In Daniel 2, Daniel interprets a dream of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. In this dream, the king sees a massive statue composed of gold, silver, bronze, and iron. Daniel interprets the four parts of the statue to be four successive kingdoms, or empires. The gold kingdom is identified as the Babylonian empire, of which Nebuchadnezzar is leader. However, the other three empires are not named by Daniel.
Biblical scholars differ on their identity. Traditionalists identify them as the Medo-Persian, Greek, and Roman empires. Critical scholars, who date Daniel as a second century BC composition, identify them as the Median, Persian, and Greek empires.
Stephen R. Miller, writing in the Apologetics Study Bible, further explains the critical view:
On this view the final kingdom, to be crushed and replaced by God’s eternal kingdom, would be the regime of the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes. By this argument these critics assign the writing of [Daniel] to the period of Antiochus’s persecution. To make the Greek Empire the last in the series, they claim that Daniel’s author artificially partitioned the Medo-Persian Empire into two consecutive world empires, the Median and the Persian.
The critical scholars argue that the author of Daniel was writing history, not prophecy. He was looking backward in time. But does this position actually have support from the text? Stephen Miller believes the answer is “no.”
Since the Median Empire never existed as a separate world power after the Neo-Babylonian, however, this would mean that Daniel committed an enormous historical blunder. That even a semieducated Jew (even in the second century B.C.) could be ignorant of the fact that it was the ruler of the Medo-Persian Empire, Cyrus the Great, who delivered them from the Babylonian captivity is highly unlikely. Next to the Egyptian exodus itself, this was the most important event in the history of Israel as a nation. Furthermore, both 2 Chr 36:22–23 and Ezra 1:1–4 testify that it was Cyrus the Persian who conquered Babylon and issued the decree allowing the Jews to return to their homeland.
Also the author of Daniel demonstrates throughout the book that he was well aware that Media and Persia were not two separate world kingdoms but a unified empire. For example, in 8:20 the two-horned ram (symbolizing one kingdom) represents “the kings of Media and Persia,” and in chap. 6 the author referred to the “laws of the Medes and Persians” (cf. vv. 8, 15), indicating that Darius ruled by the laws of the Medo-Persian Empire, not a separate Median kingdom.
Miller further explains that the traditional view has been held from as far back as the 1st centuries BC and AD.
Josephus and 2 Esd 12:10–51 identified the fourth empire as Rome. Childs acknowledges that the writers of the New Testament Gospels considered the Roman Empire to be the fourth kingdom, and Walton comments, ‘The evidence in the writings of the Church fathers is massive and in unison in favor of the Roman view.’ Only in modern times did the opinion that Greece was the fourth empire become widespread.