Darius the Mede
Darius the Mede is mentioned in the Book of Daniel as king of Babylon between Belshazzar and Cyrus the Great, but he is not known to history, and no additional king can be placed between the known figures of Belshazzar and Cyrus. Most scholars view him as a literary fiction, but some have tried to harmonise the Book of Daniel with history by identifying him with various known figures, notably Cyrus or Gobryas, the general who was first to enter Babylon when it fell to the Persians in 539 BCE.
The Book of Daniel
Darius the Mede is first mentioned in the story of Belshazzar's feast (Daniel 5). Belshazzar, king of Babylon, holds a great feast, during which a hand appears and writes on the wall: "MENE, MENE, TEKEL, and PARSIN" (מנא מנא תקל ופרסין). Daniel interprets the words: Belshazzar has been weighed and found wanting, and his kingdom is to be divided between the Medes and Persians. The story concludes: "That very night Belshazzar the Chaldean (Babylonian) king was killed, and Darius the Mede received the kingdom."
In the story of Daniel in the lions' den (Daniel 6), Daniel has continued to serve at the royal court under Darius, and has been raised to high office. His jealous rivals plot his downfall, tricking Darius into issuing a decree that no prayers should be addressed to any god or man but to Darius himself, on pain of death. Daniel continues to pray to the God of Israel, and Darius, although deeply distressed, must condemn him to be thrown into the lions' den because the edicts of the Medes and Persians cannot be altered. At daybreak the king hurries to the place and Daniel tells him that his God sent an angel to save him. Darius commands that those who had conspired against Daniel should be thrown to the lions in his place, along with their wives and children.
The final appearance of Darius is in Daniel 9, which presents a vision of Daniel relating to the end-time travails and triumph of the Israelites over their enemies. The mention of Darius is used as a chronological marker, placing the vision in "the first year of Darius son of Ahasuerus".
Historical and literary background
The Medes and the fall of Babylon
The Medes came to prominence in 612 BCE when they joined with the Babylonians in overthrowing Assyria. Little is known about them, but they were possibly a significant power in the Middle East for several decades thereafter. The fall of their empire is recorded in a Babylonian inscription from around 553 BCE (a second report puts the event in 550 BCE) reporting that the Median king has been conquered by "Cyrus, king of Anshan," in south-western Iran: this is the first appearance of Cyrus in the historical record, and the beginning of the rapid rise of the Persians.
After extending his empire from the Mediterranean to Central Asia, Cyrus turned his attention to Babylonia. The most important ancient sources for his conquest of Babylon are the Nabonidus Chronicle (Nabonidus was the last Babylonian king, and Belshazzar, who is described as king of Babylon in the Book of Daniel, was his son and crown prince), the Cyrus Cylinder, and the Verse Account of Nabonidus—which, despite its name, was commissioned by Cyrus.
Cyrus' Babylonian campaign began in 539 BCE, although there were presumably previous tensions. On 10 October Cyrus won a battle at Opis, opening the way to Babylon, and on 12 October "Ugbaru, governor of the district of Gutium, and the army of Cyrus entered Babylon without a battle" (Babylonian Chronicle). Ugbaru is presumably the same person as the Gorbyras mentioned by the Greek historian Xenophon, a Babylonian provincial governor who switched to the Persian side. Cyrus made his entrance into the city a few days later; Nabonidus was captured and his life spared, but nothing is known of the fate of Belshazzar.
The Book of Daniel
The Book of Daniel is not regarded by scholars as a reliable guide to history. The broad consensus is that Daniel never existed, and that the author appears to have taken the name from a legendary hero of the distant past mentioned in the Book of Ezekiel. The book that bears his name is an apocalypse, not a book of prophecy, and its contents form a cryptic allusion to the persecution of the Jews by the Syrian king Antiochus IV Epiphanes (reigned 175–164 BCE). There is broad agreement that the stories making up chapters 1–6 are legendary in character, and that the visions of chapters 7–12 were added during the persecution of Antiochus, the book itself being completed soon after 164 BCE.
Daniel 5 and Daniel 6 belong to the folktales making up the first half of the book. The language of Daniel 5 ("Belshazzar's Feast"), for example, follows ancient Near Eastern conventions which are in some cases precisely those used in Daniel. Daniel 6 ("Daniel in the Lions' Den") is based on the classic Babylonian folk-tale Ludlul-bel-nemeqi, telling of a courtier who suffers disgrace at the hands of evil enemies but is eventually restored due to the intervention of a kindly god (in the story in Daniel, this is the God of Israel): in the Babylonian original the "pit of lions" is a metaphor for human adversaries at court, but the biblical tale has turned the metaphorical lions into real animals.
In Daniel 9, Daniel, pondering the meaning of Jeremiah's prediction that Jerusalem would remain desolate for seventy years, is told by the angel Gabriel that the 70 years should be taken to mean seventy weeks (literally "sevens") of years. Verse 1 sets the time of Daniel's vision as the "first year of Darius son of Ahasuerus, by birth a Mede", but no Darius is known to history, nor can any king of Babylon be placed between the genuine historical figures of Belshazzar and Cyrus.
H. H. Rowley's 1935 study of the question (Darius the Mede and the Four World Empires of Darius the Mede, 1935) demonstrated that Darius the Mede cannot be identified with any king, and he is generally seen today as a literary fiction combining the historical Persian king Darius I and the words of Jeremiah 51:11 that God "stirred up" the Medes against Babylon. Nevertheless, numerous attempts have been made to identify him with historical figures, with the following being perhaps the best-known candidates:
- Darius the Great (Darius I Hystaspes), c. 550–486 BCE. This historically known Darius was the third Persian emperor, and an important figure for Jews in the early Persian period because of his role in the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. At the beginning of his career Darius had to (re)conquer Babylon to remove a usurper, before expanding the empire and dividing it into satrapies. The author of Daniel, mindful of certain prophecies that the Medes would destroy Babylon (Jeremiah 51:11,28 and Isaiah 13:17), and needing a Median king to complete his four-kingdom schema (see the story of Nebuchadnezzar's dream in Daniel 2), appears to have taken the historic Darius and projected him into a fictional past.
- Astyages. Astyages was the last king of the Medes; he was defeated by Cyrus in 550 (or 553), his father was named Cyaxares (not Ahasuerus/Xerxes), and there is no record of him being present at the fall of Babylon. Consequently, he gets little attention in modern apologetics, but the 1st century CE Jewish historian Josephus, followed later by the early Christian Church Father Jerome, harmonised Daniel with the historical sources by claiming that Darius the Mede was a son of Astyages.
- "Cyaxares II". The Greek writer Xenophon tells of a Median king called Cyaxares who was the son of Astyages; other Greek historians say that Astyages had no son. According to Xenophon, Cyrus became king of Media through marriage to Cyaxares' daughter—contradicting all other sources, notably the Babylonian, which say Cyrus won Media by conquest from Astyages. Xenophon is not given credence by historians, and he does not, in any case, say that this otherwise unknown Cyaxares ruled Babylon.
- Cyrus. This argument hinges on a reinterpretation of Daniel 6:28, ""Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius, and the reign of Cyrus the Persian", to read "Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius, even the reign of Cyrus the Persian", making them the same individual. William Shea, a conservative scholar, comments that it would be strange to refer to Cyrus the Persian, son of Cambyses I, as Darius the Mede, son of Ahasuerus, and strange also to refer to the same king as Cyrus in some passages and Darius in others.
- Cambyses II. Cambyses was Cyrus' son and his successor as emperor. The Babylonian records indicate that Cyrus installed him as regent in Babylon, but he was not a Mede, his father was not Ahasuerus, and he was probably not sixty-two years old.
- Gubaru (or Ugbaru, called Gobryas in Greek sources), the general who was the first to enter Babylon. Ugbaru was the Babylonian governor of Gutium (an area closely associated with Media in Babylonian sources) before switching sides to the Persians, and Cyrus seems to have given him administrative responsibility for Babylon after its capture, but he never held the title "King of Babylon".
- Coleman 1990, p. 198.
- Hill 2009, p. 114.
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