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Saturday, May 30, 2015

Let’s Play ‘Spot the Agenda’

Daniel B. Wallace is a Bible scholar with a Ph.D. from Dallas Theological Seminary who has been teaching Greek at graduate school level since 1979. That’s just in case credentials matter to you.

In this article he attempts to referee a (very polite) disagreement between two other equally educated men about a verse in Ezekiel that I happened to read again this morning.

Everybody involved has an agenda.

(Let me point out for those whose Bible interests run to more down-to-earth topics that this might be a good spot to get off the bus. But my fascination with this subject does have its practical side, as you will see if you feel like hanging in with me for a bit.)

The Illusion of Objectivity

An agenda is not necessarily a bad thing. I’m just pointing out (i) that they exist, and (ii) what they are exactly. A predisposition on the part of an authority to end up somewhere good is worth knowing about even when you agree with him, so you can make sure he isn’t cutting corners to get to his conclusion (and so that you and I don’t end up recycling his weaker or less ingenuous arguments). And of course any inclination on the part of an authority to lead his readers to a path of compromise, doubt or denial is always worth being aware of.

We can sometimes fool ourselves into thinking that with education or intelligence come a degree of distance and objectivity. My personal experience is that this is far from the case: scholarly men are just men, and they ride their hobby horses like the rest of us. Almost everybody has an agenda, and I trust those most who wear their opinions on their sleeves rather than doing a lot of handwaving, bobbing and weaving to obscure their real intentions.

Wallace’s agenda is not the least bit sneaky: he’s looking to demonstrate that the book of Daniel was written in the sixth century BC, and not more than 400 years later as some modernists allege:
“We conclude, then, that Ezekiel’s Daniel is Daniel’s Daniel and that on this strand of evidence at least the sixth century date of Daniel still remains intact.”
His article is lengthy and painstakingly researched. It’s a long way to go for what appears to be only one little piece of evidence for assigning a particular date to the ministry of the prophet.

“In the Red Corner …”

As mentioned, Wallace is refereeing a disagreement, and it may appear to some to be rather a minor one. On the one side is Harold H. P. Dressler, who argues that the “Daniel” referred to in this verse in Ezekiel about the prince of Tyre
“You are indeed wiser than Daniel; no secret is hidden from you …”
is the Daniel of the Lion’s den, the Abomination of Desolation, the apocalyptic visions and all that good stuff we know him for; the Jewish boy escorted to Babylon who became one of the most powerful and well-known political movers and shakers of his day, despite being a characteristically humble and obedient servant of God.

This identification matters to Dressler: he wrote his dissertation on the subject.

“And in the Blue Corner …”

On the other side of the argument is John Day, who takes the “new traditional” view that Ezekiel’s “Daniel” is actually a Ugaritic guy named Dnil, a Gentile referred to in the Ras Shamra texts who was probably a worshipper of Baal.

Day was so convinced of this that he wrote a book about it, in which his own motives become slightly less obscure to us:
“I shall also argue that, though Dressler’s view that the Ezekielian Daniel could well be a contemporary of the prophet in exile is impossible, it is probable that features of the Daniel alluded to by Ezekiel have contributed to the depiction of the hero in the book of Daniel.”
I just wanted to type the word “Ezekielian”. My day has now been made.

Short version: Reading between the lines, Mr. Day’s agenda is clear. He wants to demonstrate (i) that the book of Daniel (and probably Ezekiel as well, though that is not obvious from his introduction) was written well after the historical Daniel lived, (ii) that it was written by someone other than Daniel, and (iii) that its prophecies are therefore not prophetic. Rather, they are history written in the form of prophecy, presumably to delude gullible folk like you and me.

Now That All the Cards Are On the Table …

It’s a fun, lengthy argument, if you are a lay-twit like me who just enjoys trying to wrap his head around all the elaborate convolutions of thought that characterize really smart people writing for other really smart people.

If it matters, to the extent that I am able to pierce the veil of mystery here, I happen to think that Wallace and Dressler make better arguments than Day. Both sides agree that the linguistics (Ezekiel calls Daniel, or Dnil, “Danel”) are a non-issue. Further, the book of Daniel tells the story of a young man who came to his political influence early in life and could easily have been internationally famous by the time Ezekiel wrote about him.

According to one of the tighter dating chronologies, Daniel interprets Nebuchadnezzar’s dream and becomes ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon in approximately 604 BC, while Ezekiel does not pronounce judgment on Tyre until almost 20 years later. Other chronologies have the difference closer to 30 years. That’s lots of time for Ezekiel to hear of Daniel’s fame, even if you don’t factor in the Holy Spirit.

Yes, Babylon was more than a few miles north of Jerusalem, and yes, they did not have the internet in those days. News travelled slower — but not twenty or thirty years slower, especially when that news is that a local Jewish boy is basically second banana in Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom, the single most dominant world power of its day. You can be sure that news got around, and that Daniel’s wisdom was legendary among his fellow Jews.

In Dressler’s view, and mine, Ezekiel could easily have written about “our” Daniel. And it would be much more natural for him to have done so than to have written nice things about a Ugaritic Baal worshipper.

At the Mercy of Scholars?

Those of us who spend our lives working at less exhilarating jobs have to admit that we are a little out of our depth in such discussions.

And when you consider how much information scripture actually contains, and how much archeology, textual criticism, language study, historical analysis and so on are involved in bringing an English translation of the Bible to us, we must recognize that even scholars are at the mercy of other scholars. The discipline required to learn to do and teach one thing well makes many specialists almost as ignorant as we are about details of the areas of study of their fellows.

On one level, that could be discouraging. On another, I find it tremendously heartening to read a debate like this one and remind myself how carefully even the minutiae of scripture has been picked over and scrutinized through the years. There is almost no argument about any verse that has not been had over and over again. That so many people have taken the word of God so seriously for so long is a sort of testimony in itself.

Further, the fact that so many people attack scripture so fervently is another kind of circumstantial evidence. When documents have little to commend them and evidence for their historicity is sparse, who bothers wasting time writing books to trash them? It gives me confidence to know that so many well-placed, credentialed assailants have been able to do so little to undermine the average believer’s trust in his Bible. In courts of law, you do not go to trial for weeks on end over matters that are clear enough to be settled in a summary judgment hearing.

Even Wikipedia, surely as secularist a source of opinion as anything out there, concedes that the number of largely independent sources (the apostle Paul, Josephus, Q and the gospel of the Hebrews) for material in the gospels makes it “harder to maintain that it [the story of Jesus] was merely an invention of the Church”.

Go figure.

If you come to scripture without preconceived notions, it is hard to see it as anything less than the single most compelling body of documentary evidence in human history.

Three Observations

1)    Among average Christians, scholarly arguments are mostly background noise. From the pewsitter’s frame of reference, who cares whether Ezekiel was talking about this Daniel or that Daniel? All he did was make passing reference to an authority considered wise in his day. Fundamentally, the Ezekiel passage is about the moral fall of the Prince of Tyre. Two and a half millennia later it stands on its own whether or not we can identify which historical sage the Prince of Tyre surpassed. The message is just as powerful even if we know nothing about Daniel, and just as authoritative in its condemnation of pride, human or otherwise. Oh, and also, when did you last hear a message from Ezekiel?

2)    Among scholars, debates over small things are rarely small. On another level, John Day is not the only modernist to spend a lot of time on this argument, and Wallace and Dressler are not the only ones to disagree with him. These sorts of skirmishes are fought because there is a “big picture” here that we are not always equipped to see, and it is unlikely to be regularly debated on many local church platforms. But at some point, this and other arguments from the modernists will be paraded before us as evidence of the manipulation of the faithful by the human authors of God’s word and ultimately, as evidence for the falsehood of our faith. Since that is the case, I find the arguments of the critics worth parsing if only to observe just how far so-called authorities are willing to violate their own critical principles or ignore the evidence of their eyes in their efforts to prove God wrong. Men like Wallace and Dressler unfailingly point such things out, and catch the critics in their own words. “The pseudepigraphical approach wants to have its cake and eat it too,” says Wallace, among other pithy dissections of John Day. Indeed.

3)    Some novel explanations of scripture go away by themselves. Those of you who are observant and maybe a little older have probably noticed that the battle with modernist textual critics is being fought on different fronts today than twenty, forty or 100 years ago. When an argument is not particularly compelling, serious Bible students remain uncompelled. Commenting on one of Day’s more ingenious contrivances, Wallace says, “That such a connection has eluded most is instructive: they have missed it because the raw data do not naturally present such a connection”. When a bill of goods cannot easily be sold to believers en masse, expect that the enemy will rapidly begin to hard-sell something else.

After three vigorous attempts to compromise the character of the Lord Jesus, Matthew records “Then the devil left him”. Even Satan’s attention span has some limits.

Meanwhile, playing ‘spot the agenda’ is not the worst habit Christians can get into.

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