The history of the exegesis of the 70 Weeks is the Dismal Swamp of O.T. criticism…. the trackless wilderness of assumptions and theories in the efforts to obtain an exact chronology fitting into the history of Salvation, after these 2,000 years of infinitely varied interpretations, would seem to preclude any use of the 70 Weeks for the determination of a definite prophetic chronology. J. A. Montgomery, Commentary on the Book of Daniel, 400-401.
In Daniel 9 Daniel reads from a scroll of Jeremiah and understands the 70-year exile must be coming to an end. While Daniel is praying an angel is sent to him to give an answer to his prayer. Unfortunately it was not the answer he may have been expecting. Rather than a confirmation the Judah’s exile would soon be over, Daniel is told the seventy years have become seventy “weeks of years,” or 490 years in all. At the end of the period prophecy and vision will be sealed up and the Most Holy Place will be anointed (9:24).
However, before the 490 years are complete the final seven years (the seventieth week) will be a time of war and desolation. At the end of the sixty-ninth week, the “anointed one will be cut off and have nothing,” the ruler of the people to come will destroy the Jerusalem and the sanctuary and the “end will come like a flood.” This ruler will confirm a covenant but break it in the middle of the final seven-year period. When he breaks the covenant he will put an end to sacrifice and “set up an abomination that causes desolation.” (9:27).
Is this a literal period of 490 years? If so, when does the period end? The majority of modern commentators (Hartman and Di Lella, Driver, and Montgomery, for example) think the years are literal and extend into the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. The beginning of the period is the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C., although the “decree” is Jeremiah’s prophecy (dated to 605 B.C.) As is well known, Antiochus desecrates the altar in the Temple by sacrificing a pig, something which can be describing as an “abomination that causes desolation.” The rededication of the temple after Antiochus was in 164 B.C., so the period is about 65 years short. For most, this is simply a miscalculation on the part of the second-century writer (Montgomery, 393).
In this view, the “cutting off of the anointed one” is the assassination of Onias III the high priest, about 170 B.C. Sacrifices stopped for a slightly more than three years, not quite a full three and a half years (time, times and half a time, 1260 days), nor is the period 2300 mornings and evenings from Daniel 8:14 accurate, either as 1150 days or a full 2300 days (neither number is three and a half years or a full seven years). Nevertheless, the numbers work out generally to the time of Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the period of seven years is approximately correct. Stylized apocalyptic numbers do not need to be precisely accurate; there is no need to impose modern precision on the seventy sevens.
A second approach is to interpret the years are symbolic of the time from the end of the exile to the coming of messiah. E. J. Young argued a “seven” was an indefinite period of time and ran the whole 490 years from the return from exile up to the time of Christ. Even the last seven has been completed, starting sometime in the ministry of Christ and ending before A.D. 70. (Young, Daniel, 203).
A third approach takes the years as a literal period of time, but begins the period with the decree to rebuild Jerusalem (not Cyrus’ decree). The first 483 years begin with the Artaxerxes permitting Nehemiah return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city (Neh 2), approximately 445 BC. The 483 period ends sometime in the ministry of Jesus. There are several very detailed attempts to count days and calculate the exact moment in Jesus’s ministry the 483 years end (the most common suggestion is Jesus’s baptism or the triumphal entry). But this is almost impossible since the years may be lunar or solar, there may be intercalculary months, etc. The cutting off of the anointed one is the crucifixion, but the final seven year people is still in the future.
In this view, the book of Revelation picks up the final seven year period to describe a final confrontation between the arrogant kingdom of man and God’s coming kingdom. The Christian writer to first suggest this appears to have been Julius Africanus in A.D. 200, mentioned in Jerome’s commentary on Daniel. But even here, there are scholars who interpret the tribulation described in Revelation as wholly fulfilled by the Roman destruction of Jerusalem or persecution of Christians in the late first century. Others read Revelation as looking to the distant future and events leading up to the return of Messiah Jesus to establish his kingdom.
Which approach is best? Theological presuppositions often guide the answer to this question. If an interpreter is committed to a second-century date, then the author of Daniel only knows history up to the 160’s B.C. and only the first view is viable. But the prophecy of Daniel was read in the first century as not completely exhausted by the events leading up to the rededication of the Temple. Jesus alludes to Daniel 9 and the “abomination that causes desolation” in Mark 13:14. For Jesus, this is still a future event: “when you see ii, then let those in Judea flee…” Revelation is another thread of evidence that at least some Jewish Christians expected a future seven-year period of extreme suffering prior to the coming of the Messiah.
If the seventy years of captivity is taken literally by Daniel, it seems reasonable to take the extension of the seventy years as a literal period as well. I really do think the events leading up the Rededication of the Temple are part of Daniel’s vision, but prophecy often predicts something in the near future which also refers to the eschatological age.
The third option seems to be the way the text was read in the first century, “how soon until the exile was really over?”