Home > Book of Daniel, Book of Genesis, Literalism, The 2,300 days > Literalism, rationalism, and the 2,300 days

Literalism, rationalism, and the 2,300 days

October 20, 2012

In Daniel 8 a little horn growing out of the head of a goat grows tall, up to the sky, where it casts stars and the host of heaven to the earth, and tramples them. This of course cannot be literal, but has to be interpreted. In verse 14, Daniel hears that the desolation of the sanctuary is to continue for 2,300 days. This specifies the termination of the desolation, but no start date is mentioned. The phrase “unto 2,300 days” indicates that the time extends from when the words were spoken by the angel in the vision, the 3rd year of Belshazzar, about 553 BC. If the days represent years, 23 centuries would end in about 1750 AD.

In the second century BC, the Seleucid king of Syria, Antiochus IV, initiated a revision of the Bible’s cosmology as part of his hellenization policy. The “firmament” in the account of creation in Genesis 1 was identified with heaven, whereas before, the earth was made on the second day, in the midst of the waters. The knowledge of the earth’s diurnal rotation was stamped out because of the policies of Antiochus. The heliocentric cosmology was developed in the 3rd  century BC by Aristarchus, and later by Seleucus of Babylon. Seleucus was a contemporary of Antiochus IV, but all his works have been lost. The revision of the cosmology of the Bible initiated by Antiochus, I suggest, fulfilled Daniel’s prophecy about a little horn that cast stars to the earth. Heaven itself, and the stars, and the host of heaven, were figuratively “cast to the earth,” when the “firmament” was identified with heaven, by changes in the text of Genesis 1.

10th century CE Greek copy of calculations by Aristarchus of Samos in the 3rd century BCE of the relative sizes of the Sun, Moon and the Earth.

In verse 11, “Yea, he magnified himself even to the prince of the host, and by him the daily sacrifice was taken away, and the place of the sanctuary was cast down” the word translated “daily sacrifice” is tamiyd, meaning continual, always, constant, perpetual. In Psalm 16:8 it is translated continually; “I have set the LORD continually before me; Because He is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.” And Psalm 25:15, “My eyes are continually toward the LORD, For He will pluck my feet out of the net.” In a cosmological context, it might apply to the knowledge of the earth’s diurnal rotation, which was stamped out or taken away by the policies of Antiochus, as it threatened the worship of Zeus, who represented the rigid sky. Antiochus promoted the worship of Zeus, and during his reign he built the temple of Zeus in Athens.

In the final verses of Daniel chapter 8 a “king of fierce countenance” is described, who will “destroy wonderfully, and shall prosper, and practise, and shall destroy the mighty and the holy people.” [Dan. 8:24]

In the scientific revolution, and the enlightenment, after the works of Sir Isaac Newton were translated and widely distributed, about 1750 AD, men all over the world began to realize that the Bible’s cosmology was wrong, as it supported the idea of a rigid heaven, that was now proved to be false. The Roman Catholic church, which had condemned Galileo, and supported geocentrism, was discredited as the discoveries of astronomers were verified.

But the scholars did not understand that the Bible’s cosmology had been corrupted in the 2nd century BC; they were deceived. Deism came into favour, especially in England.

The influence of the scientific discoveries and the enlightenment upon biblical studies was such that men became skeptical of the accounts of miracles by Jesus in the gospels, and of many other statements in the Bible. The views of scholars of previous centuries became suspect.

F. W. Farrar wrote of influence of naturalistic philosophy during this period: [1]

Turning to works which bore directly on exegesis we notice how cold was the orthodoxy which succeeded the best days of Pietism. Amid the shallowness of the current philosophic views, all men felt the necessity of recurring to the solid ground of history. But even these historic researches partook of the character of the age. They lacked enthusiasm, spontaneity, and faith. The critical learning and moderate rationalism of MICHAELIS (d. 1791) and ERNESTI (d. 1781) represent the chief efforts to elucidate the Old and New Testaments on principles of formal philology. Michaelis reduces Moses to a clever statesman who gave to utility a religious sanction. He was followed by EICHHORN and PAULUS who, with all their learning, could find no better explanation for the supernatural element in both dispensations than a theory of mistake, hyperbole, and ignorance. The naturalism of Paulus received its death-blow from the mordant sarcasm of Strauss. Ernesti was, perhaps, the first to formulate with perfect clearness the principle which has been much discussed in our own day, “that the verbal sense of Scripture must be determined in the same way in which we ascertain that of other books.” He found a pupil greater than himself  in the earnest-minded and learned Semler.

Johann David Michaelis (1717-1791), the son of theologian Ch. B. Michaelis, was a theologian and author of the first textbook on the historical-critical approach to the New Testament. He was initially a pietist. After visiting England in 1741-1742, where he encountered deism, he became a moderate rationalist, seeking to chart a path between rationalism and orthodoxy.

In the enlightenment, enemies of the Christian faith found that they could discredit the Bible, by insisting on a literal approach. E.W. Hengstenberg claimed that the literal interpretation “came into vogue in the era of rationalism, in the time of the deepest humiliation of the Church of Christ, a period destitute of all good taste and bereft of all sound ecclesiastical judgment; and the one who first gave it status was J. D. Michaelis, the chief representative of Esau’s worldly-mindedness.” [2]

J. C. F. Steudel wrote: [3]

We cannot possibly understand, how the supporters of the strictly literal interpretation of the prophets can maintain that it is the result of stronger faith. We should have thought, that history would suffice to save them from such an error. This mode of exposition is essentially the very same, as that which the Jewish commentators adopt; and we may see clearly enough from their example, that no peculiar assistance from the Holy Spirit is needed, to bring a man to believe, on the ground of Is. ii., that in the Messianic age the temple-hill was to stand upon the top of the loftiest mountains, which were to be piled up under it, or on that of Zech. xiv., that the Mount of Olives was to be split in two. According to this theory, D. Michaelis, another predecessor of these commentators, must have possessed a faith that would remove mountains. And there are many Dutch expositors in the present day (Palm and others), who tread in their footsteps, but of whose faith we can form no very high opinion, seeing that it is but too obvious, that they are destitute of any vital acquaintance with the simplest truths of the gospel.

Along with literalism, development of the preterist interpretation obscured the application of prophecy to the church. Instead, it was applied to the Jews.

Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) was the author of a Commentary on the Book of Revelation in which the main subject of the prophecy was the destruction of Jerusalem. For Michaelis, the  Apocalypse would be discredited, if it was not written before the destruction of Jerusalem.

Johann Gottfried Eichhorn (1752-1827) was a student of J. D. Michaelis. He was professor of oriental languages in Jena. In 1788, he became professor of philosophy in Göttingen. He attempted to combine a historical approach following J. D. Michaelis and J. S. Semler with an aesthetic approach following J. G. Herder.

J. Murray (1863) wrote of the preterist interpretation, “Alcasar, a Spanish Jesuit, taking a hint from Victorinus, seems to have been the first (AD 1614) to have suggested that the Apocalyptic prophecies did not extend further than to the overthrow of Paganism by Constantine. This view, with variations by Grotius, is taken up and expounded by Bossuet, Calmet, De Sacy, Eichhorn, Hug, Herder, Ewald, Moses Stuart, Davidson.”

Benjamin B. Warfield wrote: [4]

The Preterist, which holds that all, or nearly all, the prophecies of the book were fulfilled in the early Christian ages, either in the history of  the Jewish race up to A.D. 70, or in that of Pagan Rome up to the fourth or fifth century. With Hentensius and Salmeron as forerunners, the Jesuit Alcasar (1614) was the father of this school.  To it belong Grotius, Bossuet, Hammond, LeClerc, Wetstein, Eichhorn, Herder, Hartwig, Koppe, Hug, Heinrichs, Ewald, De Wette, Bleek, Reuss, Reville, Renan, Desprez, S. Davidson, Stuart, Lucke, Dusterdieck, Maurice, Farrar, etc.

E. W. Hengstenberg pointed out that “literalism” was the approach of the Jews wishing to crucify Christ. He claimed the rationalists and infidels adopted either a literal, or an excessively figurative approach, to dull the meaning of scripture. He wrote: [5]

But the strongest argument that can be brought is this, it was this very method of interpretation which led to the crucifixion of Christ. In the other wrong road we find those who rob the prophecies of their actual meaning, by laying excessive stress upon their figurative character. This method has been adopted by not a few of the rationalistic expositors; and whilst the supporters of the former were chiefly actuated by a desire to establish a positive opposition between the Old Testament and the New, the leading object in the case of the latter was to generalise as much as possible, and thus to do away with the harmony between correctly interpreted prophecy and its fulfilment.

On the literal view Hengstenberg stated:

Many erroneous views have been entertained, with regard to this connexion between the figure employed and the facts referred to. There are two opposite views, both equally wrong, to which we would especially direct attention. The representatives of the first are the carnally-minded Jewish commentators, in whose footsteps most of the rationalistic expositors have trodden, though under the influence of different motives. The latter either ignore the figurative character of the prophecies altogether, or insist upon a literal interpretation, without the guidance of hermeneutical principles, in every case in which they obtain a result, that will serve to confirm their preconceived opinions. And even of the commentators, who believe in the Scriptures, the same error has been fallen into by those, who insist upon the strictly literal interpretation of such portions of the prophecies as have not yet been fulfilled. This view has been chiefly adopted in England (for proofs see v. Oettingen die synagogale Elegik des Volkes Israel, p. 24); but it has also found many supporters in Germany, particularly in Würtemberg.

On the excessively figurative view he stated:

In the other wrong road we find those who rob the prophecies of their actual meaning, by laying excessive stress upon their figurative character. This method has been adopted by not a few of the rationalistic expositors; and whilst the supporters of the former were chiefly actuated by a desire to establish a positive opposition between the Old Testament and the New, the leading object in the case of the latter was to generalise as much as possible, and thus to do away with the harmony between correctly interpreted prophecy and its fulfilment.

The traditional view of the church was to interpret prophecy in a figurative manner, identifying the church as God’s people Israel.

In a commentary on The Song of Solomon, H. Speckard wrote of the literal vs. the allegorical approach: [6]

Therefore, even though The Song of Songs does not bear the superscription: “This book must be explained allegorically,” we can, nevertheless, see it written in the Song itself in practically every line. Yes, it is written therein so distinctly that people for centuries never understood it differently. Hengstenberg writes with reference to this point: “The allegorical interpretation is favored by the consensus of the Jewish Synagogues…. All Jewish witnesses which we know favor the allegorical interpretation, none speak against it. In a goodly number of Jewish testimonials it is expressly certified that no other explanation had ever occurred to them.” And with respect to the Christian Church he says: “In times when the Christian Church flourished and had a clear grasp on the meaning of Scripture it always rejected with horror the literal interpretation” (p. 256f.). In like manner Ewald concedes: “The oldest mode of explanation which we know and can trace is the allegorical, according to which not natural, but spiritual love is meant; not Solomon, the Shulamite, and a youth, but two unknown and unnamed persons yearn for a lasting union. Historically this allegorical interpretation can be traced no earlier than the third century after Christ; but among Jews and Christians it is fully developed by that time while the literal interpretation is unknown or held in contempt” (p. 30).

While thus the allegorical interpretation has the testimony of the Church of all ages in its favor, the most ancient defenders of the literal interpretation are all theologically people of doubtful reputation: Theodoret of Mopsuestia, Castellio, Grotius, Simon Episcopius; nor are the names of most of the newer exponents of literal interpretation any more commendable. On the whole, as Hengstenberg avers, the literal interpretation “came into vogue in the era of rationalism, in the time of the deepest humiliation of the Church of Christ, a period destitute of all good taste and bereft of all sound ecclesiastical judgment; and the one who first gave it status was J. D. Michaelis, the chief representative of Esau’s worldly-mindedness” (p. 259).

Hengstenberg stated that any future restoration of the Jews, and a rebuilding of the temple, would not be significant as a fulfilment of prophecy; it would be merely a “return to the “beggarly elements,” which the Church has left behind it, he said. In a footnote he stated, “No one, who notices the careful and systematic way, in which the prophecies of the Old Testament are repeated in the New, could possibly fail to observe,  that it is altogether out of place, to assume that any portion is unfulfilled, merely on the ground of the Old Testament. And for this reason, if for no other, the return to Zion, in the prophecies of the Old Testament, must not be understood literally. The New Testament knows nothing of a return to the outward Zion. And Paul, in particular, who professedly treats of the future of Israel, merely announces its conversion, but not a national restoration. This silence, in what is really the classical passage, is of very great importance.”

Hengstenberg wrote:

In prophecies, which have not yet been fulfilled, the boundary line between the figure and the fact is always to be drawn according to the analogy of faith. On this ground, as Theodoret (on Ezek. xlviii.; opp. ed. Hal. ii. p. 1045 sqq.) has conclusively shown, all those explanations of the prophecies relating to the future are to be rejected, in which, through a false adherence to the letter, such doctrines are maintained as the future restoration of the exclusive privileges of the Jewish nation, the rebuilding of the temple, the renewal of the Levitical ceremonies, and consequently a return to the “beggarly elements,” which the Church has left behind it. Those passages, which speak of the return of Israel to Zion in the Messianic times, must be regarded as figurative, because Zion always means the seat of the kingdom of God. And under the Old Testament it was merely the local sanctuary, which gave to Zion this central importance. That the sanctuary would lose its importance, when the Messiah came, was expressly declared by Jeremiah, in chap. iii. 16. With His coming the kingdom of God received a new centre, and the temple bore the same relation to Him, as the shadow to the substance. This is also the case with such passages as announce the coming of the converted heathen to Zion, passages which cannot be literal, for the simple reason that, if they were, we should be compelled to maintain, in opposition to the evident fact, that their fulfilment belonged exclusively to the future. Isaiah (chap. ii. and lxvi. 23), Micah, and Zechariah speak of Zion, as being without exception the only place of salvation for the heathen world, so that whoever does not come to Zion can have no part in salvation itself (compare Zech. xiv. 17–19); from Zion alone goeth out the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem, and whoever does not fetch it thence is excluded altogether; Zion is the only place of prayer for the whole earth, and therefore the only place, where any one can have part in God himself. These consequences of a literal interpretation ought to be well considered, before any one resolves to adopt it. v. Oettingen has made a perfectly vain effort to escape them. We have but one of two alternatives in this case, and all attempts at reconciliation, or at steering a middle course, must be regarded as unscientific. If Zion be once understood locally, in direct contradiction to the New Testament, where the temple, Jerusalem, and Zion, all assume a spiritual character, it will also be necessary to go a step farther, and to conclude that the end will come back to the beginning, that the clear and decisive declaration of the Lord in John iv. 21 will lose its force, and that the Church will relinquish its universal character (see my commentary on the Revelation i. p. 558). A preference for literal interpretation leads eventually to a renewal of the early error of the Jewish Christians, which has long been overcome and rejected by the Church; and the fact cannot be concealed, that there are many, who not only approach it, but have reached it already.

According to the authors quoted above, literalism has its roots in Jewish tradition, and in the rise of rationalist philosophy, and the errors and excesses of the so-called enlightenment. And this in turn was a fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy in chapter 8, where events that were 23 centuries in the future were foretold. The sanctuary of heaven was cleansed when the old idea of a rigid firmament revolving around the earth each day, and all the planetary spheres, equants, and epicycles, etc. of the Ptolemaic system were forever banished into oblivion.

The “king of fierce countenance” who would “destroy the mighty and the holy people,” which is the Christian church, represents human reason, which opposes faith in Christ. Widespread unbelief was generated by the rationlist scholars of the enlightenment. But the scientific revolution in astronomy and the rise of skepticism in about 1750 AD fulfilled a remarkable prophecy of Daniel. The time span between Daniel’s prophecy, in the third year of Belshazzar, and the cleansing of the sanctuary was 23 centuries.


1. Frederic William Farrar. History of Interpretation: Eight Lectures Preached Before the University of Oxford in the Year 1885. MacMillan & Co., London. 1886. p. 402.

2. Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg. Das Hohelied Salomonis. p. 259

3. Johann Christian Friedrich Steudel. zur Auslegung der Propheten. Tubinger Zeitschrift xxxiv. 1. [Cited in: Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg. Christology of the Old Testament, Volume 2. T. & T. Clark, 1858.]

4. Benjamin B. Warfield, Revelation and Inspiration (New York: Oxford, 1927)

5. Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg. Christology of the Old Testament, Volume 2. T. & T. Clark, 1858. pp. 430-439.

6. H. Speckard. Summary interpretation of the Song of Solomon; Summarische Auslegung des Hohenlieds. 1908.