The Problem of Bilingualism in Daniel

The book of Daniel of the Hebrew Bible was written in two languages: chapters 1:1-2:4a and 8-12 are written in Hebrew, while chaps. 2:4b-7 are written in Aramaic. The shift from Hebrew to Aramaic at 2:4b is attested in 1QDana. The shift from Aramaic to Hebrew is also attested in 4QDanb and 4QDanb. Even though the Dead Sea Scrolls support the shifts of the two languages of the Hebrew Bible, there still must be asked why the book of Daniel was written in two languages.

Biblical scholars have offered a number of suggestions to explain this problem. For instance, one suggests that there was an Aramaic text to the entire book which is no longer available. According to L. H. Ginsberg, the two Hebrew sections are translated into Hebrew in the interest of rendering the book more acceptable to a community whose estimate of the sacredness of the Hebrew tongue (Ginsberg 1948, 41-61). Stephen Breck Reid, however, (Eerdman’s Dictionary of the Bible, “Daniel, Book of”) insists that the problem of the two languages cannot be resolved on purely linguistic grounds. Scholars, therefore, have focused on how the sections of the two languages had been composed in the present Hebrew text.

John J. Collins offers a persuasive theory of the development of the composition as follows:

To anticipate the conclusions of the section of “Composition,” it is very likely that chaps. 2-6 already existed as a collection of tales before the Maccabean period. Theses stories, however, require some introduction, such as is provided by chap. 1. It is probable, then, that this chapter was originally composed in Aramaic and translated by the redactor of the book, although here too the Qumran evidence attests only the Hebrew, and the original language is not beyond dispute. Chapter 7 was composed in the Maccabean era in Aramaic, because if its dependence on chap. 2. Chapters 8-12 may be slightly later than chaps. 7 and com from a different hand, though from the same circles. The reversion to Hebrew at this point is presumably to be explained by the enthusiasm of the Maccabean period. The final product then was bilingual (Collins 1993, 24).

Collins’ theory of the compositional process would be supplemented by comparing to the issue of the Aramaic section of the book of Ezra (4:6-6:22). According to H. G. M. Williamson, the Chronicler took the form of official Aramaic correspondence as commonly practiced in Achaemenid times (Williamson 1985, 60). Daniel C. Snell also proposes that the motivation for Aramaic in both Daniel and Ezra “can be discerned to be to give a sense of authenticity to the documents and stories by presenting them in the language in which they are likely first to have been composed” (Snell 1980, 32).

In conclusion, the bilingual problem of the book of Daniel can be resolved by stating that the final redactor of Daniel preserved the older Aramaic documents and stories for the authenticity of the entire book of Daniel. But this resolution still is a hypothesis.

Reference List

Eerdman’s Dictionary of the Bible.

Collins, John J. 1993. Daniel. Hermeneia. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993.
Snell, D. C. 1980. Why Is There Aramaic in the Bible? JSOT 18 (1980): 32–51.

Ginsburg, Louis H. Studies in Daniel. JTS Press, 1948.


2 Responses

  1. As you and I discussed, I have always wondered (but never taken the time to research) whether or not the change might be text-critical in nature. Because the breaks seem to come in almost random places, I don’t wonder whether part of the problem might be that the Hebrew scroll of Daniel got damaged, and the only Daniel scroll from which they could copy to replace the damaged sections was an Aramaic one.

  2. One suggestion is that the author or redactor of Daniel is deliberately copying the Ezra template to lend authenticity, as the succession of episodes and the language variation is similar in each. (Wesselius in The book of Daniel: composition and reception).

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