Chanukah, Daniel 11 and the Rabbis’ Limited Knowledge of Jewish History in the Greek Period
The Book of Daniel: A Sixth or Second Century Work?
The second half of the Book of Daniel, which is dominated by Daniel’s visions of the future, alludes to the early stages of the Chanukah story.Chapter 11 presents a history of the Near East from the conquests of Alexander, through the Ptolemaic-Seleucid wars, up to the religious persecutions in Judea under the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. The author does not use proper names of the kings involved, instead referring to the northern king (Syria) and the southern king (Egypt). How would Daniel, who is described as having lived in the 6th century B.C.E., know so many details about the Antiochian persecution, which occurred in the 2ndcentury B.C.E.?
The traditional point of view is that Daniel was a historical person who lived in the sixth century B.C.E. and predicted future events. The critical view is that the Book of Daniel is a pseudepigraphic (from Greek, “false writing”) work, namely a work written later and attributed to a sixth century Daniel, and that (at least) the latter part was composed in the second century B.C.E. Given that the author had knowledge of Antiochus’ despoiling of the Temple but does not recount the successful Hasmonean revolt, and in fact predicts different outcomes that do not correspond to known history, scholars suggest that the book must have been written between 167-165 BCE. Thus, the accurate “predictions” in this half of the book are examples of vaticinium ex eventu (prophecy after the fact).
Further evidence for the Book of Daniel’s late composition is its anachronistic use of Greek words and the lack of any mention of the book’s existence prior to the 160s B.C.E. In his list of great heroes and prophets, Ben Sira (c. 200 B.C.E.) fails to mention Daniel, jumping from the twelve minor prophets to Zerubbabel and the rebuilding of the Temple (Ecclesiasticus 49:10-11).
Daniel as a Prophet
During the Temple and immediate post-Temple eras, Daniel was regarded as a prophet. This is evident both in the Midrash of the Last Days found at Qumran (4Q174), and the New Testament (Matthew 24:15). In early rabbinic literature, especially those sources written in the Land of Israel, Daniel is listed among the prophets of the Babylonian captivity. Josephus wrote at length about the greatness of Daniel’s prophecies:
He did not only prophesy of future events, as did the other prophets, but he also determined the time of their accomplishment… He also wrote and left behind him what made manifest the accuracy and undeniable veracity of his predictions (Antiquities 11, 11, 7).
But if Daniel was a prophet, why is the Book of Daniel placed within Ketuvim, not Nevi’im (b. Baba Batra 14b)?
A) Daniel Used to be in the Prophets
Klaus Koch suggests that Daniel originally was canonized as part of Nevi’im but was later relegated to Ketuvim as a way of downplaying apocalyptic literature in the aftermath of failed rebellions against Rome. Support for this theory is adduced from Daniel’s position in Nevi’im in the Septuagint, and from the fact that the rabbis of Amoraic period soured on Daniel, claimed that he was not a prophet (b. Megillah 3a), and maintained that he was punished for wrongdoing (b. Baba Batra 4a).
B) Daniel was always Part of Ketuvim
Rivka Raviv, however, has argued—convincingly in my view—that Daniel originally was positioned in Ketuvim. Daniel 9:2 speaks of “the books,” meaning “scripture,” and refers specifically the Book of Jeremiah. Assuming a second century B.C.E. dating for Daniel, the book could not enter Nevi’im because that section of the Bible already was closed. Raviv believes that the negative attitude of the Babylonian Amoraim toward Daniel was part of their agenda of stopping those who would speculate about the date of the redemption (b.Sanhedrin 97b).
Why is the Connection between Daniel and Chanukah so Unknown?
Despite the specificity of the description of the persecution leading up to Chanukah in Daniel, very few Jews, even among the learned, seem familiar with the connection between the Festival of Lights and this “obscure book” in the back of the Tanach. Moreover, even classical rabbinic literature itself, including the Talmud, fails to note the impressive correspondence between the geopolitical events of 332-167 BCE and Daniel’s vision. Why is that?
In my view, the best explanation for this silence is that the Talmudic sages had limited knowledge of world history from the Greek period. Thus, they didn’t notice the impressive correspondence because they didn’t know the history to which the prophecy corresponded. That the rabbis did not know history well is clear from an examination of the core rabbinic book of history/chronology, Seder Olam Rabbah. This book is filled with factual errors, most famously the shrinking of the length of the Persian period by approximately 160 years. It is likely that the Common Era sages had limited knowledge of pre-Hasmonean geopolitics as well.
The pre-Renaissance medieval commentators, were similarly unfamiliar with the historical facts undergirding Daniel, sinceSeder Olam Rabbah and other rabbinic texts were their main source of historical knowledge. They thus proposed a wide range of interpretations for the end of Daniel. Rashi, for example, interprets Daniel’s final vision as referring to the Roman Empire, particularly the reign of Titus, while Saadia Gaon interprets 11:16-35 as referring to Rome, but regards 11:36-12:1 as foreshadowing the reign of Ishmaelite Arabs.
Abarbanel and the Dawn of Jewish Historical Consciousness
Don Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1508) was the first rabbinic Bible commentator to understand how Daniel’s visions fit smoothly the course of the Hellenistic period from the Wars of the Diadochi (the generals who reigned after the death of Alexander the Great, and ultimately split up his vast empire) to Antiochus Epiphanes. He writes:
בביאור החלק הרביעי מהמראה במלחמות מלך הנגב ומלך הצפון שנזכרו, כאן נכזבו המפרשים שלא ידעו ספורי המלכים ובדברי חכמי הנצרים ראיתי פי’ מתישב ונאה לפי שהוא מסכים לספורי דברי הימים למלכי פרס ומצרים. אמנם המפרשים הנצרים לא שיערו בישוב הכתובים וכפי הדקדוק וכשלו אך נקבל הטוב מהם…
Concerning Daniel’s dream of wars between the southern king and the northern king, the [rabbinic] commentators spoke falsely because they did not know the history of the monarchies. I found a fitting interpretation in the works of the Christian scholars which accords with the chronicles of the kings of Persia and Egypt. The Christian commentators make some errors, but I will accept the good from them (Ma’ayanei Ha-Yeshua 11:4).
Abarbanel’s remark is key to explaining why the popular understanding of Chanukah ignores the Book of Daniel. Aside from the fact that Daniel is generally overlooked because of its challenging Aramaic and barely intelligible Hebrew, it was not until the late 15th century that a major Bible commentator was able to weave together Daniel and the historical events leading up to the Hasmonean rebellion.
Daniel 11 Doesn’t Actually Talk about Chanukah: Malbim
In his commentary on Daniel titled Yafeh La-Ketz, Malbim (Meïr Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Weiser, 1809-1879), who had access to an additional four centuries of historical scholarship, improved upon Abarbanel’s reading. Malbim is aware of the connection between Daniel 11 and the Antiochian persecution, and his comment on 11:30 offers insight into the reason Daniel and Chanukah are not connected in Jewish consciousness:
עד כאן ספר מעשה אנטיכיוס הרשע, ולא גמר סוף הענין איך אח”כ גברה יד החשמונאים… כי במראה זו לא בא רק להגיד לו הצרות שיבואו על ישראל, ולא בא להגיד לו תשועתם ע”י מתתיהו, שהיה ג”כ רק לזמן קצר שאח”כ באו הרומיים, ומעתה יתחיל לספר תוקף הצרות והחורבן שיהיה ע”י הרומיים:
Up to this point has been the story of the evil king Antiochus. The text here does not tell the end of the story, how the Hasmoneans were victorious… For in this vision Daniel only wanted to relate the troubles that would befall Israel, not their salvations through Mattathias. For in any case, that was for a brief period, followed by the arrival of Romans. Rather, the text turns to the troubles and destruction wrought by the Romans.
According to Malbim, the author of Daniel recounts the unpleasantness under the Seleucids but not the heroism of the Maccabees, because the temporary salvation they secured for the Jewish people was ultimately for naught. Why refer to the victories of the Hellenistic period, considering that the war for Jewish sovereignty ended with utter defeat in 70 CE? Thus, in Malbim’s view, it was Daniel himself who neglected to recount the events associated with Chanukah by skipping over this part of the story in his prophecy, since this was but a brief positive interlude.
Malbim relates to the book of Daniel as a 6th century B.C.E. work of prophecy, so he refers to Daniel as consciously “skipping” the successful revolt of the Maccabees. However, according to the standard scholarly position, that the predictions were written in the 2nd century B.C.E. during the height of the persecution, the explanation for the absence of the Maccabean revolt in Daniel 11 is different.
Daniel 11 was written in the heat of the moment, during the despair the Judeans were feeling under the yoke of the oppressor. The chapter ends with a prediction of a war of North (=Antiochus) and South, with the Northern king being destroyed in a battle, bringing on the Messianic age, with the resurrection of the dead, redemption of the Jews and final judgment. Although he lived only a short time before the Maccabean rebellion, the author could not imagine that within a handful of years, the Judeans would fight off the Syrian-Greeks themselves. He was sure that, if Antiochus was to fall, it would have to be at the hands of a greater military power than Judea could muster.
Studying Daniel 11 as a 2nd century B.C.E. text from the time of the persecution highlights the victory of the Maccabees, when the “many and strong” fell into the hands of the “few and weak,” teaching us the lessons of perseverance and faith, which are as significant in our times as they have been for millennia.
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December 22, 2014
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Rabbi Evan Hoffman is the rabbi of Congregation Anshe Sholom in New Rochelle, NY. He previously served as Assistant Rabbi of Park East Synagogue is Manhattan. He received semicha from Yeshiva University’s RIETS, earned an M.A. in Modern Jewish History from Revel Graduate School and did advanced graduate work in American Jewish History. Hoffman’s weekly essay series, “Thoughts on the Parashah,” is widely disseminated.
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