The biblical book of Daniel describes a figure called Darius the Mede, the son of Ahasuerus, who is said to have assumed rule over the Neo-Babylonian Empire after the fall of Babylon to a Medo-Persian force (Dan 5:31). Darius the Mede is a major character in Daniel 6, and the vision of Daniel 9 is said to have occurred during his reign. However, a problem arises when trying to identify Darius the Mede in extrabiblical literature. Darius the Mede is generally considered fictional by modern critical scholarship. (There are a few critical writers who accept the historicity of Darius the Mede, but not many.) The conventional view states that Cyrus the Persian conquered Media ca. 553 BC and deposed the last Median king. Cyrus, as king of Persia, reigned over the entire (Medo-)Persian Empire when Babylon fell in 539 BC. Evangelical Bible scholars have proposed various solutions to harmonize the book of Daniel with this version of history, but there remains a measure of dissatisfaction with these solutions.
When I started writing my dissertation on Darius the Mede, the scholarly discussion was essentially at an impasse. Neither evangelical nor critical scholars had any significant new ideas, and neither side found the other side’s arguments compelling. However, most scholars are unaware that the Greek historian Xenophon describes a Median king, whom he calls Cyaxares II, who corresponds very closely to Daniel’s Darius the Mede. The view that Cyaxares II is Darius the Mede was the standard Jewish and Christian interpretation from Josephus and Jerome until Keil in the 1870s, but it was abandoned after cuneiform inscriptions were discovered that seemed to support Herodotus’ account of the accession of Cyrus, which does not allow for the existence of Xenophon’s Cyaxares II.
The thesis that I argue in my 2014 Ph.D. dissertation and published book (both entitled Darius the Mede: A Reappraisal and available here or here) is that Cyrus shared power with a Median king until about two years after the fall of Babylon. This Median king is called Cyaxares (II) by the Greek historian Xenophon, but is known by his throne name Darius in the book of Daniel. Cyrus did not make a hostile conquest of Media, did not dethrone the last Median king, and did not become the highest regent in the Medo-Persian Empire until after the fall of Babylon. Cyrus was Darius’s co-regent, the hereditary king of the realm of Persia, the crown prince of Media, and the commander of the Medo-Persian army—yet it was still Darius who was officially recognized as the highest power in the realm. Darius died naturally within two years after the fall of Babylon, and as he had no male heir and Cyrus had married his daughter, Cyrus inherited his position upon his death and united the Median and Persian kingdoms in a single throne.
My reconstruction of the accession of Cyrus is based largely on the detailed account given by the Greek historian Xenophon, which agrees remarkably well with the book of Daniel and is supported by a surprising variety of other ancient sources. The account of the accession of Cyrus given by the Greek historian Herodotus, which forms the basis for the reconstruction of these events by modern historians, is a legendary recasting of a propagandistic myth promoted by Cyrus as a means of legitimating his conquest in the minds of an unfavorable Babylonian populace. Cuneiform references to Cyrus (and his son Cambyses) as “king” soon after the fall of Babylon are easily explained through a coregency which lasted until the death of Darius the Mede/Cyaxares II.
Major supporting arguments made in the book include the following:
- The historical reliability of Xenophon’s Cyropaedia was found to be much higher than scholarly consensus currently holds. (One scholar of Xenophon, Steven W. Hirsch, also argues for a much higher view of the historical reliability of the Cyropaedia.) Xenophon was found to be historically credible, and superior to Herodotus, with regard to his accounts of the royal upbringing of Cyrus, the existence of Belshazzar, the existence of Gobryas, and the marriage of Cyrus to Cyaxares’ daughter.
- The Behistun inscription of Darius Hystaspes states that two Medians who launched rebellions against Darius at separate times did so on the basis of (allegedly) false claims to be of the family of Cyaxares. The fact that they claimed a relation to Cyaxares, rather than to Astyages, is evidence that Cyaxares II did indeed exist and was the last Median king.
- The adoption of “Darius” and “Ahasuerus” (= Xerxes) as throne names of the first two Persian kings in the dynasty which followed that of Cyrus is evidence that they were used as throne names by kings of an earlier dynasty. This is indirect evidence that there indeed was a Median king named “Darius,” and another named “Ahasuerus,” as the book of Daniel presents them (Dan 9:1). The use of throne names by Persian kings also gives plausibility to the suggestion that the given name of Darius the Mede was “Cyaxares.”
- There are strong historical evidences that the Medes and the Persians had formed a confederated government, and that Herodotus’ story of Cyrus subjugating the Medes and deposing the last Median king is therefore historically inaccurate. Xenophon and Herodotus agree that the Median king Astyages gave his daughter Mandane in marriage to Cambyses I, who was king of the Persians. In the ancient Near Eastern context, such marriages signified the formation of political alliances, and it seems that Astyages made just such an alliance with Persia with a view toward checking Babylonian hegemony. A passage in the Persae of Aeschylus is noted in chapter 4 which presents Astyages as the founder of the alliance, though without naming him directly. Chapter 3 noted biblical texts which describe the Medes and Persians governing their empire jointly, and also noted abundant archeological evidence which presents the Medes as senior partners and equals with the Persians, rather than their vassals.
- The Harran Stele, which is an inscription of Nabonidus, mentions a certain “king of the land of the Medes” alongside the kings of Egypt and Arabia as Babylon’s leading enemies. This inscription was produced well after the supposed conquest of Media by Cyrus, and therefore seems to indicate that Cyrus did not depose the last Median king.
- The historian Berossus, whose history of Neo-Babylonia is well respected but poorly preserved, refers to the actions of an unspecified “King Darius” shortly after the fall of Babylon. The conventional version of the history of the period does not recognize any such “King Darius.”
- Valerius Harpocration, a professional researcher and lexicographer at the library of Alexandria, affirms in a lexical work that there was a king of the Medo-Persian Empire named “Darius” who reigned sometime before Darius Hystaspes. Once again, the conventional version of the history of the period has no explanation for this “Darius.”
- The Greek tragic dramatist Aeschylus, who wrote before Herodotus, describes two Median kings who preceded Cyrus as rulers of Medo-Persia. Although Aeschylus does not name these two kings, he presents the first as the founder of the dynasty, the second as his son and the king who was on the throne when Babylon fell, and the third, Cyrus, as the natural successor of the second king. The conventional history of the period does not recognize this second Median king.
Scholars tend to be skeptical when presented with new theories, and rightly so. My own dissertation committee at Dallas Theological Seminary was quite skeptical when I proposed the topic. However, after exhaustive research on the primary source texts for the period, the evidence supporting Xenophon’s description of a Median king reigning in parallel with Cyrus, and corresponding to Daniel’s Darius the Mede, was compelling. Although I have yet to receive reviews of my work from critical scholarship, it has been well received so far by evangelical Bible scholars, a number of whom have communicated to me that they are now advocating my position. After publishing my dissertation, I gave a presentation on Darius the Mede at the 2015 annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. I also coauthored an article with Rodger Young on extrabiblical references to Darius the Mede that was published in the July–September 2016 issue of Bibliotheca Sacra. My dissertation was favorably reviewed by Benjamin Noonan in the June 2015 issue of The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (p. 386 of the book reviews). Kirk MacGregor follows my line of argumentation on pages 51-54 of his April 2016 JISCA article “A Contemporary Defense of the Authenticity of Daniel.” Paul Tanner favors identifying Darius the Mede with Cyaxares II, and he includes extensive argumentation in his commentary on Daniel in the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary series; see also his book review on Amazon. References to my work have appeared on various places online, such as Thomas Ross’ page about my book on his apologetics website and the link on Eddie Van Gent’s Daniel Prophecies site. See also James Bejon’s extensive discussion of Darius the Mede in his online commentary on Daniel (Appendix 5, starting on p. 9). Some others have told me that my work has spurred them to start their own research projects on Babylonian contract texts or related topics. Evangelical scholars seem quite happy to have a new solution to the problem of Darius the Mede which fits well with both the book of Daniel and extrabiblical literature. It is my hope that the evidence for identifying Cyaxares II with Darius the Mede will not only reinvigorate scholarly discussion on Darius the Mede, but also will also create a significant change in the way that Cyrus’ rise to power is understood by historians of Neo-Babylonia and Medo-Persia.