12 July, 2016

The Apologetics of 'Bel and the Dragon'

Is Christian apologetics really 'tyranny of the experts'? Some lay believers seem to think so. They cherry-pick 2 Timothy 3:16 while at the same time ignoring 1 Peter 3:15. That aside, what exactly did the oldest of patriarchs use to defend their views? Did they resort to apologetics as often as we did? As Bill Dyer points out, even Abraham did, by believing that if God can create everything from nothing, then He can also raise Isaac from the dead — granted, Abraham also is told by God not to go through with the sacrifice. Now this is a trivial example, but is it the only one?

In fact, no — at least not if you look to deuterocanonical and/or apocryphal sources. The book of Daniel as we know it — at least the book of Daniel as Protestant Christians (including Lutherans like myself) know it — is not the same book of Daniel that adherents of Catholicism, Greek Orthodoxy, Russian Orthodoxy, and Coptic Orthodoxy know. Why? Because the Hebrew Bible was canonicalized by three different groups of Jews which each canonicalized it in their own entirely different ways.

These three versions of the Tanakh are called, by scholars, the Egyptian, Palestinian, and Babylonian traditions. The version that is present in most Protestant Bibles is the Babylonian one, which is also the one that most modern Jews have in their canons. The Palestinian version, meanwhile, is the one that the Ethiopian Church uses, and the Egyptian version is the one that the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches use. It's in this version of the book of Daniel — particularly the end of it — where things get interesting. It's a story of an idol — Bel/Marduk — and a dragon-like beast, and how Daniel proves both of these to be false.

First, we have the Bel idol. This bronze statue is given food, and it disappears the next day, and Darius the Mede is portrayed in this epilogue as begging the question about this idol's nature, that the idol must be eating the offerings. So, Daniel pours ashes on the temple floor one day. Then, the next morning, footprints in the ashes leading to a secret door are discovered, proving that the idol's own priests are taking the food to a secret area to trick everyone. Then the people see that this idol — the one that Darius the Mede is the most devoted to, mind you — is no more than a fraud, and his theory is debunked.

The next one is of the dragon-like creature, which Darius the Mede claims must be divine because it does eat and drink. So, what does Daniel do? Poison it. He gives it food that has been contaminated with a poison that, when the dragon ate it, would give off enough gas to make the dragon's stomach explode. The dragon eats it, bursts open, dies, and what does Daniel tell Darius the Mede? Because it's not immortal, then it's not divine either. This version then goes on to say that it's for this offense — killing the dragon — that Daniel is thrown into the lions' den.

Notice how in this account, Daniel doesn't just simply assert that Babylonian idolatry is fake. He goes on to provide evidence proving the Babylonians wrong about what it is they're worshipping. That's apologetics, is it not? So, we have Abraham, we have Daniel… why should our faith be any different? We have a whole wealth of arguments at our disposal to debunk worldviews like atheism that present a similar threat to Christianity today, so why not use them the same way the patriarchs did? I for one would rather just get with the program and follow in these patriarchs' and other apolosists' footsteps.