Belshazzar: The second most powerful man in Babylon
How archaeology vindicated the Bible’s curious claims about King Belshazzar
With a thousand of his lords in attendance at the feast, Belshazzar, King of Babylon, dusted off the golden goblets that his predecessor Nebuchadnezzar had plundered from God’s temple in Jerusalem. Belshazzar and his party guests drank wine from the sanctified vessels “and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone” (Daniel 5:4). That’s when all heaven broke loose:
Immediately the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace, opposite the lampstand. And the king saw the hand as it wrote. Then the king’s color changed, and his thoughts alarmed him; his limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together. The king called loudly to bring in the enchanters, the Chaldeans, and the astrologers. The king declared to the wise men of Babylon,
“Whoever reads this writing, and shows me its interpretation, shall be clothed with purple and have a chain of gold around his neck and shall be the third ruler in the kingdom.” (Daniel 5:5–7)
Doubts about Belshazzar
Is this story just a legend, or does the Bible preserve accurate history? Years ago, some skeptics denied that there ever was a king of Babylon named Belshazzar, claiming that his name and story were invented by someone unfamiliar with true Babylonian history.1
Daniel in the critics’ den2
Because of the remarkable fulfilled prophecies in Daniel, critics have long tried to cast doubt on its historical reliability.3 Although Daniel lived in the 6th century BC, critics want to date the writing of the book to the time of the Maccabees—four centuries later. This allows them to say that Daniel’s prophecies were actually written after the events they ‘predicted’. So, it’s no wonder critics have commonly assumed Daniel contains significant historical errors, including its claims about Belshazzar.
End of an empire
The Bible presents the famous ‘writing on the wall’ episode as occurring on the same day that the city of Babylon, capital of Babylonia, fell to the Medo-Persian empire under King Cyrus the Great. Indeed, Daniel gave King Belshazzar this interpretation of the writing: “God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end” (v. 26), and “your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians” (v. 28). The Bible claims that Belshazzar was killed “that very night” (v. 30), and with his death the Babylonian kingdom was now controlled by Medo-Persia.4
However, all other known historical records once disagreed. Ancient historians like Herodotus, Megasthenes, Berossus, and Alexander Polyhistor, not to mention a vast number of cuneiform documents, were united in claiming that the last king of the Neo-Babylonian empire was Nabonidus.5 Belshazzar was not even mentioned anywhere except in the book of Daniel and literature derived from it.6
But just when it looked like all the evidence was stacked against Scripture, a series of archaeological discoveries showed that Belshazzar did exist after all, and the details given about him in the Bible are profoundly correct.
First, in 1854, four clay cylinders with identical inscriptions were excavated from Ur.7 These Nabonidus Cylinders contained Nabonidus’ prayer to the moon god for “Belshazzar, the eldest son—my offspring.”8 Thus, Belshazzar’s existence was confirmed—as Nabonidus’ firstborn son and heir to his throne.
Then, in 1882, a translation of another ancient cuneiform text, the Nabonidus Chronicle, was published. According to this document, Nabonidus was a mostly absentee king, spending 10 years of his 17-year reign living in Tema, Arabia (725 km / 450 miles away from Babylon). The king left Belshazzar, whom the text calls “the crown prince”, to take care of affairs in Babylon during that time.9 Also, the Chronicle explained that Nabonidus was away from Babylon when it fell. Two days earlier he had fled from the Persians when they defeated him at Sippar, so Belshazzar was the highest authority in Babylon at the time of its capture.
Next, the Persian Verse Account of Nabonidus, published in 1924, stated that, as “he started out for a long journey”, Nabonidus “entrusted the kingship” to “his oldest (son), the firstborn.”10 So Belshazzar clearly functioned in the role of a king for years while his father was away.
Furthermore, a variety of other ancient cuneiform texts were found in the early 1900s which also mentioned Belshazzar, including a tablet from Erech in which both he and his father Nabonidus were jointly invoked in an oath, suggesting that both had royal authority.11
Holding the title
Naturally, critics try to downplay these discoveries, pointing out that Belshazzar is never officially identified as king in any Babylonian document. Yet, even if he was never technically king by Babylonian standards, it makes perfect sense for Daniel to refer to him as such. It was not uncommon for the ancients to describe a less-than-supreme ruler as king, as in the case of Herod Antipas, who was only a tetrarch (cf. Matthew 14:1, 9).12 Plus, regardless of his official title, Belshazzar was for all practical purposes king of Babylon in his father’s absence.
Remarkably, this also sheds light on a small detail in the text—why King Belshazzar only offered the third highest position in the kingdom. Since Nabonidus remained alive until even after Babylon fell, this means that Belshazzar was more like a co-regent, ruling at the same time as, and under the authority of, his father. So Nabonidus was in the ‘number one’ position, while Belshazzar was actually second. This explains why Belshazzar could not offer to Daniel the second spot in the kingdom. Third place was the highest position available!
The unbeatable book
Now, if the critics were right that Daniel was not written until hundreds of years after these events, it is unlikely that the author would have known about Belshazzar or the fact that he was second in command. But the fact that Daniel is historically accurate—even down to what once seemed to be an insignificant detail—shows that Daniel’s account was penned near the time of the circumstances it records. Daniel was right all along and, as archaeology has shown, he had a better understanding of Belshazzar and his role in the Neo-Babylonian empire than the critics! This should not be surprising. The Bible is God’s Word, and whatever it teaches is true and cannot be overturned—unlike the theories of the critics, which are frequently dashed to pieces in light of new discoveries.
Nebuchadnezzar, the father of Belshazzar—a Bible blunder?
Five times the narrative of Daniel 5 refers to Nebuchadnezzar as Belshazzar’s father (vv. 2, 11, 13, 18), and once Belshazzar is called Nebuchadnezzar’s son (v. 22). But other sources make it clear that Belshazzar was the son of Nabonidus (see main text), and Nabonidus was a usurper to the throne, not a relative of Nebuchadnezzar.
Critics have cited this apparent discrepancy as a biblical error, but several harmonizations are possible. First, although there is no hard evidence, some have proposed that Nabonidus may have married one of Nebuchadnezzar’s daughters, making Belshazzar his grandson.1 In biblical usage, the terms ‘father’ and ‘son’ can refer to ancestors/descendants in general, as when the Jews refer to Abraham as “our father” (Luke 3:8) or when Jesus is called “the son of David” (Matt. 1:1).
A simpler solution, however, is based on the fact that the Bible allows even more flexibility in the application of those terms. ‘Father’ and ‘son’ can be used of people who occupy the same office, even though there is no literal kinship. Examples include Elisha, whose biological father was Shaphat (1 Kings 19:16), calling Elijah “my father” (2 Kings 2:12), and those who hold the prophetic office being called “sons of the prophets” (2 Kings 2:15).2 So Belshazzar might simply have been Nebuchadnezzar’s son in the sense that he was a successor to his throne.
- Wiseman, D.J., Nebuchadrezzar and Babylon, pp. 11–12, Oxford University Press, 1985.
- This meaning may also be present in Genesis 4:20–21, in which individuals are described as the father of all who participate in the craft or trade which they developed.
References and notes
- In particular, German commentators Caesar von Lengerke, Das Buch Daniel, p. 204, Bornträger, Königsberg, 1835 and Ferdinand Hitzig, Das Buch Daniel, p. 75, Weidmann, Leipzig, 1850. Return to text.
- Title borrowed from the books by Josh McDowell and Sir Robert Anderson. Return to text.
- Attacks began as early as Porphyry in the 3rd century ad. Jerome quotes Porphyry as claiming, “Daniel did not predict so much future events as he narrated past ones.” en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Porphyry_(philosopher). Return to text.
- Cyrus’ general Gubaru (or Gobryas) led the army, and Cyrus rewarded him with the governorship of Babylon, so Gubaru may be “Darius the Mede” (Daniel 5:31). See Whitcomb, J.C., Jr., Darius the Mede, Baker, Grand Rapids, MI, 1963. Return to text.
- Dougherty, R.P., Nabonidus and Belshazzar: A Study of the Closing Events of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, pp. 7–12, Yale University Press, 1929. Return to text.
- E.g., Baruch 1:11–12 and Josephus’ Antiquities 10.11. Return to text.
- Additional copies were uncovered in the 1960s. Return to text.
- The Nabonidus Cylinder from Ur, translation by Paul-Alain Beaulieu; livius.org/na-nd/nabonidus/cylinder-ur.html. Return to text.
- Pritchard, J.B. (ed.), Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament with Supplement, p. 306, Princeton University Press, 1969. Return to text.
- Ref. 9, p. 313. Return to text.
- McDowell, J., Daniel in the Critics’ Den, p. 64, Campus Crusade for Christ, San Bernardino, CA, 1979. Return to text.
- See also Millard, A.R., Daniel in Babylon: An Accurate Record? in Hoffmeier, J.K. and Magary, D.R. (eds.), Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?, pp. 270–271, Crossway, Wheaton, IL, 2012. Return to text.