Daniel & the Seventy Weeks

Daniel & the Seventy Weeks

Contents


Introduction

Dan 9.24 ‘Seventy weeks are decreed for your people and your holy city: to finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal both vision and prophet, and to anoint a most holy place.’

The Book of Daniel is wildly confusing to readers unfamiliar with apocalypses from the Second Temple period (circa 300 BCE–100 CE). This was a genre with many of its own conventions and tropes, but of the several apocalypses we know about, just two found their way into the biblical canon. (Or three or four, in some smaller Eastern denominations.) The second half of the book fits all the hallmarks of the apocalyptic genre; when we compare it to these other texts, the Book of Daniel is not exceptional. However, simply knowing this doesn’t necessarily make the Book of Daniel easier to read, and one of the most misunderstood components of the book’s apocalyptic section is the ‘seventy weeks’ mentioned in chapter 9.

Nearly all of the apocalypses were pseudonymous: the author pretend to be someone living in the distant past—Enoch, Ezra, and Abraham were popular choices—which allowed the author to ‘predict’ events which had, in fact, already happened before the time he was writing. The Book of Daniel was not written by a man named Daniel in the mid sixth century BCE, but by an otherwise unknown author (or authors) in the early second century BCE. Chapter 9 is set in the year 538 BCE, with ‘Daniel’ one of the captives taken to Babylon. The titular character turns to study the Book of Jeremiah; this earlier text predicted that Babylon would be destroyed and the Judeans would be released from their captivity after seventy years. Babylon has just been conquered by Persia, so Daniel is concerned with the return of the exiles to their homeland. However, Daniel is worried that the exile will not end, so he prays for God’s mercy. (Why is he worried? Because the author is already aware that Judah did not achieve independence from foreign rule after the exiles returned.)

God dispatches the heavenly messenger Gabriel to provide Daniel with information about the exile: it has been extended, but when it does finally conclude it will be accompanied by a terrible war.

Dan 9.24–27 ‘Seventy weeks are decreed for your people and your holy city: to finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal both vision and prophet, and to anoint a most holy place. 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. After the sixty-two weeks, an anointed one shall be cut off and shall have nothing, and the troops of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary. Its end shall come with a flood, and to the end there shall be war. Desolations are decreed. He shall make a strong covenant with many for one week, and for half of the week he shall make sacrifice and offering cease; and in their place shall be an abomination that desolates, until the decreed end is poured out upon the desolator.’

It is taken for granted by almost all scholars that the seventy weeks in context cannot be understood as a literal period of seventy weeks (about one and a half years), terminating the exile sometime in 536 BCE. This would not be much of an extension. This has led the majority of interprets to decide each ‘week’ should be understood as seven years rather than seven days, for a total of four hundred ninety years.

The prediction laid out in Dan 9 has traditionally been interpreted by Christians as a prophecy about the ‘anointed prince’ Jesus. Because the whole context of the chapter is about the end of the exile after Babylon’s conquest by Persia, these interpreters look for a Persian ‘decree’ which permitted the Judean reconstruction of Jerusalem and its temple. Yet, we find several such Persian decrees mentioned in the bible (and some acts erroneously labeled ‘decrees’ when they were nothing of the sort). This leads to inconclusive arguments regarding which one is the ‘decree’ mentioned by Gabriel. The choice is invariably made by starting with the conclusion: the reader decides ahead of time on an important event in the life of Jesus—his birth, baptism, or crucifixion, none of which we actually know the year it happened—then follows the thread of four hundred ninety years backwards in time to find which Persian ‘decree’ comes closest. This often requires manipulating the math (usually by making yet another claim on the length of a ‘biblical year’, based on an arbitrarily chosen verse from somewhere else in the Bible) to stretch or crunch the four hundred ninety years into the already-chosen time frame.

Needless to say, it’s a hermeneutic riddled with assumptions and imaginative leaps.

There is another interpretive approach that is often overlooked entirely.


Literary Parallels

Dan 9 states that the prophet is studying Jeremiah’s prophecy about the exile, almost certainly referring to Jer 25.8–12 and 29.1–10.

Jer 29.10 For thus says Yahweh: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.

The author of Daniel saw his homeland held under foreign power for centuries beyond the Babylonian exile, which led the author to conclude that the exile must have been extended in some way. Jeremiah’s propehecy failed in two ways. The first is that the exile in Babylon lasted just forty-nine years. This should have been considered a good thing, but the second failure is that Judah did not gain independence from foreign rule after Babylon fell. The Judeans were subjugated by Persia, then various Greek rulers. The Book of Jeremiah is revered among the scriptures; discarding it as ‘false prophecy’ is not an option for the author, but the prophecy did fail. The collision of these two contradictory thoughts compelled the author to do what is extremely common in such situations: he reinterpreted the earlier prophecy by recalculating it.

The Letter of Jeremiah, thought to be written around 300 BCE, likewise wrestled with the failure of Jeremiah’s prophecy. This author, living about a century before the author(s) of Daniel also recalculated the exile, transforming it from seventy years into seven generations.

L Jer 2–3 Because of the sins that you have committed before God, you will be taken to Babylon as exiles by Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Babylonians. Therefore, when you have come to Babylon you will remain there for many years, for a long time, up to seven generations; after that I will bring you away from there in peace.

Seventy years could be a generation or four, but seventy generations is a much longer time frame.

Other apocalyptic and prophetic texts from the same era as the Book of Daniel present similar concepts of eschatological predictions being fulfilled in a specially constructed time frame. First Enoch speaks of the duration between the imprisonment of the Watchers (sinning angels from Gen 6) and the final judgment:

1 Enoch 10.11–12 And to Michael he said, ‘Proceed, Michael; make this known to Shemihazah and the others with him, who have mated with the daughters of men, so that they were defiled by them in their uncleanness. And when their sons perish and they see the destruction of their beloved ones, bind them for seventy generations in the valleys of the earth, until the great day of their judgment and consummation, until the judgment of the age of the ages is consummated.’

First Enoch 93 & 91.11–19 (a single unit, mistakenly copied out of order early in its reception) divides the period between Adam and the punishment of the Watchers into ten ‘weeks’.

In all of these cases, the numbers are understood as rounded out to a large, symbolic time frame. The goal is not absolute precision in a literal sense, but a theological message communicated in a spiritual way.

For many reasons, John Collins (along with the majority of scholars) identifies the authorship of the Book of Daniel—and the context of its prophecies—with the Maccabean Revolt, which began in 167 BCE. The Hellenistic Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes is widely recognized as chief antagonist in Dan 7, 8, and 10–12, and the parallelism between these other chapters and Dan 9 brings most scholars to conlude that ‘the ruler who is to come’ in verse 26 is also Antiochus. The conclusion of the seventy weeks is thus wrapped up in the Maccabean Revolt1 The reason for this view’s popularity is summarized by Athas:

This is not merely wishful thinking or even a ‘ballpark’ correspondence, for the match is specific and uncanny. Furthermore, this period of Antiochene persecution is a major concern of the book as a whole (cf. 11:36–39), with Antiochus IV (or his beastly avatar) featuring prominently. As such, viewing the final ‘week’ (9:27) as the seven years from 170 to 163 BCE is an identification which the book itself suggests quite strongly.2

Academic discussion tends to focus on where to begin the author’s prophecy of weeks, since we know where it ends due to the parallelism between Daniel’s apocalyptic chapters.


Two Units, or Three?

A major source of confusion comes from how most English translations punctuate the text of Dan 9.25. The angel informing Daniel of the seventy weeks specifies three divisions: seven weeks, sixty-two weeks, and one week. But the most Christian Bibles render the text in a way that the first two divisions are combined, a single block of sixty-nine weeks. Many translations do what the KJV does, grouping the seven and the sixty-two weeks together, usually by putting a break after both of them, rather than between them.

KJV from the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem unto the Messiah the Prince shall be seven weeks, and threescore and two weeks: the street shall be built again, and the wall, even in troublous times. And after threescore and two weeks
NIV From the time the word goes out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven ‘sevens,’ and sixty-two ‘sevens.’ It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble. After the sixty-two ‘sevens’
NET 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. Now after the sixty-two weeks
NLT Seven sets of seven plus sixty-two sets of seven will pass from the time the command is given to rebuild Jerusalem until a ruler—the Anointed One—comes. Jerusalem will be rebuilt with streets and strong defenses, despite the perilous times. After this period of sixty-two sets of seven

In Hebrew punctuation, an atnah is roughly equivalent to a semi-colon, a strong break between two related but separate clauses in a sentence. There is an atnah between the seven weeks and the sixty-two weeks in the Hebrew text.3 There is no sensible reason for why the angel would say ‘seven weeks and sixty-two weeks’ instead of ‘sixty-nine weeks’ if the latter is what he meant, but even aside from that, the punctuation in Hebrew prohibits us from interpreting the text that way.

Instead of assuming the angel was being unnecessarily obtuse in his message, it is simpler to follow the actual division given by the text: the seventy weeks are divided into not two, but three units: seven weeks, sixty-two weeks, and one final week.


The ‘Word’

The first seven weeks begin with a ‘decree’ and conclude with ‘an anointed ruler’ rebuilding Jerusalem and the temple.

This unit is commonly understood as concluding with the rebuilding of Jerusalem under the ‘anointed ruler’ Jeshua, the high priest. While ‘anointed’ can be translated as ‘Messiah’, this English term carries too many connotations that are taken for granted. Priests were also considered ‘anointed’, and Zech 4 associates Jeshua with the anointing oil. The Judean governor Zerubbabel and the Persian king Cyrus II are also common suggestions for identifying this ‘anointed ruler’; the former is also associated with the anointing oil, the latter is directly called ‘anointed’ in Isa 45. However, the other apocalyptic sections of the Book of Daniel place special focus on Judah’s high priest (called the ‘prince of the host’ in Dan 8 and ‘prince of the covenant’ in Dan 11), so Jeshua is the one most likely in mind here.

John Collins objects to translating the catalyst for the seventy weeks as ‘decree’.

25. from the going forth of the word: As in v 23, the word must be taken as the divine word rather than the decree of a Persian king. This is generally taken to refer to Jeremiah’s prophecy and dated to the fourth year of Jehoiakim (first year of Nebuchadnezzar), or 605 B.C.E., on the basis of Jer 25:1, where the prophecy is first uttered. […] Some scholars allow 586 B.C.E. as a possible starting point because the “seven weeks” until the rebuilding of Jerusalem is then almost exact. The only capture of Jerusalem recorded in the Book of Daniel, however, is dated to the third year of Jehoiakim in Dan 1:1, and there is no mention of a destruction in 586 B.C.E. In the [sic] context, the “going forth of the word” in v 25 must be related to the statement in v 23 that “at the beginning of your supplication the word went forth.” The word, then, is the revelation given to Daniel, rather than the original prophecy of Jeremiah. That Daniel 9 is dated to the first year of the fictional Darius the Mede should dispel any expectation of exactitude in the calculations.4

Put simply: Gabriel tells Daniel that the seventy weeks will begin when ‘the word goes forth’. This ‘word’ is the very message Gabriel was sent by God to deliver to Daniel, right then and there. Within the book’s chronology, the ‘seventy weeks’ begin when the Babylonian exile ends.


Enoch’s Apocalypse of Weeks

Of the examples mentioned earlier, the Apocalypse of Weeks in the Book of Enoch, is perhaps the closest parallel to how Dan 9.24–27 should be read, because it functions in a nearly identical manner. In the Apocalypse of Weeks, ten ‘weeks’ are designated for the whole of history, and Enoch describes precisely how each ‘week’ begins and ends.

The content of this prophecy is obvious until about the seventh or eighth week, when the author was writing (sometime before the Book of Daniel). The time periods represented by the ten weeks are as follows:

  1. Begins with Adam, ends with Enoch
  2. Ends with the flood
  3. Ends with the ‘chosen plant’ Abraham
  4. Ends with the exodus
  5. Ends with Solomon’s construction of the first temple in Jerusalem
  6. Ends with the fall of Jerusalem and temple’s destruction
  7. Ends with Cyrus releasing the Judeans from their exile in Babylon
  8. Ends with the second temple’s construction, or maybe a later reconstruction
  9. Ends with universal justice
  10. Ends with the final judgment of all creatures, the new creation, and the eternal age to come

For anyone familiar with the timeline of the Hebrew bible, it should be obvious that these ten ‘weeks’ do not have equivalent durations to each other. The first week lasts for about 500 years. The second lasts for more than 800. The third lasts more than 900 years. The first seven weeks vary wildly in duration. In this text, the ‘weeks’ are strictly symbolic, and do not correspond to consistently spaced time periods. This provides good reason for interpreting the seventy weeks in Dan 9 as completely figurative for the duration between Babylon’s downfall and the Maccabean Revolt.


Conclusion

It is highly likely the author intended for the seventy weeks in Daniel 9 to be understood as symbolic, and did not mean for readers to identify them with a precise period of four hundred ninety years, as they are usually interpreted. Likewise, the seventy weeks were divided into three sections, not two, as they were often misrepresented in Christian Bibles. We can even hazard a plausible guess on how the lengths of the three divisions were decided upon. The author was living through the Maccabean Revolt and believed it would conclude with the eschaton, the end of history. Hence, he represents it as the third division, a single week. Seven is a number of completion or blessing, but the author cuts this final ‘week’ in half to signify incompletion and suffering during the Maccabean Revolt. The author then turns to the beginning of the seventy weeks: Babylon is conquered and the second temple is built. This is a time of blessing, so he multiplies seven times seven, or seven ‘weeks’. The remainder, sixty-two weeks, merely represents the era between these two time periods.

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;

The first unit, the seven weeks, begins with this very ‘word’ from Gabriel to Daniel. It ends with the completion of the reconstruction process under the ‘anointed prince’, most likely the high priest Jeshua, as seen in Zechariah, Haggai, Ezra, and Nehemiah.

and for sixty-two weeks it shall be built again with streets and moat, but in a troubled time.’

The second division, the sixty-two weeks, corresponds to the centuries after Jeshua, when the Judeans lived in ‘a troubled time’ under foreign rule.

After the sixty-two weeks, an anointed one shall be cut off and shall have nothing, and the troops of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary. Its end shall come with a flood, and to the end there shall be war. Desolations are decreed. He shall make a strong covenant with many for one week, and for half of the week he shall make sacrifice and offering cease; and in their place shall be an abomination that desolates, until the decreed end is poured out upon the desolator.’

The third unit, the final week, begins with the deposing or murder of ‘an anointed one’, the high priest Oniah III. The ‘prince who is to come’ is Antiochus Epiphanes, and about this time ‘he made a strong covenant’ with the Judeans who abandoned Torah-observance (cf. 1 Macc 1.10–15). Antiochus sent ‘troops’ to Jerusalem, and they profaned ‘the sanctuary’ with an unclean sacrifice the Judeans called ‘the abomination of desolation’ (1 Macc 1.54–59). The temple’s regular ‘sacrifice and offering’ actually ‘ceased’ for a few years, and the temple was considered ‘desolate’ (empty of Yahweh’s presence). This resulted in a war between a faction of Torah-observant Judeans and people loyal to Antiochus. After about three and a half years, these Judeans retook the temple, cleansed it, and rededicated it to Yahweh. Later chapters of the Book of Daniel illustrate that the historical outcome of the Maccabean Revolt did not completely fit the author’s predictions, but at least in this instance ‘the desolator’ Antiochus Epiphanes was successfully repelled.

Altogether, the seventy weeks symbolize three portions of the post-exilic period, from 538 BCE to 164 BCE. They do not correspond to an exact period of four hundred ninety years, as usually interpreted.


Footnotes

1 John J. Collins, Daniel, 347–360.

2 George Athas, ‘In Search of the Seventy ‘Weeks’ of Daniel 9’, The Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 9.2, 1–20.

3 Collins, 355.

4 Ibid., 354–355.

Comments

  1. I watched a service this morning that pinned the start as March 5, 444 BCE. They used 2 Chron 36.22 to get the timeframe and Nehemiah 6.15 for the specific date, along with correlating to the amount of year to complete the temple. Considering I do not see a reference to this in your article, why are they using this and where did it come from?

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    1. Dan 9 is interpreted by theologically conservative Christians to be a prophecy about Jesus and about the end times. The seven weeks and the sixty-two weeks are interpreted as a single block of sixty-nine weeks. What the text says will happen after the seven weeks but before the sixty-two weeks is shifted into happening after both the combined seven ๐˜ข๐˜ฏ๐˜ฅ sixty-two weeks. This results in the ‘anointed ruler’ (after the seven weeks) interpreted as being the same person as the ‘anointed one’ (after the sixty-two weeks). This is taken to be Jesus, and the anointed one being ‘cut off’ is his crucifixion. The final one ‘week’ is taken to be the end times, the last seven years of history.

      The point is that these interpreters believe Dan 9 predicted the first appearance of Jesus centuries in advance. Since Dan 9 situates the seventy weeks according to a ‘decree’ for Jerusalem to be rebuilt after the Babylonian exile, they go looking for decrees mentioned in the Bible. We end up with four main options: one about 537 BCE from Cyrus II (mentioned in 2 Chr 36.22–23; Ezra 1.1–4), about 515 BCE from Darius I (in Ezra 6.1–12), about 457 BCE from Artaxerxes I (in Ezra 7.11–26), and about 445 BCE also from Artaxerxes I (in Neh 2.1–8). Interpreting the seventy weeks as symbolizing 490 years, they pick a decree and add 438 years (sixty-nine weeks), and see what they end up with.

      • 537 BCE → 54 BCE
      • 515 BCE → 2 BCE
      • 457 BCE → 27 CE
      • 445 BCE → 40 CE

      No conservative Christian wants to touch the first decree (537 BCE) when it comes to Dan 9, because the year 54 BCE is meaningless to Christianity.

      If we play with math a bit, the second decree (515 BCE) could end up with Jesus’ birth (about 6/5 BCE, according to Matt 1–2), while the third decree (457 BCE) could get us the year when Jesus was baptized (about 28/29 CE, according to Luke 3.1–3). Some Christians recognize this flaw, arguing that the 483 years are supposed to end with Jesus’ death, leaving the count off anywhere between 2 and 35 years.

      The fourth decree (445 BCE) is thought to be meaningless by some, because adding 483 years ends up with 40 CE. But spiritually elite readers discern we need to count according to a ‘prophetic year’, which is exactly 360 days. So what Dan 9 calls 483 years would be 476 years in our calendar. Add that to 445 BCE, smudge the numbers a bit, and you get 33 CE, the year of Jesus’ crucifixion.

      All four options have problems. The second, third, and fourth all suffer from the reader having to consciously change the numbers to get a desired outcome. Two of them (515 and 457) are off by a couple of years. The third is off by about a decade, demanding an unspoken and convoluted solution to get a year when Jesus ๐˜ฎ๐˜ช๐˜จ๐˜ฉ๐˜ต have been crucified. (We honestly just don’t know what year it was.) All three also require combining the seven and sixty-two weeks, which are distinguished for no reason otherwise. And, all three require the reader to make up an excuse for why the first 483 years are immediately consecutive while the last 7 years have been delayed by 2000 years.

      The first decree (537) is only appealing to readers (Christian and otherwise) who recognize Dan 7, 8, 9, and 10–12 display an overwhelming focus on Antiochus Epiphanes and the events of the Maccabean Revolt, with most accepting the book was written during this time period (roughly 165 BCE. Yet, although Cyrus’ decree is the one which ended the Babylonian exile and ordered the rebuilding of Jerusalem (both details found in Dan 9), a literal reading of the seventy weeks as 490 years ends with a time more than a century after this conflict, and what Cyrus accomplished is supposed to happen after the first seven ‘weeks’, not before them. This is why I personally find a theory where the seventy weeks are purely symbolic, and do not decode into exact lengths of time, the most persuasive.

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