Daniel 5:31 Who is Darius the Mede?

Problem: Critics argue that Daniel made a gross historical error here. On their view, Daniel believed that Darius was the one to conquer Babylon, rather than the Persian king Cyrus. Of course, Darius I ruled the Medo-Persian Empire from 522-486 BC, so he could not be the man mentioned here in 539 BC.

Solution:  Before we respond to this difficulty, we should note that Daniel’s historical accuracy has been attested elsewhere throughout the book (see “Authorship of Daniel”). Furthermore, critics formerly held Daniel to be guilty of historical error, only to find him accurate (see “Belshazzar,” 5:1).

In this instance, Daniel gives more information about this ruler than any of the others—including his age (5:31), his father (9:1), and his nationality.[1] Daniel didn’t believe that this was “Darius the Persian” from 522 BC. He specifically calls him “Darius the Mede.” In other words, he distinguishes between the two. Daniel acknowledges that both the Medes and Persians conquered Babylon (Dan. 5:28). He also knew that Cyrus was the king of Persia (Dan. 1:21; 6:28). In other words, Daniel is far from ignorant regarding the historical details surrounding Darius.

How then do we understand this historical difficulty? There are two plausible ways of answering this objection:

OPTION #1: Darius is a title that describes Gubaru

This view was held by scholars like Robert Dick Wilson, Gleason Archer, and William F. Albright, Friedrich Delitzsch, and John C. Whitcomb. Under this view, Daniel was giving the title “Darius” (i.e. “the Royal One”) to a temporary ruler named Gubaru, who ruled Babylon immediately after the invasion. There are a number of reasons for this view:

First, Cyrus gave temporary leadership authority to Gubaru immediately after the invasion. Stephen Miller writes, “Ancient records reveal that Gubaru did, in fact, govern Babylon during the period in question. For example, the Nabonidus Chronicle relates that Cyrus appointed Gubaru [Gobryas] as the governor of Babylon immediately after the city was conquered.”[2]

A man named Gubaru existed during this time. Archer writes, “A Gubaru appears as the governor of Babylonia and of Ebir-nari (the western domains under Chaldean sovereignty) in tablets dated from the fourth to the eighth year of Cyrus (535–532 b.c.) and even as late as the fifth year of Cambyses (525 b.c.). It seems altogether probable that during the transitional period of 539-538 he was appointed as viceroy over Babylonia, for the purpose of bringing it into full submission and cooperation with the Medo-Persian Empire, of which it had now become a part.”[3] Baldwin writes that Gubaru “ruled almost as an independent monarch.”[4] The Nabonidus Chronicle (3.20) states that Gubaru operated as a governor and appointed officials in Babylon.[5]

Such a historical detail is not out of character with King Cyrus. History tells us that Cyrus was friendly with leaders whom he had conquered. Herodotus (1.127) records that a Median general named Harpagus encouraged Cyrus to revolt against his grandfather Astyages (the king of Media). Yet even after the revolt, Cyrus still installed Astyages as a satrap over in his kingdom.[6]

Critics of this view argue that Gubaru may have ruled in Babylon, but he was never called a “king.” However, critical commentator John Collins writes that “Cambyses held the title ‘king of Babylon’ in the first year of Cyrus,”[7] so such a suggestion is not without warrant.

Second, it’s possible that Darius is not a NAME, but a TITLE. Archer argues, “This viceroy was given the title of Dār eyāwēš, which apparently meant ‘The Royal One,’ from dara (which is attested in Avestan Persian as a term for ‘king’).”[8] Josephus records that “Cyrus, the king of Persia” conquered Belshazzar (Antiquities, 10.247). Yet, Josephus also writes that “[Cyrus] was the son of Astyages, and had another name among the Greeks” (Antiquities, 10.248).

After all, it was common for ancient kings to receive new names. For instance, Eliakim became Jehoiakim (2 Kin. 23:34) and Mattaniah became Zedekiah when he took the throne (2 Kin. 24:17). Archer adds, “Even the later Darius, son of Hystaspes (Wistaspa), bore the personal name of Spantadata.”[9] Even the casual reader of Daniel quickly discovers that Daniel and his three friends had dual names (Dan. 1:7).

Third, the language implies that Darius passively received the kingdom from someone of higher authority (Cyrus?). Daniel says that Darius “received the kingdom” (5:31) and he was “made king over the kingdom” (9:1). This language is in the passive voice, which is an odd way to describe Cyrus actively conquering Babylon. This may imply that Darius (Gubaru) received authority from King Cyrus.

Fourth, Gubaru installed satraps like Darius (Dan. 6:1-3). Miller writes, “The Nabonidus Chronicle reveals that Gubaru installed subgovernors in Babylon, and Dan 6:1–2 relates that Darius the Mede appointed subordinates to rule the kingdom.”[10] This, too, would fit with Daniel’s description of this historical person.

OPTION #2: Darius is another name for Cyrus

D.J. Wiseman, Joyce Baldwin, and Stephen Miller hold to this second view. The benefit of this second view is its simplicity: namely, Daniel used an unknown name (“Darius”) to describe King Cyrus.

The main benefit of this view is that the historical data given for Darius by Daniel perfectly fits with Cyrus. Miller writes, “Cyrus’s age would conform to known historical data. Bulman points out that Cicero reported Cyrus’s age as seventy when he died and that the cuneiform texts relate that Cyrus reigned nine years after he conquered Babylon. Thus in 539 B.C. Cyrus would have been about sixty-two years of age, the figure given by the writer of Daniel (cf. 5:31).”[11] Baldwin adds, “Whereas there is no evidence that Gubaru was a Mede, called king, named Darius, a son of Ahasuerus, or aged about sixty, Cyrus is known to have been related to the Medes, to have been called ‘king of the Medes’ and to have been about sixty years old on becoming king of Babylon.”[12]

Furthermore, the Septuagint and Theodotian translations render Daniel 11:1 with Cyrus’ name—not Darius’ name. Baldwin comments, “This suggests that the Greek translator knew of the double name, and preferred to use the one that was better known to avoid confusing his readers.”[13] Moreover, the apocryphal work Bel and the Dragon records Cyrus as the one who threw Daniel into the lion’s den.

Critics of this view raise a couple of objections, however:

How could Cyrus be called a “Mede,” rather than a Persian? Yet Stephen Miller notes that “Cyrus’s father was a Persian, but his mother was the daughter of Astyages, the king of Media; thus Cyrus was half Median.”[14] Furthermore, Herodotus called Cyrus “king of the Medes.”[15] Archer notes that Herodotus and Xenophon used the terms “Medes” and “Persians” interchangeably.[16]

Since Isaiah (13:17) and Jeremiah (51:11, 28) both predicted the fall of Babylon by the Medes, Daniel used this title to reinforce the fulfillment of this prophecy.

Why does Daniel refer to Darius and Cyrus as separate persons (6:28)? In order to harmonize this, we would need to translate Daniel 6:28 in this way: “Daniel prospered in the reign of Darius, that is, in the reign of Cyrus the Persian.” Baldwin notes that this is “frequently the sense of the Hebrew particle which is usually the conjunction ‘and’, and indeed examples of it can be found elsewhere in this book” citing Daniel 1:3; 6:9; 7:1.[17] A similar waw conjunction is used of Tiglath-Pileser in 1 Chronicles 5:26.

Conclusion

While both options are plausible, we favor the second view for its explanatory power and its simplicity. That is, it is the simplest explanation that harmonizes both the biblical and extra-biblical data. Only time will tell if a historical source will fill in this argument from silence from the critics, connecting Cyrus with the alternate name Darius.

[1] Baldwin, J. G. (1978). Daniel: An Introduction and Commentary (Vol. 23, p. 28). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[2] Stephen R. Miller, Daniel: New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1994), 172.

[3] Archer, G. L., Jr. (1986). Daniel. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Daniel and the Minor Prophets (Vol. 7, p. 18). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[4] A. T. Olmstead, The History of the Persian Empire (Chicago, 1948), pp. 71 and 56. Cited in Baldwin, J. G. (1978). Daniel: An Introduction and Commentary (Vol. 23, p. 28). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[5] Collins, J. J., & Collins, A. Y. (1993). Daniel: a commentary on the book of Daniel. (F. M. Cross, Ed.). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press. See footnote, p.31.

[6] Archer, G. L., Jr. (1986). Daniel. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Daniel and the Minor Prophets (Vol. 7, p. 18). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[7] Collins, J. J., & Collins, A. Y. (1993). Daniel: a commentary on the book of Daniel. (F. M. Cross, Ed.). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press. See footnote, p.31.

[8] Archer, G. L., Jr. (1986). Daniel. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Daniel and the Minor Prophets (Vol. 7, p. 18). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[9] Archer, G. L., Jr. (1986). Daniel. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Daniel and the Minor Prophets (Vol. 7, p. 19). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[10] Miller, Stephen R. Daniel. Vol. 18. Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1994. New American Commentary, 172.

[11] Stephen R. Miller, Daniel: New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1994), 176.

[12] Baldwin, J. G. (1978). Daniel: An Introduction and Commentary (Vol. 23, p. 30). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[13] Baldwin, J. G. (1978). Daniel: An Introduction and Commentary (Vol. 23, p. 31). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[14] Stephen R. Miller, Daniel: New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1994), 175.

[15] Herodotus, Histories, 1.206.

[16] Archer, G. L., Jr. (1986). Daniel. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Daniel and the Minor Prophets (Vol. 7, p. 18). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[17] Baldwin, J. G. (1978). Daniel: An Introduction and Commentary (Vol. 23, p. 30). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

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