Messianic prophecy 2: The seventy weeks

This post is part of my biblical prophecy series.

Context and prophecy

If the book of Daniel is to be taken at its word, then the seventy week prophecy I’m about to describe concerns events that took place at the time of Nebuchadnezzar in the 6th century BC. However, many scholars are of the opinion that the book of Daniel is a forgery written in the 2nd century BC by an unknown author. In this latter interpretation, the visions of Daniel are seen more as commentary on events in the Maccabean period than actual predictions of future events [1]. Here, however, I will take the view that still prevails among most evangelical Christians, namely that the events portrayed in Daniel should be taken as advertised by its author.

In Daniel 9, Daniel is visited by Gabriel and told the following:

24 Seventy weeks are determined upon thy people and upon thy holy city, to finish the transgression, and to make an end of sins, and to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness, and to seal up the vision and prophecy, and to anoint the most Holy.

 25 Know therefore and understand, that 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.

 26 And after threescore and two weeks shall Messiah be cut off, but not for himself: and the people of the prince that shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary; and the end thereof shall be with a flood, and unto the end of the war desolations are determined. (Daniel 9:24-26.)

This prophecy was made by Daniel during his captivity in Babylon. The captivity began with the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel predicts that 70 weeks will pass between the command to rebuild Jerusalem and the coming of the Messiah (the NIV uses “the Anointed One, the ruler”).

Two notes about wording must be made here:

  1. The KJV has seventy “weeks”, while the NIV has seventy “sevens”. Nowhere, however, are the seventy periods described as months, years, or any other specific time period.
  2. The word “Messiah”, according to Hebrew tradition, can be described as follows [2]:

In the Hebrew Bible messiahs are priests and kings, who were traditionally anointed with holy anointing oil as described in Exodus 30:22-25. In later Jewish messianic tradition and eschatology, messiah refers to a leader anointed by God, and in some cases, a future King of Israel, physically descended from the Davidic line, who will rule the united tribes of Israel and herald the Messianic Age of global peace.

Straightforward Interpretation

Given the above definition of “messiah”, it makes sense that the NIV should use the term “the anointed one, the ruler”. David, then, seems to be talking about an anointed priest or king who will come to rule Jerusalem 70 weeks after the command is issued for the city’s reconstruction. This ruler will be “cut off” shortly afterwards, and the people will destroy the city.

The prophecy contains nothing that explicitly mentions Jesus Christ, so there is no obvious reason why we should assume that he is involved: to attribute the prophecy to Jesus is to engage in deliberate postdiction. Perhaps people of modern times have come to understand the word “messiah” in too narrow a sense: one in which Jesus is the only appropriate person for this term. But this is not how people of Daniel’s day (nor even today’s Jews) would have viewed things.

Was the prophecy fulfilled, even if it had nothing to do with Jesus? In 538 BCE, Cyrus the Great issued a decree that allowed Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. This would have marked the beginning of the 70 weeks. The foundation for the temple was laid the following year, and construction of the building was finished 21 years later, in 516 BCE [3]. Perhaps, then, work for the temple foundations may have begun seventy weeks after Cyrus’s decree. However, the prophecy talks about the streets and wall, not the temple.

Importantly, Isaiah describes Cyrus the Great as the Lord’s “anointed” (Isaiah 45:1). And in Isaiah 44, Cyrus is described with more language that is familiar to Christians:

24 I am the LORD,

   the Maker of all things,

 …

28 who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd

   and will accomplish all that I please; (Isaiah 44:24, 28)

This all seems to point to the conclusion that Daniel’s prophecy referred to Cyrus. Unfortunately, Cyrus died in 530 BCE, eight years after issuing his decree, but before the temple was rebuilt (although he still would have been alive to see the foundations laid).

Orders to rebuild the streets and the wall of Jerusalem, which the prophecy specifically targets, were issued by Antaxerxes I of Persian in 445 BCE [3]. At this time he also entrusted the ecclesiastical and civil affairs of Jerusalem to Ezra [3]. Perhaps, then, we should consider Ezra to be the new ruler of Jerusalem, and therefore the focus of Daniel’s prophecy (this just shows how much of a guessing game we have to play with prophets who insist on being vague).

Ezra left Babylon in the first month of the seventh year of Antaxerxes’ reign (457 BCE), and arrived at Jerusalem in the fifth month of that year. Depending on what point during the first and fifth months the arrival and departures fell, the journey could have taken anywhere from 28 to 35 weeks. However, the exact timing of the decree to rebuild Jerusalem is uncertain: perhaps it was made seventy weeks prior to Ezra’s arrival in Jerusalem (who knows?). If Ezra is considered the new ruler of Jerusalem, then, the first part of the prophecy would appear to be plausibly fulfilled.

The Wikipedia entry on Ezra puts his lifespan at 480 to 440 BCE [5], although his historicity is doubted by some scholars. This would mean that he died 17 years after arriving in Jerusalem. This period of time seems to exceed that implied by the prophecy, although, once again Daniel fails to provide important details like dates.

The next time the temple would be destroyed would be in 70 CE, 608 years after Cyrus began allowing Jews to return to Jerusalem. Once again this elapsed time seems to greatly exceed the narrative of tens of weeks that Daniel lays out in his prophecy.

Apologist Interpretation 

Although Jesus is not mentioned in the prophecy, there are some apologists who have claimed that Daniel had him in mind. These apologists resort to various generous interpretations on the translation of “week” to suggest that, for instance, the word for “week” should be translated not as seven days but as seven years [6]. In this case, with some jigging of the various calendars, the end of the prophesied period can be interpreted to coincide with Jesus’ life time.

Explanation 

Vagueness: It is not remarkable that some biblical scholars should, in their quest to tie in Jesus’ life with the Old Testament, search its many prophecies and seize on a highly unspecific one that speaks of an “anointed one” who will become the new ruler of Jerusalem.

As already noted, apart from the seventy week time period, the Daniel prophecy is extremely vague. The leader is not even named. Surely if Daniel was having a genuinely miraculous vision, he could at least have come up with the name of its central character? As is so often the case (see Nostradamus, for instance, or any astrologer*), self-proclaimed clairvoyants aim to be as vague as possible so that some semblance of their prediction is bound to come to fruition eventually, even if a little apologetic elbow grease is required to make it fit. It’s all about casting a wide enough net.

Fail. Jesus never actually became the anointed ruler (“messiah”) of Jerusalem. Instead, he was viciously killed before obtaining any leadership role. It is highly improbable that he will, at some point in the future, return to earth and become the actual ruler of Jerusalem. Dead people don’t usually do that sort of thing.

(Indeed, books like Revelation that claim a second coming for Jesus might simply be making these claims because they’re the expected outcome for someone who was hailed as the messiah yet never fulfilled the duties of that post before his death.)

High probability. Obviously someone was going to become the next anointed ruler (“messiah”) of Jerusalem, so to predict this eventuality is a no-brainer for anyone of normal (i.e., zero) psychic powers.

Furthermore, it is not clear when this messiah was to be “cut off”, but since all human beings die (and most lose office while alive), to predict someone’s death or end of rule, without giving a specific time, is to assure your success.

It also isn’t said when the second destruction of the Temple should take place, yet it seems reasonably certain that any given building is bound for destruction at some point in its future. The fact that it took more than 500 years to occur following the prophecy is actually quite surprising.

* Predicting an earthquake is always a good bet: many earthquakes are recorded around the globe each year.

[1] Wikipedia entry on the book of Daniel, in the section entitled “Authorship and dating”.

[2] Wikipedia entry on “messiah”.

[3] Wikipedia entry on Jerusalem.

[4] Wikipedia entry on Antaxerxes.

[5] Wikipedia entry on Ezra.

[6] Wikipedia entry on the Seventy weeks prophecy.

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