Monday, February 4, 2013

Daniel's Seventy Weeks

Here we go again. Left Behind is being remade. I have no doubt the new film will be better than the old film because there's no room for it to be worse. For those of you not raised in evangelical Christian culture, this film from 2000 is based on a very popular series of near-future novels which are in turn based on a minority apocalyptic view within Christianity, basically:

* All "true" Christians will suddenly and simultaneously vanish from the Earth one day.
* ...which is such a convincing sign that it will lead some to become new believers.
* ...who will then be persecuted by the Antichrist.
* ...until Christ comes back and somehow survives the Christ-Antichrist explosion.
* ...ushering in a world without gays, atheists, and maybe Catholics forever and ever.

All of this relies heavily on the so-called Seventy Weeks Prophecy in Daniel 9. So what I'm going to do in this post is explain why no one should take this apocalyptic scenario seriously.

TLDR: The prophecy was written during and about events that happened long ago, in the second century BCE.

Crash Course Jewish History

Secular history doesn't match up with early Biblical history. The parts of Genesis before Abraham are mythical unless we toss out science. Everything from Abraham to Moses to King Saul are, at best, not backed up by secular history. There has been some archeological evidence for King David, but the Biblical portrait might be as legendary as our tales of King Arthur. The important thing is that David's rule and the rule of his son Solomon (who is said to have built the first temple) is considered the high point of Jewish (technically Israelite) power and autonomy.

After Solomon, the story is that the kingdom split up, with the north eventually being permanently erased by the Assyrian Empire. Not long after that, the southern kingdom (which was called Judah, hence "Jews") was conquered by the Babylonian Empire. The first temple was destroyed and many Jews were taken back to Babylon in the 590s-580s BCE, starting the Babylonian exile.

About fifty years later, the Persian Empire rolled in, took over, and let the Jews return to rebuild the temple. About two hundred years after that, Alexander the Great took his turn at "world" conquest. Alexander's empire split up after his death in a complicated series of events. By the 170-160s BCE, Jerusalem was being ruled by a Seleucid king who decided to desecrate the temple and force Jews to commit sacrilege or be executed. Rebel fighters managed to take Jerusalem back for a while, so they took the opportunity to clean up the temple and invent Hanukkah to celebrate the event. Later, the Roman Empire took over and ruled until 70 CE when they decided they'd had enough of the Jews and sacked Jerusalem, destroying the second temple. Surviving Jews scattered until certain twentieth-century events. Today, the Islamic Dome of the Rock is blocking reconstruction of a third temple on the traditional site.

The Messiah Factor

As you might suspect by now, Jews have long desired a return the glory days of David and Solomon:
  • A powerful and pious king like David.
  • Freedom from foreign rule.
  • A working temple.
  • Continued for a long time.
In the Jewish scriptures, the term "messiah" means "anointed one" and refers to any king or high priest of Israel. There was a literal oil-anointing ceremony in the old days, but it doubled as a metaphor for being chosen for office by God. When Jews talk about the messiah, they mean the king who will restore David's dynasty and return Israel to its proper place as an independent kingdom with an operational temple.

The big difference between Judaism and Christianity is that Christians believe Jesus was this messiah, despite being killed before he could accomplish any of the above. ("Christ" is just the Greek version of "messiah.")

Jews Can't Read, Obviously

Christians believe that the Jewish scriptures (what they call the "Old Testament") foretold all sorts of details about Jesus, proving he really was the messiah. These amazing predictions also prove the Bible's supernatural authorship. Jews and other unbelievers are obviously just unfamiliar with these so-called messianic prophecies.

Perhaps the most amazing and most convincing prophecy is the Seventy Weeks prophecy in Daniel 9; it not only proves that Jesus was the messiah, but it reveals the timeline for the coming end of the world! ...or does it? *arched eyebrow and dramatic music*

A Prayer and an Answer

Daniel 9 is set during the Babylonian exile. It begins with Daniel reading an earlier prophecy from Jeremiah about the exile:
"'This whole land will be a desolation and a horror, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon seventy years. Then it will be when seventy years are completed I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation,’ declares the Lord, ‘for their iniquity, and the land of the Chaldeans; and I will make it an everlasting desolation.’" Jer 25:11-12, NASB
The Jews had been bad, so God was going to punish them by having Babylon take over for seventy years, at which time God would punish Babylon even more harshly. Daniel then prays about how wicked his people had been and how God should remember to rescue them or God's reputation would be damaged. While Daniel was still praying, God sends the angel Gabriel with a response. Instead of seventy years, the new timeline concerns seventy weeks (literally "seventy sevens"). Everyone interprets this as being about 70x7 or 490 years, and I won't dispute that.

Why the much longer time period? When does this time period start and end? What are the events mentioned along the way? How do the 70x7 years relate to the original 70 years Daniel was reading about in Jeremiah? These points are where the interpretations do vary a heck of a lot!

I will be contrasting two Christian views of Daniel 9. I'll call these the Left Behind view and the Catholic view, respectively. The Left Behind view goes back at least to Cyrus Scofield's 1909 commentary. Also, it's inaccurate to imply that all Catholic scholars subscribe to the latter view, but it is at least a major Catholic view spelled out in official publications. I'm going for convenience labels here, folks!

Note: An unfortunate complication is that translations can really slant a text toward one interpretation or another. Advocates of the Left Behind view tend to be partial to the King James Version (KJV), so I'll cover that first, then use the New American Bible (NAB) when discussing the Catholic view.

The "Left Behind" View

The Seventy Weeks prophecy, King James style:
    "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." Dan 9:24-27, KJV
According to the Left Behind view, the seventy weeks (or 70x7 years) starts from the third of a series of Persian decrees concerned with rebuilding Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile. The first 7x7 years is the rebuilding of the temple. The 62x7 years leads up to the coming of "Messiah the Prince." This is Jesus, as is obvious from the capitalization.

Stop! Stop the timeline!

The last seven years (1x7 years) is in our future, not our past. It will begin when the Antichrist makes a "covenant with many." Two and a half years later, he will desecrate the (not yet built) temple in Jerusalem. Things will generally get really bad until the end of these last seven years, known as the Tribulation. On the bright side, those who are faithful Christians at the beginning of the seven years will be raptured (i.e. vanish off to heaven) and so avoid the Tribulation. The Left Behind series is about people who become true believers after the Rapture, so they get to deal with the hard times. At the end of the seven years, God will show up and put an end to all evil forever. (But the royalties should keep rolling in for a long time after that.)

The timeline goes:

444 BCE - Third decree to rebuild Jerusalem.
+ 7x7 years
395 BCE - Jerusalem rebuilt
+ 62x7 years
38 CE - Coming of Jesus

Wait, what? Wasn't Jesus born around 4 BCE and didn't he die around 33 CE? How embarrassing for this view! Fortunately, its advocates have a response: these are prophetic years. Prophetic years have exactly 360 days in them, not 365.242 days! Shorter years move the end of the first 69x7 years back to some point in Jesus' life.

So after some fiddling with the start point and some fiddling with the definition of a year, we end up with a 69x7 year time span that ends during Jesus' life. Amazing! Then by introducing the notion of a giant pause button on this whole affair, we end up with a series of bestselling novels about the seven year Tribulation to come. Terrifying!

The Catholic View

The Seventy Weeks prophecy, New American Bible style:
    “Seventy weeks are decreed for your people and for your holy city: Then transgression will stop and sin will end, guilt will be expiated, everlasting justice will be introduced, vision and prophecy ratified, and a holy of holies will be anointed.
   Know and understand: From the utterance of the word that Jerusalem was to be rebuilt until there is an anointed ruler, there shall be seven weeks. In the course of sixty-two weeks it shall be rebuilt, with squares and trenches, in time of affliction.
   After the sixty-two weeks an anointed one shall be cut down with no one to help him. And the people of a leader who will come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary. His end shall come in a flood; until the end of the war, which is decreed, there will be desolation.
   For one week he shall make a firm covenant with the many; half the week he shall abolish sacrifice and offering; in their place shall be the desolating abomination until the ruin that is decreed is poured out upon the desolator.” Dan 9:24-27, NAB
Some very significant differences here!

In place of the "commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem" which the Left Behind view interpreted as a specific human decree, we have "the word that Jerusalem was to be rebuilt." The footnote in this Catholic translation interprets it as "the time of Jeremiah's prophecy." Remember how Daniel 9 starts with Daniel reading Jeremiah's 70 year prophecy, praying about the 70 year prophecy, then receiving an answer while he was still praying? This interpretation makes sense of the context: the 70 year prophecy is being extended into a 70x7 year prophecy. It's not obvious from either English translation, but the Hebrew words line up on this decree/word/commandment. There's nothing in the text that demands it be understood as a human decree at all!

In place of "Messiah the Prince," we have "an anointed ruler." The syntax also makes it clear that this anointed ruler will come after the first 7x7 years, not the entire 69x7 years. Who is this ruler? Cyrus the Great. This is the Persian fellow who took down Babylon and let the Jews go home. He may not have been the messiah, but he was a messiah, a title he was explicitly given in Isaiah 45:1.

Because of the time gap that follows, the "anointed ruler" (Cyrus) and "an anointed one" must be different people. The footnote in this translation says this second anointed one (or second messiah) is Onias III. Who?! Remember that Seleucid king I mentioned above who tried to force Jews to either commit sacrilege or die? The king was Antiochus IV Epiphanes and he kicked off this PR campaign by murdering a high priest: Onias III.

The Real Deal

In fact, there's a very popular understanding of the entire book of Daniel as being written during Antiochus' reign of terror. As the editors of the New American Bible say in Daniel's introduction:
"This work was composed during the bitter persecution carried on by Antiochus IV Epiphanes (167–164 B.C.) and was written to strengthen and comfort the Jewish people in their ordeal." (source, which is worth reading in full)
Why such a radically different understanding of what Daniel is about? One reason is that Protestants are, by and large, ignorant about what happened in the four centuries of Jewish history between the return from exile (the end of their Old Testaments) and the time of Jesus. Meanwhile, Catholic Old Testaments have more books! One of these books, 1 Maccabees, is specifically about Antiochus IV and the rebellion against him. Its first chapter tells how Antiochus made a "covenant" with foreign nations and started promoting foreign customs and foreign laws. It tells how Antiochus plundered the temple, later burned Jerusalem, and then defiled the temple:
"On the fifteenth day of the month Kislev, in the year one hundred and forty-five, the king erected the desolating abomination upon the altar of burnt offerings, and in the surrounding cities of Judah they built pagan altars." 1 Macc 1:54, NAB
Sound familiar? To a Catholic (or Jew) familiar with these stories, the figure that Left Behind fans call "Antichrist" is instantly recognizable as Antiochus IV. Remember, it's the defeat of his forces and the renewal of the temple afterward that is celebrated yearly during Hanukkah.

So it's not just that Left Behind fans are a little off; they're overlooking a reasonable explanation involving events from over two millennia ago. If they spent a little less time fantasizing about "end times," and a little more time studying the Bible outside of their echo chambers, they might even realize it themselves.

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