Daniel’s “Seventy Weeks” prophecy, as found in Daniel 9:24-27 is often regarded as the key text for understanding the prophecy perspective held by advocates of dispensationalism, as made popular by books and movies associated with Tim Lahaye’s Left Behind. Yet as we noted in a previous post in this series, this passage from Daniel plays actually a limited and somewhat obscure role in the New Testament, especially when compared to passages such as Psalm 110, which is quoted or alluded to some thirty times in the New Testament, as we sought to exposit earlier a few years ago on Veracity.
As I have been digging into the interpretation of Daniel 9:24-27, for nearly two years, inspired by the “astronomical” work of my friend, Ken Petzinger, I have been learning that the controversies surrounding these four verses of the Bible are fascinatingly complex. In this post, I want to lay aside some of the Bible interpretation issues aside, and focus instead on some questions of history:
So, where did the “dispensationalist” approach to Daniel 9:24-27 come from? Why is it that the prophecy of the “Seventy Weeks” has become so important in the minds of so many Christians, over the past hundred or so years?
Tradition or Novelty in Approaching Biblical Prophecy?
In this period of Advent, we await the coming of Jesus of Nazareth, as the Messiah, at Christmas. So, it is worth thinking about how the different prophecies of the Old Testament announce the coming of this Messiah, many centuries in advance.
Daniel 9:24-27 is one of the more difficult, if not THE most difficult prophecy to understand, that points toward the coming Messiah. Since the period following the earliest years of the church, there have been diverse attempts to figure out exactly how Daniel’s “Seventy Weeks” tie in with Jesus (see the previous post in this blog series). But a dispensationalist approach, which is probably the most well-known interpretation of Daniel 9:24-27, is actually fairly unique and recent in the discussion.
Now, some may object to this characterization of so-called “dispensationalism.” Such critics have a valid point to make, but I can only briefly address this here.
In fairness, it should be noted that there are various precursors to dispensationalism, such as from the early third century with Julius Africanus (see his chronology described under “Fragment 16: On the Seventy Weeks of Daniel,” with his 360-day year calculations), or with another early church father, Hippolytus, who speculated on the existence of a gap between the 69th and 70th week, with the last week just before the Second Coming of Christ.
Nevertheless, the familiar, contemporary dispensationalist reading of Daniel 9’s “Seventy Weeks” is made up of bits and pieces of insights from the early church fathers, picking up one idea from one early church teacher here and another idea there from another early church father. No one father of the early church would have recognized the Left Behind theology of the End Times as being clear or obvious. The major contribution of dispensationalism for nearly the past one to two hundred years has been to weave all of these various insights together into a cohesive, albeit complicated, whole. It is in this sense that the “gap” theory championed by the most well-known prophecy teachers today is relatively new, as compared to more traditional views. (For more detail on the views of the early church fathers of Daniel 9, you can consult this PDF essay by J.Paul Tanner).
How Did This Dispensationalist Approach to Daniel 9 Develop?
Dispensationalism as a phenomenon in the evangelical church began in the early to mid 19th century, having its greatest influence promoted by the Plymouth Brethren movement in England. One of the main features of dispensationalism has been an emphasis on making a distinction between national Israel and the church, within the plans and purposes of God, particularly as they apply to prophetically future events. Sir Robert Anderson (1841-1918) was a member of the Plymouth Brethren movement, and he was the first scholar to expound the approach to Daniel’s “seventy weeks,” as elucidated by my friend, Ken Petzinger (see the first and the second posts in this blog series for details). Robert Anderson’s classic published in 1894, The Coming Prince, sets out the argument in great detail, with all of the math, and it remains the standard work on this subject. However, later expositors, following Dallas Seminary’s Harold Hoehner in 1978, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ, make some valuable corrections. Hoehner’s work is of extreme value, in that it makes a powerfully influential case to demonstrate that Jesus was crucified on Friday, April 3, A.D. 33, as opposed to other competing dates.
How then do the dating methods suggested by Sir Robert Anderson and Harold Hoehner compare with more traditional dating methods? Well, the most common, traditional method (though surely not the only one) is summarized by the late pastor emeritus of our church, Dick Woodward, in his Mini Bible College series.
This prophecy is to be dated from the time Cyrus issued the decree that the people could return to rebuild Jerusalem. There were three such returns, but the principal one was in 457 B.C. If you take the sixty-two weeks plus seven, and multiply that by seven, you get 483 years. Move forward in history that many years from 457 B. C. and you come to the year 26 A. D., which scholars tell us was the year the Messiah began His public ministry. There was to be a week of years, (or seven years), following that, and in the middle of that week of years the Holy One was going to be cut off. The scholars believe that exactly three and one half years from 26 A. D. was when Jesus Christ was crucified (Woodward, Mini Bible College, Booklet #8, Isaiah-Daniel, page 40).
This method places the crucifixion of Jesus around the year 30 A.D. (or possibly 31 A.D.), in the middle of the final 70th week. Therefore, the end of the 70th week completed comes three and a half years later, when the church began to proclaim the Gospel to the Gentile nations. If this more-traditional approach is indeed correct, it appears to me to be amazingly accurate in an of itself!
Sir Robert Anderson’s newer method, in contrast, as summarized in my friend Ken’s paper and aided by an analysis of lunar data, selects a different starting date from the one Dick Woodward uses, namely the decree given by the Persian king Artaxerxes to Nehemiah in Nehemiah 2:1-6, in 444 B.C.. However, this method uses a different dating technique of “prophetic years,” made up of 360 days each, to count the 483 “years,” or 69 of Daniel’s 70 weeks, to get us to 33 A.D., a different possible year for Jesus’ crucifixion.
What then happens to this seventieth week? According to Anderson’s calculations, this would require a “gap” between the 69th and the 70th week of an undetermined period, where the 70th week would effectively “restart” the prophetic clock sometime in the future, ahead of our own present day. When this prophetic clock restarts, God will bring to completion his covenant plan to restore the Jewish people as a nation, in their own Promised Land. Once all of the pieces are put together, this dispensationalist approach gives a whole new way of seeing how God’s prophecy has, and will be, fulfilled.
Why Has a Dispensationalist Approach to Daniel 9 Been So Influential in Modern Times?
In contrast, for many believers that I know, more traditional, non-dispensationalist views of Daniel 9 are relatively unknown and less understood. This is because many Christians today, in general, are woefully uninformed about the history of the church.
Nevertheless, Sir Robert Anderson’s, 19th-century basic method of calculations for Daniel 9:24-27, with respect to the date of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, is considered by many today to be a decisive proof in favor of Bible prophecy. From certain angles, it does indeed look like a real humzinger! It offers to pinpoint, with impressive accuracy, the death of Jesus, as a confirmation of the thesis that a lunar eclipse accompanied the crucifixion (see Additional Resources below). But it also lays out a captivating template for a futurist interpretation of the Book of Revelation. Without a doubt, God has surely used this dispensationalist approach to Daniel 9, along with a presentation of the Gospel, to bring others to Christ.
Why has it been so influential? The technical precision that the newer dating method offers has great appeal. But I would suggest another factor that is far greater in importance. It all comes down to the role of ethnic Israel in the future of Bible prophecy. The spectacular events within the past century, of the Jewish people regaining their ancient homeland in the Middle East, has generated a level of interest in the future of national Israel that was unknown in previous eras. After the devastation of the Nazi Holocaust of European Jews, many would say that the establishment of the nation-state of Israel in 1948 was a fulfillment, or at least, it points to some future fulfillment, of God’s purposes for national Israel.
By weaving in the story of a future, ethnic Israel into Daniel 9’s prophecy concerning the “Seventy Weeks,” a dispensationalist interpretation has therefore catapulted this passage of the Bible to the front of the minds of many Christians…. at least until most recently.
But Will a Dispensationalist Interpretation of Daniel 9 Remain Influential in the Coming Years?
However, what was once current events is now receding into the past, particularly among young people growing up in our churches today. So, just as the more traditional views of Daniel 9 suffered the fate of a church that has largely grown unaware of her history, it is possible that such a similar fate awaits the status of a dispensationalist approach to Daniel 9.
Anne Graham Lotz, a daughter of evangelist Billy Graham, recently remarked that she believes that the coming of the Lord, along with the restoration of national Israel, will happen in her lifetime, and that the message of Daniel plays a major role in her thinking. This still might be the case. Jesus could come back at any time. But is she pushing her “Daniel 9” inspired thinking a bit too much? Like many in Lotz’ generation, a dispensationalist approach to Daniel 9 is the most persuasive in solving the conundrum of the “Seventy Weeks.”
However, with every passing year, the prospect of ethnic Israel realizing the full Biblical boundaries of the Promised Land as theirs, apart from supernatural intervention, becomes less certain for some, and more confusing for others.
The current generation of older people, who have a living memory of the Nazi Holocaust, are dying off, and with that the remarkable events of the founding of Israel in 1948 retreat back in the collective mind of the church into history. The millennial generation of young people today have no recollection of the “Six Day War” of 1967, whereby Israel regained access to the “Wailing Wall” by the old Temple of Jerusalem. Instead, young people today only know of the relentless back and forth struggle between the Israeli state and her Arab neighbors. What was once seen as “breaking news,” leading to a confident, future hope for national Israel, has been now reduced to an irreconcilable stalemate, with no clear future in view.
Just as the enthusiasm over ethnic Israel’s future was invigorated by the events of the 20th century, it is reasonable to conclude that the current 21st century stalemate in the Middle East has raised some more questions as to how we are to understand Biblical prophecy, particularly with difficult texts like Daniel 9’s “Seventy Weeks.”
I have some additional food for thought below, but in the next post, I hope to draw some conclusions as to how we should treat this mysterious prophecy in Daniel 9.
Some more food thought on Daniel 9:
- So, what can be said briefly about the lunar eclipse connection with Jesus’ crucifixion, and the “Seventy Weeks” of Daniel 9? In Acts 2:15-21, Peter quotes from the prophet Joel, that the moon would turn to “blood.” Many commentators suggest that this prophecy was fulfilled by a lunar eclipse on the day of Jesus’ crucifixion. Astronomy data demonstrates that there was a lunar eclipse on April 3, 33 A.D. This also ties into the exact week of Jesus’ crucifixion, using the dispensationalist method of calculating the end of the 69th week of Daniel 9’s “Seventy Weeks,” which is extremely impressive. However, there are scholars who do not find the evidence for a lunar eclipse in 33 A.D. to be a compelling explanation for Joel’s prophecy (I take issue with some of the arguments made by this essay at AnswersInGenesis, but the essay gives a flavor for why the lunar eclipse thesis is not accepted by everyone).
- Where does one start in trying to get a handle on Daniel’s “Seventy Weeks?” I would recommend finding a good study Bible, that is not committed to following one particular view. To try to simplify things (an almost impossible task), I took the following snapshot from my ESV Study Bible (highly recommended!!) that lays out some of the major viewpoints in a very concise diagram, including the Maccabean view (adopted mainly by critical scholars), the Dispensationalist/Futurist view (what Ken Petzinger’s work is based on), the Preterist view (all of the “seventy weeks” prophetic elements have already been fulfilled), and the Covenantal/Futurist view (the dominant view throughout church history until the rise of Dispensationalism in the 19th century). Note the different start and stopping times on the date calculations, along with the indications of any “gaps” within the prophetic timetable (click on the image to enlarge so that you can read it!!):
- How wide is the range of possible interpretations of Daniel 9’s “Seventy Weeks?” As it turns out, the possibilities as proposed by various commentators over the years is very broad. Dr. Michael Heiser is a Bible scholar with Logos Bible software, the world’s best known maker of computerized Bible software. Dr. Heiser has been featured here before on Veracity, and he is author of a popular book, Supernatural, that demonstrates that contrary to secular belief, there really is a supernatural, unseen world, as described in the Bible. For our purposes here, Dr. Heiser makes the argument that the meaning of Daniel 9’s “Seventy Weeks” is far from being self-evident. Instead, the meaning is deliberately cryptic. As I will argue in the next (and last) post in this series, Heiser is basically correct. I am not as bleak about Daniel 9 as Dr. Heiser is (he is not a fan of any theological system, whether it be “dispensational,” “reformed,” or whatever), but if you take the time to view the following presentation, you might realize that the study of the End Times is vastly more complicated than what many popular Bible prophecy teachers try to tell you. The presentation is the third lecture in a series that Dr. Heiser did at his church on “End Times Beliefs.” If you need a refresher, or you simply want to get up to speed on on various Christian “End Times Beliefs,” such as the “Rapture,” or how different Christians interpret the Book of Revelation, you might want to start here before viewing Dr. Heiser’s presentation.