Will Adventists Ever Come to Terms with the Book of Daniel?
by André Reis | 19 February 2020 |
As Adventists all over the world gather to engage with the book of Daniel this quarter, some of us wonder, “What would Daniel think about our creative readings of his book if he were present?”
As last quarter ended and we began this one, I perused the new lesson. Knowing the editorial approach, I knew what I would find—but perhaps I could be wrong this time? (Fingers crossed!) Nope. It was all there again. The canned answers and made-up chronological diagrams dependent mostly on a single translation of Scripture, all too neat to be taken seriously. Nearly all prophetic dates presented as the “sure word of prophecy” are questionable on many fronts
Have we learned nothing about Daniel after so many quarterlies? Will we ever come to terms with what the author of Daniel intended to communicate to the original readers?
Let’s start with Daniel 8, apply its lessons to Daniel 7, and then move to Daniel 9.
Consider, for example, Adventism’s crux interpretum, Daniel 8:13–14 (over which many have been figuratively cruxed) from which we derived the investigative judgment beginning in 1844.
In a previous article I concluded that there’s no question that the focus of Daniel 8 is on a Greek assault on Jerusalem and the sanctuary, because Gabriel says so literally. Rome is nowhere to be seen, textually or contextually. Greece dominates the chapter (15 out of 27 verses) and is symbolized by the male goat, the biggest player in the chapter (defined exclusively by the Hebrew superlative me’od), whose large horn is followed by four other horns out of which––at the time of their posterity (8:23; cf. 11:4)––a “little horn” comes up. Despite the perpetual protestations of Adventists, ancient Jews and modern scholars have long agreed that the best match for this Greek “little horn” was Antiochus IV Epiphanes, a Seleucid king who subjugated Jerusalem in the second century BCE, set up the “abomination of desolation” in the temple and oppressed faithful Jews. As predicted, these abominations lasted a short period of time (2,300 evenings-mornings = 1,150 days of two tamîd /daily sacrifices each day = “half of the week” in 9:27).
As confirmed by events in Jewish history, Daniel 8 makes as good sense today as it did to second century BCE Jews!
But what does the traditional Adventist interpretation do with Daniel 8? It brings in a truckload of external ideas about what it should say based on numerological expectations of biblical prophecy, confuses literal with symbolic language, converts days to years, ignores textual and contextual markers, tears its meaning and relevance from the hands of oppressed Jews in Babylon and catapults its fulfilment millennia into the future and turns an American band of revivalists in 1844 into its primary audience and fulfilment.
The above reading of Daniel 8 leads us to another startling implication: If the “little horn” of Daniel 8 is demonstrably Greek, and if it is a development of the “little horn” of Daniel 7, then the fourth beast of Daniel 7 must also be Greek. It could be a different entity but it is probably the same one.
In that case, what could this animal be?
For one, the perpetual depiction of this beast as a Godzilla creature violates the force of the text: the fourth animal is not a “dragon” (tanin) but a regular “animal, beast” (heywa) as the previous ones, although it’s also a hybrid (ten horns, iron teeth). This would be Daniel’s perfect opportunity to describe a tanin (= dragon,) since it rises from the “great sea” (7:3) as all dragons do in Jewish tradition (cf. Isa 27:1; 51:9; Psa 74:13), but what he sees is just an unknown animal.
Scholars have pointed out that the Seleucid war elephant used by Antiochus IV against the Jews is a formidable candidate for the “terrible” fourth beast of Dan 7 (cf. 1 Maccabees 1:17; 3:34). It remains unnamed in the passage because, although the Jews did know its “teeth” (“ivory”), the elephant was unknown in Mesopotamia until the 4–5 century BCE. (Biblical Hebrew doesn’t even have a word for “elephant”). Standing as an ancient war tank, the Seleucid elephant looked very different and was much larger than the previous three animals in the vision. Ancient records reveal that soldiers were terrified by it; it looked dreadful when mounted with metal armor and wooden towers, metal leg and feet covers and long, poisoned iron swords mounted on its tusks which it used to slice and trample soldiers.
These unique features of the Seleucid war elephant seem to be alluded to in Dan 7:19: it had “teeth of iron [tusk swords?] and claws of bronze [metal leg/feet covers?], and which devoured and broke in pieces, and stamped what was left with its feet”—referring to the elephant’s characteristic way of killing: trampling.
Here again, Greece––and not Rome––is the natural candidate.
In many ways, Daniel 9 “closes the deal” for Adventists by providing an imaginary security: it confirms the day-year principle (it doesn’t), it clarifies when the 2,300 “years” start alongside the 70 weeks (no), Jesus, “the Messiah, the Prince” is predicted (is he?), which in turn indicates which decree to rebuild Jerusalem is the right one (by walking back from the “Messiah” Jesus to the decree that “fits” chronologically, that of Artaxerxes in 457 BCE).
But even Daniel 9 brings up a host of issues for Adventists.
In his article “The Sanctuary Doctrine: Asset or Liability?” Raymond Cottrell, assistant editor of the SDA Bible Commentary, points out how translation at least four errors in the KJV translation of Daniel 9 led the Adventist pioneers astray:
- The KJV mistranslates the indefinite article “an anointed, a leader/prince” as the Messiah, the Prince, with capital letters (v. 25);
- It incorrectly joins the “seven sevens” with “sixty-two sevens [or weeks]” as a single 69-week period before “the Messiah, the Prince” rises (v. 25);
- It agains renders the indefinite article “an anointed” as “the Messiah” in v. 26;
- Because of the erroneously capitalized “the Messiah”, it translates the Hebrew accusative of time “and for half of one seven” as “in the middle of the seven” in v. 27
The first and third errors are obvious: you can’t change an indefinite article “an” to the definite article “the” without doing violence to the text. The reason for this indefinition on the part of the author is because there are two “anointed” in the passage, as we’ll see below.
As far as the second and fourth errors, the first part of v. 25 reads literally: “until an anointed leader, seven sevens [or weeks].” What comes next, “sixty-two sevens” must be the start of a new clause because of the initial “and” = we (weshabu‘îm shishim ûshenayim). This forms an accusative of time or duration in Hebrew thus requiring that it be translated as “and for sixty-two sevens”. The same accusative of time (or “temporal adverbial phrase”) occurs in v. 27: “he will make a covenant for one week.” The end result is:
Dan 9:25: “Until an anointed leader, a prince, there will be seven sevens; and for sixty-two sevens, it shall be restored and rebuilt, but in difficult times.”
The reason for this translation is not only grammatical, but also contextual because it is clear that there’s a pattern here: the 70 “weeks” of Daniel 9 are divided into three distinct, sequential periods: 7 + 62 + 1 (½ + ½) with some special event occurring at each period:
- After the initial 7 sevens = the rise of “an anointed leader/prince”;
- After the following 62 sevens = city rebuilt after which “an anointed one” [not prince] is “cut off”;
- One seven (divided into two periods) = the evil prince of v. 27 makes a pact with many for one week and interrupts the sacrifice for half of that week
Dan 9:26 confirms this: “After the sixty-two weeks, an anointed one shall be cut off” revealing this as a distinct time period. If this was a single 69-week period, it should have said “after the sixty-nine weeks, an anointed shall be cut off,” but it doesn’t.
The last error in the KJV of Daniel 9 is the expression “in the middle of the week,” which again mistranslates the Hebrew accusative of time “and for half of the week he will remove the sacrifices” (wahatsî hasshabûa). The incorrect meaning is punctiliar rather than expressing a longer period.
Since the second “anointed” had already been killed after sixty-two sevens, v. 27 must start with the actions of the evil “coming prince” who “shall make a strong covenant with many for one week, and for half of the week he shall make sacrifice and offering cease.” It turns out that this “coming prince” of Dan 9:26 is the same “little horn” of Daniel 8 since both trample the sanctuary and the people afoot for a period of half a week = roughly the 1,150 days of the removal of the daily in Dan 8:13–14). Thus, instead of the 490 years being part of 2,300 “years,” it’s the opposite: the 2,300 evening-mornings of Dan 8:14 when the “little horn” removes the daily sacrifices is parallel with the last part of the 70-week prophecy when the evil “coming king” would remove the sacrifices and offerings for half a week. Crystal clear.
These errors in the KJV have been corrected by several modern Bible translations such as the New Revised Standard Version and the New Jewish Publishing Society version (1999).
Who are these two anointed ones then, if not Jesus?
Because Daniel 9:24–27 deals with the reconstruction of Jerusalem and the restoration of the temple including the anointing of its Most Holy Place (v. 24)—both at the end of the exile and later under the “little horn” = evil “coming king” (9:26–27)––and because the word maschiach, “anointed” is used for the “anointed priest” (Lev 4:3), it makes sense that these two “anointed” ones are most likely high priests. The first “anointed leader” after Cyrus’s decree (v. 24) was high priest Joshua, who served from 515–490 BCE, roughly 7 sevens from Cyrus’s decree (Zech 6:9–14; Esdras 3). The second “anointed” who is “cut off” after the sixty-two weeks could be the high priest Onias III, who was killed by the Seleucids ca. 175 BCE, giving way to the “covenant” by Antiochus Epiphanes with Hellenistic Jews and the interruption of the sacrifices for half of the week. The time to rebuild Jerusalem given as 62 weeks (434 years) was greatly shortened and therefore must not have been chronological, but, as Goldingay puts it “cronographical”, i.e., a Jewish way of dividing time in symbolic epochs of seven.
I recognize that it may sound blasphemous to some to suggest that Daniel 9 may not even predict Jesus. It was to me at first, as well, but it is not insignificant that no New Testament authors used Daniel’s prophecies to prove Jesus was the Messiah. What difference would that make, since Jesus did come and was, undoubtedly, the final Jewish Messiah, the Savior? Is our belief in Jesus as Messiah so fragile that we need to force Daniel to say this? I certainly hope not.
The point of this whole exercise is: Adventists need to replace the interpretative exuberance that has marked our interpretations of Daniel for interpretative parsimony. What does that mean? Stay close to the biblical text and follow what I’d call a “low presuppositional threshold,” i.e., have as few external biases about Scripture as possible. This “threshold” looks something like this: favor respect for the authorial intention as laid out in the text, written in a dead language and not primarily to us, but to an audience vastly removed from our historical-religious reality.
 Paul J. Kosmin, The Land of the Elephant Kings: Space Territory, and Ideology in the Seleucid Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), 2; See John E. Goldingay, Daniel, vol. 30, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas, TX: Word, Incorporated, 1989), 163; Urs Staub, “Das Tier Mit Den Hörnern,” Freiburger Zeitschrift Für Philosophie Und Theologie 25 (1978): 351–97.
 The Hebrew shabuah “seven” or “week” was also used on its own cognizance by the Jews to indicate a sabbatical 7-year cycle, no manual conversion from day to year was necessary. See “The Problem with the Day-Year Principle”
 Daniel 9:24–27 follows a pattern in which a waw ו (wᵉ = “and”) initiates each major clause. This is an important observation which has bearing on how one interprets the 70 “sevens.” If this pattern is not observed on verse 25, and the “seven sevens” go with “sixty-two sevens” forming a single 69-week period until “an anointed, a prince,” then a waw ו should go before täxûB (“it will be restored” or “turned back”) = wᵉtäxûB in order to start a new clause, but it is missing in the text. Thus, the wᵉ before “sixty-two sevens” (wᵉxäBu/îm xxixîm ûxenayim) is the one that initiates a new clause, which, in turn, makes it an accusative of time or duration = “and for sixty-two sevens, it shall be restored [lit. “turned back”].” This is the reason why the Masoretes added an atnach (akin to a semicolon) after the initial “seven sevens,” thus creating a short break between the two clauses. This reading is confirmed by Dan 9:26, which indicates that the “sixty-two sevens” are a distinct period related to the cutting off of a second “anointed.” The end result of this reading is that “an anointed, a prince” appears after the initial “seven sevens” and another one is cut off at the end of the following “sixty-two sevens.” See Thomas McComiskey, “The ‘Seventy Weeks’ of Daniel against the Background of Ancient Near Eastern Literature,” Westminster Theological Journal 47:1 (Spring 1985): 25: “Thus, the Massoretic tradition is in full accord with Hebrew grammar and syntax in every respect.” Cf. Robert Chisholm, Jr., Handbook on the Prophets (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 202), 313 who calls this an “temporal adverbial phrase.” See John J. Collins, Daniel: A Commentary on the Book of Daniel (Fortress Press, 1993), 355: “There can be no doubt that the MT punctuation is correct. There is no other reason for dividing the period into seven and sixty-two. The MT understanding of the passage is well attested in early Christianity before Jerome [e.g. Hippolytus, Clement], as well as in Jewish tradition [Seder ʿOlam Rabbah].”
 John E. Goldingay, Daniel, vol. 30, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas, TX: Word, Incorporated, 1989), 163; cf. McComiskey, “The Seven Weeks of Daniel,” 41: “The numerical concepts of seven and seventy are understood to have a symbolic significance. That significance, we have learned, is the concept of totality or fullness.”
André Reis, PhD, has a B.A. in theology from the Adventist University of São Paulo, Brazil, a Masters in Music from the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, MA and a PhD in New Testament at Avondale University in partnership with Charles Sturt University (Sydney, Australia) specializing in apocalyptic literature. He contributed two chapters for the book In Spirit and in Truth (Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2013). His upcoming book Echoes of the Most Holy: The Day of Atonement in the Book of Revelation is a revision of his doctoral dissertation. He, his wife and three daughters are active in the music ministry of his local congregation.