Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Arguments of Josh McDowell: The Seventy Weeks of Daniel

In the book A Ready Defense: The Best of Josh McDowell, an argument is made which demonstrates all the worst aspects of apologists. If you read his argument uncritically, it sounds really, really good. But not only are the rebuttals to it effective, they refute McDowell with a thoroughness that shocked even post-Christian me.

About half of the general arguments I make come from someone else's post on the Internet Infidels Discussion Board. The details and examples are my own work.

Daniel 9:24-26 "Seventy weeks have been decreed for your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to make an end of sin, to make atonement for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy place. So you are to know and discern that from the issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until Messiah the Prince there will be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks; it will be built again, with plaza and moat, even in times of distress. Then after the sixty-two weeks the Messiah will be cut off and have nothing, and the people of the prince who is to come will destroy the city and the sanctuary And its end will come with a flood; even to the end there will be war; desolations are determined."

McDowell's Argument

Artaxerxes gave the decree to rebuild Jerusalem on March 5, 444 BC in Nehemiah 2:1-8. The sixty-nine weeks are "weeks of years." A year in the Bible means 360 days. For instance, in Revelations 12:6 and 12:14, 3.5 years = 3.5*360 days = 1260 days. Sixty-nine weeks = 173,880 days after this decree was Monday, March 30, 33 AD, the day Jesus was presented to Jerusalem as Messiah the Prince.

(You can read the argument in full here, by searching for "seventy weeks." Amazon will let you look at five pages: the page hit by the search, two forward, and two back. The relevant pages are 57-59.)

At a glance, this looks unbelievably impressive. Surely, the faith it takes to believe this is a coincidence is greater than the faith needed to believe Daniel was a prophet. But there are issues with his start day, the length of time, and the end date. When taken together, this is merely a demonstration of a determined seeker not discovering the meaning of a prophecy but creating one.

Time Interval

For starters, "69 weeks of years" is an interpretation, not a quotation. What Daniel 9:25 actually says is "seven weeks and sixty-two weeks." I haven't thought too hard about the given reasons for a day = a year, so I'll grant it and move on. What's more of a stretch is to count a year as 360 days. This lines up with neither common sense nor the Hebrew calendar. They used a lunar calendar, with one month being one lunar cycle, and a "leap month" 7 years out of 19. Just as now, 73 years meant 73 cycles of seasons, not 73*360 days = about 72 cycles of seasons. Imagine someone in 500 BC saying that someone is 73 years old. Would their friend ask in reply "solar years or biblical years?" or just effortlessly understand what "year" means?

Concerning Revelations 12, notice that 1260 days = 3.449 solar years. So if in Revelations, "year" just meant ... well, year ... then John rounded by 1.7%. He nearly got two significant figures right, which compares favorably with several other biblical authors. In 1 Kings 7:23, the mathematical pi is rounded to 3.0, which is a 4.7% change. Matthew 12:40 says Jesus would be dead for three nights, a "rounding" of 50%. (I'm not suggesting that Matthew thought Jesus died on Thursday. Matthew 27:62 makes this clear. I'm suggesting that he was intentionally loose with numbers to make Jonah and Jesus look parallel.) Also, Revelations doesn't even say the time period is "three and a half years" but "a time and times and half a time."

"Week" could just as easily mean 7 days, 7 solar years, 7 biblical years, or really seven of just about anything. It could be "weeks of weeks," or "weeks of months." It could be seven years, where year = 365.25 days as on the Julian calendar and not 365.2422 days. I mention the imperfections of having a leap year every four years as a serious objection, because over the course of 483 years, this is several days which could make or break an "exact day" prediction. Or maybe "years" means different things in different contexts. Maybe "year" meant 360 days for the first 488 years, and then started meaning 365.25 days once the Julian calendar started being used in 45 BC. Or maybe 46 BC is the correct date for the switch, because the calendar was introduced then but not in common use. Or maybe "year" meant 365 1/3 days, because of the messed up way leap year was used at first. Or maybe from 45 BC on, "year" doesn't have a fixed meaning, but just counts however it was that they counted back then, regardless of if mistakes were made. This means that the leap years were 44, 41, 38, 35, 32, 29, 26, 23, 20, 17, 14, 11, 8 BC, 4 AD, 8, and 12 etc. Keep in mind that every little detail determines whether or not it was to the exact day, and every little detail is a fudge factor at the disposal of the apologist.

Suppose that exactly 483 solar years later, Jesus came. Would not Christians say the Bible was correct to the exact year? If a skeptic then said that a year = 360 days, so 483 OT years = 476 solar years and thus the Bible is wrong, Christians would have a good laugh over how dumb atheists are. Similarly, if Jesus came 483 days later, Christians would laugh if a skeptic of the Bible said it really meant 483 years.

Next, once you have the day count, do you count both the day of the decree and the day of completion, only one, or neither? Personally, I think McDowell would have a better case if he used this fudge factor, so that the target would be Palm Sunday, rather than "Palm Monday."

The Starting Time

The starting point is not clearly labeled but is described as "the issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem." McDowell wrote that the potential starting points are 539 BC (Ezra 1:1-4), 519-518 BC (Ezra 5:3-7), 457 BC (Ezra 7:11-16), and 444 BC (Nehemiah 2:1-8). I haven't checked if these are valid or comprehensive – I'm just taking his word for it here. But how do we know the exact day of the year of the decree? All Nehemiah 2:1 says is "And it came about in the month Nisan."

The Ending Time

Next, the prophecy doesn't clearly describe what event will come at the end. It says "until Messiah the Prince." There are quite a few events in Jesus life that could be the fulfillment of this. (His birth, coming out of Egypt, the arrival of the magi, in the temple at age 12, Luke 4:21, his baptism, the sermon on the mount, the last supper, his crucifixion, his resurrection, etc.) In fact, pretty much any event could be justified. Or even no event would be sufficient; if the time period terminated on some nondescript day of Jesus ministry, it would still satisfy sixty-nine weeks until the verb-less "Messiah the Prince." Also, why is "until Messiah the Prince" the ending point? Maybe that phrase is just being general, and the ending of the sixty-nine weeks was really supposed to be Daniel 9:26 "Then after the sixty-two weeks the Messiah will be cut off and have nothing." (Which could be either good Friday or the Saturday afterward.)

I also find it very strange that McDowell gives a Monday as the ending day and describes it as "the presentation of Christ Himself to Israel as the Messiah as predicted in Zechariah 9:9." Zechariah is talking about the Messiah riding a donkey, which happened on Palm Sunday. While there is an easy fix, what this shows is how willing he is to bend the truth to make it line up with the Bible.

The Total Fudge Factor

Next, I will measure the total room for fudging. There are at least 10 meanings for "week" comparably plausible to 7*360 days, 5 possible start years, 30 possible start days of the month, and at least 20 possible ending events. This gives a total of 10*5*30*20 = 30,000 different interpretations of the prophecy that all line up with McDowell's general framework. And there are even more if different things are fudged, such as finding different historians with different dates for particular decrees, doing something with the sixty-two weeks without the seven weeks, or adding a gap between the seven and sixty-two weeks.

Like McDowell, I do not consider the accuracy of the prophecy to be a coincidence. Unlike McDowell, the reason is that I use the word coincidence to describe things that are improbable.

Dissenting Opinions

At least six different interpretations of prophecy and history line up exactly. While googling seventy weeks daniel is hardly a stellar research technique, it brings up some interesting results. The top five hits are all different Christian sites explaining how well the historical events line up with the prophecy: gives the starting point as somewhere in March/April 444 BC without claiming to know the particular day and gives the ending point as Palm Sunday, March 29, 33 AD. This is one day away from McDowell, and is by far the closest any two of these six will come. gives the starting point as "very early in the month of Nisan in 445 B.C." and the ending point as Palm Sunday, April 9, 32 AD. bases their starting point off McDowell's starting point, and for the ending point "the dates that I have seen in my review of other people's research is April 6, either April 6, 32 AD, or April 6, 33 AD." disagrees with the time interval. I didn't read the details, but the bottom line is that they think a biblical year is a normal year, and the appropriate time interval is just the sixty-two weeks. 440 BC was "the beginning of the rebuilding in times of distress" and Jesus was born in 6 BC, giving 434 years = 62 weeks in between. Based on this and some other meaning for the first seven weeks, they conclude: "The dates are too exact to be dismissed lightly, and they stand well as a firm apologetic for the Divine/supernatural character of the prophecy." gives the starting point as "King Artaxerxes decree in 457BC" and the ending point 69 weeks = 483 years later as "Jesus Christ arrives as Messiah in the exact year 27AD."

It reminds me of a joke that I'm adapting:

Jack is accused of borrowing John's pot and returning it cracked, so John sues. The defense produces four witnesses who all attest to Jack's innocence. But the prosecution cross-examines the witnesses to produce the following four stories:

1. Jack never borrowed the pot.
2. The pot was already cracked when Jack borrowed it.
3. The pot was not cracked when it was returned.
4. There is no pot.

The defense persists that while the witnesses disagree on the details, we have four different witnesses who agree with the underlying idea: Jack is innocent. Each of the four stories is believed by three members of the jury. They pontificate over technicalities for a while, but quickly tire. Eventually, they just decide that all that matters is the bottom line of Jack's innocence, so they acquit Jack unanimously.


  1. Quite a post Jeffrey! I remember growing up that McDowell was quite a favorite name in defense of the faith.

    I have never seen someone analyze all the possible interpretations of a prophecy. 30,000? At least? That's incredible!

    Reminds me of my own tips on making up prophecies:

    * A prophecy needs to vague enough to be probably
    * A prophecy needs to be precise enough to be self-fulfilling.

    And there we have it!

    Good post.

  2. I'm glad to hear you liked it! I wondered if this post would be too nerdy for anyone to make it through, but I'm pleased to see I was wrong.

    This was originally going to be a short post, but I just keep on thinking of more and more and more ways to fudge the meaning. The google search was an afterthought, but then I read everyone else's differing arguments. They just found so many creative ways to interpret Daniel and I just couldn't let their apologetic ingenuity go to waste.

    And as a math student, there was no way I could settle for just listing what you could fudge when I could come up with a number.

    It also pained me to trim one joke out of it just because I can't type with a British accent and I couldn't make it fit anywhere:

    "What is the number of years in a century?" - Bridgekeeper
    "What do you mean? Biblical or solar years?" - King Arthur
    "Oh. I don't know that. AHHHHHH!" - Bridgekeeper
    "How do you know so much about years?" - Sir Bedevere
    "Well, you have to know these things when you're an apologist, you know." - King Arthur

  3. The prophecy itself still came true, regardless of the complexity of the seventy sevens timeline. Even the timeline takes us to Christ's generation. I suspect if we find a flaw in the calculation, we are simply overlooking something, not that the prophecy is false.

  4. The timeline does not take us to Jesus' generation. It might take us to 568BC if we take the starting point as 569BC, and the interval as 69 literal weeks. It might take us to 86BC if the "weeks" are weeks of normal years. Starting in 444BC, weeks of normal years take us to 40 AD. Daniel's timeline does not take us anywhere in particular.


    In 1970, Joni Mitchell wrote a song including the lyrics:

    “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot
    With a pink hotel, a boutique and a swinging hot spot.”

    Therefore, Joni Mitchell foresaw the invention of the Internet. Not only that, she knew that shopping malls would sometimes provide WiFi. And to top it all off, she knew the precise term that would be used: hot spot.

    Of course, this particular coincidence doesn't actually convince me that Big Yellow Taxi was written by an omniscient being. It is, however, a far stronger argument than McDowell's. At least her use of “hot spot” is sufficiently improbably to qualify as a coincidence. The “alignment” between Daniel 9 and Jesus' life is not even a coincidence.