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 Second Temple-era apocalypses. It fits all the hallmarks of the genre, but even having that underlying knowledge it doesn't make the Book of Daniel any easier to read. In this case, one of the common points of debate is the ‘seventy weeks’ in chapter nine, and all the details surrounding it.

In this chapter, set in the year 538 BC, Daniel has been studying the Book of Jeremiah. Babylon has been conquered, so Daniel is concerned with the end of the exile of the Judeans from their homeland, discussed in Jeremiah. Daniel is concerned that the Judeans will not be allowed to return home, so he prays for God's mercy.

In response, the messenger Gabriel is dispatched to provide Daniel with information about the exile: it has been extended in a spiritual sense, and when the extended exile concludes it will be accompanied by a terrible war. However, Gabriel's message is not so simple.

‘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.’

Within Christianity, this passage has traditionally been interpreted as a prophecy about the ‘anointed prince’ Jesus. In this context, one ‘week’ is understood as equaling seven years, so the ‘seventy weeks’ signify a period of four hundred ninety years. It is taken for granted by almost all scholars that the seventy weeks 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.

In the NRSV translation above the seventy weeks begin with ‘from the time that the word went out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem’. Many other translations use the term ‘decree’ instead of ‘word’. Because the whole context of the chapter is about the end of the Babylonian exile, interpreters look to one of the Persian decrees which legalized the Judean reconstruction of Jerusalem and its temple. Finding several such decrees to choose from, interpretations have the seventy weeks conclude at the time of Jesus' birth (circa 4 BC), his baptism (AD 28), or his crucifixion (AD 30).

While reading the seventy weeks as a consecutive period of four hundred ninety years is the norm, is it warranted?

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, Collins (along with the majority of critical 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, however, has been to interpret the first two divisions as a single block, and the punctuation in many English translations reflects this tradition.

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

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
  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 somewhere in 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 three hundred sixty years. The sixth ‘week’ corresponds to the entire Babylonian exile, which lasted just under sixty years. The fifth ‘week’ is about six times longer than the sixth ‘week’.

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’, 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 another few 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.

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.