When I took my first serious look at the Book of Daniel almost twenty years ago, I did so without the benefit of familiarity with scholarly opinion. In general terms, I knew that in mainstream academia, where liberals dominate biblical scholarship, the prevailing view is that Daniel is a pseudepigraphal product of the second century BC whose “prophecies” need to be understood in that light. I also knew that those scholars who have accepted it for what it claims to be have generally used it to reinforce a futurist and premillennial hermeneutic. Upon my first careful reading of Daniel, I immediately rejected the opinions of mainstream scholars. I then flirted for a while with the futurist approach but ultimately rejected it in favor of preterism.
In this article, I focus my skepticism about the scholarly treatment of Daniel upon how mainstream academics and conservative premillennialists have analyzed the great statue of Daniel 2. We learn in verses 32-33 of this chapter that the statue has a head of pure gold, chest and arms of silver, belly and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and feet of iron and baked clay. Subsequent verses inform us that the head of gold symbolizes Nebuchadnezzar, that the other three metals symbolize a sequence of three kingdoms that will follow him, that the kingdom of iron will “crush and break all the others” (NIV, v.40), and that the clay in the feet and toes indicates that the fourth kingdom will become a divided kingdom “whose people will be a mixture and will not remain united, any more than iron mixes with clay” (NIV, v.43).
When I first read Daniel 2, my natural inclination was to assume that the metals that symbolize the four kingdoms should be expected to show particularly close historical associations with those kingdoms. After all, I reasoned, prophecies are supposed to relate to the future, and this means that we should expect that each of the four kingdoms symbolized by the metals should have had a particularly close association with the metal used to identify it. Moreover, I knew that as a matter of historical fact, the Babylon of Nebuchadnezzar had placed great emphasis upon gold, that the Persian Empire of Cyrus the Great had enjoyed a particularly close association with silver, that Greece had maintained a particularly close association with bronze that extended into the post-Alexander Hellenic Age, and that Rome had improved the technology of iron usage and greatly expanded the use of that metal. I thought it especially significant that the Romans surpassed the Greeks in their reliance upon iron armor and weaponry. This evidence is discounted by mainstream scholars, however, who either ignore it or dismiss it as irrelevant. In their world, it is an article of “faith” that the kingdom of iron cannot be Rome, and all analysis of the four kingdoms must reflect that assumption.
When I began my study of Daniel, I initially had difficulty in understanding the historical association to be applied to the clay. I was temporarily thrown off course by reading commentaries by premillennial scholars, who insist on searching for future fulfillments of Daniel’s end-time prophecies and in believing that the fourth kingdom will somehow play a part in man’s apocalyptic windup. Perhaps, I thought, the clay belongs to our future. In due course, however, I came to realize that it is foolish to look to the future for the completion of the fourth kingdom’s time on Earth, and that realization brought me to the conclusion that the clay in the feet and toes corresponds historically to the Jews, whose homeland became integrated into the Roman Empire a considerable time after Rome became the dominant power in the Eastern Mediterranean region. Already present in some predominately Greek-speaking areas of the empire, Jews migrated northward and westward after the incorporation of Judea into the empire and grew in relative numbers through both natural increase and prosyletization. As I came to embrace the idea of first-century AD fulfillment for Daniel’s end-time prophecies, I had no difficulty in concluding that it was the Jewish people who gave the empire the divided character indicated by the mixture of iron and clay.
The idea that the proportions of the five different sections of the statue should roughly match the historical periods that correspond to their symbolism is noticeable in the work of mainstream scholars for its absence. The reason for this, I am confident, is that in any sequence of four kingdoms where Rome is not the fourth kingdom, the historical correlation between the sections of the statue and their supposed real-world counterparts is unacceptably poor. Some of these authorities do acknowledge that the fact that the clay shows up only in the feet and toes implies that its arrival occurs in the latter part of the time of dominance of the fourth kingdom, but that is about it as far their effort to correlate the statue’s proportions with history is concerned.
Again I remind the reader that the Book of Daniel purports to be a book of prophecy, and genuine prophecy provides insights into the future. I think it is therefore appropriate to ask mainstream scholars the following questions: what insights into the future are provided by the choice of the four metals and the order of their appearance, and what insights into the future are provided by the relative proportions of the statue assigned to each of its five sections? In effect, the answer to the first of these questions that these scholars offer is that there is some sort of qualitative decline in the four kingdoms and the fourth kingdom—that of Antiochus IV—is particularly mean and nasty, which coincides with iron’s ability to crush and break other substances. As for the second question, mainstream scholars simply do not address it. To limit the historical significance of the statue’s features in this manner is equivalent to holding that “Daniel” was not much of a prophet, but this is no problem for liberals since they deny that a genuine prophet of that name existed. For those mainstream scholars who believe that the Book of Daniel may contain genuine prophecy, however, this resolution of the problem should be troubling.
A serious problem with identifying the clay with the Ptolemies, as mainstream scholars insist on doing, is that it is not specifically associated with a kingdom. Indeed, since the four metals are all identified with kingdoms, one is entitled to surmise that the clay does not symbolize a kingdom. Furthermore, by insisting on identifying the iron with Seleucid Syria, mainstream scholars effectively exclude Ptolemaic Egypt from the fourth kingdom, which contradicts the fact that when they identify the original composition of the fourth kingdom, Ptolemaic Egypt is a part of it. For mainstream scholars, however, this contradiction is no problem because it can be attributed to the deficiencies of the author of Daniel rather than to the shortcomings of their own hermeneutic.
Conservative scholars; i.e. those who accept Rome as the fourth kingdom, have sought to assign greater historical relevance to the statue’s composition than mainstream scholars have been willing to grant, but most of them have gone badly astray because of a misguided insistence on making Daniel conform to a futurist hermeneutic. Some of them, particularly among those who have taken large bites from the dispensationalist “apple,” have performed impressive feats of imagination that, unfortunately for them, lack solid support from the text of Daniel 2. These feats include trying to explain how “Rome” manages to extend from ancient times into our future. Although Rome fell to barbarians for the last time in 476, some conservatives have argued that it never really fell, at least in a cultural sense, and it is noteworthy that an argument along those lines persisted for a long time after the fall. The existence of the Catholic Church with its headquarters in Rome contributed greatly to this persistence, and the term “Holy Roman Empire” reflected the fiction that Rome had never really fallen.
Unlike liberals, however, conservatives have tended to assume that the five sections of the statue must have a correlation with historical reality; and with the passage of time, it has become increasingly obvious that if this correlation is to be shown, there is a problem in reconciling that reality with the limitations of human anatomy. To be specific, if Rome never really fell, then the idea that the statue is a kind of time line would seem to necessitate that it look like a man with incredibly long stilt-like legs and feet that would make those of a circus clown look normal by comparison.
The futurist approach to Daniel 2 has, no doubt, influenced some readers of Daniel toward accepting dispensationalism and other hermeneutical systems that revive the Roman Empire, but it has certainly had the opposite effect on people who are not so affected by “last days madness.” The implausibility of the futurist hermeneutic has contributed to the fact that the systems that reject Rome as the fourth kingdom have not been subjected to close scrutiny on various points, one of the most obvious examples being their very limited effort to recognize the possible historical symbolism of the statue. Among the hermeneutical systems that reject Rome as the fourth kingdom, the most prevalent is the one that I like to call the “Greek sequence,” in which the four kingdoms symbolized by the metals are, sequentially, (1) the Babylonian Empire of Nebuchadnezzar; (2) the Median Empire represented by the allegedly fictitious ruler Darius the Mede, who is a central character in Daniel 6 and is mentioned as the ruler of Babylon in chapters 5, 9, and 11; (3) the Persian Empire of Cyrus the Great; and (4) the “Greece” of Alexander and the Hellenic kingdoms that succeeded him. In this Greek sequence, the earliest feasible starting date is 626 BC, which is when Nabopolassar, the father of Nebuchadnezzar, succeeded in driving the Assyrians from Babylonia. Because Daniel 2 gives the date for Nebuchadnezzar’s dream about the great statue as the second year of his reign, however, it seems more appropriate to place a date of around 603 at the top of the statue’s head. Nebuchadnezzar became king of Babylonia upon the death of Nabopolassar, which occurred in 605, shortly after the great battle of Carchemish, in which Nebuchadnezzar vanquished the Egyptians and the remnants of the Assyrians. The obvious terminal date for the Babylonian kingdom is 539, which is when Babylon fell to the army of Cyrus, though Daniel 5:31 credits Darius the Mede with being the man in charge when Babylon fell. Notice that if we subtract 539 from 603, we get 64 years as the time of the kingdom of gold, Babylonia. And since the proponents of the Greek sequence insist that it ends with the death of Antiochus IV, which occurred in 164/163, the statue’s “career” in the Greek sequence lasts for about 440 years. This means that the gold part of the statue accounts for about 14-15 percent of its total length, which is a very plausible result.
The Greek sequence has many other problems, and even though it has enjoyed a sheltered existence that has allowed it to enjoy “immunity from prosecution” for a remarkably long time, there seems to be a growing recognition of these problems in mainstream academia. To date, however, this awareness does not seem to have led to many defections of mainstream scholars to the “Roman sequence” camp, whose appeal has been greatly strengthened by the growth of preterism. Instead, those mainstream scholars who have come to question the version of the Greek sequence favored by liberals have turned increasingly to idealism and typology, a shift of emphasis that I find somewhat analogous to the rise of postmodernism. And some mainstream scholars seem to be showing more interest in what I call the “modified Greek sequence” or (more facetiously) “liberal light sequence,” in which the four kingdoms consist of Babylonia, Medo-Persia, the “Greece” of Alexander, and the collection of kingdoms that emerged from the struggles among Alexander’s generals (the diadochi) after his death, which occurred in 323 BC. Thus, in the liberal light approach, the four Hellenic kingdoms that emerged soon after the death of Alexander are merged into one in Daniel 2.
Now that I have indicated that neither futurist nor mainstream scholars can present a plausible demonstration that the statue of Daniel 2 serves as a time line, I have to confront the question of whether the version of the Roman sequence that I support does what they fail to do. In my view, it passes the test with flying colors. Admittedly, there are problems in setting the precise boundaries of the different portions of the statue and in determining the precise periods in history that correspond to them, but the admittedly rough correlation between the statue and history that can be shown with the preterist version of the Roman sequence is closer by huge margins than what can be claimed by the alternatives.
In calculating the time for “clay free” Rome, my preference is to date the appearance of the clay from 37 BC, the year in which Herod the Great ascended to the Judean throne. Admittedly, Judea was actually incorporated into the Roman Empire in 63 BC, when Pompey occupied Jerusalem, but Rome did not establish firm control over Judea until Herod was installed as king. If, then, we use 146 BC as the starting point for the pure iron section of the statue and 37 BC as the ending point, this gives us 109 years, or 17 percent of the total. Finally, if the iron mixed with clay portion of the statue corresponds to the period from 37 BC to AD 30, this gives 66 years, or 10 percent of the total.
I now return to the matter of the association between the metals of the four kingdoms of Daniel 2 and their historical counterparts. Recall that I asserted early in this article that Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon had a close association with gold, and that Persia, Greece, and Rome had close historical associations with silver, bronze, and iron, respectively. I shall now elaborate a little on these associations.
The Persian Empire of Cyrus the Great was, in reality, an extension of the Median Empire that had been assembled by Cyaxares, who was probably a maternal great-grandfather of Cyrus. Historically, therefore, it is correct to view the empire that Cyrus took over as a Medo-Persian empire. In fact, while the Book of Daniel indicates that Darius the Mede briefly ruled in Babylon, it otherwise consistently treats Media and Persia as forming a united kingdom. In 546, Cyrus conquered the kingdom of Lydia in Asia Minor, thereby gaining possession of that nation’s ores of precious metals and the technology that had allowed it to develop the world’s first high-quality gold and silver coins. Cyrus and the rulers who followed him used their ability to mine and coin silver to assemble a force of mercenary warriors of unprecedented size. Gold was also important to the these rulers (the Achaemenids), but with gold being used to designate Babylonia, it is silver that stands out has having a had a particularly strong association with the what is called the Persian Empire.
And just as Greece qualifies as the kingdom of bronze, Rome stands out as the kingdom of iron. Rome’s military technology surpassed that of even the Greco-Macedonian forces of Alexander’s day. While Roman soldiers sometimes wore bronze helmets, their armor, in contrast to that of the Greeks and Macedonians, was overwhelmingly of iron. Like the Greeks and Macedonians, the Romans had iron swords and iron-tipped pikes and javelins, but they also had a type of “artillery” consisting of iron-tipped bolts fired by catapults. Some Roman ships carried bronze battering rams like those used by the Greeks, but the Romans relied more heavily upon iron armor and hardware. Moreover, the Romans developed the use of the corvus, a gangplank with a large iron spike at its far end. When boarding an enemy ship, the corvus would be flipped over so that it stuck into the deck of the enemy vessel, and Roman soldiers would then scramble over it to attack their foe. Finally, we need to recall that Daniel 2:40 calls attention to iron’s ability to crush and break other things and specifically relates that ability to the fourth kingdom’s ability to crush other kingdoms. I submit that this description applies far more appropriately to Rome than to Seleucid Syria!
John Evans is a columnist for PlanetPreterist.com. John is the author of The Four Kingdoms of Daniel and he is a retired professor of economics at the U. of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, and a dedicated student of preterism, especially of the book of Daniel.
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