The Prophecy of Daniel 9

A strong argument for the truth of the Bible is biblical prophecy. That is, if the Bible contains accurate, specific information about the future, the claims it makes about God are more likely to be true. Whether or not the prophecy actually means God exists may be debatable (maybe it was just time travelling aliens) and that’s a bit beyond what I want to do here. I want to examine one such interesting prophecy, and determine whether it was specific and whether it was fulfilled.

This is a strange kind of argument for me, I spend most of my time on cosmological or teleological or moral arguments. Even historical evidence that Jesus rose from the dead. However I do think that this is valuable, so bear with me as I give it a go.

This kind of argument often makes people nervous because of the stereotype about prophecy arguments, especially ones that contain the dreaded numbers and dates like this one will. I understand and agree that normally this stereotype is deserved. However, I will make every attempt to perform responsible exegesis and make a rational argument. I ask that you don’t write the argument off immediately, and instead actually evaluate it on its own merits.

The text we will be examining is this one from Daniel 9, starting at verse 24. It is a message that the angel Gabriel brings to Daniel, who is lamenting the state of Israel. Please do read the context yourself. Here is the NASB:

24 “Seventy weeks have been decreed for your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to make an end of sin, to make atonement for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy place. 25 So you are to know and discern that from the issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until Messiah the Prince there will be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks; it will be built again, with plaza and moat, even in times of distress. 26 Then after the sixty-two weeks the Messiah will be cut off and have nothing, and the people of the prince who is to come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. And its end will come with a flood; even to the end there will be war; desolations are determined.27 And he will make a firm covenant with the many for one week, but in the middle of the week he will put a stop to sacrifice and grain offering; and on the wing of abominations will come one who makes desolate, even until a complete destruction, one that is decreed, is poured out on the one who makes desolate.”

I summarize the prophecy in this way:

Timeline

  • The command to restore Jerusalem is given.
  • Seven sevens pass.
  • Sixty-two sevens pass. The anointed one comes. The city will be rebuilt. Sometime after the sixty-two sevens, the Anointed One will be put to death and have nothing.
  • The people of “the prince to come” will destroy the city and the temple, and desolation will continue until the end.
  • Durin the seventieth seven: “He” will confirm a covenant with many.
  • Halfway through the seventieth seven: “He” will put an end to sacrifice and offering.
  • After (or perhaps at) the seventieth seven: On the wing of abominations, one comes who makes desolate, and he will be destroyed. This probably refers to the people of the “prince to come”.
  • After seventy sevens: Transgression is finished, sin comes to an end, wickedness is atoned for, everlasting righteousness is brought in, prophecy and vision are sealed up, the “Most Holy” is anointed.

 

The “sevens” are groups of seven years, not weeks

We note that the passage literally only says “seven sevens” and “seventy sevens” and “sixty-two sevens”, at no point does it indicate that these are weeks. Now the word for “sevens” and “weeks” in Hebrew is the same, for obvious reasons. Some translators have chosen in this passage to render it as “weeks” instead of “sevens”, but there is no indication in the text that it refers to days.

Similar extra-biblical prophecies also use the “week of years” concept, for example with the Dead Sea Scroll 4Q390 fragment 2.

In light of the 70 years in v2, it seems reasonable that this also refers to a period of years. The context indicates that we should be thinking in years, not in weeks.

 

This prophecy was written far before Jesus came

While I am a Christian and I hold to the traditional position that the entire book was written by Daniel at around 600 BCE, I will deliberately make my argument weaker here. I will assume that it was written far later than that. I will assume that the most critical and the most sceptical scholars are right. Again, I don’t actually think they are, but I will assume this because I don’t want to bother refuting them here, I don’t need to. The latest date they give for the book is 164 BCE[1]. This is still over a century earlier than Jesus would come.

 

The starting date of the seven and sixty-two sevens is 457 BCE

This is when the order goes out from Artaxerxes 1. This is a decree given to Ezra, this is also recorded in scripture that was written before Christ. The exact date of the decree is given in the book of Ezra, but we will just consider the year (rather than month and date) because I don’t want to mess around with complicated Jewish leap year rules, and because there is probably some measure of approximation going on anyway.

 

The seven and sixty-two sevens come to an end at 27 CE

We start with -457, and we add (69)x(7) years, and then we add one because there is no year 0. It’s not obvious what is supposed to happen after the first set of sevens, that is, after 49 years. It may be divided for reasons of numerology (7 is of course a very symbolic number in Hebrew thought) or it may indicate when the completion of the restoration of Jerusalem will occur. Or perhaps something else that I haven’t thought of, or that history in general is unaware of.

 

This indicates that Jesus is the Messiah spoken of in the passage

One of the things the prophecy predicts is the anointing of the “Most Holy”. The translators add the word “place” as they argue that it is implied since the “most holy” normally refers to the temple. (But this isn’t actually true, it refers to the temple sometimes but not even the majority of the time). But given that Jesus is the most holy, and that Jesus compares His body to the temple in several places, I think we can reasonably say that this is actually fulfilled in Jesus.

Historians think Jesus’ baptism occurred between 27 and 29. We are certainly in that range. Jesus’ baptism is an extremely significant event recorded in all Gospels, marking the start of His public ministry. This is when Jesus appeared in history.

Then halfway through the last week, there is desolation, and the Messiah is cut ofg. This puts Jesus’ death 3.5 years (probably approximate, but we will use this figure) after 27, which is 30.5.

Historians believe Jesus was crucified between 30 and 36 CE. We are again in that range.

And of course, Christians claim that Jesus’ death brings an end to sin and wickedness by atoning for it, and marks the end of the age of prophecy as Jesus gives God’s fullest and final revelation. See Hebrews 1. We also believe that Jesus instituted the New Covenant through His death and resurrection and that in doing so Jesus put a stop to the offerings and sacrifices at the temple. All of these things are specifically mentioned in the prophecy.

The events in Jesus’ life occur at the correct time, and they do the correct things. The most holy is anointed, sin is atoned for, the Messiah is cut off, a covenant is affirmed, sacrifice is brought to an end, and prophecy is brought to an end.

 

Who is the prince who is to come?

There are several options here. It seems clear that what he does is destroy the temple (see the similar language in chapter 11). This occurred in 70 AD, some time after the full 70 sevens of the prophecy are complete.

So the “prince” may refer to a particular Roman leader, perhaps the emperor at the time Vespatian. More likely is Titus who was the Roman commander at the siege of Jerusalem who would later become emperor. Or it may indeed be Satan. I leave this undetermined. I don’t know if we have enough information to determine who it is. There is evidence elsewhere in Daniel, but I will refrain from discussing it here. It doesn’t matter for the point I want to make.

 

The critical/skeptical interpretation fails

Many, many possible interpretations of this passage have been given by sceptical scholars. I won’t go through all of them in depth, but I will give some broad criticism. The most likely one is that the Messiah spoken of isn’t the Jewish Messiah spoken of elsewhere, but an anointed leader of the Jewish people. Most commonly, Onias III. He died outside Jerusalem in 171/0 BCE. If we take the latest possible date for Daniel, it was written around 164, around 6 years after his death, and so the skeptic argues that the author knew about this, and backdated a prophecy referring to it.

This doesn’t seem to work, however, as the timing doesn’t match up. There is no “word” that goes out 483 or 490 years before Onias’ death. So the skeptic arbitrarily picks a date earlier than this (often 606 BCE, when Jeremiah’s 70-year prophecy comes to an end), and says that the author of Daniel intended to use this as a starting point made a miscalculation in his dates. You can find examples of this in Montgomery (p393) and Porteous (p134). Alternatively, they try to fit it by allowing the sevens to overlap or have gaps between them. They’ve got a theory, and they want to fit the evidence to it, rather than letting the evidence inform their theory.

Apart from this, it is not clear how Onias III is supposed to have accomplished the goals set out at the start of the prophecy. He did not bring an end to wickedness and institute eternal righteousness.

Further, there was no destruction of the temple or of Jerusalem here. Yes, they were besieged and damaged, but not destroyed.

This methodology fails. The skeptic here rules out genuine prophecy a priori, and so has to look for a figure that fits this assumption. But no good candidates exist. And if we don’t rule out prophecy a priori, and we allow it to be possible (without even assuming that it happens), then we find a figure that clearly fits: Christ. We should start where the prophecy starts: at the word going out. We should look for that as the indication of the person that the passage is intending to talk about.

 

This prophecy is evidence for the supernatural origin of the Bible

I think that we can reasonably confidently say that if Daniel could accurately know precise details of the far future, this indicates that something supernatural was going on. I would be interested to see how the skeptic could agree that Daniel knew this, centuries before it happened, but didn’t do so supernaturally.

 

Further Reading

 

 

 

 

Saturday Links 11/8/18

Saturday Links 4/8/18

Historical Evidence for the Resurrection

Introduction

This argument is largely an adaptation of arguments previously made by many apologists, so if it seems familiar I have likely stolen some ideas. I’ll investigate some facts around the supposed resurrection and try to work out what the best explanation is.

Before we begin I will state that for the purposes of this discussion I will be treating the works contained within the bible as historical documents (that is, documents from history), not as scripture or inerrant or even reliable. I hold these positions, but to assume them here would be circular reasoning. I shall attempt to come at them from a neutral position, without assuming anything about their reliability that I can’t back up with sources from respected historians. I will also attempt to take the consensus of experts in their field as the default position for the purposes of this argument.

Also before we begin, I will just state that we are certain that Jesus existed. Ehrman is the most respected non-Christian NT historian I can think of and he compared the belief that Jesus didn’t exist to belief in Young Earth Creationism. There is virtually unanimous consensus that Jesus existed among NT scholars, and even the rare proponents of Christ Myth Theory admit that they are basically alone in their beliefs. It is not a hypothesis worth considering, given scholarship on the issue. If this is a problem for you, you should probably read some more on the issue. Ehrman dealt with this issue here and here.

 

Empty Tomb

The first thing we have to establish is that Jesus was crucified and buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. This first point is largely uncontroversial, Ehrman writes that the crucifixion is as sure as anything in history1 and that Jesus was most likely buried in the aforementioned tomb2. Ehrman has since changed his mind on the tomb for what I consider to be dubious reasons (read here for more on why I disagree with Ehrman), but other important scholars like Géza Vermes3 and Dale Allison4 still assert that Jesus was buried roughly as the Gospels describe. Gary Habermas is a noted expert on the facts surrounding the resurrection, and has surveyed that around 75% of relevant scholars affirm the empty tomb.5

Looking at the claim that the women who found the tomb found it empty, we have a few ways of evaluating it. When discussing biblical events, scholars have come up with a few heuristics that allow us to determine reliability. The empty tomb accounts satisfy the criteria of multiple attestation, lack of legendary embellishment, embarrassing features of the narrative, use of proper names, public knowledge of the burial and the tomb’s location.

It is notable that throughout history, from Celsus to modern scholars, opponents of Christianity have tried to explain the empty tomb rather than deny it. According to reports that are found in Matthew 28:11-15, Justin Martyr (Dialogue with Trypho 108) and Tertullian (On Spectacles 30), for almost two centuries or more, the Jewish leaders tried to explain that the tomb was empty because Jesus’ disciples stole His body. This means that the Jewish hierarchy even acknowledged the fact that Jesus’ body was no longer there.

It is attested to in every Gospel, and a strong argument can be made that the creed discussed in the next section also includes the implication of an empty tomb. According to the late historian of ancient Rome and fellow at Oxford, A. N. Sherwin-White, “even two generations are too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historic core of the oral tradition.” And with respect to historical reconstruction, he says that “we are seldom in the happy position of dealing at only one remove with a contemporary source.” The empty tomb, in light of the multiple reasonably close sources attesting to it, is quite likely. If you are still unconvinced of the empty tomb, I’d like to hear an alternate explanation for the early beliefs and accounts, and why your explanation is better than mine.

 

Apostle’s Beliefs

Ehrman also tells us that the legend of the resurrection began at the latest two years after Jesus was crucified6. Ehrman refers to an early Christian source, a creed found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5. A very early Christian creed, which James Dunn dates to 18 months after Jesus’ death.7

So we have an early belief that Jesus rose from the dead. Given what we know about the early church from Acts, this must have originated from the Apostles. There is no other plausible source for this creed. Let’s examine the claims of the Apostles as they appear in Acts. Acts 2:29-32 records Peter’s words:

“Fellow Israelites, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it.”

I contend that Acts is fairly reliable in relating to us church history. The accuracy of Acts in most areas is attested to by NT historians, with Martin Henge stating8:

‘Luke-Acts looks back on the destruction of Jerusalem, which is still relatively recent, and moreover is admirably well informed about Jewish circumstances in Palestine, in this respect comparable only to its contemporary Josephus. As Matthew and John attest, that was no longer the case around 15-25 years later; one need only compare the historical errors of the former Platonic philosopher Justin from Neapolis in Samaria, who was born around 100 CE.’

There are some passages of disputed accuracy in Acts, but the above mentioned section is not one of them. I’ve been unable to find any scholar who takes issue with the above passage. And non-Christian scholar Gerd Lüdemann believes that the section is historical9.  We have no reason to doubt it, and it is in line with what we know about the 11 from other sources.

So the disciples that Peter refers to, the 11, believed they were witnesses to the risen Christ. They believed it so strongly that some would die for it, and all would have reasonably believed they would die for it. Notably Peter himself, whose death is recorded by Clement of Alexandria. The 11 are threatened with death or imprisonment as early as Acts 4.

All this points to the fact that the Apostles truly believed what they claimed. We will investigate soon whether they could be correct. It should be noted that I am not claiming “They died for their beliefs, therefore their beliefs are true”. That doesn’t follow. My claim could be better summarized as “They died (or believed they would die) for their beliefs, therefore they truly believed them”.

 

Possible explanations

We have now established that the Apostles all believed they had seen the risen Christ, and that the tomb was empty. Let’s begin then trying to explain these facts

Perhaps the Apostles simply hallucinated Christ’s appearances. This would be plausible, except for the fact that 11 of them would have had to hallucinate simultaneously. And not just hallucinations, but detailed coherent hallucinations that were completely outside the realm of what they expected. This is unlikely. And does nothing to explain the empty tomb.

Some have speculated that someone pretended to be Jesus, or was at least mistaken for him. This again fails to account for the empty tomb. It also seems unlikely given that the 11 knew Jesus well, after spending 3 years with him. It is unlikely they would have all mistaken someone for him, especially to the extent where they would die for it. Remember that these are fairly rational, intelligent people, judging by what they wrote.

Others have speculated that Christ did not really die on the cross, but was taken down and recovered in the tomb. This would be almost as great a miracle as the resurrection itself. Jesus was scourged before he was crucified, a process that often killed. And then there is only one known person to have ever survived crucifixion, who did so after being up there only a few hours and receiving medical attention. Two other people were taken down at the same time and died. It is unlikely Jesus could recover on his own in a cold wet cave.

Some have suggested grave robbers to explain the empty tomb. This does nothing to explain Christ’s appearances to the 11, and is just unlikely. They weren’t all that common, and probably wouldn’t carry off a body with no reason.

Perhaps the women went to the wrong tomb. This is possible, but it doesn’t explain the appearances to the 11. It also doesn’t explain why Peter and John also found the tomb empty, unless they made the same mistake. It is unlikely both groups would.

Now it is true that a combination of these unlikely partial explanations can explain the facts that we’ve looked at. But postulating multiple unlikely events multiplies their already low probabilities, and the resurrection becomes the best explanation.

The McGrew’s (Tim McGrew is the chairman of the Department of Philosophy at Western Michigan University) that I referenced earlier did a similar but more detailed investigation10 to the one I have done and came up with a Bayes factor of 10^44 which is an incomprehensibly huge number. If you think this evidence is weak, then let’s quantify our discussion, and give me an alternative analysis. 

So it seems that based on the evidence at hand, the resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation for the facts we have investigated.

References

  1. A Brief Introduction to the New Testament by Bart D. Ehrman 2008 ISBN 0-19-536934-3 page 136
  2. Bart Ehrman, From Jesus to Constantine: A History of Early Christianity, Lecture 4: “Oral and Written Traditions about Jesus” [The Teaching Company, 2003].
  3. Geza Vermes, The Passion (Penguin, 2005)
  4. Dale Allison, Resurrecting Jesus
  5. Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004
  6. http://www.philvaz.com/apologetics/p96.htm
  7. James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003), page 855.
  8. Hengel & Schwemer, ‘Paul Between Damascus and Antioch: the unknown years’, pp. 7-8 (1997)
  9. Lüdemann quoted by Matthews, ‘Acts and the History of the Earliest Jerusalem Church’, in Cameron & Miller (eds.), ‘Redescribing Christian origins’, pp. 165-169 (2004)
  10. http://www.lydiamcgrew.com/Resurrectionarticlesinglefile.pdf

Textual Variants in the Quran

When I debate with Muslims, they often claim that Islam is superior to Christianity because the Quran that they read is identical to the Quran that Muhammad received, while the bible is corrupted and changed and we are uncertain of the original. This discussion often comes down to a discussion of textual variants: differences between biblical manuscripts. And certainly there are textual variants in the Bible, we make no secret of that. And my Muslim friends will claim that since there are textual variants, the bible cannot be trusted.

However my Muslim friends often overlook the fact that there are textual variants in the history of the Quran as well. And if we apply the same standards to the Quran that we do to the Bible, then we must conclude that the Quran is also unreliable. I don’t make any claims here about whether textual variants make a text unreliable, I only want to point out the double standards.

I won’t examine many textual variants today, perhaps I will in future posts. But for now, here is an interesting example: the Sana’a manuscript. This is a Quranic manuscript, but really it is two Quranic manuscripts. It is an 80 folio collection of Quran manuscripts from 578 CE to 669 CE (radiocarbon dating), which was then erased and rewritten in the late 7th or early 8th century. The lower text has been partially recovered, and while it is a Quranic text it contains significant textual variants. A list of some of these can be found here. Not only does it add or remove or change words in some cases, there is at least one case in which an entire verse is missing. There are textual variants here, no-one would deny that.

So if the Muslim tries to undermine Christianity through use of textual variants in scripture, they undermine themselves. Now it is true that the Bible has more variants than the Quran does. But that is the result of two differences in the transmission of the texts. First, the bible was never controlled by a central authority who enforced a particular textual tradition, as the Quran was. Uthman, as is well known, attempted to destroy any copies of the Quran that differed from his own. And after him, an Islamic authority was always policing these other traditions. That doesn’t mean the tradition that they used as a standard was the accurate one, as we’ve seen there existed other traditions pre-Uthman. But they did attempt to standardize it.

Furthermore, there were simply fewer copies made of the Quran. There exist orders of magnitude more New Testament manuscripts than Quranic manuscripts, and so we would expect there to be orders of magnitude more textual variants within the New Testament textual tradition.

But as James White regularly points out, these facts actually make the Biblical text more reliable, not less. Because no central authority controlled the transmission of the Biblical text, there was no opportunity for anyone to deliberately change it. And because there were many copies made, we can compare a greater number of manuscripts in order to reconstruct the originals. The factors that lead to the Bible having more textual variants actually make the Bible more reliable in general.