The primary goal of this post is to evaluate the claim that the timing of Jesus’ arrival fulfills the prophecy in Daniel 9. About four months ago I started writing this as part of a series on prophecies of Jesus’ birth. As I started researching, however, I discovered the controversies surrounding the authorship of Daniel and the prophecies of kingdoms and realized that I needed to address those issues before I could discuss the 70 weeks (I suggest reading those posts first before continuing on here – this post will make a lot more sense with that background). Now, after slogging through those topics and then taking some time to step away, I’m finally ready to finish this off.
What do we know?
The last four verses of Daniel 9 are commonly interpreted to show that Jesus’ life corresponds with the timing predicted for the arrival of the messiah. The passage is as follows:
” 9:24 “Seventy weeks have been determined concerning your people and your holy city to put an end to rebellion, to bring sin to completion, to atone for iniquity, to bring in perpetual righteousness, to seal up the prophetic vision, and to anoint a most holy place. 9:25 So know and understand: From the issuing of the command to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until an anointed one, a prince arrives, there will be a period of seven weeks and sixty-two weeks. It will again be built, with plaza and moat, but in distressful times. 9:26 Now after the sixty-two weeks, an anointed one will be cut off and have nothing. As for the city and the sanctuary, the people of the coming prince will destroy them. But his end will come speedily like a flood. Until the end of the war that has been decreed there will be destruction. 9:27 He will confirm a covenant with many for one week. But in the middle of that week he will bring sacrifices and offerings to a halt. On the wing of abominations will come one who destroys, until the decreed end is poured out on the one who destroys.””
There are several additional pieces of information that are valuable input into determining whether this prophecy might have been fulfilled in Jesus.
First, we need to establish the meaning of “weeks”. The hebrew word used here is “shabuwa” (Strong’s 7620), which is elsewhere used and translated as weeks in the familiar sense, that being seven 24 hour days. Despite this, there is nearly unanimous consensus that the proper translation in this case is to view the week as a period of seven years. I agree with this assertion and there’s a good explanation of the reasoning for this at the Christian thinktank. I’m not going to give this any further discussion.
Second, this passage in Daniel, particularly the last two verses, appears to have ties to the other prophecies in Daniel. The other prophecies speak of a coming ruler who destroys, stops sacrifices after 3.5 years, brings abomination and then is defeated after another 3.5 years. See the discussion of the kingdom prophecies for details.
Third, there are multiple ways in which the the translation of the text needs to be considered:
- The phrasing that divides the 69 weeks into two periods of 7 weeks and 62 weeks has two divergent translations. The translation given above (from the NET) is closely aligned with the most prominent translation, as found in the KJV, NIV and NASB. In this translation, the 7 weeks and the 62 weeks are coupled together and collectively treated as the forerunners to the arrival of the anointed one. Another translation, as found in the ESV, RSV and JPS, separates the arrival of an anointed one as occurring after the 7 weeks, which is then followed by the 62 weeks of rebuilding. For example, the ESV reads: “Know therefore and understand: from the time that the word went out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the time of an anointed prince, there shall be seven weeks; and for sixty-two weeks it shall be built again with streets and moat, but in a troubled time.” This translation is based in part on the presence of an atnah in the Masoretic version of the text, which is roughly equivalent to a semi-colon. Under this translation it is clear that an anointed one arrives after 7 weeks and a second anointed one is cut-off in the next verse after the 62 weeks. This structure would not have been evident in the original text since ancient Hebrew did not include any punctuation. The punctuation added by the Masoretes is to some extent based on Rabbinical tradition handed down through the generations.
- Another distinctive difference in this alternative translation is the choice of the translation for the hebrew “dabar” (Strong’s 1697). Most Christian translations render this as “decree” or “command”, whereas this alternative translation uses the more generic “word”. This generic translation is in fact the far more common translation of “dabar”, which is used extensively throughout the Old Testament in various forms. It is also used in the surrounding context in Daniel to identify the word given by the Lord to Jeremiah regarding the 70 years of exile and to identify the message given to Daniel by Gabriel.
Finally, the timeline can only be interpreted once a reference point has been established. In this case, the “issuing of the command to restore and rebuild Jerusalem” is the reference. The historical context for the person of Daniel makes it clear that the restoration of Jerusalem is subsequent to the Babylonian conquest and exile, which started in 597 BCE and, after years of political struggle, eventually left the city in ruins in 587 BCE. The best options for the “command” to restore Jerusalem are as follows:
- The earliest date comes from the possibility that the “word” to restore Jerusalem is equivalent to the prophecy in Jeremiah 30:18 and/or 31:38, where God promises that Jerusalem will be restored and rebuilt. An exact date is not available for the text in Jeremiah, but from the context (see 28:1 and 32:1) it can be most likely placed between 593 and 587 BCE.
- In 2 Chronicles 36 and Ezra 1 we are told that Cyrus, in his first year (539 BCE), issues a decree to build the temple in Jerusalem.
- According to Ezra 7, in 460 or 459 BCE Artaxerxes I allowed any Israelite to return to Israel with Ezra and to procure resources for use in the temple. Artaxerxes I came to power in August 465 BCE. The text states that Ezra left on the 1st day of the 1st month of the king’s 7th year. The first year could have been as short as the last 40 days of the Hebrew calendar in 465 BCE, or it could have considered to be the first full year. In the first case, the second year would have started in September 465 BCE, putting the start of the 7th year in September 460 BCE. In the latter case, everything is pushed back a year, such that the 7th year starts in September 459 BCE.
- According to Nehemiah 2, in 445 or 444 BCE Artaxerxes I granted Nehemiah’s request to return and rebuild the city, which included letters authorizing the travel and collection of resources. Nehemiah places this in the month of Nisan in the 20th year of king Artaxerxes. As above, the first year of the king has two possibilities, such that the start of the 20th year could be either September 446 BCE or September 445 BCE. The month of Nisan pushes this to March 445 or 444 BCE.
With respect to these last two options, I should note that there is some contention and confusion regarding the historical identity of the Persian kings named throughout the biblical text (see one, two, three). I do not plan to engage in a deeper investigation of those issues at this time but I will note that the problem is legitimate because of the chronological discrepancies that arise from a plain reading of the text. The relevant point is that we are not guaranteed that the identification of Artaxerxes I serves as a solid foundation for the assignment of dates to the events recorded in Ezra and Nehemiah.
What is the Christian interpretation of the data?
As with the discussion of the kingdom prophecies, there are several Christian interpretations for this passage. Two of these claim that the prophecy is, at least in part, fulfilled by Jesus. These views, which we will call the historicist view and the futurist view, are often put forth as some of the strongest evidence for the divine inspiration of the bible. The common element to both of these is that they agree with the translation which does not bring in an anointed one after the first 7 weeks. In both cases, the mashiach does not come on the scene until the 7 + 62 weeks are complete.
The Historicist View
Under the historicist view, the prophecy is entirely fulfilled (included the 70th week) by the life and death of Jesus. A brief summary of this interpretation is given below and the detailed explanation can be found here.
- The 70 weeks starts in 460 or 459 BCE with the decree by Artaxerxes I, as found in Ezra 7. Many versions of this interpretation count from the second full year and then identify the arrival in Jerusalem as occurring in the second half of the year, making it 457 BCE.
- The 69th week comes to completion in 483 years (69 x 7), putting the start of the 70th week in September of 24 CE, or sometime in the first half of 26 CE if the later date of 457 BCE is used.
- The 70th week heralds the arrival of Jesus, but in the middle of the week he is cut off (28 – 30 CE), bringing sacrifices and offerings to a halt (since the atonement eliminates the need for sacrifice).
- The destruction of the temple in 70 CE is seen as fulfillment of verse 26, the destruction of the city and the sanctuary. Though this verse precedes the text regarding the 70th week, it is seen as a reference to those events which will occur after the 70th week.
The Futurist View
With the futurist (or dispensationalist) view, the prophecy is fulfilled only through the 69th week. The most famous explanation was put forth by Sir Robert Anderson in 1894, and was later updated by Harold Hoehner. This specific view claims to demonstrate fulfillment by Jesus to the exact day and is cited in several apologetic resources, such as Josh McDowell’s New Evidence That Demands a Verdict. A summary of the explanation is given below and the detailed explanation can be found here.
- The 70 weeks starts sometime in Nisan of 444 BCE with the decree by Artaxerxes I, as found in Nehemiah 2. This decree is chosen as the starting point because it is the one that explicitly refers to the rebuilding of the city, not just the temple.
- The duration of the 69 weeks is based on the Jewish calendar, which has 12 lunar months totaling 360 days. This is sometimes referred to as a “prophetic year” and does not account for the leap year corrections. This duration is 69 x 7 x 360 = 173880 days. Hoehner showed that if this is properly divided into solar years, you arrive at a duration of 476 years and 25 days in the Gregorian calendar. By adding this to Nisan 1 (or March 5) in 444 BCE, you arrive at March 30, 33 CE. This was determined by Hoehner to be the date of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem.
- In some versions of this view the first 7 weeks (ending around 396 BCE) is identified as the period where “the sealing up of the prophetic vision” is accomplished. The claim is that this is about the time that Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament, was written. There’s little to no support for that claim, however, so this is often excluded from the discussion.
- In this view, a gap of indeterminate length is inferred between the 69th and 70th week. This view agrees with the historicist view in that the destruction of the temple in 70 CE is seen as fulfillment of verse 26.
- The 70th week is deemed to be a still future time period and related to the events in the book of Revelation.
What is the naturalistic interpretation of the data?
This interpretation builds upon the foundation presented in the naturalist views regarding the authorship of Daniel and the kingdom prophecies. In that context, the author of the 70 weeks prophecy was writing around 165 BCE and was constructing a prophecy which culminated in the contemporary actions of Antiochus Epiphanes.
The first component of this perspective notes that the start of chapter 9 recounts Daniel’s response to his reading of Jeremiah and the realization that the desolation of Jerusalem was to last 70 years. Daniel then petitions God for mercy until he is interrupted with the message of the prophecy. It is this context which leads one to consider Jeremiah’s prophecy of Jerusalem’s restoration as a likely candidate for the “word to restore and rebuild Jerusalem”. In this case, the message from Gabriel was building upon the very scriptures that Daniel had been contemplating. Under this view, the start of the 70 weeks would then be around 593 to 587 BCE.
The relationship to Jeremiah’s prophecy is also important for understanding the choice of a 70 week duration. Within the naturalist explanation, this is an artifact of the author’s attempt to parallel Jeremiah’s prophecy rather than an exact definition of the time span. This is discussed in more detail later.
With respect to the two competing translations (the third data point in “What do we know?”), the naturalist agrees with the translation that yields two anointed ones. The preference for this translation is based on the view that it yields a better harmonization with the historical data and with the language and the surrounding text. This is supported by the following:
- This translation offers the best explanation for the fact that the text divides the first 69 weeks into two parts of 7 weeks and 62 weeks. Why would the 69 weeks have been split unless it was intended to demarcate two events?
- The division rendered by the Masoretic punctuation is the best option we have for estimating the original sentence structure since this reflects the Rabbinical tradition.
- If the first 7 weeks (49 years) starts from Jeremiah’s prophecy and if we take this to be around 593 to 587 BCE then that puts us somewhere around 540 BCE. Along with this, note that the first mashiach which arrives at the end of this period is qualified in the prophecy as being a prince (nagiyd, Strong’s 5057), which is used consistently in reference to a political ruler. In 539 BCE the Persians conquered Babylon and took over the kingdom. The Persian king, Cyrus, allowed the exiles to return to their homeland and, as a result, he is called God’s anointed – mashiach – in Isaiah 45. This fits well with the anointed one that comes after the first 7 weeks. In fact, it seems possible that this is inferring that God’s answer to Daniel’s petition was to reduce the 70 years to 49 years and that this was accomplished when Cyrus showed up. Under the Maccabean Thesis, the author of Daniel would have been familiar with the Isaiah text and the reference to Cyrus as mashiach.
- The next 62 weeks starts the period of rebuilding the temple and city after Cyrus gives the Jews freedom to return to Jerusalem. At the end of the 62 weeks the prophecy indicates that an anointed one (but not identified as a prince) is cut off. In the discussion of the prophecies of kingdoms, the naturalist view associated this person with Onias, who was murdered in the years leading into the actions of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. This would have occurred around 170 BCE, which is about 369 years after the alleged start of the 62 weeks (434 years). That date is about 65 years too soon.
- The prophecy states that after the 62 weeks “the people of the coming prince” (again, prince = nagiyd) will destroy the city and sanctuary. This is the start of the final week and the portion of the prophecy that is attributed to Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Seleucid ruler. The portion of the prophecy spanning the last week carries many parallels to other prophecies in Daniel. Refer to the discussion of the prophecies of kingdoms for details.
The most obvious and significant problem with this view is that the second period is 65 years too short. The naturalist argues that it is not without warrant to suggest that the author did not properly reconcile the duration of this second period. In fact, it appears likely that the author could not have accurately reconstructed the duration and may not have been very concerned with the accuracy anyway. This argument is based primarily on the following:
- It appears that the first standardized Jewish system for identifying the year (minyan shtarot) was not introduced until about 312 BCE. Prior to this, years were only identified relative a king’s reign. It is not clear how an author writing in 165 BCE would have obtained an accurate determination of the number of years that had passed since a known historical event 400 years earlier. As evidence of this difficulty, note that the development of the Jewish calendar appears to have introduced multiple issues which bring it in conflict with other dating systems.
- It is reasonable to suspect that the author was more concerned with numerology than accuracy. Note that the first period is 7 sevens (the pervasive number of perfection) and the total period is 70 sevens (matching the 70 from Jeremiah’s prophecy). The 62 week duration of the second period may have been little more than a byproduct of the author’s realization that the historical periods seemed to fit with the desired numerology.
Lastly, the natural explanation concludes with a discussion of the use of the hebrew “mashiach” (Strong’s 4899) in the prophecy. The NET translates mashiach as “anointed one” and several other translations use the transliteration into “messiah”. It turns out that the word mashiach is never actually used anywhere in the Old Testament to refer to the eschatological figure that came to be known as the messiah. The application of the word mashiach as a reference to the eschatological figure who rises to power at the end of days only began to arise in the late second century BC. If this usage in Daniel is in fact a reference to the figure implied by other prophetic texts then this is the first and only reference which applies the “messiah” terminology, even if the later date for Daniel’s authorship is accepted. Furthermore, the prophecy of the 70 weeks does not appear to be placing the focus of the prophecy on the mashiach. The end of the prophecy, with it’s eschatological implications, does nothing to incorporate the prior references to a mashiach – in fact, it leaves the mashiach as having been cut off. If this prophecy was really about the arrival of the mashiach then why isn’t he a central figure in bringing an end to the one who destroys?
Which interpretation seems more probable?
I will often develop preliminary probabilities as I research and fill in the details of a post. In this case, my preliminary estimates had favored the Christian view. After further research, the data eventually led me to split the probabilities 50/50. It seemed to me that the Christian interpretation did the better job of fitting the timing while the naturalist interpretation did the better job of fitting the language and context. However, as I continued to dig further it became apparent that I had been working under the false assumption that the author of the text had at his disposal a relatively accurate accounting of the historical record and would have used this. This assumption was gradually defeated as I began to uncover the multitude of chronological problems. In light of those issues, it would seem that it would actually be presumptuous to think that a Jewish author writing around 165 BCE could accurately recount the number of years that had passed since events some 400 years earlier. As such, there is nothing to discredit the notion that Daniel’s 70 sevens was largely devised to mimic Jeremiah’s 70 years and was not intended to reflect an accurate passage of time. This may in fact be the most proper view of the 70 sevens.
Even so, the Christian interpretations presented above do not rely on an accurate biblical chronology – they only rely on the proper identification of the person of Artaxerxes I. If that assignment holds up, then the Christian view still does a better job of fitting the timing. There are some oddities, however, such as the starting from the second year of the king’s reign in the historicist view, or using the lunar year in the futurist view (additionally, I think that the start date might be wrong). Regardless, these views would still come out to within 5 to 10 years of Jesus’ ministry, which is pretty good considering that we’re talking about a nearly 500 year span in total. Aside from the timing, however, the Christian interpretation of the passage is difficult. The relative dismissal of the split after the first 7 weeks seems unfounded. The insistence on the translation of “dabar” as “decree” is odd, particularly when more fitting options could have been used, such as “choq” (Strong’s 2706), “tsavah” (Strong’s 6680) or “dath” (Strong’s 1881), which has an Aramaic derivative that is used in Daniel to describe royal decrees. The fact that, under the Christian view, this would be the first and only use of mashiach in reference to the eschatological figure was a surprising result. And, in the case of the futurist view, there’s no clear basis for the gap leading up to the 70th week.
When I consider everything, I feel that the naturalist interpretation does the better job of fitting the context and explaining the language. When that assessment is coupled with the fact that the author probably could not have accurately counted the years leading up to the events of Antiochus IV Epiphanes and that the timing was most likely secondary to the author’s numerological goals, I am led to believe that the naturalistic interpretation does a better job of explaining the data.
This conclusion is not without significance. The accuracy of this prophecy has long been held up as one of the most powerful evidences for the divine inspiration of the bible. If a comprehensive evaluation yields results wherein the prophetic interpretation can be considered to be less compelling than a natural explanation, that is a noteworthy outcome.