Friday, September 9, 2011

Seven, seventy-seven, and seventy times seven - How Christ fulfills the prophecy of Daniel

The prophet Daniel

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Matthew 18:21-35
Peter approached Jesus and asked him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.”
While Peter was already being fairly generous in offering to forgive his brother seven times, our Savior insists that forgiveness must be unconditional – and this was the meaning of his words: And if he sin against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day be converted unto thee, saying, I repent; forgive him. (Luke 17:4)
In response to Peter’s question, the good Jesus uses the number “seven” to convey the totality of forgiveness. While Peter considered “seven” solely as according to the letter, the Savior raises our hearts and minds to the recognition of the true spirit of his words. Many translations render our Lord’s words not as seventy-seven times, but as seventy times seven times (i.e. four hundred ninety times).
There is a great mystery hidden in these numbers.

Seven times, meaning totality
St. Peter had understood our Lord’s words narrowly, as though “seven times” were the limit of forgiveness. However, the Savior makes it clear that “seven” signifies not so much the literal number, but rather the figure of totality.
Just as there are seven days in the week, so too all of time is included in the number seven. And in the recurrence of the seven day week, so too is included also all the sins that could fill those seven days. Hence, when our Lord had said, If he sin against thee seven times (Luke 17:4), he meant, “Whatsoever your brother may do against thee and howsoever he may sin against thee.”
Fr. Cornelius a’ Lapide offers this comment: “But Peter did not clearly understand whether seven times were to be taken definitely for the precise number seven, or whether it were to be taken indefinitely for as often as might be needed. He asks therefore Christ to explain His meaning, and to tell him exactly how often he was to forgive his brother his trespasses. Peter’s breast was narrow as yet carnal, and bounded by the flesh. He could not understand the infinite abyss of mercy which there was in the Divine nature of Christ.”
Seventy-seven times, the mystery of Christ’s birth
There is much discrepancy among modern Bible translations as to whether the Lord responded that we must forgive “seventy-seven times” or “seventy times seven times” (i.e. four hundred ninety times). While the Douay-Rheims (and both the old and new Vulgate Bibles) renders it “seventy-seven times”, the New American Bible (and current Lectionary) says “seventy times seven times”. Likewise, among the Protestants we notice that the Revised Standard Version (and the King James Bible) gives “seventy times seven times”, while the New Revised Standard Version gives “seventy-seven times”.  There is no little dispute as to the proper translation, due especially to manuscript variations.
If the Lord said, seventy-seven times, then we may recognize that “seventy-seven” is the seven times eleven. Seven (as said above) signifies totality and completeness, but what does eleven signify. “Eleven” is the number of sin, since perfection and holiness is in “ten” (hence there are the Ten Commandments), but “eleven” is a perversion – this is the interpretation of St. Gregory the Great.
And, if the totality of all sin is signified by the number seventy-seven, so too shall Christ be shown to have overcome all sin through his birth. Indeed, in the genealogy of Christ, as given by St. Luke, there are (numbered inclusively) seventy-seven generations from God and Adam to Jesus Christ. Thus, our Lord signifies by his coming into the world that all sin should be done away.
Seventy times seven times, the prophecy of Daniel
If our Savior said, seventy times seven times (i.e. four hundred ninety times), this signifies “times without number” – for not only must we forgive every type of sin, but we must forgive every sin any number of times.
St. Hilary sees an allusion to Lamech (whose sins were great so as to incure the divine wrath), Sevenfold vengeance shall be taken for Cain: but for Lamech seventy times sevenfold. (Genesis 4:24) Thus, though the sins of men have mounted on and on without number, the Lord continues to forgive all those who are contrite and beg his mercy.  
There is another mystery hidden in the number “seventy times seven”.
[21] As I was yet speaking in prayer, behold the man Gabriel, whom I had seen in the vision at the beginning, flying swiftly touched me at the time of the evening sacrifice. [22] And he instructed me, and spoke to me, and said: O Daniel, I am now come forth to teach thee, and that thou mightest understand. [23] From the beginning of thy prayers the word came forth: and I am come to shew it to thee, because thou art a man of desires: therefore do thou mark the word, and understand the vision. [24] Seventy weeks are shortened upon thy people, and upon thy holy city, that transgression may be finished, and sin may have an end, and iniquity may be abolished; and everlasting justice may be brought; and vision and prophecy may be fulfilled; and the saint of saints may be anointed. [25] Know thou therefore, and take notice: that from the going forth of the word, to build up Jerusalem again, unto Christ the prince, there shall be seven weeks, and sixty-two weeks: and the street shall be built again, and the walls in straitness of times. (Daniel 9:21-25)
From the Douay-Rheims commentary:
[21] "The man Gabriel"... The angel Gabriel in the shape of a man.
[23] "Man of desires"... that is, ardently praying for the Jews then in captivity.
[24] "Seventy weeks"... Viz., of years, (or seventy times seven, that is, 490 years,) are shortened; that is, fixed and determined, so that the time shall be no longer.
 [25] "From the going forth of the word"... That is, from the twentieth year of king Artaxerxes, when by his commandment Nehemias rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, 2 Esd. 2. From which time, according to the best chronology, there were just sixty-nine weeks of years, that is, 483 years to the baptism of Christ, when he first began to preach and execute the office of Messias.-- Ibid.
[25] "In straitness of times"... angustia temporum: which may allude both to the difficulties and opposition they met with in building: and to the shortness of the time in which they finished the wall, viz., fifty-two days.

[26] And after sixty-two weeks Christ shall be slain: and the people that shall deny him shall not be his. And a people with their leader that shall come, shall destroy the city and the sanctuary: and the end thereof shall be waste, and after the end of the war the appointed desolation. [27] And he shall confirm the covenant with many, in one week: and in the half of the week the victim and the sacrifice shall fall: and there shall be in the temple the abomination of desolation: and the desolation shall continue even to the consummation, and to the end. (Daniel 9:26-27)
Again, from the Douay-Rheims Bible Commentary:
[26] "A people with their leader"... The Romans under Titus.
[27] "In the half of the week"... or, in the middle of the week, etc. Because Christ preached three years and a half: and then by his sacrifice upon the cross abolished all the sacrifices of the law.-- Ibid.
[27] "The abomination of desolation"... Some understand this of the profanation of the temple by the crimes of the Jews, and by the bloody faction of the zealots. Others of the bringing in thither the ensigns and standard of the pagan Romans. Others, in fine, distinguish three different times of desolation: viz., that under Antiochus; that when the temple was destroyed by the Romans; and the last near the end of the world under Antichrist. To all which, as they suppose, this prophecy may have a relation.


Michelangelo said...

Father Ryan,

Thank you! Again, you have pointed out the meaning of the two different numbers used by Our Lord, and with the intent of strengthening our Catholic faith! How often the poorly taught have given the impression from the pulpit that "there are discrepancies in scripture..." giving the insidious message that Holy Scripture is not inspired, so don't waste a lot of time on it... Your presentations to us not only inform us, but strengthen our faith that Holy Scripture is indeed divinely inspired, and that it is a treasure chest to be mined. In His great Mercy, God prepared the Jews with the wonderful prophecies to Daniel, which you have so clearly presented and explained. Jesus we trust in You! Thank you, Father!

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

It is wonderful when we recognize the beauty and the continuity of the whole of Sacred Scripture!
Thank you for your kind comments. +

Anonymous said...

In "Everyman's Talmud'(A. Cohen) there is this quote concerning God - "The attribute of grace exceeds that of punishment (i.e. justice) by five-hundredfold". This is based on Exodus 20: 5-6 - "For I, the Lord, your God, am a jealous God, inflicting punishment for their fathers’ wickedness on the children of those who hate me, down to the third and fourth generation; but bestowing mercy down to the thousandth generation …”. The last phrase is alafim, “thousands”, at least two, therefore God’s grace exceeds his capacity for punishment five hundred times (Page 18, Schocken Books Ed. 1975). My opinion is that Jesus was saying our capacity for forgiveness should try to approach God’s capacity as 490 approaches 500.
Jon Diamos

Anonymous said...

Fr. Ryan, what covenant is the angel Gabriel speaking of in Daniel? 9:27

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Gabriel speaks prophetically of the New Covenant which Christ would inaugurate in his own Blood.

Peace! +

Anonymous said...

Fr. Ryan, would that new covenant be the one Jeremiah wrote about in Jer.31:31-34?

Richard A said...


"If the totality of all sin is signified by the number seventy-seven, so too shall Christ be shown to have overcome all sin through his birth", is it not also the case then that Peter himself is called to forgive all sins; i.e., not just those that are against him personally, but, through the bestowal of the Holy Spirit after the Resurrection, the sins of others that are confessed to him in the sacrament?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Excellent insight!

Yes, I believe Daniel and Jeremiah were speaking of the same New Covenant established in Christ Jesus. Peace! +

Andrew O said...


You said that "There is no little dispute as to the proper translation, due especially to manuscript variations." I wonder what manuscript variations you had in mind, since I am not aware of any significant ones. Nestle-Aland records zero manuscript variations in the Greek of Mt 18:22 and only two in the Latin (some manuscripts have dixit instead of dicit, and the 1527 Fourth Edition of Erasmus has septuagesies instead of setpuagies). As far as I understand, septuagesies is something of an idiosyncrasy of Erasmus's manuscript and is not taken to be different in meaning.

I thought the problem with interpreting this verse was the inherent ambiguity of the manuscript text. The Greek says "seventy-times seven," and the Latin says "seventy-times seven-times." In both cases, the problem is that the frequency distributes over the compound number (so in Latin 77 times becomes 70 times 7 times, just like 77th becomes 70th 7th), making 77 times indistinguishable from 70 x 7 times.

@Jon Diamos

With respect to Mr. Cohen, shouldn't we have expected alfayim if "only" 2000 were intended since Hebrew has a distinct dual number? "Alafim" would seem to suggest to me, without further context, at least THREE thousand, rather than at least two thousand, which would seem to indicate that "the attribute of grace exceeds that of punishment" by at least 750-fold.

But rather than such mathematicism, I would suggest that "alafim" is the largest indefinite number possible in Biblical Hebrew and so should be taken perhaps as indicative of what we would consider "infinite" mercy.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

My Greek is a bit rusty when it comes to numerals, but I can say that my edition of the Nestle-Aland does show a manuscript variance ...
there is "hepta" vs. "heptakis" ... now "hepta" is the numeral meaning "seven", whereas "heptakis" is the adverb meaning "seven times".

"hebdomekontakis", of course, is an adverb meaning "seventy times".

Hence, isn't it true that "hebdomekontakis hepta" would more clearly indicate "seventy times seven times" (i.e. 490); whereas "hebdomekontakis heptakis" could possibly meaning "seventy times and seven times" (i.e. 77)? [I really don't know for sure ... as I say, my Greek is rusty when it comes to large numbers and multiples]

In any case, you are certainly correct that it is more clear in the Greek than in the Latin!

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