I expect most modern Christians would be well aware that the eastern and western branches of Christianity celebrate Christmas (and Easter) on different days, and that two different calendars (the Gregorian and the Julian) have been in use since 1582. What they may not know is that in the second temple era – the time “between the testaments” and the first century of the common era – there was a similar debate about which calendar to use. The Bible itself doesn’t have much to say about the controversy, although we might get the occasional hint of it. Some of the books known as “pseudepigrapha” and some of the documents in the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) have more to say about it, including 1 Enoch, Jubilees, the Temple Scroll, and 4QMMT (Miqsat Ma’ase ha-Torah, or “Some Rulings Pertaining to the Torah”).

The main reason for the debate was that some Jewish groups insisted that the festivals and holy days should be calculated using a lunar calendar (354 days) or a variation known as a lunisolar calendar which made up for the shortfall in days by adding leap-days or leap-months (“intercalary” months), while others used a solar calendar (364 days). We also get hints in the Bible that a 360-days calendar was in use at some time. I won’t go into the technical details here because … well, it’s technical! In a nutshell, it appears from some of the discussion in the DSS that the calendar controversy was so important to the group which settled in Qumran (most scholars argue they were Essenes) that it was a contributing factor which led them to actually physically move from Jerusalem to the desert near the Dead Sea. The Qumran community used a solar calendar of 364 days. The present-day Jewish calendar evolved over several centuries but is a lunisolar one and, as rabbinical Judaism is descended from the Pharisees there are good reasons for thinking that the Qumran community and the Pharisees used different calendars. The Greeks and the Hellenistic Jews also used a solar calendar but it was probably different to the one used by the Essenes and so was considered to be ‘pagan’ and therefore abhorrent.

In a couple recent posts I touched on the prophetic time periods in the book of Daniel. I suggested that they almost certainly referred to the length of the Maccabean revolt and the period between the desecration of the Temple by the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes and its re-dedication by Judah Maccabee. Josephus states quite explicitly that this period was 3 years and 6 months (Wars of the Jews. 1.1.1). I did say it is a matter for the experts, and while acknowledging that I’m not a Daniel-expert (or even close) I’m going to put my toe in the water, especially as these dates quite possibly relate to calendars.

First, here is a list of the time periods mentioned in Daniel which approximate to 3 – 3 ½ years:

  1. A time, two times, and half a time (7:25; 12:7). Possibly equivalent to “a year, two years, and half a year” i.e. 3 ½ years
  2. 2300 evenings and mornings (i.e. 1150 days, or about 38 months, or just over 3 years)
  3. 1290 days (12:11), approximately 3 ½ years (depending on which calendar is used and how many days are in the year)
  4. 1335 days (12:12), or 45 days longer than the 1290 days in the previous verse. This difference may simply be the length of time between Judah’s victory over the Seleucid’s and the re-dedication of the Temple a short time later.

Daniel also has a period of seventy weeks (literally “seventy sevens” in Hebrew), broken into smaller periods of 7 weeks/sevens, 62 weeks/sevens and half a week/seven (9:24-27). The length of these “sevens” is not specified. Hence, the full period could be seventy “weeks” or 70 X 7 years. That would make the final small-division “half a seven”, which could mean either 3 ½ days or 3 ½ years.

Second, the New Testament book of Revelation, which appears to draw much of its material from Daniel, has some similar periods:

  1. 1260 days, or 42 months (11:2-3; 12:6), which is approximately (or precisely) equivalent to 3 ½ years depending on which calendar is used and how many days are in the month and year.
  2. 42 months (11:2; 13:5), which is equivalent to 3 ½ years of 30-day months.
  3. Although it’s not 3 ½ years Revelation also has a period of 3 ½ days (11:9, 11). There may not be a connection, but equally it may not be coincidence.

It looks like the writer of Revelation is using a 360-days calendar, and this could explain why he has 1260 days when Daniel has 1290. If they are using different calendars 3 ½ years would be 1260 days using one calendar but 1290 (including a 30-day intercalary month) using another. It’s possible that the writer of Daniel stated time periods precisely in days because calendars and calculations of dates was a major issue at the time, although we can’t be certain this was the reason. In fact, there may be a reference in Daniel to a change in calendars during the Seleucid period:

He [Antiocus IV] shall speak words against the Most High, shall wear out the holy ones of the Most High, and shall attempt to change the seasons and the law; and they shall be given into his power for a time, two times, and half a time.

Daniel 7:25

Some scholars argue that the phrase “he shall attempt to change the seasons” is a reference to the imposition of the Hellenistic lunisolar calendar on Judea, changing the times when religious festivals would be observed. (The word זִמְנִין can mean either seasons or times.) Some speculate that this could have been been one of the factors which triggered the Maccabean revolt. While the Qumran community and the priests at the Jerusalem Temple both used calendars of 364 days, the months, festivals and seasons were calculated using different methods. There very well may have been three or four calendars in use around this time: the solar calendar used by the Qumran group; a lunisolar calendar used by the Pharisees; a Hellenistic solar calendar which also had 364 days but replaced Jewish festivals with Greek ones; and possibly a solar calendar used in the Temple by Hellenistic priests (Sadducees) which blended the Greek and Jewish calendars and was not accepted by the Pharisees or the Qumran group.

Does this matter at all to how we understand Daniel? Perhaps not, although it is important to know the background to the conflicts between the Seleucids and the Maccabees which are the focus of much of Daniel. The calendar was one of these issues, and there is a hint in Daniel 7:25 that it was a concern to the writer. Daniel’s numbers may be symbolic, although the fact that they line up pretty closely with the historical records in 1 & 2 Maccabees and in Josephus makes me think that they refer literally, rather than symbolically, to the duration of the Maccabean revolt. But the writer of Daniel may also have been consciously using a kind of ‘code’ in his use of numbers to let his readers know exactly where he stood on the calendar issue. It is similar to the way small details can reveal a lot about a person or a group. For example, in some Christian denominations a visitor to a church might be able to detect from which edition of the denominational Prayer Book or Hymn Book is being used where that congregation stands on a whole host of issues. Simply from the congregation’s choice about which edition of the Prayer Book to use, a visitor might be able to determine where they stand, for example, on the ordination of women. An outsider probably wouldn’t pick anything up from such a small detail, but an insider would read it as a code which reveals more information. Perhaps we have a similar ‘code’ in Daniel’s references to the days in a year, or in 3 ½ years.