In a blog entry noting that the book of Nehemiah had been corroborated by a recent archeological find, I explained the significance of that find as it pertains to a prophecy in the book of Daniel. It is this prophecy that I would like to address in this entry in honor of the Easter holiday.
First I would like to present to the reader a mystery from history. It is well known that in first century Judea there was rampant speculation that the arrival of the promised Messiah was imminent. There were even many people claiming to be that Messiah. The book of Acts records Gamaliel listing by name several such claimants and their fates: Theudas was killed and his followers routed and Judas the Galilean was likewise hunted down and killed. The Jewish historian Josephus also speaks of ‘false messiahs.’ The mystery is not why so many messianic claims would emerge but also why after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD they would cease altogether.
Not only that, but the entire shape of Judaism changed. Prior to 70AD, Judaism centered itself around the sacrificial system but after 70 AD, the rabbis took over and Judaism became rabbinical in nature, the sacrificial system abandoned. Judaism prior to 70AD was an entirely different Judaism then what came later and even what exists today. This demands an explanation.
You might suggest as your explanation that the rise of the Messiahs was a natural outgrowth of an oppressed people, but interestingly after 70AD the Jews stopped looking for a Messiah- an anointed King who would vindicate their nation among the nations. I suppose there must be some Jews who are still waiting for such a King (and if a third temple emerges in Jerusalem we’ll be sure to meet them) but in the main, the ‘suffering servant’ passages of Isaiah and apparent prophecies of the Messiah as a person have been replaced with interpretations suggesting that perhaps the nation of Israel is itself the Messiah. The Jews did not stop being oppressed but they did stop looking for a Messiah. Why?
Let me tell you why the first century Jews were looking for a Messiah with such fervor: according to their math, the Messiah was due. Now, they were expecting a conquering hero not a suffering savior, but nonetheless they were expecting someone to come. What math you say?
We now turn to the book of Daniel. Daniel 9:24-27, if you please:
[An Angel speaking to Daniel:] 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.
Know and understand this: From the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven ‘sevens,’ and sixty-two ‘sevens.’ It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench in times of trouble. After the sixty-two ‘sevens’ the Anointed One will be cut off and will have nothing. The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary…
The prophecy goes on for just a bit but this is the part I want to focus on. The bolded part is pretty interesting in my opinion. It sounds a lot like what Jesus is said to have done and if it applies to Jesus certain Christian groups may wish to consider what it means that ‘vision and prophecy’ have been sealed up. At any rate, clearly enough, according to this prophecy some major stuff was going to be going down.
But now look at the italicized part. “From the issuing of the decree…” Let us not get bogged down on whether or not Daniel was written before or after that decree was issued. Skeptics, cynics and Liberals of course have argued that Daniel must have been written after the decree was issued because of course there is no such thing as prophecy. Let’s set that aside, because no one believes that Daniel was written after the time of Jesus. This prophecy gives us an exact date by which to start our calculations about ‘sevens.’ What if we count it all out and it turns out that Jesus was the only one around that could possibly have fulfilled this prophecy?
The Jews had many reasons to expect a Messiah, but the Daniel prophecy is the only one that sets a timeline. This is why the decree mentioned in Nehemiah becomes important. It helps us set the precise date:
In the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Araxerxes… “…let [the king] send me to the city in Judah where my fathers are buried so that I can rebuild it.” … It pleased the king to send me… Nehemiah 2
This can be calculated to be between Feb. 27th and March 28th, 444 BC. Now we need to know how to calculate out “there will be seven ‘sevens,’ and sixty-two ‘sevens.’ ”
The reader is certainly going to have some questions as we go on and rather then try to answer them all let me give you a couple of links that might address them. They will also help show how much study it takes to grasp Christianity before one summarily dismisses it. Here they are: http://www.gotquestions.org/seventy-sevens.html and http://www.angelfire.com/ok/bibleteaching/seventiethweek.html
A ‘seven’ (or ‘week’ is the Hebrew word here) is derived from the passage just earlier where Daniel is ruminating on Jeremiah’s prophecy that ‘the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years.’
Our ‘seven sevens’ and ‘sixty-two sevens’ then comes out to … 7*7 + 62* 7 which is 483. 483 what? After further study (see the previous links to start with), one concludes that it is 483 years.
444 BC plus 483 years is 39 AD. Hmmm. Off by 6-9 years. We’ve forgotten something, though. Our understanding of a year is based on the 365 day Gregorian calendar. The Jews, like the Babylonians, operated on a 360 day lunar calendar. So, let’s back the truck up.
483*360= 173,880 days. 173,880 days converted back to our 365.24219879 day calendar is 476 years and 25 days.
This brings us to the month of the Jewish passover in 33 AD, when Jesus was entering Jerusalem for his betrayal, crucifixion… and… the finishing transgression, the end to sin, the atonement for wickedness, the ushering in of everlasting righteousness and the sealing up vision and prophecy and the anointing of the most holy?
In fact, depending on how far you wish to take this, you can work it out that the prophecy ends just five days before the Jewish passover. Do we have any accounting for the whereabouts of any historical personage for this day? Just one that I know of, Jesus:
John 12:1 points out that Jesus appeared in Bethany “Six days before the Passover.” That is six days before the passover. We wanted the fifth day.
Read on to verse 12…. “The next day the great crowd that had come for the Feast heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches out to meet him, shouting, … “Blessed is the King of Israel!”
Don’t you find that to be a remarkable thing to have documented at the precise- apparently to the day- end of a prophecy that was marked out almost 500 years earlier?
Jesus was the only candidate for the prophecy and the people responded as such. No doubt, part of the devastation that the followers of Jesus felt after he was crucified had to be because they were so sure and yet here it was that Jesus died at the hands of the Romans like so many other ‘messiahs.’ Clearly, they forgot the rest of the prophecy: 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.
They kept thinking that the Anointed one was coming to restore Israel to its glory, but Daniel clearly states that something different is in mind.
Could it be that that ‘something different’ was a resurrection and a restoration of something bigger than Israel, the human race? It is no surprise that the first Christians were Jews. It is also no surprise that the Jews were expecting Messiahs during this time frame in part because the math of Daniel put the Messiah as emerging during this period. After the time period elapsed, one either had to take Jesus or re-interpret the prophecy in radically new ways. When the temple was destroyed (the rest of Daniel’s prophecy speaks of that) that also ended the sacrificial system driving the establishment of the rabbinical form of Judaism.
So, if you are a skeptic what do you think? Are you unimpressed by a prophecy made hundreds of years being fulfilled to the day when Jesus entered Jerusalem, a conquering hero in the eyes of the masses? For some of you (Or just one of you), concerned that the resurrection does not prove divinity, do you not agree that an ability to transcend time itself in order to accurately foretell events hundreds of years later is an attribute of divine action?
This post has gone on quite long and I’m sorry about that. I can’t get at all the questions or concerns or objections. I would encourage the reader to go deeper. The Dead Sea Scrolls and Josephus, for example, help highlight the messianic fervor of the region and the DSS delve into many prophecies concerning the messiah as the Jews expected him. And some of what I’ve recounted can be legitimately challenged to some degree (there are multiple decrees, for example), although as both of the links I provided point out, no matter how you slice it you come out right during the time frame of Jesus’ life and ministry.
Go deeper and I think you will see that Christianity is not like the man who fired an arrow a hundred yards into the sky and then when it landed drew a circle around it and declared “Bullseye!” but rather like the man who first went and painted his circle a hundred yards off, and then fired off his arrow… and hit his mark. The former is an accident and an illusion. The latter is an expert marksman. God fired off an arrow right through time itself and hit his mark with precision. Are you impressed?
If not, just what on earth would it take?