The Book of Daniel is playing with the reader. We wonder how our ancestors could have been so naive as to believe that an old sage, called Daniel, had described centuries ahead of time all the ups and downs of history at the time of the Maccabees (Dn 11). But it is only an illusion. If we take the book to be historical, everything is unlikely and there are no links among the various chapters, nor any consistency in the person of Daniel, as a child (Dn 13), an adolescent (Dn 1), an adult (Dn 7) or when he is almost a hundred years old (Dn 5). Therefore, we have to find out what the author wanted to say.
The Hasidean Period
The Book of Daniel must have been written around 65 B.C. In all likelihood, its author belonged to the Hasidean (or Hasidim) movement, that began twenty or thirty years before. It was going to renew the Jewish faith and the author was its witness.
To begin with, it seems that religion and faith in Israel had become rigid around 200. For two centuries, there had been a theocracy (a social system led by priests) and people lived in the past: the patriarchs, especially Moses, the laws and a religion planned in every detail with the Temple and its liturgies at the center. Priests were at the top of the social pyramid. Their only concern was to maintain the established order. What about God’s promises and the expectation of a just world? The answer was that these promises had been fulfilled with the return from the Exile: the Temple had been rebuilt, the people observed the Law and there was nothing else to wait for.
However, the people were crushed by the large landowners who had undertaken to pass on the wealth of the country to the kings of Egypt. Yet, the people did not know how to react. Young people, especially priests, were looking for something new and they were only offered what came from Greek culture: sports, art and culture, international relations and money. Their Israelite heritage seemed passé and uninteresting to them. They became caught up in materialism and when the time of persecution came, they were ready to give up their now useless religious heritage.
It was then that the Hasideans (the pious ones) emigrated spiritually and went to the desert where they devoted themselves to praying and inner searching. They went straight to the prophetic books to discover the secrets of God’s work in the present and his plans for the future. Because the priests had forgotten the prophets and, in their eyes, the Scripture that consecrated their preeminence was totally found in the Law, the Canon of the time.
And people were relearning the art of hope. They yearned for revealed wisdom, rather than the wisdom taught in Proverbs and by sages. They cultivated the science of the periods of history. Wasn’t the time when God would reclaim the world at hand? They were no longer satisfied, like the prophets, with an era of justice but instead, they wanted another world, the only definitive world. They no longer accepted to disappear and they began to be interested in the fate of human beings, rather than just in the prosperity of Israel whose days have no end. Moreover, since they recalled the debates of the Greeks about the existence of the soul, they began to believe in the resurrection of the dead.
The Book of Daniel bears witness to this experience and it inaugurated the age of apocalyptic literature. Therefore, it contains secrets although they are not where readers are tempted to look for them. Jesus was inspired by that book especially, when he assumed the title, the Son of Man, from Dn 7:13.