ABSTRACT: This article discusses Jewish views and surveys the interpretations of 12 Christian writers of the first four centuries. The purpose is to determine how their views compared to those of modern interpreters. It shows that there was a strong consensus among the early church fathers that Daniel’s seventy weeks prophecy was fulfilled in Christ.
This is a summary of a scholarly article by Paul Tanner. For more detail and references, please see that article.
Most critical scholars do not see the Messiah in Daniel 9. They believe that the prophecy was fulfilled in the second century B.C., in the time of Antiochus IV.
Jewish exegetes tend to see the fulfillment of this passage with the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70.
In contrast, although the church fathers of the first four centuries after Christ differed over the details of interpretation, this article shows that there was a strong consensus among them that Daniel’s seventy weeks were fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
Just a disclaimer not mentioned by Tanner: According to Daniel 12:4, the prophecies of Daniel will only be understood at “the end of time.”
While the modern translations say that the Messiah will be cut off after the 62 weeks (Daniel 9:26), the pre-Christian Old Greek translation stated that “the anointing will be taken away” after 139 (years). Then “the kingdom of the Gentiles will destroy the city and the temple with the anointed one.” This was then interpreted as 139 years after the beginning of the Seleucid era (311–310 B.C.), bringing us to 172–71 B.C., that is, the approximate year of the murder of the high priest Onias III during the troublesome times of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. It seems, therefore, as if, in the centuries after Antiochus IV, the Jews interpreted the passage to refer to Antiochus IV and the translators adapted the translation accordingly.
The Essenes were a mystic Jewish sect that flourished from the 2nd century BCE to the 1st century CE. For them:
- The promised Messiah is the Messiah of Israel; the Son of David.
- The 70 weeks began with the return from the Exile.
- The 70 weeks (490 years) will expire between 3 B.C. and A.D. 2.
- The Messiah will arrive in the preceding 7 years.
There is, therefore, evidence for both a messianic and nonmessianic interpretation of the 70 weeks prophecy before the Christian era. However, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in A.D. 70 decisively altered the Jewish interpretations of Daniel 9:24–27. Beckwith concludes:
“Up to A.D. 70, … the different reckonings of the seventy weeks … must have existed among the rabbis as three rival interpretations. After A.D. 70, however, when the Messiah had not come as expected, but the desolation also foretold in Daniel 9:26–27 had, it was natural to tie the end of the seventy weeks to A.D. 70 and also to adopt a non-messianic interpretation of the prophecy.” (Beckwith, “Daniel 9 and the Date of Messiah’s Coming,” 536.)
Josephus, a historian and a member of the priestly aristocracy of the Jews, who lived from 37 A.D. to about 100 A.D., viewed the fulfillment of the prophecy in the events leading up to A.D. 70.
The Jewish chronological work, Seder Olam Rabbah, which was composed about A.D. 160, and which provides a chronological record that extends from Adam to the Bar Kokhba revolt of A.D. 132–135, claims that the seventy weeks were seventy years of exile in Babylon followed by another 420 years until the destruction of the second temple in A.D. 70.
Early Christian writers often used the 70-weeks prophecy to prove to the Jews that Jesus is the promised Messiah. For that reason, it is strange that Justin Martyr (ca. A.D. 153–165) never made a reference to Daniel 9 in his apologetic work Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, though he made fourteen other references to Daniel.
The earliest clear Christian reference to Daniel 9:24–27 is by Irenaeus (ca. A.D. 180). He did not explain the 490 years or the 7 years or the 434 years or the Messiah in Daniel 9:25-26. What he did was to interpret the little horn of Daniel 7 as the Antichrist and to associate the little horn’s period of dominance (“a time, times, and half a time” – Dan 7:25, 12:7) with the last half of the 70th week. On the basis of Matthew 24:15, he interpreted Daniel 9:27 as that “the abomination of desolation shall be brought into the temple” when the Antichrist literally goes into the Jewish temple for the purpose of presenting himself as Christ.
Clement of Alexandria (ca. A.D. 200) was the first Christian writer to explain the time periods in Daniel 9, although he was a bit vague about the details. For him:
- The “most holy” one (Dan 9:24) is Jesus Christ.
- The 490 years began with Cyrus.
- The first seven weeks (49 years) were the period of the construction of the temple.
- The 62 weeks led up to the first advent of Christ.
- The final week includes Nero’s erection of an “abomination” in Jerusalem as well as the destruction of the city and temple in AD 70.
Clement, therefore, included both Jesus Christ and the destruction of Jerusalem in the 490 years. But this implies a gap between the first 69 weeks and the last week.
Tertullian (ca. A.D. 203) had a unique explanation of the time periods. Instead of three periods for the seventy “weeks” (7 + 62 + 1), he has only two: 62½ and another of 7½. For Tertullian:
- The “anointing” of the “most holy” (Dan 9:24) refers to Christ.
- The first period of 62½ weeks (i.e., 437 1/2 years) was the period from Darius (when Daniel received the vision) until the birth of Christ.
- With His first coming, “vision and prophecy” were “sealed” (Dan 9:24 – i.e., there is no longer a vision or a prophet to announce His coming).
- The final 7½ (i.e., 52½ years) refer to the time from the birth of Christ until the first year of Vespasian (Roman emperor from AD 69 to 79) when Herod’s temple was destroyed.
Tertullian therefore, by making certain calculation errors, was able to include both Jesus Christ and the destruction of Jerusalem in the 490 years. Therefore, he did not need a gap as Clement did.
Hippolytus (A.D. 202–230) wrote the first extant commentary on Daniel. For Him:
- The “anointing of “the most holy” in Daniel 9:24 refers to the anointing of Christ in His first coming.
- The first seven weeks were the 49 years before Joshua, the high priest. The Messiah in verse 25 is this Joshua.
- This was followed by 62 weeks (434 years) from Joshua, Zerubbabel, and Ezra until Jesus Christ.
- The Messiah in verse 26, who was cut off, is Jesus Christ.
- The final week will be a future period of seven years in which the Antichrist will come to power. Then Elijah and Enoch will appear as the two witnesses (Rev 11:3-4).
- This means that a “gap” of time will separate the first 69 weeks and the final “week.”
Hippolytus, therefore, interpreted the Messiah as Jesus Christ but, similar to modern Dispensationalism, interpreted the final week as a future period of seven years when the Antichrist will rule. This type of interpretation follows from the assumption that the crisis in Daniel 9:27 is the same as the crisis caused by the little horn of Daniel 7. One of the articles on this website has concluded that this is an incorrect assumption and that, while Daniel 9 deals with Israel and the 490 years allocated to her, the other prophecies in Daniel deal with all nations and all time (see, same crisis?).
For Julius (writing after A.D. 232):
- The 490 years began with Artaxerxes’ second decree in the twentieth year of his reign (444 B.C.).
- The seventy weeks came to an end when Christ was baptized and entered into His public ministry (A.D. 28–29). Therefore, the entire seventy weeks were fulfilled by the time of the first advent of Christ.
- From 444 BC to 28 AD is only 472 years (475 in Julius’ calculation); not 490. To make it fit, Julius claimed that the Jews, on the basis of moon months, reckoned a year as 354 days. This reduces the 490 to 475 literal years.
Julius did not explain how the 70th week relates to his view.
For Origen (after A.D. 215):
- Daniel’s seventy weeks-prophecy was fulfilled in Christ.
- The seventy weeks began with Darius the Mede.
- The Messiah in Daniel 9:25 is Jesus Christ.
In his commentary on Matthew, Origen had a different interpretation in which:
- The “weeks” are “weeks of decades” rather than “weeks of years.”
- There are 4,900 years from Adam to the end of the last week.
Origen also espoused extensive allegorical interpretations. For example, he said:
- “The going forth of a word to restore” refers to God’s command at Creation.
- “To restore and rebuild Jerusalem” refers to Christ’s coming.
- The Messiah in verse 26, who was cut off, refers to the high priesthood, and the “cutting off” was the termination of the Hasmonean line by Herod the Great.
- The final week is the seventy years extending from the Day of Pentecost.
- The “middle of the week” was the destruction of the temple and the city.
- The “prince who is to come” was the Jewish king of that time (apparently Agrippa II).
It is, therefore, a bit difficult to pin Origen down non this matter, but it is clear that he saw the prophecy as fulfilled in the first century A.D.
The church historian Eusebius Pamphili (ca. 260–ca. 340) gave an extended discussion of Daniel 9:20–27 in his Demonstratio evangelica (book 8, chap. 2):
First 69 weeks
- The 490 years began with the completion of the temple in the second year of Darius (516-515 B.C.).
- The 69 weeks concluded in the days of King Herod and the Roman emperor Augustus in 36–32 B.C.
- The Messiah was cut off (v26) when the last of the “high priest-governors” was removed with the death of John Hyrcanus II, who was murdered by Herod in 30 B.C.
- The destruction of the city and sanctuary was fulfilled in a metaphorical sense with Herod the Great and then literally by the Romans in A.D. 70.
- The covenant in the seventieth week is the New Covenant inaugurated by Jesus Christ.
- The first half of the week was the 3½ years of His public ministry.
- “He will put a stop to sacrifice” (Dan 9:27) was fulfilled at His death, when the veil in the temple was rent in two and the sacrifices were removed (i.e., from God’s point of view, they were no longer viewed as valid).
- The second half of the week was fulfilled in Jesus’ post-resurrection period.
- The “abomination” in Daniel 9:27 was fulfilled when Pilate brought the images of Caesar into the temple by night.
This interpretation seems to require a gap between the first 69 weeks and the last week.
For Apollinaris, bishop of Laodicea (ca. A.D. 360):
- The seventy weeks was the time between the two advents of Christ.
- The 70th week would occur at the end of the world. At that time, the Antichrist would be manifested, literally enter the temple (2 Thess. 2), and issue a decree outlawing the offering of sacrifices.
In other words, Apollinaris was expecting the return of Christ within a hundred years of the time he wrote. As stated under Hippolytus, in the view of this website, this type of interpretation confuses Daniel 9:27 with the crisis of the little horn of Daniel 7.
Hilarianus (A.D. 397) was “the first patristic writer to adopt a non-Messianic interpretation of the Seventy Weeks.” (Knowles, “The Interpretations of the Seventy Weeks of Daniel in the Early Fathers,” 155.) For Hilarianus:
- The seventy weeks extended from the first year of Darius to the end of the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the second century B.C.
- “The anointed one the prince” in verse 25 refers to Zerubbabel who was the leader of the first return of the Jews.
- The event that marks the middle of the week is the pollution of the temple by Antiochus which introduced the abomination of desolation in the form of heathen images in the temple.
In advocating this Maccabean view, however, Hilarianus is essentially alone among early church fathers.
Jerome (A.D. 407) wrote a significant commentary on the Book of Daniel. In his discussion of Daniel 9:24-27, he declined to offer an interpretation of his own and was content to quote from or summarize the positions of several earlier church fathers.
Without interpreting the time periods, Augustine (A.D. 407-430) wrote:
“All of the prophecy of the Seventy Weeks was fulfilled at Christ’s first advent; therefore, it is not to be expected that the events will occur again at the second advent.”
Justin Martyr (A.D. 153–165) did not mention Daniel 9.
Irenaeus (A.D. 180) mentioned it but did not interpret the time periods or the Messiahs.
Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 200) included both Jesus Christ and the destruction of Jerusalem in the 490 years. His interpretation implies a gap between the first 69 weeks and the last week.
Tertullian (A.D. 203), by making certain calculation errors, was able to include both Jesus Christ and the destruction of Jerusalem in the 490 years without a gap.
Hippolytus (A.D. 202–230) interpreted the Messiah as Jesus Christ but, similar to Dispensationalism, interpreted the final week as a future period of seven years when the Antichrist will rule.
Julius Africanus (A.D. 232) proposed that the full 490 years came to an end with Jesus’ baptism.
For Origen (A.D. 215), the Messiah in Daniel 9:25 is Jesus Christ and Daniel’s seventy-weeks prophecy was fulfilled in Christ.
The church historian Eusebius (A.D. 314–318) interpreted the first half of the week as the 3½ years of Jesus’ public ministry and the second half as fulfilled after Jesus was resurrected. In the middle of the ‘week’, He “put a stop to sacrifice” (Dan 9:27) through His death.
Apollinaris of Laodicea (A.D. 360) regarded the seventy weeks as the time between the two advents of Christ. The 70th week would be a period at the end of the world when the Antichrist will literally enter the temple and issue a decree outlawing the offering of sacrifices.
Julius Hilarianus (A.D. 397) was the first patristic writer to adopt a non-Messianic interpretation of the Seventy Weeks. For him, the event that marks the middle of the week was the pollution of the temple by Antiochus which introduced heathen images in the temple.
Jerome (A.D. 407) simply summarized the positions of several earlier church fathers.
Augustine (A.D. 407-430) stated that the 70 weeks were fulfilled at Christ’s first advent.
From the literature that is available, some vital conclusions can be drawn:
(A) Weeks of Years
All the early church fathers, along with Jewish scholars, interpreted the “weeks” as weeks of seven years and applied this quite literally.
Of the 12 Christian writers surveyed above, 3 (Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Jerome) did not offer interpretations. Of the remaining 9, all but one of them held to some form of messianic interpretation of Daniel’s prophecy, meaning that the prophecy referred to Jesus Christ. The exception was Hilarianus who held to fulfillment in the time of Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the second century B.C. Of the 8 messianic interpretations:
Two (Apollinaris and Hippolytus) opted for a messianic-eschatological position in which the Messiah is Jesus in His first advent but the last week is some future point beyond the first century, such as the reign of Antichrist.
The remaining six all favored a messianic-historical position, meaning that the entire seventy weeks were fulfilled at some point in the first century A.D.
In conclusion, although they varied greatly in their details, there was a strong consensus among the early church fathers that Daniel’s seventy weeks prophecy was fulfilled in Christ.
(C) A Gap
Three of these early Christian writers required a gap between the first 69 weeks and the last week:
Clement proposed that the 62 weeks led up to the first advent of Christ and the final week includes the destruction in AD 70.
For Eusebius, the 69 weeks concluded in the days of King Herod in 36–32 B.C. and the last week was the years before and after Jesus died.
Hippolytus viewed the final week eschatologically – at the time when the Antichrist will reign.