A Clay Cylinder — and Skepticism and Apologetics

The Bible in the British Museum

Norman Porteous
Daniel: A Commentary (1965)
on Daniel 5:31

Darius is almost certainly a figment of the writer’s imagination.

Belshazzar’s History and the Skeptics

My last two posts discussed a cuneiform inscription on a clay cylinder from Nabonidus, the last Babylonian king (A Clay Cylinder — and Daniel’s History and A Clay Cylinder — and Daniel’s Prophecy).  In the first, we saw how skeptics said Belshazzar must not have existed, since he wasn’t mentioned by ancient historians, only to be proved wrong.

“A Mere Child”

When the first inscription was found identifying Belshazzar, some skeptics still refused to accept Daniel’s account.  George Rawlinson quoted Henry Fox Talbot as saying it provided “not the slightest evidence” that “Bel-sar-uzur” (as he appeared on the inscription) was co-regent, and said, “He may have been a mere child when it was written.”  Evidence of Belshazzar’s existence was not enough to shake the skeptic’s faith in his skepticism.

Believing scholars pointed out that Assyrian and Babylonian monarchs, always alert for usurpers among their many sons, never named them in public documents unless they had official positions.  But it was not until another record was found identifying Belshazzar’s role that the general historical accuracy of Daniel 5 was finally admitted.

Whose Son?

Even now, when all admit that Belshazzar was ruling in the city of Babylon, when all know the writer of Daniel 5 had historical knowledge no other ancient historian possessed, some skeptics will still carp on some details.  They say Belshazzar was the son of Nabonidus, so Daniel is wrong in calling him the “son” of Nebuchadnezzar, ignoring the fact that “son” was often used for “descendant” and the Queen Mother was apparently Nebuchadnezzar’s daughter, so Belshazzar was indeed descended from Nebuchadnezzar.

Forget Belshazzar, Now it’s Darius!

Now, the historical accuracy of Daniel 5 is confirmed, for any but the most determined skeptic.  Belshazzar didn’t exist, it was said, because he wasn’t found in any of the historical accounts, but we now know he did exist.  And thus, we come to the end of Daniel 5:

30 In that night was Belshazzar the king of the Chaldeans slain.
31 And Darius the Median took the kingdom, being about threescore and two years old.

You guessed it — Darius isn’t in any of the historical records.  Just as Belshazzar 160 years ago, we have no evidence, except for Daniel’s account, that Darius existed.  Thus, the quote with which I opened this post — Darius is “a figment of the writer’s imagination.”

Those who aren’t going to believe — aren’t going to believe.  If one challenge of the Scriptures is proven wrong, they will simply challenge something else.

Belshazzar’s History and Apologetics

“Apologetics” comes from the Greek word for “defence,” and refers to the use of logic, philosophical arguments, and historical / scientific evidence to show that the Bible is credible and the Christian faith is reasonable.  Apologetics is useful in strengthening the faith of believers in the face of skeptical attacks on their faith, but it has its limits.

John Gill (mid-18th century, Baptist) on Belshazzar

Then followed this king, who by Ptolemy is called Nabonadius; by Berosus, Nabonnedus (t) by Abydenus (u), Nabannidochus; by Herodotus (w), Labynitus; and by Josephus (x), Naboandelus, who, according to him, is the same with Belshazzar; whom some confound with the son of Neriglissar; others take him to be the same with Evilmerodach, because he here immediately follows Nebuchadnezzar, and is called his son, Dan_5:11, and others that he was a younger brother, so Jarchi and Theodoret; but the truth is, that he was the son of Evilmerodach, and grandson of Nebuchadnezzar.

The truth is the Bible didn’t tell us that he was the son of Evil-merodach, and Gill, a very respected Bible commentator whose fidelity to Scripture is unquestioned, was mistaken.

Adam Clarke (early 19th century, Methodist)

After the death of Nebuchadnezzar, Evil-merodach his son ascended the throne of Babylon. Having reigned about two years, he was slain by his brother-in-law, Neriglissar. He reigned four years, and was succeeded by his son Laborosoarchod, who reigned only nine months. At his death Belshazzar the son of Evil-merodach, was raised to the throne, and reigned seventeen years.

This was wrong, too.  Albert Barnes (1834, Presbyterian) held a similar view.  He cites William Hales (1812, Anglican) as saying that Belshazzar was another name of Neriglissar, and that he was killed by Cyrus who then put Nabonidus on the throne.

All of these scholars were engaging in apologetics, trying to show that the Bible history did not contradict the history that was then known.  They were correct that the Bible was accurate, but they were all completely wrong in how they explained the history.  (We covered all the denominational bases there, too. :))

Everyone was wrong, skeptics and apologists alike.  Only one Person knew who Belshazzar was, and He chose not to reveal it until 1854.

The “Fog of History” and the Skeptics

The expression “fog of war” describes the fact that it can be hard to determine exactly what happened in a battle.  Soldiers are more focused on winning the fight and surviving than on noticing and remembering everything.  Things happen so quickly, sometimes all the witnesses to a particular event died, and some things may never be known.

When we talk about ancient history, we should remember that there is a “fog of history” as well.  Everyone knows (now) that Belshazzar existed — but only because archaeologists happened to find the right things buried in the ground.

I started this post with a foolish quote from a skeptic.  In light of Belshazzar’s history, how could anyone think he knows enough about events 2500 years ago to deny someone’s existence?  Belshazzar “didn’t exist” — now he does, but now Darius the Mede “didn’t exist,” it is claimed.  The “fog of history” should make any honest person temper his words.

The “Fog of History” and the Apologist

The “fog of history” should also make Christians temper their words.  The best Christian scholars of the 18th-19th centuries wrote things that weren’t true.  Some carefully said they didn’t know for sure, and others weren’t as careful — but they were mistaken.  It is ok to say, “I don’t know,” and we need to remember the “fog of history.”

Limits of Apologetics

No one ever got saved because all his questions about Biblical history were answered.  People get saved because they trust Christ to save them from their sins.

You can’t prove Christianity is true.  If you could prove it, it wouldn’t be called “faith.”  Our salvation rests in things that can’t be seen, and the only real evidence of that is faith:

Hebrews 11:1

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

You will never convince anyone to become a Christian.  That is the work of the Holy Spirit.  Perhaps He will use our apologetics answers, but He doesn’t need them.  Faith doesn’t come when people hear our arguments that the Bible is credible.  It comes by the Holy Spirit working as people hear the Word of God.

Romans 10:17

So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.

I am glad for apologetics ministries, for they strengthen the faith of believers, helping to protect those who are weak from attacks on their faith.  They can challenge unbelievers to think again, to not discard our faith out of hand.  Much of what I’m writing in this series on the Bible in the British Museum is apologetics-oriented, pointing out how archaelogical finds have supported the historical accounts of the Bible.  Apologetics has its value.

But as with everything in the Lord’s service, a large does of humility applies.  Apologists can get facts as badly wrong as skeptics, after all.  And an apologist is no more likely to save someone than a preacher is.  Both can only do their best to clearly present the Word of God, and trust the only Saviour of men to do His work in the hearts of the hearers.  It doesn’t matter all that much if we are clever or quick with answers to skeptical challenges.  The only thing that really, really matters is trusting the Lord to open hearts to His Word.

Previous posts on the Clay Cylinder:
A Clay Cylinder — and Daniel’s History
A Clay Cylinder — and Daniel’s Prophecy

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

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

6 Responses to A Clay Cylinder — and Skepticism and Apologetics

  1. Ruth Gleason says:

    Jon, right on, my son. So interesting and well said.

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Thanks, Mom. I remember a few years back when I went chasing to see if I could find what >believers< said about Belshazzar before these cylinders were found, and it just struck me how limited we are and how much humility we need in so many ways.

  2. Lujack Skylark says:

    Historians once claimed there was no proof of Israel being a nation. Then the Merneptah Stele was discovered where Egyptian king Merneptah stated, “Israel destroyed her seed not”. Merneptah was actually talking about Jabin the Canaanite destruction of Israel. The research I uncovered shows Jabin the Canaanite oppressing Israel 1298-1278 B.C. and Egyptian pharoah Merneptah I reigning 1280-1268 B.C.

    There is the Merneptah Stele and the Moabite Stone proving Israel did exist. For people who never read the Bible and never been critics, the history might have some value. The Bible is a Jewish book. I believe through history and prophecy some will find Jesus Christ.

    We don’t know in the future will artifacts be found on Darius the Mede linking him to our Bible?

  3. a-man says:

    Interesting about Darius. Cyrus’ mother was a Mede and she had given him a Mede name. But he went by Cyrus which is a Persian name. Also, the Hebrew for the phrase in Daniel “So Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius and the reign of Cyrus the Persian.” could be read “So Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius THAT BEING the reign of Cyrus the Persian”. They might just be the same person.

    • Jon Gleason says:

      That is certainly one of the most likely possibilities, in my opinion. That’s a pretty common Hebraic form of expression, where the same thing is stated in more than one way. A very comparable one that I was just looking at in this series is Pul and Tiglath-Pileser in I Chronicles 5:26 where “and” could as well be translated “even” or “that being”, with the same effect as you’ve suggested here. (https://mindrenewers.com/2014/02/03/o-assyrian-the-rod-of-mine-anger/)

      “Darius” could be a Median name of Cyrus, or he could be someone known by another name which is just different in Hebrew, or he could be someone completely unknown and we just don’t have enough historical information to identify him. Any of those are possible. We can’t be sure, of course. But as you’ve said, “they might just be the same person” — I suspect that is the correct answer. Perhaps someday the archaeologists will discover something that tells us for sure.

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