Daniel 5 contains the famous story of the writing on the wall, the fall of Babylon, and its subsequent conquest by a king named Darius the Mede (Daniel 5:30).
The problem is however . . . it appears Darius the Mede was not the one who took Babylon. In fact, he does not appear on the historical record at all.
Did Daniel get it wrong?
Simply put this is a mystery.
It does not mean however that the Bible is wrong and that’s that.
There was also not a shred of historical evidence for a real King David until 1992. But now there is.
As always in history, especially ancient history, we are dealing with probabilities or improbabilities, not facts.
Often ancient historical accounts are presented as completely settled and beyond dispute.
According to John Goldingay, there are at least 4 accounts of the events in Daniel 5. The Cyrus Cylinder, the Babylonian Chronicle, and ancient chroniclers Berossus, Herodotus, and Xenophon all offer various accounts of Babylon’s fall. Both Xenophon and the Babylonian account (though this is debated) describe a king being killed on the night of the attack on Babylon. This aligns them with Daniel to some degree. The others tell a slightly different story.
So which is true? From a purely historical standpoint, who knows.
The important point to remember is that ancients did not perceive history writing as an objective, literal rendering. On the contrary they saw its retelling as useful only so far as it furthered goals or magnified greatness. We cannot impose on ancient writers the constraints of modern, scientific standards no matter how badly we might want to, and that includes the Bible. The Bible writers use historical records at times to make theological points and skip over information they feel is unnecessary.
But where does that leave us with Darius the Mede?
Is Daniel flat out wrong?
Are there other feasible possibilities besides?
I’ll mention just one for time’s sake (courtesy of Stephen Miller’s commentary).
Darius the Mede is the great King Cyrus himself. Yes, Daniel does mention Cyrus elsewhere, namely in Daniel 6:28. Normally translated, “Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius and Cyrus,” the Hebrew letter “waw” normally translated “and” could grammatically by an explicative rather than a conjunction. This move would identify without question Darius the Mede with Cyrus. 1 Chronicles 5:26 is an example of this exact use of “waw” in the Old Testament.
If this is true, Daniel 6:28 would read something like, “Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius also known as Cyrus.”
There is more.
There are plenty of historical sources describing kings ruling different nations with different names.
Cyrus was 62 when he took over, the age the Bible ascribes to Darius the Mede.
Finally, there is evidence the Babylonian king Nabonidus referred to Cyrus as “king of the Medes,” and the historian Herodotus claims Cyrus’ mother was in fact a Mede.
Conclusions: I lean towards Darius being a throne name for Cyrus, while admitting there is simply no way to know for sure. I hope I have demonstrated however that the historical record of this time is anything but certain and to say Daniel is flat out wrong is a philosophical statement about one’s beliefs rather than driven by reason and logic alone. Could he be wrong? Sure, but he also could be right. There is simply not enough evidence either way. Whichever conclusion one lands on is indicative only of that persons preconceived notions of the Bible, God, etc.
One simply cannot prove conclusively from history whether Daniel is wrong. . . or right.
In the end, the burden of proof must lie with those seeking to disprove the clear testimony of an ancient document. If there is a possibility of veracity, veracity must be the default position.
One last note. Though my aim in this post is to give Christians confidence in the Bible, I also think we need to worry less about “proving” every little obscure detail in the Bible and worry much more about making evident its veracity by how we live our lives.
I would love to hear your thoughts.
My sources for the above information are:
John Goldingay’s Daniel in the Word Biblical Commentary series (liberal evangelical approach)
Stephen Miller’s Daniel in the New American Commentary series (conservative evangelical approach)
Tremper Longman’s Old Testament Introduction (moderate/conservative evangelical approach)
Also, see all books or articles by Stephen Yamauchi for an archeological case for Daniel’s historicity.