Nebuchadnezzar or Nabonidus? Mistaken Identities in the Book of Daniel

The Old Testament is a valuable book of scripture, taught the Prophet Joseph Smith, but it is not perfect. “I believe the Bible as it read when it came forth from the pens of the original authors,” he affirmed. Then he warned, “Careless transcribers, ignorant translators, and evil and designing priests have caused many corruptions in the text.”

A classic example of textual errors caused by “careless transcribers” or “ignorant translators” is contained in the book of Daniel. The events chronicled in the present-day book would have originally been recorded in Hebrew, the early language of the Jews. However, the book of Daniel found in the Hebrew Bible is a combination of Hebrew and Aramaic, the language of the Jews after they returned from Babylon. From Daniel 2:4 through 7:8, the text is in Aramaic. [Dan. 2:4–7:8] It is in this middle section that we find discrepancies between the biblical text and other ancient records. These discrepancies involve the identity of Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king who first subdued and then destroyed Jerusalem.

During his forty-year reign, Nebuchadnezzar ruled much of the Near East and rebuilt the great city of Babylon, replete with its hundreds of temples and its world-renowned hanging gardens. Some thirty years before his death in 561 B.C., he subdued Jerusalem (598 B.C.), taking its king, Jehoiakim, captive to Babylon and replacing him with Jehoiachin. When Jehoiachin proved disloyal, he was also deposed and replaced by his uncle, Zedekiah. When Zedekiah, too, revolted against his overlord, Nebuchadnezzar attacked the city.

In 586 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem, taking the remainder of its people—along with many others from throughout the kingdom of Judah into captivity. (See 2 Kgs. 24–25.) One of the early Jewish captives, Daniel, won favor with the king and became known as a wise and trusted counselor.

Chapters two, three, and four of Daniel purport to contain accounts about Nebuchadnezzar. But only the first and best-known of these—the account of his dream about the great statue destroyed by a stone cut out of a mountainside—is actually about him. The stories in chapters three and four, as well as a reference in chapter five, are actually about another king named Nabonidus, not Nebuchadnezzar. [Dan. 2; Dan. 3; Dan. 4; Dan. 5]

Chapter three recounts that the king “made an image of gold … : he set it up in the plain of Dura, in the province of Babylon.” (Dan. 3:1.) When this new idol was set up, a decree went forth that when music sounded, people were to prostrate themselves before the statue.

Chapter four tells of another dream of the king, this time about a great tree that was hewn down by order of God. [Dan. 4] Again Daniel was called upon for an interpretation. The tree, said the prophet, represented the sinful king, who would become mad, living for seven years “with the beasts of the field” and eating grass “as oxen.” (Dan. 4:23–26.) This prophecy was fulfilled when the king “was driven from men, and did eat grass as oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, till his hairs were grown like eagles’ feathers, and his nails like birds’ claws.” (Dan. 4:33.) Ultimately, the king was healed, returned to his throne, and praised God.

In chapter five, the scene changes abruptly. Here we find that “Belshazzar the king made a great feast to a thousand of his lords, and drank wine before the thousand.” (Dan. 5:1.) In verse two, he is identified as the son of Nebuchadnezzar, the king who had destroyed the temple in Jerusalem. At the feast, a finger appears, writing an ominous message on the plaster of the wall. Daniel, summoned to interpret the writing, informs the assembly that the Medes and Persians will take the kingdom.

It is this reference in chapter five that highlights the misidentification problem in the book of Daniel. Belshazzar was actually the son of Nabonidus, not of Nebuchadnezzar. And Belshazzar was never king, but only crown prince. A contemporary king-list found at Uruk, south of Babylon, clearly states the succession of kings:

  • Nebuchadnezzar

  • Amel-Marduk

  • Neriglissar

  • Labashi-Marduk

Apparently, Nabonidus contested the succession of Labashi-Marduk and wrested power from him. A basalt stela—a stone slab or column bears Nabonidus’s own account of his rise to power:

“I am the real executor of the wills of Nebuchadnezzar and Neriglissar, my royal predecessors! Their armies are entrusted to me, I shall not treat carelessly their orders and I am/anxious/to please them.” (James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, Princeton University Press, 1969, p. 309.)

Nabonidus’s mother also recorded the succession of rulers during her lifetime. Her list of kings and their regnal years—found inscribed on two nearly identical stones at Haran, on the Turkish-Syrian border—follows:

Ashurbanipal, king of Assyria

42 years

Ashur-etil-ili, king of Assyria

3 years

Nabopolassar, king of Babylon

21 years

Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon

43 years

Awel-Marduk, king of Babylon

2 years

Neriglissar, king of Assyria

4 years

Nabonid, king of Assyria


According to a postscript, Nabonidus’ mother died during the ninth year of her son’s reign, at the age of 104.

Other ancient records establish that Belshazzar was actually Nabonidus’ son and that Belshazzar was never king—only crown prince. From the “Verse Account of Nabonidus,” preserved on a clay tablet and found at Babylon, we read a contemporary account of Nabonidus that sounds very much like the “Nebuchadnezzar” of Daniel 3–5 [Dan. 3–5]:

“His/protective deity became hostile to him,/and he, the former favorite of the gods/is now/seized by misfortunes: … against the will of the gods he performed an unholy action, … he thought out something worthless:/He had made the image of a deity/which nobody had/ever/seen in/this/country./ He introduced it into the temple/he placed/it/upon a pedestal; … he called it by the name of Nanna, … it is adorned with a … of lapis/lazuli, crowned with a tiara. …” (Pritchard, p. 313.)

The one difference between this story and the one from Daniel 3 is that the Babylonian text says the idol was made of brick, covered with gypsum and bitumin to make the facing brilliant, while the Daniel account says it was made of gold. But the ninety-foot-high statue could hardly have been made of pure gold. Continuing from the Babylonian text:

“After he had obtained what he desired, a work of utter deceit, had built/this/abomination, a work of unholiness—when the third year was about to begin he entrusted the ‘Camp’ to his oldest/son/, the firstborn, the troops everywhere in the country he ordered under his/command/. He let/everything/ go, entrusted the kingship to him and, himself, he started out for a long journey, the/military/forces of Akkad marching with him; he turned towards Tema /deep/in the west. … When he arrived there, he killed in battle the prince of Tema … and he, himself, took his residence in/Te/ma, the forces of Akkad /were also stationed/there.” (Pritchard, p. 313.)

The rest of the text becomes fragmentary, but we can discern that Nabonidus ordered the slaughter of many people in the northern Arabian town of Tema and that he enslaved large numbers of them. Column four on the tablet is in especially bad shape, but we can discern the words “The king is mad.”

This brings us to the account of “Nebuchadnezzar’s” madness in Daniel 4. The Babylonian accounts do not mention that Nebuchadnezzar became mad. But it is well known that Nabonidus did. Records kept by the Babylonian priests confirm Nabonidus’s temporary madness in the wilderness of Tema. The records show that Nabonidus “stayed in Tema” at least from the seventh through eleventh years of his reign, leaving “the crown prince, the officials and the army” in Babylonia. During this time, the New Year festival, over which only the king could preside, was omitted.

These accounts also show that Belshazzar was his father’s viceroy, but not king—a fact hinted at in the book of Daniel itself. In Daniel 5:7, [Dan. 5:7] we read that Belshazzar offered to the interpreter of the writing scarlet clothing, a gold chain, and the place as “third ruler in the kingdom.” Being himself second in the kingdom, after his father Nabonidus, the highest place he could offer was third.

Nabonidus’s neglect of the Babylonian religious festivals cost him his throne. Disappointed with their king’s disrespect for their deities, the Babylonians appealed to the Persian king Cyrus to take Babylon. By the time the uprising began, Nabonidus had returned from Tema to his own realm.

By the seventeenth year of his reign, Nabonidus and his army were giving battle in rebellious towns. By a prearranged plan, the priests of Marduk opened the gates of Babylon by night while the crown prince and his friends were drunk with wine. The city fell without bloodshed.

The Dead Sea scrolls found at Qumran in 1948 confirm that Nabonidus, not Nebuchadnezzar, was the mad king. A fragmentary document titled “The Prayer of Nabonidus” tells of a king NBNY (Hebrew uses no vowels) who, while at Tema, was diseased by the God of Israel. A Jewish adviser (no doubt Daniel) counsels him to honor God, reminding him, “Thou has been smitten with this noisesome fever … for seven years because thou hast been praying to gods of silver and stone, which gods are but stock and stone, mere clay.” (Theodore H. Gaster, The Dead Sea Scriptures, 3d ed., Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/ Doubleday, 1976, p. 537.)

The fact that the gods of silver and gold were actually made of stock and stone might indicate gold or silver plating, which could identify the brick idol of Nabonidus with the gold idol mentioned in the book of Daniel.

Josephus provides even more evidence of Nabonidus’s place in Babylonian history. He points out that the historian Ptolemy lists “Nabonadius” as the last Babylonian king. Josephus also cites the following list of kings from the Babylonian historian Berosus:


43 years


2 years


4 years


9 months

Nabonedus, in whose days

Cyrus came.

How could such apparent errors have crept into the sacred record? As mentioned earlier, the book of Daniel, from 2:4 to the end of chapter seven, was translated from Aramaic [Dan. 2:4–7:28] (called “Syriack” in the King James Version translation of Dan. 2:4). Obviously, the original Hebrew text was lost. Perhaps the ancient scrolls containing this portion of the book of Daniel disintegrated, as many other ancient scrolls have, and had to be replaced by the Aramaic text.

Although Aramaic is closely related to Hebrew, it would have been an easy translation error to mistake Nebuchadnezzar for Nabonidus. Since neither Hebrew nor Aramaic represents the vowels, Nebuchadnezzar and Nabonidus would have been written (here in English transliteration) NBKDNZR and NBND. Note that all four letters in Nabonidus’s name are found in Nebuchadnezzar’s name, with the last two transposed. A Scribe or Aramaic translator could have easily assumed that NBND in the original Hebrew was an abbreviation for the name of the better-known king Nebuchadnezzar. And once the error was initially made, it would easily have been perpetuated throughout the translation. Such errors need not damage our faith in the book of Daniel, or in the Old Testament as a whole. But they do show why the Prophet Joseph Smith wrote, “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly.” (A of F 1:8.)

[illustrations] Illustrated by Robert Barrett

[illustration] Daniel 5 refers to a great feast at the court of Belshazzar, son of Nebuchadnezzar. At this feast a finger appears, writing on the wall a message of destruction Daniel is called to interpret. Actually, Belshazzar was the son of Nabonidus.

John A. Tvedtnes, a specialist in Near Eastern studies, is an instructor at the Brigham Young University—Salt Lake Center. He serves as a veil worker at the Salt Lake Temple.