October 14, 2023

Four Kingdoms and the Apocalypse


The Book of Daniel is a 2nd-century BC biblical apocalypse with a 6th century BC setting. Ostensibly "an account of the activities and visions of Daniel, a noble Jew exiled at Babylon", it combines a prophecy of history with an eschatology (a portrayal of end times) both cosmic in scope and political in focus, and its message is that just as the God of Israel saves Daniel from his enemies, so he would save all Israel in their present oppression.


The Book of Daniel mentions that Daniel lived in Babylon and may have visited the palace of Susa‌, Iran, but the place where he died is not specified; the tradition preserved among the Jews and Arabs is that he was buried in Susa. Today the Tomb of Daniel in Susa is a popular attraction among local Muslims and Iran's Jewish community alike.

The earliest mention of Daniel's Tomb published in Europe is given by Benjamin of Tudela who visited Asia between 1160 and 1163. In the fa├žade of one of its many synagogues he was shown the tomb assigned by tradition to Daniel. Benjamin declares however, that the tomb does not hold Daniel's remains, which were said to have been discovered at Susa about 640 A.D. The remains were supposed to bring good fortune: and bitter quarrels arose because of them between the inhabitants of the two banks of the Choaspes River. All those living on the side on which Daniel's grave was situated were rich and happy, while those on the opposite side were poor and in want; the latter, therefore, wished the bier of Daniel transferred to their side of the river. They finally agreed that the bier should rest alternately one year on each side. This agreement was carried out for many years, until the Persian shah Sanjar, on visiting the city, stopped the practice, holding that the continual removal of the bier was disrespectful to the prophet. He ordered the bier to be fastened with chains to the bridge, directly in the middle of the structure; and he erected a chapel on the spot for both Jews and non-Jews. The king also forbade fishing in the river within a mile of Daniel's bier. According to Benjamin, the place is a dangerous one for navigation, since godless persons perish immediately on passing it; and the water under the bier is distinguished by the presence of goldfish.

An excerpt from, "The Four Kingdoms of Daniel in the Early Mediaeval Apocalyptic Tradition" By Lorenzo DiTommaso, 2021:

The four kingdom schema is a historiographic framework that divides the last phase of human history into four periods, each period ruled in turn by a dominant power or world-empire. Although it originated in classical antiquity, the schema received its enduring formulation in chapters 2 and 7 of the biblical book of Daniel, where it acquired an apocalyptic valence.There the schema is presented in the form of heavenly revelation, which gave it a predetermined dimension. Both chapters expect the fourth kingdom to be overthrown by the eschatological kingdom of God, thus terminating the sequence.

The four kingdoms are never named but instead are identified symbolically. In chapter 2, King Nebuchadnezzar dreams of a giant statue that is composed of four metals of descending value, gold, silver, bronze, and iron. In chapter 7, Daniel is shown a vision of the four hybrid-beasts that crawl out of the sea, one after the other. The fourth beast is the most terrible of all and has iron teeth.

The ambiguity of the images was critical to the schema’s enduring significance, since it allowed for later interpretations in light of new circumstances. The cardinal issue was the identity of the fourth and final world-kingdom. Its overthrow represents the turning-point in the divine plan for history that was approaching its foreordained culmination. Equating the fourth kingdom with a present-day kingdom or state enabled a group to locate itself within the sequence of this history, thus placing it on the cusp of salvation.

The book of Daniel attained its final Masoretic form towards the end of the Maccabean Revolt of 167–164 bce. Its simplified view of the conflict, coded by its symbolic imagery, pit traditionalist Jews against their Seleucid (Hellenistic Greek) overlords, whose monarch, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, had desecrated the Jerusalem Temple. For the intended audience of the book, the fourth and final kingdom was the oppressive Seleucid Empire. This identification is reinforced elsewhere by allusions to the hated Antiochus, including a skeleton version of the schema in chapter 8 (in which all the kingdoms but the first are named) and the introduction of a different schema of “seventy weeks” in chapter 9.

Antiochus perished and his kingdom was overthrown, though not as the book of Daniel had predicted. Over the next 150 years, the Seleucid Empire and the other Hellenistic states fell to Rome like dominoes. Even to its contemporary chroniclers, Rome’s rise to supreme world power seemed to have been foreordained. By the second century ce, Rome had become the “empire without end” (imperium sine fine), extending from Mesopotamia in the East to the Pillars of Hercules in the West.

For the Jews and the Christians of the era, the final kingdom was no longer the “Greece” of the intended audience of Daniel and the other early apocalypses, but world-spanning Rome. This identification remained consistent throughout the late-antique period in both rabbinic Judaism and patristic Christianity. In the latter, it found its classic expression in Jerome’s commentary on Daniel.

The sack of Rome in 410 ce and the withdrawal of Imperial authority in the West mark the gradual transition to the mediaeval centuries but a sharp turning-point in the history of apocalyptic speculation. This paper examines the four kingdom schema of Daniel in the early mediaeval writings, from the fifth to the twelfth centuries. Several reasons suggest terminating our investigation at that point in time, as we shall see.

Video Title: Four Kingdoms and the Apocalypse. Source: Apostolic Majesty. Date Published: September 15, 2023.