desolation, which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.

Mathew 24:15

It is important that Jesus referred to Daniel as a prophet, someone anointed to speak for God. While this may not be a convincing testimony for someone who doesn’t believe Jesus was who he said he was, for a believing Christian, this should be sufficient evidence.

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