In modern elections, pollsters have taken on an almost prophetic role. Pollsters read the signs of the times with big data and pulse checks on public opinion to project imminent exchanges of power. But both prophets and pollsters share a common occupational risk: their respectability rests solely in the reliability of their predictions.
In the recent U.S. presidential election, Joe Biden won the presidency, but Donald Trump garnered far more votes than predicted. As in the 2016 election, projections by advance poll missed the mark. Further doubt has been cast on pollsters’ methods.
The reality is polling problems are nothing new. There is a controversial history of polling since the modern advent of this art and science in the 20th century. The back story of political projection by reading the numbers, however, has more ancient roots.
My research in the religious identities of ancient Judaism has led me to study the projections of political exchanges that fell to seers, sages and scribes. To unlock the meaning of the past and project political upheavals or continuity, these figures used a number of methods.
One of the more common mechanisms for reviewing and predicting history involved a simple yet profound numerical tool: counting to four. This technique and structure for seeing the world came to influence ways of seeing and describing empires in surprisingly diverse contexts. Some of our earliest examples are found in ancient Judaism but flourish in many forms in later sources that leveraged this motif to make sense of the past, explain the present and project a better future.
The book of Daniel
Readers of the biblical book of Daniel are familiar with the motif of counting to four. Characters in the book have multiple nightmares of four-tiered statues or four ferocious monsters, which interpreters later decode as referring to the rise and fall of four empires on the eve of expected divine delivery.
For the writers and readers of Daniel living under the oppressive thumb of empires in ancient Palestine in the centuries leading up to the common era, this meant rule by Babylon, Media, Persia and Greece.
Then the unthinkable happened. Some ancient Jewish groups anticipated the breaking dawn of liberation under divine rule starting in the mid-second century BCE. Instead, the oppression of Hellenistic rulers wore on until Roman warhorses crushed through the horizon in Palestine in 63 BCE. The metrics were misread, the prophecy missed the mark.
How does culture move on from such an epic fail? Rerun the numbers. Rethink the mechanism. Rewrite the prediction.
Dead Sea Scrolls
One of the earliest places we see recalculating predictions is in the Dead Sea Scrolls. This trove of nearly 1,000 fragmentary manuscripts penned or preserved by an ancient Jewish community between 150 BCE to 70 CE includes an Aramaic writing known as the “Four Kingdoms.”
In this text, a Jewish seer beholds four talking trees that disclose that they represent four empires. Though the text is fragmentary, the scribe behind it seems to have conjured a different four kingdom count: Babylon-Persia, Greece, Rome and the kingdom of God. In adapting this theme seen in the book of Daniel, he preserves continuity with the past while accounting for Rome — and sketching apocalyptic hopes for the imminent coming of the kingdom of God.
The beauty and complexity of this four kingdoms motif is it is inherently updatable to new political realities. Following these texts is a long history of writers recalculating four kingdoms projections.
Re-ordering the world
An open-access book I co-edited with New Testament scholar Loren Stuckenbruck, Four Kingdom Motifs Before and Beyond the Book of Daniel, explores the scope and spread of this strategy to read the past and write the future.
More than anything, this project revealed the inherent adaptability of the four kingdoms motif across cultural contexts, throughout time and from diverse perspectives. Well beyond the days of Daniel and the Dead Sea Scrolls, this motif enabled communities and creatives to order the world around them and locate themselves on often tumultuous timelines.
For example, Old Testament scholar Ian Young reveals that the earliest Greek translation of the book of Daniel (included in the translation of Hebrew scriptures known as the Septuagint) may have included a fifth kingdom to account for the phases of Hellenistic rule following the conquest of Alexander the Great and the divided domains in his wake.
In the medieval period, some Christian apocalyptic writers imagined that Rome had never really fallen because the Christendom inherited its authority to become an empire without end. They therefore believed they were living in the capstone fourth kingdom that was the pinnacle of history.
Apocalyptic literature scholar Lorenzo DiTommaso shows how rethinking the very idea of empire enabled seventh-century writer Pseudo-Methodius to imagine Christian Europe as the capstone fourth kingdom. He then leveraged this idea to critique the emerging imperial forces of Islam in the Levant.
These examples underscore that the timelines of apocalyptic hopes are always responsive to current crises.
Yet the potential of the four kingdoms mechanism cut both ways: some Muslim interpreters also looked to the book of Daniel and found evidence of their own ascendancy. Arabic Bible scholar Miriam Hjälm notes how in the 18th century, the Shiʿah Muslim Ismāʿīl Qazvīnī perceived that the book of Daniel’s mention of a kingdom “that shall never be destroyed” (Daniel 2:44) was the Islamic empire.
Envisioning the world
Scholar of biblical interpretation Brennan Breed highlighted how some European map-makers relied on four kingdoms motifs that influenced earlier writers when they envisioned the world.
The immense medieval Hereford map structures the world around the spiritual centre of Jerusalem, with Christ enthroned at the top. The four empires of Babylon, Media, Macedonia and Rome are placed on the east-west axis to depict the progression of empires as culminating in English rule. The map-maker notes the cartography is inspired by the fifth-century Christian writer Orosius’s descriptions of the world, who relied on the four kingdoms motif to inform his understanding of geography and history.
The ongoing history of empire
Tools for developing political projections and making a claim on the world may endure over time, but their implementation is always bound to a context.
Missing the mark in political speculation is nothing new. It’s as old as politics and government itself. When contexts change, we are forced to revisit the mechanisms or metrics used to account for the unexpected present.
The history of overturning and re-imagining empires through religious motifs should give us pause for reflection.
The motif of centring one’s own interests while acknowledging a changing world is embedded in writings inspired by ancient Judaism’s four kingdoms prophecies — including the cultural, material and religious heritage of imperialistic western powers.
The history of the exchanges and evolution of empire is ongoing. Its effects are something we’re only beginning to understand.