Did the Hebrew Bible Say When the Messiah Will Come?
Chronology of the Messiah in Judaism and Christianity (Part III)
We’ve seen that Jesus has already fulfilled many key Messianic prophecies in part I and part II of this series. But might someone else meet these criteria more completely in the future? Does the Hebrew Bible give us a time to expect Messiah to come?
This article focuses on Daniel 9, the scripture that many Jews searched for answers. We will also look at other passages that inform the timing when Messiah appears.
Daniel 9 — How long is ‘seventy-sevens’?
The setting is Babylon — God’s people exiled from the promised land. Daniel pleaded with God for the forgiveness of his people. The answer was immediate. Israel’s rescue would come in a time scale of ‘seventy sevens’.
Seventy ‘sevens’ are decreed for your people and your holy city to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the Most Holy Place. (Daniel 9:24, NIV)
There is consensus on this verse among many Rabbinic Jews (e.g. Rashi), critical scholars (e.g. John J. Collins (1)), and Christians. Seventy-sevens refers to 490 years (70 x 7 years), likely building on the principle of Jubilee (Leviticus 25–26).
In Biblical times, the land was shared among the tribes of Israel — to ensure all people had access to shelter and to make a living. However, when times were hard, a person could sell their land to repay a debt.
The Jubilee year (once every 50 years) sought to avoid entrenched inequalities. After a maximum of 49 years, land had to be returned to its original owner.
Many see this principle of Jubilee in Daniel 9. Israel themselves had left their ancestral home, but one day they would come back. Jeremiah’s prophecy was fulfilled when a small group returned to the land under Persian rule. Yet Daniel 9 looked to a later date — a more complete return from exile (1).
Who is the anointed one(s) of Daniel 9?
The next challenge is to identify the anointed one(s).
Know and understand this: From the time the word goes out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven ‘sevens,’ and sixty-two ‘sevens.’ It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble. After the sixty-two ‘sevens,’ the Anointed One will be put to death and will have nothing. The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end will come like a flood: War will continue until the end, and desolations have been decreed. (Daniel 9:25–26, NIV)
Roger Beckwith, a Bible scholar, argued that Jewish tradition before Christianity considered the anointed one of Daniel 9 as the Messiah.
There is strong evidence to show that the Essenes, the Pharisees, and the Zealots all thought they could date, at least approximately, the time when the Son of David would come, and that in each case their calculations were based upon Daniel’s prophecy of the 70 weeks (Daniel 9, 24–27)…the most usual interpretations in Judaism until after 70 A.D., were of the Messianic kind. (2)
Rashi, the medieval Jewish commentator, partially reflects these pre-Christian Messianic interpretations. The eternal righteousness promised in Daniel 9 will be ‘…[brought] to them through the king Messiah.’ For Rashi, the death of the anointed one (9:26) was Herod Agrippa — the final royal ruler of Judea (44 CE).
However, this interpretation provides no explanation for how eternal righteousness will be achieved. It is unclear how the death of Herod Agrippa in the first century is related to the Messiah.
Christian perspectives on the “anointed one”
Most Christian interpretations, although varying on some matters, consider Daniel 9 a prophecy about Jesus the Messiah. Some commentators think Jesus fulfilled 9:24–27 before the destruction of the temple. Others conclude Jesus partially fulfilled the prophecy in the first century and his return will complete it.
Either way, these interpretations view Jesus’ death and resurrection as the fulfilment of the promised atonement and eternal righteousness. We saw in the previous article how Jesus’ life closely met the prophecies of a suffering Messiah. These verses, consistent with Daniel 9, spoke about a servant of God whose death brought forgiveness of sin for his people.
Which historical period Daniel 9 is speaking about?
The critical view argues that the book of Daniel was written much later than events it describes. According to this view, Daniel 9 was written during the Hasmonean period. A ‘prophecy’ about contemporary events — the death of Onias III and the victory of the Maccabeans (1).
However, Roger Beckwith has argued the Dead Sea Scrolls challenge these conclusions:
We now possess, in some of the Essene writings, works emanating from apocalyptic circles in Palestine at about the middle of the second century B.C. — the very setting in which Daniel is widely believed [by critical scholars] to have been composed…they did not regard it as a fulfilled prophecy but as one yet to be fulfilled, and did not relate it to Onias III but to the Davidic Messiah. (2)
An additional problem, although the Hasmonean period is important in the history of Israel, it did not bring about ‘everlasting righteousness’ (v24). The temple was later destroyed.
Rashi, one of the most influential Jewish commentators, concluded that Daniel 9 was speaking about a time before the destruction of the second temple. The New Testament also cited Daniel 9 when speaking of the destruction of the second temple (e.g. Mark 13).
The traditional Christian and Jewish timescales — the destruction of the second temple — appear to be more consistent with Daniel 9.
Haggai — glory of the temple
The book of Haggai, like Zechariah, was written during the rebuilding of the second temple. Compared with Solomon’s first temple, the second temple was disappointing — “a day of small things”.
Then the word of the Lord came to me:“The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this temple; his hands will also complete it. Then you will know that the Lord Almighty has sent me to you.
“Who dares despise the day of small things…” (Zechariah 4:8–10, NIV)
Yet, Haggai spoke of a day when the non-Jewish people would worship the God of Israel. In those days, the glory of the second temple would exceed even Solomon’s.
This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’…‘The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘And in this place I will grant peace,’ declares the Lord Almighty.” (Haggai 2:6–9, NIV)
The people of that time must have thought, “how could this be?”
In Solomon’s there were many things that were now missing. The ark and the other four ‘marks of the temple’ had been lost or destroyed when Nebuchadnezzar sacked the temple in 587 BC. How could this temple be more glorious when it would not contain these religious articles? (3)
Although Herod the Great would later lavish riches on the temple — neither Jewish nor Christian scholars think he fulfilled Haggai 2. ‘Filled with glory’ only ever refers to God in the Hebrew Bible. It is God who will come to the second temple:
And it is Messiah’s coming to the Second Temple that explains Haggai’s prophecy. Something more wonderful that the divine fire [which never returned] would visit that place; something greater than the cloud of glory would be manifest there. The Son of God himself, King Messiah, the glorious Word made flesh, would come to that Temple…(4)
Malachi and the Messiah
Most scholars think the book of Malachi was written in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. A generation after Haggai and Zechariah.
Malachi 3 contains a prophecy about “King Messiah” — according to the Jewish commentator RaDak.
I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty. (Malachi 3:1, NIV)
This verse promises that the Lord will come to his temple — i.e. the current temple existing at the time of Malachi. Consistent with Daniel 9 and Haggai 2, the Messiah must come before the destruction of the second temple.
How will we know Messiah is Son of David?
There is a last piece of evidence to consider. The defining feature of the Messiah is that he will be son of David (2 Samuel 7). In the first century, Josephus wrote of the vast genealogical records stored at the temple.
These records were of great importance. A successful candidate for the Messiah must be able to show he is a son of David. However, after the destruction of the temple, these genealogical records are no more:
The last ones [sons of David] known to history was Hezekiah, who was killed in 1040 by the Babylonian authorities, although he was believed to have had sons who escaped to Iberia...Beyond that, there is no concrete evidence as to the whereabouts of King David’s descendants. (Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld, Aish (5))
This is a serious problem for those expecting a future Messiah. There is no way to prove their Davidic ancestry.
Since pre-Christian times, people have interpreted Daniel 9 as pointing to a time when Messiah would appear — shortly before 70 CE. Haggai 2 and Malachi 3 provide further support for this expectation of the Messiah appearing at the second temple.
What other person of that historical period met these criteria better than Jesus? That is the subject of the next article in the series.
- JJ Collins. A Commentary on the Book of Daniel. Fortress Press.
- Roger Beckwith. Daniel 9 and the date of Messiah’s coming in Essene, Hellenistic, Zealot, and early Christian computation. Revue de Qumran 1981;10:521–542.
- Michael Bentley. Haggai & Zechariah. Welwyn Commentary Series.
- Michael Brown. Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Volume 3. Michigan: Baker Books.
- Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld. Davidic line today. Aish:Ask the Rabbi.