Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Quick Notes on Daniel's 70 Weeks

William Birch has been doing a series on eschatology over on his blog and I typically disagree with almost everything Birch writes… :-D

This time, however, I’ve found his posts to be quite useful for sparking thought and they also provide a good bit of relevant background data, and I don’t feel the need to try to try to refute the few areas we disagree on.

Eschatology is a very divisive thing in modern Christiandom, and sadly so. I say “sadly so” because in my opinion it’s about the least important systematized Christian doctrine. The broad outline is not trivial, of course—but then every view holds the broad picture to be the same: in the end, Jesus wins. I’m talking about the particulars: whether someone is premillennial, postmillennial, or Biblically sound amillennial. Add on the fact that we have people who are pre-, mid-, or post-tribulation too. Then there’s the Preterist movement, which consists of full preterism, partial-preterism, and historic preterism, and probably a few other adjectives too.

One thing about eschatology is clear, and that’s that eschatology isn’t very clear at all. The proof of that is found not only in the wide variety of doctrinal positions, but also in the fact that there don’t seem to be much “connective tissue” between the various sub-levels of positions. True, there are general trends. For instance, preterism doesn’t seem to be all that popular amongst dispensational circles (mostly due to the fact that dispensationals tend to be premillennial, whereas preterists tend to be a- or postmillennial). However, it’s still not unheard of to have a dispensational preterist.

In fact, if we randomly assigned various labels from eschatology, I doubt most people would say, “Wait a minute, those views don’t go together.” In other words, someone could say they’re a post-trib amillinial dispensationalist and another could say he’s a pre-trib covenantal historical premillinialist and none of us will cry out that it's a contradiction. On the other hand, have someone say, “As a Calvinist, I hold to Libertarian Free Will” and you’re going to see sparks fly.

As I said, this shows me that Biblical teaching on eschatology is not very clear at all. Now since I believe in the perspicuity of Scripture, someone might ask me why that wouldn’t cause tension in my view. Well, I believe that the Bible is clear on the subjects that it needs to be clear on—the important issues. And in the issues where the Bible is less clear, then it is not as vital that we know what’s put forth.

Now that is not to say that it’s pointless, or that somehow eschatological texts are somehow “less Scripture.” But God Himself prioritizes within Scripture, holding some things to be more important for us to know than others. Indeed, in the end, He withholds certain things from us, saying that the secret things belong to Him alone.

So when it comes to eschatology, I have no qualms whatsoever at saying, “I have no confidence at all in my understanding of this particular passage.” That said, it doesn’t hurt to hash things out, to think about Scripture amongst fellow believers, and try to gain some further understanding. So long as we don’t become sola eschatologists then we’re fine.

With that in mind, I want to share the comments (typos and all) that I left on William’s post about the 70 weeks of Daniel:
Part of the problem with the numbers involved is the fact that Hebrew numerology was just plain weird (as far as modern Americans are concerned). For example, look at how Matthew displayed the geneology of Jesus so that there would be 14 generations from Abraham to David, 14 from David to Babylon, and 14 from Babylon to Christ.

BTW, if we take 490 (as 70 x 7) and divide by 14, we get a generation of 35 years. That seems almost twice as long as a "typical" generation, especially when you consider that under the Roman empire the average life expectency was only around 30 (for instance, one site claims: "On average, the life expectancy at birth of women was between 20 and 30 years and that of men a bit higher").

So, with that in mind, it's quite plausible that the 70 weeks (or "weeks of years") in Daniel may have little to nothing to actually do with length of time, and a whole lot more to do with some Hebrew numerological concepts.

Further, our modern concept of time is very foreign to the ANE mindset. For one thing, today we measure things to fractions of a second, and we've structured our lives on strictly following a rigid clock; but back then, there were no clocks. Best you got was a sundial, or maybe a water-drip or hourglass type of a thing. But our fascination with time and getting things exact wasn't something shared by shepherds. This means that there can be an aweful lot of "rounding" going on, and it wouldn't have concerned anyone.

Combining numerological ideas with this rounding "error rate" (for lack of a better term) has some interesting applications. For us today, we usually round to the nearest 100, 500, or 1000 when speaking of years. So we say Christ came 2000 years ago, even though it's probably about 2014-2016 by now. Or we say that the Reformation started 500 years ago. Etc. These numbers are the kind we gravitate toward.

But consider the case of 500. If you were predisposed to considering multiples of 7 to be "holy", it might very well be that you'd round 500 to 490, so it would by 70 x 7. So something happening 500 years from now, perhaps, you'd say was happening in 70 times 7 years. This isn't a violation or an error anymore than us saying Christ came 2000 years ago is an error. It's a rounding principal.

For reasons such as these, I don't take the numbers in Daniel as requiring literalistic interpretations. That said, I do find it interesting that you can get a count that gets fairly close to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD; but I just don't have any confidence in any of those interpretations in the end.

(Again, this is all my opinion and I don't begrudge anyone's disagreement.)

By the way, William, one other thing that may be of interest to you in your studies here is the use of Hebrew codes. By this I don't mean the nonsense that was profligated by "The Bible Code" a decade ago. Instead, I mean such things as the "atbash" (i.e., "Sheshach" standing for "Babylon"). This shows that the Hebrews did have a rudimentary (for our times) system of encryption. And it's also important to remember that Daniel was in the Babylonian courts (albeit as a POW, but he was still trained as a wise man) and so could have been familiar with Babylonian encryption techniques too. I haven't had time myself to delve into any of that in detail, but depending on how much work you want to do it's a possible path to search too. :-)
One potential objection that I want to address would be the charge that if we say that we cannot come to a full understanding of the 70 weeks in Daniel, then it was pointless for God to inspire that passage. Let us suppose that it is impossible for us to ever learn what was meant there, not just in practice but in theory too. Does that make the passage pointless to us now?

I argue that it does not render the passage pointless for at least two reasons. First, we know that the passage meant something to Daniel. When the passage was penned, it had immediate significance to that audience. Even if we are unable to discern what that meaning is, it tells us that God worked through Daniel for His purposes. And secondly, it shows us that God is proactive and responds to His people’s prayers. He doesn’t abandon them in captivity in a foreign country. He is there, with them. Both of these concepts are demonstrated, even if full interpretation is impossible. And I don’t believe it is impossible in theory, even if perhaps in practice we will never figure it out this side of heaven.


  1. As Isaac Newton noted a long time ago, the point of prophecy is not so much to show us the future, but for the prediction to be recognizable after the fact. And that bespeaks the wisdom and power of God.

    There are so many variables in the eventuation of a prediction that it's nearly impossible to tell, in advance of the fact, how it will be fulfilled–whereas it's easy to discern the fulfillment in retrospect, for the process of fulfillment automatically eliminates all of the alternative routes to that particular outcome.

  2. "'s easy to discern the fulfillment in retrospect"


    Jesus said, in roughly 30 AD, that not one stone of the temple would remain on top of the other; and that the women weeping for Him, as he went to Calvary, should weep for themselves, for before the generation passed away, Jerusalem would be destroyed. 40 years later it all came true, roughly, in 70 AD.

    Powerful truth in the Bible, that you hear little preaching on, but what a truth.

    Nice thought s on Daniel's 70 weeks.

  3. There is a wealth of detail to the prophecies and an agreement between prophetic authors that cannot be ignored. But the title of John's final work is telling: The Revelation of Jesus Christ. The ESV study notes hold that this indicates Christ as the divine author. Not that he's not, and I could be wrong, but I believe that the intent is to reveal Christ to us in the prophecy.

    I have considered that God has fixed his revelation to us in the progression of history. The religious and philosophical writings of men tend to be baseless musings, but God has been active with his people. So we have the Patriarchs, the Law, the numbers of men and the admonitions of Moses intermingled with historical events. The Psalms of David inform our deepest praise and the prophesies of Christ were forged in the historic sins of Israel. There is no reason for Christ to grow up to be killed for us - He could have simply submitted to death in Bethlehem - except that he had prophesies to fulfill and certain revelation of himself to make that we might benefit from the knowledge of him.

    But the Revelation of Christ goes beyond mere information. If it doesn't inform our yearnings for Christ then it is in vain. I was humbled by my 14-year-old son last week. He read the Left Behind series and I took the opportunity to teach him many of the other eschatological views for his consideration. I'm currently leaning toward post-trib, but I'm also smart enough to not be very certain about it. Sometimes the best theological answer is, "I don't know." Such an answer helps us focus on what is indeed made certain to us.

    Anyway, my son had returned from a training camp for teaching Bible to children in week-long neighborhood clubs, which he is doing for several weeks this summer. At the camp he got into an eschatological discussion with someone who was adamantly certain that we could know when Christ would return. He told me that he hoped that it wouldn't be like it was portrayed in the Left Behind series. He said that if there was a tribulation, it would be a difficult time, but it would be a great time to proclaim the gospel and he wanted a shot at it.

    Oh, that we would have such a heart as to desire to be a part of the revelation of Christ for our fellow sinners.

  4. I understand your point on rounding in ancient times - but let's not forget that God set very specific dates for the Israelites to follow. Their calendar is hardly approximate.

    And for that matter, neither was the Law or the historical writings of the Kings.

    And there were those crazies on the fringe prior to 1948 that claimed Israel had to be back in the land in order for numerous passages to come to pass. I don't think they were being approximate :)

  5. Chris,

    It's interesting that you mention the Hebrew calendar. It should be noted that the Hebrew calendar didn't have 365.25 days in a year (the 0.25 comes from our leap year). From what I've read, it had 360 days per year--again, for numerological purposes. 360 = 30 x 12, and 12 was another important number to the Hebrews.

    5 days per year may not sound like much, but what it means is that in a mere 6 years, the summer solstice will be in a completely different month on the Hebrew calendar than it was previously. Further, supposing we're looking for exactly 490 years, 490 Hebrew years are 2572.5 days shorter than 490 solar years. In other words, 490 Hebrew years are equivlanet to 482.96 solar years, a difference of just a tad bit more than 7 years.

    Now you said of things being "approximate":
    And for that matter, neither was the Law or the historical writings of the Kings.

    Well, let's think about that for a moment. I already mentioned about how Matthew structured his geneologies to have 14 generations each between Abraham and David, David and Babylon, and Babylon and Christ. This means that from David to Christ, in Matthew, takes 28 generations (14 + 14), whereas by my count Luke shows in his geneology 42 generations between David and Christ. Incidently, David lived about a thousand years before Christ. 42 generations in 1,000 years is a generation of 23.8 years, which is reasonable. If only 28 generations passed, on the other hand, the generation would be 35.7 years which would be too long between generations.

    Now the point is that Matthew and Luke both had access to the historical records, and yet Matthew seems to have structured his geneology on numerological principals instead of on actual father/son relationships. And structuring a geneology in that manner doesn't violate Jewish principals of what a geneology was.

    So it looks to me that the Jews were pretty much like we are today. That is, they could be precise when they wanted to be, but considered it no big deal to approximate data too.

    I'll also note that we see some rounding in figures such as troop strength, numbers killed in battle, etc. throughout Kings & Chronicles.

    In any case, my point isn't that it's proven that Daniel's numbers are approximations, but rather that they could be so, and it would not be an argument against inerrancy, etc. Furthermore, the fact that they could be approximations, and the fact that it is so difficult to get them to line up exactly to certain historical events, indicates to me that we shouldn't try to be overly dogmatic here.

  6. I would like to recommend the book, God's Elect and the Great Tribulation: : An Interpretation of Matthew 24:1-31 and Daniel 9 by Charles Cooper:

    He argues that the fundamental error in the analysis of the 70 weeks is assuming there is only one calendar involved. There is more than one calendar.

    Cooper is premillennial but departs from the traditional premil view that the 69th week ended with Christ's entry into Jerusalem. Instead, he argues that the 69th week ended with Titus in AD70.

    Further, Cooper cogently argues that the 70 week's Danielic text is not even a messianic text in the first place.

  7. Peter:

    I think we're agreed in that there are items we just can't be dogmatic about - perhaps Daniel's 70 weeks is one of them... perhaps not.

    While the Bible is approximate at times it is often very precise, much like the Hebrew Calendar which indeed is on a 360 day year. I don't think its simply a matter of numerological purposes, but that the importance of such numerical patterns were rather based on the fact that God designed it that way.

    And I don't think it's that the Israelites weren't advanced enough to figure out they were off by 5.25 days a year (I'm certainly not suggesting you are one that thinks this way, either). I'm more apt to figure something has happened over time that we've had to make such incredible adjustments much like most civilizations changing their calendars around the 8th century BC.

    Luke and Matthews genealogies don't need to match up. One is biological and the other is royal. Matthew may have taken some liberties as we would see it but for great reason. There were 4 individuals left out (at least that we know of). I approach it as though there must be a reason. I just don't think that Matthew was being arbitrary in order to arrive at particular numbers and I won't diminish his motives with the numbers either. I also have to take into account that 'generations' is used in a number of instances in the NT and that it doesn't have to amount to a particular number of years or period of time.

    My overall point is that there is ultimately reason for all of it. Maybe I'm misunderstanding your use of approximate as though it's somehow arbitrary and you don't mean that at all...

  8. Alan said:
    Cooper is premillennial but departs from the traditional premil view that the 69th week ended with Christ's entry into Jerusalem. Instead, he argues that the 69th week ended with Titus in AD70.

    I would lean toward the 69th week ending with Titus in 70 AD too. My reasoning is this:

    Jesus refers to the "abomination of desolation" in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21. In Matthew, He specifically names Daniel too (in the others, it's a generic "as it's written" sort of statement). Daniel says "And on the wing of abominations shall come one who makes desolate" and puts this in the midst of the 69th week.

    So what Jesus speaks of is the same thing that Daniel speaks of. Now, what's important is that what Jesus speaks of, and that is the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. In all three books, it starts with Jesus declaring the temple will be destroyed. The disciples then ask when it will be. Jesus response includes the reference to Daniel's 69th week. And after all that's said, he finishes each time with "This generation will not pass away before these things occur."

    So I would agree based on that reasoning that Jesus is equating the 69th week of Daniel with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, *not* His entrance into the temple.

    As to what else is meant by the passage, well, that seems far more murky to me.

  9. I would also like to note that in Cooper's book he dispels a deep-seated assumption when interpreters approach the Olivet Discourse. Often it is assumed that Luke and Matthew have the same purpose and thus what happens is Matthew's futurist purpose is collapsed into Luke's preterist purpose. We need to allow both Matthew and Luke to speak for themselves.

    I believe that Matthew has an absolute futurist outlook--that is, he has a much larger scope than Luke does, especially with his emphasis on the parousia.

    At any rate, prewrath premills, in my opinion, do much more better exegetical work than pretrib premills. That is why I like to point people to prewrath exegesis, since so much of pretrib, classical dispy exegesis is surface level.

    Take a look at Cooper's argumentation. You may not agree with it, but I can assure you it will challenge you and you will appreciate this branch of premill exegesis.

  10. Chris,

    Actually, I think that the correction for being off by 5 days might very well be part of the reason why 7 became an important numerological number. To demonstrate, let's suppose that we're on a calendar with every month having exactly 30 days and let's ignore leap-year in the solar calendar for a moment. If we see what happens to the New Year, we'd have these days being the solar new year:

    1 year: Jan 1
    2 year: Jan 6
    3 year: Jan 11
    4 year: Jan 16
    5 year: Jan 21
    6 year: Jan 26
    7 year: Feb 1

    As you can see, by the 7th year the calendar is off by exactly 1 month at this point (when we add in leap year, we'd really be on Feb 2 by this point, but in the short term it's not a huge problem being off by 1 day if we ignore leap year).

    Now I haven't studied this particular point in vast detail as per the Hebrew calendar, but I would imagine that you're correct in saying: "And I don't think it's that the Israelites weren't advanced enough to figure out they were off by 5.25 days a year."

    However, I don't conclude that there's necessarily a difference in time so much as that you could correct all this with a "leap month." There were leap months in ancient calendars, so I assume the Hebrew calendar did the same thing (but admit I haven't looked into it yet).

    In any case, you could see how having a leap month every 7th year would make 7 an intriguing number for numerological purposes. And it comes about naturally just from a 360 day year.

    Anyway, I do agree that Matthew had a reason for his geneology, and that God's got reasons for all these things too. I'm not suggesting that any rounding or approximations are in any sense "arbitrary" but rather that they are just the natural things that we all do in every day conversation.

  11. Peter -

    That leap month is a fascinating one. I've seen it outlined a few different ways. Very interesting stuff!

    Alan -

    you wrote:
    "Often it is assumed that Luke and Matthew have the same purpose and thus what happens is Matthew's futurist purpose is collapsed into Luke's preterist purpose. We need to allow both Matthew and Luke to speak for themselves. "

    Very well said. I think we're being a bit sloppy when we toss them together as being one in the same.

    I tend to go back and forth between pre/mid(or pre-wrath). I've always felt the arguments are great on both sides.