Monday, August 04, 2003

Sunday School

I’ve frequently cited the Book of Daniel for polemical purposes as an example of prophesy after the fact (ex eventu). Obviously put together around 165 BC during the despotic reign of Antilochus IV Epiphanes, the book represents the legendary Daniel as “foretelling” history that had long sense taken place—until very recently Daniel was seven times more fraudulent than any other document ever forged in the land of Mesopotamia. The fortunetelling doesn’t occupy the entire text, however; and I still fondly remember its tales of the handwriting on the wall and the fiery furnace from a picture book I had as a child. Both for old time sake and to see if I had been representing the historical status of the book accurately all these years, I reread Daniel this weekend with the help of the translation and commentary of Hartman and Di Lella. I still like the folkloric parts, and the apocalyptic predictions are still a transparent fiction; but I did learn a few things.

1. The pious commentators treat “the book’s supposed historical setting and dates as merely literary conventions and nothing more,” but they educe no evidence that Daniel’s authors are winking at the reader. It is true, however, that the rabbis, who in this as in other matters demonstrate considerable integrity, eventually put the Book of Daniel in the third part of Scripture, Kehuvim or writings, instead of in the second part, Nevi’im or prophets. The writings contain a number of works such as Job, the Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes that are of considerable literary merit but theologically problematic. The Christians were less cautious. St. Jerome followed the Hellenistic Greek translation of the Jewish Bible in placing Daniel among the prophets.

2. The clumsiness of a fraud is no evidence of the innocence of the perpetrators, but it does testify to the remarkable credulity of the faithful. One speaks of a will to believe, but that’s surely a misnomer if the word “will” implies a process of deliberation leading to a decision instead of automatism, group think, and wishful thinking. One believes in the good news much as one believes that it’s you can eat awesome blossoms on a regular basis without bad consequences. One hardly needs to sift the archaeological evidence or to become an expert on Oriental languages to notice that the accounts in the Book of Daniel are incoherent and self-contradictory—on internal evidence alone, the pagan philosopher Porphyry correctly dated the composition of the book back in the 3rd Century.

3. The prophesies in Daniel are indeed ex eventu, but they are also erroneous despite the advantage of predicting the past. The authors of the work simply didn’t understand the history of the Near East—not surprising when you recall that they were talking about things that had happened four hundred years before their own time. How many people today would get the wars and rulers of 16th Century right? Thus the famous allegory of the statue with feet of clay confuses Medes and Persians and generally makes a hash of chronology and king’s names.

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