Belshazzar—Crown Prince or King?
BIBLE scholars have long argued over Belshazzar. According to the Bible book of Daniel, “Belshazzar the king” was ruler of Babylon, and he was having a great feast that fateful night in 539 B.C.E. when Cyrus the Persian overthrew the city. (Daniel 5:1) The problem is that only the Bible mentions Belshazzar’s name. Other early histories omit it and report that the ruler of Babylon at that time was Nabonidus. This was viewed by many as evidence that the book of Daniel was historically worthless and probably written some centuries after Babylon’s fall.
However, that judgment was premature. According to an article by Alan Millard in Biblical Archaeology Review (May/June 1985), in 1854 an inscription was unearthed in Iraq containing a prayer for the long life and good health of Nabonidus and his eldest son. The name of this son? Belshazzar! So there was a Belshazzar in Babylon! Since 1854, many other inscriptions have been found to confirm this. However, none of those inscriptions call Belshazzar king. They refer to him as the king’s son or as crown prince. Hence, critics assert that the writer of Daniel was mistaken in using the expression “Belshazzar the king.”
Even in this, though, they are wrong. How do we know? For one thing, according to Alan Millard, legal documents have been unearthed from that time in which the parties swear by Nabonidus and by Belshazzar. Why is this significant? Because the established practice was for the parties to swear oaths by the gods and by the king. Swearing by Belshazzar is the only exception to this, so Belshazzar clearly had a special status. In fact, it appears that Belshazzar ruled alone in Babylon for many years while his father lived at the oasis of Teima in northern Arabia. During this time, according to a tablet now preserved in the British Museum, Nabonidus “entrusted the kingship to” Belshazzar.
Why then do official inscriptions call him “crown prince” while the book of Daniel uses the term “king”? An archaeological discovery in northern Syria offers an answer. In 1979 a life-size statue of the king of ancient Gozan was unearthed there. On its skirt were two inscriptions, one in Assyrian and the other in Aramaic. The two inscriptions, while nearly identical, had at least one interesting difference. The text in the language of the Assyrian overlords said that the ruler represented by the statue was “the governor of Gozan.” The text in Aramaic, the language of the local people, describes him as “king.”
Paralleling this, Alan Millard concludes that while official inscriptions referred to Belshazzar as crown prince, “it may have been considered quite in order for such unofficial records as the Book of Daniel to call Belshazzar ‘king.’ He acted as king, his father’s agent, although he may not have been legally king. The precise distinction would have been irrelevant and confusing in the story as related in Daniel.”
All this begs the question: If the book of Daniel really was written centuries after the fall of Babylon, how did its author know about Belshazzar, who had been overlooked by other historians? And why did he call him “king,” following a custom that was understood when Belshazzar was alive but forgotten in later centuries? Surely, the reference in the book of Daniel to “Belshazzar the king” is strong evidence that the book was in truth written by someone who lived in Babylon in the sixth century B.C.E.