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Successful Predictive Prophecy in Daniel – Its Role in Reinforcing Authority and Theological Viewpoint

Posted by NT Wrong on November 20, 2008

In a recent post entitled ‘Dating Sacred Texts on the Basis of Fulfilled Prophecy’, Mark Goodacre discusses “the literary function of successful prophecy in the narrative in which it appears.”

Referring to Jesus’ prediction that the Jerusalem Temple would be destroyed, Mark explains that — irrespective of the historicity or otherwise of any such prediction by Jesus — “the prediction only gains traction because the reader is saying, ‘Hey, yes! I know what that’s about!'” That is, when recorded by a Christian sometime after AD 70 in the Gospel of Mark, the recording of the ‘prediction’ serves to bolster the authority of his work as a whole, and enhances the prestige of his subject, Jesus.

“Successful predictions play a major role in the narrative, reinforcing the authority of the one making the prediction and confirming the accuracy of the text’s theological view.”
– Mark Goodacre, ‘Dating the Crucial Sources in Early Christianity’, 2008 SBL Paper

Mark goes on to give the example of Jeremiah’s prophecies of woe and restoration. I’ll continue the ongoing parallel-making with the Book of Daniel, by mentioning Daniel’s reinterpretation of Jeremiah in Daniel 9.

In Daniel 9, Daniel reinterprets Jeremiah’s prophecy that the exile would last only 70 years (Jer 25.11-13; 29.10) by reinterpreting the ’70 years’ of exile as 70 ‘sevens’ of years — or 490 years. Now, Daniel’s prophetic interpretation is set during the Babylonian exile, under the reign of a fictional ‘Darius the Mede’. But it is in fact written in ca. 165 BC.

By reinterpreting Jeremiah’s prophecy as referring to an extended exilic period of 490 years, I strongly suspect Daniel was attempting to heighten the significance of the Maccabean and Hasidim revolution against Antiochus IV Epiphanes. For, according to Daniel’s own calculations, the 490 years just happened to end in 164 BC.

How so? First, I’ll take the prophetic word that went out as Jeremiah’s word of restoration, perhaps referring to Jer 30-31, which is recorded right after his 70-week prophecy. There are a number of other possible interpretations, but the context of Dan 9, which centres on the interpretation of Jeremiah’s prophecy, is the most relevant context for understanding a “word” (davar) that went out. Jeremiah is presented as being active immediately before and during 587/6 BC (the fall of Jerusalem). Therefore, some 49 years (seven sevens: Dan 9.25) expire with the arrival of the Cyrus the messiah. The author of Daniel calculated a further 62 sevens of years (434 years) from Cyrus (539 BC) to Antiochus (170 BC). Yes — there were only 369 years according to our more knowledgeable calculations, but broadly contemporary historians such as Josephus and Demetrius overestimated the number of years by similar amounts (Josephus estimated 33-42 years, Demetrius 73 years, so Daniel 9 falls within this range of calculations). When you add a final week onto 170 BC, you reach 164 BC — and the End of the Age.

But the reason that makes this understanding of Daniel’s reasoning so plausible, is that Daniel 9 is proclaiming the time of “everlasting righteousness” to his readers. He’s wanting to entice them, to seduce them with promises of future glory during their time of tribulation. So what does he give them? He gives them a reinterpretation of Jeremiah’s prophecy that will come true in their immediate future!

Daniel was using exact numbers, rather than merely symbolic associations of the numbers. Sure, the fact that his calculations ended up with the perfection of 70 x 7 was not accidental — when he arrived at this reinterpretation, the symbolic meaning of the 490-year period would have been apparent to him. It may even have encouraged him to make the ‘answer’ equal to 490 years — after all, the start-date is a little fuzzy, the multiplication by seven and extension of the ‘exile’ is entirely tendentious, and there was plenty more room for manipulation. But along with its role in reinforcing the authority of Daniel 9’s message, there are other reasons to conclude that Daniel 9 was using exact calculations:

    – If you subtract Jeremiah’s 70-year period from Cyrus’s ascent (539 BC), you get back to 609 BC. This is probably the author’s calculation of the third year of Jehoiakim (he’s only out by a year at most). So, the author’s attempt at an exact calculation of Jeremiah’s 70 years creates Daniel’s date for the beginning of the exile (Dan 1.1). This early date is otherwise unattested as a date for exile (597 and 586 are the correct dates), and appears to be Daniel’s own invention. He invented it due to his interest in reinterpreting Jeremiah.

    – The first ‘week’ of sevens from Jeremiah’s prophecy of restoration, at the sack of Jerusalem in 586 BC, to Cyrus in 539 BC, is exactly calculated as 49 years. Well, Daniel calculated it as exactly 49 years.

    – The authors of Daniel had a keen interest in wisdom, calendrical, and astronomical matters (Dan 12.3). They also display a reliance on Enochic literature, which itself has a keen interest in such matters (1 Enoch 72-82). Hence, the detailed, albeit fanciful, calculations.

So, by calculating the arrival of the eschaton from a creative reinterpretation of Jeremiah’s prophecy, and calculating it as coming to pass just seven years after Antiochus’ coming to power in 170 BC (164 BC), the authors of Daniel ensured authority and respect for their own writings and predictions.

The larger lesson: the method of Dispensationalists is far closer to what’s going on in the production of Daniel than that of modern biblical scholars.

2 Responses to “Successful Predictive Prophecy in Daniel – Its Role in Reinforcing Authority and Theological Viewpoint”

  1. Your Grace, Right Reverend Bishop Wrong! You and I should start the Guild of Closet Dispensationalists. 😉

  2. steph said

    Considering that Jesus himself in first century Palestine is highly likely to have predicted the temple’s destruction at some time soon himself in fact some of the gospel references point towards historicity (mistakes and all), that argument is weak. And then why did Mark, if he wrote just after it was destroyed, get the story so wrong?! He would have had an opportunity to correct Jesus’ mistakes if he had known the facts.

    This is not the same as Daniel though. 🙂

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