Date of Artaxerxes Decrees
"Know therefore and understand, that from the going forth of the command to restore and build Jerusalem until Messiah the Prince, there shall be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks." (Daniel 9:25)
This prediction is arguably the most important Messianic prophecy written in the Bible. It says that Messiah would be revealed at the end of the 69th 'week' of years.
Our problem is that three or four decrees were issued. It would make life simpler if there was only one, because all we would need to do is count forward 483 years, (69 x 7) and the answer would be there. Either Messiah came or he did not. But decrees were made by three Persian Emperors following Daniel’s forecast, and we have to choose which one marks the commencement date from which to count.
In God's Eyes it was One Decree
"Artaxerxes, king of kings, to Ezra the priest, the scribe of the Law of the God of heaven. Peace. And now, I make a decree."
(26th March 457 BC)
Actually, Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes were all correct as stated clearly in Ezra 6:14.
"And the elders of the Jews built and prospered through the prophesying of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the son of Iddo. They finished their building by decree of the God of Israel and by decree of Cyrus and Darius and Artaxerxes king of Persia."
What this verse is saying is that it was really a single decree, and the source of the decree was God himself! He inspired Cyrus to declare restoration for Jerusalem in 538 BC but his order was delayed. If we add 483 years to 538 BC, we arrive at a year of no particular significance. Did an anointed prince appear in 55 BC? No, nothing of interest happened at all. However, Darius and Artaxerxes picked up the mantle of Cyrus and re-decreed it. Unusual as it may seem, the law of the Medes and Persians were permanent and could not be revoked, so it was normal for emperors to re-decree what had been decreed before.
Therefore, the count of 'sevens' should be started in the reign of Artaxerxes. When we count forward 483 years from 1st Nisan 457 BC, it comes out at 1st Nisan AD 27 - the time Jesus began his public ministry. When one considers how Daniel first predicts the decree nearly a century before it happened, then proceeds to telescope another 69 weeks further, we find a supernatural fulfilment of the 'times' in Jesus of Nazareth which cannot be brushed aside as a coincidence. It provides powerful testimony to the identity of the Christ.
However, no sooner than we solve the "whose decree" issue, a cluster of date questions arise to muddy the waters. Did it happen in his seventh year or in his twentieth? Commentators quote 458 BC and others 445 BC as the years in question, but nearly as many sources say 457 BC and 444 BC. Why the difference?
The goal of my paper here is to identify the date once and for all, because as stated, it provides the key to the Bible's most important Messianic prophecy.
Was Artaxerxes seventh year 458 BC
Xerxes was assassinated by his high official, Artabanus, who then became regent of Persia for a few months before being executed. In the last half of 465 BC, Xerxes' son, Artaxerxes, became king. His 'accession year' would have lasted until 29th Adar(March) 464 BC when the Persian calendar year ended, then his first full year would have been, by Persian reckoning, 1st Nisan 464 to 29th Adar 463.
Hence, his years:
1st year Nisan 464 to Adar 463
2nd year Nisan 463 to Adar 462
3rd year Nisan 462 to Adar 461
4th year Nisan 461 to Adar 460
5th year Nisan 460 to Adar 459
6th year Nisan 459 to Adar 458
7th year Nisan 458 to Adar 457
Now, the Bible references a decree in Artaxerxes seventh year and dates it as follows:
"And Ezra came to Jerusalem in the fifth month, which was in the seventh year of the king. For on the first day of the first month he began to go up from Babylonia." (Ezra 7:8)
So, comparing this verse with the above chart of years certainly explains why so many scholars choose the 458 BC date. The decree was made on the very first day of the year! It seems to be an open and shut case!
Why do so many say his seventh year was 457 BC?
It is because the first set of commentators are counting from a Nisan New Year, and the second group are counting using a Tishri to Tishri system. When Artaxerxes accession year stretches to Tishri, his first full year comes six months later, making the date mentioned refer to the following Nisan instead.
Yes, the Hebrew New Year began in Nisan (Abib) like the Persian one did. No, the original Hebrew calendar did not have a 'Rosh Hashanah' New Year as our modern Jewish one does; nor was there a distinction between 'civil' and 'ecclesiastical' calendars as so often claimed when discussing this subject.
However, when it came to a king’s reign, the kingdom of Judah used to offset its regnal years to Tishri in a manner similar to how we designate a 'fiscal year.' Advocates for the 457 BC date apply this method to Artaxerxes, reckoning his accession from when his father died until the end of Elul, 464 BC. His first full year would have been deemed by Jewish writers to have started then, through to Elul 463 BC. (The books of Ezra and Nehemiah, were not written by Persian historians.) So, by saying Artaxerxes' seventh year, they would have meant it to be Tishri 458 to Elul 457 BC.
Here is an explanatory table:
Does Scripture support the 457 BC date?
The argument becomes stronger with more evidence from Nehemiah’s account of Artaxerxes’ twentieth year. He says, “In the month of Kislev, in the twentieth year," then he proceeds to mention the same 'twentieth' in the following Nisan. If the Persian calendar was being quoted, it would have switched to the twenty-first year but it didn't. So, Artaxerxes' reign was indeed being measured from Tishri to Tishri, the 'Nisan' mentioned in this case referring to 444 BC. Put another way, Persian records of the same event, if it was of any interest to them, would have read, ‘twenty-first’ year.
Scholars from very different theological persuasions have noticed this calendar ‘anomaly.’ For example, Andrews University has been at the forefront of research done on double-dated Jewish papyri found on Elephantine Island that pointed to the same conclusion – Jewish dating in the middle Persian period was being measured from Tishri to Tishri.
Andrews University had a ‘historicist’ approach to interpreting scripture and Dallas Theological Seminary was ‘futurist.’ However, Harold Hoehner of the Dallas seminary produced the same results in his book, ‘Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ’. One group preferred the 457 BC date to start counting Daniel 70 weeks, and the other preferred the 444 BC date, but in both cases their logic is built on the information provided by Nehemiah, as well as from archaeological research.
Is there another explanation for the Tishri Count?
Applying Judah’s regnal year system is reasonable, but there has been an unnoticed matter that may provide an even better explanation. When a continuous count of Sabbatical years is made from the time Moses instituted the Hebrew calendar, a rare Jubilee year coincides with the date of Artaxerxes accession in 465/464 BC!
Once every 49 years the Hebrews inserted a 50th year and these Jubilees were an exception to the usual Nisan calendar. It started in Tishri and was announced on the Day of Atonement. Thus, if a Jubilee had of been announced followed by a new king later in the same year, that king’s accession would have extended to the next Tishri.
However, there is no precedent of this happening among the Judean or Samaritan kings, and the first example in the Bible is the Persian monarch under discussion here. The Jews seem to have measured Artaxerxes reign from Tishri to Tishri in keeping with the rare New Year in force when he took office.
So, we are left with three possibilities concerning the decree dates:
Artaxerxes reign was being measured on the usual Nisan to Nisan calendar, and Nehemiah's “twentieth year” was a scribal error. The dates in question, therefore, were 458 BC and 445 BC.
Jewish records of foreign monarchs followed Judah’s former Tishri to Tishri method of recording king’s reigns. The dates in question, therefore, were 457 BC and 444 BC.
Artaxerxes reign began on a Jubilee, hence a Tishri to Tishri system uniquely applied to his reign. The dates in question, like the second option, were 457 BC and 444 BC.
It is my opinion that the third one here is the correct option, and, having determined the year, the day can now be calculated. Artaxerxes’ decree was the first day of Nisan, and new moon of that year converts to our Julian date, 26th March 457 BC.
How do some count the 'weeks' from Artaxerxes twentieth year?
Admittedly, the twentieth-year start point for Daniel’s 70 weeks has had its supporters. Their problem though, is that a count of 483 years (69 x 7) from 444 BC comes to AD 40, a date which arrives well after Jesus died. So, proponents of the 444 BC terminus a quo resort to various 'short-year' theories to make the prophecy fit. For example, the early church historian, Julius Africanus, proposed that Daniels ‘weeks’ were being counted on a pure lunar year of 354 days. Others wondered if the calendar found in the Book of Enoch might solve the problem? That one had 364 days.
The best-known theory is the 360-day 'prophetic year' put forward by Sir Robert Anderson in AD 1895 to bolster the then emerging ‘dispensational’ system of prophecy. He multiplied 483 years by 360 and got 173880 days. He then divided it by the number of days in a normal year (365¼ days), added it to 445 BC, and arrived at the time (he said) of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem in AD 32.
However, Anderson’s dates had to be adjusted by Dr. Harold Hoehner of Dallas Theological Seminary to 444 BC and AD 33 where they remain the basic foundational dates for the doctrine of a future 'seventieth week' held by many prophetic teachers to this day.
Anderson and Hoehner’s theory is flawed. It creates a completely different set of weeks to the Sabbatical weeks, but Daniel’s prophecy was surely referring to the regular seven-year cycle and should be the same! Moreover, their theory is built on an assumption that the command given in Artaxerxes twentieth year happened on the 1st of Nisan of that year. It didn't.
When in Artaxerxes twentieth year was the command given?
Artaxerxes’ earlier decree was on the 1st day of Nisan of his seventh year (Ezra 7:8-9), whereas the second command given in his twentieth year is only recorded as sometime during the month of Nisan.
"In the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes ... I said to the king, "If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor in your sight, that you send me to Judah." (Nehemiah 2:1,5)
Now, Anderson’s 360-day year theory requires the count to start on the first day of Nisan. Indeed, his entire construction – an edifice of numbers - stands or falls on this date even though it is not actually mentioned. Such an assumption should not be allowed to go unchallenged!
But the correct day can be found. To find it with accuracy, we need to work backwards from the completion of the Jerusalem wall. Solid dates are provided for this project, the most obvious being its completion on the 25th of Elul 444 BC. This was 21st September. Therefore, tracing back 52 days leads us to 31st July when the job began. Nehemiah had rested three days after his journey from Babylon, so his arrival in Jerusalem was on the 28th July 444 BC.
We continue to work back by finding the time it took to travel from Babylon to Jerusalem, and this is deduced from the time it took Ezra to make the same journey. It is obvious we should do this when we consider that the accounts of Ezra and Nehemiah were earlier combined in one book; the road they travelled was the same road; and their journeys were only 13 years apart. So, Nehemiah’s trip must have been similar at least. Ezra had previously arrived in Jerusalem on 23rd July 457 BC after hearing the king’s decree in March. That was four months. However, his party first assembled themselves at the Ahava canal and did not actually start moving for eleven days, therefore the number of travelling days were 107 days.
Nehemiah’s journey would have taken much the same time, but one other matter needs to be addressed in order to remove all doubt. It appears at first sight that Nehemiah had further to travel since his location in Persia was said to be in Susa, not Babylon. That was 225 miles further east, a significant addition, if it was indeed where he set out from. However, Susa was the winter residence of Persian kings, and his story begins in the month of Kislev, which falls in midwinter. The decree came later when the emperor would have been back in Babylon together with his personal aides, of whom Nehemiah was one.
What then is the conclusion? Simply this; the date of Artaxerxes’ second command can be found! It was 107 days before Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem. That date would have been the 10th Nisan which converts to our Julian equivalent, 12th April 444 BC. The correct decree dates will be of interest to those who propose a count of Daniel’s 70 weeks from Artaxerxes’ permission to Nehemiah in 444 BC. When the required number of years is added, it doesn’t fit. Even when the hypothetical 360-day calendar is applied, theorists have to assume the king’s command came on the first day of the first month, when in fact the day was not stated. It has to be calculated backwards from other data, and when done so, it does not start on the first day at all.
Can Daniel's weeks be found with pin-point accuracy?
Dr. Hoehner states in his treatise, "Although through Nehemiah 2:1 does not specify which day of Nisan the decree to rebuild Jerusalem occurred ... this study will assume Nisan 1st as the terminus a quo." He then proceeds to count sixty-nine, 360-day years to his preferred date for the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.
This is mistaken as the previous pages of my article show, but the question remains, can Daniel’s weeks be found with pin-point accuracy? Yes, it can! If we are satisfied that the proper terminus a quo from which to count is 1st Nisan 457 BC, the revealing of Messiah takes place on the day of 1st Nisan 27 AD. Did this happen? Yes, it did, exactly 483 years (69 weeks) later! On that day John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said:
"Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel." (John 1:29-30)
The reference to "taking away sin" is directly from Daniel’s prophecy, so it becomes very appropriate if it was declared over Jesus on the first day of the 70th week. The 457 BC date also fits seamlessly into the continuous count of sabbatical years. The diagram below gives a simple summary of what has been discussed here.
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