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Dating Daniel: A Linguistic Perspective

Updated on January 19, 2011

There has been a lot of to do about when the book of Daniel was written.  Conservative theologians of course insist that the book of Daniel was written by Daniel which would place the date of the book in the 6th Century BC.  However, do to the prophetic accuracy of the book regarding the Babylonians, the Persians, Alexander the Great, and the Roman Empire secular scholars argue that the prophecy can only be that accurate if written after the events transpired. They say the book is not prophetic, but historic and place the date of the book at 165 BC.  One of the big proofs in dating the book so late is due to the existence of 3 Greek words in the text. This is a problem since Daniel himself did not speak Greek, nor was Greek spoken in Babylon.

The Three Words

Many Christians have long claimed that the book of Daniel was written by Daniel in the 6th Century BC.  This would make Daniel an astonishing piece of prophecy outlining in detail the rise and fall of the world's great empires.  But there appears to be an issue when it comes to the book itself.

Daniel, from what we understand in the text, was a youth living in Jerusalem when the city was attacked by Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian horde in 597 BC.  When the city fell King Nebuchadnezzar took some young men to serve in his kingdom back in Babylon.  This was a common practice not just occurring here in the siege of Jerusalem.  It makes sense if you are building an empire, to take the best young projects of all your vassal nations and indoctrinate them back in your capital city.  By taking the best from everywhere, you are ensuring the greatest of your empire.  Daniel apparently showed great promise and he was rounded up with some others to be trained as wise men back in Babylon.  

Daniel, because of growing up in Jerusalem, spoke Hebrew.  However, he had to learn the language of the Babylonians when he got there, so he learned to speak Aramaic.  (Some will dispute this fact and say the Babylonians spoke Akkadian.  This is true, but they did not speak Akkadian during the period of Daniel.  They spoke a related language called Aramaic.)  The book of Daniel then is no surprise to comprised in both Hebrew (chapters 2-7) and Aramaic (the rest).  There is speculation on why it was written in two languages, but that speculation is unrelated to the point of this discussion.  The point of this article is to discuss the strange appearance of 3 Greek words in the book of Daniel.

The three Greek words in Daniel are all musical instruments:  "cithara", "psaltery", and "symphonia".  All three of these words are found in Daniel chapter 3 when King Nebuchadnezzar is commanding people to bow down when they hear the music.  It's listed several times, but they are all in the same story.  Since these are 3 Greek words appearing in a Hebrew text it would seem that this would deal a big blow to a 6th Century dating of the book of Daniel.  In fact Rowlings claims that the earliest known usage of the word symphonia was the 2nd century BC.

The Science Behind Borrowed Words

Borrowing a word from another language is a very common practice worldwide.  This is something that a linguist has to deal with on a regular basis, especially when trying to determine the phonemes (significant sounds) in a language.  Whenever a phoneme is extremely limited, the first thing to check is if the word is a borrowed word.  For example in the Cherokee language, I could only find 3 examples of a bilabial (consonants like m and b and p) consonant.  They were all m's.  So I would now look into whether these 3 instances of a bilabial consonant exist because they were borrowed words from another language.  

Typically nouns get borrowed from one language by a language that does not have a word for said object in their language.  Take for example the word "djembe."  Supposedly the word comes from a language in Mali, and it roughly means "everyone come gather."  That is the purpose of a djembe for these people, to call a gathering.  Hence its name.  It should be noted that although we have the word "hand-drum" in English that could possibly describe this particular object, it isn't specific enough.  We need a word more specific for the djembe, since there are many kinds of hand drums.  However, we don't have word for it in English, since the drum originated in Mali.  Hence we have simply borrowed that word from the Bambara Language, and simply call it the same thing they do: djembe.

In Daniel chapter 3, Daniel is writing in Hebrew and then lists off the instruments that are being utilized.  Since Daniel is writing in Hebrew, and listing off some nouns, as a linguist I would reasonably assume that Daniel is listing off the instruments in Hebrew, but then running across some instruments that don't have a Hebrew name and therefore just writing them down as their Greek names.  

However, this alone is not sufficient.  It still has to be determined how Daniel in 6th century BC could use a Greek word (not Aramaic) for an instrument that according to some was never referenced prior to the 2nd Century BC.

My Conclusions

The fact that the word symphonia did not appear until the 2nd Century BC is actually a flawed claim. Pythagoras used the term is his writings in the 6th Century. So the argument that these 3 words are not old enough to be used in the 6th Century is not a valid claim. All three were used in Daniel's time.

How did these Greek words make it to Babylon? Well, we can never know for sure with absolute certainty, but we do know that the Babylonians had Greek slaves. It pure speculation but these words could have been brought with the slaves to Babylon. Perhaps some of the slaves were brought to Babylon to be musicians, and they were skilled in the instruments from their home. Or it is also possible that in an attempt to become more "cultured" the Babylonians acquired instruments from all around and these three happened to be some of those. All is pure speculation, but this speculation helps one see that it is not outside of the realm of possibility.

The fact that there are only three Greek words in the book of Daniel actually points TO a dating of the book in the 6th Century. By the 2nd Century Greeks were in command in government. As a linguist, I would reasonably expect the government terms to be in Greek if it was in fact authored in the 2nd Century. However this is not the case. The government terminology in Daniel is in Aramaic (and also Persian as well, but remember that during the book of Daniel Babylon falls to the Persians and therefore the advent of new terminology.) which was the language of Babylon. This suggests to me that Babylon was still in charge when Daniel was written.

In the end, we can't say with absolute certainty when Daniel was written.  None of us were there.  However, I have just demonstrated that it is not unreasonable to believe in the conservative dating of Daniel in the 6th Century BC.


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