The 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 of Daniel” is one of the most disputed passages in the Bible (Daniel 9:24-27). One of the few aspects on which there is agreement is that the period of “seventy sevens” represents 490 years. Beyond that, interpretations diverge in several directions.
The first critical question in unraveling this difficult prophecy is determining the “start date” of the 490-year period - What historical event marked the commencement of the Seventy Weeks?
The passage pegs its beginning point to the “going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem” (Daniel 9:25King James Version). Conservative commentators most often assume this refers to an edict issued by a Persian king to rebuild Jerusalem. The four dates and edicts proposed most often are:
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 many conservative scholars. A start-date of 458 B.C. places the termination of the 490-year period around 32 A.D., within two to three years of Christ’s crucifixion. This view assumes the prophecy envisions the ministry of Jesus as its endpoint based on the redemptive goals predicted in Daniel 9:24. This proposal has much to commend it.
But problems remain. The passage locates an “anointed one” at the end of the first “seven weeks,” presumably forty-nine years or in 409 B.C. if this assumption is correct. But that is nowhere near the time of Christ. This problem is “resolved” by rearranging the two subdivisions of seven and sixty-two “weeks” in verse 25 so that the city is rebuilt during the first “seven weeks.”  Then the “anointed one” is moved to the end of the combined periods of seven and sixty-two “weeks.” This rearrangement is disallowed by the prepositions and structure of the Hebrew sentence.
Further, verses 26-27 of Daniel chapter 9 specify that during the seventieth “week” the “anointed one will be cut off,” the city and sanctuary will be destroyed, and a malevolent figure will cause the cessation of the daily sacrifice. While Jesus was “cut off,” the destruction of the city, the temple and the end of the sacrificial system did not occur until 70 A.D. In other words, only some of the predicted events from Daniel’s prophecy fit within the chronology of this proposed scenario.
The fourth option is preferred by the Dispensationalist interpretation. It assumes there is a time gap of indeterminate length between the sixty-ninth and the seventieth week of the prophecy. Dispensationalism also believes the redemptive goals of the prophecy point to Christ’s redemptive work. A commencement date of 444 B.C. locates the end of the sixty-ninth week at approximately 39 A.D. based on 365-day solar years. A date of 39 A.D. is too late to fit within Christ’s ministry.
To compensate, Dispensationalism claims that the 490 years of the prophecy are based on 360-day lunar years, which would locate the end of the first sixty-nine weeks around 32 AD. The final seven years or “seventieth week” is then assumed to point to the Great Tribulation just prior to the return of Jesus and removed to a yet future point.
However, the Dispensationalist interpretation has several problems, two in particular:
1.    Assuming a “time gap” about which the passage says nothing. There is no hint in Daniel 9:24-27 of any lapse in the seventy weeks.
2.   Ancient Israel did not have a 360-day lunar year. Israel used a “luni-solar” calendar with lunar months and solar years.
The Israelites were aware that the solar year was 365-days in length. Their calendar was based on lunar months tied to the phases of the moon and a solar year. The annual seasons were kept in synch by periodically adding a “leap” month to the year (approximately every third year). The calendar proposed by Dispensationalism was never followed by Israel.
Each of the four proposals has problems, most critically, the assumption that the “commandment to rebuild” Jerusalem refers to a royal decree by a Persian ruler. If this assumption is correct, there are four plausible options. This makes the selection process subjective; the interpreter selects the date that locates the end of the period closest to the assumed termination point.
The passage itself never states that this “commandment” will be issued by a Persian ruler; that is an assumption made by interpreters.
But the Hebrew clause more correctly reads, “the going forth of the WORD (dabarto return (shuband to build Jerusalem.” The Hebrew noun dabar has the basic sense “word” or “thing.” It is the term used numerous times for the “word of Yahweh.” It does not mean “commandment” or “decree.” The noun shub is a word for “repent” or “return,” not “rebuild.” It refers to the “return” of Israel to rebuild the city. The context of the prophecy provides the specific “word of Yahweh” meant (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” dabar in verse 25 has the definite article prefixed to it in the Hebrew clause. This means a specific and known “word” is in view. The only one in the preceding context to which it can point 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. God pronounces judgments and predicts future events through Daniel and angels, not pagan rulers (Daniel 1:1, 2:21).
At the start of the chapter, Daniel was contemplating Jeremiah’s original prediction that Judah would be taken captive to Babylon for seventy years. Two possible passages are in view, or both:
(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 turn again (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 Jeremiah fit the chronology of the book of Daniel. It places the start of the seventy-years captivity in the first year of king Nebuchadnezzar or 605 B.C. The several verbal links to the passages from Jeremiah are telling, and the prayer of contrition by Daniel is precisely what Jeremiah’s prophecy required before Yahweh would return the Jews to Jerusalem (“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)
Daniel was contemplating Jeremiah’s prophecy of the seventy-years captivity. The answer given by Gabriel was not a declaration of an entirely new prophetic period, but an expansion of the original seventy years; full restoration would have to wait until the end of this extended period. This means that the original seventy-year period is included in the 490 years; both periods begin from the same starting point, Judah taken captive by Babylon.
In Jeremiah’s prophecy, 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 complex to anything approaching its former glory.
This lengthy period is anticipated when Gabriel divides the seventy weeks into three subdivisions. The first “seven weeks” or, presumably, forty-nine years end with “an anointed one, a leader (nagid).” During the second division of sixty-two weeks (434 years), the city is rebuilt “with street and ditch, even in troublous times.” 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. when Daniel was carried to Babylon and the final destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. (Daniel 1:1-2). This means the “start date” of the “seventy weeks” lies between 605 and 586 B.C., which places its termination point before the ministry of Jesus.
Based on dates provided in Jeremiah, the two original prophecies about the Captivity are datable to 605 B.C. and 598 B.C. (Jeremiah 25:10-1429:10-14). This evidence should be weighed carefully considering the prophetic career of Daniel that spanned the period from the first attack on Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in 605 B.C. until “the first year of king Cyrus,” approximately sixty-seven years. Daniel’s chronological framework takes priority when determining the prophecy’s “start date.”
In short, based on Daniel’s theology, the literary context and chronology, the “word” that marked the start of the “seventy weeks” was the “word of Yahweh” given by Jeremiah, not an edict by a later Persian king. That word was given in the first year of king Nebuchadnezzar or 605 B.C., the same year Daniel was exiled to Babylon.
A date of 605 B.C. creates difficulties, chiefly, an end date around 115 B.C. does not coincide with the predicted events described in Daniel 9:26-27. However, that is the lay of the land, the starting point for the interpreter. The other proposed solutions all require manipulation of the text and the creation of things like “time gaps” never mentioned by it.