King Belshazzar gave a great banquet for all of his nobles…suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared… so King Belshazzar became even more terrified (Daniel 5:1, 5, 9, NIV 2011)
Was Belshazzar – of Belshazzar’s feast fame – really king of Babylon, as Daniel 5 repeatedly claims? Some scholars have said that in fact he wasn’t, and use this as evidence that the book of Daniel is not historically reliable.
The problem is that Babylonian texts tell us that at the time of the feast (539 BC) there was another king – Nabonidus – who was Belshazzar’s father. That makes Belshazzar crown prince at the time, rather than king. So… the book of Daniel contains either a howler, or a fiction.
Or maybe not. This past year George Heath-Whyte, then a final year student here in Cambridge reading Assyrian, made a discovery while translating some more sixth-century BC Babylonian tablets for his undergraduate dissertation.
George was following the lives of some Judean exiles in Babylon and came across a character who was given the adopted name of Belshazzar (“Lord, protect the king”). This Babylonian name adoption was a custom for those who worked in the government (as we already know from Daniel’s case).
Now this Judean ‘Belshazzar’ appears in three texts. In the first two he’s ‘Belshazzar’, but in the third he’s changed his name back to one which reflects his Hebrew origins. Why might he have wanted to stop being called Belshazzar?
Research has shown that in Babylonian times, you weren’t allowed to have the same name as the king. So if you were called Belshazzar and someone also called Belshazzar became king, it was time to change your name! George points out that this Judean government worker may have changed his name for other reasons, but it is pretty plausible that he did so because Nabonidus’ son Belshazzar really had become king.
But wasn’t Nabonidus himself still king? George tells me that another text, translated by a scholar called Gibson, records that in the year 552 BC, Nabonidus relocated to the Arabian Desert and made his son co-regent, ruling in Babylon. (This may also explain why Belshazzar offered Daniel the title third highest in the kingdom (5:16) – after Nabonidus and Belshazzar.)
Fascinatingly, this year, 552, was the very same year the Judean civil servant changed his name so that he wouldn’t be called Belshazzar any more.
For this research George received a university award. It’s circumstantial evidence – but, as he puts it – “perhaps (if correct) a little bit more evidence to counter the popular opinion that Belshazzar being called “King” in Dan 5:1 is an error.”
We continue our travels through the book of Daniel this Sunday.