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Robin Parry is the husband of but one wife (Carol) and the father of the two most beautiful girls in the universe (Hannah and Jessica). He also has a lovely cat called Monty (who has only three legs). Living in the city of Worcester, UK, he works as an Editor for Wipf and Stock — a US-based theological publisher. Robin was a Sixth Form College teacher for 11 years and has worked in publishing since 2001 (2001–2010 for Paternoster and 2010– for W&S).

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Should we stone Daniel as a false prophet? A brief theological thought on a problem in Daniel 11

I'll very briefly indicate a problem with Daniel 11:40-45.

In a nutshell Dan 11:2-12:4 is a revelation about the turbulent relations between the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt (the king of the south) and the Seleucid dynasty in Syria (the king of the north). It is a symbolic and theological account of history but it maps very well in its details onto what we know of the history from other sources ... that is until we get to 11:40-45 in which the last days of Antiochus IV are told. At that point the story seems to depart from what we know of his actual history.

The standard explanation for this is as follows. The vision is a pseudo-prophesy in that it was written at the time of the persecution of Jews by Antiochus IV (2nd C BC) but set at the time of Daniel (6th C BC). The history that it symbolically recounts is actually in the past from the time of the author(s) but future from the time of the narrative. That is not at all unusual - it is a regular feature of apocalyptic texts to recount past history in such a pseudo-prophetic way (and it is perfectly consistent with biblical inspiration, etc).

So 11:40-45 is still future from the perspective of the writers. And they get the details wrong!

OK - to save time I am simply going to accept that account of why the 'prophecy' and history pull apart at this point. And in fact I suspect that it is indeed correct (I know that more conservative readers will disagree).

But this account is somewhat problematic. God could have given the author an accurate, detailed prediction of what will happen (I am no Open Theist and I think that God knows the future absolutely). Why did he not do so?

So here is my brief theological thought. First a thought from Origen. Origen was very attentive to 'problems' in biblical texts. But he was convinced that the Holy Spirit put such problems there on purpose to invite readers to press beyond the surface level of the text to a deeper, spiritual meaning. So thought 1 is this: is the problem an invitation for us to consider the text in a different way?

The message of the text is that God will humble the proud and that those who set themselves up against God's purposes will be crushed. The Daniel text draws on patterns of divine action in the past (there are allusions to Isaianic texts in Dan 11:40-45 which model Antiochus' fate on God's dealings with Assyria) as a basis for the confident expectation that God will do it again. He did. Antiochus IV was indeed crushed - Daniel does get it right (even if the actual events do not happen as Daniel recounts them).

So getting back to Origen, perhaps the 'error' is there for a purpose. What? Ernest Lucas suggested to me that it might be an invitation to open up the application beyond the fate of Antiochus to other oppressors of God's people through history. Could be.

Now let's bring in Nicholas Wolterstorff's model of divine discourse. Wolterstorff says that God appropriates certain human speech acts as a means of articulating his own divine speech acts. He thinks that God can appropriate a speech act without appropriating everything that the author might have been saying.

So let's suppose that the author of Daniel really did mean to assert that the future of Antiochus IV would be such and such. Even if the author got the details wrong, God could still appropriate that speech act as a means of divine discourse without himself asserting that the future of Antiochus would be such and such. God would simply be saying, "Antiochus set himself against me and will be brought down." And God could be inviting readers to see the same pattern repeated in their own experience.

This is just a tentative and slightly risky (= flaming liberal, burn me at the stake) approach I wondered about today.



eclecticchristian said...

I think I would take a bit of Jonah/Ninevah approach to it. Jonah prophesied that God was going to destroy Ninevah. People repented, it didn't happen. While I would be hesitant to call myself an open theist (probably because I don't have a full understanding of what the term entails), I do not have a problem with history changing because of human initiated events.

James Pate said...

So Wolterstorff is saying that a human author wrote Daniel's predictions, and God rubber-stamps them with his approval in some sense, but not all of them, only their main point? Does Wolterstorff believe that God had anything to do with the composition of the biblical writings?

Robin Parry said...


The problem is that in this case Antiochus did not repent and he did still die - he just died differently from the way that Daniel 'predicts'.

Robin Parry said...


That is an excellent point and highlights the gap in what I wrote. Actually Wolterstorff does talk about God authorizing prophets to speak in his name as spokes people. Like an ambassador authorized to speak on behalf of a government. God stands behind the prophet speaking in the first place and he then appropriates their words as his own speech act.

I think that God's role in initiating the texts may not be identical in each case. A prophet is clearly authorized to speak for God and does so. A psalmist is not in quite the same position but their speech can still be adopted by God.

So NW does see God as involved in the composition of the texts though perhaps in many and various ways.

But God's involvement is not quite as close on NW's model as it is on conventional models.


David Reimer said...

FWIW, my "favourite" case like this, because it is so clear cut, is the seige of Tyre in Ezekiel. Ezekiel says Tyre will fall to Nebuchadnezzar (Ezekiel 26) ... only ... it doesn't. What's more, this is recognized within the book -- in the book's latest-dated oracle, Ezek. 29:17-20.

A lot of ink has been spilled over that one. Thomas Renz does a nice job on it: “Proclaiming the Future: History And Theology in Prophecies Against Tyre,” Tyndale
Bulletin 51.1 (2000): 17-58 [PDF].

And I think, from Robin's account, that there might be some resonance with Wolterstorff's "solution", too.

Robin Parry said...


Yes - I forgotten the Ezekiel problem (there are a range of problems like this in the prophets and my brain blurrs them all together). That is a very clear example.

Thomas's article is very helpful (I cannot remember what he argued but I read it a couple of times and enjoyed it).

Thx for the reminder of the issue in Ezekiel.

h said...

Many (if not most) prophecies in Scripture have multiple time horizons in view. There is a short-term application which can be clearly recognized (usually in a more directly literal way) and a longer term application which completes the prophecy in a fuller sense---for example, the Isaiah 7 prophecy about "Immanuel"; has an immediate context for Ahaz but a deeper culmination in Christ. So this Daniel passage could have an Antiochene time horizon in mind for most of the text but also a future fulfillment (relative to Antiochus) in another person or institution.

bobbymontsion2@gmail.com said...

YAHWEH says:"A prophet who presumes to speak in My Name anything I have not commanded, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, is to be put to death. You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by YAHWEH?” If what a prophet proclaims in the Name of YAHWEH does not take place or come true, that is a message YAHWEH has not spoken; that prophet has spoken presumptuously, so do not be alarmed. Therefore, if you do not put this false prophet to death, I will blot your name out of My Book and will kill you; and your wife will be a widow and your children will be orphans." says YAHWEH your God.