The verses that detail the enigmatic “seventy weeks” in Daniel 9:24-27 are among the most commented on passages in all of Scripture. There are almost as many questions about the text as there are words in it! For instance, just how long are these “seventy weeks” (9:24)? Who is the “anointed one” who will be “cut off” (9:26)? What is the “covenant” that the prince will make for one week? Have these seventy weeks already occurred or are they still to come? While comprehensive answers are impossible in a single article, some interpretations are more probable than others. The most important point for Jesus-followers is this: the seventy weeks can (and most likely do) recount a time before Yeshua, but they can also apply to him at the same time.
Daniel’s “seventy weeks”—literally, “seventy sevens” (שׁבעים שׁבעים)—almost certainly refer to seventy weeks of years, or 490 years (9:24). Gabriel’s words to Daniel begin, “Seventy weeks are decreed about your people and your holy city (על־עמך ועל־עיר קדשך; al amkha v’al ‘ir qadshekha) to complete the transgression, to end to sin, to atone for iniquity, to bring in continual righteousness, to ratify vision and prophet, and to anoint the Holy of Holies” (9:24). Since this is a word concerning the people of Judah and the city of Jerusalem, it is probably best to assume that these 490 years describe periods of time inaugurated when “Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it” in the year 605 BCE (Dan 1:1).
Next, Gabriel tells Daniel, “Know, therefore, and understand: From the going out of the word to restore and build Jerusalem to the coming of an anointed one (משׁיח; mashiach), a prince, there shall be seven weeks” (9:25). While this prophecy pertains to king Cyrus’s declaration for Judah to return home (see 2 Chron 36:22-23), the “seven weeks” of years seems to cover the 49-year period from Judah’s exile in 587/86 to Cyrus’s decree in 538 BCE. Therefore, the figure Gabriel mentions could be Cyrus, called God’s “anointed one” (משׁיחו; Isa 45:1). However, other plausible candidates include Zerubbabel the governor and Joshua the high priest who work together to begin the Second Temple’s construction. Since Leviticus refers to “the anointed priest” (הכהן המשׁיח; ha’cohen ha’mashiach; 4:3-5, 16), it may be better to assume that the first anointed one is Joshua the priest.
Daniel 9 also speaks of a second anointed figure, saying, “After sixty-two weeks, an anointed one will be cut off and he [will be] no more” (9:26). Sixty-two weeks refers to 434 years, but when should the counting begin? While it may sound logical to start counting the 62 weeks after the return from Babylon (since Gabriel refers to the return in the previous verse), the text doesn’t demand a chronologically linear reading of the years. In fact, since the first seven weeks (49 years) are mentioned separately from the 62 weeks (434 years), it may be better to treat them as temporally distinct. Seen from a contextual and historical perspective, it makes sense that the 62 weeks would start in 605 BCE, the year that begins the book of Daniel, which would bring us to the year 171 BCE. This was the year that the righteous high priest Onias III was killed by rivals, Andronicus and Menelaus (see 2 Maccabees 4:30-33). Thus, when Daniel speaks of an anointed one being “cut off,” the text most likely refers to the esteemed Onias’s death.
After the death of Onias in 171 BCE, the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes invaded Jerusalem and desecrated its Temple—an event that Gabriel predicts when he says that, following the anointed one’s death, “the troops of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary” (Dan 9:27; cf. 8:21-25). The Seleucid desecration caused the Temple sacrifices to cease. Also, some of the city’s Jewish inhabitants made a “covenant” (διαθήκην; diathéken) with the Greek king (1 Maccabees 1:11), removed the marks of their circumcision, and abandoned God’s covenant (see 1 Macc 1:12-15). This unfortunate reality is prophesied in Daniel 9: “He [Antiochus] shall make strong a covenant with many for one week, and for half of the week he shall make sacrifice and offering cease; and in their place shall be a desolating abomination (שקוצים משמם; shiqutsim meshomem)” (9:27).
This desolating sacrilege is the altar that Antiochus set up in the Temple to offer sacrifices to other gods (see 1 Macc 1:54-59). Yet, this abomination would not last; in 164 BCE a Jewish revolt led by Judah Maccabee would take back control of the Temple, tear down the “abomination” of the Gentile altar (1 Macc 6:7), and rededicate the sanctuary to God. This defeat of Antiochus and rededication would fulfill Gabriel’s promise in Daniel of “decreed end poured out upon the desolator” (9:27). The events from Onias’s death (171 BCE) to the Maccabean victory (164 BCE) all take place within the span of “one week” in Daniel. This fits Gabriel’s timeline perfectly: the rededication in 164 is exactly “one week” (7 years) after Onias’s death. With the renewal of priestly offerings, Gabriel’s decree of “seventy weeks” was fulfilled: the atoning sacrifices were what was needed to “finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for iniquity, to bring lasting righteousness, to ratify vision and prophet, and to anoint the Holy of Holies” (Dan 9:24). Therefore, Gabriel’s prophecy in Daniel 9 most likely pertains to the events between the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem (605 BCE) and the rededication of the Second Temple in 164 BCE.
At this point, readers may be wondering, “If Daniel’s anointed ones are the priests Joshua and Onias III, then where does Jesus fit into all of this?” After all, Jesus himself tells his first-century disciples to watch out for the “desolating abomination (βδέλυγμα τῆς ἐρημώσεως) standing in the holy place… spoken of by the prophet Daniel” (Matthew 24:15). So, doesn’t this mean that Gabriel’s words should apply to Yeshua? The author of Matthew certainly thinks so, since the evangelist includes a parenthetical reference after Jesus refers to Daniel: “let the reader understand” (ὁ ἀναγινώσκων νοείτω; 24:15). Matthew’s first readers would have known their history and the books of the Maccabees in which Antiochus had already set up a “desolating abomination” in the Temple hundreds of years prior (1 Macc 1:54). When Jesus uses this same language to speak of the Second Temple’s destruction, he’s suggesting that the desecration that occurred under the Seleucids is going to happen again under the Romans.
Jesus’ recollection of Daniel in Matthew is an instance of what scholars call “recapitulation”—what happened in Israel’s past will happen again in their present or future. Matthew is particularly interested in showing how Jesus fulfills prophecy by recapitulating Israel’s history. A good example is Matt 2:15, which describes Jesus’ family going to Egypt as a fulfillment of Hosea’s words, “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Hos 11:1). In Hosea’s original context, however, these words refer to the nation of Israel—God’s “firstborn son” (Exodus 4:22) who came out of Egypt in the exodus. The whole of Hosea 11:1 reads, “When Israel was a child a loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” The Gospel writer knows full well that Hosea’s original text refers to Israel, not to Jesus. Matthew’s prophetic points is not the Hosea speaks exclusively of Jesus, but rather that as with Israel, so with Israel’s Messiah; Yeshua fulfills Hosea by recapitulating Israel’s exodus when he comes out of Egypt as a child.
Similarly, Jesus reruns Israel’s prior history detailed in Daniel 9. As the Messiah, Jesus is the “anointed one” par excellence, and he shares a name with Daniel’s first “anointed one,” Joshua the high priest. While “Yeshua” (ישׁוע) is a shortened version of “Joshua” (יהושׁע), the names are the same in Greek (Ἰησοῦς), and the priestly Joshua is even called “Yeshua” several times in the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Ezra 3:8-9; 4:3; 5:2; Neh 12:26). More, Joshua is linked with the so-called “Branch” (צמח; tsemah; Jer 23:5; 33:15; cf. Isa 11:1), which early Jewish interpreters associated with the coming Messiah. Zechariah says of Joshua, “Behold a man; his name is ‘Branch’ (צמח), and he shall branch out from his place and build the Temple of the Lord” (Zech 6:12). Jesus of Nazareth, who Matthew links with the “branch” of Isaiah 11:1 (see Matt 2:23), recapitulates Joshua the priest insofar as he shares the name of the Branch. Yeshua the first “anointed one” of Daniel 9:25. Jesus also echoes Daniel’s second “anointed one” since he is “cut off”—i.e., killed—just like Onias (Dan 9:26).
Finally, the New Testament writers present Jesus in a way that resonates with the promise of Daniel 9:24: one who, in his death, would finish transgression, put an end to sin, atone for iniquity, and usher in continual righteousness. While Daniel’s words originally referred to the reestablishment of Temple sacrifices in 164 BCE, Jesus recapitulates and extends that original atoning event. To use a phrase from John’s Gospel, Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (Jn 1:29). Thus, while Daniel’s seventy weeks occurred in the days between Babylon and the Maccabean revolt, the recapitulative presentation of Yeshua in the Gospels allows the Jesus-following reader of Daniel to “double dip”: first, Daniel refers to Joshua, Onias, the Jewish victory over persecution, and the rededication of the Temple—and then Jesus reruns the lives of Joshua and Onias, wins a decisive victory over evil and sin, and reaffirms the atoning efficacy of Temple sacrifices “once for all when he offered himself” (Hebrews 7:27).