Did Bel and the Dragon predate Daniel 7-12?

by James Dowden

On the basis that introductory blog posts about blogging are boring and rarely fail to disappoint, here’s jumping straight in with something interesting.

1. The Basics (skip this bit if it sounds patronizing)

The Book of Daniel can be found in your Old Testament. If you’ve got a Jewish edition, it’s located among the Ketuvim (or Writings), the latest of the three collections that form the Tanakh (or Hebrew Bible). Christian editions promote Daniel to being the fourth of the Major Prophets.

The Book of Daniel falls into two parts in two unhelpfully different ways. One is a simple matter of language: chapters 2-7 exist in Aramaic, whilst chapters 1 and 8-12 are in a late and heavily Aramaicized Hebrew. Whether this is because it is translation Hebrew, presumably executed to win Daniel a place in the Canon, or whether there is a deeper significance to these odd language shifts is not the point of this post.

The other way it falls into two parts is the sharp change of narration and genre after chapter 6. Chapters 1-6 are slightly fantastic stories about a prophet — much like the Book of Jonah — written in the third person (so Daniel is “he”); these have conventionally been called the Court Tales. Chapters 7-12 are a series of strange apocalyptic visions, narrated in the first person (so Daniel is “I”). The chronological setting also jumps back in time at this point: for instance, chapters 7-8 come before chapter 4 in the book’s chronology.

The other issue is that not all Christian versions of Daniel are the same: as well as the Hebrew/Aramaic version, there are two Greek versions, conventionally called the Old Greek or Septuagint (abbreviated Οʹ, the Greek number 70) and Theodotion (abbreviated Θ, the first letter of his name in Greek). Both “Septuagint” and “Theodotion” are technically misnomers in this case: the name “Septuagint” refers to a myth about the translation of the Torah in the assorted translations grouped together under that name; and there is good reason to believe that Θ in this case is at least based on an older translation. (There is also a curious case of verbatim agreements in Greek between Θ Daniel and Baruch, but that is one for another post.)

The most obvious characteristic of both Greek versions is that they are significantly longer. During the Protestant Reformation, these (and generally Θ rather than Οʹ) were supplanted by the Aramaic/Hebrew version, leading to denominational differences in the text form presented in English Bibles. In Anglican Bibles, the three big plus passages in the Greek versions are included in the Apocrypha. These are:

  • The Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Children — otherwise known as the Benedictus Es and the Benedicite — these canticles and small bits of connecting text go in the middle of Daniel 3. It’s entirely possible that at least the Benedicite predates the rest of Daniel, as its aptness for the situation seems somewhat questionable (although it is omitted in 1QDanª, the Qumran manuscript including Daniel 3.22-30).

And two stories starring our hero, Daniel:

  • Susanna — a lovely stand-alone wisdom story that variously floats around before or after Daniel and has absolutely no connection to the main book. It’s well worth reading, but isn’t anything to do with this post.
  • Bel and the Dragon — this, like Susanna, seems to stand alone and is of variable location before or after Daniel; it consists of two episodes, further developing the anti-idolatry theme of Daniel.

So, all in all, we have evidence of a complicated textual history.

2. A Variant in the Opening of Bel

The two Greek versions have significant differences between them. For instance, the first four verses of Bel and the Dragon reads as follows in Οʹ:

From a prophecy of [Habakkuk] the son of
[Joshua] of the tribe of [Levi].
2 There was a certain person, a priest, whose
name was Daniel son of Habal, a companion of
the king of Babylon.
3 And there was an idol, Bel, which the Babylonians
would revere. Now, every day they were
squandering on it twelve bushels of choice flour
and four sheep and six measures of oil. 4And the
king would revere him, and the king would go
every day and would do obeisance to him. But
Daniel would pray to the Lord.
And the king said to Daniel, “Why do you not
do obeisance to Bel?” (NETS, proper names changed to conventional forms)

But Θ has:

And King Astyages was added to his ancestors,
and Cyrus the Persian received his kingdom.
2And Daniel was a companion of the king and was
honored beyond all his friends.
3 And the Babylonians had an idol, whose
name was Bel, and each day they would spend on
him twelve bushels of choice flour and forty sheep
and six measures of wine. 4And the king would revere
him and would go every day to do obeisance
to him. But Daniel kept doing obeisance to his
And the king said to him, “Why do you not do
obeisance to Bel?” (NETS)

Although these have little contact on the level of the Greek, one’s ancestor will ultimately be a modification of the other’s ancestor.

As a stand-alone text, the opening of Θ is more than a little odd. Who’s this Daniel? Come to think of it, who’s this Astyages, who turns up in the very first clause only to promptly die? This doesn’t look like the start of a book at all.

For our purposes, it doesn’t matter whether the ancestor of Οʹ redacted the ancestor of Θ to make it look like the start of a book, or whether the ancestor of Θ redacted the ancestor of Οʹ to fit it into another text, the obvious candidate for which is the Book of Daniel.

The question is therefore: where did Θ Bel fit into Daniel?

3. A Variant in Daniel 6

We are used to the last verse of Daniel 6 (variously numbered 28 or 29) reading as follows:

So this Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius and the reign of Cyrus the Persian. (NRSV following Aramaic)

Θ is essentially identical:

And Daniel prospered in the reign of Darius and
in the reign of Cyrus the Persian. (NETS)

But Οʹ is very different:

And King Darius was added to his fathers,
and Cyrus the Persian received his kingdom. (NETS)

Here I think we can be more confident about the direction of redaction. On a superficial level, the Aramaic and Θ work as an “and they all lived happily ever after” ending. But there are problems:

  • Why mention Cyrus at all, if there is nothing to note of Daniel’s interaction with him?
  • The Aramaic word מַלְכּוּ (malku) occurs 39 times in Daniel, and on 37 of these occasions is used in the sense of “kingdom”; the other two, in the sense of “reign”, are only in this verse. This verse just isn’t in the author’s style.
  • The alternative reading of Cyrus receiving the kingdom, then being immediately followed by a much earlier chronological situation in 7.1 is difficult enough to invite redaction.
  • The wording of Οʹ Daniel 6.last should be very familiar.

4. Very familiar words

So let us compare Οʹ Daniel 6.last:

And King Darius was added to his fathers,
and Cyrus the Persian received his kingdom. (NETS)

With Θ Bel 1:

And King Astyages was added to his ancestors,
and Cyrus the Persian received his kingdom. (NETS)

Now, in the Greek there are minor variations in word order between the two, which are so insignificant that they cannot be translated into English. The only meaningful difference is the dead king’s name.

I have been careful throughout this post to avoid the word “historical” (generally preferring the word “chronological”). The point is of course that the Court Tales are thoroughly historically implausible. Darius the Mede is an even worse blooper: he is unknown outside the book of Daniel, and seems to be the result of some confusion on the part of the author (there were later Persian kings called Darius).

There are plenty of instances of ancient “corrections” to the name Darius in manuscripts of Daniel. Οʹ substitutes Xerxes or Artaxerxes at the verse variously numbered as 5.31 or 6.1. Θ reads “the king” for “Darius the king” at 6.16 and 19. And Josephus (Antiquities 10.11.4) explains that Darius was the son of Astyages and “had another name among the Greeks”, which seems to be a contorted exit from precisely this variant.

5. A Contention

I therefore contend that Bel and the Dragon was removed from after Daniel 6 by the editor who appended chapters 7-12.

There are plausible reasons for this removal: Bel and the Dragon amplifies themes and incidents from Daniel 1-6, and particularly the repeated Lions’ Den incident makes it look clearly secondary.

The redacted form of 6.last not only makes the chronological transition after the removal of Bel and the Dragon slightly less awkward, but also denies the premise of Bel and the Dragon by stating that Daniel prospered under Cyrus.

So on the basis of this contention, two questions remain:

  • Is the Οʹ form of Bel and the Dragon’s opening the original from before its attachment to the Book of Daniel, or redaction from after it was removed? (My instinct is the latter, as it has a faint air of an attempt to associate it with Habakkuk instead.)
  • Can we say anything about the relative dates of the Bel and the Dragon addition and the apocalyptic chapters prior to their inclusion with the Court Tales? Did either work have any prior existence before their inclusion, or were they added by their respective authors?

So welcome to my blog.