Why did Jesus die?

Here’s a piece I wrote a few years ago, and which I’ve touched up slightly. In the lead up to Easter, I hope you find it informative and thought provoking.

I really enjoy the “rock opera” Jesus Christ Superstar by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.¹ Despite its somewhat apocryphal take on the events leading up to Jesus’ death, one of the things it tries to do is explore the reasons why Jesus, about whom there was so much excitement, ended up dead on a Roman cross. In the climactic title song, Judas asks of Jesus,

Did you mean to die like that — was that a mistake?
Or did you know your messy death would be a record breaker?

There are a numbers of ways we could answer the question “Why did Jesus die?” On the historical level, we can say that Jesus was caught between the crunching gears of apocalyptic messianic expectation, Jewish temple politics, and Roman imperial intrigue. On the theological level, there is so much more to say.

On the Sunday before his death, Jesus entered Jerusalem riding a donkey to the frenzied cheers of his followers. It was a provocative messianic stunt, aimed at fulfilling the image of the returning Davidic King in Zechariah 9.9. And his followers were not blind to its significance. Their cry of ‘Hosanna in the highest!’ was not an exclamation of praise, the way it is often used today. Rather, it was a slogan. ‘Hosanna’ means ‘To the rescue!’ ‘In the highest’ does not refer to people’s praise reaching the highest heaven, but rather an urging of Jesus to reach for the highest echelons of power in his rescue of Israel. Here was the Davidic messiah coming to his royal capital to overthrow the current order, free his people, and establish the new Kingdom of God.

The following day, in a brash act prefiguring the end of the old order, Jesus marched into the temple complex and overturned the tables of the moneychangers and opened the pens holding sacrificial animals for sale. A small riot seems to have ensued. By doing this symbolic act, Jesus was clearly stating that he believed the temple and the authorities that ran it were no longer in favour with God. Time was rapidly running out — the time of judgement and the dawn of a new era were now imminent. Jesus was, in other words, playing the part of an apocalyptic prophet. And by claiming the right to bring the temple down and rebuild it, he was making a clear claim to be the rightful Davidic king of Israel—the son of David who builds the temple and establishes a permanent kingdom (cf. 2 Sam 7:11–13).


Visualisation of the Jerusalem Temple. Credit: Courtesy of The Western Wall Heritage Foundation

To the Jewish authorities, for whom the temple was their institutional power base at the heart of Jewish identity, Jesus was dangerous. For the remainder of the week, they worked to arrest Jesus. After trying unsuccessfully to discredit him publicly, and fearing the incendiary riot that a public arrest would spark, they managed to arrest him on the sly by bribing Judas Iscariot, a member of Jesus’ inner circle—one of his twelve commissioners (i.e. ‘apostles’) responsible for the dissemination of Jesus’ claims and for gathering people around him. The arrest occurred at night, as Jesus and his other eleven commissioners were trapped in an olive grove in the Kidron Valley, just outside Jerusalem’s walls. Jesus gave himself up to his captors, and successfully pleaded for the release of his followers, who then abandoned him.

Jesus was taken under arrest, questioned and tried overnight. In fact, it was probably an illegal trial, since it was held during the midnight hours within the houses of former High Priest, Annas, and his son-in-law, the incumbent High Priest, Caiaphas. It seems that they tried to pin the charge of treason on Jesus by implicating him for threats against the temple, the institution that stood at the heart of Jewish identity and piety. This would be akin to charging someone today with a plot to blow up the White House. Given events earlier in the week, one would have thought it would be easy to implicate Jesus. However, the Gospels tell us that the witnesses brought forward could not agree, and therefore Jesus could not definitively be found guilty.

However, the High Priest, Caiaphas, used another strategy. He asked Jesus if he was the Son of God. In asking this, Caiaphas was probably not asking Jesus whether he believed he was the second person on the Trinity. Rather, he was asking Jesus whether he believed himself to be the messiah — the son of David who was to sit eternally on the throne of Israel, for the son of David in the Hebrew Bible was also seen as the ‘son of God’ (2 Samuel 7.14). Jesus’ response implied that he did believe this. But even more than this, Jesus appealed to the image of the Son of Man in Daniel 7 — an apocalyptic image of God’s chosen one who would bring about the end of the world order and establish God’s eternal kingdom. In the eyes of the authorities, this was an admission of revolutionary intent. Jesus was found guilty, given a beating, and sentenced to death.

Since the Jewish authorities at this time were unable to exact the death penalty (it had been revoked by Rome a few years earlier), Jesus was hurried off to the Roman Prefect, Pontius Pilate. If they wanted Jesus dead, they would have to ask Pilate to enact the death penalty.

Politically, Pilate was fighting battles on two fronts. On the one hand, Pilate was probably a protégé of Aelius Sejanus, who had been running the Roman Empire for a few years while the emperor, Tiberius Caesar, enjoyed a leisurely lifestyle on the Italian isle of Capri. However, in October, AD 31, Sejanus was executed for conspiracy against the emperor. Anyone connected to him was now also under suspicion. Pilate, therefore, would have had to watch his steps very closely to demonstrate unambiguously that he was loyal to Tiberius Caesar. On the other hand, though, Pilate had to maintain face and an air of authority over those he governed. In the years before Sejanus’ ignominious death, Pilate had thrown his weight around in various displays of power. Amongst those he needed to keep in check were the Jewish temple authorities. One of the ways he had managed to do so was to plunder the temple’s treasury for public works, and to keep the High Priest’s ceremonial garments under lock and key in the Antonia Fortress. These measures were belittling to the Jewish temple authorities and told them in no uncertain terms who was boss.

So, on the morning of Friday, April 3rd, AD 33, the Jewish authorities brought Jesus to Pilate to seek the death penalty for him. Normally, it would appear that the Jewish authorities were in the position of grovelling subordinates, and thus for Pilate to agree to the death penalty would simply be a show of his own authority. However, Pilate also had to contend for his own reputation now that he was in the spotlight after Sejanus’ death. He could not afford to show any weakness before those he governed, and acquiescing to their request could now be interpreted as just such a weakness. And yet, he could not be seen to be letting a potential revolutionary go free either. That would endanger his standing with the emperor. Accordingly, Pilate attempted to hand the decision over to someone else — to Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, who was in Jerusalem at the time. However, the move backfired. Jesus was returned to Pilate, who now had to make a decision. Not wishing to imply that he was vulnerable or susceptible to weakness, Pilate himself questioned Jesus, flogged him in a display of Rome’s discipline, and was then on the verge of releasing him. Pilate seems to have been convinced that Jesus was harmless. Jesus had been separated from his followers, was unarmed, and did not really hold any human power. By thus overriding the request of the Jewish leaders for the death penalty, Pilate was stamping his authority over them.

However, Caiaphas and his comrades were not stupid. They now held the trump card. John’s Gospel tells us that the Jewish authorities said to Pilate, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend” (19.12). They were implying that if he were to release Jesus, Pilate would be letting an insurrectionist go free to destabilise one of the imperial provinces that Tiberius governed directly (as opposed to consular provinces, which were governed via the Roman Senate). This would implicate Pilate as a traitor to the emperor. To put it another way, the Jewish authorities were asking Pilate, “Whose skin do you want to save: this nuisance from Nazareth’s, or your own?”


Pilate summarily ordered the execution of Jesus. He was led outside the city walls of Jerusalem with two other condemned criminals, stripped naked, and barbarically nailed to a cross where he was left to die a searingly painful death. The charge against him? Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews.

On the surface of things, it seems that Jesus was in the wrong place at the wrong time — a victim of circumstance, crushed by political machinations that were far bigger than he could humanly control. Some have pointed to the apocalyptic outlook that Jesus had, in wanting to draw the old order to a close and establish a new order, concluding that it was idealistic, unreal, and fraught with danger — that his beliefs and motivations just got him in too deep. Indeed, one can understand why most of his followers abandoned him and became so disillusioned by his death. He was an apparent failure. All the expectation surrounding him had come to nought, and like so many others before him, he fell foul of theauthorities and lost his life because of it.

But history also tells us something else. It tell us that not long after these events, Jesus’ followers—his eleven remaining ‘commissioners’ and other hangers-on—reassembled and began boldly proclaiming that on the Sunday after his death Jesus had emerged from his tomb alive again. And despite attempts to silence them by the very same authorities who had arrested Jesus and ensured his execution, they continued to proclaim the resurrection of their master. He had not been a failure. He had been a fulfiller. He had indeed brought the old era to an end and inaugurated a new one, but had done so in a way that no one had anticipated: through his death. The Acts of the Apostles tell us that on one occasion, after being reprimanded by the Jewish authorities, Jesus’ followers prayed to God affirming, “In this city, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, conspired against your holy servant, Jesus, whom you anointed, doing what your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4.27–28). This had been no accident of history. In fact, this was what God had been mobilising all of history towards: the death and resurrection of Jesus. It was a moment of supreme fulfilment. This was the central moment of human history that held significance for every man, woman, and child who has ever lived or ever will live. The final bell on the old order, characterised by sin, death, hate, hostility, and human failure, had sounded. The new era of forgiveness, life, love, peace, and reconciliation was now dawning. Jesus had not only met expectations, he far exceeded them.

So why did Jesus die? There are so many things we could say to unpack the significance of Jesus’ death and his resurrection. The Apostle Paul puts it succinctly well, though, in Romans 4.25: “He was handed over for our transgressions, and raised for the sake of our justification.” And our response? Paul again captures it well in Galatians 2.20: “The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Related: Why the Tearing of the Temple Curtain is a Bad Thing

¹ This is not an endorsement of the ‘theology’ of Jesus Christ Superstar (in fact, I have major problems with some of it). It’s merely an acknowledgement that I enjoy it as a musical and thematic experience, just as someone might really enjoy a movie without endorsing all the action that occurs within it. Appreciation does not necessitate agreement.


Have we found a stone block from the Actual Second Temple Building?

Israeli archaeologists have discovered an unusual stone among the many making up the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The Western Wall is the only remaining structure of the Second Temple that was lavishly refurbished by Herod. The stone in question was discovered beneath the soil at the lowest foundations of the Wall. What’s so unusual about it? All the large stone blocks used in the Western Wall are ‘bossed’ masonry. That is, they have a carved margin around the edges that give the blocks a sense of depth. But this one particular stone lacks the margin, making it unique.

Eli Shukron examines bossed stones at the foundations of the Western Wall (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, 2011)

So the question is why is this one stone block unbossed, and why was it buried amongst the foundations of the Western Wall? Israeli archaeologist Eli Shukron has a theory:

This stone came from the Temple Mount, from the surplus stones that were used in the construction of the Temple itself. Those stones were high-quality, chiseled and smooth, like this unusual one, which was discovered among the Western Wall’s foundations. This stone was intended for the Second Temple, and stones like it were used to build the Temple — but it was left unused. The builders of the Western Wall brought it down here because it was no longer needed up above — and this is how the other stones of the Temple looked,” he says, adding, “Anyone who passes a hand gently over this stone feels a slightly wavy texture, just like the Talmud describes.

In other words, Shukron believes that this stone block was originally meant to be part of the actual temple sanctuary building—the heart of the entire temple complex.

Is Shukron’s theory plausible?

Here are a few points on which to reflect:

  1. As the report on Israel Hayom states, Shukron ‘led the Antiquities Authority’s effort to expose the foundations of the Western Wall in the Jerusalem Archaeological Park, an effort that was funded by the Elad non-profit organization.’ Elad, also known as the Ir David Foundation, exists for the purpose of strengthening the Jewish connection to Jerusalem. In other words, it is not a scholarly organisation, but a political one. The interpretation of finds that come from Elad-sponsored efforts must bear this political aim in mind, and realise that there is almost always an alternative interpretation. In this particular case, interpreting a stone block as being from the temple sanctuary building could easily be seen as a political claim to the Temple Mount, which currently hosts the Islamic holy places of the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque.
  2. It seems clear now that the Western Wall was not built during the reign of Herod himself. As Shukron and his colleague, Ronny Reich, observe, coins found in the soil used to cover the structures over which the Western Wall was built were minted in the time of Valerius Gratus, the Roman Prefect of Judea from AD 15–26 (the predecessor of Pontius Pilatus). In fact, the coins can be pinpointed to AD 17/18, giving us a date for the beginning of construction at the Western Wall. Shukron and Reich argue the wall was then completed in the time of Agrippa I (AD 41–44) or Agrippa II (48–66). However, the sanctuary building at the top of the temple complex was begun by Herod long before this in 19 BC. John 2.20 states that the temple took 46 years to build. This probably refers to the building of the sanctuary itself rather than the entire complex. Construction throughout the complex continued right up until AD 62—just four years before the outbreak of the Jewish Revolt would eventually see the destruction of the temple complex. So if the sanctuary took 46 years to build, and began in 19 BC, we can date its completion to AD 28. This overlap allows the possibility that a stone intended for use in the sanctuary ended up buried with the foundations of the Western Wall. Shukron’s theory is possible.
  3. As possible as Shukron’s theory is, a key question is why more such stones have not been found. Is it possible that there was a surplus of only one single stone block from the materials used to build the sanctuary? Could surplus stones not have been used in other peripheral structures around the temple complex? Eilat Mazar, director of the City of David excavations, says, “It is hard to construct a theory on the basis of a single stone. If another stone or two like it should be found in the future — and that could happen — that will be a somewhat stronger basis for Shukron’s theory that the stone came from a surplus that had been intended for the Temple of the type that had been used to build it.”
  4. Shukron notes the high quality of the stone when surmising it came from the temple building. Yet perhaps it came from another building within the temple complex, rather than from the sanctuary building itself. After all, the temple complex was enormous and, well, complex. There were numerous courtyards, rooms, and gates throughout it. There is every possibility that the stone had been intended for use in one of these peripheral structures.
  5. Another plausible theory is that the stone in question was a surplus block not from the sanctuary at the top of the complex, but from the Western Wall itself. Perhaps the stone was not needed in the construction of the wall, and so the masons did not bother carving the bossed effect, and ended up burying it rather than trying to haul it elsewhere. These were, after all, giant blocks of stone that took considerable effort to move in a pre-mechanised world.

So have we found a stone from the temple sanctuary in Jerusalem? Maybe, but we just can’t be sure because at present we have no way to corroborate or falsify the claim. What is almost certain is that it derives from the temple complex as a whole, but the stone’s original purpose is debatable. If we had some other stones from the temple sanctuary itself, we would be able to make direct comparison. But such a comparison is currently impossible. Our dilemma reminds us of the words of one particular Jewish figure who lived at the time of the temple’s construction: ‘Do you see these great constructions? Not one stone will be left here on another that will not be demolished!’ (Mark 13.2)

The extensive Holyland model (scale 1:50) of first century Jerusalem includes the temple complex as it would have looked at its completion. Pictured here is the large sanctuary building and surrounding courtyards. The Jerusalem temple was the largest sacred compound of its day.

Map of modern-day Jerusalem’s Old city, showing the location of the tunnel in which excavations at the base of the Western Wall of the Temple Mount are being conducted.


Quotes and information about the recent find came from Israel Hayom.

HT also to Antonio Lombatti.

Have we found the remains of the last Hasmonean King?

Could this be the jawbone of the last Hasmonean king of the Jews, Antigonus II Mattathiah, and one of the nails used to crucify him?

Antigonus II Mattathiah was an ambitious man. He was an active opponent of Antipater and Herod, the Idumean father and son pair who attempted to gain control of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee in the mid to late first century BC. Eventually, with Parthian backing, Antigonus II became King of the Jews in 40 BC. His alliance with the Parthians, however, put him out of favour with the Romans, who were attempting to maintain control of the region against the Parthian threat. As a result, Rome awarded kingship over the Jewish nation to Herod in 39 BC. And so, for the next couple of years, Antigonus and Herod wrestled for control of the Jewish nation.

Antigonus’ grip on power rapidly slipped, and in 37 BC Herod gained control of Jerusalem. He captured Antigonus and dispatched him to Antioch for Roman justice at the hands of Herod’s Roman patron, Mark Antony. Jewish historian Josephus (AD c.100) claims Mark Antony had Antigonus beheaded (Ant 15.8–10):

Now when Antony had received Antigonus as his captive, he determined to keep him against his triumph; but when he heard that the nation grew seditious, and that, out of their hatred to Herod, they continued to bear good will to Antigonus, he resolved to behead him at Antioch, for otherwise the Jews could no way be brought to be quiet. And Strabo of Cappadocia attests to what I have said, when he thus speaks:—“Antony ordered Antigonus the Jew to be brought to Antioch, and there to be beheaded; and this Antony seems to me to have been the very first man who beheaded a king, as supposing he could no other way bend the minds of the Jews so as to receive Herod, whom he had made king in his stead; for by no torments could they be forced to call him king, so great a fondness they had for their former king; so he thought that this dishonorable death would diminish the value they had for Antigonus’s memory, and at the same time would diminish the hatred they bare to Herod.”

Josephus’ account is corroborated by his Roman contemporary, Plutarch. However, later Roman historian, Dio Cassius (early third century AD), claims a slightly different end for Antigonus (Roman History 49.22.6):

These people [i.e. the Jews] Antony entrusted to a certain Herod to govern; but Antigonus he bound to a cross and flogged, — a punishment no other king had suffered at the hands of the Romans, — and afterwards slew him.

Dio Cassius’ testimony leaves open the possibility that Mark Antony tortured Antigonus by crucifixion ‘and afterwards slew him’ by beheading him. If this is the case, then we may have found some of the remains of Antigonus.

Ariel David of Haaretz provides the details. Is he right? Here are the main highlights of David’s article:

In 1970, a rock-cut tomb was discovered by workers building a private house in Jerusalem’s Givat Hamivtar neighborhood. Inside the two-chambered burial, dating back to the first century BCE, archeologists found a decorated ossuary – a limestone box containing the bones of the deceased – and an enigmatic Aramaic inscription affixed to the wall.

“I am Abba, son of Eleazar the priest,” proclaimed the 2,000-year-old text. “I am Abba, the oppressed, the persecuted, born in Jerusalem and exiled to Babylon, who brought back Mattathiah son of Judah and buried him in the cave that I purchased.”

[…] Now. new research indicates that the initial interpretation of the find, that has long been dismissed, may have been right all along. This view identifies the Abba cave as the final resting place of a key figure in Jewish history: Mattathiah Antigonus II, the last king of the Hasmonean dynasty…

[…] Historians initially came up with the Antigonus II theory based on the names on the inscription and the tomb’s unusual features. Abba’s boastful claim and the painstakingly decorated ossuary, considered by archeologists one of the finest ever found, pointed to an important personage.

At the same time, the cryptic text, the fact that the ossuary lacked any identifying inscription and that it was found buried in a niche under the floor of the cave suggested that Abba may have acted in secret, which is consistent with the persecution the Hasmoneans and their followers suffered after the fall of Mattathiah.

[…] The theory that Abba may have retrieved the Hasmonean king’s body from Antioch… and secretly buried it in his family tomb received a boost in 1974, when Nicu Haas, Israel’s top physical anthropologist at the time, discussed his analysis of the bones found inside the ossuary on Israeli television.

[…] Haas said he had identified the bones of at least two individuals, one older and one a young adult, around the age of 25, who had suffered a horrific death. Three nails where found in the ossuary with pieces of hand bones attached to two of them, suggesting the victim had been crucified.

Haas also identified clean cuts on the man’s second vertebra and lower jaw, indicating he had been decapitated with a sword or other sharp object. These findings were consistent with Mattathiah’s age and with the account of his execution given by ancient historians Josephus Flavius and Dio Cassius who recount that Marc Antony had the king crucified, scourged and beheaded.

With Haas’ analysis, all the pieces of the puzzle seemed to fall into place. But then… Haas… spent the last 13 years of his life in a coma and never published his findings on the cave.

The bones were passed on for analysis to Patricia Smith, an anthropologist from the Hebrew University. While agreeing that the remains included the skull fragments of a young man, she concluded that the cut jaw belonged to the elderly person – and that this individual was a woman. In her report, published in 1977 in the Israel Exploration Journal, she also dismissed the idea that crucifixion had occurred because the nails had not passed through the bones.

[…] Based on Smith’s analysis, the Hasmonean hypothesis was abandoned…

In a paper published last year in the IEJ, Yoel Elitzur, a Hebrew University historian… notes that in Jewish texts and manuscripts the name Abba and Baba were often used interchangeably. He identifies Abba as the head of a family mentioned by Josephus as the “the sons of Baba” and described as being supporters of the Hasmoneans long after Herod had taken power.

Elitzur also speculates that following Haas’ accident, Smith may have received a disorganized mix of bones including remains from other sites, leading to a possible mistake in identifying the person with the cut jaw as a female.

[…] In yet another twist of this puzzling cold case, Haaretz can reveal that researchers did not return all the bones for reburial in the cave.

Some key remains, including the nails and the cut jaw and vertebra, were sent for safekeeping to Tel Aviv University anthropologist Israel Hershkovitz and remained untouched in his lab for years.

After reading Elitzur’s paper, Hershkovitz re-examined the remains. He analyzed the nails using an electron microscope, determining that they did break the bones of the hand, as would occur in crucifixion. This itself is a blow to skeptics, since Romans rarely crucified women, Hershkovitz said.

He also doubts Smith’s finding that the time-worn jaw belonged to a woman.

[…] Hershkovitz has been trying to extract DNA from the jaw in order to confirm whether it belonged to a man or a woman. Though that would not confirm Mattathiah’s identity, it would give weight to all the other evidence that points to him, he said.

“Once you remove the idea that the cut mandible belonged to a woman, you are left with all the other elements that prove that this is Mattathiah,” he said. “In this case, the writing was literally on the wall.”

The Seventy Weeks of Daniel 9

Recently I’ve been discussing with a few folk the various ways of ‘solving’ the puzzle of the Seventy Weeks in Daniel 9. While this conundrum is sometimes called the ‘dismal swamp’ of Old Testament studies, others confidently assert that the Seventy Weeks are a direct prediction of Jesus. The former throw their hands up and say no solution exists for calculating the Seventy Weeks. The latter, who propose the Seventy Weeks are a prediction about Jesus, have to contort chronology and make the text of Daniel 9 refer to things that the text simply does not talk about—the angelic response to Daniel’s prayer comes to bear no relation at all to Daniel’s original concern about the end of exile in accordance with Jeremiah’s prophecy.

Now, as a Christian, I believe the whole Bible gravitates around Jesus. So when I read the Old Testament, one of the questions I ask is how it relates to Jesus. However, I do not think that Daniel 9 relates to Jesus as a direct prediction. Daniel 9 is, rather,  an interpretation of events in the second century BC that then form a precedent or typology by which we can understand the significance of Jesus.

I’ve written an article explaining my view that Daniel 9 is primarily about the Antiochene Persecution of 167–164 BC, and it can be found at the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures (click HERE). In the article I re-examine the assumptions that usually frame discussion of this text. However, I’ll try to summarise them here (the article contains the fuller discussion).

Those who propose that Daniel 9 is a prediction of Jesus usually do so on the basis of seeing Dan 9.25 as a reference to Nehemiah rebuilding Jerusalem in 445 BC. From this, it is calculated that the text claims that there is a single period of 7 + 62 weeks of years (69 x 7 = 483), that then take us to AD 39. Unfortunately, this gets us nowhere. No one ‘messianically significant’ died in AD 39. The death of Jesus occurred in AD 33 (we can confirm that Antipas’ marriage to Herodias, which John the Baptist denounced, occurred in AD 31, and Pilate’s governorship was terminated in AD 36). In order to make Dan 9 a prediction about Jesus, we must claim that the 7 weeks and 62 weeks must actually be just a single period of 69 weeks (but that raises the question of why divide it into 7-week and 62-week periods to begin with), as well as claim that the figures are inexact anyway, because Jesus actually dies at the end of the 68th week. This simply does not match the text of Dan 9. Furthermore, this move makes no sense of all the other references to abominations and desecrations in the middle of the last (70th) week of Daniel. It seems to me that this kind of approach is deliberately aiming to align the 70 weeks with Jesus’ death, and in the end it still falls short, making the text erroneous at worst, or inexact at best. Methodologically, it all seems rather backwards and ends up with a rather tenuous view of Scripture.

The decree to rebuild Jerusalem did not come from Artaxerxes in 445 BC. It came from Cyrus in 538 BC, and was ratified again by Darius I in c. 520 BC. Artaxerxes sanctioned the repair of Jerusalem’s walls.

Furthermore, the text of Dan 9 does NOT refer to the building of walls. It refers to the building of street and conduit, which seems to imply residential areas. The attempt to locate the beginning of the 70 weeks in Nehemiah’s day must equate ‘street and conduit’ with city walls, but there is nothing in the text that requires this. In fact, the text just simply does not say that. Artaxerxes did not issue a decree to return and rebuild Jerusalem. Nehemiah did not build streets and conduits—he repaired city walls. Therefore what Nehemiah does is quite simply not what the text of Dan 9 is looking at. To return and rebuild street and conduit is a way of talking about ‘resettling’ an urban area. In any case, even if for argument’s sake we allow the decree to rebuild Jerusalem to be something issued by Artaxerxes in 445 BC and carried out by Nehemiah, we are still at odds with the text. If the first 7-week period is connected to the rebuilding, then Jerusalem is rebuilt at the end of the 7-week period in 396 BC (49 years after 445 BC). But Nehemiah is said to have repaired the walls of Jerusalem in 52 days in 444 BC. If this is not what the text is claiming, then the 7-week period becomes meaningless as a distinction within the larger 69-week period to which it contributes. It just doesn’t make sense and it is simply not dealing with what’s in the text of Dan 9.

Also, few people stop to examine the Hebrew syntax of the relevant verses in Dan 9, but rather most carry unstated assumptions into their analysis. However, the following points need to be underlined:

  1. The clauses delineating the timeframes of each period of weeks need to be discussed. The phrase “from the decree to rebuild Jerusalem” need not mark the beginning of the 7-week period, but rather could (and probably does) serve as the signal for Daniel to reassess the whole concept of exile along the lines laid out in the following clauses: “Know and understand from the decree to rebuild Jerusalem: Until an anointed appears there will be 7 weeks…”. In other words, the decree to return is just a trigger for understanding, not the beginning of the calculations.
  2. The text does not talk about THE Messiah (definite and with eschatological significance) but AN anointed one at the end of the 7-week period (9.25) and AN anointed one at the end of the 62-week period (9.26). If there is only one anointed one here, then we have to propose that the end of the 7-week period and the end of the 62-week period are within a lifetime of each other. This automatically destroys any long-range understanding of the 62 weeks. The only way to get around this is to ‘glue’ the 7 weeks and 62 weeks together, such that an anointed one is seen only at the end of a 69-week period. However, this raises the issue of why a distinction is made between 7 weeks and 62 weeks in the first place. What purpose does this division serve? Why not 8 weeks and 61 weeks? Or even 26 weeks and 43 weeks? The gluing together of these two periods into a single consecutive 69-week period (something that some English versions follow) is meaningless within the text and goes completely unexplained by those who favour this interpretation. The only sensible solution is to see the end of the 7 weeks and the end of the 62 weeks as distinct periods, with something significant happening with anointed ones at the end of each respective period. If there is only one anointed one in view, then these periods have to be overlapping. If the end of these two periods doesn’t have to coincide, then we can start to entertain the possibility of two anointed ones being discussed here, as well as keep entertaining the possibility of overlapping periods.
  3. The verb תשוב in 9.25 is usually taken as a third-feminine-singular with adverbial force (‘it will again’). However, it could be (and more likely is) a second-masculine-singular (‘you will return’) addressing Daniel. This sees the return to Jerusalem in the 6th (not the 5th) century BC as integral to the 70 weeks. After all, the revelation is made to Daniel who, in the narrative of the book, receives this revelation just after the fall of Babylon (see 9.1). Daniel thereby becomes indicative of all faithful Jews (as he is throughout the book) who would return to Jerusalem. And this is in keeping with the rest of ch. 9 in which Daniel prays on behalf of the Jews. What happens to Daniel is indicative of what happens to the Jews.

The two-anointed-ones solution seems more sensible, and a period of overlap between the 7 weeks and 62 weeks seems warranted (see MY ARTICLE for further explanation). The result is that we can calculate precisely what Daniel was talking about, and stop dealing with round-about approximations and gymnastic contortion of the text.

O// Head of Antiochus IV. R// ΘΕΟΥ ΕΠΙΦΑΝΟΥΣ Ν...

O// Head of Antiochus IV. R// ΘΕΟΥ ΕΠΙΦΑΝΟΥΣ ΝΙΚΗΦΟΡΟΥ Zeus Nikephoros enthroned, ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΑΝΤΙΟΧΟΥ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first anointed one is the first leader of the post-exilic community (either Sheshbazzar, Zerubbabel, or Joshua) and comes as the end of the 7-week period. This makes the 7-week period (7 x 7 = 49) the 49 years between 587 and 538 BC—that is, from the destruction of the temple to Cyrus’ decree for return. The second anointed one is a reference to Onias III, the last legitimate Zadokite high priest. He was deprived of the legitimate High Priesthood in Jerusalem when his brother, Jason, bribed Antiochus IV Epiphanes to gain the position. Onias III was subsequently killed by the Seleucids in c.171 BC, forever changing the nature and succession of the priesthood within Judaism. This makes the 62 weeks (62 x 7 = 434) run from 605 BC (the year that the book of Daniel begins the exile of Daniel and his three friends in Dan 1.1) to c. 171 BC (the year of Onias III’s death) And then the last (70th) week is the 7 years from 171 to 164 BC, the second half of which (times, time, and half a time) was characterised by Antiochus IV’s persecution of Jews. The 7 weeks and the 62 weeks are overlapping, but they fit the concerns of the book of Daniel. Everything adds up precisely.

The following diagram helps to illustrate this schema:

Diagram of the Seventy Weeks of Daniel 9

All other so-called solutions can only come up with ball-park approximations that do not match historical events with any precision, and even then they are reliant on things that the text of Daniel simply does not say. As a Christian, I understand the compulsion to make this chapter say something about Jesus, since Jesus lies at the heart of Scripture. However, Daniel 9 simply does not work as a direct prediction about Jesus. Rather, this passage is saying that exile needs to be redefined. Exile is not just about absence from the land for 70 years. Rather, exile is about being under foreign rule. Jeremiah’s 70 years are reinterpreted and recontextualised as weeks of years. Even if you have returned to the land (note the importance of תשוב in 9.25) and have rebuilt Jerusalem (again, note 9.25), you can still be practically in exile if a foreigner rules over you, especially if that foreigner is killing anointed ones who are the legitimate leaders of your community. A particular Christian message can then be extrapolated from this and applied to Jesus by Christians (eg. Jesus is the anointed one par excellence who is unjustly put to death in supreme atrocity), but the text itself is not a direct prediction about Jesus. If it is, the text seems rather erroneous. It should, rather, be taken as a foreshadowing or precedent in line with classic typology, just as the New Testament seems to do with Old Testament prophecies.

The text of Dan 9.25–27, therefore, reads as follows [with my comments in brackets]:

25 Know and understand from the issuing of the word to return and rebuild Jerusalem [in 538 BC]: Until an anointed leader there will be 7 weeks [the 49 years from the temple’s destruction in 587 BC to 538 BC]. In 62 weeks [from the beginning of Daniel’s exile in 605 BC to 171 BC] you will have returned with street and conduit rebuilt, but with the anguish of the times. 26 And after the 62 weeks [in 171 BC], an anointed one will be cut off and have nothing [an allusion to the assassination of Onias III, as well as the fact that his legitimate priesthood was taken from him and his son did not succeed him]. The people of the coming prince [that is, the Seleucids] will ruin the city and the sanctuary. His/Its end will come like a flood, but until the end there will be war [note the Maccabean War]. Atrocities have been determined. 27 He/It will exacerbate covenant for many for one week, and in the middle of the week he will stop sacrifice and offering, and on the outskirts will be atrocious abominations [all this referring to Antiochus IV’s repression of Torah and desecration of the temple in 167 BC], only until the completion and the determination gushes over the Atrocious One.

What the text is doing is reinterpreting the idea of exile which is tied to the number 70 through Jeremiah’s prophecy. But because the notion of exile is being redefined, so too the significance of 70 is redefined. This is an example of recontextualising an older prophetic message for a new situation — something that was occurring throughout the Second Temple Period, including in the New Testament.

The Good Book

ABC Radio National’s Encounter program recently featured a piece titled The Good Book. The program looked at how the Bible is understood today as both literature (‘a good book’) and Scripture (‘The Good Book’). Among those interviewed were myself (George Athas) and some of my students from Moore College (Dan Wu, Tim Escott, Tom Melbourne, John Hudson), Cheryl Exum (Sheffield), Robert Alter (UC Berkeley), Lori Lefkovitz (Northeastern), and John Carroll (La Trobe). The range of contributors present an interesting collage of views about the Bible. If you’d like to take a listen, you can click one of the links below. The program is 54 minutes.

The Good Book (listen now online)

The Good Book (download mp3)

The Good Book (transcript)