Start Date of the Seventy Weeks

SYNOPSIS:  The date of the commencement of the Seventy Weeks prophecy is provided in the first paragraph of Chapter 9 of Daniel – The prophecy of the Babylonian Captivity by Jeremiah.

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The “Seventy Weeks” prophecy of the Book of Daniel is one of the most perplexing and disputed passages in the Bible. One of the few aspects on which there is a general agreement is the length of the period described as “seventy sevens” in the book or 490 years. Beyond this figure, interpretations diverge on every other aspect of the prophecy - (Daniel 9:24-27).

The first critical question that must be answered before we can begin to unravel this difficult passage is – What is the “start date” of the 490-years period? What historical event or events marked the commencement of the “Seventy Weeks”?

The passage pegs its beginning to the “going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem” (King James Version). A common assumption is this refers to an edict issued by a Persian king to rebuild Jerusalem. Four dates with possible corresponding edicts have been proposed: 
  1. 538 B.C. - Cyrus the Great issued a decree to free the Jews to return to Judea to build the Temple (2 Chronicles 36:22-23, Ezra 1:1-4, 6:1-5).
  2. 517 B.C. - King Darius confirmed this decree of Cyrus (Ezra 6:6-12).
  3. 458 B.C. – King Artaxerxes authorized Ezra to lead a contingent of Jewish exiles to return to Jerusalem (Ezra 7:11-26).
  4. 445-444 B.C. - Artaxerxes authorized Nehemiah to repair the walls of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 1:3; 2:4-8).
The third option is preferred by some more conservative scholars. A commencement date of 458 B.C. places the termination of the 490 years around A.D. 32, within two to three years of the crucifixion of Jesus. Of course, this conclusion assumes his death fulfilled the redemptive goals presented in Verse 24. At first glance, this proposal has much to commend it since, apparently, the numbers fit.

(Daniel 9:24) – “Seventy weeks are divided concerning your people and concerning your holy city—to put an end to the transgression, and fill up the measure of sin, and put a covering over iniquity, and bring in the righteousness of ages, and affix a seal the vision and prophecy, and anoint the holy of holies.

But there are problems. The passage in Daniel locates an “anointed one” at the end of the first “seven weeks” of the prophecy, presumably, forty-nine years into the 490-years period, or about 409 B.C. if the “seventy sevens” began in 458 B.C. This is nowhere near the time of Christ.

To minimize this problem, some commentators rearrange and combine the first two divisions of the prophecy, the “seven sevens” and the “sixty-two sevens” so that the “anointed one” does not appear until the end of the “sixty-two sevens” and the “seven sevens,” or “sixty-nine sevens,” presumably, after 483 years. However, this solution is disallowed by the prepositions and structure of the Hebrew sentence, which reads, “from the going forth of the word to return and build Jerusalem until an anointed one, a leader, seven sevens.” In the Hebrew sentence, the two temporal prepositions are prefixed to the nouns they modify (i.e., “from-going forth,” and “until-messiah”).

Another problem - During the final or seventieth “week” the “anointed one is cut off” and a malevolent figure causes the cessation of the daily sacrifice in the Sanctuary. While Jesus was “cut off” by death, the sacrificial system in the Temple did not cease until A.D. 70, forty years after the death of Christ. In other words, only some of the predicted events from the “Seventy Weeks” prophecy appear to fit the chronology of this proposal. This also raises the issue of there being two “anointed ones” in the prophecy; one at the end of the first “seven sevens,” another approximately 483 years later.

The fourth option assumes there is a time gap of “indeterminate length” between the sixty-ninth and the seventieth “week” of the prophecy, assuming a start date in 444 B.C. This view also links the redemptive goals of Verse 24 to the death of Jesus. But a commencement date of 444 B.C. places the end of the first sixty-nine “weeks” in approximately 39 A.D. based on 365-day solar years, a date too late to fit within Christ’s ministry.

To compensate, this view assumes the 490 years are based on 360-day lunar years. This locates the end of the sixty-nine “weeks” in A.D. 32. The final seven years or the “seventieth week” is then assumed to point to the Great Tribulation prior to the return of Jesus and, therefore, is removed to a yet future point. A “time gap” is then inserted between the first and second halves of the seventieth week. But this proposal has several problems, including:
  1. The passage nowhere even hints at any “time gap.”
  2. There is no hint in Daniel 9:24-27 of any time gaps anywhere in the “seventy sevens.”
  3. Ancient Israel did not have a 360-day lunar year. Instead, Israel used a “luni-solar” calendar with lunar months but solar years.
  4. The Book of Daniel uses the years of a king’s reign for its Chronology (e.g., the “second year of king Nebuchadnezzar”). While both the Babylonian and Persian empires used lunar months in their calendars, the years of a king’s rule were based on 365-day solar years.
The Israelites were aware the solar year is 365-days in length. The Hebrew calendar was based on lunar months tied to the phases of the moon, combined with a solar year. The annual seasons were kept in synch by adding “leap” months periodically when required (approximately every third year); so, also, the Babylonian calendar year.

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Each of the proposed start dates tied to Persian edicts has problems, but, most critically, is the assumption by all of them that the “commandment to rebuild” Jerusalem refers to a royal decree by a pagan ruler. If the assumption is correct, there are four plausible options, which makes the selection process subjective - The interpreter selects the date that locates the end of the 490-years period nearest to the assumed termination point of the prophecy.

Moreover, the passage never states that the “commandment to rebuild Jerusalem” refers to an edict or anything else issued by a Persian ruler - That is only an assumption.

The Hebrew clause more correctly reads, “The going forth of the WORD (dabarto return (shuband to build (banahJerusalem.” The Hebrew noun dabar has the basic sense, “word.” It is the same term used numerous times in the Hebrew Bible for the “word of Yahweh” (Strong’s #H1697). It does NOT mean “commandment” or “edict.”

The Hebrew noun shub is used often for “repent” or “return” (Strong’s #H7725), not for “rebuild.” It refers to the “return” of Israel from captivity to rebuild the city. The second infinitive or banah means, “to build” (Strong’s - H1129). Note well - It does not mean to “rebuild” but, simply, “to build.” Thus, the clause reads, more correctly, “The going forth of the word to return and to build Jerusalem.”

The context of Chapter 9 identifies by name the “word of Yahweh” that marked the commencement of the “seventy sevens”:

(Daniel 9:1-2) - “In the first year of Darius the son of Ahasuerus, of the seed of the Medes, who was made king over the realm of the Chaldeans, in the first year of his reign I, Daniel, understood by the books the number of the years whereof the word (dabarof Yahweh came to Jeremiah the prophet for the accomplishing (malé) of the desolations (khorbahof Jerusalem, even seventy years.”
The “word” or dabar in Verse 25 has a definite article or “the” prefixed to it in the Hebrew clause. This means it is a specific and known “word.” The only such “word” in the entire context to which it can refer is the “word of Yahweh” referenced in Verse 2.
In the theology of Daniel, it is Yahweh who reigns over the kingdoms of men, to “set up and remove kings,” as He sees fit. He pronounces judgments and predicts future events through Daniel and His angels, not through pagan rulers (Daniel 1:1, 2:21).

At the start of Chapter 9, Daniel is contemplating Jeremiah’s original prediction. Two possible passages are in view:

(Jeremiah 25:10-14) – “The word that came to Jeremiah concerning all the people of Judah, in the fourth year of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah (the same was the first year of Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon…the whole land shall be a desolation (khorbahand shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years…when the seventy years are accomplished (maléI will punish the king of Babylon and that nation.”
(Jeremiah 29:10-14) – “Now these are the words of the letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem unto the residue of the elders of the captivity, and to the priests, and to the prophets, and to all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had carried away captive from Jerusalem to Babylon…After seventy years are accomplished (malé) for Babylon, I will visit you, and perform my good word toward you, in causing you TO RETURN (shubto this place…And you shall seek me and find me, when you search for me with all your heart. And I will be found of you, saith Yahweh, and I will RETURN (shubyour captivity, and I will gather you from all the nations, and from all the places whither I have driven you, and I will RETURN you (shubto the place whence I caused you to be carried away captive.”

The predictions of the prophet Jeremiah fit the chronology of the Book of Daniel, which places the start of the seventy-years captivity in the first year of king Nebuchadnezzar, 605 B.C. The verbal links to the passages from the Book of Jeremiah are telling, and, in his prayer of contrition, Daniel does precisely what the prophecy of Jeremiah required (“And you shall seek me and find me, when you search for me with all your heart. And I will be found of you” - Daniel 1:1-2, Jeremiah 29:10-14).

The answer given Daniel by Gabriel is not a declaration of an entirely new prophetic period, but, instead, an expansion of the original seventy years - Full restoration would have to wait until the end of this extended period. The original seventy-years is included in the 490-years period, but both periods begin from the same starting point - When Judah was taken captive by Babylon.

In the prophecy by Jeremiah, the city of Jerusalem was to lie “desolate” for seventy years until the end of Babylon’s rule (“The whole land shall be a desolation and shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years…when the seventy years are accomplished ”). That is precisely what occurred. However, although the Jews began to return and rebuild after 538 B.C., it took generations to restore Jerusalem and its Temple to anything remotely resembling its former glory.

This expanded period is anticipated when Gabriel divides the seventy weeks into three divisions. The first “seven weeks” end with “an anointed one, a leader (nagid).” During the second division, the sixty-two “weeks,” the city is rebuilt, “with street and ditch, even in troublous times.” Thus, the prophecy envisions a gradual restoration over several hundred years, one punctuated by occasional resistance and trials.

There were several removals of exiles from Jerusalem between 605 B.C. and the final destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. This means the “start date” of the “seventy weeks” occurred between 605 and 586 B.C. Regardless of when it began within this range, the termination point of the prophecy would be long before the life of Jesus, assuming the “seventy sevens” equates to a period of 490 years.

Based on the dates provided in the Book of Jeremiah, the two prophecies about the seventy-years captivity are datable to 605 B.C. and 598 B.C., respectively. This evidence should be weighed carefully considering a prophetic career for Daniel that spanned the entire period from the first attack on Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in 605 B.C. until “the first year of king Cyrus,” or a period covering approximately sixty-seven years. Daniel’s chronological framework should take precedence when determining the prophecy’s “start date.”

In short, based on the theology and the chronology of the Book of Daniel, the “word” that marked the start of the “seventy sevens” was the “word of Yahweh” given by the prophet Jeremiah, not an edict by a later Persian king. That “word” was given in the first year of king Nebuchadnezzar, that is, in 605 B.C., the same year Daniel was exiled to Babylon. The concern of the prophecy centers on the restoration of the people of Israel and the city of Jerusalem, not on the salvation of the world.

A date of 605 B.C. creates difficulties, chiefly, this means an end date around 115 B.C., which does not coincide with the predicted events described in Daniel 9:26-27. However, that is the lay of the land and the starting point for the interpreter. The commonly proposed alternatives require manipulation of the text, assumptions about edicts by pagan kings, the creation of “time gaps,” and calculations based on a lunar year calendar that Israel did not use.

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