According to the biblical book bearing his name, Daniel is a wise man whom King Nebuchadnezzar takes captive during the invasion of Jerusalem. Daniel rises to power and prestige in the Babylonian court because he can interpret dreams better than the king’s own magicians can. Although Daniel interprets the king’s dreams and visions throughout chapters 2-6, in chapters 7-12 it is Daniel who receives visions that he himself cannot interpret.
Does Daniel predict a timeline for the end of the world?
Daniel’s visions talk about the end a great deal, but neither the book of Daniel nor the character of Daniel ever gives one precise timeline for the end. In fact, the character of Daniel provides many different calculations and depictions of the end! Not only that, but what Daniel means by the end seems to change from one chapter to another. In most English translations of Dan 2:28, for instance, Daniel says that God has revealed to the king what is to happen “at the end of days.” But this translation may not be the best. The Hebrew phrase suggests a turning point but not necessarily the end of history or the world. In this case, the end refers to the end of foreign empires that rule over Judea and the coming of a government that is wholly different.
In Dan 8:17-18 the end probably means the final period of time during which the faithful Jews will suffer persecution. Although this vision of the end claims to happen during the Babylonian exile, circa 546 B.C.E. (Daniel 8:1), the passage itself was written in or near Jerusalem around 167 B.C.E., during the Hellenistic period. The writer of the chapter understands the rule of the Hellenistic kings to be an extension of the Babylonian exile. As such, the king that the passage has in mind is the Syrian emperor, Antiochus IV, who outlawed Judaism in Jerusalem in 167 B.C.E., desecrated the Jerusalem temple, and killed many Jews. But Dan 12:4 provides yet another understanding of the time of the end. In that verse, the end refers to the time of the resurrection of the dead. The writer of the book thinks this is the time at which mundane history will cease and Antiochus IV will fall from power.
There are several calculations of the end of Antiochus IV’s persecution of the Jews or the end of the desecration of the Jerusalem temple. Dan 7:25 says that Antiochus’s rule over the people of Jerusalem will last “a time, two times, and a half time.” This is a period of three and a half years. In Dan 8:14, an angel tells Daniel that the desecration of the temple will last “two thousand three hundred evenings and mornings,” or 1,150 days. This is a period of a little less than three and a half years, which seems fitting since Dan 8 was written a little later than Dan 7 and reflects an escalation of the crisis, seen in the shorter deadline.
But Dan 12:12 speaks of waiting even longer: 1,335 days. Apparently, the anticipated ending mentioned in Dan 8:14 did not take place and so the writer pushed the end even further into the future. But why? The Maccabees drove Antiochus IV and his forces out of the temple precincts and resumed temple worship in the winter of 164 B.C.E., only three years after its desecration. Moreover, by early 163 B.C.E. Antiochus IV was dead. So the last calculation of the end seems to refer to something other than the end of the temple’s desecration. Perhaps the writers of the book were disappointed with the leadership of the Maccabees and hoped for a different end.
Was Daniel an actual person who lived during the Babylonian exile?
The dates and calculations for the end refer to events that took place between 167 and 164 B.C.E, during the period of the Maccabean revolt rather than the period of the Babylonian exile. Extra-biblical records and accounts suggest that some materials from the first half of the book of Daniel may be based on Neo-Babylonian realities. Notably, Nebuchadnezzar’s exile (Dan 4) may have been based on the Neo-Babylonian king Nabonidus. There is even an extra-biblical account of Nabonidus consulting with a Jewish seer, as Nebuchadnezzar does in chapter 4. Yet the extra-biblical account does not name Daniel. The names of both figures were probably changed later as the tales of Daniel took shape and eventually became a book. According to the book, Daniel serves the foreign kings for a long time—roughly 70 years. Such a long career serving under so many different royal regimes—Babylonian, Median, Persian—would have been virtually impossible. These historical difficulties suggest that the character of Daniel was probably not an actual person but a fictional hero whose wisdom and faithfulness bring Judaism and its God to heightened visibility in a foreign land.