IBRI Research Report #9 (1981, 1988)
 

THE TIME OF THE MESSIAH

Robert C. Newman
Biblical Theological Seminary
Hatfield, Pennsylvania

Copyright © 1981, 1988 by Robert C. Newman. All rights reserved.
 

ABSTRACT

The historical sources from the first two centuries AD indicate that the period was a time when the Messiah was expected to appear in fulfillment of some OT prophecy, probably Daniel 9:24-27. The classic calculation of Sir Robert Anderson faces some serious difficulties, but these may be resolved by taking the "weeks" of this prophecy to be the OT seven-year land use cycle. The result points to Jesus as the fulfillment of this prophecy

EDITOR'S NOTE

Although the author is in agreement with the doctrinal statement of IBRI, it does not follow that all of the viewpoints espoused in this paper represent official positions of IBRI. Since one of the purposes of the IBRI report series is to serve as a preprint forum, it is possible that the author has revised some aspects of this work since it was first written. 

ISBN 0-944788-09-2




INTRODUCTION

According to ancient historians, the first century AD was a time of unusual expectation among the Jews. The feeling was widespread that some prophecy regarding the time of Messiah's coming was about to expire. The Roman historian Suetonius (early 2nd cen) says of the Jewish revolt against Rome (AD 66-73):

There had spread over all the Orient an old and established belief, that it was fated at that time for men coming from Judaea to rule the world. This prediction, referring to the Emperor of Rome, as afterwards appeared from the event, the people of Judaea took to themselves.1

Suetonius' contemporary Tacitus also speaks of this prophecy, supplying more information about its source:

... in most there was a firm persuasion, that in the ancient records of their priests was contained a prediction of how at this very time the East was to grow powerful, and rulers, coming from Judaea, were to acquire universal empire. These mysterious prophecies had pointed to Vespasian and Titus, but the common people, with the usual blindness of ambition, had interpreted these mighty destinies of themselves, and could not be brought even by disasters to believe the truth.2

Closer to the scene, and writing less than ten years after the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, was the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. Josephus wrote before Titus succeeded his father Vespasian as emperor, and he indicates only a single expected ruler:

But now, what did most elevate them in undertaking this war was an ambiguous oracle that was also found in their sacred writings, how "about that time, one from their country should become governor of the habitable earth.'' The Jews took this prediction to belong to themselves in particular; and many of the wise men were thereby deceived in their determination. Now this oracle certainly denoted the government of Vespasian, who was appointed emperor in Judea.3

Josephus' application of the prophecy to his patron Vespasian is understandable, but it is doubtful that his fellow Jews agreed! In any case, a large number of them were ready to follow Bar-Kochba in another disastrous revolt only sixty years later, when Rabbi Akiba proclaimed him Messiah.4

By the middle of the third century, however, a mood of resignation had set in among the Jews. The scholar Rab admitted that "all the predestined dates have passed.'' He explained the apparent delay of the Messiah by suggesting that his coming now awaits Israel's repentance and good works.5

So ancient sources, both Jewish and pagan, indicate that Old Testament prophecy foretold a time for the coming of the Messiah, which time expired in the first century AD. What prophetic passage or passages did they have in mind? These sources do not tell us, but from early times Christians have believed that Dan 9:24-27 gives us just such a prediction:6

(24) Seventy "sevens'' are decreed for your people and your holy city to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy.
(25) Know and understand this: From the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, 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.
(26) After the sixty-two "sevens,'' the Anointed One will be cut off and will have nothing. The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end will come like a flood: War will continue until the end, and desolations have been decreed.
(27) He will confirm a covenant with many for one "seven.'' In the middle of the "seven'' he will put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on a wing [of the temple] he will set up an abomination that causes desolation, until the end that is decreed is poured out on him. 

SIR ROBERT ANDERSON'S CALCULATION

There is considerable disagreement among Christians as to how the details of this passage were fulfilled in the coming of Jesus.7 Currently the most popular interpretation of this passage is that given by Sir Robert Anderson.8 He pinpoints the end of the sixty-ninth "seven,'' the coming of Messiah, as Sunday, April 6, AD 32, claiming this was the very day of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem.9

In brief, Anderson identifies the command "to restore and rebuild Jerusalem'' (Dan 9:25) with the permission given Nehemiah by the Persian king Artaxerxes I (Neh 2:6) to rebuild the city. Neh 2:1 tells us this occurred in the month Nisan of the king's 20th regnal year. Assuming that this command was given on the first day of the month, Anderson locates the starting point at March 15, 445 BC.

Since the Messiah is to be cut off after the first sixty-nine "sevens'' (7 + 62), we should be able to calculate when this would occur. Virtually all commentators, liberal or conservative, agree that the "sevens'' (often translated "weeks'') of the prediction are periods of seven years. If so, 483 years (69 x 7) after March 15, 445 BC carries us to March 15, AD 39, some years after Jesus' public ministry ended.

Therefore, Anderson assumes that a special kind of year is being used in the prophecy, which he calls a "prophetic year,'' consisting of only 360 days, rather than our solar years of just under 365 and 1/4 days.10 This assumption is based on Rev 11:23, where Anderson equates a period of 42 months with a period of 1260 days. These would be exactly equal if each month were 30 days long, and twelve such months would have 360 days. With this adjustment, Anderson converts from solar years to prophetic years and finds the 69th week ending at April 6, AD 32.

Unfortunately, Anderson's view faces some serious problems. First of all, Anderson arbitrarily chose the first day of the month Nisan as his starting point11 even though the Bible gives only the month, not the day. But if Anderson started even a week later, his 69th week would end after the crucifixion.

Second, Anderson's equation of the first of Nisan with March 15, 445 BC, is based on modern astronomical calculations. But it is not possible from such information to locate the beginning of these ancient months so exactly. The first day of the month depends not only on the location of sun, moon and stars in antiquity (which modern astronomers can calculate), but also on the (weather-dependent) observations of these bodies by the ancients from which they made their decisions regarding when to begin a new year or month. For this we need historical as well as astronomical information. There is thus some question about the location of Anderson's starting point.

Third, Anderson has used a 360-day "prophetic year'' to measure the length of the period. But the Old Testament connects the Passover festival, in the middle of Nisan, with the offering of first-ripe grain (Lev 23:6-14), so that the Jewish calendar must remain synchronized with the seasons. Both archaeology and the rabbinic literature indicate that this synchronism was accomplished by adding an extra lunar month every two or three years to the 354-day lunar "year,"12 so that in the long run the average length of the Jewish year just matches our solar year of about 365 and 1/4 days.

Nor does Rev 11:2-3 require a 360-day "prophetic year.'' This passage does not say that the Gentiles will tread the holy city under foot for forty-two months to the day. Using our modern months and years (virtually the same as used by Rome when Revelation was written), a 1260-day period is about 41 and 1/2 months, which might easily be rounded off to 42. Using the Hebrew lunar months averaging 29 and 1/2 days each, 1260 days are just over 42 and 1/2 months. Thus the 42 months and the 1260 days may be approximately rather than exactly equal. There is no reason to believe the Bible defines some sort of "prophetic years'' of special length.

There is also some question whether Jesus' crucifixion occurred in the year AD 32. Suggestions range from AD 29-33, with the consensus at present favoring AD 30.13 Even given the exact year, locating the date of Passover (and "Palm Sunday'' before it) involves the same problem of combining modern astronomical calculations and ancient calendar decisions mentioned above. There are thus serious problems identifying April 6, AD 32 with Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

Yet in spite of these objections, a good case can be made for a real fulfillment of this prophecy, even though the result is not quite so spectacular as Anderson's. In addition, this alternative suggestion, which we give here,14 arises much more naturally from the context of the passage.

THE CONTEXT OF THE SEVENTY WEEKS PROPHECY

To understand this prophecy of the seventy "weeks,'' let us look at its context. The prophecy itself, Dan 9:24-27, was given the prophet in answer to his prayer recorded in Dan 9:4-19. The occasion of the prayer is found in verses one and two of the same chapter. Daniel has just understood from "books'' that the desolation of Jerusalem would last only seventy years. The time has apparently nearly elapsed, so he prays that God's promise may now be fulfilled.

What are these "books''? Jeremiah's prophecy is obviously one of them, since Jeremiah is mentioned by name. But what other book or books might have been involved? The second book of Chronicles also mentions the seventy years' captivity (36:21), but since it goes on to describe Cyrus' decree allowing the Jews to return to Palestine, it had not yet been written when Daniel made his prayer. However, the writer of Chronicles does explain that the length of the captivity was seventy years to compensate for seventy sabbath-years in which the Jews had disobeyed God's command to let the land lie fallow.

The command instituting the sabbatical year is found in Ex 23:10-11 and Lev 25:3-7, 18-22. The Exodus passage reads: "For six years you are to sow your fields and harvest your crops, but during the seventh year let the land lie unplowed and unused."

In addition to these passages establishing the sabbatical year, Lev 26:32-35 predicts that exile would come upon Israel if they violated the sabbath-year regulation:

I will lay waste the land, so that your enemies who live there will be appalled. I will scatter you among the nations and will draw out my sword and pursue you. Your land will be laid waste, and your cities will lie in ruins. Then the land will enjoy its sabbaths all the time that it lies desolate and you are in the country of your enemies; then the land will rest and enjoy its sabbaths. All the time that it lies desolate, the land will have the rest it did not have during the sabbaths you lived in it. 

Perhaps, then, Exodus and Leviticus are the other books Daniel consulted. At least these provided all the materials necessary to reach the conclusions given in 2 Chronicles -- that the length of Israel's exile would correspond to seventy sabbath years they had neglected. Perhaps Daniel had been thinking about this God-ordained land-use cycle and the period of seventy such cycles during which Israel had disobeyed this ordinance. If so, the message which the angel brought him, "Seventy weeks have been decreed for your people...'' seems less obscure. Apparently Dan 9:24-27 uses the term "seven'' (or "week'') for the Old Testament sabbath year cycle.15

INTERPRETATION OF DANIEL 9:25-26

In our discussion, we shall consider in detail only the coming of the Messiah, that is, just the first sixty-nine weeks of Daniel's seventy. As far as the seventieth week is concerned, some see this as fulfilled immediately after the 69. Yet the passage itself seems to suggest a gap of indefinite length between the 69th and 70th weeks. Thus the destruction of the (temple) sanctuary mentioned in verse 26 is followed by a summary statement of war and desolation to the end. Then verse 27 speaks of a covenant which apparently introduces the 70th week, followed by an interruption of sacrifices, which seems to presuppose a rebuilt temple. In this view, the 70th week is still future and belongs to the class of yet-to-be fulfilled prophecies. In any case, this is beyond our concern here.

To calculate the time of the coming of the Messiah, we must consider the 25th and part of the 26th verses of Daniel chapter nine. The translations of the New American Standard Bible and the New International Version are similar,16 indicating one Messiah who comes at the end of 7 + 62 weeks. Having given the NIV above, we cite the NASB here:

So you are to know and discern that from the issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until Messiah the Prince there will be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks; it will be built again, with plaza and moat, even in times of distress. Then after the sixty-two weeks the Messiah will be cut off and have nothing... 

On the other hand, the Revised Standard Version is characteristic of a group of translations17 which have two "Messiahs'' or "anointed ones,'' one coming after 7 weeks and another cut off after an additional 62 weeks:

Know therefore and understand that from the going forth of the word to restore and build Jerusalem to the coming of an anointed one, a prince, there shall be seven weeks. Then for sixty-two weeks, it shall be built again with squares and moat, but in a troubled time. And after the sixty-two weeks, an anointed one shall be cut off, and shall have nothing... 

The translation of the RSV group follows the Masoretic punctuation of the Hebrew Bible, where a division in the sense is made between seven weeks and sixty-two weeks.18 But such punctuation may not date back before the ninth or tenth century AD.19 This rendition does, however, explain the occurrence of the peculiar combination 7 and 62 instead of their sum 69.

In spite of these facts, the parallelism of the passage favors the former alternative. In the Hebrew, the phrase rendered "restore and rebuild'' consists of the same pair of verbs as are translated "built again'' later in the same verse. Likewise the word "Messiah'' is repeated. This parallelism may be sketched as follows:

From the going forth of the word to build again Jerusalem
To Messiah the Prince shall be 7 weeks and 62 weeks 
Plaza and moat shall be built again... 
And after the 62 weeks Messiah shall be cut off. 

This parallelism suggests the passage is structured as a summary statement of two lines mentioning two events and two time periods, followed by two more lines which give details of each event in turn. Thus we would have one Messiah or anointed one, whose coming occurs after 69 weeks from the starting point. Perhaps the first seven weeks, if one may hazard a guess,20 involve the actual rebuilding of the city.

THE STARTING POINT

Various suggestions have been advanced for the proper starting point of the seventy weeks: (1) God's word at the fall of Jerusalem (586 BC; Jer 25:11-12; 29:10); (2) Cyrus' word in allowing the captives to return to Jerusalem (537 BC; 2 Chron 36:23; Ezra 1:2); (3) Artaxerxes' commission to Ezra (458 BC; Ezra 4:11-12, 23); (4) Artaxerxes' commission to Nehemiah (445 BC; Neh 2:1-6).21 Of these four, only the last actually issued in the rebuilding of the city wall. In thus making Jerusalem fortified, it became, in ancient parlance, once more a city and no longer merely a village.

We shall follow this fourth alternative, the same as that used by Anderson. Neh 2:1 dates this to the twentieth year of Artaxerxes I, namely 445 BC. Chronological studies since Anderson's time have not changed the year, though the date of the first of Nisan may be questioned.22

THE SABBATICAL YEAR

Now we must make the calculation forward from 445 BC. Unlike Anderson, however, we shall use the actual sabbatical cycles as units of measurement (rather than just adding 7 x 69 years to the starting point), since this fits better with the context.

Our first concern is to locate these cycles in antiquity if possible, as this will have some influence on the location of the endpoint. The best-known evidence for the location of sabbatical cycles in the period under consideration comes from the first book of Maccabees, a primary historical source for the Maccabean era. There we find that Jewish resistance to the Syrians was on one occasion weakened because their food supplies were low due to the observance of a sabbatical year (1 Macc 6:49, 53-54). A reference earlier in the chapter (6:20) indicates this occurred in the 150th year of the Seleucid era. According to Finegan,23 the 150th year would be either 163/2 or 162/1 BC, depending on whether the Macedonian or Babylonian calendar was in use.

The first of these alternatives fits the modern Jewish sabbatical cycle very well;24 the year 164/3 would have been a sabbath, so that famine conditions would have been most acute in the following year before crops could be harvested. This modern sabbatical cycle is apparently based on the work of Zuckermann in 1856.25

Recently, however, Ben Zion Wacholder has reviewed all the data on which the location of the sabbath cycle was determined, plus additional information not available when Zuckermann made his study.26 As a result, he finds the modern cycle in error by one year, and he chooses the second alternative allowed by 1 Maccabees. Consequently, 163/2 BC is the relevant sabbath year.27

We shall follow Wacholder's suggestion for the sabbatical cycles in making our calculation. It is possible that his cycle may be off by one year.

THE CALCULATION

Using Wacholder's list of sabbatical years,28 our calculation is very simple. Our starting point, the month Nisan in 445 BC, falls in the seven-year cycle 449-442 BC, of which the last year, from September 443 to September 442, is the seventh or sabbatical year.29 Using the usual Jewish inclusive method of counting, 449-442 is the first "week'' of Daniel's prophecy. The second is 442-435 BC, and so on, down to the transition from BC to AD, where we need to remember that 1 BC is immediately followed by AD 1, with no year zero in between (see figure 3).


Figure 3
449 BC
445
442
435
428
...
8 BC
1 BC
AD 7


-1st-

-2nd-
-3rd-




-64th-
-65th-

 

AD 7
14
21
28 30
35

-66th-
-67th-
-68th-
-69th-

Thus the 69th cycle following Artaxerxes' giving Nehemiah permission to rebuild Jerusalem is AD 28-35. Just the time that Jesus of Nazareth was "cut off" in Palestine while claiming to be God's Messiah! Some may be concerned that Daniel says "after the sixty-two weeks Messiah will be cut off," whereas by our calculation the crucifixion occurs on the 62nd week (the 69th, adding the first seven). But this, too, is a conventional Jewish idiom in which "after'' means "after the beginning of." Recall that Jesus' resurrection is alternatively spoken of as occurring "after three days" (Matt 27:63; Mark 8:31) and also "on the third day" (Matt 20:19; Mark 9:31). Even if we follow Zuckermann's scheme for the location of the sabbatical cycle instead of Wacholder's, the 69th cycle only shifts by one year, to AD 27-34, which still fits equally well. Likewise an error by a year or two on either end, for Artaxerxes 20th year or the date of the crucifixion, would not change the result. The prediction fits Jesus even allowing for the largest possible uncertainties in chronology.

CONCLUSIONS

There is real force in this prophecy of the seventy weeks. The use of sabbatical cycles is favored by the context. Inclusive counting is the regular Jewish practice. The location of the sabbatical cycles and beginning and end points could be in error by a year or two without changing the result.

The result itself is quite significant for the history of human thought. In pointing out Jesus of Nazareth at a distance of centuries, it deals a powerful blow against the belief that there is no real prediction in history (various forms of theological liberalism), and it condemns the rejection of Jesus as Messiah (Judaism and other non-Christian religions).

Of all the Messianic claimants that Judaism has ever had, the only one considered an outstanding historical figure and ethical teacher (even by many atheists) just happened to conduct his short public ministry and was "cut off" within the period AD 28-35!
 
 

REFERENCES

1. Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars, "The Deified Vespasian," 4.5.
2. Tacitus, Histories, 5.13.
3. Josephus, Jewish War, 6.5.4.
4. See, for example, Jack Finegan, Light from the Ancient Past, 2nd ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959), p 330.
5. Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 97b.
6. Some of the earliest Christian commentators: Clement of Alexandria (c 200 AD), Miscellanies, 1.21; Tertullian (c 200), An Answer to the Jews, 8; Origen (c 225), De Principiis, 4.1.5.
7. See several alternatives in J. Barton Payne, Encyclopedia of Biblical Prophecy (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), pp 383-389.
8. Sir Robert Anderson, The Coming Prince, 10th ed. (London: James Nisbet, 1915; reprint Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1957).
9. Ibid., pp v-vi.
10. Ibid., p 72.
11. Ibid., p 122.
12. Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964), sections 58-61.
13. Ibid., sections 454-468.
14. A revision of Robert C. Newman, ``Daniel's Seventy Weeks and the Old Testament Sabbath-Year Cycle," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 16 (1973): 229-234.
15. Incidentally, a remark by the rabbis also associates the coming of the Messiah with a seven-year period. Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 97a.
16. As also the King James Version, the Berkeley Version, the Amplified Bible, the Living Bible, the American Standard Version and the Jerusalem Bible.
17. Including the Jewish Publication Society's translation, the New English Bible, the Smith-Goodspeed and Moffatt translations, and the New American Bible.
18. See, for example, K. Elliger and W. Rudolph, Biblica Hebraica Stuttgartensia, editio minor (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1984), p 1404.
19. Ernst Wurtwein, The Text of the Old Testament (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1957), p 19.
20. As suggested in the Berkeley Version. Smith-Goodspeed and the New English Bible imply such an interpretation by translating verse 25b: "for sixty-two weeks it shall stay rebuilt/remain restored," but these translations of the verb shub find no warrant in the lexicons and merely show the problem of adopting the Masoretic punctuation.
21. See Payne, Encyclopedia of Biblical Prophecy, pp 383-386.
22. Finegan, Biblical Chronology, section 336.
23. Ibid., sections 194-195.
24. Encyclopaedia Judaica, 14:585.
25. Benedict Zuckermann, "Ueber Sabbatjahrcyclus und Jobelperiode," Jahresbericht des juedisch-theologischen Seminars Fraenckelscher Stiftung (Breslau, 1857).
26. Ben Zion Wacholder, "The Calendar of Sabbatical Cycles During the Second Temple and the Early Rabbinic Period," Hebrew Union College Annual 44 (1973): 153-196.
27. Ibid., pp 156, 163.
28. A complete table from 519 BC to AD 441 is given at the end of Wacholder's article, ibid., pp 185-196.
29. The sabbatical year seems to have started in the fall, Lev 25:8-10.
 


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