Monday, September 17, 2018

Apocrypha-lypso (9)

I once came across an online critic of the gospels who attempted to demonstrate his Bible savvy by pointing out that one gospel records a miraculous feeding of 5,000 while another tells of only 4,000 being fed.

“Aha! Contradiction!” cried the elated skeptic, hoping for one of those “gotcha” moments we all enjoy from time to time.

Of course if you’re familiar with either the books of Matthew or Mark, you’ll recall that they each contain references to both feedings. Worse (for the critic at least), Mark records a conversation between Jesus and his disciples that explicitly compares the two events right down to counting the post-dinner leftovers. Jesus fed huge crowds of hungry men, women and children on at least two occasions. Two careful writers noted it.

The point is that even authors with very average storytelling chops tend to be able to write the fifteenth chapter to a book without completely forgetting what they wrote about in chapter 6. Divinely inspired writers have even less difficulty with consistency.

9. Bel and the Dragon

Like Susanna, in the Septuagint, the story of Bel is appended to the canonical book of Daniel. You can read the New Revised Standard version here, in three or four minutes, even less time than the other fake chapters of Daniel.


Like Susanna, Bel is a single chapter, the last chapter of Daniel in the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Bibles. It tells three separate, short tales linked thematically. In the first (1:1-22), Daniel, now an old man, proves to Cyrus king of Persia that a much revered idol (Bel, or Baal) is merely a thing of clay and bronze, and that his priests have been defrauding the monarch of twelve bushels of choice flour, forty sheep and six measures of wine daily. Naturally, this does not end well for the priests of Bel.

In the second tale (1:23-27), Daniel kills a great dragon also revered by the Babylonians and said to be a “living god”. He feeds the dragon cakes made of pitch, fat and hair, which cause it to explode.

In the third (1:28-42), the irate Babylonians demand that Cyrus hand over Daniel to them. Intimidated, the king sadly complies, and Daniel is thrown into a den of lions, which turns out almost exactly like the lion’s den story in canonical Daniel, except that this version includes a cameo appearance by the prophet Habakkuk from all the way back in Judea (please don’t ask).

Shot Out of a Canon

Bel and the Dragon makes a poor candidate for canonicity for all the same reasons as Susanna: late dating, issues with the original language, the use of the word “Jew” (1:28), the damage appending it does to the logical structure of the book, the inconsistent characterization of Daniel and the jarring tone of Bel when compared to canonical Daniel. But T. Witton Davies points out some additional problems with Bel:
“The improbabilities and contradictions of these three pieces have often been pointed out from the time of Julius Africanus down to the present day. The following points may be set down as specimens:

(1) Daniel is called a priest in the Septuagint (Bel and the Dragon, verse 1), and yet he is identified with the prophet of that name.

(2) Habakkuk the prophet (he is so called in Theodotion (see Bel and the Dragon, verse 33), and no other can be intended) is made to be a contemporary of Daniel and also of the Persian king Cyrus (see Bel and the Dragon, verses 1 and 33 in the English Bible). Now Cyrus conquered Babylon in 538 BC, the principal Jews in Babylon returning to Palestine the following year. The events narrated in Bel and the Dragon could not have occurred during the time Cyrus was king of Babylon, but the Septuagint speaks of ‘the king’ without naming him.

(3) It was not Cyrus but Xerxes who destroyed the image of Bel, this being in 475 BC (see Herodotus i.183; Strabo xvi.1; Arrian, Exped. Alex., vii.1).”
The similarity of the dragon story to the mythological slaying of Tiamat has also been noted.

I’m Telling the Truth; I Ain’t Lion ...

Further, where Susanna is sad, Bel is just clumsy. The clumsiest part about it is that it purports to tell a second lion’s den story without the slightest mention of the first. Bear in mind that Daniel first met lions in a den in Daniel 6 during the reign of Darius the Mede, and under strikingly similar circumstances (jealous officials pressuring a friendly king).

Now, it is abundantly clear from canonical Daniel that the prophet’s first (and, I will argue, ONLY) den experience occurred under Darius. It is equally explicit in Bel that the second (fictional) account took place under Cyrus (1:1).

Much has been written concerning the so-far unsuccessful efforts to locate the Bible character of Darius the Mede in secular history. For those interested, Steven Anderson has an intriguing new proposition here. But whether you believe Darius is simply another name for Cyrus, or whether you read Daniel 6:28 to indicate (as I think it does) that Darius and Cyrus were two different people who reigned more-or-less concurrently, you are going to have a major problem making sense of that second lion’s den account.

While there are definite similarities, the two lion’s den accounts are very different. The Daniel 6 story involves one night in the den, while the Bel story involves six. Further, in the Bel story, the prophet Habakkuk is flown in by an angel to bring Daniel his dinner. It is impossible to consider them alternate versions of the same story — unless the second account was written hundreds of years later with no access to details of the first tale and no particular concern for accuracy, and is therefore chock-full of errors and made-up details intended to add drama. I suspect this is more or less what occurred. Alternatively, if the Bel story is indeed a legitimate part of Daniel, then however implausible the second account may appear, both lion’s den incarcerations must have really taken place.

Aye, There’s the Rub

But believing both accounts presents a major difficulty. Canonical Daniel tells us the prophet advised a series of Gentile kings up until the first year of King Cyrus. All ruled out of Babylon, and Daniel resided there. Darius and Cyrus were either (1) the same person, or (2) co-regents in Babylon, which means that, assuming both lion’s den tales are true, the events that inspired them occurred in the same city only a couple of years apart, somewhere between 537 and 535 B.C.

Are we seriously expected to believe that a second group of Babylonian Daniel-haters were so astonishingly stupid that they tried the same failed stunt a second time within two years of the first, in full knowledge that the last people who tried it were pitched to the lions themselves, families and all? Even politicians have longer memories than that.

Furthermore, any writer who could tell the latter tale without making any reference at all to the first is either (1) unbelievably forgetful, (2) a terrible writer, (3) both, or (4) a ghost writer from another generation, as well as the world’s worst researcher.

Basically, the two accounts are mutually exclusive. Since we must choose one, the canonical account in Daniel 6 is far more plausible and much better integrated into the structure of the book of Daniel. And if we reject the second lion’s den tale, we must reject the other two with it.

Too bad. Dragons are cool.

Readability: 4/10
Plausibility: 1/10

No comments :

Post a Comment