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Daniel's 70th Week - Part 4

How Hebrew scholars seeked to discredit the Book of Daniel.

Remember what we talked about last week?

"Know and understand this: From the issuing of the decree 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."

We are faced with a verse, Daniel 9:25, that is one of the key verses used by Christians to point to Jesus. Yet Jewish scholars read the verse in a totally different way. They add a colon half way through the verse and the whole meaning changes. The question we must ask is how did that colon get there in the first place if the original Hebrew text had no punctuation?

The answer is simple. I have already mentioned that the Jews use what is called the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Scriptures. The Masoretes were the Jewish scholars in the 9th and 10th century AD who added the vowels and punctuation for the Worldwide Jewish community to use as Holy Scripture. It was they who added the colon, called an 'atnach, halfway through Daniel 9:25 and, by doing so, sheared away the messianic branch of expectation. With a tiny flourish of the quill they invalidated any claim that Jesus may have had to be the prophesised Messiah of Daniel. And just to make sure, Rashi and his fellow commentators really put the boot in by demoting the Book of Daniel from the prophetic Canon.

We would be full of doubt and despair if it weren't for the fact that the Masoretes weren't the only ones to translate the Book of Daniel from the original Hebrew. Around seven centuries earlier, Theodotion, a Jewish scholar living in the Greek world, produced his own version and it is his translation, without colon or 'atnach, that forms the basis for the text that appears in the majority of Christian Bibles today. So the easy thing to say is that Theodotion got it right and the Masoretes got it wrong. Perhaps the Masoretes had an anti-Christian agenda? This is easy to say, but it is very wrong, because who are we to judge? What right do we have to comment on the work of these dedicated Jewish scholars, without whose work the Old Testament as we know it would never have appeared?

Praise God there is an answer. We can rest in our beds at night, our faith intact. There is a bigger story here. The Masoretes and Theodotion are both right. The 'atnachs and other accents in that Daniel passage are not there only for grammatical, but also for musical purposes. They are known as cantillation marks and there are more of them than there are letters in the English alphabet. Israel Yeivin, a Hebrew scholar and a leading Masoretic authority, wrote that the main function of the accents "is to represent the musical motifs to which the Biblical text was chanted in the public reading." The Daniel passage is littered with them and, at the very least, should cast severe doubts over our pesky 'atnach. Is it a punctuation mark or is it a musical notation? The fact that it does not appear in the earlier translation by Theodotion speaks volumes. This provides us with reasonable doubt as to the exact reading of the verse, which is enough to throw out the whole case as unproven through lack of firm evidence. So what I am saying is that, because we can't say for definite whether the notation was for musical or punctuation purposes, there is sufficient cause just to read the verse without the distraction of the 'atnach and feel secure in our Christian interpretation. After all this was good enough for the early translations, the Septuagint and the Theodotion translation, without an 'atnach in sight.

 "Know and understand this: From the issuing of the decree 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."

What an interesting story. I hope that I still have your attention. The 'atnach episode has been included for a purpose. It tells us that the truth will always out, but sometimes we must not give up but keep on digging. We must realize that the Hebrew Scriptures are uniquely precious to orthodox rabbis and they are hurt when they see untrained Christians extracting key verses, often out of context, to justify their belief in Jesus the Messiah. Their scholars have developed rebuttals to every proof text Christians may use, so it is a worthy exercise to enter their world and consider these responses. This is why we need to know the full story behind our 'atnach episode, so that we can thoroughly counter not just Jewish objections but also, it is sad to say, some Christian ones.

Steve Maltz
July 2012

(This is an abridged extract from Steve's book Jesus Man of Many Names)

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