A Clay Cylinder — and Daniel’s History

The Bible in the British Museum

© Trustees of the British Museum

This clay cylinder with a cuneiform inscription, found in Ur near the Euphrates River in 1854, was one of the most important discoveries in Biblical archaeology.

Nabonidus, King of Babylon

The last Babylonian king, before the conquest of the Medes and Persians in 539 B.C., was Nabonidus.  Herodotus, visiting Babylon around 450 B.C., called him Labynetos (probably the Greek form of “Nabonidus”).  He comes last in the king lists of Berossus and Ptolemy.

Although details differ, the general consensus of the ancient historians is as follows:

  • Cyrus defeated Nabonidus in battle outside the city.
  • Nabonidus fled, perhaps to Borsippa.
  • After a brief siege, the Persians took Babylon without a fight.
  • Soon after, Nabonidus surrendered, and Cyrus spared his life.
  • Many officials in Babylon retained their positions.
  • Herodotus said the Persians diverted the Euphrates, waded through waist-deep water into the city, and surprised the defenders.

According to all ancient historians, Nabonidus was the last king of Babylon.

Daniel and Belshazzar

Daniel 5 says Belshazzar was king, and was making a great feast when (famously) a hand appeared and wrote a message of judgment on the wall.  Daniel read the writing and Belshazzar made him the third ruler in the kingdom.  Belshazzar was killed that night, and the city taken by the Medes and Persians.  According to Daniel, Belshazzar was king in Babylon when it fell, and he was killed that night.

Skeptics Always Loved Belshazzar

Skeptics loved Belshazzar — he obviously didn’t exist.  In 1850, Ferdinand Hitzig (Das Buch Daniel) called Belshazzar “a figment of the writer’s imagination.” The historians all agreed — the last king was Nabonidus, not Belshazzar.  He was captured, not killed.  Daniel was obviously all wrong, written centuries later and totally inaccurate.

Daniel’s account of Belshazzar was the silver bullet that killed Biblical credibility.  What more could a skeptic want?

“Epic Fail”

A mere four years later, the cylinder above turned up, and Hitzig’s book became an “Epic Fail.”  The inscription records a prayer of Nabonidus asking the gods to bless his son, the man who didn’t exist — Belshazzar.

© Trustees of the British Museum

That was just a start.  This cylinder to the left (also mentioning Belshazzar), found at Sippar in the 1880s, is a “highlight” in the British Museum, but the one from Ur was found first (both are in room 55).  Many other discoveries mean we now know a lot more about Belshazzar.

He was co-regent with Nabonidus, ruling at home in his father’s extended absence.  The queen of Daniel 5:10-12 was probably his grandmother, the Queen Mother (one of Nebuchadnezzar’s daughters).  Now we know why Daniel was the “third” ruler — Nabonidus, Belshazzar, then Daniel.  In fact, the discoveries clarify a lot of things.

Nabonidus WAS the last king, and fled after the battle.  The co-regent Belshazzar thought the city was safe, so held a drunken feast.  He died that night (perhaps a small skirmish in the palace).  The city fell without a real fight, perhaps because everyone got drunk at Belshazzar’s feast so no one noticed the dropping river level.  Cyrus could spare Nabonidus, because the war was over when he surrendered (Cyrus liked to appear magnanimous, more on that when we come to the Cyrus Cylinder).  Daniel was apparently one of those officials who retained their positions in the Mede-Persian administration (Daniel 6).

Written out of History

Why didn’t Belshazzar turn up in the histories?  We can only speculate.

Victors often write history.  The history (provided by Persians to Herodotus and others) says Cyrus spared the king, there was no battle, they were welcome in the city — the Persians are the good guys!  If Belshazzar resisted and died in a palace skirmish, that doesn’t fit the narrative.  Since he was only a co-regent, maybe he’s best just forgotten….

Nabonidus, the sovereign, is different.  Cyrus spared him!  We’ll have the records mention Nabonidus and Cyrus’ greatness and mercy, but that what’s-his-name who died in the city?  Just leave him out.

Is that why Belshazzar disappeared?  Who knows?  But this we do know — by 450 B.C., there are no records of Belshazzar.  No one remembers him.  Herodotus didn’t know anything about him.  He exists only in old buried stuff.  And in the Bible….

So Daniel was Right After All

Daniel’s history was accurate — and a prayer to a false god proves it.

It’s almost as if God said, “Nabonidus, if that’s what you want, go ahead and pray to these idols.  I’ll wipe your son’s name completely out of history.  When your ‘god’ is only a vague memory, I’ll have someone find these cylinders.  Your prayer to a non-existent god will refute the skeptics. The world will see that My Word is more reliable than their historians — who didn’t even know about Belshazzar.”

Who would have guessed a prayer to a false god would end up glorifying the one true God?

Psalm 76:10

Surely the wrath of man shall praise Thee:

***

Later posts:
A Clay Cylinder — and Daniel’s Prophecy
A Clay Cylinder — and Skepticism and Apologetics

Sources for this series:

Summary post for the series, with links to other articles on Bible-related artefacts:
The Bible in the British Museum

About Jon Gleason

Pastor of Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes
This entry was posted in Bible in British Museum and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A Clay Cylinder — and Daniel’s History

  1. Patrick Heeney says:

    Great Stuff!

  2. dcsj says:

    This is one of the great stories of archaeology. It never fails to draw a smile. I hope to see these cylinders in May.

    My brother lent me his copy of Master’s book, so I’ll try to get through it before we go.

    Maranatha!
    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Hi, Don. I think I actually missed the one from Ur last time I was there. I saw “The Nabonidus Cylinder” in a central case, and thought that was it, but based on their website, I think they are highlighting the one from Sippar. The one from Ur is in case 14.

      I think the connection to the prophecy of Daniel 8 is even more compelling. Posted on that today.

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