In this series we are exploring the claim made by pop-apologist SJ Thomason in her post “Did Daniel the Prophet Accurately Predict the Timing of Jesus’ Death?”1 that the prophetic utterance of Daniel 9:24-27 predicted Jesus’ death in 33 CE. There has been one previous post in this series. This post will focus on the text of Daniel 9:24-27, attempting to understand it in its context.
DANIEL 9:24-27: AN OVERVIEW
It has been said that a text without a context is a pretext for a prooftext.2 Context includes not only the immediate literary context but also the historical circumstances in which a text was composed. Therefore, when analyzing biblical texts we must consider not only what it says and how it says it but also when and even why the texts were written.
As I discussed in the first post of this series, the book of Daniel can be divided into a cycle of stories (chapters 1-6) and a cycle of visions (chapters 7-12). The former contains legendary material that was likely composed long after the period it describes; the latter contains material that was likely composed in the second century BCE. Daniel 9 is firmly situated in the cycle of visions and therefore any exegesis of the text must take this into account. Consequently, we can be skeptical of any exegesis which doesn’t.
Daniel 9 and Its Context
The first vision in the cycle of visions begins with the words, “In the first year of King Belshazzar of Babylon” (7:1). Similarly, the vision of chapter eight begins with the words, “In the third year of the reign of King Belshazzar” (8:1). Similarly, 9:1 begins with the words, “In the first year of Darius son of Ahasuerus” (9:1). Why does the Danielic author preface these visions in this way? The answer is quite simple: to suggest that these visions are prophetic in nature. The irony of it is that the historical errors betray the notion that these are pure prophecies written in an age long before the events they describe. As we’ve already discussed, Babylon had no king named Belshazzar. Rather, Belshazzar was the name of the son of the last Neo-Babylonian king Nabonidus. The likely explanation for this error is that the author was writing long enough after the time period they describe to get so many of the pertinent details wrong.
The same can be said of what we find in 9:1 where we read of “Darius son of Ahasuerus, by birth a Mede, who became king over the realm of the Chaldeans.” Recall that in 5:30 we are told that once Belshazzar “the Chaldean king” is killed, it is “Darius the Mede” who takes over. But there never was a “Darius the Mede” and when Babylon was conquered by the Persians it was Nabonidus on the throne and Cyrus the Great who came and removed him. Here in 9:1 we read of Darius again who, in addition to being “born a Mede” was also “son of Ahasuerus.” Of whom is the author speaking?
The Identity of Ahasuerus
Let’s begin with the name “Ahasuerus.” The name Ahasuerus is one that features predominately in the story we find in the book of Esther. There it is likely a reference to Xerxes I who reigned over the Persian Empire from 486 to 465 BCE. Xerxes was the product of the union between Darius I and Atossa, the granddaughter of Cyrus the Great. To Xerxes was born four sons by his wife Amestris: Darius, Hystaspes, Artaxerxes I, and Achaemenes. Xerxes and his son Darius fell victim to a conspiracy hatched by Artabanus, an official who had served in Xerxes’ administration. Both Xerxes and Darius were murdered in 465 BCE. Artaxerxes I would then assume the throne.3
Assuming that the Ahasuerus of Esther is a reference to Xerxes I, how then does he relate to the Ahasuerus of Daniel 9:1? Is that Ahasuerus actually Xerxes I? If it is, then the author of Daniel has gotten Persian history completely wrong. Xerxes was never the father of a king named Darius. If anything, the Danielic author has the historical order reversed: Xerxes, the biblical Ahasuerus, was the son of Darius.
Darius the Mede
So the Danielic author has gotten the lineage of Persian kings wrong. So what do we make of Darius which 9:1 asserts was “by birth a Mede” and “who became king over the realm of the Chaldeans”? To whom is this referring?
It seems clear that the author intends for us to link the Darius of 9:1 with the Darius of 5:30. But as we already noted, the fall of the Neo-Babylonian Empire was caused by Cyrus the Great, a Persian, and not anyone named Darius and certainly not a Darius “the Mede.” There were three men named Darius who ruled over the Persian Empire: Darius I (522-486 BCE), Darius II (423-404 BCE) and Darius III (336-330 BCE) but they all appear after the fall of the Neo-Babylonian Empire and are unrelated to the cause of that epic event. Furthermore, they are all Persians and not Medes. So what is going on?
One possibility is that Darius is intended to be a composite character.4 In an oracle against Babylon we find in the book of Isaiah the prophet we read that Yahweh was “stirring up the Medes against” Babylon (Isaiah 13:17; cf. 21:2) causing its downfall. Similarly, in the book of Jeremiah we are told Yahweh “has stirred up the spirit of the kings of the Medes” (Jeremiah 51:11; cf. 51:28) to destroy the city of Babylon. It seems that one of the expectations of the prophets was that Babylon’s demise would be caused by the Medes. Perhaps the Danielic author has combined the name of one of Persia’s most famous rulers, Darius, with the prophetic expectation of Isaiah and Jeremiah to create “Darius the Mede.” If this is the case, this is a literary creation that is disconnected from history.
Another possibility is simply that the Danielic author was just plain wrong and this, to me, seems the most likely explanation for what is going on. The author is writing long enough after the events about which he is writing that he simply gets some of the details completely wrong.
The Narrative Context
While the historical details surrounding 9:1 are quite problematic, this need not hinder our investigation into the narrative context of 9:24-27. As far as the narrative is concerned, the discussion of the seventy weeks takes place in the first year of the reign of Darius the Mede over Babylon. Let’s briefly consider the lead up to 9:24-27 that is found in 9:2-23.
Daniel, the main character in the story, tells the reader that he “perceived in the book the number of years that, according to the word of the LORD to the prophet Jeremiah, must be fulfilled for the devastation of Jerusalem, namely seventy years.” The reference here to Jeremiah reflects the prophet’s words in Jeremiah 25:8-14 and 29:10-14. In the former we are told that the punishment on Judah would be destruction of the region and exile of its inhabitants at the hands of Nebuchadrezzar and the armies of the Neo-Babylonian Empire (25:8-9). This punishment would last seventy years and then Yahweh would punish the king of Babylon and end the Neo-Babylonian Empire (25:10-14). In the latter, Yahweh declares that at the end of the seventy year exile the deity would make good on his promise to his people that he would restore them to the land (29:10, 14).
Daniel believes he understands what the “seventy years” in Jeremiah actually means based upon the explanation given to him by Gabriel in 9:20-27.
Daniel begins to pray to the “great and awesome God” that he serves (9:4). He admits that the people have sinned (9:5), failing to heed the warnings of God’s prophets (9:6). The consequence of this failing – “the treachery that they have committed against” God – was that the deity drove them away into other lands, a reference to the period of the Exile (9:7). Daniel emphasizes that this should not have been a surprise to the generation that experienced the fall of Judah for the consequence of failing to obey God was already “written in the law of Moses” (9:13). Thus, Yahweh was right to do as he did with his people (9:14).
Having spent a great deal of time admitting the guilt of God’s people, Daniel implores God to turn his anger and wrath from Jerusalem (9:16) and to cause his “face to shine upon [his] desolated sanctuary (i.e. the temple; 9:17). Daniel appeals not to the people’s righteousness since they have none but upon God’s “great mercies” (9:18). He also begs God to act for the sake of his name which Jerusalem and Israel both bear (9:19).
As Daniel is praying, Gabriel, the one who interprets Daniel’s vision of the ram and the goat (8:1-27), comes to give him “wisdom and understanding” (9:22). It is he who explains to what Jeremiah’s “seventy years” refers (9:23).
An Exegesis of 9:24-27
In 9:24-27 we read the words of Gabriel to Daniel interpreting Jeremiah’s “seventy years.” As we will see, this section does refer to a very specific period of time but it is not what SJ Thomason in her post thinks that it is.
Jeremiah’s seventy years (9:2) are interpreted as seventy weeks. But it cannot be literal weeks since seventy weeks is less than a year and a half. Rather, the Hebrew word for “weeks” is “sevens” (šābuʿîm), making the interpretation of Jeremiah’s seventy years into seventy sevens of years, or four-hundred and ninety years.
The purpose of the seventy weeks is laid out for Daniel. In essence, the vision is eschatological: when the seventy weeks are completed, a “most holy place” will be anointed wherein atonement for sin can be made that will end the people’s exile and restore the holy city of Jerusalem to its former glory. No longer would foreign powers rule over God’s people.
Gabriel begins to offer historical specifics to root the first seven weeks into history. The period begins at “the time that the word went out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem.” The “word” is a decree and decrees are typically issued by sovereigns. So to which sovereign is the Danielic author through the mouth of Gabriel referring?
Since we already know that Gabriel is offering a novel interpretation of Jeremiah’s words, it makes sense to look for a candidate during a period after the fall of the Neo-Babylonian Empire since the cause of the end of the exile is rooted in the fall of Babylon (see Jeremiah 25:12-14). So which sovereign, after the fall of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, sent out a decree concerning Jerusalem? Well, the primary candidate is that of Cyrus the Great who declares in 539 BCE that Yahweh has ordered him to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem (Ezra 1:2-4). And interestingly enough, the Chronicler asserts that the time from fall of Jerusalem and the beginning of the exile to the decree of Cyrus is the seventy year period about which Jeremiah wrote (2 Chronicles 36:20-21).
So the seven weeks of 9:25 begins with the decree of Cyrus and ends with “the time of an anointed prince.” To whom is this referring? Before we try to answer that question there are a couple of things to keep in mind.
First, the Hebrew word translated as “prince” in the NRSV need not refer to a “prince” in the sense to which we are most accustomed, i.e. the son of a king. Rather, the word nāgîd can refer to a leader or ruler generally. Second, whereas translations like the KJV and NASB render māšîaḥ nāgîd as “the Messiah the Prince” or “Messiah the Prince,” neither māšîaḥ (“anointed”) nor nāgîd have the Hebrew definite article attached. Therefore rendering them indefinitely as the NRSV has is the best way of handling them.
There are a couple of candidates that immediately come to mind in the period following Cyrus’ decree: Joshua (or Jeshua) the high priest and Zerubbabel the governor of Judah. Both men were part of the first group of exiles to return to Jerusalem when Cyrus made his decree (Ezra 2:1-2). They were also led the effort to rebuild the temple (Ezra 5:2) and are featured in the prophetic literature of Haggai and Zechariah (see Haggai 1:12-14, 2:2-4, 2:20-23, Zechariah 4:6-9). As high priest, Joshua would have had to been anointed and thus fulfills the notion of “an anointed leader.” Zerubbabel would also as he was apparently chosen by Cyrus to serve as governor of Judah (Haggai 1:1).
But now we run into a potential problem. The text says that the time from the decree to rebuild the city to the time of an anointed leader is “one week” or forty-nine years. If we begin with 539 with the decree from Cyrus and end with either Joshua or Zerubbabel, we have only a period of about twenty years at most. What do we make of this?
There are two possibilities. The simplest is to acknowledge that the Danielic author has already gotten his history wrong and this incongruity is no exception. Furthermore, we’ve already seen that the Chronicler believed that the roughly fifty year period between the exile to Babylon in 586 and the decree from Cyrus is 539 was seventy years. Given that authors writing long after the period about which they are writing will sometimes get details completely wrong, this may be what is going on here.
Another possibility is one proposed by George Athas who arranges Daniel 9:25 into three parts:
In essence, the seven weeks of 9:25b becomes included in the sixty-two weeks of 9:25c. The result is that there are still seventy weeks but some (i.e. the seven weeks of 9:25b) are subsumed by the sixty-two of 9:25c.5
The devastation wrought by Babylon in 586 BCE cannot be underestimated. The city’s walls were broken down, its temple to Yahweh decimated, and its population nearly wiped out by battle and exile. In the period between 593 and 450 BCE it has been estimated that the population of Jerusalem was no greater than five hundred people, only growing closer to two-thousand by 332.6 It took time for the city to return to its former glory. And all around Judea the world was changing. The Persian Empire gave way to Alexander the Great’s. Alexander’s empire ended upon his death and was divided into four with Jerusalem falling under the authority of Ptolemy I. But even that wasn’t to last as Antiochus III won Jerusalem after doing battle with Ptolemy V in 198 BCE.
These “sixty-two weeks” were indeed a trouble time in which Jerusalem was being restored. But the worst was yet to come.
Like we saw in 9:25 with the reference to “an anointed prince” (māšîaḥ nāgîd), here we read of “an anointed one” (māšîaḥ). Again, because māšîaḥ lacks the Hebrew definite article it makes sense to translate it indefinitely.
Who is this “anointed one” that is “cut off” and is left with “nothing”? The previous reference to one who was anointed in 9:25 was to either Joshua the high priest or Zerubbabel the governor of Judah. So it makes sense that this anointed one may be a religious authority. And since the phrase “cut off” probably refers to his death, we should probably look for a religious authority who met his demise. One candidate in particular stands out: Onias III.
Keep in mind that the vision of cycles can be dated to the second century BCE and Onias’ death has already been alluded to in the vision of Daniel 11:22 where he is referred to as “the prince of the covenant.” Onias was murdered in 171 BCE by Andronicus, an official in the administration of Antiochus IV. The author of 2 Maccabees relates that following Onias’ death there was significant backlash such that Antiochus had Andronicus executed because of “the unreasonable murder of Onias” (2 Maccabees 4:35-38).
This portion of 9:26 belongs with what follows in 9:27.
In 1 Maccabees we read of “certain renegades” among the Jews who were sympathetic to the Greeks. They told the people, “Let us go and make a covenant with the Gentiles around us, for since we separated from them many disasters have come upon us” (1 Maccabees 1:11). So around 170 BCE, an agreement was reached between those Jews and Antiochus that resulted in a gymnasium being built in Jerusalem where Greek ideologies were discussed, much to the chagrin of more traditional Jews.
In 167 BCE, about three and a half years after the death of Onias and the “covenant” between Hellenized Jews and Antiochus, the king sends his military to Jerusalem and ends sacrifices in the temple. But why?
First, in 169 Antiochus arrived in Jerusalem following his campaign in the Ptolemaic regions. He proceeded to take treasure from the temple treasury in the city which raised the ire of the faithful. When in 168 he was again in Egypt, a rumor spread that he had been killed. Jewish leaders in Jerusalem saw this as an opportunity to rid the city of their enemies, both Greek and Jewish, and to reassert control of the city. However, Antiochus was alive and well and in 167 sent his military to Jerusalem to put an end to the rebellion. They destroyed the defensive walls of the city and they also forbade the observance of Jewish customs.7
All Torah scrolls were to be seized and burned. All sacrifices and offerings to God at the Jerusalem Temple were abolished. Anyone who persisted in carrying out these or other Jewish rites was subject to the death penalty.8
And then they did the unspeakable.
In the temple of Yahweh in the city of Jerusalem Antiochus’ forces erected an altar to Zeus, a Greek deity and upon it they sacrificed a pig. The author of 1 Maccabees wrote that
the king sent letters by messengers to Jerusalem and the towns of Judah; he directed them to follow customs strange to the land, to forbid burnt offerings and sacrifices and drink offerings in the sanctuary, to profane sabbaths and festivals, to defile the sanctuary and the priests, to build altars and sacred precincts and shrines for idols, to sacrifice swine and other unclean animals, and to leave their sons uncircumcised. They were to make themselves abominable by everything unclean and profane, so that they would forget the law and change all the ordinances (1 Maccabees 1:44-49).
This altar to Zeus was called “a desolating sacrilege” (1 Maccabees 1:54). This event is mentioned by the Danielic author in Daniel 11:31 and it is reiterated here.
Gabriel’s explanation of the seventy weeks to Daniel ends with the demise of “the desolator.” In Daniel 11, that demise was to come between the Mediterranean Sea and Zion (11:45) but that did not happen. 9:27 is less specific in how it predicted Antiochus’ end but it is no doubt meant to be read in tandem with 11:45. In any event, this ambiguity as well as the erroneous prediction of 11:45 tells us that cycle of visions was written in 167 after the invasion of Jerusalem and the beginning of the Maccabean revolt but before the death of Antiochus IV.
This very brief and very poor look at Daniel 9:24-27 points to a “fulfillment” in a period long before Jesus’ day and the details found within fit specific historical markers in the period following the decree of Cyrus down to the events of 167 BCE. This is an example of vaticinium ex eventu, a frequent tool of the Danielic author. This demonstrates that the author was very interested in these specific events and how they fit into the grander scheme of God’s promise to restore Israel to her rightful place as Yahweh’s people. The traumatic events of Antiochus’ oppression of the Jews played an important part.
1 SJ Thomason, “Did Daniel the Prophet Accurately Predict the Timing of Jesus’ Death?” (11.18.18), christian-apologist.com. Accessed 27 November 2018.
2 DA Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, second edition (Baker Academic, 1996), 115.
3 Joshua J. Mark, “Xerxes I” (3.14.18), ancienteu.com. Accessed 5 December 2018.
4 J.M. Cook, “Darius,” in Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, editors, The Oxford Companion to the Bible (OUP, 1993), 153.
5 George Athas, “In Search of the Seventy ‘Weeks’ of Daniel 9,” The Journal of Hebrew Scriptures (9.2), 14-15. Accessed 6 December 2018.
6 Mary Joan Winn Leith, “Israel Among the Nations: The Persian Period,” in Michael D. Coogan, editor, The Oxford History of the Biblical World (OUP, 1998), 289.
7 Leonard J. Greenspoon, “Between Alexandria and Antioch: Jews and Judaism in the Hellenistic Period,” in Coogan, 329.
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.