The historicist method of interpretation is not, in fact, a late arrival on the theological scene
By Gerhard Pfandl
Until the 19th century, most students of the apocalyptic books of Daniel and Revelation used the historicist method to interpret the prophecies in them. One of the main pillars of the historicist method is the year-day principle, which says that a day in apocalyptic time prophecies represents a year. During the 19th century, the historicist method was slowly replaced by the preterist and futurist systems of interpretation, both of which deny the year-day principle. Preterists place most of the prophecies into the past up to the time of the Roman Empire; futurists place most of them into the future, specifically into the last seven years between the secret rapture and the Second Advent.
In 1990, Kai Arasola, a Finnish Seventh-day Adventist scholar, published his dissertation, “The End of Historicism,” which he had written at the University of Uppsala in Sweden. Contrary to the claims of Desmond Ford, Arasola did not say that “the scholarly world of biblical interpreters gave up the year-day principle at the time of the Millerite debacle—the disappointment of 1844.”1 What Arasola does say is that when the Millerite movement came to an end, “historicism gradually ceased to be the only popular method of interpretation. It was largely replaced by futurism and preterism. Yet one must acknowledge that in fact historicism did not die with Miller. It still lives in a modified form and partly renewed form within the groups that have some roots in Millerism.”2
Arasola refers to Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses; others are the Advent Christian Church, which also came out of the Millerite movement, and the various Church of God congregations. Apart from the Seventh-day Adventist Church, however, very few Daniel or Revelation commentaries have been written by these smaller churches.
Historicism did not die with the demise of the Millerite Movement. In fact, many historicist commentaries appeared after 1844, among them the well-known commentaries on the books of Daniel and Revelation by Albert Barnes. Even in the first half of the 20th century, a number of scholarly volumes were written by historicists, but by the end of the 20th century, with few exceptions, historicism was no longer used in the interpretation of Daniel and Revelation outside of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Seventh-day Adventists continue to use the historicist method of interpretation because they believe that the year-day principle is not a paradigm imposed on the text, but that it is found in Scripture itself. In Daniel 7 and 8, for example, the interpreting angel uses the historicist method to explain the various symbols as empires in history, one following the other.
It is ironic that one of the best summaries of the year-day principle is found in Desmond Ford’s first commentary on Daniel. In his second commentary on Daniel, 18 years later, he no longer used it because he then believed that the year-day principle could not be justified biblically. Contrary to this position, most Seventh-day Adventist interpreters believe that the year-day principle is based on Scripture.
Biblical Evidence for the Year-Day Principle
An inquiry into the biblical foundation of the year-day principle produces a number of arguments for the application of the principle to the prophecies of the apocalyptic books of Daniel and Revelation.
Since the visions in Daniel 7 and 8 are largely symbolic, with a number of different beasts representing important historical empires (7:37; 8:3-5, 20, 21), the time periods (7:25; 8:14) should also be seen as symbolic.
Lion Babylon (626-539 B.C.)
Bear Medo-Persia (539-331 B.C.)
Leopard Greece (331-168 B.C.)
Beast Rome (168 B.C.-476 A.D.)
The vision concludes with the Second Coming, when the saints shall receive the kingdom: “‘“Then the kingdom and dominion, and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven, shall be given to the people, the saints of the Most High. His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey Him”’” (Dan. 7:27).3
The time element of three-and-a-half times or years in verse 25, during which the saints are given into the hands of the little horn, must, therefore, cover more than three-and-a-half literal years. “‘“He shall speak pompous words against the Most High, shall persecute the saints of the Most High, and shall intend to change times and law. Then the saints shall be given into his hand for a time and times and half a time”’” (vs. 25).
In Daniel 8, again empires last for hundreds of years:
Daniel 8:3-5, 20, 21
Ram Medo-Persia (539-331)
Goat Greece (331-168)
The vision goes to the “time of the end” (vs. 17). The time element of “two thousand three hundred days” (vs. 14), therefore, should also be a longer time period than six years and three months.
2. Long Time Periods
The fact that the visions deal with the rise and fall of known empires in history that existed for hundreds of years indicates that the prophetic time periods also cover long time periods.
Babylon (626-539 B.C.)
Medo-Persia (539-331 B.C.)
Greece (331-168 B.C.)
Rome (168 B.C.-476 A.D.)
In Revelation 12–14, we have the history of the Christian Church from the time of Jesus (12:5) to the Second Advent (14:14). The time elements of 1260 days, three-and-a-half times, and 42 months (12:6, 14; 13:5), all referring to the same time period, make sense only if they represent 1260 years. There is no three-and-a-half-year time period in church history that would fit the description given in these chapters.
3. Peculiar Expression
The peculiar way in which the time periods are expressed indicates that they should not be taken literally. If the “time and times and half a time” in Daniel 7:25 and Revelation 12:14 stands for three-and-a-half literal years, we would expect God to say “three years and six months” as He does in Luke 4:25 and James 5:17. In these texts, where three-and-a-half literal years are referred to, each time the phrase is “three years and six months.” Similarly, Paul remained in Corinth “a year and six months” (Acts 18:11), and David reigned in Hebron “seven years and six months” (2 Sam. 2:11).
4. Salvation History
In Daniel 7, the four beasts that together account for a reign of at least 1,000 years are followed by the little horn power. It is the focus of the vision since it is most directly in opposition to God. (Seven out of 28 verses in Daniel 7 refer to the little horn.) Three and a half literal years for the struggle between the little horn and the Most High are out of proportion to the comprehensive scope of salvation history portrayed in this vision. The same applies to Revelation 12:6, 14 where the 1260 days or three-and-a-half times cover a large part of the history between the first and second advent.
5. Time Terminology
‘“He shall speak pompous words against the Most High, shall persecute the saints of the Most High, and shall intend to change times and law. Then the saints shall be given into his hand for a time and times and half a time”’” (Dan. 7:25). “He was given a mouth speaking great things and blasphemies, and he was given authority to continue for forty-two months” (Rev. 13:5). “Then the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, that they should feed her there one thousand two hundred and sixty days” (12:6).
According to the context, the expressions “time and times and half a time” (Dan. 7:25; 12:7; Rev. 12:14), “forty-two months” (Rev. 11:2; 13:5), and “one thousand two hundred and sixty days” (Rev. 11:3; 12:6) all apply to the same time period, but the natural expression “three years and six months” is not used once.
The Holy Spirit seems, in a manner, to exhaust all the phrases by which the interval could be expressed, excluding always that one form which would be used of course in ordinary writing, and is used invariably in Scripture on other occasions, to denote the literal period. This variation is most significant if we accept the year-day system, but quite inexplicable on the other view.
The only commonly used measure of time not used in the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation is the year. Days, weeks, and months are referred to, but not the time unit “year.” The most obvious explanation is that the “year” is the unit symbolized throughout these prophecies.
6. Time of the End
‘“At the time of the end the king of the South shall attack him; and the king of the North shall come against him like a whirlwind, with chariots, horsemen, and with many ships; and he shall enter the countries, overwhelm them, and pass through”’” (Dan. 11:40). “‘“Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt”’” (12:2).
The prophecies in Daniel 7–8, and 10–12 lead up to the “‘time of the end’” (8:17; 11:35, 40; 12:4, 9 ), which is followed by the resurrection (12:2) and the setting up of God’s everlasting kingdom (7:27).
In the sweep of history described in these prophecies that extend from the prophet in the sixth century B.C. to our time and beyond, literal time periods of only three-and-a-half to six-and-a-half years are not capable of reaching anywhere near this final end time. Therefore, these prophetic time periods should be seen as symbolic and standing for considerably longer periods of actual time, extending to the end of time.
7. Old Testament Examples
In Numbers 14:34, God deliberately used the day-for-a-year principle as a teaching device: “‘“According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, for each day you shall bear your guilt one year, namely forty years, and you shall know My rejection.”’”
And in an acted-out parable, the prophet Ezekiel was told to lie 390 days on his left side and 40 days on his right side, “‘“I have laid on you a day for each year”’” (Eze. 4:6).
However, Numbers 14 and Ezekiel 4 are not apocalyptic texts. God, therefore, spells it out: One day stands for one year. In apocalyptic texts this is never stated, it is an underlying principle.
Characteristics of apocalyptic texts are:
● Visions and revelations
● Symbolism and imagery
● Cosmic dualism (apocalyptic writings present two opposing personified forces in the universe, God and Satan.)
● Contrast (there are two distinct and separate ages; the present evil age under the control of Satan, and the perfect future age which God will establish after his victory over Satan)
● Resurrection and judgment is presented as the goal of history
● Appearance of a Messiah
● Angelic interpreters
Daniel 7 is a classic apocalyptic chapter, in which all these characteristics are present. Daniel 4, on the other hand, is not an apocalyptic, but a historical chapter. The “seven times” in verse 16, therefore, are not to be interpreted with the year-day principle. The seven times are seven literal years in the life of Nebuchadnezzar, not 2520 prophetic years. (The lunar year has only 360 days, therefore 3½ times are 1260 days or 42 months, and 360 x 7 is 2520).
8. Daniel 9:24-27
In Daniel 9:24-27 the 70-week time prophecy met its fulfillment at the exact time, if the year-day principle is used to interpret it. Many interpreters, who in other apocalyptic texts do not use the year-day principle, recognize that the 70 weeks are in fact “weeks of years,” reaching from the Persian period to the time of Christ. Thus the pragmatic test in Daniel 9 confirms the validity of the year-day principle.
Desmond Ford and others, including the revised Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, have argued that the year-day principle is not involved in Daniel 9. Ford says concerning the term “seventy weeks” in Daniel 9:24: “The word translated ‘weeks’ in the King James Version and some other versions is literally ‘sevens’ and, like the words ‘dozen’ or ‘score,’ can apply to a variety of things. The Hebrew word there used is never used for a seven-day period, although the singular term can be so used. In ninety out of ninety-four cases in which the OT uses the wordshabua in the sense of seven days, there are added the explanatory and additional words ‘of days,’ for shabua on its own merely means a heptad(a group of series of seven). Here in Daniel 9:24, the Hebrew is masculine, whereas the plural form elsewhere is always feminine.”4
This sounds pretty convincing but it really isn’t. The Hebrew word for “weeks” is the masculine plural form of “week.” It is derived from the word for “seven” “as a specialized term to be applied only to the unit of time consisting of seven days, that is, the ‘week.’”5
Shabua occurs 20 (not 94) times in the Old Testament. An investigation of the 20 texts yields the following results:
● Three times it occurs as a singular noun meaning “one week” (Gen. 29:27, 28; Dan. 9:27). “‘“Fulfill her week, and we will give you this one also for the service which you will serve with me still another seven years”’” (Gen. 29:27).
● Once it appears as a dual for “two weeks”: “‘“If she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean two weeks”’” (Lev. 12:5).
● Eight times it is found as a feminine plural. In five of these texts it appears with the word for “feast” and refers to the Feast of Weeks (Ex. 34:22; Deut. 16:10, 16; 2 Chron. 8:13; Eze. 45:21). “‘“You shall observe the Feast of Weeks, of the firstfruits of wheat harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering at the year’s end”’” (Ex. 34:22).
● In Numbers 28:26, most versions translate the feminine plural “Feast of Weeks,” although the word “feast” does not appear in the text. Nevertheless, the context seems to indicate it. “'Also on the day of the firstfruits, when you present a new grain offering to the Lord in your Feast of Weeks, you shall have a holy convocation; you shall do no laborious work’” (Num. 28:26, NASB).
● In Deuteronomy 16:9, in which the feminine plural is used, it refers to the seven weeks between Passover and the Feast of Weeks: “‘You shall count seven weeks for yourself; begin to count the seven weeks from the time you begin to put the sickle to the grain’” (Deut. 16:9).
● In Jeremiah 5:24, the last text where the feminine plural is used, it refers to “the appointed weeks of the harvest” (Jer. 5:24).
● Four times it appears as a masculine plural (Dan. 9:24, 25 [2x], 26; 10:2, 3). The fact that in Daniel it is masculine and not feminine as in other places is irrelevant because it is one of many Hebrew nouns with dual gender. Daniel consistently uses the masculine plural, and most versions translate the word as “weeks.”
In every text outside of the Book of Daniel the meaning of shabua is always “week” or “weeks.” To claim that the word literally means “sevens” and “can apply to a variety of things”6 is simply not true. It always applies to a week or in plural to weeks.
Neither is it true that “The Hebrew word there used is never used for a seven-day period.”7 In Daniel 10:2, 3 the same masculine plural is used twice for “three weeks.” “In those days I, Daniel, was mourning three full weeks. I ate no pleasant food, no meat or wine came into my mouth, nor did I anoint myself at all, till three whole weeks were fulfilled.” The NIV translates the word in Daniel 9:24 as “Seventy ‘sevens,’” but in Daniel 10:2, 3 as “three weeks.”
Desmond Ford’s argument that only when the word for “week” is followed by the word for “days,” as in Daniel 10:2, 3, does it indicate that a week is not valid. He is misinterpreting a Hebrew idiom. As Bill Shea has explained, “When a time unit such as a week, month, or year is followed by the word for ‘days’ in the plural, the idiom is to be understood to signify ‘full’ or ‘complete’ units.”8
● “Then Laban said to him, ‘You are my own flesh and blood.’ After Jacob had stayed with him for a whole month” (Gen. 29:14, NIV).
● “You shall eat [quails], not one day, nor two days, nor five days, nor ten days, nor twenty days, but for a whole month, until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you, because you have despised the Lord who is among you, and have wept before Him, saying, ‘Why did we ever come up out of Egypt?’” (Num. 11:19, 20).
● “Then it came to pass, at the end of two full years, that Pharaoh had a dream; and behold, he stood by the river” (Gen. 41:1).
● “Absalom dwelt two full years in Jerusalem, but did not see the king’s face” (2 Sam. 14:28).
Therefore, Daniel 10:2, 3 means “three full weeks” (NKJV) or “three entire weeks” (NASB).
Unfortunately, because most Daniel interpreters no longer use the year-day principle of prophetic interpretation, they argue, like Ford, that Daniel 10:2, 3 indicates “weeks of days” and Daniel 9:24 are “seventy weeks of years.” Stephen Miller, for example, writes: “Gabriel declared that the time involved was ‘seventy sevens.’ . . . ‘Sevens’ (traditionally ‘weeks’) is a literal translation of the Hebrew and refers to periods of seven without specifying what the units are. These may be sevens of years, days, months, or indefinite periods of time.”9
He then opts for 70 weeks of years, otherwise the prophecy would not fit the appearance of the Messiah 490 years later. However, as we have shown the word in the Old Testament always refers to the week. Therefore, the claim that it “refers to periods of seven without specifying what the units are” is not supported by Scripture.
The Year-Day Principle in History
The earliest evidence for the year-day principle, though not by that name, can be found in The Book of Jubilees, a Jewish work from the intertestamental period. The Book of Jubilees, dated to the second century B.C., uses the word week to refer to seven years. As O. S. Wintermute explains, “Each period of seven years is referred to as a ‘week of years’ or simply as a ‘week.’ Each period of seven weeks of years, i.e., forty-nine years, is designated a jubilee.”10 Thus Noah’s age in Jubilee 10:16 is given in these words: “Nine hundred and fifty years he completed in his life, nineteen jubilees and two weeks and five years.”11
19 jubilees = 19 x 49 years = 931 years
2 weeks = 2 x 7 years = 14 years
5 years = 1 x 5 = _5 years
According to Rabbi Hersh Goldwurm, “and all the commentators . . . interpret the expression [‘seventy weeks’ in Daniel 9:24] to mean 490 years: seventy weeks of years.”12 They count 70 years from the destruction of the first temple to the restoration of the temple under Darius (Haggai 1:1-8) and another 420 years to the destruction of the second temple. This adds up to 490 years, although these figures do not harmonize with the actual dates in history (586 B.C. to 70 A.D.).
In the New Testament, the Book of Daniel does not play a major role. In view of the statement in Daniel 12:4 “‘seal the book until the time of the end,’” this is no surprise. Those church fathers who wrote a commentary on the book interpreted Daniel along historicist lines with Rome as the fourth power in Daniel 2 and 7. The 70 weeks in Daniel 9:24 were seen as 490 years, but the time prophecies in Daniel 7, 8, and 12 were placed as literal days either in the past in the time of the Roman emperors, or in the future in the time of the final antichrist.
L. E. Froom notes: “We shall find in this period the seventy weeks of Daniel interpreted as 490 years, but there was no application of the year-day principle to the longer time periods by any Christian writer of this early era.”13
And this is quite understandable. As Irenaeus (died circa. 195) already noted, “For every prophecy, before its fulfillment, is to men [full of] enigmas and ambiguities. But when the time has arrived, and the prediction has come to pass, then the prophecies have a clear and certain exposition.”14
The year-day principle, therefore, did not play an important role in the early centuries of Christianity, though it was not unknown. Julius Africanus in speaking about the 2300 evenings and mornings in Daniel 8:14 says, “If we take the day as a month, just as elsewhere in prophecy days are taken as years . . . we shall find the period fully made out to the 20th year of the reign of Artaxerxes, from the capture of Jerusalem.”15
The first Christian interpreter to apply the year-day principle outside of the 70 weeks, it seems, was Tichonius (late fourth century). “He interpreted the three and a half days of the slaying of the witnesses (Revelation 11:11) to be three and a half years.”16
Following Tichonius, throughout church history a number of Jewish and Christian interpreters used the year-day principle. But particularly toward the end of the 1260-, 1290-, 1335-, and 2300-day prophecies, and following their fulfillment, the number of interpreters who used the year-day principle increased enormously.
The historicist method of interpretation is not, in fact, a late arrival on the theological scene; rather, it rests on a solid biblical and historical foundation. It was used by the angel interpreter in the Book of Daniel, during the intertestamental period, and by Jewish and Christian writers throughout church history. Until the 19th century it was used by most interpreters of the Bible. And in spite of what some may claim, it is not an outdated method belonging to the past, but a valid principle of interpreting apocalyptic prophecies today.
Gerhard Pfandl, Ph.D., recently retired as Associate Director of the Biblical Research Institute, Silver Spring, Maryland.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. Desmond Ford, Daniel & The Coming King (Newcastle, Calif.: Desmond Ford Publications, 1996), p. 298.
2. Kai Arasola, The End of Historicism (Sigtuna, Sweden: Datem Publishing, 1990), p. 171.
3. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references in this article are quoted from the New King James Version of the Bible.
4. Desmond Ford and Gillian Ford, For the Sake of the Gospel (Bloomington, Ind.: iUniverse, 2008), p. 57.
5. William H. Shea, Selected Studies on Prophetic Interpretation, DARCOM (Silver Spring, Md.: Biblical Research Institute, 1992), p. 90.
6. Ford and Ford, For the Sake of the Gospel, op. cit., p. 57.
8. Shea, Selected Studies on Prophetic Interpretation, op cit., p. 91.
9. Stephen R. Miller, Daniel, The New American Commentary (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman & Holman, 2001), p. 257.
10. O. S. Wintermute, “Jubilees: A New Translation and Introduction,” in James H. Charsworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co. Inc., 1985), vol. 2, p. 39.
11. Ibid., p. 76.
12. Hersh Goldwurm, Daniel (New York: Mesorah Publications, LTD., 1979), p. 259.
13. Le Roy Edwin Froom, The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1950-1954), vol. 1, pp. 241, 242.
14. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4.24.1 (ANF 1:496).
15. The Extant Writings of Julius Africanus 3.18.4 (ANF 6:137).
16. Froom, The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, op cit., p. 471.