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Daniel's vision of the four beasts in Daniel 7 has long intrigued commentators. Regarding the vision of the fourth beast, the text reads:

7 After this I saw in the night visions, and behold, a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth; it devoured and broke in pieces and stamped what was left with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that were before it, and it had ten horns. [ESV]

A fuller description of this beast, and interpretation of the vision, appears in verses 19–27.

Based on this and an apparently related passage in Revelation 17, commentators have historically associated the Roman Empire with this fourth beast. C. F. Keil writes:

These four kingdoms, according to the interpretation commonly received in the church, are the Babylonian, the Medo-Persian, the Macedo-Grecian, and the Roman. "In this interpretation and opinion," Luther observes, "all the word are agreed, and history and fact abundantly establish it." (source)

Keil notes that this is a slight overstatement; at least one early commentator, Ephrem the Syrian (306–373) held that the fourth kingdom referred to Macedonia. Wikipedia notes that shortly thereafter, Jerome (347–420) advocated the now-traditional view that the fourth kingdom is Rome.

Was Jerome the first to make this connection? Which Christian author first associated the fourth kindgom of Daniel 7 with the Roman Empire?

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Several commentators before Jerome make this connection. We'll mention three,1 starting with Cyril of Jerusalem (313–386), who indicates that he is not the originator of this interpretation:

The fourth beast shall be a fourth kingdom upon earth, which shall surpass all kingdoms. And that this kingdom is that of the Romans, has been the tradition of the Church’s interpreters. For as the first kingdom which became renowned was that of the Assyrians, and the second, that of the Medes and Persians together, and after these, that of the Macedonians was the third, so the fourth kingdom now is that of the Romans. (Catechetical Lectures, 15

Over a century earlier, Hippolytus (170–235) had written:

Then he says: “A fourth beast, dreadful and terrible; it had iron teeth and claws of brass.” And who are these but the Romans? which (kingdom) is meant by the iron—the kingdom which is now established; for the legs of that (image) were of iron. (Treatise on Christ and Antichrist)

See also Scholia, Daniel 7.9 for similar analysis.

But Hippolytus seems to draw this interpretation from his teacher, Irenaeus (d. 202). In Against Heresies, 5.26.1, he writes of the connection between Daniel 7 and Revelation 17, and puts the empire in which he lives – Rome – in the middle of it:

In a still clearer light has John, in the Apocalypse, indicated to the Lord’s disciples what shall happen in the last times, and concerning the ten kings who shall then arise, among whom the empire which now rules (the earth) shall be partitioned. He teaches us what the ten horns shall be which were seen by Daniel. [emphasis added]

So it does indeed seem that we can trace this view back even further, all the way to the second century. It's likely that even Irenaeus is not the originator of this idea, but it seems that his works are the earliest surviving that make the connection.2


Notes:

1 Another would be Victorinus (d. 304) (Commentary on the Apocalypse, 17). Shortly after Jerome, Theodoret (393–460) says the same (Commentary on Daniel, 7, p203)
2 Justin Martyr (Dialogue with Trypho, 31) and the Epistle of Barnabas, 4 quote the relevant passage, but don't directly connect the fourth kingdom to Rome.

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    I'd be curious to know if this notion dates back even pre-Christians. Since Daniel 2 mentions Babylon as the first kingdom, Daniel 8 mentions Persia and Greece as the next kingdoms, it would make sense for someone to fit the Roman empire in prophecy when it started to become a dominating power after Greece. – Beestocks Jul 27 '17 at 13:44
  • @Beestocks For what it's worth, I checked my findings against a couple historians, and they attributed this view to the early church fathers I've quoted here. But you may be right; perhaps some first-century BC Jewish commentator made the connection too. – Nathaniel Jul 27 '17 at 15:00
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    Might be worth asking at judaism.stackexchange.com – bradimus Jul 27 '17 at 16:18
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    Interestingly, Josephus mentions Rome when discussing Daniel 8 in Antiquities of the Jews but doesn't seem to tie the fourth beast to Rome. – bradimus Jul 27 '17 at 17:10
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    Also from Irenaeus: Then also Lateinos (Lateinos) has the number six hundred and sixty-six; and it is a very probable [solution], this being the name of the last kingdom [of the four seen by Daniel]. For the Latins are they who at present bear rule: I will not, however, make any boast over this [coincidence]. V.XXX.3 – Alan Fuller Jul 28 '17 at 16:05
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A massively documented history of the interpretation is given in the online article by Gerhard Pfandl, 'Interpretations of the Kingdom of God in Daniel 2:44'. According to it, Josephus in Antiquities of the Jews and the Jewish author of IV Ezra (around 100) are the first, though they are implicit rather than explicit.

  • Welcome to Christianity.SE. For a quick overview, please take the Site Tour. For more on what this site is all about, see: How we are different than other sites. And for some tips on writing good answers here, see: What makes a good supported answer? Meanwhile, I hope you'll browse some of the other questions and answers on this site. – Lee Woofenden Nov 25 '17 at 3:33
  • @Nathaniel -- I appreciate the breadth of your scholarship also. I have upvoted your answer and added 10 points to your amazing 25.8k score. -- You may be interested in knowing that I am a Revelation scholar and for my dissertation project in The Joint Program in Religious and Theological Studies of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northwestern University I translated the oldest Greek commentary on Revelation, the one by Oecumenius. I am also adept in Latin. I studied it for six years in Catholic seminaries and two years at NU (Evanston, Illinois). – Clifford Durousseau Nov 30 '17 at 16:29
  • See my recent post 'Who is the Infamous Little Horn of Daniel 7' - Mi Yodeya.com. – Clifford Durousseau Nov 30 '17 at 16:34

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