There are two different ways to understand the division of the seventy weeks, but both of them are legitimate and in keeping with the rules of Hebrew grammar. More important, both equally support the Messianic interpretation of the text, and the dates involved clearly point to the times of Jesus. That’s one of the reasons why many Christians point to this text as an important Messianic prophecy.
We noted previously (above, 4.18) that Rashi understood the anointed one mentioned in Daniel 9:26 to refer to Agrippa and that he interpreted Daniel 9:27 with reference to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E.196 In other words, without stating it—or perhaps without even being conscious of it—Rashi dated some of the key events described in this prophecy to the generation after Yeshua. Like most Jewish commentators and translators, however, he understood the text in harmony with the Masoretic accents and divided the weeks into three periods of time: seven weeks, sixty-two weeks, and one week. This is reflected in the New Revised Standard Version, a liberal Christian translation:
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.
Other Christian translations, however, following the pattern of the King James Version, divide the weeks into two main periods: (1) seven weeks + sixty-two weeks, and (2) one week. As rendered in the KJV:
Seventy weeks are determined upon thy people and upon thy holy city, to finish the transgression, and to make an end of sins, and to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness, and to seal up the vision and prophecy, and to anoint the most Holy.
Know therefore and understand, that from the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem unto the Messiah the Prince shall be seven weeks, and threescore and two weeks: the street shall be built again, and the wall, even in troublous times.
And after threescore and two weeks shall Messiah be cut off, but not for himself: and the people of the prince that shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary; and the end thereof shall be with a flood, and unto the end of the war desolations are determined.
And he shall confirm the covenant with many for one week: and in the midst of the week he shall cause the sacrifice and the oblation to cease, and for the overspreading of abominations he shall make it desolate, even until the consummation, and that determined shall be poured upon the desolate.
Translating the text in this way makes quite a difference. According to traditional Jewish thought (reflected also in the rendering of the NRSV, cited earlier), verse 25 should be translated as follows: “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”—meaning that forty-nine years would elapse from the time of the initial decree (somewhere in the sixth or fifth century B.C.E.; we will return to this subject later) until the time of this anointed prince. Obviously, this could not refer to Jesus, who was born more than four hundred years later. The KJV, however, rendered this verse, “Know therefore and understand, that from the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem unto the Messiah the Prince shall be seven weeks, and threescore and two weeks: the street shall be built again, and the wall, even in troublous times.” Using the date of 457 B.C.E. as our starting point, as suggested by some scholars, and putting the two sets of weeks together (7 × 7 + 7 × 62), we would arrive at a total of 483 years, ending in 27 C.E.—the very year that Jesus began his public ministry.197 What an incredibly accurate prophecy this would be!
It is understandable why anti-missionaries would oppose this view so strongly, arguing that a proper understanding of the Hebrew text would exclude fulfillment in the time of Yeshua. In reality, however, the original text presents no such problems for at least two reasons: First, if we follow the traditional Jewish division of the weeks, then we would also follow the traditional Jewish understanding that there are two anointed figures mentioned in the text (see below, 4.21). This understanding is quite natural, since there would be at least 434 years (7 × 62) between the two mashiachs. Second, the Hebrew text was originally written without vowel signs or accents (also called cantillation marks), both of which were added to the written biblical text centuries after its completion, and both of which sometimes reflect erroneous and/or variant readings.198 Thus, to argue for an interpretation based primarily on the accents is to give them a weight of authority they do not deserve (since they simply reflect the tradition of the Tiberian Masoretes) and to admit that the original, consonantal text is subject to varied interpretation. If this is not the case, why not simply argue that the text can only be read one way without pointing to the accents for proof?
Basically, however, the difficulty in joining the two groups of weeks together—seven weeks of years and sixty-two weeks of years—is not grammatical. It is logical and contextual. If the purpose of the prophecy was to state that there would be 483 years until the coming of the Messiah—as indicated in many Christian versions—why not simply state, “Know therefore and understand, that from the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem unto the Messiah the Prince shall be sixty-nine weeks” rather than “seven weeks, and threescore and two weeks”? For those maintaining the Messianic position, only one answer makes sense: There was a prophetic significance to these two specific sets of weeks, the first set covering 49 years, being the time during which Jerusalem was restored and rebuilt, and the second set covering 434 years, being the time between the completion of Jerusalem’s physical restoration and the coming of the Messiah.
As Gleason Archer explained,
If, then, the terminus a quo for the decree in v. 25 be reckoned as 457 B.C. (the date of Ezra’s return to Jerusalem), then we may compute the first seven heptads as running from 457 to 408, within which time the rebuilding of the walls, streets, and moats was completed. Then from 408 we count off the sixty-two heptads also mentioned in v. 25 and come out to A.D. 26 (408 is 26 less than 434). But actually we come out to A.D. 27, since a year is gained in our reckoning as we pass directly from 1 B.C. to A.D. 1 (without any year zero in between). If Christ was crucified on 14 Abib A.D. 30, as is generally believed (cf. L. A. Foster, “The Chronology of the New Testament,” EBC, 1:598–99, 607), this would come out to a remarkably exact fulfillment of the terms of v. 25. Christ’s public ministry, from the time of his baptism in the Jordan till his death and resurrection at Jerusalem, must have taken up about three years. The 483 years from the issuing of the decree of Artaxerxes came to an end in A.D. 27, the year of the “coming” of Messiah as Ruler (nasi). It was indeed “after the sixty-two ‘sevens’ ”—three years after—that “the Anointed One” was “cut off.”199
Could this interpretation be true? We will return to it in a moment, examining some of its premises in more detail. For now, let’s follow the traditional Jewish division of the sixty-nine weeks into two distinct periods, with each period centering in on a mashiach (anointed one). This does not necessarily mean I believe the traditional Christian translations are in error in their division of the sixty-nine weeks, since it is certainly grammatically and contextually possible to follow the KJV rendering of verse 25. I do believe, however, that the traditional Jewish rendering is more natural and that there is no problem with seeing two anointed ones in the prophecy. And with both interpretations, we still come out to the same general time frame for the activity—and death!—of the second mashiach. Thus, following Archer’s view, “we may compute the first seven heptads as running from 457 to 408, within which time the rebuilding of the walls, streets, and moats was completed.” This would then lead to the one referred to as mashiach nagid. “Then,” continuing to cite Archer, “from 408 we count off the sixty-two heptads also mentioned in v. 25 … and come out to A.D. 27.”200
To simplify all this, let me restate both positions: Traditional Jewish interpreters believe there will be a period of forty-nine years beginning with the word to restore and build Jerusalem, at the end of which (or during which) an anointed leader will do something of significance; this will be followed by a period of 434 years, at the end of which an anointed one will be cut off. Then there will be a final period of seven years, during which another leader will destroy the Temple. So, the sequence is as follows: (1) The decree to restore and build Jerusalem is given; (2) after forty-nine years an anointed leader appears on the scene; (3) the restoration of Jerusalem is complete and the city remains intact, even in troublous times, for a period of 434 years, after which an anointed one is killed; (4) over the final seven years, Jerusalem will be destroyed.
As we have stated, traditional Christian interpreters believe there will be a period of 483 years, beginning with the word to restore and build Jerusalem, at the end of which an anointed leader (the Messiah) will be cut off.201 During the first forty-nine years of this 483-year period, the city will be rebuilt; at the end of the 483-year period, there will be a final seven-year period, during which another leader will destroy the Temple. Note also that some Christian commentators understand the text to state that it is in the middle of the last seven-year period that the Messiah is killed. As explained by Christian commentator Albert Barnes,
the whole time of the seventy weeks is broken up into three smaller portions of seven, sixty-two, and one—designating evidently some important epochs or periods, Dan. 9:25, and the last one week is again subdivided in such a way, that, while it is said that the whole work of the Messiah in confirming the covenant would occupy the entire week, yet that he would be cut off in the middle of the week, Dan. 9:27.202
This would be in keeping with Daniel 9:27, which divides the events of the seventieth week of years into two parts. It would mean, however, that the first half of that week ended with Messiah’s death in 30 C.E. (as it is written, “he will put an end to sacrifice and offering,” meaning by his once-and-for-all atoning death on the cross) but the second half of that week did not unfold for almost forty more years (specifically, from 67–70 C.E.), as the text states, “And on a wing [of the temple] he [meaning the Roman general Titus] will set up an abomination that causes desolation, until the end that is decreed is poured out on him” (Dan. 9:27b). It would also mean that the “he” of Daniel 9:27a is different than the “he” of Daniel 9:27b, if we follow the rendering of the NIV. For these reasons, even from a Messianic Jewish perspective, I believe it is best to understand all the events of the seventieth week as referring to the destruction of the Temple under Titus.203
You might say, “This is so confusing, and you’ve hardly scratched the surface! How in the world can we be sure of anything?”
That’s an excellent question, since there are literally hundreds of different interpretations that have been presented by both Jewish and Christian scholars, offering all kinds of solutions to the difficulties in the text, including those that slavishly follow the Masoretic accents and those that categorically reject some of these accents. We have barely touched on all the interpretative difficulties involved, both chronological and exegetical. Having said this, however, I am quite sure that (1) there are some extremely clear truths taught in this very important scriptural passage, (2) God gave this Scripture to us to bring clarity and not confusion, and (3) the key events described in this passage point decisively to the death of Yeshua the Messiah. When we major on the majors, the minors become less important.
What then are the majors? First, Daniel’s seventy weeks begin with the rebuilding of Jerusalem and end with the destruction of Jerusalem. These are the chronological “bookends” within which these major redemptive events will take place, also identifying the general time periods involved: from the sixth to fifth centuries B.C.E. to the first century C.E. Second, several key players are specified, including one or two anointed ones (mashiachs). Concerning the anointed one mentioned in 9:26, it is explicitly stated that he will be killed (“cut off”). Third, there are six spiritual acts of great significance that must be accomplished within this 490-year period (for details on this last point, see above, 4.19).
All the other questions and issues are somewhat secondary, almost like disputed calls made by a referee in the course of a game that ultimately have no impact on the outcome of that game. The final score is not disputed, nor is it disputed that the better team won. The only thing disputed is whether the referee made some of the minor calls correctly, not the outcome of the game. It’s the same with Daniel 9:24–27. The final outcome is clear: The Messiah came and brought final atonement before the Second Temple was destroyed, regardless of the interpretation of some of the disputed details of textual interpretation.
Various dates have been suggested as the starting point of the seventy weeks (called by scholars the terminus a quo), identified in Daniel 9:25 as “the issuing of the decree [lit., “word”] to restore and rebuild Jerusalem.” The following dates, suggested by both Jewish and Christian commentators, are among the most common:204
• Jeremiah’s receiving of the word of Jerusalem’s future restoration after seventy years in exile (Jer. 25:11–12), dating to 605 B.C.E. (Also suggested is Jeremiah 29:10, dating to 597 B.C.E.) This view, however, has very few proponents, since it is clearly not the issuing of a word to restore and rebuild Jerusalem—the city had not yet been destroyed!—and because it does not make sense of the 490-year period, finding no significance in the divisions of 49 years, 434 years, and 7 years.
• The decree of Cyrus in 538 B.C.E. (see 2 Chron. 36:22–23; Ezra 1:1–4. Note that this also correlates to within one year of the very revelation of the seventy weeks of years to Daniel, dating to 539–538 B.C.E.). One major problem with this interpretation is that this decree, despite its great importance, applied only to the rebuilding of the Temple, not the city.
• The decree of Darius in 521 B.C.E. (see Ezra 6:1–12), although this too focuses on the Temple rather than on the city and simply renews the earlier decree of Cyrus from 538 B.C.E.
• The decree of Artaxerxes I in 457 B.C.E. (see Ezra 7:12–26). While this royal edict focused on the funding of the rebuilding of the Temple, Ezra was given permission by the king to use the designated funds as needed, and other relevant texts suggest that both Ezra and Nehemiah may have associated this decree with the wider issue of the restoration of Jerusalem itself (see Ezra 9:9; Neh. 1:4).
• The commission of Artaxerxes I in 446 B.C.E. (see Neh. 2:5–8). The biggest problem with this view is that it is hard to imagine that this commission—hardly even a royal edict—would have been recognized as the terminus a quo of the prophecy. It would have been all too easy to overlook this commission. Moreover, 483 years after 446 B.C.E. brings us to 38 C.E., more than seven years after the Messiah’s crucifixion, leaving no plausible explanation as to the identity of the anointed one who would be killed at that time.205
Which of these dates is most accurate? In all candor, Daniel 9:25 simply does not give us enough details to be entirely sure; therefore it is wise not to be dogmatic. The suggestion of James Smith, however, is worthy of consideration, namely, that the “word” spoken of in the text does not necessarily refer to a specific royal decree or published prophetic message. It could simply refer to the divine proclamation that Jerusalem’s rebuilding begin, in which case evidence in Ezra and Nehemiah points us to a time period very close to the decree of Artaxerxes in 457 B.C.E., since that is when the actual rebuilding of the city’s walls began. This line of reasoning, then, brings us to the approximate date of the decree by deductive reasoning that asks the basic question, When did the work begin? The answer to that question provides us with the terminus a quo of Daniel’s seventy weeks.
In reviewing the overall chronology, we should consider the possibility that there are some minor gaps between the specific periods mentioned, meaning that the 490-year period might not be totally consecutive. (Archer is one of many interpreters who posits such gaps.) These gaps, however, could only be justified under three conditions: (1) The grouping of the weeks would still have to make sense. In other words, there would have to be something distinct and identifiable about the three periods of 49, 434, and 7 years; otherwise, they cease to have meaning and significance. (2) The gaps could not be so large as to disrupt the overall chronological flow that makes this 490-year period so important. (3) The gaps could not cause the 490-year period to end later than the time specified in the text.
Despite these words of caution, however, we can safely identify the boundaries of the fulfillment of this prophecy—beginning somewhere after 538 B.C.E. and ending in 70 C.E.—with the major events taking place over the course of 490 years. If there are no major gaps between the first 483 years (49 + 434), then only the last two dates suggested above are plausible (457 B.C.E. or 446 B.C.E.), since they alone end up close to 70 C.E. And since Daniel 9:26 indicates that the anointed one will be killed after the 483-year period, the starting date of 457 B.C.E. is extremely attractive, leaving the final seven-year period to unfold barely one generation later. This interpretation works well even with traditional Jewish translations, such as the Stone edition:
Then, after the sixty-two septets, the anointed one will be cut off and will exist no longer; the people of the prince [who] will come will destroy the city and the Sanctuary; but his end will be [to be swept away as] in a flood. Then, until the end of the war, desolation is decreed. He will forge a strong covenant with the great ones for one septet; but for half of that septet he will abolish sacrifice and meal-offering, and the mute abominations will be upon soaring heights, until extermination as decreed will pour down upon the mute [abomination].
It appears, then, that some time could elapse between the end of the sixty-ninth septet (i.e., seven-year period) and the beginning of the seventieth septet. The sequence would be as follows: The period of 483 years ends; after this the anointed one is cut off; there are wars and conflicts, terminating with a final seven-year period that sees the destruction of the city and the Temple.207
We can also reverse our approach and count backwards, asking ourselves, What is the terminus ad quem (the ending point) of the seventy weeks? Clearly, as recognized by the Talmud and key Jewish interpreters, the key final event prophesied in Daniel 9:24–27 is the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and the sanctuary. Therefore, the seventieth and last seven-year period must culminate in 70 C.E. Before this last week of years, we come to the end of the previous two periods, totaling 483 years (7 weeks of years + 62 weeks of years), after which the anointed one described will be cut off. So, this anointed one will be killed at some point before 63 C.E. If we subtract 483 from 63 C.E. (remembering that there is no “zero year”), we arrive at a date of 421 B.C.E., which is later than any of the dates suggested by scholars and commentators, as we have seen. This means we can safely say there must be some gaps in the 490-year period. Based on the evidence reviewed here, the best interpretation would be this: The seventy weeks of years began somewhere in the 450s B.C.E., the first forty-nine of which focused on the rebuilding of Jerusalem, and the next 434 of which led up to the death of the Messiah. His death was followed by a gap of approximately thirty-three years, after which the final week of years unfolded.
The conclusion of Walter Kaiser is sound: “It is enough to know that there are some 483 years between the time that God began to fulfill this word mentioned to Daniel and the time of the first advent of Messiah, without trying to nail down the precise day and month.”208 Has anyone come up with a better interpretation?209
196 The Talmud itself cites Daniel 9:24–27 as setting the time for the destruction of the Second Temple; see b. Nazir 32b.
197 The reason there are only 483 years from 457 B.C.E. to 27 C.E. (instead of 484 years) is because there is no “zero year.” In other words, we count directly from 1 B.C.E. to 1 C.E.
198 This is recognized even by Jewish tradition itself; see the discussion of Harry. M. Orlinsky, prolegomenon to Christian D. Ginsburg, Introduction to the Masoretico-Christian of the Hebrew Bible (New York: Ktav, 1966), i–xlv.
199 Archer, “Daniel,” 7:114.
201 Sigal seriously misrepresents the Christian position when he writes, “By creating a sixty-nine week period, which is not divided into two separate periods of seven weeks and sixty-two weeks respectively, Christians reach an incorrect conclusion, i.e., that the Messiah will come 483 years after the destruction of the First Temple” (<http://www.jewsforjudaism.org/j4j-2000/index.html>). His error, of course, is not in claiming that Christians believe the Messiah would come after this 483-year period but rather in stating that Christians believe “the Messiah will come 483 years after the destruction of the First Temple” (my emphasis). Who holds that position? We date the beginning of the 483 period to the command to restore and rebuild Jerusalem, as per Daniel 9:25, not to the destruction of the First Temple. Moreover, that Temple was destroyed in 587 or 586 B.C.E. (according to all chronologies except the Rabbinic chronology; see vol. 1, 2.1). Deducting 483 years from this date brings us to 104/103 B.C.E., one century before Yeshua’s birth. What Bible-believing Christian or Messianic Jew argues that Daniel’s prophecy was more than one hundred years off?
202 Albert Barnes, Barnes’ Notes on the Old Testament, commenting on Dan. 9:24.
203 My position here is in contrast to the position of Archer and other Christian scholars who point to an end-of-the-age (= “Great Tribulation”) fulfillment of the seventieth week, with the Antichrist as the main figure involved.
204 For details on which scholars have followed which views, see the standard commentaries on Daniel.
205 Scholars today—almost without exception and with complete justification—reject the view that Daniel’s seventy weeks of years are to be calculated based on an alleged 360-day prophetic year.
206The footnote to verse 27a explains that, “The Roman emperor would make a treaty with the Jewish nation for seven years; but for the second half of that term the Romans would violate that covenant and impede the Temple service. The ‘mute abomination,’ i.e., a temple of idolatry, was erected by the emperor Hadrian on the Temple Mount (Rashi).” I should point out that the Stone edition’s rendering of the words weʾen lo (v. 26a) as stating that the anointed one will be cut “and will exist no longer” (my emphasis) is not representative of the majority of translations, Christian or Jewish.
207 Another problem with the critical interpretation of the seventy weeks is that only the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., rather than the defiling of the Temple by Antiochus IV in the 160s B.C.E., would live up to the description that “devastation will continue to overwhelm desolate Jerusalem until what God has decreed is exhausted” (to use Goldingay’s words, Daniel, 263).
208 Kaiser, The Messiah in the Old Testament, 203.
209 The Talmudic interpretation found in b. Sanhedrin 97a points us in the same general direction, stating that the seventy weeks are divided into seven parts, after which the Messiah will come.
Brown, M. L. (2003). Answering Jewish objections to Jesus, Volume 3: Messianic prophecy objections (100). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.