How do you respond to the Maccabean hypothesis of the book of Daniel?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

Question: An atheist recently told me that Jeremiah predicted the messiah would come right after the Jews returned from their 70 years of exile, and when that did not come true, the second century BC Jews wrote Daniel to reinterpret Jeremiah’s 70 year prophecy. I did some research on this and found it to be true. Most scholars agree with this. How do I respond?

Answer: I will be happy to make a few comments on what is sometimes called the “Maccabean hypothesis.”

First of all, it is not accurate to say that “most scholars agree with this.” Scholars are split concerning this — and that should be one of your responses. You may tell the atheist that many conservative critics disagree with these assertions. In other words, “my critics can beat up your critics” … but only sort-of and sometimes.

First, the evidence is not strong on either side. Second, there are many points of evidence to analyze rather than one great thumping truth. So, there is much debate, but no quick-and-easy analysis. But the unbelieving critics (both higher and lower) feel the need to attack the book of Daniel because of its stunning accuracy — the very thing that points to its canonicity! How else could a nonbeliever explain the following:

The strongest evidence that Daniel was written in the 6th century BC is the predictive prophecies themselves. The visions found in Daniel predict with unimaginable accuracy that the 11th emperor of Rome (Domitian) would persecute the church, change the calendar and the legal system of Rome. The writer of Daniel (presumably Daniel himself) predicted that the persecution of the Jews by Antiochus Epiphanes (167-164 BC) would last just over three years. He predicted that the Messiah would come to Jerusalem in about AD 30, as well as predicting the destruction of Jerusalem shortly afterward. He predicted that Rome would be a divided kingdom….The predictive prophecies in Daniel are unmistakable evidence that the book is inspired by God. That being true, then it is quite obvious that the book’s claim that the visions were recorded by Daniel himself must be true. It is illogical to think that a God-inspired book is in fact a forgery.

John Oakes,

One of the more popular arguments against Daniel’s canonicity involves its “wandering” in the Scriptures. In the Hebrew canon, Daniel is positioned with the Writings, so it is grouped with Ruth, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs and Lamentations. But the English order of canon is based on the Septuagint; so Daniel is grouped with Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel — the Major Prophets.

Some critics assert that, since Daniel was originally grouped with the Writings, and since the Writings were collected after the prophetic canon was closed, that Daniel could not have been written in the sixth century BC. But this argument cannot obtain. Some of the Psalms and Proverbs were composed between as early as 1020 and 950 BC, and the events recorded in the Book of Job probably happened around 2000 BC. Therefore, Daniel’s original position in the Writings does not necessitate a late date.

Although the “wandering” aspect of Daniel might give it the flavor of a book without a home, it certainly does have a home — in Scripture! Please note, therefore, that a book’s position in the canon is of little import compared to its inclusion in the canon — and Jesus Christ himself affirmed Daniel’s inclusion! Furthermore, Jesus’ tone tells us that he was speaking to an audience that also assumed Daniel’s legitimacy as a prophet and the canonicity of his book.

“So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.” (Matthew 24:15–16, ESV, emphasis mine).

I realize that someone who does not believe in God in the first place would not believe that Jesus Christ was that very God in the second place. But any person who is arguing from a position of documentary evidence (which your atheist seems to be doing) must give credence to the New Testament’s superiority in this area. Most objective secularists who have studied the documentary evidence agree that it argues for the veracity of its accounts and that these accounts represent true historical events.

Therefore, if this historical person, Jesus Christ, reached back to the prophet Daniel to further delineate one of his prophecies, that should be proof enough that Daniel belongs in the canon — and that it was not written to perpetrate a fraud (unless, of course, Jesus was either clueless or in on it. The first is self-defeating by Jesus’ acuity in life and in the Scripture, and the second is a silly artifact of conspiracy theories).

I do not believe that the evidence for a second century BC writing of Daniel in any way trumps the evidence for a six century BC authorship. Critics may complain about favorite (and discrete) historical elements within the book, but end-to-end, those elements speak more to the six century BC than to the second. For example, one would expect a mention of significant persons such as Judas Maccabeus rather than persons like Nebuchadnezzar and Darius. And if a Maccabean author had merely recast Daniel to fit his current needs, I would expect the book to reveal more of his immediate situation.

None of the evidence that I’ve seen is a slam-dunk for or against the Maccabean hypothesis, and there are many more points of an argument than can be covered here. But I would like to close with some expert analysis of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

It is a highly surprising phenomenon that no fewer than eight manuscripts of Daniel have been identified among the materials discovered in three of the 11 caves of Qumran. In order to appreciate the significance of this fact, we need to compare it with the manuscript finds of other Biblical books from the same caves.

 To my knowledge, the most recent listing of published materials (as of 1992) from the Dead Sea scrolls appeared in 1977. The listing speaks of 13 fragments of scrolls from the Psalms; nine from Exodus; eight from Deuteronomy; five from Leviticus; four each from Genesis and Isaiah (Fitzmyer 1977:11–39); and no fewer than eight scrolls representing Daniel. Although we have no sure knowledge yet of the total scrolls that have been preserved from the Bible at Qumran, it is evident from this comparison that the book of Daniel was a favorite book among the Qumran covenantors.

 At this juncture we need to make another point. According to current historical-critical opinion, the book of Daniel originated in its present form in the Antiochus Epiphanes crisis, that is, between 168/167–165/164 BC. It seems very difficult to perceive that one single desert community should have preserved such a significant number of Daniel manuscripts if this book had really been produced at so late a date. The large number of manuscripts in this community can be much better explained if one accepts an earlier origin of Daniel than the one proposed by the Maccabean hypothesis of historical-critical scholarship, which dates it to the second century BC. (Emphasis mine)

Gerhard Hasel PhD,

The above is a perfect example of the type of evidence available in this controversy. I fully agree with Hasel’s analysis, and I hereby present this as evidence…but this is no hard truth. So, you would have to study this issue in more detail and a pile-up of the arguments for a six century BC writing against those for the Maccabean theory — and then counter your atheist’s arguments point for point. This is a bit of a grind… and I am sure that your friend would love the exercise! But this is a reason for caution. Although the thread of redemption is woven through every book of Scripture, is the book of Daniel’s place in the story a critical topic for the gospel? Hardly.

I realize that satisfying an atheist’s questions might earn you another shot at presenting the gospel, but do not let this type of thing become your primary occupation. We are all on a sinking ship — and the book of Daniel agrees! So, let us man-the-lifeboats first. Then we can debate things like the structure of the galley…or how the ship will sink. God bless you.

(For comments, or to join the Monday Musings mailing list, contact us at To submit a question about God, the Bible or the Christian culture, click here.)