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Is the Pope in Daniel?

a critique of Adventist prophetic interpretation

by William J. Cork

The foundation of Seventh-day Adventism is its interpretation of Biblical apocalyptic, especially the books of Daniel and Revelation.  It was William Miller's interpretation of Daniel 7-9 that led him to predict the second coming of Jesus in 1844. When Jesus failed to return, the group that became Seventh-day Adventism was not able to admit that they had made a basic hermeneutical mistake. Instead, they clung to all of Miller's principles of interpretation, only changing their mind about the event which was to come to pass in 1844.  

According to Adventist teaching, what happened in 1844 was that Jesus "entered the most holy place of the heavenly sanctuary," to begin a work of "investigative judgment."

Moreover, Adventists see Daniel and Revelation as predicting the rise of Catholicism, which they identify as the Anti-Christ. The papacy, they say, is the "little horn" of Daniel which would "think to change times and laws" (and they claim that in the future it will enforce Sunday observance on Adventists on pain of death).

But  are either of these teachings so?

Daniel 8 is the key to the passage--it is at once the central pillar of Adventism--and its Achilles' heel.

Daniel 8: A ram and a goat

The heart of the chapter is a vision of two beasts, a ram and a goat.

In my vision, I saw myself in the fortress of Susa in the province of Elam; I was beside the river Ulai. I looked up and saw standing by the river a ram with two great horns, the one larger and newer than the other. I saw the ram butting toward the west, north, and south. No beast could withstand it or be rescued from its power; it did what it pleased and became very powerful.

As I was reflecting, a he-goat with a prominent horn on its forehead suddenly came from the west across the whole earth without touching the ground. It approached the two-horned ram I had seen standing by the river, and rushed toward it with savage force. I saw it attack the ram with furious blows when they met, and break both its horns. It threw the ram, which had not the force to withstand it, to the ground, and trampled upon it; and no one could rescue it from its power.

The he-goat became very powerful, but at the height of its power the great horn was shattered, and in its place came up four others, facing the four winds of heaven. Out of one of them came a little horn which kept growing toward the south, the east, and the glorious country. Its power extended to the host of heaven, so that it cast down to earth some of the host and some of the stars and trampled on them. It boasted even against the prince of the host, from whom it removed the daily sacrifice, and whose sanctuary it cast down, as well as the host, while sin replaced the daily sacrifice. It cast truth to the ground, and was succeeding in its undertaking.

I heard a holy one speaking, and another said to whichever one it was that spoke, "How long shall the events of this vision last concerning the daily sacrifice, the desolating sin which is placed there, the sanctuary, and the trampled host?" He answered him, "For two thousand three hundred evenings and mornings; then the sanctuary shall be purified." [Daniel 8:2-14, NAB]

The vision is an important one, and a voice immediately tells Gabriel to explain it to Daniel.

"The two-horned ram you saw represents the kings of the Medes and Persians. The he-goat is the king of the Greeks, and the great horn on its forehead is the first king. The four that rose in its place when it was broken are four kingdoms that will issue from his nation, but without his strength.

"After their reign, when sinners have reached their measure, there shall arise a king, impudent and skilled in intrigue. He shall be strong and powerful, bring about fearful ruin, and succeed in his undertaking. He shall destroy powerful peoples; his cunning shall be against the holy ones, his treacherous conduct shall succeed, he shall be proud of heart and destroy many by stealth. but when he rises against the prince of princes, he shall be broken without a hand being raised." [Daniel 8:20-25, NAB]

Here we're given everything we need to interpret the passage. Persia comes along from the east and conquers lots of territory; it is stopped, and destroyed by Greece, which comes from the west and advances rapidly under its first great king--acknowledged by everyone to be Alexander the Great. He died young, and instead of being succeeded by a son, the empire was divided between four of Alexander's generals: Cassander took Greece, Lysimachus took Asia Minor, Seleucus took Syria, and Ptolemy took Egypt. These four established dynastic successions in their kingdoms; the two most important for Biblical history being the Ptolomies of Egypt and the Seleucids of Syria. Palestine became sort of a no-man's land for these latter, as each sought to control the crossroads of empire; it was successively invaded by the Seleucids to the North and the Ptolomies to the South. Thus, later in Daniel (ch. 10ff), we see these powers referred to as "King of the North" and "King of the South." Even Adventism's key prophetic interpreter, Uriah Smith, had to acknowledge this.

Now let's get back to the Greek goat with its (now) four horns; in Daniel 8:8 we read that out of one of them comes a little horn, which grows towards the south, the east and the glorious country. What does this little horn sprout from? Obviously, from one of the horns. (Though some "clever" Adventists suggest that it sprouts from the winds!!!) Don't be distracted by this; the important point is the horns are said to be kings, and the goat is said to be Greek. This is absolutely unambiguous.

So, this little Greek king exalts himself and makes some territorial gains. Unlike any other Greek king, he directs his attention at "the prince of the host"--Michael, the protector of Israel. In 8:11-12, he attacks the sanctuary and stops the sacrifices. Where's the sanctuary? In Jerusalem. What is the daily sacrifice? It is the sacrifice offered in the evening and the morning every day in the temple in Jerusalem.

Did a Greek king of Syria do this? Yes; a man by the name of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Now here is where the Adventist sneers-- "Antiochus?! He was a petty demagogue! He wasn't greater than Persia or Alexander! He lasted a few years, and after conquering Egypt ran back to Syria like a dog with its tail between its legs when Rome shook a stick in his direction, and he just attacked Jerusalem to vent his frustration."

But the Adventist forgets here the principle that he acknowledges elsewhere, that what causes a prophet to mention a nation is not its significance to the world, but its significance to Israel (thus we see no mention in the Bible of the great empires of China or India). Antiochus might have been puny--but he did invade Egypt. He might not have had Alexander's empire, but he acted as if he did. He didn't conquer as much land, but he directed his greatest wrath and scorn at the dwelling place of the Name of God, the temple in Jerusalem.

Now comes the next big turning point: "How long is this going to last," someone asks in 8:13--"How long is the sanctuary going to be trampled?" And the answer is given immediately in verse 14, "For two thousand three hundred evenings and mornings; then the sanctuary shall be purified."

Adventists now leave the context completely. They divorce the little horn from the beast; it is no longer connected to Greece, but is ROME. They combine the "evenings and mornings" of v. 14 (which, contextually, are clearly sacrifices) into "days." And then they turn these "days" into years. Ignoring the question of Daniel 8:13, they connect v. 14 with chapter 9, and say this is a prophecy of a 2,300 year period, starting in 457 BC and extending to 1844. The purification of the sanctuary is not the restoration of a desecrated temple (as the context demands) but is instead the "cleansing of the sanctuary" that occurred on the Day of Atonement--Yom Kippur (ignoring the fact that the word translated "cleansed" here is not the same word in Lev. 16). Of course, there was no temple in Jerusalem in 1844; thus this must be in heaven. And so, they reason, Jesus went "within the veil" into the "most holy place" of the "heavenly sanctuary" in 1844 to "make the atonement" (or to "complete the atonement," or to "inaugurate a second phase of his ministry"). (Of course, this ignores what Hebrews has to say about Jesus entering "within the veil" "once for all" at his ascension.)

Daniel 7: Four beasts--and another little horn

But let's stay with Daniel, and for the moment we will leave chapter 8 and look at the previous chapter, Daniel 7. Here Daniel gets a different vision of beasts: a winged lion, a bear, a four-headed leopard, and a horrible monster with ten horns.

Let's work backwards: out of this ten-horned monster comes a little horn which does nasty things and to which judgment is meted out. He persecutes, he changes times and laws. He does it for "a year, two years, and a half-year"--1260 days, 3 1/2 years, 42 months (as variously used in apocalyptic). A short time, in any event; but Adventists turn it into 1260 years, and extend it from 538 to 1798, beginning with the eradication of Arianism and reaching to the capture of a pope by Napoleon's general Berthier.

The immediately preceding beast (or empire) is a leopard with four heads; Adventists link these four heads with the four Greek horns of Dan 8 and say this is Greece, and thus the nasty beast is Rome. But take a quick look at the end of Daniel 10 and beginning of Daniel 11--the key event here is the transition from Persia to Greece. 11:2:

"Three kings of Persia are yet to come; and a fourth shall acquire the greatest riches of all. Strengthened by his riches, he shall rouse all the kingdom of Greece. But a powerful king shall appear and rule with great might, doing as he pleases (Alexander). No sooner shall he appear than his kingdom shall be broken and divided in the four directions under heaven; but not among his descendants or in keeping with his mighty rule, for his kingdom shall be torn to pieces and belong to others than they."

Then it starts talking about the King of the North and the King of the South--the Hellenistic dynasties of Syria and Egypt between whom Israel will be caught. Daniel 11:21 tells of a "despicable person" who will come to power, and he will do nasty things, and he will attack the sanctuary and defile it, and will abolish the daily sacrifice and set up the horrible abomination (v. 31); he will utter blasphemies (v. 36). At that time, Michael will arise, and there will be a terrible time, and there will be great judgment. Thus Daniel 10-11 is a replay of the same historical scenario as in Daniel 8. And so is Daniel 7.

The four-heads of the leopard are not the four Greek divisions of Daniel 8, but the four Persian kings of Daniel 11 that are said to be significant, and upon whom the time-table of chapter 11 rests. In 7, 8, 11 we have three iterations, with different symbols, of the same reality. The nasty beast of Daniel 7 is Greece, and the Leopard is Persia. This beast vision is said to have been given in the time of Belshazzer of Babylon (7:1)...the last king, who was overthrown by Darius the Mede (6:1). The lion can thus be identified as Babylon, the bear as Media, the leopard as Persia, the monster as Greece.

In summary, now, what message is the prophet, Daniel, given? He's living at end of Babylonian power (as the narrative supposes), and he sees what is going to happen: Medes, Persians, and Greeks are going to successively hold sway in the Middle East. The climactic point of the narrative is a Greek king who is going to overthrow the temple, stop the sacrifices, wreak havoc on the Jewish people, but then God will judge and all will be well.

Missing history

Let's now turn to another book of the Bible--1 Maccabees. It is a book that is not in Protestant Bibles, unless they have a separate section called "Apocrypha"; but it relates history that is essential to understanding Daniel.

It begins by speaking of Alexander, who defeats the Persians and Medes, and who then is followed not by his sons, but by his officers. They put on royal crowns, and so did their sons after them for many years. "There sprang from these a sinful offshoot, Antiochus Epiphanes . . . He became king in the year one hundred and thirty-seven of the kingdom of the Greeks." [Daniel 1:10, NAB] Some of the Jews were enticed by Hellenistic culture; they went to Antiochus and made an alliance. They built a gymnasium in Jerusalem and competed in Greek games; they even tried to remove the marks of circumcision, so they would look like Greek athletes.

But Antiochus turns on his Jewish allies; after invading Egypt, he attacked Jerusalem, (1:20), and "insolently invaded the sanctuary...Taking all this [temple treasures] he went back to his own country, after he had spoken with great arrogance and shed much blood." Two years later he returned, and laid siege to the city. "Her sanctuary was as desolate as a wilderness; her feasts were turned into mourning, her sabbaths to shame, her honor to contempt." (1:39ff) He prohibited the sacrifices (v. 45), "desecrated the sanctuary" and built pagan altars on which he sacrificed unclean animals. And then "the king erected the horrible abomination upon the altar of holocausts"--a statue of Zeus.

The actions of Antiochus sparked a revolt led by Judas Maccabeus and his brothers; they defeat the Greeks, and purify the sanctuary and rededicate it in a festival lasting 8 days (4:56)--an event celebrated by Jews as the feast of the Dedication, or Hanukkah.

There can be no doubt whatsoever that this is what Daniel is talking about. It is one of the climactic events in Jewish history--remembered by Jews (at Hanukkah), and by Catholics (since we have Maccabees in the Bible), but forgotten by many Protestants (one of the hazards of having a shortened Scripture--you don't know some basic history).

This is the interpretation that any mainstream commentary on Daniel is going to give.

"B-b-b-b-b-but," says the Adventist, "that kind of shortens history! Interpreting Daniel in this way has the judgment in 164 BC."

Yes. That's when "Daniel" saw it coming.

Let's look a little more closely at the book of Daniel. According to the story told in the book bearing his name, he lived in the time of Nebuchadnezzar, and was taken captive to Babylon (606), and lived until the overthrow of the Babylonians by the Persians (536). The book bearing his name is an odd one, however. The first 6 chapters are stories of Daniel in Babylon (the fiery furnace, the lions den, etc.). Chapters 7-12 are apocalyptic, full of the bizarre imagery of beasts and times and winds and horns and angels and judgment. Daniel 2:4b through the end of chapter 7 is in Aramaic; the rest of the book is in Hebrew. And this overlaps the subject matter--and this is present even in manuscripts of Daniel found at Qumran (I'm referring now to the Harper's Bible Commentary). There are some sections that are found only in Greek manuscripts of Daniel, and these appear in the Protestant apocrypha as "additions to Daniel," but are incorporated into the text itself in Catholic Bibles.

Most scholars think Daniel was written around 167 BC--incorporating older materials that had been handed down since the Babylonian captivity, but adding to this the new apocalyptic worldview centered on a cosmic clash of good and evil (a worldview rooted in the dualism of Persian Zoroastrianism). The writer takes the old material about this prophet who faced a test under Babylon to encourage Israel as it faced another great test. In chapter 11 (going back to the source I mentioned above) the writer doesn't quite get the end of Antiochus right--and this is why scholars suggest it was written before 164 BC.

This late dating also explains the use of the literary motif of "sealing the book until the time of the end." People would have asked, "Where'd this come from? How come if Daniel wrote this we didn't know about it till now?" Well, came the answer, it was sealed until the "time of the end," when it would be needed.

So, is the Pope in Daniel?

Knowing the history, looking at the text, interpreting it using just the clues within the book itself--all this shows what a silly question that is.

But if this isn’t about the pope, then what meaning does it have for us?


New Testament use of Daniel

The approach to Biblical apocalyptic that I’ve sketched here is pivotal for our interpretation of New Testament apocalyptic as well, for key passages in the New Testament are grounded in the imagery and events depicted in Daniel.

To summarize what's been said so far: Daniel was written at the time of crisis facing Israel during the reign of the Greek king of Syria, Antiochus IV Epiphanes. The book takes traditional material of stories of Daniel in Babylon and adds apocalyptic material (7-12) to apply the lesson of faithful Daniel to Jews of the 2nd century BC. Daniel 7, 8, 11 all outline history from the day of the "historical" Daniel to the time of the writer, all pointing to this great crisis and God's coming judgment. The Jews revolted, and were successful in ousting the "abomination of desolation"--they celebrate this event as "The Feast of the Dedication," or Hanukkah. 1 Maccabees tells the story.

Did Jesus know the story? Of course. All Jews did, as it is one of the major events of Biblical history. We even read of Jesus going to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast (John 10:22).

Jesus uses the story in Mark 13, Matthew 24, and Luke 21. In each case, the foundational text is Daniel 11:31:

Armed forces shall move at his [the King of the North/little horn from Greek beast] command and defile the sanctuary stronghold, abolishing the daily sacrifice and setting up the horrible abomination. By his deceit he shall make some who were disloyal to the covenant apostatize; but those who remain loyal to their God shall take strong action.

Mark 13 is the earliest version of Jesus' use of the text. He tells the disciples of the coming destruction of the temple. He says, (v. 14) "When you see the desolating abomination standing where he should not (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains." Then all sorts of horrors will happen, and the end will come.

Matthew 24 gives us a little more (v. 15): "When you see the desolating abomination spoken of through Daniel the prophet standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then" flee. All sorts of terrible things will happen, and the end will come.

Luke 21 is blunt (v. 20): "When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, know that its desolation is at hand. Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains. Let those within the city escape from it, and let those in the countryside not enter the city, for these days are the time of punishment when all the scriptures are fulfilled."

Clearly, in each case Jesus is speaking of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD by the Roman armies. He takes the previous destructions/desecrations as the model. And like Daniel's tale of the Greek desecration, Jesus sees this desecration as bringing on the final crisis of human history--at least in Mark and Matthew, for Luke seems to allow that some time will pass after the destruction of Jerusalem, and his reference to Jerusalem being surrounded by armies is the least ambiguous.

Apocalyptic does not give us rigid timetables depicting thousands of years of future history at a glance; it is a much more flexible medium. It sees the present crisis--whatever that crisis may be--as a crisis of cosmic significance. It sees the final judgment in God's resolution of this crisis. It calls upon the believer to make a decision, to choose a side. As in the Maccabean crisis, so in the first century, Jerusalem authorities had brought the crisis on themselves by making overtures to the oppressor. It seemed expedient to ally with Greece, and then with Rome ("better that one man die than the people perish"). And the punishment that comes on the city when the oppressor turns on the city to destroy it is God's punishment upon the pragmatists; the deliverance that follows is God's vindication of the faithful.

Now look at Revelation 17. Here we see a woman, a prostitute, named Babylon, drunk with the blood of martyrs. She sits on a beast with seven heads and ten horns--the seven heads are seven hills. But the beast turns on the woman: "The ten horns that you saw and the beast will hate the harlot; they will leave her desolate and naked; they will eat her flesh and consume her with fire." A message is given, "Come out of her, that you do not take part in her sins and receive a share in her plagues" (Rev. 18:4); then she is suddenly destroyed, and the smoke is seen from afar.

The imagery here is fluid--one's mind is drawn to many things. Note the similarities to Daniel and the Gospels. It is easy to see in in this passage a description of the destruction of Jerusalem (harlot) by the beast she rode on (Rome); and the call of the people to flee to avoid the punishment ("Come out"). Revelation builds on the Gospels, which build on Daniel. Yet not all the details fit so nicely. Rome and Jerusalem and Greece blend together with Babylon--the historic oppressors of God's people together with the pragmatists (prostitutes) who made unsavory deals to protect their own hide. In the historical context in which John wrote, some Christians were tempted to make deals with pagan Roman culture, taking prominent positions in society in Asia Minor, going along with the imperial cult, compromising with Judaizers. John, like Jesus and like "Daniel" says NO to any compromise with any pragmatic or idolatrous power. "Worship God!" not the state, not pragmatism, not your own life.

Now we have to deal with the fact that THE END did not come with the overthrow of Antiochus, or the destruction of Jerusalem, or with the crisis in Asia Minor at the end of the first century. The mistake of the sectarian is to say, "Well, that's because there's a secret timeline involved, and they were really talking about the 20th century." No. They were talking about their own day. They were seeing their own day as the day of decision, the day of conflict, the day of crisis.

So must we.

We should be informed by the imagery, and be free to apply it to all situations of compromise and oppression.

Yes, we can see Hitler as an antichrist as a Russian Orthodox believer once insisted to me--but we must also (unlike this zealous Russian) say the same of Stalin. And the warning against harlotry can apply to those who tried to appease Hitler, and to those Orthodox Bishops who thought they could cooperate with Stalin (or Yeltsin or the right wing Russian nationalists). We can see Reagan and the El Salvadoran military as beasts, and the church leaders who compromised with them, and the Religious Right that joined the battle against "communism" as our American version of "harlots."

The moment we say, "This only applied then" or "This will only apply in the future," we close our eyes to the beasts around us, and compromise, and play games, and make deals with the devil that will destroy us.

Seventh-day Adventists were so obsessed with Sunday laws that they didn't protest when Adventist conscientious objectors were guinea pigs for US germ warfare experiments. They didn't say a word when Vladimir Sholkov was imprisoned by the Soviets for his faith. They thus lost great opportunities to speak prophetically to the world, and became harlots themselves making pacts with the devil. It can happen to anyone--the point of the warnings is to keep it from happening to us.