Next Event after the Messiah's Coming
The first validation of our date for the Transfiguration follows from discovery that the oracle of Daniel 9 looks beyond the Transfiguration to yet another event.
25 . . . The street shall be built again, and the wall, even in troublous times.
26 And after threescore and two weeks shall Messiah be cut off, but not for himself: . . . .
After sixty-two weeks following the coming of the Messiah, He would "be cut off, but not for himself" (v. 26). In its many occurrences in the law of Moses, the term "cut off" signifies the passing or execution of a death sentence (Ex. 12:15; Lev. 7:20-21; Num. 15:30) (1).
The Hebrew expression translated "but not for himself" does not actually carry the idea of suffering for others. The closest English approximation of the meaning is, "and is not to him" (2). Commentators have exercised themselves at great length to elucidate this obscure expression (3). But Jesus Himself supplied the correct interpretation as He was coming down from the Mount of Transfiguration.
And he answered and told them, Elias verily cometh first, and restoreth all things; and how it is written of the Son of man, that he must suffer many things, and be set at nought.
To help the three disciples understand the event they had just witnessed, Jesus drew their attention to Daniel 9, using verse 26 to show the next events on the prophetic timetable. He freely translated the enigmatic phrase concerning the Messiah as, "and be set at nought." He was warning them that He would be treated as nothing. Although He was the Messiah and Prince announced in verse 25, His rightful claim to authority over all men would be scorned and rejected.
Together, the phrases "cut off" and "be set at nought" describe Jesus' entire ordeal of humiliation at the hands of Jewish authorities. The opening event would be His official indictment and the climactic event would be His execution.
Span of Sixty-Two Weeks
Two arguments prove that the sixty-two weeks foreseen in verse 26 are ordinary weeks of days.
- The preceding verse, verse 25, states that the Messiah would come, and verse 26 states that after another sixty-two weeks, the Messiah would be cut off. The sixty-two weeks evidently fall within the lifetime of one man. Therefore, they cannot be weeks of years, as they are in verse 25. Rather, they must be ordinary weeks. A term of sixty-two ordinary weeks is a year and seventy-one days.
- In verse 25, the sixty-nine weeks until the Messiah's coming are represented as the sum of seven and sixty-two. Why? Many commentators agree that the first component represents how long it took the city to be rebuilt "even in troublous times"; that is, in the times of Nehemiah, for when the wall of Jerusalem was repaired under his direction, the workers were constantly in fear of attack by hostile neighbors who hated to see the city recover its former strength and prosperity (Neh. 4) (4). Yet the Book of Nehemiah never states or suggests that work on the wall and the city continued for seven weeks of years, or forty-nine years. Rather, the book says that the wall was finished in fifty-two days (Neh. 6:15). This measurement rounded off to the nearest whole week equals seven ordinary weeks. It appears, then, that the "seven weeks" of verse 25 has a double meaning. The expression refers to weeks of years when these seven are viewed as part of the sixty-nine. But the expression refers to ordinary weeks when these seven are viewed as the time required to rebuild the city. The double meaning in "seven weeks" prods us to look for double meaning in "sixty-two weeks" also. We know already that "sixty-two weeks" represents weeks of years when these sixty-two are viewed as part of the sixty-nine. Now we discover that it is legitimate to treat them as ordinary weeks when they give the time between Christ's coming and His being cut off.
Although double meaning is disallowed by fashionable hermeneutical rules, we need not shrink from it. The prophecy of the sixty-nine weeks is a sophisticated riddle embedded in poetic abstractions, and in a literary creation of this kind, layers of meaning are entirely possible. The riddle comes from the same divine author who inscribed a cryptic message of doom on the wall at Belshazzar's feast. When summoned to decipher it, Daniel succeeded only because he saw that each word bore double meaning. "TEKEL," for example, meant either "weighed" or "found wanting." "PERES" meant either "divided" or "Persian."
The solution of the sixty-nine weeks that we are offering is the first to give a satisfactory explanation for the division of the sixty-nine into seven and sixty-two. No other explanation which has been offered shows that this division is essential to the riddle. But in light of our interpretation, it is essential for four reasons.
- The reference to the seven weeks of work on the wall of Jerusalem clearly connects the beginning of the sixty-nine weeks with events in the Book of Nehemiah.
- The sixty-two weeks are the basis of a second prophecy of great importance—the prophecy marking the time when the religious leaders would start the process of removing Jesus from the scene.
- The seven weeks signal a double meaning in the weeks. They show that for the second prophecy, the weeks should be understood as weeks of days.
- The division makes the riddle much harder to penetrate, for the reader assumes that the second sixty-two weeks are another reference to the sixty-two already mentioned rather than a subsequent interval.
It was shown earlier that the Transfiguration fell on the night of December 14/15, AD 31. The date exactly sixty-two weeks later was February 20/21, AD 33.
The prophecy that the Messiah would be cut off evidently refers to the action taken by the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, when they met soon after Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead.
47 Then gathered the chief priests and the Pharisees a council, and said, What do we: for this man doeth many miracles.
48 If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation.
49 And one of them, named Caiaphas, being the high priest that same year, said unto them, Ye know nothing at all,
50 Nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.
51 And this spake he not of himself: but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation;
52 And not for that nation only, but that also he should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad.
53 Then from that day forth they took counsel together for to put him to death.
54 Jesus therefore walked no more openly among the Jews; but went thence unto a country near to the wilderness, into a city called Ephraim, and there continued with his disciples.
55 And the Jews' passover was nigh at hand: and many went out of the country up to Jerusalem before the passover, to purify themselves.
The Jewish masses saw the raising of Lazarus as a sensational miracle. A swell of acclaim lifted Jesus to new heights of popularity. In consequence, the rulers of the Jews felt threatened. They were afraid that He would lead a general revolt which would provoke a bloody clampdown by the Roman authorities. To crush any lingering hope for national freedom, the Romans might take away the limited self-rule presently exercised by the Sanhedrin. In other words, the rulers of the Jews might lose their power. Therefore, shortly after the miracle was performed, the rulers gathered to confer about what was, in their eyes, the political crisis. Some of the more radical Pharisees had already discussed how to kill Jesus (Matt. 12:14), but now, at the urging of Caiaphas, the eradication of Jesus and His religious movement became a chief aim of government policy. The decision reached at this meeting of the Sanhedrin may be regarded as Jesus' official indictment.
If our last main surmises have been correct—that prophecy required the Messiah to be cut off after the sixty-two weeks ended on February 20/21, 33, and that He was cut off by the Jewish rulers at the meeting recorded in John 11—we may fix the date of this meeting as sometime after February 20/21, 33.
Prophecy specifies "after" sixty-two weeks to steer us away from placing the meeting on the exact date derived from computation. February 20/21, 33, was a Sabbath, and according to the Tosefta, a compilation from before AD 200 of Jewish legal traditions, the Sanhedrin never convened on Sabbaths and holy days. Instead, the members devoted themselves to study of the law (5). But if we assume that prophecy is pointing us to an exact solution of the riddle, the only way we can reasonably construe the word "after" is to assign it the sense "immediately after." We conclude that the meeting was held on the next day after February 20/21, on February 21/22, which was the first day of the week. Assuming the Sanhedrin gathered on Sunday during daylight hours rather than on Saturday night, we can pinpoint the date as February 22, exactly forty days before the Crucifixion on April 3.
Witness of the Talmud
To establish that the date we have assigned to Jesus' indictment is correct, we need to ask two questions. First, does this date place His indictment at a time consistent with the whole Gospel narrative? Second, is there any extrabiblical evidence supporting this date? The answer to both questions is, yes.
1. It is clear from John's Gospel that the meeting recorded in John 11 was in fact held shortly before Jesus' death. The Gospel writer states that the council met just before the Passover season (John 11:55). Later, he identifies this as the same Passover season when Jesus entered triumphantly into Jerusalem, only to be arrested and killed by the Jewish leaders (John 12:1, 12-13; 13:1-2; 18:1-14).
2. A source outside the Bible indeed verifies that the indictment and death of Christ were separated by forty days. The Babylonian Talmud, produced in Babylon before AD 600, is a vast collection of rabbinical teachings and traditions that had been circulating orally for many centuries (6). Several traditions concern Jesus. One of the oldest of these, originating between AD 70 and 200 (7), declares,
On the eve of Passover, Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, "He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Any one who can say anything in his favour, let him come forward and plead on his behalf." But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of Passover (8).
This account of Jesus' death agrees with Scripture on several points.
- The Talmud says that Jesus was condemned for sorcery (an admission that He performed miracles) and apostasy. In other words, Jesus was convicted not of any violation of criminal law as we understand it, but of religious offenses. The Gospels also affirm that the official charge against Him when He was tried by the Sanhedrin was that He was a false religious teacher (Matt. 26:59-66; Mark 14:55-64; Luke 22:66-71; John 19:7).
- The Talmud says that some weeks before Passover, the authorities issued a proclamation announcing their intention to execute Jesus. The same proclamation is mentioned by John.
Now both the chief priests and the Pharisees had given a commandment, that, if any man knew where he were, he should shew it, that they might take him.
According to this account, the proclamation was essentially an arrest warrant. The Talmud hides the true nature of the proclamation by pretending, most implausibly, that it was an extraordinary measure to secure a good case in Jesus' defense. This distortion is an obvious attempt to protect the Sanhedrin from any suspicion that they treated Jesus unjustly. Yet, the proclamation that it puts in the mouth of the herald is not pure invention. The Mishnah, another compilation from before AD 200 of Jewish legal traditions, reveals that a herald always preceded a condemned man to his place of execution and cried out words to the same effect, giving the man a last chance to be saved if he was innocent (9). A Talmudic commentator on this portion of the Mishnah adds, however, that "it means only when he is already sentenced, but not before" (10).
- The Talmud says, in agreement with historic Christian belief, that Jesus died on the evening of Passover.
Since the foregoing three assertions of the Talmud have a factual basis, its placement of forty days between Jesus' indictment and death probably has a factual basis as well. This evidence is crucial for validating our date for the Transfiguration and our treatment of the sixty-nine weeks.
Yet this passage of the Talmud does contain false testimony. The ordinary method of execution among the Jews was to stone the criminal and then hang his dead body in public view (Lev. 20:2, 27; Deut. 21:21-23). So, any reader familiar with Jewish law would surmise from the Talmud's account of Jesus' death that He was stoned, then hanged. But the Talmud is being sly. It is misleading the reader while avoiding any outright prevarication that might be easily exposed. It does not say that Jesus was stoned. Rather, it says only that He was hanged, a reference to the actual mode of execution. Even in the New Testament, crucifixion is called hanging (Acts 5:30; Gal. 3:13).
The Biblical writers who speak of Jesus hanging on a tree want to make vivid the shame He endured. But the Talmud's purpose in saying that He was hanged is to conceal that He died by crucifixion, a mode of execution which the Jews under Roman rule never used, but which their overlords used routinely (9). When the Talmud was written, the Jews looked upon their ancestors who had resisted Roman rule as heroes and upon those who had collaborated with the Romans as traitors. Therefore, for two reasons, the Talmud sidesteps any mention of crucifixion. It does not wish to portray Jesus as a victim of the Romans, lest anyone view Him with sympathy and admiration. And it does not wish to suggest that the Jewish leaders resorted to collusion with the Romans in order to get rid of Him.
Date of the Transfiguration Verified
We have discovered that the Talmud places forty days between the indictment and crucifixion of Jesus. Forty days before April 3, 33, the established date for His crucifixion, was February 22, 33, the date for His indictment that we earlier derived from the prophecy of Daniel 9:25-26. So we may cite the Talmud as a reliable witness that Daniel's prophecy was exactly fulfilled.
By inclusive reckoning the same interval is 41 days, but this sum does not pose any difficulty for reconciling prophecy and history. The herald seeking information that might lead to Jesus' arrest went out forty days if the first day was when Jesus was indicted (a Sunday) and the last day was before Jesus was arrested (a Thursday).
If our date for Jesus' indictment is correct, our date for the Transfiguration must be correct as well, for the first is derived from the second. That is, when computing the date of His indictment, we started with the date of the Transfiguration and, according to the prediction in Daniel 9:26, moved forward sixty-two weeks. The two dates stand or fall together.