Daniel 9:24–27 has nothing to do with the Messiah.
There is no question that Christian versions translating the Hebrew word mashiach as “the Messiah” in this passage are reading something into the text. However, what they are reading into the text is correct, since the prophecy is clearly about the work of the Messiah.
Two things are immediately apparent in this short section of the Book of Daniel: First, these four verses are of great importance, serving as the climax to the angelic revelation concerning God’s plan for Jerusalem and the Jewish people;162 second, they are fraught with interpretive difficulties, as noted by Abraham Ibn Ezra, who pointed to the chronological questions (since the text describes events that will take place over a period of seventy sevens of years) as well as to questions concerning the meaning of individual words (since several key verbs can be interpreted in very different ways and there are textual variations in the Masoretic manuscripts that affect the overall meaning of the passage). It is clear, then, that special attention should be given to the interpretation of these verses, and it is not surprising that both Jewish and Christian translations and commentaries have offered many different solutions to the problems presented in Daniel 9:24–27. It is also not surprising that anti-missionaries have strongly rejected traditional Christian translations of these verses, since believers in Jesus have often pointed to them as containing one of the most important Messianic prophetic announcements in the Tanakh.
Anti-missionary author Gerald Sigal attacks the Christian interpretation of this passage, claiming that the King James Version here “contains the grossest errors, which are, in whole or in part, duplicated by other Christian versions of the Bible.” He observes that “the King James Version puts a definite article before ‘Messiah the Prince’ (9:25),” whereas “the original Hebrew text does not read ‘the Messiah the Prince,’ but, having no article, it is to be rendered ‘a mashiach [‘anointed one,’ ‘messiah’], a prince,’ i.e., Cyrus (Isaiah 45:1, 13; Ezra 1:1–2).” He also claims that “the word mashiach is nowhere used in the Jewish Scriptures as a proper name, but as a title of authority of a king or a high priest. Therefore, a correct rendering of the original Hebrew should be: ‘an anointed one, a prince.’ ” (see <http://www.jewsforjudaism.org/j4j-2000/index.htm>)
What then does the text mean, and how should it be translated? And are the Christian translations guilty of “the grossest errors”? Let’s look at the larger context of this passage in order to see just how important this prophetic revelation really is. We can then answer the specific questions that have been raised.
Daniel 9 begins with these words:
In the first year of Darius son of Xerxes (a Mede by descent), who was made ruler over the Babylonian kingdom—in the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, understood from the Scriptures, according to the word of the Lord given to Jeremiah the prophet, that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years. So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes.
This is the background: Daniel, one of the godliest men spoken of in the Scriptures, was as a young man among the first exiles brought to Babylon, almost twenty years before the Temple was destroyed in 586 B.C.E. He was now an old man, having spent almost all of his life in exile, and he had read in the Book of Jeremiah that Judah’s exile was to last for seventy years (Jeremiah 29). The seventy years were almost completed, at least beginning with the time of Daniel’s own exile in 604 B.C.E. So he gave himself to brokenhearted prayer and fasting, pleading with God to have mercy on his scattered people and to restore them to their homeland.
The verses that follow in Daniel 9 (vv. 4–19) contain one of the deepest penitential prayers in the entire Bible. I would encourage you to stop for a moment and read Daniel’s prayer and confession aloud, and as you read, take note of the larger picture: Israel had sinned so grievously against God that he had judged his people with such severity that the Temple was destroyed and the people were exiled from their land. This was a public tragedy that far exceeds anything we in our contemporary society can relate to on a national level, a horrific series of events that brought extraordinary shame and guilt.163 That’s why Daniel cried out with such contrition and pain: He was praying for the very destiny of his people. He was praying that God would bring full restoration—both to the Temple and to the people—with everything in his prayer focused on Jerusalem. (Note that he describes his confession in 9:20 as “confessing my sin and the sin of my people Israel and making my request to the Lord my God for his holy hill”—meaning the Temple mount in Jerusalem.)
It was during this time of prayer and fasting that the angel Gabriel appeared to him—this was serious business, to say the least—and said:
Daniel, I have now come to give you insight and understanding. As soon as you began to pray, an answer was given, which I have come to tell you, for you are highly esteemed. Therefore, consider the message and understand the vision:
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.
It is important that we grasp the full significance of this event. Daniel was so esteemed by heaven that God sent the mighty angel Gabriel (see Dan. 8:15–27) on a personal visit to Daniel, giving him one of the most significant revelations in the Scriptures. We can paraphrase this critically important message as follows: “Daniel, you are praying about a period of seventy years and are yearning to see the return of your people to the land and the restoration of the Temple. But I will go far beyond your request and speak to you about a period of seventy sevens of years (490 years), a period in which final atonement will be made, a period of even greater importance for the Temple and the people. I will speak to you about the Messianic era!”165
To give us a traditional Jewish perspective on the passage as a whole, let’s listen now to Rashi’s opening comments on this passage. As rendered by A. J. Rosenberg, the preeminent translator of Rashi today, Rashi explains as follows:
Seventy weeks [of years] have been decreed on Jerusalem from the day of the first destruction in the days of Zedekiah until it will be [destroyed] the second time. to terminate the transgression and to end sin so that Israel should receive their complete retribution in the exile of Titus and his subjugation, in order that their transgressions should terminate, their sins should end, and their iniquities should be expiated, in order to bring upon them eternal righteousness and to anoint upon them (sic) the Holy of Holies: the Ark, the altars, and the holy vessels, which they will bring to them through the king Messiah. The number of seven weeks is four hundred and ninety years. The Babylonian exile was seventy [years] and the Second Temple stood four hundred and twenty [years].166
Note carefully Rashi’s comments that this prophecy involves a time of restoration brought about “through the king Messiah,” indicating that it is not only Christians who see clear Messianic overtones in this prophecy. The difference, however, is that Christians have a clear basis for their Messianic interpretation of Daniel 9:24–27, namely, that the Messiah died for the sins of the world during the very times specified by Daniel, whereas Rashi simply appends a reference to the Messiah to the end of the passage, without explanation.167 This becomes more clear when we focus on Rashi’s comments to Daniel 9:26:
26 And after those weeks. the anointed one will be cut off Agrippa, the king of Judea, who was ruling at the time of the destruction, will be slain. and he will be no more Heb. we’en lo and he will not have. The meaning is that he will not be. the anointed one Heb. mashiah This is purely an expression of a prince and a dignitary. and the city and the Sanctuary lit. and the city and the Holy. and the people of the coming monarch will destroy [The monarch who will come] upon them. That is Titus and his armies. and his end will come about by inundation And his end will be damnation and destruction, for He will inundate the power of his kingdom through the Messiah, and until the end of the wars of Gog the city will exist. cut off into desolation a destruction of desolation.
Let’s look carefully at some of Rashi’s comments here. First, he identifies “the anointed one” as the Judean King Agrippa, “who was ruling at the time of the destruction” of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., which was approximately forty years after Yeshua’s death. Second, he interprets the destruction of the city and the sanctuary as pointing to that same event under Titus the Roman general. As translated by Jewish historian Heinrich W. Guggenheimer, “the power of his reign [i.e., Titus] will be blown away by the Messiah.”168 Third, he makes reference again to God’s kingdom coming in power through the Messiah, but once more, it is merely appended without explanation. In other words, Rashi’s references to the Messiah have nothing to do with the immediate context, which speaks of events that culminate in the first century of this era. Yet that is when Jesus, the real Messiah, did come and visit our people, dying and rising from the dead, providing final atonement for mankind. Strangely, Rashi recognized the Messianic implications of the prophecy yet failed to see the Messianic prophecies contained therein.
In the Stone edition, the footnote to the words “the anointed one” in Daniel 9:26 summarizes Rashi’s views as follows: “I.e., Agrippa, the last Jewish king, at the end of the Second Temple Era. After his death, the prince of this verse, the Roman Titus, would command the destruction of the Temple, which will not be rebuilt until after the War of Gog and Magog, in Messianic times.” So, Rashi taught that the prophecy pinpointed the death of Agrippa and the destruction of the Temple—major events in the last generation of the Second Temple era—but then simply drifted off to the distant future in terms of the final fulfillment of the prophecy. Despite Rashi’s brilliance as a biblical and Talmudic interpreter, we have to admit that his interpretation is lacking cohesion and clarity, to say the least.169
All this is underscored by Rashi’s comments on the end of Daniel 9:27: “and until destruction and extermination befall the dumb one and the ruling of the abomination will endure until the day that the destruction and extermination decreed upon it [will] befall it, in the days of the king Messiah.” Once again, Rashi sees Daniel’s prophecy as ultimately pointing to the Messiah and his reign, but in a way that is completely unrelated to the passage. It is almost like counting down for the launch of a rocket, with everyone gathered around the launchpad in great expectation, then the countdown is completed, liftoff is announced… but the rocket doesn’t take off for two thousand years. Something is wrong with this picture. Yet that is exactly what happens with Rashi’s interpretation of the passage: He explains how all the prophesied events culminate and unfold in a time period one generation after Jesus and then says, “And the real end of the story will take place in the days of the Messiah”—which, according to traditional Judaism, still have not arrived, now two thousand years later.
I find it interesting that Rachmiel Frydland, a well-known Messianic Jewish scholar, became a believer in Yeshua with the help of Rashi’s commentary on Daniel 9:24–27. Raised as an ultra-Orthodox Jew in Poland, Frydland narrowly escaped death in the Holocaust, enduring terrible suffering and deprivation in his flight from his homeland.170 During an intensive time of seeking the truth about the Scriptures as a teenager, he read Rashi’s commentary and thought to himself—to paraphrase—“He has the time frame right, but he got the wrong anointed one!” Soon he realized, “It is not Agrippa who was cut off; it was Yeshua.” His reasoning makes perfect sense. After all, the death of Agrippa was of no great significance in terms of God’s eternal purposes for his people Israel, neither was it of great consequence in terms of the future of the Jewish people, the city of Jerusalem, or even the Temple itself. But the death of Jesus affected the entire world! And it was because our people did not recognize him when he came that the Temple was destroyed, just as Daniel prophesied. Viewed in this light, Gabriel’s revelation to Daniel is very clear, as we will see in responding to the next three objections.
You might say, “Even if your interpretation has some merit, there is still no justification for translating the Hebrew word mashiach as ‘the Messiah.’ There is no definite article here, so the translation should say ‘a’ rather than ‘the’; and mashiach should simply be translated as ‘anointed one,’ just as it is throughout the Tanakh.”
Actually, I agree with your basic position. I simply believe you have overstated it and, in so doing, have thrown out the baby with the bathwater. First, traditional Christian translations are not the only ones that add the word “the” before “anointed one” in Daniel 9:26. In fact, the oldest Jewish translation, the Septuagint, translates mashiach as tou christou (“the anointed one”), while the most recent traditional Jewish translation, the Stone edition, renders it “the anointed one” rather than “an anointed one.”171 This is because the Hebrew language can sometimes specify a particular person or event without using the definite article, as recognized in the standard grammars and, in certain phrases, in virtually all translations. Thus, it is not just any anointed one that the prophecy describes, but one particular anointed one. Some translators, both Christian and Jewish, feel that this concept is best expressed by using the word “the” to identify that particular subject. Second, later Jewish usage made the word mashiach into a proper name, as in the Jewish bumper sticker that says, “We want Moshiach now!” For many centuries, in the Jewish mind the word mashiach has not simply meant “an anointed one” but rather “the anointed one, King Messiah.” Some Christian translations simply interpreted Daniel 9:26 in the light of their own Messianic traditions and views, finding in this verse the most overt reference to the Messiah—identified as such—in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Now, I agree it is reading too much into the text to justify the translation “the Messiah” (still reflected in the NASB). But that does not mean the interpretation is wrong. Quite the contrary. The verse does speak of the death of the Messiah, and Christian interpreters are fully justified in explaining Daniel 9:24–27 in Messianic terms (see below, 4.19–4.21, for more on this). A simple translation, however, should either speak of “an anointed one” (as does the NRSV), “the anointed one” (as in the Stone edition), or possibly, but with much less likelihood, “Messiah” (without the definite article, as in the NKJV).172 The bottom line is that this prophecy foretells the Messiah’s atoning death, and Christian translators can be forgiven if they sought to bring this meaning out even more clearly than the original author intended, since the anointed one of whom Daniel spoke in 9:26 is none other than King Messiah.173
162 John E. Goldingay, Daniel, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1989), 258, understates the significance of the prophecy, claiming that the prophecy “does not have a worldwide perspective; it is not speaking of the end of all history, or of the sin of the whole world.”
163 Cf. Michael L. Brown, “Lamentations, Theology of,” NIDOTTE, 4:884–93, and see the discussion in vol. 2, 3.13, regarding the significance of the rebuilding of the Temple.
164For questions regarding the exact translation of some of the verbs in verse 24, see pp. 95–98.
165 Interestingly, based on Torah principles, it can be argued that God sent the people of Judah into exile for 70 years because the land had not enjoyed its Sabbaths for a period of 490 years—the very same period spoken of by the angel Gabriel in the revelation of the 70 weeks of years. For the principle, see Lev. 26:2, 14–35. See further Bible commentaries on Dan. 9:24.
166 It should be noted that the traditional Jewish chronology followed by Rashi contains a significant error, since the Second Temple actually stood for roughly 600 years rather than 420 years. See vol. 1, 2.1.
167 This is partially confirmed by Heinrich W. Guggenheimer, Seder Olam: The Rabbinic View of Biblical Chronology (Northvale, N.J.: Aronson, 1998). See below, n. 169.
168 Ibid., 245.
169 Interestingly, Guggenheimer (ibid., 246) finds Rashi’s approach to Daniel 8 and 9 to be “somewhat inconsistent in that in Daniel Chapter 8, whose vision is not treated in Seder ʿOlam [the standard Rabbinic chronology], he refers that vision to Antiochus and the situation before the Maccabean revolt.” Guggenheimer also points out (244) that in Rashi’s comments on Daniel 9:24–27, Rashi “follows Seder ʿOlam strictly in the interpretation of times and terms but superimposes references to messianic times that come from later medieval sources and are inconsistent with the interpretation of Seder ʿOlam that the end of the vision is the destruction of the second Temple.” This last observation is especially significant for our present discussion.
170 Frydland’s autobiographical story is told in Rachmiel Frydland, When Being Jewish Was a Crime (repr.; Columbus, Md.: Messianic Publishing, 1998). To read his testimony of faith in Yeshua, along with the testimonies of other Jews—some of whom were ordained rabbis before coming to faith in the Messiah—see <http://www.menorah.org/salv.html>.
171 Note also that John J. Collins, a historical-critical commentator who rejects the Messianic interpretation, also translates mashiach as “the anointed one.” Daniel: A Commentary on the Book of Daniel (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1994), 346.
172 In verses 25–26 the NIV renders mashiach as “the Anointed One,” with “an anointed one” listed in the margin as an alternative rendering. This indicates that even conservative Christian translations recognize the validity of the points we are discussing in this objection. Note also that if the mashiach nagid of Daniel 9:25 is the same as the mashiach in 9:26 (a position that I do not find essential to embrace as a follower of Jesus; see below, 4.21), then it could be argued based on the unusual grammatical structure of mashiach nagid (an anointed one, a ruler, meaning “an anointed ruler”) that the right interpretation would be “the anointed one.” Gleason Archer (“Daniel,” EBC, 7:119–20), notes that the words ad mashiach nagid “( …‘till an Anointed One, Ruler’) could be translated ‘till an anointed one, a ruler.’ But since this pair of titles is hopelessly vague and indefinite, applying to almost any governor or priest-king in Israel’s subsequent history, it could scarcely have furnished the definite terminus ad quem the context obviously demands. It is therefore necessary to understand each of these terms as exalted titles applying to some definite personage in future history. In Hebrew, proper names do not take the definite article, neither do titles that have become virtually proper nouns by usage. GKC (pars. 125 f-g) cites many examples of these: e.g., shaday (… ‘the Almighty’), satan (… ‘the Adversary’), tebhel (… ‘the world’), ʿelyon (… ‘the Most High’). We therefore conclude that ‘Messiah the Ruler’ was the meaning intended by the author. The word order precludes construing it as ‘an [or “the”] anointed ruler,’ which would have to be nagid mashiah.”
173 Gerald Sigal also objects strongly to other aspects of the KJV rendering of Daniel 9:26, stating that “the words vʾayn lo (9:26) are incorrectly translated by the King James Version as ‘but not for himself.’ They should be translated as ‘he has nothing’ or ‘he shall have nothing.’ There are Christian commentators who maintain this phrase has both meanings, but that claim cannot be supported grammatically” (<http://www.jewsforjudaism.org/j4j-2000/index.html>) In point of fact, the NKJV is one of the only modern Christian versions that perpetuates this translation, so Sigal’s argument is really beating a dead horse. Not only so, but when translations in his own Orthodox Jewish tradition exhibit similar faults, he chooses not to criticize them, let alone attack them with such antagonism and disdain.
Brown, M. L. (2003). Answering Jewish objections to Jesus, Volume 3: Messianic prophecy objections (86). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.