Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 4 (2002-2003) - Review

Donald E. Gowan, Daniel (Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries; Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 2001), 172 pp. ISBN 0-687-08421-0.

This little commentary succeeds in fulfilling the series' objective, which is to provide "compact, critical commentaries on the books of the Old Testament for the use of theological students and pastors" (p. 9). A brief twenty-seven page introduction is divided into four sections which establish a foundation for the commentary proper. First, in "The Interpretation of Daniel," Gowan judicially surveys the various ways in which the book has been read by Jewish and Christian readers through the ages. This provides the author with an opportunity to critique the so-called "futurist school" and dispensationalism as inappropriate ways of using the book of Daniel. Since these are so prominent in the popular religion of North America, Gowan hopes to dislodge these ways of interpreting the book in order to make way for his own reading.

Second, under the rubric "Origins of the Book of Daniel," the author deals with the book's historical setting, date of composition, authorship, and place in the canon (pages 18-24). The historical inaccuracies among the stories set in the Neo-Babylonian period contrast sharply with the accuracy of specific details related to the Ptolemies and Seleucids, which supports the scholarly consensus about the date of the book's final form. That is, the book of Daniel appears to have come into its current form just prior to the death of Antiochus IV, yielding a date between 166 and early 164 BCE (pages 20-21, and see the commentary on Dan 11:40 at pages 150-151). The court tales of chapters 1-6, however, were likely composed during a happier time before the intense persecution known in chapters 7-12. Gowan accepts the scholarly consensus that the stories originated late in the Persian or early Hellenistic period. He is apparently unaware of the important work of Rainer Albertz, who locates the various stages of the composition in socio-historical context: chapters 4-6 among the Alexandrian upper class at the time of Ptolemy II (285-246 BCE), the Aramaic book (chapters 2-7) produced by a less sanguine author during the revolt against the Ptolemies (200 BCE), and finally the canonical book of Daniel, produced in opposition to the Maccabean war of liberation and opting for religious and non-violent resistance (Rainer Albertz, Der Gott des Daniel [Stuttgart: Verlag Katholisches Bibelwerk, 1988]).

Third, in his presentation of "Daniel as a Work of Literature," Gowan sensibly explains to the lay-readership the two genres present in Daniel, "story and vision-account." He further summarizes the advances of form criticism by categorizing Daniel 2, 4, and 5 as examples of "the wisdom story," and chapters 1, 3, and 6 as "legends of faithful ones in jeopardy." The visionary accounts of Daniel 7-12 mark this unit as "historical apocalypse" in distinction to the "otherworldly journey" so characteristic of apocalyptic literature. This portion of the introduction contains a helpful overview of the unique features of Daniel among Jewish apocalyptic, emphasizing rather its continuity with the prophetic literature of Hebrew Scriptures.

Fourth, the introduction concludes with a brief discussion of "Daniel as a Work of Theology" (pages 35-39). Daniel's two distinct parts address different readerships, those in exile in Babylonia (chapters 1-6) and those in Judea at the time of Antiochus IV (chapters 7-12). Rather than focus on the nature of the book as predictive prophecy, Gowan argues that Daniel addresses both with "a single issue that had to be decided for both groups" -- "Who's in charge here?" Whether the stories with their happy endings or the visions with their prospects of torturous death (chapters 7-12), the book is asserting that Israel's God is in charge. Gowan displays here an ability to make helpful application of the book of Daniel that finds expression frequently elsewhere in the commentary.

Perhaps more than any other book in the Hebrew Scriptures, Daniel confronts the interpreter with a knotty set of historical, literary, and interpretive problems that are only compounded by the remarkable diversity of interpretations of the text, especially in the faith communities of North America. The task, therefore, of producing a brief commentary on Daniel useful for students and clergy, one which also navigates through these troubled waters, is daunting indeed. But Gowan succeeds beautifully. As per the design of the series, the commentary proceeds through each chapter of Daniel (with chapters 10-12 taken together as a single unit), dividing comments into three parts: literary analysis, exegetical analysis, and theological/ethical analysis. The literary and exegetical sections are readable summaries of the latest in scholarly approaches (though he makes short shrift of recent literary-critical studies, such as Danna Nolan Fewell, Circle of Sovereignty [Nashville: Abingdon, 1991]).

The potential problem areas in this work all appear in the third section: theological and ethical analysis. It seems to be an unfortunate reality of commentary writing in today's world that most publishers mandate a particular structure to the commentary itself. No doubt each series needs to have a distinctive approach, and in our ever-expanding list in this genre of biblical commentaries, publishers are constantly trying to find ways to make their own series distinctive. But many also decree the specific structure of the commentary sections, regardless of the nature of the literature itself. Fortunately, in this case, Gowan is level-headed and thoughtful in his applications, found in these theological/ethical sections. In fact, he commendably fulfills the series' objective of providing aids for students and pastors in these sections, which are often full of profound insight growing naturally from the exegesis itself. In this sense, the volume will be a treasure for all homileticians. The serious student will nevertheless want to read it with Collins and Goldingay ready to hand.

Bill T. Arnold
Asbury Theological Seminary