The second prophecy warning of the holocaust in A.D. 70 falls within Daniel's larger prophecy of the seventy weeks.
And after threescore and two weeks shall Messiah be cut off, but not for himself: and the people of the prince that shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary; and the end thereof shall be with a flood, and unto the end of the war desolations are determined.
For scoffers at the supernatural, this prophecy must be one of the most indigestible in the Old Testament. With utmost transparency, it says that soon after the death of the Messiah, the Jews would suffer a great disaster. The aftermath of His death falls into four distinct stages.
- A foreign people would invade the land and attack Jerusalem. (The "prince that shall come" will not be discussed here, since he plays no part in the events described by this prophecy.)
- The end of the assault upon Jerusalem would come as a "flood." The sense is figurative, as in Daniel 11, where the same word describes a rapidly advancing army (Dan. 11:22, 26, 40).
- The enemy would destroy both the city and the sanctuary.
- Further desolating conflict would ensue, continuing until the end of the war.
Critics sidestep the many prophecies in the Book of Daniel by denying that is an authentic work from the sixth century B.C. Rather, they imagine that it is a piece of fiction written in about 165 B.C. to encourage Jewish patriots in their hard struggle against the cruel Syrian tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes. They say that the prophecy in Daniel 9:26 merely recalls events in the recent past: namely, the events attending Antiochus's assaults on Jerusalem in 169 and 168 B.C.
Yet, in Jesus' day and even much earlier, the Jews regarded the Book of Daniel not only as authentic, but as a sacred writing (1). How did a second-century work falsely representing itself as hundreds of years older gain almost immediate acceptance?
Moreover, in several particulars, Daniel 9:26 does not fit the days of Antiochus. A brief account of his conflict with the Jews will help us reach a correct interpretation of the prophecy. In 169 B.C., to avenge Jewish rejoicing at a false report of his death, Antiochus Epiphanes came to Jerusalem and slaughtered its citizens (2). The Second Book of Maccabees, a generally reliable but by no means infallible source, says that 40,000 people died in three days (3). The tyrant fumed against the religion of the Jews no less than against the Jews themselves, for their religion had been the great obstacle thwarting his attempts to foist Greek ways upon Jewish society. With furious impiety he therefore entered the Temple precincts and took away the sacred vessels (4). Some months later, in 168, the Syrian army burned and pillaged Jerusalem again (5). Subsequently, Antiochus forbade worship of any god but his, and he rededicated the Temple to Jupiter (6). Many who defied his proscription of the Jewish religion were put to death (7). The devout who had retreated into caves to keep the Sabbath were burned alive (8). Mothers who had circumcised their sons were thrown from the city wall (9). Under the leadership of a family called the Maccabees, the Jews rose up in revolt, igniting a fierce civil war (10). Eventually, Jewish patriots regained control of Jerusalem. Their first business upon entering the city was to cleanse the Temple so that it could be used again as the house of the Lord (11).
These events cannot be construed as the historical context of Daniel 9:26. Several considerations leave no doubt that the prophecy points not to the period of Antiochus, but to some other period in Jewish history.
- The prophecy says that the destruction of the city would occur after the cutting off of the Messiah. Critics identify this Messiah as the high priest Onias III, who, according to a tradition preserved in 2 Maccabees, was assassinated early in the reign of Antiochus (12). But whether this tradition is correct is an unsettled question (13). Moreover, it is probable that Onias III, like many other upper-class Jews, was a Hellenizer—that is, one who aided the introduction of Greek customs and ideas into Jewish society. He counted Greeks outside his own land among his friends and supporters (14). Therefore, a second-century writer eager to uphold Jewish tradition would not have regarded Onias as a hero whose death was a pivotal tragedy in the history of the Jews.
- The prophecy says that the destruction of the city would occur at a specified interval after the decree to rebuild Jerusalem.
25 Know therefore and understand, that from the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem unto the Messiah the Prince shall be seven weeks, and threescore and two weeks. 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: and the people of the prince that shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary; and the end thereof shall be with a flood, and unto the end of the war desolations are determined.
- Although Syrian forces came against the city twice and caused great loss of life, they did not destroy the city and the sanctuary. Even James A. Montgomery, the leading spokesman for the critics, admits that the ravages of Antiochus fell far short of what Daniel 9:26 describes (15). When Judas Maccabeus, leader of the Jewish resistance, came in triumph to take possession of the Temple, he found its gates burned down and weeds growing everywhere, but the building itself was still standing (16). After being cleansed, it was again used for divine worship.
- The prophecy clearly implies that the war would leave the Jewish nation wholly devastated. But at the end of the war in Antiochus's day, the Jews were victorious. Although they had suffered greatly under his oppression, they emerged with enough strength to build a largely independent nation in the midst of hostile neighbors.
- There is no credible evidence that the Jews themselves ever saw a connection between Daniel 9 and their sufferings under Antiochus.
- Before A.D. 70, they always expected fulfillment at a later time, when history reached its consummation at the dawn of the Messianic age. This consummation was excitedly awaited by many Jews both during and after the time of Jesus (17). The climate of expectancy was stormy and unstable. Both Tacitus and Suetonius say that feverish Messianic hopes fed by an ancient oracle were a primary cause of the Jewish rebellion in A.D. 66 (18). The oracle in question was undoubtedly Daniel 9, for both historians say that the Jews anticipated fulfillment at a certain time, and no other Old Testament prophecy marks the time when the Messiah would come.
- After the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, orthodox rabbinical tradition treated this event as the end of Daniel's seventy weeks (19).
The views of the Jewish historian Josephus are of particular interest. During the assault on Jerusalem, he served as a Roman spokesman urging the people of the city to surrender. In his Wars of the Jews, which furnishes a full account of the struggle from his perspective on the Roman side, he sees the miseries of the city as the fulfillment of an ancient oracle.
For they [the prophets] foretold that this city [Jerusalem] should be then taken when somebody shall begin the slaughter of his own countrymen (20).Evidently, he is thinking of Daniel's prediction that the Messiah would be cut off, for elsewhere he remembers that in consequence of violence springing up, the city would be taken and the sanctuary burned.
For there was a certain ancient oracle of those men [the prophets], that the city should then be taken and the sanctuary burnt, by right of war, when a sedition should invade the Jews, and their own hand should pollute the Temple of God (21).In his later work Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus named Daniel as the source of this oracle.
In the very same manner Daniel also wrote concerning the Roman government, and that our country should be made desolate by them (22).
The prophecy in Daniel 9:26 fits only one disaster in Jewish history after the nation returned from captivity in Babylon, and that disaster was the war which engulfed the Jews in A.D. 66-73, about forty years after the death of Jesus. The disaster unfolded in four stages exactly as prophesied.
In the decades after Jesus' death, relations between the Jews and their Roman overlords steadily worsened until the Jews revolted in A.D. 66 (23). The Romans, at first overpowered, chose the expedient course of withdrawing their forces from Palestine (24). Soon, however, the Roman general Vespasian began a campaign of reconquest in the north (25). His advance was slowed by stiff opposition, seasonal delays, and political instability back in Rome, but finally, after he had made himself emperor, a Roman army under the leadership of his son Titus reached Jerusalem in A.D. 70 (26).
The end of Jerusalem indeed came with a flood. After a siege of about three months, the people of the city were greatly weakened by food shortages (27). In their desperation, many came out of the city and foraged in the valleys for food. But the vast majority were caught. To demoralize the remaining defenders of the city, captured Jews were crucified within sight of the city walls. Soon the whole city was ringed with crosses (28). At last, the Romans felt it was time to attack, and they successfully stormed the Temple and the lower city (29). Both were destroyed rapidly by a great conflagration (30). As Psalm 69 foresaw, a great host of Jews—ten thousand in all—lost their lives in the Roman assault upon the Temple (31). A month later, the upper city, which was the last bastion of the rebels, fell in a single day (32). Victory was swift because war, famine, and wanton bloodshed had already killed many of the inhabitants. Jewish zealots had executed many who wanted to surrender or who tried to escape (33). Few among the survivors had the will or the strength to fight. The legions pouring in through breaches in the walls met little effective opposition.
The Romans then proceeded to raze the city. They tore down every building except three towers and the western wall, which Titus left as monuments to his victory (34). No trace of the Temple complex remained. The utter destruction of the Temple and the city as a whole fulfilled Jesus' clear warnings concerning the future of Jerusalem (Matt. 24:1-2; Luke 19:42-44).
What happened to the Christian community? According to the church historian Eusebius, who lived around A.D. 300, the Christians in Jerusalem fled before the war and relocated in Pella, a city across the Jordan River. He says they did this in accordance with a certain oracle which had been delivered by revelation to their leaders' (35). Perhaps Eusebius is referring to the oracle in Luke's Gospel.
20 And when ye shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that the desolation thereof is nigh.
21 Then let them which are in Judaea flee to the mountains; and let them which are in the midst of it depart out; and let not them that are in the countries enter thereinto.
22 For these be the days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled.
23 But woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck, in those days! for there shall be great distress in the land, and wrath upon this people.
24 And they shall fall by the edge of the sword, and shall be led away captive into all nations: and Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled.
The war was not over when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem. They had to deal with several remaining pockets of resistance. One was at Masada, a mountaintop fortress held by a band of zealots (36). Even the mighty legions of Rome could not subdue the fortress by any ordinary means of assault. The narrow passes to the top were easily defended by a handful of men (37). Therefore, having no shortage of manpower, the Romans built a huge earthen ramp up one side of the mountain (38). When the ramp was completed and the Romans had set fire to the makeshift defenses at the perimeter of the fortress, the defenders could see that they were doomed (39). Resolving that it was better to die at their own hands than at the hands of the Romans, they implemented a plan that soon left all 960 dead (40). First, the men killed the women and children. Then ten men slew their fellows, and one of the ten slew the other nine. The last committed suicide. When the Romans penetrated the fortress, they were amazed to find no one alive except two women and five children, who had managed to escape the slaughter by hiding in a cavern underground (41).
According to Josephus, the toll of Jewish casualties in the holocaust exceeded one million (42). Many of the ninety-seven thousand that were taken alive later died in Roman arenas (43).