The Bible in the British Museum
Yesterday, I wrote about how this clay cylinder (and its cuneiform inscription) show Daniel’s historical accuracy (A Clay Cylinder — and Daniel’s History). Today, I’d like to look at what it means for Daniel’s prophecy in Daniel chapter eight. This is perhaps the single hardest Biblical prophecy for a skeptic to ignore, stunning evidence of a divine hand at work in the giving of prophecy.
The Greek Prophecy of Daniel 8
3 Then I lifted up mine eyes, and saw, and, behold, there stood before the river a ram which had two horns: and the two horns were high; but one was higher than the other, and the higher came up last.
4 I saw the ram pushing westward, and northward, and southward; so that no beasts might stand before him, neither was there any that could deliver out of his hand; but he did according to his will, and became great.
5 And as I was considering, behold, an he goat came from the west on the face of the whole earth, and touched not the ground: and the goat had a notable horn between his eyes.
6 And he came to the ram that had two horns, which I had seen standing before the river, and ran unto him in the fury of his power.
7 And I saw him come close unto the ram, and he was moved with choler against him, and smote the ram, and brake his two horns: and there was no power in the ram to stand before him, but he cast him down to the ground, and stamped upon him: and there was none that could deliver the ram out of his hand.
8 Therefore the he goat waxed very great: and when he was strong, the great horn was broken; and for it came up four notable ones toward the four winds of heaven.
This is the first part of Daniel’s vision. The last part deals with “when the transgressors are come to the full” (v. 23), a common prophetic theme dealing with the end times. The end hasn’t come yet, so confirmation/refutation of that part of the prophecy has to be deferred, but we can examine the first part. An angel explained the vision to Daniel:
19 And he said, Behold, I will make thee know what shall be in the last end of the indignation: for at the time appointed the end shall be.
20 The ram which thou sawest having two horns are the kings of Media and Persia.
21 And the rough goat is the king of Grecia: and the great horn that is between his eyes is the first king.
22 Now that being broken, whereas four stood up for it, four kingdoms shall stand up out of the nation, but not in his power.
Nine key prophecies:
- There will be a combined Mede / Persian empire.
- This empire will be dominated by the power which arose second.
- It will have victories to the north, south, and west.
- Greece will rise to power in the west.
- Greece will quickly and totally defeat the Persian Empire.
- The first Grecian king will be very strong (“notable / great horn”).
- The Greeks will be angry (“moved with choler”).
- The first Grecian king will be “broken” (die) while still strong.
- Four Greek kingdoms will rise after his death, none as strong as Alexander’s empire.
The Persian Empire Prophecy Fulfilled
The vision was in Belshazzar’s third year — 551 B.C.
- In 550 B.C., Cyrus of Persia defeated the Median confederation, and from then on Persia, which became a power later than the Medes, was the dominant force (prophecies 1 & 2).
- Persian conquests eventually spread north to the Caucasus Mountains and the Caspian Sea, West to the Mediterranean and throughout Turkey, and South into Egypt (3).
Daniel’s prophecy clearly came true, but a skeptic, even a relatively fair-minded one, could say it proved little. Persia was already growing strong, so the first part might not have been hard to predict. The second part of the prophecy, including victory over Egypt years later, was vague enough in its wording that a skeptic won’t be overly troubled by it.
The Greek Empire Prophecy Fulfilled
The Greek prophecies are harder for skeptics to discount.
- In 334 B.C., Alexander the Great invaded the Persian empire — from the west (prophecies 4 & 6).
- It took only three years to crush the Persian Empire (5).
- The Greeks were very angry against the Persians, due to repeated invasions, insulting messages sent to Alexander, and other offences (7).
- Alexander died at 33 while still strong and pursuing world conquest (8).
- After his death in 323 B.C., the Empire began to divide, and by 280 B.C., there were four kingdoms, in the east, west, north, and south — “the four winds” (9).
All these details were prophesied in Daniel — more than two hundred years earlier.
“Proof” and Prophecy
There are many reasons a skeptic could discount much of fulfilled Biblical prophecy. I don’t blame them. Lots of religions claim fulfilled prophecies, and if someone wants to prove something with prophecy, I’m skeptical, too. The purpose of Biblical prophecy is not to prove something to unbelievers. Many prophecies provide no proof to someone who isn’t already convinced — they weren’t intended to.
I’d like to cover some reasons even an honest skeptic might be unpersuaded by some Biblical prophecies. With the first four, the skeptic acknowledges the prophecy’s truth, but possible natural explanations mean they give no evidence of miraculous pre-knowledge.
An Honest Skeptic Says — Vagueness
“Even though Daniel’s prophecy of Persian conquests fits the events, it is too vague to prove miraculous pre-knowledge.”
An Honest Skeptic Says — Self-Fulfilment
“Jeremiah’s prophecies of the fall of Jerusalem broke the spirit of the defenders, influencing the outcome. It is completely natural, nothing miraculous here.”
An Honest Skeptic Says — Intentional Fulfilment
“Sure, Zechariah prophesied Messiah would ride a donkey, but it was easy for Jesus to intentionally fulfil it. That’s no miracle, it just proves Jesus knew the Old Testament.”
An Honest Skeptic Says — Imminent Fulfilment
“Sure, Daniel foretold the rise of Persia, but that was just a few years away, and others probably could have guessed the same. It only proves he knew current events.”
An Honest Skeptic Says — Reported Fulfilment
“There is no independent confirmation that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. You want me to give my life to a religion because some guys who were obviously biased reported he was born in Bethlehem? There is no independent witness.” This is a legitimate challenge. In this case, the skeptic questions the evidence of fulfilment. I use this argument myself if someone claims that a non-Biblical prophecy or miracle proves anything. We should feel free to ask for real evidence, if someone is trying to prove something to us.
These are all legitimate challenges — the skeptic has every right to say these things. If we want to use prophecy as proof of miraculous pre-knowledge, we have to clear these hurdles, even if we ourselves are completely persuaded of that miraculous pre-knowledge.
Daniel’s Greek prophecy is:
- specific, not vague
- in no way self-fulfilling
- not intentionally fulfilled (did Alexander intentionally die young to fulfil prophecy? :))
- not imminent — two centuries later
- independently confirmed on all points
It clears all the hurdles. The skeptic turns to his last resort.
An honest skeptic might say, “How do I know these prophecies weren’t written after the fact? You want me to deny myself and take up a cross based on this? For this prophecy to prove anything, I need credible evidence it was written before the predicted event.” The possibility that a prophecy was written after the predicted event, fraudulently claiming to be a prediction, is sometimes called “retrodiction” (or “postdiction”).
Some scholars claim Daniel was retrodiction. Some prophecies (like chapters 10-11) are so specific that they say it must be history, written less than 200 years before Christ. The Dead Sea Scrolls undermined this view — but the Greek prophecy of Daniel 8 virtually destroys it. Retrodiction is simply not credible for this prophecy.
That Clay Cylinder Again
In the third year of the reign of king Belshazzar a vision appeared unto me, even unto me Daniel, after that which appeared unto me at the first.
No one in the second century B.C. (the skeptical date) could have written that — or even in the third or fourth century. The only people who could have were dead and gone by the mid-fifth century B.C. From yesterday’s post:
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.
Daniel 8 was written by someone who knew about Belshazzar. Between 450 B.C. and 1854 A.D., the only people anywhere who knew about Belshazzar were Daniel’s readers, so Daniel 8 had to have been written before 450 B.C. The evidence formerly used to “prove” Daniel wrong historically, the complete absence of Belshazzar from history, is the evidence that destroys retrodiction in this case.
Someone put Belshazzar’s name into Daniel 8 before 450 B.C., which means it was all written before then — in fact, probably in 550 B.C. just like it claims. It is the only credible explanation. And if it was written anytime before 400 B.C., it is stunning in its detail and accuracy.
To the Skeptical Reader
If you are unconvinced of the Bible’s truth but willing to look at the evidence, I understand where you are coming from. A lot of “Christian” arguments only hold water for those who already believe. I get that.
I’m convinced this one is different — Daniel’s prophecies are compelling. They are too specific to be called vague, too distant in time to be called imminent, and have too much independent confirmation to doubt their fulfilment. Belshazzar’s complete disappearance from history shows they aren’t retrodiction.
Does it absolutely prove Christianity? Of course not — but it is very strong evidence that there is something here beyond naturalistic explanations. If you really want to find a way to discount it, you probably can. But if you do — you’ll have to honestly ask: “Am I as open-minded as I claim to be?”
Maybe the Bible is worth a closer look after all.
Sources for this series:
- T.C. Mitchell, The Bible in the British Museum: Interpreting the Evidence
- Peter Masters, Heritage of Evidence in the British Museum
- Brian Edwards and Clive Anderson, Through the British Museum with the Bible
Summary post for the series, with links to other articles on Bible-related artefacts:
The Bible in the British Museum