Notes on Daniel, Josephus, and Jerusalem

Today’s entry is a potpourri of Daniel, Josephus, apocalypticism, and the fate of Jerusalem.

First, have a look at Josephus’ explanation for why the Jews of Palestine came to rebel (in his view, foolishly) against Rome:

Reflecting on these things one will find that God has a care for men, and by all kinds of premonitory signs shows His people the way of salvation, while they owe their destruction to folly and calamities of their own choosing. Thus the Jews, after the demolition of Antonia, reduced the temple to a square, although they had it recorded in their oracles that the city and the sanctuary would be taken when the temple should become four-square. But what more than all else incited them to the war was an ambiguous oracle (χρησμὸς ἀμφίβολος), likewise found in their sacred scriptures, to the effect that at that time one from their country would become ruler of the world. This they understood to mean someone of their own race, and many of their wise men went astray in their interpretation of it. The oracle, however, in reality signified the sovereignty of Vespasian, who was proclaimed Emperor on Jewish soil.[1]

N. T. Wright has suggested that the “ambiguous oracle” found in the “sacred scriptures” came from Daniel, especially chapters 2, 7, and 9.[2] Although I gather not a few other ideas have been proposed, I’m partial to the Daniel identification.

Why suspect Daniel? On its face, I think the material especially from Daniel 7 could have been more easily construed to do what Josephus bemoans than, say, certain proposed passages from Numbers or Isaiah, namely, predict a world ruler from the nation of Israel. In Daniel 7, the “son of man” figure reigns alongside God himself (vv. 13-14), and when Daniel is told the meaning of the vision (vv. 16-18), his interlocutors identify the four monstrous creatures preceding the “son of man” as earthly kings, but they also insist that “the holy ones of the Most High” will ultimately possess the kingdom forever. Combine this with the cryptic timetables offered elsewhere in the book, and it’s not hard to see how a zealous Jewish reader could have taken the text as Josephus reports.

Moreover, the Jewish apocalyptic output on either side of Christ suggests Daniel was “in the air.” Certainly, the Gospels themselves reflect this from time to time, as I noted briefly toward the end of the last post. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, we find evidence beyond the NT that Daniel had achieved some notoriety, if not canonicity. To illustrate, the three most common books found in the Dead Sea Scrolls are the Psalms, Deuteronomy, and Isaiah. In the words of Eugene Ulrich, “It is interesting, but not surprising, that these three books are the most quoted in the New Testament.”[3] Of course, mere existence of manuscripts doesn’t exactly tell us what books were most “popular” or authoritative, either in the Qumran sect or Judaism writ-large, but it is somewhat suggestive.

In all, we have eight different manuscripts of Daniel from Qumran. This roughly aligns with Daniel’s proportional representation in direct NT quotations. Compare to the three most prominent books: Psalms (39 manuscripts), Deuteronomy (32), and Isaiah (22).[4] Significantly, the Scrolls and other texts also contain Danielic material: later reworkings of Daniel’s story that reflect engagement with the original (e.g., 4 Ezra, the Enochian Book of Parables).[5]

Could Josephus have had something else in mind from the OT? Possibly, but I tend to suspect the sort of characters he depicts as enthusiasts for the rebellion would have been particularly attracted to apocalyptic literature.

Perhaps more strikingly, Josephus complains in 6.5.3 that, leading up to the war, the Jews of that era had ignored many prodigious warning signs from God that catastrophe was imminent. These portents included “a star resembling a sword,” which hung over the city for some extended period of time. Then, during Passover, a cow in line for sacrifice gave birth to a lamb in the temple court itself. Later that same Passover, one of the massive gates of the Temple swung open spontaneously and could only be shut with great effort.

Not long after,

there appeared a miraculous phenomenon, passing belief. Indeed, what I am about to relate would, I imagine, have been deemed a fable, were it not for the narratives of eyewitnesses and for the subsequent calamities which deserved to be so signalized. For before sunset throughout all parts of the country chariots were seen in the air and armed battalions hurtling through the clouds and encompassing the cities.[6]


at the feast which is called Pentecost, The voice in the temple. the priests on entering the inner court of the temple by night, as their custom was in the discharge of their ministrations, reported that they were conscious, first of a commotion and a din, and after that of a voice as of a host, “We are departing hence.”[7]

Josephus wrote this perhaps about ten years or so after the events. Now, put yourself in the shoes of a literate Christian who could have (theoretically) encountered Josephus’ account in the coming decades, such as an Ignatius or Polycarp. It would have been difficult for them, I posit, to see this as anything other than what the Gospels describe as the fate of Jerusalem, such as in Matthew 24 or Luke 21: the cataclysmic, end-of-the-world scale of the catastrophe, the apparent divine judgment, the false prophecy (see War 6.5.2)—all of this would have aligned fairly well with Jesus’ own predictions as the Gospels record them. Whether this because Jesus was indeed a prophet or because Josephus and the evangelists were drawing on the same basic discourse of what went wrong in 70 and the years leading up to it, the implications are interesting.

  1. Wars 6.5.4, adapted from the Loeb edition, H. St. J. Thackeray, trans. (Harvard University Press, 1927).

  2. N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God 1 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 315.
  3. Eugene Charles Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Origins of the Bible, (Grand Rapids, MI: Leiden ; Boston: Eerdmans ; Brill, 1999), 19.
  4. Ulrich, 19, 31.
  5. Florentino Garcia Martinez, Qumran and Apocalyptic: Studies on the Aramaic Texts from Qumran, Studies on the Texts of the Desert of Judah, vol. 9 (Leiden ; New York: E.J. Brill, 1992), 147.
  6. War 6.5.3.
  7. War 6.5.3. Cf. God’s departure from the first Temple in Ezekiel 10.


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