The Aramaic Problem of the Book of Daniel No. 1

THE REALM OF RESEARCH: The Aramaic Problem of the Book of Daniel No. 1

An analysis on the book of Daniel and the language that it is written in

Graduate Student, University of Chicago

The book of Daniel plays an important role in God's plan of informing His children concerning past and future events, especially those connected with the final stages of this world's history prior to Christ's second coming. However, the critical theological world has' succeeded in convincing the mass of Christian believers that the book of Daniel does not deserve a high place among the Old Testament books. It is now rather generally held that it was not written by Daniel the statesman and prophet who lived in the time of Nebuchadnezzar and his successors but by an unknown author four centuries later, in the time of the Maccabees.

Not being willing to believe that the detailed exposition of the events so accurately described in Daniel 8 and n, for instance, were written several centuries before they happened, many theologians of all shades are convinced that these chapters were put into writing after the events had occurred. And they believe that the name of Daniel, a venerated and famous per son of Jewish tradition, was chosen as author of this work to secure for it an easier acceptance among the Jews. Not only are the prophecies quoted by critics as proof of its late date, but also certain historical events are mentioned, for which no non-Biblical confirmation exists, together with the fact that part of the book is written in a late form of Aramaic.

Anyone who looks for authoritative statements written by recognized scholars in defense of a sixth-century B.C. authorship of the book of Daniel, will find out to his disappointment that such statements hardly exist. He may find an obscure, conservative writer or an occasional Catholic scholar defending the authenticity of Daniel, but no Protestant theologian of standing.

Here begins our great responsibility as Seventh-day Adventists. We have based an important part of our eschatological teachings on the prophecies of Daniel, and have made an outstanding contribution in their exposition and explanation. Surely Christ would not have exhorted His disciples to read that book and to watch world events which were foretold in it, if that book were spurious. (Matt. 24:15.) And we believe in the truth of the following exhortations given by God's appointed messenger for this time:

"As we near the close of this world's history, the prophecies recorded by Daniel demand our special attention, as they relate to the very time in which we are living." 1

"Daniel and Revelation must be studied, as well as the other prophecies of the Old and New Testaments. . . . Read the book of Daniel. Call up, point by point, the history of the kingdoms there represented. Behold statesmen, councils, powerful armies, and see how God wrought to abase the pride of men, and lay human glory in the dust. . . . The light that Daniel received from God was given especially for these last days. The visions he saw by the banks of the Ulai and the Hiddekel, the great rivers of Shinar, are now in process of fulfillment, and all the events foretold will soon come to pass." 3

Authenticity of Book of Daniel

Believing in the authenticity of Daniel, we as Seventh-day Adventists have the grave responsibility of giving its messages to the world, and of defending its genuineness, so that it convinces those who are willing to accept truth. Of the three arguments against the authenticity of Daniel already mentioned, this article is concerned with the third one only, dealing with the linguistic problem of the Aramaic part of the book. That the arguments concerning the prophecies are met successfully by us as a people is testified by the hundreds of thousands of converts in many lands who have become Seventh-day Adventists largely as a result of our exposition of the prophetic truths.

Of the historical problems connected with the book of Daniel some have been solved by recent discoveries; and others are still awaiting a solution, as the madness of Nebuchadnezzar, for which no documentary proof exists outside the Bible, and the identity of Darius the Mede, over whom we are still absolutely in the dark in spite of what has been written about him by commentators. The same was true of Belshazzar, the last king of Babylon, known only from the book of Daniel until a few decades ago, but we know now that next to the actual cuneiform sources no ancient writer was better informed about him than Daniel.8

The accuracy of some historical information, confirmed by recent discoveries, has highly puzzled some scholars who do not believe in the authenticity of the book of Daniel. One of them, Prof. Robert H. Pfeiffer, of Harvard University, writes:

"We shall presumably never know how our author learned that the new Babylon was the creation of Nebuchadnezzar (4:30 . . . ), as the excavations have proved (see R. Koldewey, Excavations at Babylon, 1915), and that Belshazzar, mentioned only in Babylonian records, in Daniel, and in Bar. i :n, which is based on Daniel, was functioning as king when Cyrus took Babylon in 538 (ch.5)." 4

The Question of the Aramaic

The linguistic problem of the book of Daniel is highly interesting. It has puzzled theologians for centuries, and been answered in many different ways. The well-known fact remains that a great part of the book is written, not in Hebrew, but in Aramaic (2:415-7:28). In this respect Daniel is similar to Ezra, which is also partly written in Aramaic (4:8-6:18 and 7: 12-26). And the existence of these Aramaic portions in the two books has been given as one of the main reasons for their late date.

I have been interested in these problems for many years and have collected all published Aramaic inscriptions ranging from their first historical appearance in the eighth century B.C. up to the time of Christ. I am satisfied that "nothing important now available is missing from my collection, to which I am adding new documents when they are discovered and published. With but few exceptions, all available documents were discovered during the past fifty years.

Some years ago I made a detailed comparative study between the language of the existing secular Aramaic documents and the Aramaic portions of Ezra and Daniel. This study revealed the fact that the Aramaic of the book of Ezra belonged to the early part of the third century B.C., but Daniel's Aramaic was seemingly of a slightly later stage. Later I found out that my conclusions agreed largely with those of several scholars, although some are inclined to lower the dates of the Aramaic for Ezra and Daniel by another century.

The admission on the one hand that the Biblical Aramaic in its present form shows a late stage, and the belief at the same time that the Aramaic portions of Ezra and Daniel were written in the fifth and sixth centuries B.C. could only be reconciled by the assumption that the wording of these two books had been modernized some centuries after they had been written, and put into up-to-date language in the same way as the English Authorized Version has been brought into agreement with current usage as to orthography and grammar. I was glad to find" this same thought expressed by the eminent German scholar Rudolf Kittel, editor of the scholarly Hebrew Bible, used now by theologians all over the world.5

Because this assumption could not, however, be proved at that time, no useful purpose was served by publishing my findings, and the manuscript I had written remained in my files. But remarkable, recent manuscript discoveries have altered the situation entirely, and have now provided the longed-for material to prove convincingly that the spelling of the Bible text was revised from time to time until it became standardized in the first century A.D. It is, therefore, a pleasure to avail myself of the opportunity offered by THE MINISTRY to -set my findings before the readers of this valuable magazine, of which I am proud to possess a complete file, having been its reader from the very first number.

Aramaic Language and Aramaic Documents

Most students of the Bible have a very hazy idea about Aramaic. They usually know what Hebrew is, and that the Old Testament was written in this language. They are familiar with the fact that Greek is the original language of the New Testament. But the fact that a third Bible language, Aramaic, exists, escapes most of them. There are also very few theologians who take the trouble to study Aramaic after having struggled through the Greek and Hebrew grammars in order to be able to read the Bible in all the original languages.

The fact remains that this language, now almost forgotten, was the most widely spoken language for centuries, and that it was the mother tongue of Jesus. It is a strange historical phenomenon that the Aramaeans never became politically important, but nevertheless spread their language so far that in the Persian period it became the official language of an empire, being understood and spoken all the way from the Persian highlands through Mesopotamia, Palestine, and Egypt to the borders of Ethiopia, and from Arabia up to western Asia Minor.

Assyrian records mention Aramaeans from 11oo B.C. onward,6 but these people do not appear in a clear historical light until they are mentioned in the Bible. In the time of Saul and David the Aramaean, or Syrian, states of Zobah, Damascus, Hamath, Beth-rehob, Ish- tob, and Maacah are mentioned (i Sam. 14:47; 2 Sam. 8:3-9; 10:6-8) all small states situated in Syria and ruled by local kings. For the greatest part of their short history they fought against Israel and Judah and the rising power of Assyria, until they were subdued by the Assyrians and lost their independence in the second half of the eighth century B.C.

The Assyrians had the barbaric habit of transplanting subjugated nations; and after defeating the Syrian states and the kingdom of Israel, they exchanged their populations and spread them throughout their empire. Among the peoples brought to Samaria to repopulate the devastated land of Israel, Aramaeans from Hamath are expressly mentioned. (2 Kings 17: 24.) Other Aramaeans may have been deported to the western and northern possessions of the Assyrian Empire. These deportations probably constituted one of the chief reasons for the phenomenal spread of the Aramaic language. Another reason lay in the fact that the Aramaeans were found everywhere as continental traders, just as the Phoenicians, the maritime traders of the ancient world, were found in all coastal countries of the Mediterranean.

Aramaic the Diplomatic Language

At the end of the eighth century B.C., when Sennacherib invaded Judah, the Jewish officials were bilingual and understood Aramaic as well as Hebrew. And they knew also that the Assyrian general was conversant with Aramaic, and requested him to use that language in his dealings with them. (2 Kings 18:26.)' Aramaic had begun to occupy an important place in the Assyrian life from the time of Tiglath-pileser III (745-727 B.C.). This is clearly revealed by the great number of commercial clay tablets written in cuneiform with Aramaic notes added on the edges or the back of the tablets. These notes on clay tablets found in the excavations of ancient Babylonian and Assyrian cities are usually called dockets, and were either scratched into the wet clay or written on it with ink. To these dockets can be added Aramaic inscriptions on seals and weights in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C. from Assyria, and seal and contract inscriptions in the seventh to the fifth centuries B.C. from Babylonia.

"They are evidence either that many people of Assyria and Babylonia knew Aramaic but not Assyrian or, more probably, that some Assyrians were bilingual and found the simple Aramaic alphabet easier to use than their own more complicated cuneiform script." 9

Aramaic became more and more officially recognized .during the seventh century B.C., and the Assyrian inscriptions mention be sides Assyrian, Aramaic scribes (dupsarre ar ma-a-a) ; and in addition to Assyrian chancellery servants, their Aramaic colleagues (a-ba matgr-ma-a-d) .9 Inasmuch as the climate of Syria and Mesopotamia is not suitable for the preservation of perishable writing material, like parchment or papyrus, only inscriptions written on stone, clay, or pottery have survived the destructive elements of the millenniums. This is the reason that comparatively few Aramaic documents from those countries exist in comparison with the wealth of cuneiform documents in the form of clay tablets or stone inscriptions. Occasionally, however, an Aramaic letter was written on a potsherd or a piece of stone, and one such letter has survived in fragments from the seventh century B.C. It is a letter containing twenty-one lines written by an Assyrian military officer, and sent back to Assyria from Babylonia. The man bears an Assyrian name, Bel-etir, and the persons and names of places referred to in the letter are all Assyrian and Babylonian, but the language is Aramaic.10

Another very important Aramaic document of the seventh century B.C. is a papyrus fragment, discovered at Saqqarah, Egypt, in 1942." It is part of a letter written by Adon, the .king of a Palestinian city (perhaps Ascalon), at the time of one of Nebuchadnezzar's invasions of that unhappy country. The letter is addressed to the Egyptian Pharaoh, pleading for military help. Aside from the fact that this letter throws an interesting sidelight on the dramatic events in which Judah was also involved in the time of Jeremiah, it is of the greatest importance in demonstrating that the diplomatic language at the end of the seventh century B.C. was Aramaic, even in the correspondence with an Egyptian king.

Aramaic the Common Language of Babylon

During a recent class period in Akkadian, I asked Prof. I. J. Gelb, in charge of the Assyrian dictionary project of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, what, in his opinion, had been the generally spoken language in the city of Babylon at the time of Nebuchadnezzar. His answer was, "Aramaic; but the Babylonian language was used only in the scholarly world for religious and monumental purposes." He pointed to a similar condition prevailing during the Middle Ages, when Latin was used in churches and institutes of higher learning, but the common languages were French, English, German, or any other native language.

The widespread discoveries of Aramaic official and private documents illustrate the statement of Daniel that the wise men addressed King Nebuchadnezzar in Aramaic. (Dan. 2:4.) Prof. R. A. Bowman came to the same conclusion and states:

"In the light of this demonstrated use of Aramaic in Babylonia and Assyria, even within the royal pal ace, it seems a little odd to learn from a modern commentator that it is unlikely that the Chaldeans, an Aramean people, spoke Aramaic in conversation with a Chaldean king, Nebuchadnezzar (Dan. 2:4), because 'the wise men would have addressed the king in Babylonian or Assyrian.' "12

ian statesman. His double education in Jerusalem and Babylon must have familiarized him with the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Babylonian languages. It is stated that he read the prophecies of Jeremiah, which were written in HCT brew, as his source of information. (Dan. 9:2.) He certainly used Hebrew also in his conversations with his Jewish friends and in his worship periods. But as a Babylonian official he must have been able to write and read Aramaic like wise. This is the reason that we see him writing down some of his experiences and messages in Aramaic, others in Hebrew.

In the light of our present knowledge it is not strange to find his book written in two languages, the more as we see that it contains stories and prophecies which were written with great intervals of time between. But it remains to explain why the Aramaic parts of his book have come down to us in a later form. This will be discussed in a later article.

(To be continued in ]une~)




1 E. G. White, Prophets and Kings, p. 547.

2 E. G. White, Testimonies to Ministers, pp. 112, 113.

3 R. P. Dougherty, Nabonidas and Belshazzar. Yale Oriental Series XV (New Haven, 1929).

4 Robert H. Pfeiffer, Introduction to the Old Testa ment (New York, 1941), pp. 758, 759.

5 Rudolf Kittel, Geschichte des Volkes Israel, vol. 3 (Stuttgart, 1927-1929), pp. 530, 531. (Quoted in Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, vol. i, p. 61.)

6 R. A. Bowman, "Arameans, Aramaic, and the Bible," Journal of Near Eastern Studies, vol. 7 (1948), p. 66.

7 Here and in other texts the Authorized Version has rendered the Hebrew word Aramaic, with "Syr ian" or "Syriack."

8 Bowman, op. cit., p. 74. Bowman's article presents also the principal publications of these Aramaic docu ments from Assyria and Babylonia.

9 Hans Bauer and Pontus Leander, Grammatik des Biblisch-Aramaischen (Halle, 1927), p. 2.

10 For the latest edition of this letter see A Dupont- Sommer, "L'ostracon arameen d'Assour," Syria, vol. 24 (1944-45), pp. 24-61.

11 A Dupont-Sommer, "Un papyrus arameen d'e- poque saite decouvert a Saqqarah," Semitica, vol. i (1948), pp. 43-68 with plate. See also H. L. Ginsberg, "An Aramaic Contemporary of the Lachish Letters," Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Re search, no. in (October, 1948), pp. 24-27; John Bright, "A New Letter in Aramaic, Written to a Pharaoh of Egypt," The Biblical Archeologist, vol. 12 (1949), pp. 46-52.

12 Bowman, op. cit,, p. 76.

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Graduate Student, University of Chicago

May 1950

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