Skeptical Bible Study: Daniel Chapter 9

First post in this series can be found here.
This article is not my own, but was originally posted by Darwin’s Beagle. The author has given permission for the article to be reposted here.

The seventy weeks prophecy is an important one for extreme bible believers. It has even been claimed to herald Jesus’ ministry to the exact year. As we will see, this claim rests on several unsupportable “fudge factors” and ignoring the historical context which shows exactly what the “prophecy” was intended to refer to. And be warned, this is a long post.

9.1 Summary of Chapter 9
This vision takes place in the first year of “Darius, son of Ahasuerus [also known as Xerxes], of the seed of the Medes”. Daniel is praying to God. He talks about the prophecy by Jeremiah that Jerusalem would experience 70 years of desolation, a period in which Daniel had lived much of his life. Daniel acknowledges that it is right for God to have done this because the Jews have been sinful. Daniel spends a great deal of time in the prayer acknowledging the sins of the people of Israel, before finally asking for some help in alleviating the desolation of Israel.

God sends the archangel Gabriel again to help Daniel understand the end times. Gabriel says that 70 weeks are given to Israel and Jerusalem to “finish the transgression, and make an end of sins, and to make reconciliations for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness, and to seal up the vision and prophecy, and to anoint the most Holy.” From the time the proclamation is issued to rebuild Jerusalem until the Messiah comes will be 7 weeks and 62 weeks. After the 62 week interval the Messiah will be “cut off” (a euphemism for killed) but not for anything he did. The prince who does this will “destroy” Jerusalem and the sanctuary (or temple). The prince will confirm the covenant for a week, but in the middle of the week he will break it by ceasing the sacrifices and offerings. He will do this until the consummation of the desolation.

9.2 Analysis
9.2.1 Minor problems
This has already been covered in previous posts, but it is good to review. Note that the narrative states that Darius is the son of Ahasuerus (Xerxes). Again this does not fit the time period. Xerxes came many years after Cyrus. His son was Artaxerxes. It was his father who was Darius. And none of them were Medes. Note also the problem with the archangel Gabriel (ie named archangels did not enter into Jewish tradition until the Persian Period, well past the time Daniel was supposed to have been written).

Some extreme bible-doubters point out that this prophecy is in weeks and that is how it should be interpreted. However, on this point (and on this point only) I think the bible-believers have a better case. First, the Hebrew “week” is the same as for “seven”. So it is perfectly reasonable to consider this the “70 sevens” prophecy. Second, Daniel has a way of referring to time as periods. For instance, Nebuchadrezzar is prophesied to go crazy for 7 “times” and this is generally considered to mean 7 years. At the end of the King of the North/King of the South prophecy (see the next installment), Antiochus’ rule over “the saints” is said to be “a time, times, and half a time” and is generally thought to mean 3½ years. Furthermore, the prophecy makes no sense with the pattern that is made with the other prophecies if we interpret “weeks” to mean actual weeks. I am fully inclined to believe that the author of Daniel means weeks of years instead of weeks. In that case, it too fits in well with the other prophecies in Daniel.

9.2.2 The extreme bible-believer’s interpretation of the prophecy
The 70 weeks prophecy is a foundational cornerstone for extreme bible-believers. They find that it convincingly predicts Jesus Christ’s ministry and death. I think it is instructive to look at their scenario. Note all the “fudge factors” that are used. They are obviously working backwards from the “answer” to come up with the “correct” interpretation of the prophecy.

The starting point of the prophecy is a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem. This most logical candidate is a decree that came from Cyrus (Isaiah 44:28) in 538 BCE, a year after he conquered Babylon. The 70 weeks prophecy says that the Messiah will come in “seven weeks and sixty-two weeks”. This totals out to 69 weeks, or since it is meant to be 69 weeks of years, it totals 483 years. That would put the Messiah at 55 BCE. OOPS, this is much too early for Jesus!

Fudge Factor #1: The decree by Cyrus to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple isn’t the one that Daniel was referring to. Instead the decree Daniel refers to is one by Artaxerxes described in Ezra 7:11–28. This decree was issued in the 7th year of Artaxerxes’ reign, or 458 BCE. Taking into account that from 1 BCE to 1 CE was only a single year (there was no year 0), this works out to the Messiah coming in 26 CE. That is a pretty good fit for the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. However, the prophecy specifically states that the Messiah will be “cut off” which is a euphemism for killed, and 26 CE is too early for that.

Fudge Factor #2: While the prophecy states “and after three score and two weeks the Messiah shall be cut off” (Daniel 9:26), it does not say that he will be immediately cut off. One COULD allow for another 4 years to go by before the actual crucifixion.

Most bible-believers find this too hard to swallow, however. Besides, the decree mentioned in Ezra does not specify the rebuilding of Jerusalem or the temple. It is a decree that allows Ezra to raise money for sacrifices in the temple. Never mind, there are other options.

Fudge Factor #3: The decree Daniel was referring to was one by Artaxerxes to Nehemiah (Nehemiah 2:4–8). This decree was in the 20th year of Artaxerxes and, thus, dates to 445 BCE. Furthermore, Nehemiah was to travel to Jerusalem to help build the walls of the city and to do some work on the temple. 483 years later is 39 CE. OOPS, a little too late for Jesus.

Fudge Factor #4: The years that Daniel refers to are not really 365-day years. They are “prophetic years”. The justification for doing this is Revelation 11:2–3:

But the court which is without the temple leave out, and measure it not; for it is given unto the Gentiles: and the holy city shall they tread under foot forty and two months. And I will give power unto my two witnesses, and they shall prophesy a thousand two hundred and threescore days, clothed in sackcloth.

Here 42 months is equated to 1260 days. That makes each month 30 days. 12 of these 30-day months makes the year 360 days. 483 “prophetic years” equals 173,880 days which equals approximately 476 regular years. Ouila! 32 CE, Right on the money! It is this interpretation most extreme bible-believers accept.

Alas, there are problems with this interpretation. First, as I hope I have already shown, Daniel is a forgery. Why would God inspire a writer to present an accurate prophecy made in the 2nd century BCE and fulfilled in the 1st century CE to appear as though it were written in the 6th century BCE? Second, it is obviously ad hoc explanation intended to make the calculations come out right. Third, there is more than one possible way the prophecy could be fulfilled, so it fails the specificity requirement for a true miraculous prophecy. Fourth, there was no “decree” given to Nehemiah. There were only letters of safe passage back to Jerusalem and a letter authorizing him to cut wood to be used in the modification of the temple. Fifth, the temple had been rebuilt 70 years earlier, and Nehemiah was only remodeling it. Sixth, Jews never used a “prophetic year” of 360 days. Their calendar was a lunar calendar and was 354 days long. To prevent the months from occurring at different seasons, they would add a lunar month every 2 or 3 years. The result was that their years averaged 365 days. Seventh, the reference to Revelation 11:2–3 only shows that Jews rounded off a MONTH to 30 days (the same as we do now) and says nothing about YEARS. Eighth, modern scholarship places the crucifixion of Jesus to 30 CE, not 32 CE. Ninth, even if they are correct about Jesus, the rest of the prophecy was never fulfilled. Tenth, the prophecy totally ignores that the 69 weeks (of years) are split into 7 weeks and 62 weeks. Why was that done? Eleventh, there is no definite article before “Messiah” in the prophecy. Thus, the prophecy is predicting the arrival of “A” Messiah, not “THE” Messiah. Furthermore, if one takes the split of the 69 weeks into two parts, the prophecy seems to suggest two Messiahs. One at 7 weeks and another 62 weeks later.

9.2.3 The bible-doubter’s interpretation of the prophecy
If the extreme bible-believer’s interpretation of the prophecy is flawed, how do scholars who allow for errors in the bible interpret the prophecy? They first note that all of Daniel’s prophecies concern “end-times”, even this one. Thus, this prophecy is related to the others. All the others concern Maccabean times (ca 165 BCE). Then they ask, “does this prophecy fit well with those times?” Let’s see.

The bible-doubters have their problem determining when the prophecy is to begin as well. One hypothesis has it that the “decree” to rebuild was from the prophet Jeremiah who says that the Jerusalem will be rebuilt “from the tower of Hananel unto the gate of the corner” which would include most of the city and the temple (Jeremiah 31:38). Under this scenario, the author of Daniel knew that Jeremiah had prophesized 70 years of servitude to Babylon. Extreme bible-believers date the servitude from Nebuchadrezzar’s first siege of Jerusalem in 597 BCE. However, that was not it. While SOME Jews were carried away to Babylon then, most stayed in Jerusalem. It was his second siege in 586 BCE in which the city and the temple were destroyed and most all the Jews were carried away. If you use the proper date, the 70 years prophecy of Jeremiah does not work out. The author of Daniel, being an extreme bible-believer himself, then in typical apologetic style converted the 70 years prophecy to a prophecy of 70 weeks of years. This explains why it was that Jeremiah’s 70 year prophecy was referred to in the first place.

Making 586 BCE as the starting date, then the first 7 weeks of years would be 49 years and would come close to the date of Cyrus’s decree to allow the Jews to go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple (actually it is off by a year, but considering the author of Daniel’s poor knowledge of history of the time this is well within limits). Adding some support to this theory is that Isaiah refers to Cyrus as God’s anointed one, a euphemism for Messiah (Isaiah 45:1). Thus, the first Messiah would be Cyrus.

The next 62 weeks of years would place it at 103 BCE. This is further off from the times of the Maccabees by about 50 years, but again is allowable considering the poor historical knowledge the author had to work with and the fact that he was stuck with the 70 weeks of years to make the Jeremiah prophecy true.

Starting here, however, Maccabean times fulfill the “prophecy” very well. The second Messiah who is cut off would be Onais. Onais was the last head priest of the temple before Antiochus IV conspired to have him killed.

Extreme bible-believers say the prophecy says that the city and the temple will be destroyed and that didn’t happen. However, it is not the case that the prophecy explicitly says that.

The actual Hebrew word that is used is “shachach” which according to Strong’s means “to destroy, corrupt, go to ruin, decay”. From the point of view of a pious Jew, Antiochus did corrupt the city and the temple. And he did it just the way the prophecy says he would (Daniel 9:27). He made a pact with some of the high ranking Jews, but 3½ years later (the middle of the week), he broke it. He forbade sacrifice and the daily prayer, and he even did the abomination of setting up an altar to Zeus.

While this alternate interpretation is not without “fudge factors” of its own, it is at least as good as that of the extreme bible-believer. It explains why Jeremiah is mentioned in this chapter. It justifies the use of weeks of years. It fits in the overall pattern of the other prophecies contained in Daniel. It explains the 7 week/62 week break. And the actions of Antiochus IV fit perfectly with what the book of Daniel says the “prince” will do. Furthermore, “fudge factors” are to be expected when dealing with an imperfect, man-made prophecy. But extreme bible-believers believe the bible to be inerrant, so “fudge factors” in their explanations are much more problematic.

The next installment will cover the last three chapters in Daniel since all three refer to a single “prophecy”. While the author of Daniel has shown very poor knowledge of historical events during the time that Daniel supposedly lived, we will see that he has excellent knowledge of the history during the time of Antiochus IV.

Links to the other articles

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3 thoughts on “Skeptical Bible Study: Daniel Chapter 9”

  1. Elisha, one of us is confused. I get Darius the Great – The 3rd king of persia. The problem that the article points out in regard to Darius, is Darius the Mede that Daniel says conquered babylon at the age of 62. There’s no historical information or data regarding a “Datius the mede” and Cyrus the Perisan king took babylon…

    What are you trying to point out with your link?

    Like

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