Seventy Weeks

Daniel 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.’


The Book of Daniel is a wildly confusing book to readers unfamiliar with apocalypses from the Second Temple period (circa 300 BC–AD 100). Daniel was not written by a man named Daniel in the sixth century BC, but by an anonymous Judean in the second century. The second half of the book fits all the hallmarks of the apocalyptic genre, but even knowing this doesn’t necessarily make the Book of Daniel easier to read. In this case, one of the common points of debate is the ‘seventy weeks’ mentioned in Daniel 9.

Set in the year 538 BC, Daniel 9 shows the titular prophet studying the Book of Jeremiah, which predicted Babylon would fall and the Judeans would go free after seventy years. Now, Babylon has just been conquered by Persia, so Daniel is concerned with the return of the Judeans’ exile to their homeland. However, Daniel is concerned that the Judeans will not be allowed to return home, so he prays for God’s mercy.

In response, the heavenly messenger Gabriel is dispatched to provide Daniel with information about the exile: it has been extended in a spiritual sense, and when this extended exile concludes it will be accompanied by a terrible war. However, Gabriel’s message comes with some contingencies.

‘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), since this would be nowhere near enough time for all the things Gabriel tells Daniel will occur. This leads to the next most-obvious interpretation: a period of ‘one week’ (i.e. seven days) is understood by most readers to be a symbol for ‘seven years’, meaning the ‘seventy weeks’ symbolize a period of four hundred ninety years.

In the NRSV translation above, the seventy weeks begin ‘from the time that the word went out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem’. Other translations use the term ‘decree’ or ‘command’, instead of ‘word’.

The prophecy in Daniel 9, quoted above, 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, 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, leading to arguments between interpreters regarding which one is the ‘decree’ mentioned by Gabriel. Depending on which one we pick, the four hundred ninety years might conclude at the time of Jesus' birth, his baptism, or his crucifixion or resurrection. (And even then we don’t precisely know when those happened!) Then, somehow, the final seven years of the four hundred ninety are split apart, thrown far into the future to be fulfilled under an all-powerful Antichrist.

While reading the seventy weeks as a consecutive period of four hundred ninety years is the norm, is it warranted? And, do any of the interpretations that ‘Christianize’ the passage respect its punctuation, terminology, or purpose?

Literary Parallels

Daniel 9 states that the prophet is studying Jeremiah’s prophecy about the exile, almost certainly referring to Jeremiah 25.8–12 and 29.1–10, the statements concerning Babylon’s rule of seventy years. Daniel’s seventy ‘weeks’ are an imaginative expansion on Jeremiah’s prophecy.

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.
Jeremiah 29.10

The author of Daniel saw his homeland held under foreign power for centuries past the Babylonian exile, so in Daniel 9 the author reinterprets Jeremiah’s seventy years into seventy ‘weeks’ of years.

The Letter of Jeremiah, thought to be written around 300 BC, also reinterprets Jeremiah’s prophecy, changing the seventy years into seven generations.

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.
Letter of Jeremiah 2–3

Other apocalyptic and prophetic texts from the same era as the Book of Daniel present similar time periods fulfilling eschatological predictions. First Enoch speaks of the time which will pass between the imprisonment of the Watchers and the final judgment:

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.’
1 Enoch 10.11–12

First Enoch 93 & 91.11–19 (a single unit, originally reconstructed out of order) divides the period between Adam and the punishment of the Watchers into ten ‘weeks’.

In most of these cases, the numbers are understood as symbolic or rounded, not as precise time periods.

For myriad other reasons, Jonh J. Collins (along with the majority of scholars) identifies the authorship of Daniel, and hence the prophecies therein, with the Maccabean Revolt. Antiochus Epiphanes is widely recognized as ‘the ruler who is to come’ in verse 9.26, giving the conclusion to the chapter’s prophecy.1 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

Hence, discussion tends to focus on where to begin the author’s prophecy of weeks, since we know where it ends.

Two Units, or Three?

A major source of confusion is, actually, how to punctuate the text of verse 9.25. The angel informing Daniel of these ‘weeks’ specifies three divisions. A common tradition exclusive to conservative Christians, however, has been to interpret the first two divisions as a single block, and the punctuation in many English translations reflects this tradition. Many translations do what the KJV does, grouping the seven and the sixty-two weeks together, usually by putting a break (a colon, semi-colon, or period) after both of them, rather than between them.

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 […]
King James Version
From the time the word goes out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One,[f] 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’ […]
New International Version
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[…]
New English Translation
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 […]
New Living Translation

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 of Daniel 9.25.3 Besides that there is no sensible reason for why the angel wouldn’t simply say ‘sixty-nine weeks’ if that is what he meant, the punctuation of the Hebrew text prohibits us from interpreting the seven and sixty-two weeks as a single unit.

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 understood as concluding with the rebuilding of Jerusalem under the ‘anointed ruler’ Jeshua, the high priest. (Priests were considered ‘anointed’, and Zechariah 4 actually associates Jeshua with the anointing oil.) Zerubbabel and Cyrus are also common suggestions, the former also associated with the anointing oil, the latter actually called ‘anointed’ in Isaiah 45.1.

Collins objects to calling the starting point a ‘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 given at the start of the article, the Apocalypse of Weeks in the Book of Enoch is perhaps the closest parallel to how Daniel 9.24–27 is intended to 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 eighth week. 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 reconstruction not yet realized
  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 ‘weeks’ are not of equivalent lengths to each other. The anonymous author saw himself as living sometime during the ninth week.

The fifth ‘week’ corresponds to the entire duration of Jerusalem’s first temple, beginning with its construction and ending with its destruction, a period of roughly four hundred twenty eight years (depending on how one follows the biblical texts). Depending on when the sixth ‘week’ ends it may last anywhere between fifty years and four hundred fifty years. The seven discernible time periods do not follow a set duration.

In this text, the ‘weeks’ must be symbolic, and do not correspond to consistently spaced time periods.

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. We know the beginning of Daniel 9’s seventy weeks, we know the conclusion, and we also have a pretty solid idea for when each of the three units begin and end.

‘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’, probably the high priest Jeshua.

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

The second unit, the sixty-two weeks, corresponds to the centuries between the high priests Jeshua and Oniah III.

‘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), so that the temple’s regular ‘sacrifice and offering’ actually ‘ceased’ for a few years. 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 and cleansed it, and threw ‘the desolator’ Antiochus out of their country.

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

Footnotes

1 John J. Collins, Daniel: A Commentary on the Book of Daniel (Hermeneia: A Critical & Historical Commentary on the Bible), 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, Daniel, 355.

4 Ibid., 354-355.