Daniel the Prophet and His ‘Sealed Scroll’

Lately I’ve been doing a bit of reading and thinking about the early ‘apocalyptic’ texts, especially the book of Daniel. It’s a truly fascinating text for so many reasons, and has proven itself over and again to be an enigma to many who have tried to navigate these difficult waters but who’ve found themselves hermeneutically shipwrecked along the way.

Daniellion

 As a (partial) tangent, I’ve had the joy of re-reading an excellent article written by my friend, the brilliant Dr George Athas (of Sydney’s Moore Theological College), entitled “In Search of the Seventy ‘Weeks’ of Daniel 9.” It is an historically, theologically, and exegetically astute article, and offers what is, I think, a very helpful way of thinking about this issue. You can find a post summarising the article (which also contains a link to the original article in JHS) on George’s blog: With Meagre Powers.

Anyway (and getting back to the real point of writing this post), something that has often bugged me about the way many have interacted with this text is the issue of the prophet being told to ‘seal up’ his prophetic words.

It is, admittedly, a bit of a tricky concept.

The prophet is told a couple of times throughout the (final form1 of) the text to, in essence, hide the content of his revelations until the point when the once-hidden mystery of God’s will would need to be revealed clearly in order for the people of God to better understand a situation of crisis. The purpose of all this, it seems, is to reassure the text’s intended audience (once they were in the situation about which the prophecies speak) that God is still very much in control, both in regards to what was going to happen and in regards to God having known about everything that was going to happen from centuries gone by. The first of these points is fairly straight forward: even though times were going to get tough, God was still in control and was going to bring about a very unlikely and magnificent victory against all odds. The second of these points may seem somewhat strange to us, but it was very important for the people of faith to know that these sorts of situations were not something that caught God by surprise. God had knowledge of such things from times eternal, and they would not derail his plans for or his promises to his people. These things must happen, but they were very clearly inside the parameters of God’s sovereignty.

I hope that makes sense.

As such, in Daniel 8:26 the angel Gabriel tells Daniel:

The vision of the evenings and mornings that has been given you is true, but seal up the vision, for it concerns the distant future.

Again, in Daniel 12 (verses 4 and 9, respectively), the prophet is told:

…roll up and seal the words of the scroll until the time of the end. Many will go here and there to increase knowledge[,]

and;

Go your way, Daniel, because the words are rolled up and sealed until the time of the end.

Now, what has often happened is that Christians have taken hold of this concept and, in conjunction with an ‘eschatological’ outlook that is looking for either the end of, or a dramatic change in, “history as we know it” as the indication of the ultimate ‘victory’ of God, have done one of two things: 1) They have applied an ‘every-prophecy-fulfillment-in-Jesus-the-Messiah’ hermeneutic to suggest that it must be really talking about events surrounding the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and the early Christian community, or; 2) they have applied an ‘end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it’ hermeneutic which, noticing that this doesn’t appear to have happened yet, suggests that those things of which ‘Daniel’ speaks are yet to happen and are actually predictions about things that are still going to come about.

Both of these are, I think, highly problematic approaches.2

The first approach seems to suggest that the ‘prophecies’ of Daniel are only useful to the (early) Christian community (and therefore seems to void any meaning for the pre-Christian Jewish community), and the second approach seems to suggest that this only has meaning for those Christians (most probably in the 21st century and in North America, mind you) who are around to see ‘the end of all things’.

Neither of these will actually do.

That is because (and here comes the essential point of this post), although the book of Daniel is set in the 6th century B.C.E., it was most likely written in the 2nd century B.C.E. to meet the needs of the situation regarding Antiochus IV ‘Epiphanes’ and his attempts to wipe out Jewish identity.3 The essential ex eventu nature of (at least the second ‘half’ of) this text allowed it to meet the needs of the people of faith in the situation brought about by Antiochus by anchoring the ‘revelation’ in the stories of ‘Daniel’ and his friends in a time when they stayed loyal to God in the face of extraordinarily powerful empire. They provide the essential model by which ‘victory’ is achieved (illustrating to the people facing the situation under Antiochus how they should respond), and, because it was all (apparently) revealed centuries before it took place, it showed clearly that God was in control and that his plans and promises would not be brought to naught.

Very importantly here, this setting allows the providence of God to be highlighted, but it also presents the problem (and, in turn, the solution) as to why these ‘prophecies’ had not been known to the Jewish community before the Antiochene persecution began. Obviously, this was because the revelation, though delivered some four centuries previously, had been sealed up and hidden at the express direction of God (through his angels).

The scroll had been rolled up and sealed but was now needed; the time for its ‘application’ had come. It was, therefore, opened (apparently by the ‘wise’ scribal community) in the time of Antiochus and revelation was made known (as was its purpose).

What this means, then, is that there does not need to be speculation about events to which the book of Daniel is speaking: it is speaking to the events surrounding the Antiochene persecution.4 The scroll is ‘open’ because it was ‘opened’ by the scribe/s who (probably wrote/redacted it and) brought its meaning to bear in the time around the beginning of the Maccabean rebellion. It was intended for a time in the future to its setting; i.e., the time of its writing. The contents have thus been revealed to those to whom they needed to be revealed; the scroll is open.

_______________

(1) The book of Daniel can be divided into at least a couple of different sections fairly easily due, primarily, to the fact that part of it was written in Hebrew and part of it was written in Aramaic, but also due to the differing style and content of the material. For my purposes here, however, I will be dealing with the essential cohesion of the text’s final form, brought about by the final author-editor to meet the needs of a specific socio-historical context.

(2) I do acknowledge that some of the ideas present in the book of Daniel, such as the idea of the ‘abomination that causes desolation’, are picked up by writers of the Christian ‘Gospels’. These are, however, re-applications of a text that, I hope to show, was speaking into a context quite different from that which the writers of the NT faced. Also, the notion of the ‘unsealed scroll’ is very prominent in the book of Revelation, but the way in which the author of Revelation picks up and uses the Hebrew prophetic/apocalyptic traditions is for another time, and is not of direct relevance to the point being made here. It is necessary to make this point very clear: the Hebrew Scriptures deserve to be understood in their own right before they are to be understood as a source of great quotes for New Testament writers.

(3) It can get fairly complex, but I would suggest that, basically, the first ‘half’ of the book of Daniel is a collection of re-tweaked and re-applied stories that had been handed down for some time (probably originating in or after the Babylonian captivity), while the second ‘half’ is a collection of ex eventu ‘apocalyptic’ prophecies written in the time of the events they are concerning, all brought together to meet the situation brought about by Antiochus.

(4) At least primarily.

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Josh Dowton

Student of history/theology/nonviolence/permaculture/missional thinking. Large of limb, red of hair. Semper in excretia sumus, solum profundum variat.

One thought on “Daniel the Prophet and His ‘Sealed Scroll’”

  1. I love your 2nd footnote. We need to stop treating the Bible as a systematic treatise. Rather do as you have done: find out what the book – passage is saying in its own right and in its own contexts. Then and only then can we link that to other passages which have similar theological meaning.

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