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Thursday, March 08, 2007

Bible Study: Daniel - Summary (or my 3 year old ate my home work)

This weekend I found that my 3 year old was using some of my notes from reading the book of Daniel to do her art projects on. Besides being a better use for the paper, this reminded me that I had neglected to writeup a summary on what I had learned from reading Daniel and the "controversy" on this book's date of authorship.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away I took up a challenge from "L" (my occasional guide to the world of evangelical Christianity) to read a certain Bible commentary by Glen Miller and see for myself that Daniel was an authentic example of prophecy. Now the problem is that in all honesty I didn't give this any chance of accomplishing that goal, but at the same time I was intrigued to see why a seemingly sane and intelligent person could believe that it is the real deal. To give you some minimal background: the debate on Daniel comes down to whether it was written during the Babylonian exile by Daniel in 600 BC (early dater's hypothesis) and predicted events hundreds of years in the future or if it was written during the Maccabean rebellion (ca. 150 BC) as a "pious fraud" for giving moral support to the troops (late dater's hypothesis). "It was predicted hundreds of years ago that we would win! Charge!"

So to prepare for this I read the book of Daniel and then gathered up all the pro and con literature I could find on the web and started poring thru it. I purposely read the early daters (true prophecy) stuff first so I wouldn't "poison" my mind too much and could give it an honest (as possible) hearing. And I'll tell you the truth I was amazed at how good a case they could make. Just to be clear, it's not so much that they made a good case that prophecy occurred (how would you actually "prove" that a document over 2000 years old foretold events that happened over 2000 years ago?) but they made a surprisingly good case that this wasn't necessarily a "pious fraud". Maybe that doesn't seem very impressive, but I guess I was expecting bigger and uglier problems with the early dater view. While in the end I don't think the early dater case is very plausible it's certainly not obviously wrong on a first reading. In fact if I didn't ever read the late dater rebuttals I'd probably have been left with a lingering sense that something interesting was going on with Daniel.

But, for me at least, the late dater arguments are much more compelling. In fact I've developed a litmus test for determining which way you will go on this issue. Do you believe the Bible is the 100% inerrant word of God? If yes you will find the early daters more convincing. Otherwise (independent of your religious affiliation and degree of belief) you will find the late daters more compelling.

The next step of my project was to read the Glen Miller essay(s) and make my judgement. So I printed out these essays and decided I'd work thru them on our next long family car trip. My wife gets carsick when she's not driving which suits me just fine. I read the essays and very quickly it became apparent that I have no chance of addressing his issues. Glen Miller has a slightly unique take on the problem of dating Daniel (at least I haven't seen it brought up on other apologetics sites). It has to do with the logic of how various documents were dated from the Dead Sea scrolls collection and comparing these with other non-canon documents. The argument is a bit involved but it basically comes down to claiming that scholars have ignored certain facts when dating Daniel and have made special exceptions for dating it that they didn't for other similar documents. In other words if the scholars were consistent they would give Daniel a pre-Maccabean authorship date (he doesn't shoot for anything as ambitious as the 600 BC date, but it's sort of implied). Interestingly his argument almost entirely ignores the actual contents of Daniel and the accuracy of it's prophetic statements. The problem is that there is almost no chance that I will ever track down the numerous sources Glen uses to justify his positions. If I had no job and I wanted to become a Daniel expert it would probably take me a year to work thru all of his materials and give it a fair investigation. So in a sense he wins. I can't critique his arguments since I won't/can't follow all of his leads.

This is a little disappointing to me since I was hoping to have a final package where I could point to how all Daniel arguments come down on the side of the late daters. But I suppose that's how historical research goes. You will never *really* know what happened in the past. You can just make guesses and find as much evidence as you can for various theories. But in the end you will just have a list of theories with a number next to each one indicating how well it is supported by the evidence. In any case even if after my hypothetical year of study, Glen Miller's thesis held water, from my perspective *all* the other evidence points towards the late daters case. So you can either throw away all the late dater's evidence or you can assume that there is something wrong after all with the one piece pointing towards the early dater's case.

One interesting tidbit about Glen Miller's essays that helps tip the balance is that he used to have a couple more essays. The most obvious speculation would be that they covered the more typical parts of the arguments that the other sites cover. But he removed them. I can see that some of the counter apologists used to point to the essays he has removed. I can only conclude that he saw that their criticisms were right and removed his bad arguments. But I haven't seen the actual content so can't say for sure. He has a notes on his site saying he will rewrite them any time now (6 years ago.) I actually wrote him and asked about this. He wrote back saying he's pretty busy and probably won't be getting to it any time soon and that he should at least update the message. I also wrote to a scholar on the late dater side. He was kind enough to answer some questions but, while he was polite enough, I got the sense he was sick to death about hearing crackpot theories on Daniel. So I didn't pester him too much.

So for a complete amateur like my self it comes down to which experts do you trust. And until I have read all the books and become an expert myself I can't really hope to do much else. Of course this is mostly true in most areas of my life anyway. I was just hoping to have some sort of useful insight on the matter to share with "L". But I don't, which is not too surprising considering that people on both sides of this issue spend years of their life researching this stuff and I spent a couple of months of free time.

What's strange about this whole experience is that while I think Christian apologetics is wrong headed it's much more robust than I would have guessed. In fact an expert on Christian apologetics talking to a random disbeliever would probably run circles around them (except for stuff like Noah's ark -- I mean, come on!). If you don't know all the history very well and aren't versed in the tricks of the trade that apologists use, you'll probably lose a debate on any of these topics. So as I've said before you can be a smart person and believe in the literal interpretation of the bible. In fact I'll just expand that thesis out a little: any one of any intelligence level can believe anything. How's that for epistemological nihilism?

While I can't really weigh in with any major insights on Daniel this was a worthwhile project. In fact I have a total bug for Bible history now (it all comes down to the Babylonian exile in one way or another). This was one of the reasons I started reading "The Great Transformation" so I could fill in some details on the big picture of the OT. Now when I come across rantings about all sorts of Biblical predictions of the end times I recognize a lot of it comes from Daniel. And I also recognize just how badly they are distorting the text.

I fully expect to return to Daniel again some day and give it another pass. But for now I've got miles to go before I sleep, miles to go before I sleep...

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