Daniel’s Library

Daniel 9:2 records that Daniel “observed in the books” that the exile would last 70 years, and apparently realized that the time was nearly up. The book of Jeremiah is mentioned specifically, but the reference to plural “books” begs the question of what kind of collection Daniel had. One of the first questions, which can be answered with a fair amount of certainty, is the nature of these “books.”

The book with pages as we know it, otherwise referred to as a codex, can be excluded altogether since it would not be invented until about the 1st century BC or AD. In fact, even in the days of Jesus the roll or scroll was used almost exclusively, and particularly for literature like the books of the Old Testament. However, for some reason the very early Christian community began to use codices for their collections of what became the New Testament books. Eventually, around the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, the rest of the world also followed suite and slowly shifted from scrolls to the codex form. But the codex was completely unknown in Daniel’s day, and thus would not have appeared in his collection.

Hebrew codex containing the Torah, Prophets, and Writings, 14th-15th cent. AD.

Probably the most common form of writing in Babylon during the days of Daniel was cuneiform, which made use of a triangular-shaped tip on a reed to produce wedge-shaped signs in clay. These were used for nearly all known documents produced for official purposes in the government. Since Daniel’s collection does not appear to include any state archival materials, clay tablets can be ruled out. Significantly, there is zero evidence that any biblical literature was ever copied into any cuneiform language.

Cuneiform tablet from the Neo-Babylonian period, about the time of Daniel.

Another theoretical possibility would be parchment scrolls (i.e. leather). Such scrolls actually make up a large majority of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are several centuries after the time of Daniel. However, scrolls made of leather are extremely rare prior to the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the likelihood that Daniel had parchment scrolls seems quite slight.

Great Isaiah Scroll, in parchment, circa 200 BC.

There are a number of reasons why papyrus scrolls are most likely for the “books” in Daniel’s collection.

  • Erasure – in the First Temple period, to erase something from a scroll meant to wash the letters off (e.g. Num 5:23-24); Egyptian scribes carried a sponge for this purpose. Had scrolls been made of leather, erasure would have required scraping off the letters.
  • Destruction – the destruction of Jeremiah’s scroll required a knife and burning (Jer 36), both of which point to papyrus; papyrus cannot easily be torn by hand, and it burns easily, in contrast to leather.
  • Flotation – Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles was to be sunk in the Euphrates after being read (Jer 51); this required tying a stone to it, which would be necessary to sink a papyrus roll. A leather roll, by contrast, would have sunk on its own.
  • Consumption – Ezekiel had a vision in which he ate a scroll (Ezek 2:9-3:3); this is quite difficult to imagine with leather, but would make more sense with a papyrus scroll.
  • History – The Egyptian traveller Wen-Amon (11th century BC) records the sale of 500 finished papyrus scrolls to the Syrians in exchange for lumber; the scrolls recovered from Wadi Murabba’at (8th century BC) were all papyrus, as were the Wadi Daliyeh documents (4th century BC). Hundreds of bullae from Iron Age Israel attest to the same, since they preserve the texture of the papyrus on the back.

Bullah of Hezekiah, king of Judah, showing the impression of a string over papyrus on the reverse side, circa 700 BC.

It is certain that Daniel’s collection included Jeremiah, which may indicate the other documents were of a similar nature.It is reasonable to conclude that if Jewish sacred writings existed in Babylon, Daniel as the highest-ranking Jew would have had access to them, or even been in charge of them.Ezra, who was born and raised in Babylon, “was a scribe skilled in the Law of Moses,” who “set his heart to study the law of Yahweh, and to practice it, and to teach his statutes and ordinances in Israel” (Ezra 7:6,10). Clearly a collection of biblical books existed in Babylon in his days. Given the destruction and abandonment of Jerusalem and the temple, and the survival of the Hebrew scriptures, it seems likely that Daniel’s collection was the repository, or one of them.

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