November 08, 2009

Daniel and Universal History

Arnaldo Momigliano argues in a collection published in 1987 (the essay was first published in 1979) that the sources of modern universal history lie in Greece and Israel. The Greek tradition was mainly in the hands of non-historians: Hesiod who wrote before any of those that we normally consider historians (Hecateus, Herodotus and Thucydides are normally considered the first) formulated the first univeralist structure for history. Hesiod posited several ages- an iron succeeding gold, silver, heroic and bronze. There were other schemes available to the Greek universalist- that of ages, leading from youth to senility, something picked up by Romans who as late as Marcellinus in the fourth century compared Roman age to barbaric youth, and that of cultures perhaps expressed first by Hecateus and then carried on by others. Greek historians though were mostly interested in political history- Herodotus uses the idea of a succession of empires, Babylonian, Mede, Persian, to structure his non-Greek history. Others turned to the same idea- adding the Macedonian empire after the Persian once Alexander had acheived his conquests.

Momigliano talks about this using the familiar tools of close textual analysis. Perhaps as interesting though is where he takes up this narrative of empire and suggests that it became fused with the Hebraic apocalypticism visible in Daniel. Daniel is an odd book of the bible: it is one of two that appear to have been written in two languages- Hebrew and Aramaic. It concerns a figure Daniel- who we can locate in Middle Eastern literature right back to the 14th Century BC- and yet it places him in the reign of Belthazzar, the legendary successor of Nebuchudnezzar. Furthermore as Momigliano suggests it shows clear signs of being compiled- chapters 7-12 were compiled with a clear knowledge of the politics of the court of Antiochus IV which the previous chapters do not show. Incidentally Daniel also shows ignorance of contemporary events: there never was a 'Darius the Mede'! But more importantly the book interestingly separates into two parts- the first Momigliano argues was written when the Jews still believed in their place in the Seleucid Empire, its tone ressembles that of the Book of Esther and the second was written under Antiochus, referring to things like an unhappy marriage for one of his predecessors.

What is interesting about Daniel though is that whoever wrote it seems to have absorbed the Greek idea of a succession of world empires. In Daniel obviously these are the four human empires followed by the fifth divine empire- Hebrew apocalypticism has been imported into a Greek scheme. There is no echo outside of the Greek tradition of this scheme according to Momigliano and he submits that this must be an influence on Daniel- one of the first instances of the long story by which Greek philosophy and Hebrew theology became wedded together. Its an interesting argument and I leave the analysis of its truth to others: Momigliano does not fully develop it in his piece and more could be done to work with and through it but the argument that Daniel's structure owes much to Greek influence does not seem stupid and reminds us once again that the story of the Jewish and Christian Bible is not that of an unbroken single tradition, but rather of a conversation and impulses to record at different points in time.