This evening the Daily Office Lectionary of the 2019 BCP starts us into the book of Daniel.
Daniel is an interesting book in modern Christian experience because the first half of it is so well known through its popular stories, and its second half is so… inaccessible. It’s almost like two different books stuck together, linked only by the appearance of the main character in the first half as the one receiving the visions of the second half. This, and other considerations, has led a number of scholars in the past two centuries to conclude that it is in fact two separate books: the first half collected from various “Daniel traditions” (stories about Daniel and his friends) and the second half written by an anonymous apocalypticist in the 150’s B.C. attributing Daniel’s name to it. There’s a lot more to it than that, of course, and I have yet to dig through the evidence and arguments, myself, in any great detail, so I won’t bore you with further details on that here.
The book of Daniel is one where the Anglican lectionary tradition of reading one chapter at a time pays off exceedingly well: the first six chapters are six different stories about Daniel (and/or his friends) which span a very long period of time (perhaps one of the factors that lead some to question the strict historicity of this book). Time after time, faithful believers are persecuted for their faith, and God rescues them in the midst of danger. They are exciting stories of faith standing strong, heroic, even, and popular for children’s Sunday School curricula.
Starting in chapter 7, things take a turn for the weird. There were hints of this new style in a couple of the visions that Daniel dealt with in the earlier stories, but now it’s full on: this is apocalyptic literature. An apocalypse is a “revealing” or “unveiling” or a “revelation”, and is a highly stylized version or subset of prophetic writing. Usually looking at the end of history, an apocalypse is typified by a black-and-white approach to judgment and mercy, a full disclosure of the divine will, and the utter destruction of all that is evil. There is a lot of Jewish and Christian apocalyptic writing from the few centuries immediately preceding and proceeding Christ, and very little of it ended up in the Bible. For more on biblical apocalyptic writings, click here.
The apocalypse of Daniel, unfolding in chapters 7-12, gives us some of the Old Testament’s most vivid and explicit visions of the life, ministry, and death of Jesus, of world events leading up to his time period, of the resurrection of the dead, and of angelology. It makes for exciting reading to a Christian, even though recent groups (especially the dispensationalists) have come up with some very contentious interpretations. Curiously, Jewish thought did not seem to be quite as positively excited about this book; in the Hebrew Bible Daniel is not placed among the “prophets” but among the “writings”, their tertiary layer of biblical canon. Granted, some of the key visions of Daniel did get revisited in the book 2 Esdras which is among our Ecclesiastical Books, but that’s only a fringe interest. Perhaps this is another piece of evidence for a later date of origin or compilation for the book of Daniel.
Regardless of its literary history, the book of Daniel is simultaneously one of the most and least accessible books of Old Testament Prophets that we’ve got. If you’re like most people, “come for the stories, stay for the apocalypse!” But, in line with lectionary wisdom, if we keep returning to these visions year after year, along with the rest of the Bible read throughout the year, then one should be better-equipped to make sense of these writings each time.