The Seventy Weeks of Daniel 9
I’m curious to know the Jewish understanding of Daniel 9:24-27. It seems such a clear reference to Jesus that I don’t understand how Jewish scholars can disagree. It speaks of the Messiah who will live 483 years after Daniel’s time. He will be cut off (i.e., crucified) but not for his sake (v. 26), and He will make a covenant with the many (v. 27), abolish sacrifice (v. 27), and terminate transgression (v. 24). And after his death there will be terrible destruction (vv. 26-27). This sounds exactly like Jesus dying for our sins and making a New Covenant with all of mankind, and afterwards there would be terrible calamities during the destruction of the Temple. Jesus lived precisely when Daniel was told the Messiah would be – shortly before the destruction of the Second Temple. How can the Jews not accept this? You don’t even believe the Messiah came when Daniel was told he would!
The Aish Rabbi Replies
Thank you for raising the very important issue. You happen to be right that learned Christians often see Daniel 9, prophesying about a 490 year period (70 “weeks” of 7 years each), as perhaps the most explicit allusion to Jesus in the Torah, even more so than Isaiah 53. It seems to write explicitly that the Messiah would come before the Second Temple’s destruction and that he would die for our sins.
This is a very lengthy topic, especially because those verses in Daniel are so cryptic. However, before summarizing the Jewish interpretation, I’d like to point out a few difficulties with the Christian one. First of all, the term “mashiach”, which literally means “anointed one,” is never used in the Torah in reference to the Messiah as we think of it today. That word appears 39 times in the Torah, and the intention is always for a High Priest, a King, or someone designated by God (“anointed”) for some special mission. See for example Leviticus 4:3, I Samuel 12:3, 24:6, 26:11, Psalms 20:7, Lamentations 4:20, and Isaiah 45:1.
In fact, Rabbi Tovia Singer points out that in every other place where the word “mashiach” appears in the Torah, Christian Bibles interpret it accurately as “anointed one” and only the two times that it appears here do they translate it as “the Messiah” – both with the definite article “the” in front of it (which does not appear in the Hebrew), and with the word Messiah capitalized – although Hebrew has no capital letters.
Secondly, Daniel 9 clearly speaks of two anointed people – one after 49 years (7 weeks), who will begin the rebuilding of the Second Temple. And a second after 62 weeks (434 years), when an anointed person will be cut off. The first one predates the Second Temple and clearly does not refer to Jesus.
The second anointed one, who did live around the time of Jesus, does not seem to be a very righteous person. Daniel writes that he will be “cut off” (“yikarait”). Karet, which means excision, always has a negative connotation in the Torah. It is most commonly used for the punishment of excision which one incurs for the most serious transgressions.
Daniel also states that that this mashiach will be cut off “and there will not be to him” (“v’ain lo”). It is a cryptic term, but seems to say that he will have nothing left or there will be nothing left of him. Christians interpret this expression as meaning “he will die but not for his own sake” – namely, the Messiah will die for our sins. But that is simply not what the Hebrew means.
Lastly, Christians believe that the Messiah was to be cut off in the middle of the final 7 years (the final “week” of v. 27) and at the end of that week the Temple was destined to be destroyed. But according to Christian tradition, Jesus was crucified in the early 30’s C.E. which was well over the half week (24.5 years) before the Temple’s destruction in the year 70. It is also difficult to understand when to begin the count of 490 years according to Christian interpretation. Four hundred and ninety years before Jesus’s death does not seem to correspond to any significant event, making it unclear what starting point Daniel’s vision had in mind.
To begin understanding these verses according to Jewish tradition, as always, it is important to see the verses in context. In the beginning of Chapter 9, Daniel is profoundly worried about the prophecy of Jeremiah. Jeremiah foretold that Jerusalem’s destruction would last 70 years (see Jeremiah 25:12 and 29:10). He thought the 70 years had come to an end already, and in fact the Babylonian Empire had recently been overtaken by the Persians, yet the return to Jerusalem had not occurred. He feared that they were not worthy of the prophesied redemption and that it was going to be delayed. He began fasting and praying, beseeching God for His forgiveness, until the angel Gabriel came to him and clarified the future events – when the Second Temple would be rebuilt and how long it would stand.
(In truth, the two 70’s of Jeremiah 25 and 29 were separate prophecies. Babylonia would fall 70 years after its ascension (25:12) – and this had occurred the year before the events of Daniel 9, while the return to Zion would not occur until 70 years after Jerusalem’s destruction (29:10), which occurred 18 years after Nebuchadnezzar’s ascension.)
As to the precise interpretation of the verses, there are a number of slightly different approaches among the commentators. In the interests of simplicity, I will follow primarily a single approach below.
The 490 years (70 weeks) refer to the entire time period from the destruction of the First Temple until the Destruction of the Second. Gabriel outlined this entire period to Daniel. Some explain that this was in part a response to Daniel’s anxiousness over the 70 years of Jeremiah. The angel explained that in addition to the literal 70 years of Jeremiah’s prophecy – the 70 years of punishment Israel would require before the building of the Second Temple, Jeremiah was hinting to a longer 70 – 70 weeks of years – which would be required to fully expiate the sins of the nation during the First Temple. Thus, apart from the 70 years of actual exile, there would be 490 years total in which Israel would suffer other forms of unrest and deprivation, even as the Second Temple stood (Abarbanel, Malbim).
Based on this, verse 24 states that a full 490 years would be required to completely wipe out the sins of the First Temple era. At that point, sin could be removed totally and a period of everlasting righteousness and the fulfillment of prophecy could ensue. I.e., after the full atonement of the 490 years, the Messianic era could have ensued, and the Third Temple could have been built shortly after the Second. (Sadly, though, the Jews sinned further during the Second Temple, pushing off the ultimate redemption even further away.)
Verse 25 speaks of an anointed prince appearing after 7 weeks, after which “a street and moat” will be built, standing for 62 weeks, but in troubled times. The anointed prince was Cyrus (whom God referred to as his mashiach (Isaiah 45:1)) who was to grant the Jews permission to rebuild the Temple. This occurred in the 52nd year after Jerusalem’s destruction – longer than 7 weeks, but the final fraction of a week was not counted.
As that verse continues, afterwards would commence the building of the Second Temple. That period would span in total 62 weeks = 434 years, plus the 4 years remaining from the eighth week begun before Cyrus ascended the throne. (Note that the 7+ weeks together with the 62+ total 70 full weeks.) Thus, this period would last 438 years in total – the 18 years from Cyrus’s command until the Temple was inaugurated, together with the 420 years the Second Temple stood. This, however, would be in troubled times – under the rule of the Persians, then the Greeks, and finally the Romans, with much oppression throughout.
Verse 26 describes what will happen at the time of the Second Temple’s destruction. An “anointed one” will be cut off. This either refers to King Agrippa II, the Hasmonean King at the time of the destruction, the High Priest at that time, or the notion of priesthood in general. The Temple will be utterly destroyed by the Roman legions of Vespasian and Titus (“the people of the prince”). Jerusalem will be utterly “washed away” (“its end shall come in a deluge”). And it will remain so until “the end of war” – the final battles in the time of the Messiah.
Verse 27 adds some interesting details of those final years and beyond. The Romans will make a covenant of peace with the “great ones” of Israel for the final seven years. However, they will not abide by their covenant but for the final half a week before the Temple’s destruction they will abolish the offering of sacrifices. Also, an idolatrous temple with mute abominations would later be built on the high place of the Temple (by Hadrian) – until destruction will be poured out upon all such abominations in the End of Days.
Some of the material above based upon a lecture given by Rabbi Tovia Singer.