Identifying the Pattern of Post-exilic Sabbatical Year Cycles
In Part 1 of this article, we saw that the arrival of Ezra in 457 BC, when tied in with the public reading of the Law in 444 BC, is a strong indication that the starting point for counting sabbatical year cycles in the post-exilic period was Tishri 1, 457 BC. Further evidence that it is the correct one is seen in that it yields a sabbatical year cycle that precisely matches up with the scholarly consensus, first elucidated by Benedict Zuckermann and reaffirmed by numerous others over the years. We discussed this issue in detail in the earlier article, “The First Year of Herod the Great’s Reign,” so here we will examine just a few events connected with sabbatical years to confirm it.
The Siege of Beth-Zur
Bob Pickle published two online articles, “When Were the Sabbatical Years?” (http://www.pickle-publishing.com/papers/sabbatical-years.htm) and “Which Years Were the Sabbatical Years?” (http://www.pickle-publishing.com/papers/sabbatical-years-more.htm), where he takes the points deemed strongest for Wacholder’s case, compares them with how Zuckermann treats them, and concludes that Zuckermann’s approach carries the day. He writes about the siege of Beth-Zur at http://www.pickle-publishing.com/papers/sabbatical-years.htm#3:
only a 163 BC siege can be simultaneously dated in both the 149th and 150th years. 1 Maccabees’s [6:20] date of the 150th year therefore must use a Seleucid Era that begins in either the fall of 313 or the spring of 312, while 2 Maccabees’s [13:1] date of the 149th year must use a Seleucid Era that begins in either the fall of 312 or the spring of 311. We must conclude, therefore, that the only way to harmonize the two accounts as they read is to date the siege in 163 BC, which then supports Zuckermann’s sabbatical dates (brackets added; see also the further discussion at http://www.pickle-publishing.com/papers/sabbatical-years-more.htm#3.)
His conclusion is that the sabbatical year for the siege of Beth-Zur should be placed in 164/163 BC.
In the Notes following his Anchor Yale Bible Commentary section on 1 Maccabees 6:18–63, Jonathan A. Goldstein presented several reasons why Wacholder’s formulation of the sabbatical year cycles should not be accepted. The overall takeaway is this:
Ben Zion Wacholder has done well to assemble the evidence on the sabbatical cycle, but his study (“The Calendar of Sabbatical Cycles During the Second Temple and the Early Rabbinic Period,” Hebrew Union College Annual 44 , 153–96) is so full of errors that one cannot accept his conclusion, that the sabbatical years fell one year later than the dates we have assumed [those of Zuckermann; emphasis added].
Regarding the siege of Beth-Zur, he lays some groundwork by observing:
[Elias] Bickerman demonstrated that in First Maccabees all dates for royal Seleucid history, including accessions and deaths of kings and campaigns not involving Judea, fit the available data, provided we assume that those dates are according to the [Macedonian] Seleucid era which numbered the year from Dios, 312 B.C.E. (emphasis and brackets added).
From this Goldstein deduces that the 149 SE date given in 1 Maccabees 6:16 for the death of Antiochus IV Epiphanes was based on the Macedonian Seleucid calendar, placing his death in November or early December of 164 BC. That brought his young son Antiochus V Eupator to the throne under the guardianship of Lysias early in 163 BC. Then he brings 1 Macc. 6:49 into the picture: “However, he [Eupator] made a truce with the defenders of Beth-Zur, so that they withdrew from the town, inasmuch as they had no store of food there for withstanding a siege because it was a sabbatical year when the land was left fallow” (emphasis and brackets added). In view of the date established for the death of Antiochus, he concludes that “the most probable date for the sabbatical year is from autumn, 164, to autumn, 163.”
Goldstein also observes in Note 20 under 1 Macc. 6:18–63:
At least two pieces of evidence support our probable date [for the Beth-Zur siege]. Every seventh year was sabbatical (Lev 25:1–4). Josephus (AJ [Antiquities] xiv 16.2.475, 4.487) implies that autumn, 38, to autumn, 37[BC], was a sabbatical year, and an early rabbinic tradition (Seder ʾolam rabbah 30, p. 147 Ratner; TB [Babylonian Talmud] Taʿanit 29a) states that the second temple was destroyed in the year after a sabbatical year [69/70 BC] (brackets added).
The sabbatical years indicated, 38/37 BC and 68/69 BC, fit into a “sevens” pattern matching Zuckermann’s that includes 164/163 BC and validates it. We further draw the reader’s attention to Goldstein’s willingness to accept the Herodian chronology of Josephus at face value, as discussed in my earlier article, and to read Seder ‘Olam 30 as the majority of translators have understood it, discussed further below. He finds the 1 Maccabees data incompatible with either an interpretation of Josephus that has Herod besieging Jerusalem in 36 BC (following W.E. Filmer), or a translation of SO 30 that makes the destruction of both the First and Second Temples take place in a sabbatical year. It is no coincidence that the modern minority views on these issues stand or fall together. One does not find Wacholder’s 37/36 BC sabbatical year, Filmer’s skeptical approach to Josephus’ data, or Guggenheimer’s rendering of SO 30, combined in any way with Zuckermann’s sabbatical year cycles that include 38/37 BC, Schürer’s approach to Josephus that accepts the Roman consular years as Josephus gave them (and requires Herod to have taken Jerusalem in the summer of 37 BC), or Ratner’s and Milikowsky’s corroborating translations of the SO. The two approaches are mutually exclusive. This is a theological divide in modern chronological studies that seems to be due, at least in part, to the willingness of some recent scholars to revisit and question the apparent straightforward sense of primary historical source materials which were long considered rock-solid reliable.
We now turn our attention to the sabbatical year research of Donald Blosser, “The Sabbath Year Cycle in Josephus” (Hebrew Union College Annual 52 , pp. 129–139, online at http://www.jstor.com/stable/23507728/). In my opinion he has done some excellent work in demonstrating the correspondence of historical events reported by Josephus with a specific pattern of sabbatical year cycles. He summarizes his ideas in the Abstract that heads up his article:
The Sabbath year cycle was an important part of Jewish religious history. It was observed with varying degrees of regularity over the centuries. Josephus frequently used the cycle in dating certain events between 175 B.C.E. and 75 C.E. But his use of this cycle has been criticized as unreliable and inconsistent. The difficulty focuses on how the year of hardship should be determined. Is it the 7th year (the fallow year when no crops are grown), or is it the 8th year (first year of the new cycle) before the new crops are harvested. The difference in calculation will directly affect the accuracy of the Josephus figures.
On pp. 130–131 he clarifies:
The people were expressing what appears to be a very legitimate concern. If we have no crop during the seventh year, what do we eat? Thus Josephus (reflecting the common assumption) refers to the seventh year as the year of hardship. But during the seventh year, the people are eating food derived from the crop harvested in the sixth year; just as in every year this year’s food comes from last year’s harvest. The critical food problem developed during the eighth year (or the first year of the new sabbath cycle) when there was no seventh year crop to be used for food. Thus it was during the eighth year and not the seventh that the people experienced real hardship.
Let us evaluate Blosser’s conclusions through the eyes of his principle critic, Wacholder. He issued a rejoinder, “The Calendar of Sabbath Years During the Second Temple Era: A Response,” in Hebrew Union College Annual Vol. 54 (1983), pp. 123–133. There he writes in the Abstract:
But Blosser's argument is not convincing. Josephus certainly knew the difference between the year of shemittah and the post-sabbatical year. Furthermore it is not correct to assume, as Blosser does, that famines occurred routinely during sabbatical cycles. After all, disasters are unpredictable events whereas the observance of shemittah was routine and therefore planned. Contemporary documents from Murabaʿat show that the references to the seventh year in Josephus are correct.
We can agree that famines did not occur routinely during sabbatical cycles. However, it does not appear Blosser made that assumption, but only pointed out that in certain instances when famines did occur, proximity to the sabbatical year played a part. Wacholder also made the valid point that “the observance of shemittah was routine and therefore planned.” Yet the fact remains that when disruptions to agriculture did occur near a sabbatical year, those disruptions wreaked havoc with the planning. By my reading, Blosser’s case is actually predicated on sabbatical years being planned for, on putting into storage an extra measure of crops from the sixth year’s harvest so it could be drawn upon for the entire seventh and through the growing season of the eighth year. It is in seeking out how such disruptions messed up the food supply despite planning that he tries to narrow down the possible dates for certain sabbatical years.
Something that can be critiqued about Blosser’s thinking is his statement that “in every year this year’s food comes from last year’s harvest.” Though it does not impact his case about the eighth year more likely being the true “year of hardship” rather than the seventh, this is overstating things a bit. Actually, in every year except the sabbatical year, only food for the first half of the year came from the previous year’s harvest: “You will eat the old supply and clear out the old because of the new” (Lev 26:10). A typical year would see the using up of the stored food as the new harvest came in. Each agricultural year began with the “early rains” of Tishri softening up the ground, followed by plowing and sowing around October/November, then the harvesting of the barley and wheat crops in the spring after the winter rainy season ended (cf. the chart at http://www.angelfire.com/pa2/passover/jewish-calendar-months.html). Then once the spring harvest was gathered in, people would begin eating that new crop, not stored food. It was just as the LORD had said:
You shall sow your land for six years and gather in its yield, but on the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the needy of your people may eat; and whatever they leave the beast of the field may eat. You are to do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove (Ex 23:10–11).
But if you say, “What are we going to eat on the seventh year if we do not sow or gather in our crops?” then I will so order My blessing for you in the sixth year that it will bring forth the crop for three years. When you are sowing the eighth year, you can still eat old things from the crop, eating the old until the ninth year when its crop comes in (Lev 25:20–22).
Since there was no harvest in the seventh year, “What are we going to eat on the seventh year?” only makes sense if it was framed by the understanding that in years 1–6 of the cycle, people normally had just a half year’s worth of food in storage to cover the period between fall sowing and spring harvest in the next year. Thus, when Blosser writes that “the critical food problem developed during the eighth year,” he understands that normal sabbatical year planning was for enough food to be stored from year six to cover, God willing, the year and a half until harvest in the spring of year eight. If the people presumed on this normal plan and ate three square meals a day up to the fall that began year eight, then something—like a siege—occurred to prevent eighth year sowing, famine conditions could indeed have developed in the eighth year (the post-sabbatical year). And if the sixth year’s harvest was less than normal, rationing could well have been part of the plan for managing the stored supply from the outset, with little room for error. In short, it seems reasonable to expect sabbatical years were planned for, but that plan could have involved some belt-tightening based on how much was in storage. Although we may therefore say Blosser overstated some things, yet for Wacholder to claim Blosser assumes “that famines occurred routinely during sabbatical cycles,” and that he did not take sabbatical year planning into account, is to misrepresent him.
As for Wacholder’s comment that the Wadi Murabbaʿat papyri supported his views, Goldstein has pointed out (his Anchor Bible commentary on 1 Maccabees, in the Note under 1 Macc. 6:18–63) that the translation by Milik which Wacholder depends on throws his conclusions off:
`Wacholder (pp. 169–71) finds strong evidence for his theory in a papyrus from Wadi Murabbaʿat (Mur. 18, published by J. T. Milik in Les Grottes de Murabbaʿat, eds. P. Benoit, J. T. Milik, and R. de Vaux, DJD, II (1961), 100–4. The papyrus is dated in the second year of Nero Caesar, (55–56 C.E.), and line 7 was read by Milik, “wšnt šmṭh dh,” which Wacholder translates “in this year of release.” Thus, the sabbatical year (=year of release) would be 55–56 C.E. However, the papyrus is a scribbled tatter, extremely difficult to read. Whatever the context of line 7 may mean, Milik misread a crucial word, for the papyrus clearly has wšnt šmṭh hwh, “and it was [or would be] the year of release.” See R. Yaron’s review of Milik, in JJS 11 (1960), 158. Since the verb is either in the past tense or conditional, the context does not prove that 55–56 C.E. was a sabbatical year (emphasis added).
From these considerations we can say that Wacholder’s attempt to blunt the force of Blosser’s case is unsuccessful. It is also worth noting the respected chronologist Jack Finegan singled out Blosser’s analysis as strong evidence in favor of Zuckermann’s views on page 116 of his Handbook:
In 1979 Donald Wilford Blosser published a new study of Jubilee and Sabbatical years, with a calendar of Sabbatical years extending from 171/170 B.C. to A.D. 75/76, a tabulation which is contrary to Wacholder and in exact agreement with Zuckermann (“Jesus and the Jubilee: Luke 4:16–30, The Year of Jubilee and Its Significance in the Gospel of Luke” [Ph.D. diss., St. Mary’s College, The University of St. Andrews, Scotland, 1979], 113, emphasis added).
Finegan’s conclusion is to side with Zuckermann over Wacholder:
Since we have taken Yose ben Halafta as an early and dependable authority, we accept the date of 68/69 [as the sabbatical year before Titus took Jerusalem] and also use it as basic for the determination of several other Sabbatical years in what follows, all thus, in fact, in accordance with Zuckermann (and Blosser) (p. 122, §226, bracketed comment added).
With that background out of the way, let us return to the date of the siege of Beth-Zur. Here is how Blosser summarizes things (p. 132):
The date for the siege of Jerusalem by Lysias is given as 163 B.C.E. Both Josephus and I Maccabees identify this as being the seventh year, saying that the lack of food had a direct effect upon the fall of the city. Because of this form of counting, Josephus says that the city fell during the Sabbath year of 163/162 B.C.E.
It is accurate to say that the city fell in 163 B.C.E., but this does not mean that 163/162 B.C.E. has to be a sabbath year because the food supply was short. This represents an incorrect assumption by Josephus that the food supply was critically short during the seventh, or sabbath, year. If 163/162 B.C.E. had been a sabbath year, food from the sixth year harvest would have been in normal supply. But since the food situation was such a critical factor that it led to the defeat of the city, we can rightly assume that 164/163 B.C.E. was the sabbath year, and that 163/162 B.C.E. was the eighth year (or first year of the new cycle).
A proper chronology for the event is as follows: Antiochus died in 164 B.C.E. Israel was observing the sabbath year fallow period from Oct. 164 to Oct. 163 when Lysias set up his siege of Bethsura and Jerusalem. Because of the siege, the inhabitants of the cities did not have access to the spontaneous growth which normally supplemented their supply of grain which had been stored for the eighth year in obedience to the seventh year fallow laws. The inevitable result of this siege was that the stored grain was consumed more rapidly than usual (Ant. XII.379) and severe hunger had set in more quickly than usual.
This fact is supported by Ant. XII.380 which says that the invaders were also having food problems (there were no crops to pillage due to the seventh year fallow period, and the spontaneous growth was not sufficient to feed an army). This made the cost of the siege prohibitive for Lysias, and when the news of the threatened counterrevolt at home came through, he quickly withdrew from Jerusalem.
Thus we can conclude that 164/163 B.C.E. was the sabbath year referred to in both Ant. XII.378 and I Macc. 6:49, 53 (emphasis added).
Then there is Klaus Bringmann’s 1983 German work, Hellenistische Reform und Religionsverfolgung in Judäa: Eine Untersuchung zur jüdisch-hellenistischen Geschichte. In The Institution of the Hasmonean High Priesthood by Vasile Babota, he notes on p. 29:
Bringmann argues that a shortfall of food would occur at the end of the sabbatical year, and so the invasion of Lysias recounted in 1 Macc 6:28–54 took place in the summer of 163 B.C.E., that is, at the end of the sabbatical year that ran from fall 164 to fall 163 B.C.E. (emphasis added).
Bringmann thus joins other scholarly voices affirming the accuracy of Zuckermann’s determination of 164/163 BC as the sabbatical year of the siege of Beth-Zur.
Herod the Great’s Siege of Jerusalem
Bob Pickle discusses the date when Herod besieged and took Jerusalem very briefly at http://www.pickle-publishing.com/papers/sabbatical-years.htm#5, concluding:
The 185th Olympiad began in July 40 BC and ended in June 36 BC. Agrippa and Gallus were consuls in 37 BC. Thus Jerusalem was besieged by Herod in the spring and summer of 37 BC. Since 38/37 BC was a sabbatical year according to Zuckermann, Zuckermann’s sabbatical dates must therefore be correct.
He goes into considerably greater depth in his discussion at http://www.pickle-publishing.com/papers/sabbatical-years-more.htm#5. There he explains why, although “some scholars other than Wacholder would like to have Herod conquer Jerusalem in 36 BC instead, yet this is not possible.” (I dealt with this issue previously as well, under the heading “The Sabbatical Years.”) He first notes what Josephus reported in Antiquities 14.16.2, 4:
they persisted in this war to the very last; and this they did while a mighty army lay round about them, and while they were distressed by famine and the want of necessaries, for this happened to be a Sabbatic year…. This destruction befell the city of Jerusalem when Marcus Agrippa and Caninius Gallus were consuls of Rome on the hundred eighty and fifth olympiad, on the third month, on the solemnity of the fast, as if a periodical revolution of calamities had returned since that which befell the Jews under Pompey; for the Jews were taken by him on the same day, and this was after twenty-seven years' time (Ant. 14.16.4).
If we look up what any reputable historian has written about the year Agrippa and Gallus were consuls—such as Ronald Syme (The Augustan Aristocracy [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986], pp. 455-458, list of consuls reproduced at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Roman_consuls#1st_century_BC, or Christopher S. Mackay of the University of Alberta (“Consuls of the Roman Republic,” online at https://sites.ualberta.ca/~csmackay/Consuls.List.html)—we will find that they were consuls in 37 BC. This detail cannot be reconciled with making 36 BC out to being a sabbatical year (which is why, to rescue his theory, Filmer charged Josephus with double consular year errors in Antiquities). Pickle goes on to observe,
Some think that this conquest must be in 36 BC since 36 BC is 27 years later than Pompey's conquest in 63 BC. However, if we use inclusive reckoning, similar to what we must use for Herod's reign, 63 to 37 BC is indeed 27 years…. Josephus’ testimony excludes the possibility that the ‘fast’ was the Day of Atonement.
The only quibble I have with Pickle’s analysis is his identification of “the fast” in Antiquities 14.16.4 as Tammuz 17. As discussed in my article under the heading “On the Solemnity of the Fast,” Cassius Dio, who as a non-Jew may easily have misunderstood the no-work Sabbath as a “fast day,” called the day Pompey took the city 27 years earlier the “day of Saturn” (i.e., Saturday) in his Roman History (37.16.4). This makes it a sabbath day, with no implication it was the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, Tishri 10. Modern scholars endeavoring to match up Josephus’ “fast” with Yom Kippur have overlooked this ancient insight from Dio. Moreover, since Wacholder’s sabbatical year pattern has 37/36 BC as a sabbatical year, it had to run from Tishri 1, 37 BC to Elul 29, 36 BC. Since the Day of Atonement in view would have been Tishri 10, 36 BC—ten days after Elul 29—Wacholder’s sabbatical year would actually have concluded ten days before that date. Thus, it is not possible to regard Tishri 10, 36 BC as the “fast” day when Herod took Jerusalem, and at the same time claim it was in a sabbatical year. Finally, Josephus wrote in Antiquities 15.1.2 that immediately after the end of the siege, while Herod was plundering Antigonus’ loyalists, “the sabbatick year…was still going on.” Taking Wacholder’s view means denying the truth of this plain statement from a primary historical source. Only if we accept Zuckermann’s pattern of sabbatical years do we extricate ourselves from these difficulties.
Blosser also addresses the date Herod took Jerusalem with the same logic he applied to his discussion of the siege of Beth-Zur (p. 134–35):
Virtually all historians agree that 37 B.C.E. was the year of Herod’s conquest of Jerusalem…. The more difficult problem is dating the sabbath year which occurred at that time. Ant. XIV.476 [sic, 475] refers to “a sabbatical year which happened to fall at that time.” Since the sabbath year ran from Tishri to Tishri (Sept. to Sept.) and agreement is strong for a July collapse of the city, this implies a sabbath year of 38/37 B.C.E. However, in Ant. XV.7, Josephus describes the actions of Herod after taking the city, and in his description uses the following phrases: “on the other hand, the seventh year which came around at that time, forced them to leave the land unworked”.
This implies a sabbath year which began after the collapse of the city, and that would move the date back to 37/36 B.C.E.
The problem can be resolved by a careful construction of the chronology. Herod laid siege to the city during the spring of 37 B.C.E. and the city finally fell during the summer (June-July) of that year. After taking the city, Herod imposed heavy taxes upon the people (Ant. XV.7). Having just endured the horrible suffering of the Roman siege, the people also had to face the difficult eighth year with its critical food shortages. Josephus has incorrectly identified this year as the seventh year (Ant. XV.7) because of his own confusion over which year brought the food shortage. In actual fact, this should be seen as the eighth year. [Blosser’s footnote here states: “Wacholder (supra, n. 12, p. 167) notes the two Josephus references and says that both cannot be right. He then chooses 37/36 B.C.E. for the Sabbath year. The Loeb editors of Josephus acknowledge the problem at Ant. XIII.378 and at XIV.475, but explain it as a ‘slip in arithmetic’ or ‘inexact language.’”]
This means that Herod took the city near the end of the year 38/37 B.C.E., which was also a sabbath year. In the following year (37/36 B.C.E., the eighth year), he compounded the Jewish suffering by plundering their now meager food stores to feed his own occupation troops and then invoked harsh taxes to raise money (most likely to pay the high cost of having still more food shipped in for his army). Ant. XV.7 should be seen as an explanation of the severity of conditions in Jerusalem which were heightened by the previous years’ fallow fields. This harmonizes completely with the account in Ant. XIV.4 76 which placed the city’s collapse during a sabbath year. Thus we conclude that 38/37 B.C.E. was the sabbath year (emphasis and brackets added).
The Destruction of the Second Temple
Bob Pickle discusses this in some detail in the section, “Was the Second Temple Destroyed in a Sabbatical or Post-Sabbatical Year?” at http://www.pickle-publishing.com/papers/sabbatical-years-more.htm#8. He begins by quoting something Wacholder wrote:
Finally, a passage in Josephus implies that the year 68/69 was not Sabbatical. According to B.J. [Wars] 4:529–37, “Simon the son of Gioras, the leader of the Zealots, invaded Idumaea in the winter of 68/69 and gained abundant booty and laid hands on vast supplies of corn.” This clearly indicates that it was not a part of a Sabbatical season, for surely the Idumeans by now appear to have been following the traditions of Jewish law. (p. 176)
What Josephus wrote was this:
Thus did Simon unexpectedly march into Idumea, without bloodshed, and made a sudden attack upon the city Hebron, and took it; wherein he got possession of a great deal of prey, and plundered it of a vast quantity of fruit. (Wars, bk. 4, ch. 9, sect. 7)
According to Zuckermann, the sabbatical year would have begun just prior to the winter of 68/69. Since we aren’t talking about a lengthy time period after the non-existent harvest of a sabbatical year, then surely there would be large stores of grain in existence. Indeed, we might expect the stores of grain to be larger during the winter of a sabbatical year than during the winter of a non-sabbatical year, for the supply of grain must last until the harvest of the post-sabbatical year.
Thus the fact that Simon found large stores of grain in Idumea, if it suggests anything at all, really suggests that the winter of 68/69 was during a sabbatical year. And that supports Zuckermann's sabbatical dates (emphasis and brackets added).
In the Notes under 1 Maccabees 6:20 of his 1 Maccabees commentary (p. 317), Jonathan Goldstein similarly remarks about the grain captured by Simon at Hebron:
Wacholder next (p. 176) exploits information in Josephus. Josephus reports that the forces of Simon son of Gioras in the winter of 68–69 C.E. captured vast supplies of grain in Hebron (BJ [Wars] iv 9.7.529) and that on a march through Idumaea Simon’s forces, short of provisions, stripped the vegetation (ibid., §§534–37) and so trampled the ground that the cultivated land became harder than barren soil (ibid., §537). Wacholder argues that therefore 68/9 C.E. could not have been a sabbatical year. But the grain captured in Hebron could have been stored grain. The shortage of supplies which made Simon’s troops strip the vegetation may have been due precisely to the sabbatical year. The reported hardening of the trampled ground may be literary hyperbole. In any case, even when left unplowed for a year, a field which has been regularly plowed can remain softer than barren soil. Finally, there is considerable doubt that the sabbatical year was observed in Idumaea. See M. Shebiʿit 6:1 (the exiles returning from Babylonia did not take possession of Idumaea) and To. Shebiʿit 4:11 with the commentary of S. Lieberman, Tosefta Ki-fshuṭah, Zeraʿim, II, 534–38 (emphasis added).
Hence we see that Goldstein’s analysis agrees with that of Pickle, making AD 68–69 a sabbatical year that agrees with Zuckermann’s pattern.
Now we have Blosser’s analysis of the sabbatical year near the time the forces of Titus destroyed the Temple in AD 70, taken from pp. 137–138:
The story of the fall of Jerusalem is told in great detail by Josephus, going from the collapse of the first wall on the 7th Artemisius (25 May), to the burning of the temple on 10th Lous (late July), to the ultimate defeat of the city on the 8th Gorpiaeus (26 Sept.) in 70 C.E. In his account he deals at length with the extreme sabbath year food shortage which confronted the people inside the city (War V.420-442). This coincides accurately with a statement in Seder ‘Olam Rabbah 30, 74a–75a which says that the Second Temple was destroyed in a post-sabbatical year [though not in the outlier translation of Heinrich Guggenheimer, see below]. Knowing that the temple fell in late July, this means that 68/69 CE was a sabbath year.
This sabbath year date of 68/69 C.E. can be documented further by reference to an event given in War IV.529. A young man named Simon had gathered a substantial army (20,000 men) and was gradually moving across the land. Through treachery on the part of an officer in the Idumaean army, Simon marched unopposed into Idumaea, and “captured the little town of Hebron, where he gained abundant booty and laid hands on vast supplies of corn. [In his endnote #24 here Blosser observes, “Wacholder (supra, n. 12, p. 176) attempts to use this incident to prove that 68/69 C.E. could not have been a sabbath year. His argument is that if it were, there would not have been any stores of corn at Hebron, for food would have been scarce during the sabbath year. Our reasoning shows him to be incorrect in his judgment.”] This event is dated by an earlier reference to the death of Nero (June 68 C.E.) shortly before the campaign of Simon (War IV.491). The vast supply of corn which Simon captured in Hebron was the grain which had been stored from the sixth year harvest in anticipation of the fallow seventh year, thus it was “abundant.” This means that 67/68 was the sixth year and 68/69 was sabbath year.
These four items (the fall of the city in 70 C.E.; the reference to the severe food shortage; the Seder ‘Olam statement; and the vast supplies of corn at Hebron) combine to support the following chronology for this event.
The sixth year of the sabbath cycle was 67/68 C.E. and corn was being stockpiled at Hebron for the coming sabbath year and eighth year. The sabbath year itself was 68/69 C.E. During the eighth year (69/70 C.E.) the city of Jerusalem was attacked and ultimately it collapsed. The food problem for this eighth year, which was critical even in the best of times, was made horrific by the Roman blockade of the city from May until Sept. of C.E. 70, when the city finally was destroyed. Thus we conclude that 68/69 C.E. was a sabbath year (pp. 137–38, brackets and emphasis added).
At the end of his article, p. 139, Blosser summarizes his analysis of multiple events dated by Josephus to sabbatical years and concludes, “Thus Josephus is shown to be a reliable resource for calculation of the Sabbath Year when one recognizes the assumptions which he had regarding that year. The cycle was observed with religious regularity, making it a crucial factor in the Jewish history of that period.”
Finegan also comments on the year in which the Temple fell. In §226 of his Handbook he states:
For example, in regard to the very important historical event of the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans in the summer of AD 70 and the destruction of the Second Temple in the month of Ab (July/Aug), we have already (§201) followed Josephus’s description of the sequence of events and (§203) have quoted the statement of Rabbi Yose ben Halafta (AD c. 150) that the day-date was Ab 9 (= Aug 5, AD 70) and the time was “immediately after the Sabbatical year.” Reckoning years beginning on Tishri 1, the destruction was 69/70 and the preceding year was 68/69; thus 68/69 was a Sabbatical year, and this is the way it is shown in the table by Zuckermann (emphasis added).
These remarks from Finegan are yet another reason to reject Wacholder’s sabbatical year cycles. Some disagree with Milikowsky’s translation of Rabbi Yose’s statement in the Seder ‘Olam Rabbah which Finegan adopts, and would follow an alternative translation; we will address this below.
The Implication of These Determinations
On Bob Pickle’s website we are given a complete tabulation of sabbatical years as determined by Wacholder and Zuckermann. When we take the years 164/163 BC (the siege of Beth-Zur), 38/37 BC (Herod’s siege of Jerusalem), and 68/69 BC (the destruction of Jerusalem) that we examined above and compare them to those tables, we find they match a septennial pattern conforming perfectly with Zuckermann’s. Moreover, Zuckermann’s tabulation includes both 451/450 and 444/443 BC as sabbatical years, years we independently proposed based on Ezra’s beginning the counting of years for the initial post-exilic sabbatical year cycle as of the first Tishri after his arrival in 457 BC. Thus Zuckermann corroborates the dates we derived from considering the implications of Ezra’s summer 457 BC return to the Land. Wacholder’s scheme, in contrast, would have Ezra wait a whole year after his arrival before starting to count years in Tishri of 456 BC. We can see no reason why Ezra would have tolerated such a delay.
The Meaning of Motza'ei Shǝvi'it in the Seder ‘Olam Rabbah
It appears that the works examined above provide sufficient objective historical reasons to prefer the sabbatical year formulation of Zuckermann over that of Wacholder. There is another issue that remains to be addressed, however, a translation point discussed in Rodger Young’s article on the Seder ‘Olam at http://www.rcyoung.org/articles/sederpart1.pdf, and echoed in a Wikipedia article at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shmita. Since Wacholder’s sabbatical years are one year later than those of Zuckermann, if the year in which an event occurred is fixed, then an event Zuckermann would place in a post-sabbatical year would be in a sabbatical year under Wacholder’s scheme. This provides motivation for those favoring Wacholder’s views to adopt Guggenheimer’s translation of the SO, and vice-versa. Young argues that motzaei cannot take the meaning “in a post-sabbatical year” that translators other than Guggenheimer have adopted:
We first look in the Scripture, where the word motsa occurs 27 times. In Psalm 19:7 (19:6, English Bible) it refers to the “going forth” of the sun [KJV; other translations “rising”]. In Psalm 107:33, 35 and II Kings 2:21 it is translated as “watersprings” or “spring of the waters.” All of the usages in Scripture can immediately be associated with the idea of going forth or going out. None can be associated with any idea of “after” or “the thing after” (p. 5 of the downloaded PDF; brackets added).
Let us examine this statement carefully. Standard exegetical reference works define motza' as a masculine noun having its own meaning distinct from the verb yatsa it is derived from. As explained in Strong’s (#4161), the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (מוֹצָא under #893), and Swanson’s Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains - Hebrew Old Testament (#4604), this noun refers to the starting place, source or origin from which the action of “going out” proceeds, not the destination of the “going out.” Since the object from which an action issues necessarily pre-exists the action it causes, in this sense we can say the action takes place after the object is manifested. For example, as the TWOT states concerning motza'ei, it is the “act or place of going out; hence, issue, source, such as a spring of water or mine (for silver)” (emphasis original). A mine is a place of “going-out,” a source, for silver (Job 28:1). Dawn and east are poetically places of “going-out,” or sources, of the sun (Ps 75:6). A gate or exit is a place of “going-out” for a person (Eze 42:11). A fountain or waterspring is a place of “going-out” for water, a source from which water issues (motza'ei mayim, Isa 41:18). In the same way, the expression motza'ei Shabbat (מוצאי שבת) conveys that the Sabbath is the origin of “going-out,” the source, of the first day of the week that follows it. To be scripturally consistent, we must thus understand the “going-out” of a sabbatical year to mean the source from which the next year arises; hence, the expression motza’ei Shǝvi’it (מוצאי שביעית, literally “the going-out of the seventh”) means “a post-sabbatical year” or “the year issuing from a sabbatical year.”
It is worth noting that even in our own day, the Jews understand motza'ei Shabbat as referring to the period immediately after the Sabbath comes to a close. At https://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/56002/after-shabbat, it is observed that “religious Jews—Israeli or otherwise—understand the term to mean the part of Saturday evening that begins only after Shabbat ends.” It adds, “But Hebrew has no word for ‘Saturday,’ other than Shabbat. The universality of the word is reflected in a Hebrew axiom that has its roots in the military: ‘Every Shabbat has a motzei Shabbat,’ or post-Shabbat.” This modern usage also supports understanding the word in the SO as the source of what follows, in agreement with most, if not all, translators other than Guggenheimer; dismissing it as just a modern idiom does not hold up in the face of the biblical instances we have just cited. The same understanding is seen in the Complete Jewish Bible translation of 1 Corinthians 16:2 (Acts 20:7 is a similar passage), online at https://www.biblestudytools.com/cjb/1-corinthians/16-2.html. In the NASB it reads, “On the first day of every week…” The CJB renders it, “Every week, on Motza'ei-Shabbat…” Thus, the first day of the week is the day following the Sabbath. By the same token, the expression in the SO should be understood to mean “the year following the sabbatical year.” The desire to follow Wacholder’s sabbatical year pattern, for whatever reason, should not be allowed to influence one to favor Guggenheimer’s translation of SO 30. It is not consistent with the usage seen in multiple exegetical dictionaries of ancient Hebrew, other English translations, or modern spoken or written Hebrew.
For good measure I also contacted Dr. Chaim Milikowsky, who has spent many years researching the SO since his 1981 English translation, and asked his opinion whether Guggenheimer translated motza’ei shǝvi’it correctly in chapter 30. In an email to me dated 24 June 2019 he stated:
The term מוצאי שביעית [motza’ei shǝvi’it] appears some two dozen times in rabbinic literature, and very clearly means “the year after the sabbatical year”. However, as I write in my commentary (p. 555, note 276), a number of scholars have suggested that here its meaning is different, and though this is not an optimal solution, such a claim can be supported (emphasis and brackets added).
“Not an optimal solution,” as I understand it, is Milikowsky’s careful scholar’s way of saying that the odds are decidedly against it. Everything considered together, when motza’ei in SO chapter 30 is understood with the meaning “in a post-sabbatical year,” it is not being treated as an inappropriate modern idiom imposed on ancient records, but in its normal, customary, biblical sense of a noun meaning “the source of a going-out.” Although the individual context must supply the appropriate translation of motza’ei in each case, it is seen that understanding motza’ei Shabbat and motza’ei shǝvi’it in SO chapter 30 as referring to the first day of the week and a post-sabbatical year respectively, is entirely consistent with the use of the term in the Old Testament.
Were Both Temple Destructions in Sabbatical Years?
There is one last point to make before we wrap this up. In Part 1 of his Seder ‘Olam article Young observes:
At least one passage in the SO itself shows that SO 30 must be translated so as to place the fall of the First and Second Temples in Sabbatical years. In SO 25, Jehoiachin’s exile is said to begin in the fourth year of a Sabbatical cycle. The city fell ten years later, in his 11th year of captivity, which was also the 11th (non-accession) year of Zedekiah's reign. This was therefore 14 years after the Sabbatical year from which the beginning of Jehoiachin's captivity was measured. Consequently, that year, the year of the fall of Jerusalem, was also a Sabbatical year. This is perhaps the most definitive text that can be found that shows that motsae did not have any connotation of “after” to the people who wrote the SO, and so it cannot be translated that way in SO 30. The SO 30 passage must be interpreted to say that both destructions of Jerusalem occurred on a Sabbath day and in a Sabbatical year.
This analysis gives us insight into what the writers of the SO believed, but it does not address a question of more pressing interest: whether that belief was historically correct. Does the SO reflect accurate, objective history concerning the fall of the two Temples, or is it merely what Milikowsky terms a “rabbinic chronography,” an artificially constructed narrative designed to support the theological views of rabbis after the first century AD? Can we trust where it places sabbatical years in relation to Jehoiachin’s exile, the fall of the First Temple, and the fall of the Second Temple? If the SO was correct, its placement of the exile of Jehoiachin (generally acknowledged to have taken place in the spring of 597 BC) to the fourth year of a sabbatical cycle would make the sabbatical year immediately preceding Jehoiachin’s exile 602/601 BC, with 601/600 being the first year of the next cycle. It also, not coincidentally, places the 587 BC destruction of the First Temple in a sabbatical year, thus affirming rabbinic tradition. However, neither Zuckermann nor Wacholder adopt 602/601 as a sabbatical year, with the former choosing 605/604 while the latter opts for 604/603 BC (cf. Pickle’s table). Between them these two men have put in a tremendous amount of research on sabbatical year matters, so if neither agree with this claim of the SO, we are justified in viewing it with suspicion.
As for the Old Testament records, nowhere is it explicitly stated that a given year in the pre-exilic period corresponded with a sabbatical or Jubilee year. It is claimed on Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shmita#Historical_Sabbatical_Years, apparently based largely on Young’s article “The Talmud’s Two Jubilees and Their Relevance to the Date of the Exodus” (Westminster Theological Journal 68 , 71–83), that Ezekiel 40:1 unfolded during a Jubilee year. On page 71, Young analyzes this passage through the lens of ‘Arakin 12a in the Babylonian Talmud. In the William Davidson translation at https://www.sefaria.org/Arakhin.12a?lang=en this is rendered:
Rabbi Yosei says: A fortunate matter is brought about on an auspicious day, and a deleterious matter on an inauspicious day. As the Sages said: When the Temple was destroyed for the first time, that day was the Ninth of Av; and it was the conclusion of Shabbat; and it was the year after a Sabbatical Year. The Gemara asks: Can you find such a possibility, that when the Temple was destroyed for the first time it was in the year after a Sabbatical Year? But isn’t it written in a verse that Ezekiel experienced a prophecy “in the twenty-fifth year of our captivity, at the beginning of the year, on the tenth day of the month, in the fourteenth year after the city was smitten” (Ezekiel 40:1)? Which is the year when the beginning of the year is on the tenth of the month? You must say that this is referring to the Jubilee, which begins on Yom Kippur, the tenth of Tishrei.
From this Young concludes:
The argument the Talmud presents here is that the verse quoted (Ezek 40:1) gave the day as both “the beginning of the year” (Rosh HaShanah or New Year’s Day) and also as the tenth of the month. Only in a Jubilee year did Rosh HaShanah move from its customary place on the first of Tishri to the tenth of the month. Consequently this verse associates Ezekiel’s vision with the beginning of a Jubilee year.
We see that ‘Arakin 12a conflates Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year under the Tishri-based civil calendar. However, contrary to the rabbi who presumes to tell us what we “must say,” Ezekiel 40:1 actually says not a word about a Jubilee that year. The verse simply reads:
In the twenty-fifth year of our exile [that of Ezekiel and Jehoiachin in 597 BC], at the beginning of the year, on the tenth of the month, in the fourteenth year after the city was taken [587 BC], on that same day the hand of the LORD was upon me and He brought me there (brackets added).
Notice that the name of the month is not given, though its order in the calendar is clearly stated. Jewish months were routinely given in terms of their calendar order according to God’s ordinance in Exodus 12:2, cf. “first month” (Lev 23:5, 2 Chr 35:1, Est 3:7), “third month” (2 Chr 31:7, Est 8:9, Eze 31:1) and “seventh month” (Lev 23:27, Ezr 3:6, Neh 8:14). If we assume for the moment that “the beginning of the year” corresponds to the month of Tishri according to the civil year (notwithstanding that Exodus 12:2 and Esther 3:7 identify the beginning of the year with Nisan), this verse must be read alongside Leviticus 25:8–10:
You are also to count off seven sabbaths of years for yourself, seven times seven years, so that you have the time of the seven sabbaths of years, namely, forty-nine years. You shall then sound a ram’s horn abroad on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the day of atonement you shall sound a horn all through your land. You shall thus consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim a release through the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, and each of you shall return to his own property, and each of you shall return to his family (emphasis added).
If we do not read anything of later rabbinical origin into the Leviticus passage, we must admit the Word does not teach that in a Jubilee year the year began on the “tenth day of the seventh month.” All it tells us is that the Jubilee was declared by the blowing of horns on Tishri 10 every forty-ninth year (the fiftieth when counting inclusively, including the year counting started, just as in Leviticus 23:34–39 we are told the Feast of Booths lasts seven days, yet the last day is called the eighth). Every 49 years, the date Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement—but not Rosh Hashanah—was observed was the tenth day of the month, just as in every other year. Only its significance was different in the year of Jubilee. Biblically, therefore, in the Year of Jubilee the seventh month (Tishri) had already begun on Rosh Hashanah, New Year’s Day, nine days previously. The years under the agriculture-based civil calendar always began with Tishri 1, including in Jubilee years, when the day of Rosh Hashanah did not change to Tishri 10. The rabbinical assertion in ‘Arakin 12a does not agree with Scripture. With this Jack Finegan agrees as well, writing in §225 of his Handbook:
There are many references to the Sabbatical year in the rabbinical and Talmudic literature, which provide basis for calculations on dates of the observance. As quoted above (§164) the tractate Rosh Hashanah (1.1) in the Mishna states that the first of Tishri is New Year for release and Jubilee years; therefore, it may be concluded that the Sabbatical year (and the Jubilee year, too) began regularly on the first day of Tishri and ended on the last day of Elul (emphasis added).
The above analysis based upon Scripture casts strong doubt upon the rabbinical tradition seen in ‘Arakin 12a that moves Rosh Hashanah from Tishri 1 to Tishri 10 in a Jubilee year. But that does not exhaust the criticisms which can be brought to this view. There is an alternative to the above interpretation of “the beginning of the year” that makes better scriptural sense. In Ezekiel 45:18–21 we have an unambiguous reference to Ezekiel’s use of the month Nisan, not Tishri, as the start of the year:
Thus says the Lord GOD, “In the first month, on the first of the month, you shall take a young bull without blemish and cleanse the sanctuary. The priest shall take some of the blood from the sin offering and put it on the door posts of the house, on the four corners of the ledge of the altar and on the posts of the gate of the inner court. Thus you shall do on the seventh day of the month for everyone who goes astray or is naive; so you shall make atonement for the house. In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, you shall have the Passover, a feast of seven days; unleavened bread shall be eaten” (emphasis added).
Since this clear reference to Nisan as the “first month,” the beginning of the year, is made by Ezekiel only a few chapters after 40:1, what reason have we for supposing the “beginning of the year” in 40:1 was the month of Tishri? In The New International Bible Commentary on the Old Testament: Ezekiel 25–48 (Eerdmans, 1998), Daniel I. Block writes regarding Ezekiel 40:1a (p. 512):
The preamble to the temple vision opens with a complex date notice containing three distinct elements. First, the twenty-fifth year of our exile relates the vision to Ezekiel’s own deportation to Babylon in 597 B.C.…
Second, the vision came to Ezekiel on the tenth day of the month at the beginning of the year. Unlike other date notices in the book, which at this point identify the month by number [footnote: Cf. 1:1; 8:1; 20:1; 24:1; 29:1; 29:17; 30:20; 31:1; 32:1; 32:17; 33:21], here the time within the year is specified as bĕrōʾš haššānâ (lit. “at the head of the year”). This is the only occurrence of the expression in the OT, but it finds an Akkadian counterpart in re-eš šatti, presumably a reference to the first month. Appealing to Lev. 25:9, which prescribes that the ram’s horn proclaiming release to all slaves be blown on the tenth of Tishri, some have argued for an autumnal date, supposedly following the civil/royal Jerusalemite calendar. But Ezekiel’s priestly heritage and the overtly cultic nature of chs. 40–48 render adherence to a civil, rather than religious, calendar extremely unlikely. Furthermore, not only has Ezekiel consistently based his date notices on a Nisan New Year; the cultic rituals he prescribes in 45:18–25 presuppose the same. rōʾš haššānâ [Rosh Hashanah] should therefore be understood as the beginning of the year, which, according to the traditional Israelite calendar fell in the spring in the month of Nisan. The present vision may therefore be dated 10 Nisan, in the 25th year of the exile, which computes to April 28, 573 B.C. [footnote: So also Lang, Ezechiel, pp. 40–41; Thiele, Mysterious Numbers, pp. 186–191]…
Third, the prophecy is dated in the fourteenth year after the city had been conquered, that is, after the fall of Jerusalem to Nebuchadrezzar’s forces [587 BC]. This date agrees with the twenty-fifth year of exile and confirms 573 B.C. as the year in which this revelation occurred. The addition of “on that very day” underlines the importance of the event recorded in 2 Chr. 36:10: “At the turn of the year, King Nebuchadrezzar sent for him [Jehoiachin] and brought him to Babylon” (bold emphasis and brackets added).
“At the turn of the year” is the literal translation of the Hebrew term tĕshuwbah adopted by the NASB and NKJV, whereas the KJV renders it “when the year was expired.” The translation “spring,” used in the NIV and ESV, applies an imprecise idiomatic sense arising from the spring month of Nisan being the first month of the Jewish religious year. The term thus must refer to the changing of one year to the next, requiring the start of a new year. Since I agree with Young on dating the exile of Jehoiachin to the spring of 597 BC (When Did Jerusalem Fall?, p. 32), this can only be reconciled with a new year beginning in Nisan in the spring, not Tishri in the fall. With the above analysis Joseph Blenkinsopp agrees when he writes in his Ezekiel volume in Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching on Ezekiel 40:1 (John Knox Press, 1990, p. 199):
As in the initial vision of the chariot throne, there is a double date. The twenty-fifth year of the exile (of King Jehoiachin, 1:2) would be 573 B.C., two decades after Ezekiel’s call, and the latest date in the book, with the exception of the oracle predicting the Babylonian conquest of Egypt which is dated two years later (29:17–20). The second date, fourteen years after the fall of Jerusalem, agrees with the first. Assuming use of the priestly Babylonian calendar—as in Ezek. 45:18–25—the tenth day of the first month would correspond to the preparation for Passover, festival of freedom, a correspondence that can hardly be coincidental (cf. Exod. 12:2–3).
For these reasons derived from Scripture, we should not allow Jewish midrashic writings like the Seder ‘Olam and Talmud ‘Arakin to dictate our understanding of sabbatical year cycles. Those works reveal more about rabbinical tradition than they do about accurate dating of historical facts. It must not be overlooked that ‘Arakin, the very same Talmudic book that makes Tishri the start of the year in Ezekiel 40 and presumes to move the day of Rosh Hashanah to Tishri 10 in a Jubilee year, claims in 12b that the Second Temple fell after 420 rather than the generally accepted 585 years. As given by William Davidson at https://www.sefaria.org/Arakhin.12b.2?lang=en:
The Gemara continues its discussion of the baraita, which teaches: When the Temple was destroyed for the first time, that day was the Ninth of Av; and it was the conclusion of Shabbat; and it was the year after a Sabbatical Year; and likewise, the same happened when the Second Temple was destroyed.
The Gemara asks: Can you find such a possibility, that the Second Temple was destroyed in the year after a Sabbatical Year? Now, for how many years did the Second Temple stand? It stood for 420 years (emphasis added).
Thus we see that the rabbis, desiring to place the destructions of both Temples in sabbatical years, vaporized about 165 years from history; the Gemara comment above reflects an unwillingness to accept their received history, that the Second Temple fell in a post-sabbatical year, as fact (we can interpret “can you find such a possibility?” as “oy vey, it is inconceivable!”). The Seder ‘Olam chronology is a linchpin in this historical revisionism, for it claims that the book of Daniel teaches that 490 years would elapse from the destruction of the First Temple to that of the Second. The rabbis also conflate numerous individuals to pare down their timeline to that desired. At https://www.etzion.org.il/en/shiur-02-missing-years there is an informative article—and from a Jewish perspective no less, so we do well to pay close attention to it—about the missing years problem and how different solutions have been proposed. The authors observe:
The rabbinic view raised a number of acute difficulties, including the biblical references to a variety of Jewish leaders and Persian monarchs who seemed to live in periods spanning more than 52 years. To resolve these dilemmas, in numerous instances the Talmud conflates seemingly distinct personalities. Malakhi was Ezra or Mordekhai (Megilla 15b). Zerubavel, a leader of the first wave of aliya, was Nechemia (Sanhedrin 38a). Cyrus, Artaxerxes and Darius were one and the same (Rosh Hashana 3b). While this pattern follows the larger midrashic tendency to conflate various biblical personalities, in regard to Shivat Tzion the trend is especially pronounced.
(One may remember that the conflation of Artaxerxes and Darius was previously discussed in the two articles about the “Seraiah Assumption.”) The authors conclude: “Throughout our treatment of Shivat Tzion [the “return to Zion” by Zerubbabel and later Ezra] we will be operating within the framework of the scholarly consensus. This view most easily accounts for the evidence and is endorsed by traditional thinkers such as Ba’al Ha-maor” (brackets added). What is this “scholarly consensus”? They explain:
Others take the opposite position, rejecting the rabbinic chronology in favor of the scholarly consensus. Perhaps the best-known advocate for this view is R. Zerachia Ha-levi, author of Ba’al Ha-maor (12th-century Provence). After citing and discussing the rabbinic viewpoint at length, the Ba’al Ha-maor concludes:
This is what emerges from the midrash and analyses of our rabbis. However, the correct interpretation according to the literal rendering is that… Cyrus, Artaxerxes and Darius were different kings. (Commentary to Rif, Rosh Hashana 1a)
The implication is clear. If the three monarchs were different people, it is implausible that the Persian kings ruled for a mere fifty-two years, in which case it is nearly impossible to maintain a 420-year period of duration for the Second Temple. Although Ba’al Ha-maor does not directly endorse the scholarly consensus—no such thing existed when he wrote in the twelfth century—he does reject the rabbinic view conflating the three kings, implicitly scuttling Seder Olam and the Talmud’s thirty-four years (emphasis added).
The point being made by this Jewish group is that neither the Seder ‘Olam nor Talmud ‘Arakin can be regarded as reliable sources for developing a historical chronology. This should be our conclusion as well. Those works reflect an overt intent by the rabbis after the first century AD to force the chronology of the Second Temple into an explicit sabbatical year cycle structure (420 years is divisible by seven), one that also eliminates the “dangerous” implication that the prophecy of Daniel 9:24–27 points to Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah. Why should we try to cherry-pick chronological information from those sources when we have inerrant Scripture itself and generally theologically-neutral Roman histories to work with?
The decree of Cyrus set in motion God’s plans for bringing the Jews back to the Land after the Babylonian exile. This decree unfolded gradually, culminating in the decree in the seventh year of Artaxerxes I Longimanus, 457 BC, which permitted rebuilding of city infrastructure and defenses. The “weeks” of Daniel 9 were understood by the ancient Jews as referring to sabbatical year cycles, which, being tied to agriculture, were always counted from the month of Tishri. Sabbatical year observance only applied when people resided in the land of Judea, so the count had to be restarted after the exile. Since the restoring of Jerusalem had a necessary spiritual aspect, the work of Ezra was part of the fulfillment of Daniel 9:25, and the return from the exile was not finished until Ezra and his companions arrived. Given that Ezra did not depart for Judea until Nisan 1 in early spring of 457 BC, Artaxerxes’ decree was most likely issued during the winter of 457 BC. Thus, Tishri 1, 457 BC would have been the earliest time the observance of sabbatical year cycles could have been implemented after the exile.
This conclusion is corroborated by our detailed examination of the sabbatical year cycles. Defenses of Wacholder’s calendar cannot be divorced from Guggenheimer’s problematic English translation of SO 30, and ignore the practical difficulties pointed out by Pickle, Goldstein, Blosser and others of aligning various historical events with Wacholder’s pattern. In contrast, the septennate sabbatical year pattern proposed by Zuckermann eliminates all of those difficulties, and for these reasons must be preferred.
The first sabbatical cycle year counted after Ezra’s return was Tishri 457 BC through the end of Elul 456 BC, and the first sabbatical year of the post-exilic period was the seventh year after the counting began. When, then, was that first sabbatical year? The year spanning Tishri 1, 451 BC through Elul 29, 450 BC. This exactly fits the septennate pattern for sabbatical year cycles elucidated by Benedict Zuckermann. A clear implication follows from this: the “sevens” of Daniel 9:25 are properly understood as sabbatical year cycles, not simply arbitrary periods of seven years.
The conclusion, therefore, is that Tishri 1, 457 BC is when the count of Daniel’s Seventy Weeks began. This insight will be used in examining the rest of the prophecy of Daniel 9:24–27 in the near future.
There is one last observation we can make, a subjective one yet still interesting to mull over. The modern State of Israel has officially adopted the Zuckermann pattern of sabbatical years. If we believe in the superintending guidance of God in unfolding the events of the future Last Days before the return of Christ, including guiding the Jews to adopt Zuckermann’s pattern for sabbatical year observance, and we anticipate the sabbatical years will have renewed prophetic significance, then we have a practical, pragmatic reason for accepting Zuckermann’s approach to the sabbatical year cycles.
Appreciation is expressed to Dr. Dennis Wright (Dallas, TX) for reviewing this article. Any errors or oversights are my own.