Daniel 9's Seventy Weeks and the Sabbatical Cycle
When Were the Sabbatical Years?
by Bob Pickle
Every seventh year the Israelites were to let the land keep a "sabbath of rest" by not sowing their crops (Lev. 25:2-7). This sabbatical year was called "the year of shemitah" or "release" (Deut. 15:9; 31:10), since all debts were remitted that year. Sabbatical years began with the seventh Jewish month in the fall, commonly called Tishri, corresponding roughly with our month of October (Lev. 25:9).
Which years were sabbatical years? For periods after the Israelites returned from Babylon, there are basically two proposals that differ by a single year:
So which proposal is correct? First of all, why does it matter? It matters because this question is pertinent to a study of the 70 weeks of Daniel 9.
In another paper Wacholder demonstrates how the Hebrew word for "week" in Daniel 9 is used in Jewish writings to refer to sabbatical cycles. He also provides references to ancient Jewish commentators who felt that the 70 weeks of Daniel 9 were 70 sabbatical cycles ("Chronomessianism, The Timing of Messianic Movements and the Calendar of Sabbatical Cycles," Hebrew Union College Annual 46 (1975), pp. 202-204).
Since Daniel 9 begins with a reference to the 70 years of Babylonian captivity, this conclusion seems certain. The reason the Jews were sentenced to a captivity of 70 years is because they had not kept that many sabbatical years and had to catch up (Lev. 26:34-35, 43; 2 Chr. 36:21-23). So Daniel 9 begins with a reference to the missed sabbatical years of 70 sabbatical cycles, and ends with a discussion of another 70 sabbatical cycles.
It therefore follows that if a particular interpretation of the 70 weeks coincides with known sabbatical years, then that interpretation has additional merit. This approach requires the positive identification of at least one sabbatical year sometime in history.
This paper assumes that Wacholder's ten lines of evidence for his position are the best possible case against Zuckermann's dates. What follows is a discussion dealing with each of these lines of evidence as they appear in his 1973 paper. A careful re-analysis of this data seems to indicate that Zuckermann's dates are the correct ones after all.
To keep this article briefer, additional material (89K) is on another page that can be reached via hyperlinks from this page. A table (91K) of sabbatical dates, comparing the two positions, can also be reached via hyperlinks.
"1. The pledge to keep Shemitah" (pp. 157, 158)
This line of evidence concerns the first post-exilic reference to the sabbatical years, a pledge made by the Jews on Tishri 24 in Nehemiah 10:31 (cf. 8:2; 9:1). Wacholder feels that this pledge coincided with the beginning of a sabbatical year. Thus, according to this logic, if we can determine in what year the pledge was made, we would have evidence of when the sabbatical years occurred.
Admittedly, this line of evidence is weak, since it depends upon the unproven assumption that the pledge was made during a sabbatical year.
Nehemiah left Babylon for Jerusalem around Nisan (roughly our April) in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes I. The pledge was made the following Tishri 24, which must be in the twenty-first year of the king since Nehemiah was using a fall-to-fall calendar (Neh. 1:1; 2:1). (The reason the first month Nisan follows the ninth month Kislev in the twentieth year of the king is because the seventh month begins the new year, not the first month, in a fall-to-fall calendar.) So when would Artaxerxes's twenty-first year be?
Xerxes, Artaxerxes's predecessor, was murdered sometime in 465 BC. A Jewish Aramaic papyri (AP6) from Elephantine, Egypt, written on January 2, 464 BC, is dated in Artaxerxes's accession year (Horn and Wood, Chronology of Ezra 7, pp. 98-115, 172-174).
AP6 answers a couple of crucial questions for us:
Therefore, Artaxerxes's first year began on Tishri 1, 464 BC. Add twenty years to this date, and we have the Julian equivalent for Tishri in his twenty-first year, the date the pledge was made.
"2. Alexander Exempts the Jews from Taxation During Shemitah" (pp. 158-160)
Josephus records an account of Alexander the Great exempting the Jews from having to pay taxes during sabbatical years (Antiquities, bk. 11, ch. 8, sect. 4-5). Josephus is quite explicit regarding the date of this event. It was immediately after Alexander conquered Gaza:
While Josephus does not specify when the sabbatical year occurred in relation to Alexander's exempting of the Jews from taxation, Wacholder's reasoning here is similar to that of the previous section. He feels that the two events occurred at about the same time.
For Zuckermann, 332/331 BC was a sabbatical year. For Wacholder, 331/330 BC was a sabbatical year. [table]
Since Alexander took Gaza in November 332 BC, connecting Alexander's grant to a sabbatical year suggests that 332/331 BC was a sabbatical year, a date that is again in harmony with Zuckermann. [more]
"3. Judah Maccabee's Defeat at Beth-Zur Ascribed to Shemitah" (pp. 160-163)
1 Maccabees 6:20, 49, records a synchronism between a sabbatical year and a siege of Beth-Zur by Antiochus Eupator. This siege is dated in the 149th year of the Seleucid Era in 2 Maccabees 13:1, and in the 150th year in 1 Maccabees 6:20. Different countries and cities used different dating schemes for the Seleucid Era. We must therefore determine which dating scheme was used by which book, and then try to use this synchronism to determine the correct BC date for the siege.
The Seleucid Era commemorates Seleucus's entry into Babylon in August 312 BC. Variations arise because some countries customarily began their year in the spring while others began theirs in the fall. Also, some countries might commence the era with the actual year of Seleucus' entry while others with the year immediately after. These differences in local customs have resulted in scholars proposing the following four dates for commencing the first year of the Seleucid Era when dealing with the dates in the books of Maccabees:
The following table shows the relationship of these four dating schemes as far as when the first year of the Seleucid Era occurred.
According to Zuckermann, 164/163 BC was a sabbatical year; according to Wacholder it was 163/162 BC. [table] Since the siege occurred in the spring or summer of a sabbatical year, we are thus trying to determine whether that siege occurred in 163 or in 162 BC. If in 163, then we have support for Zuckermann. If in 162, then we have support for Wacholder.
The following table gives Julian dates for the 149th and 150th years of the Seleucid Era in each of the four schemes listed above. It also shows what the date of the siege would be as calculated in each scheme. The possible dates that would harmonize the data are italicized.
Notice how that, as the above table indicates, only a 163 BC siege can be simultaneously dated in both the 149th and 150th years. 1 Maccabees's date of the 150th year therefore must use a Seleucid Era that begins in either the fall of 313 or the spring of 312, while 2 Maccabees's date of the 149th year must use a Seleucid Era that begins in either the fall of 312 or the spring of 311.
We must conclude, therefore, that the only way to harmonize the two accounts as they read is to date the siege in 163 BC, which then supports Zuckermann's sabbatical dates. [more]
"4. The Murder of Simon the Hasmonean in 177 A.S." (pp. 163-165)
Simon and two of his sons were murdered by his son-in-law Ptolemy in the eleventh month (Shevat, roughly our February) of the 177th year (1 Mac. 16:14-16). A third son, John Hyrcanus, besieged Ptolemy, but when the sabbatical year came around that fall, Ptolemy escaped (Antiq., bk. 13, ch. 8, sect. 1).
The dating of Simon's murder in a pre-sabbatical year is dependent on the dating we arrived at under the previous section. If we use a Seleucid Era that commenced in the fall of 313 BC, then the Shevat of the 177th year would correspond with February of 136 BC.
A sabbatical commencing in the following fall would therefore be 136/135 BC, a sabbatical date that agrees with Zuckermann. [table]
If we use a Seleucid Era in 1 Maccabees that commences with the spring or fall of 312, then we have the murder occurring in February 135, with a sabbatical date that agrees with Wacholder. Yet two points should be noted:
It therefore seems best to use a fall 313 commencement of the Seleucid Era for 1 Maccabees instead of a fall 312 commencement, making this line of evidence support Zuckermann. [more]
"5. Herod's Conquest of Jerusalem" (pp.165-167)
According to Josephus, Herod besieged Jerusalem during the spring and summer of a sabbatical year (Antiq., bk. 14, ch. 16, sect. 2). As far as what year this took place in, Josephus has this to say:
The 185th Olympiad began in July 40 BC and ended in June 36 BC. Agrippa and Gallus were consuls in 37 BC. Thus Jerusalem was besieged by Herod in the spring and summer of 37 BC. Since 38/37 BC was a sabbatical year according to Zuckermann, Zuckermann's sabbatical dates must therefore be correct. [table] [more]
"6. King Agrippa I Recites Deut. 7:15 in a Post-Sabbatical Year" (pp. 167-169)
Mishnah Sotah 7:8 refers to King Agrippa's reading of the law. Such readings regularly took place during the Feast of Tabernacles in connection with a sabbatical year. If we can determine when Agrippa read the law, we can thus determine another sabbatical date.
Wacholder's argument in this section depends upon several debated points:
Thus Wacholder contends that Agrippa I read the law during the Feast of Tabernacles in Tishri 42 AD.
Caligula appointed Herod Agrippa I as king in 37 AD. He received additional territory in 39 AD, and became king of Judea in 41 AD.
It is a simple fact that the Herods attended Jewish festivals even when they did not reign over Judea (Luke 23:7). That being so, Agrippa I could have read the law in 40 or 41 AD, since he was reigning over Galilee and Peraea by that time. There is therefore nothing in this section that would rule out Zuckermann's dates. [table] [more]
"7. Note of Indebtedness on a Papyrus of Wadi Murabba`at" (pp. 169-171)
This section concerns a note dated in Nero's second year, apparently identified as a sabbatical year. A key question is the manner in which the author of the note calculated Nero's regnal years. Did he date them from Tishri or Nisan? Did he use accession-year or non-accession-year reckoning? The possible combinations appear below. Dates that fit Zuckermann's sabbatical dates are in green. [table] Dates that fit Wacholder's are in italics:
If the author of the note used non-accession-year reckoning and a spring-to-spring calendar, then the note supports Zuckermann's dates as well as Wacholder's, for the second year of Nero would overlap half of either sabbatical date. However, if the author used either accession-year reckoning or a fall-to-fall calendar, then Zuckermann's dates will not fit.
First of all, would the author of the note have used non-accession-year reckoning? Baba Bathra 164a-b indicates that he most certainly would have. In this Talmudic selection, the differences between a plain note and a folded note are discussed:
A footnote for this selection in the Soncino edition states that:
Since the note in question is a folded note, it would thus be dated using non-accession-year reckoning.
Secondly, would the author have used a spring-to-spring calendar? The Jewish historian Josephus appears to have done so in his reckoning of the reigns of Nero and perhaps Vespasian (Antiq., bk. 20, ch. 11, sect. 1; Wars, bk. 2, ch.14, sect. 4; ch.19, sect. 9; bk. 6, ch. 4, sect. 8; ch. 10, sect. 1). And during both the first revolt and the second revolt of the Jews against the Romans, the years of the revolts were reckoned by the Jews according to non-accession-year reckoning and a spring-to-spring calendar (Wacholder, n. 92, p. 179; B. Kanael, "Notes on the Dates Used During the Bar Kokhba Revolt," Israel Exploration Journal 21 (1971), n. 11, p. 40).
"8. Was the Second Temple Destroyed During a Sabbatical or a Post-Sabbatical Year?" (pp. 171-176)
Virtually all who have maintained Zuckermann's sabbatical dates have utilized a statement by Rabbi Jose found in both the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds. This statement says that:
Since the temple was destroyed in the summer of 70 AD, and since 69/70 is a post-sabbatical year according to Zuckermann, we have here further evidence in support of Zuckermann's sabbatical dates. [table] [more]
"9. Renting Land from Bar Kosba" (pp. 176-179)
The evidence of this section concerns rental contracts of land from Bar Kochba. These were imperial estates he had seized during his revolt, which began in the spring of 132 AD and lasted three and a half years. A representative contract, Mur 24 E, in part reads thus:
We agree with Wacholder that Shevat 20 of year 2 corresponds roughly to February of 134 AD. The question is regarding the meaning of the five fiscal years, which he maintains must be at least five full calendar years.
If Zuckermann's sabbatical dates are correct, the term of the rental contract lasted four years, seven months, and ten days. In contrast, if Wacholder is right, the rental contract lasted five years, seven months, and ten days. Is there no way to have the contracts be for five full years and only five?
Consider the fact that the rent is to be paid in wheat. How many payments? Four, five, or six? The terms of the contract clearly call for five annual payments, which means there has to be five harvests between the date of the contract and the next sabbatical year. The first harvest would take place just a few months after the signing of the contracts, for presumably there was already wheat growing from a sowing the previous autumn.
If Zuckermann's sabbatical dates are correct, there are but five harvests between Shevat 134 and Tishri 138. With Wacholder's sabbatical date of 139/140, the rental contract would cover six harvests. Thus this line of evidence is solidly in support of Zuckermann. [table] [more]
"10. Three Fourth and Fifth Century Tombstone Inscriptions in Sodom" (pp. 180-182)
Actually, these tombstones are said to have been found at "Zoar," a distinct city from the biblical Sodom (Gen. 14:2, 8; 19:1-24).
Wacholder maintains that none of the three tombstones match Zuckermann's sabbatical dates, while one matches his own. This one tombstone reads thusly:
Regarding the date of this tombstone, Wacholder says:
Wacholder's earlier quotation of Maimonides seems to indicate that the first year of Hurban, the first year of the Destruction Era, began at Tishri 70, two months after the temple was destroyed. In a note Wacholder says:
Please note: If Marheshwan (eighth month) of 70 AD was in year 1, which Wacholder believes to be the case, then Marheshwan of year 364 is in the Jewish year 433/434 AD, not 434/435.
The tombstone synchronizes 364 DE with a post-sabbatical year. If 433/434 was therefore a post-sabbatical year, then 432/433 was a sabbatical year, and this agrees with Zuckermann's sabbatical dates.
Conclusion and Application
Of the various interpretations of Daniel 9 that have been proposed over the centuries, there is one that fits precisely Zuckermann's sabbatical dates. That is the interpretation that commences the 70 weeks with the decree of Ezra 7 in 457 BC and ends it in 34 AD. Christ death, under this scenario, occurs in the precise middle of the 70th week, in the spring of 31 AD. [table (457 BC)] [table (27-34 AD)]
This verse treats the decrees of these three monarchs as if they were a single decree. Cyrus commanded the building of the temple, a command which Darius confirmed (Ezra 1:1-4; 6:1-12). Finally, Artaxerxes restored the judiciary (Ezra 7:11-26) in the seventh year of his reign.
That Cyrus would command the building of Jerusalem was foretold in Isaiah 44:24-28; 45:13. That the judiciary would be restored was foretold in Isaiah 1:26. Once Jerusalem had both been commanded to be both built and restored, then the 70 weeks could commence.
Ezra arrived at Jerusalem in the fifth month of Artaxerxes' seventh year (Ezra 7:8, 9). Artaxerxes's decree went into effect between that time and the ninth month, for the judicial system was functioning by the twentieth day of the ninth month (Ezra 10:9). In as much as the sabbatical year ended and a new week of years began at Tishri 457 BC, it is convenient to commence the 70 weeks at that time.
69 weeks or 483 years later takes us to the fall of 27 AD, which is when the Messiah should have appeared. If Luke used a fall-to-fall calendar with non-accession-year reckoning for Tiberius Caesar, then this would be about the time of Christ's baptism, for Tiberius's fifteenth year by such a reckoning would have commenced in the fall of 27 AD (Luke 3:1). Thus His baptism fell at the beginning of the first year of a new sabbatical cycle. [table]
At Christ's baptism He was anointed with the Holy Spirit descending upon Him in the form of a dove (Luke 3:22; Acts 10:38). Since the Hebrew word for "Messiah" and the Greek word for "Christ" both mean "the anointed one," it is logical to identify the coming of the Messiah of Daniel 9:25 with Christís anointing at His baptism.
Christ dying after a ministry of 3Ĺ years would put His death in the spring of 31 AD, the precise middle of a sabbatical cycle, the 70th cycle since 457 BC. At His death, the veil of the temple was torn from top to bottom (Mat. 27:51). This showed that the sacrifices were to cease, since the true sacrifice for sin had been offered.
The remaining half a week of the prophecy takes us to the fall of 34 AD. In Acts 7 we find Stephen being stoned as the first Christian martyr. Immediately after this the gospel started going to non-Jews: Samaritans, the Ethiopian eunuch, and the Roman centurion Cornelius, along with his household (Acts 8:4-39; 10). Gabriel had told Daniel, "Seventy weeks are determined upon thy people" (Dan. 9:24). It therefore seems logical to end the 70 weeks with the stoning of Stephen, for at that point the gospel began to go to the Gentiles, not just Danielís people, the Jews.
For one week (7 years) the gospel, the new "covenant," was "confirmed" with "many," the Jewish nation: 3Ĺ years during the ministry of Christ, and 3Ĺ years after His resurrection. After that, it went to the Gentiles.
The precise fit of this interpretation of Daniel 9 with the sabbatical cycles should not be totally surprising. As Maimonides said,
Maimonides apparently saw nothing wrong with the faulty Rabbinical chronology that put the destruction of the first temple around 421 BC, and the building of the second temple around 351 BC. Yet while his chronology of that destruction and rebuilding is unreliable, it is interesting to note that he associated the beginning of a sabbatical cycle with the coming of Ezra in Artaxerxes's seventh year. As we have discovered, the fall after Ezra's return did begin a sabbatical cycle. Commencing the 70 weeks at that point provides a precise fulfillment of the prophecy that also coincides with seventy actual sabbatical cycles.