Seventy Sevens versus Seventy Weeks
Every now and then, the topic comes up with regard to the “70 x 7” (“seventy times seven”) verse that is mentioned in Matthew 18:22, where some theologians have assumed that Jesus’ forgiveness reference is associated to Daniel’s 490 year timeline. That is, the “seventy sevens” of Matthew 18 is the same as the “seventy weeks” of Daniel 9. They say that because Jesus suggests that “forgiveness should not have limits”, that this is an argument that “Daniel’s prophecy should also NOT have limits”. Well… nothing could be further from the truth!!! A mistranslation of Matthew 18:21-22 and worthy of unpacking…
Matthew 18:22 (Greek added)
Jesus (Leous) saith (lego) unto him (autos), I say (lego) not (ou) unto thee (soi), until (heos) seven times (heptakis): but (alla), until (heos) seventy times (hebdomekontakis) seven (hepta).
Unfortunately “hebdomehkontakis hepta” appears only ONCE in the Bible (which makes it a little difficult if we are to compare this word with other contexts)…
Regardless, if we examine the New Testament Greek word for “hepta”, it definitively means “seven” out of all 91 references… compared to the Old Testament Hebrew word for “seven” is “sheba”… which definitely means “seven” out of all 331 references.
Thus, simple hermeneutics shows that this is contrary to the famous Daniel 9 passage, as the prophecy uses the word “shubawa” which means “week”… where all twenty references of “shubawa” definitively state “week” across the Old Testament. Not once is “seven” used.
In other words, Jesus’ “seven times” and “seventy times” is to do with numbers (the total amount), contrasted to the Daniel 9’s prophetic “seventy weeks” is to do with ‘markers and dates’ in time.
Well that was easy!!
This blog could end right here… but we have to ask: why then did Jesus use these numbers?
Jesus is using the Cain & Lamech story:
In Genesis 4:24, there is similar language to that of Matthew 18:
Genesis 4:24 (Hebrew added)
If (kiy) Cain (Qayin) shall be avenged (naqam) sevenfold (shib’athayim), truly Lamech (Lemek) seventy (shib’iym) sevenfold (sheba).
The Hebrew word for “seven-fold” is “shib’athayim”… and is correct in all 7 references in the Old Testament. The same is for “shib’iym” which definitively means “seventy” in all 91 references.
But notice how the translators have adapted the word “sheba” (which as stated definitely means “seven”): where in the above text, they have turned “seven” into “seven-fold”, implying that it is the same word as “shib’athayim”. This cannot be the case, as the true translation should just say “seventy seven” (because there is no “-fold”). Subsequently, why have the translators made it “seventy seven-fold” when it clearly says “seventy seven”? Thus the reason for the added suffix “-fold” is to make it easier for the reader to understand the context of multiplication (despite the fact that there is no Hebrew word “-fold” in the actual text).
With this in mind, it is again obvious to see that “77 fold” (or “77 times“) cannot be equated to Daniel’s “490”.
Now with respect to Cain and Lamech story, we would probably agree that this narrative is one of revenge: where if Cain’s vengeance was to be “seven times”, then Lamech’s was going to be much worse at “seventy seven times”. And this is where Jesus draws his comparison from the Old Testament… His statement about “forgiveness” is the opposite of “revenge”. Forgive the person not “seven times” but “seventy seven times”
Positioning the word “times” in Matthew 18:22
Understanding that Jesus is using the Cain and Lamech’s story is foundational to Matthew 18:21-22.
However, the difficulty lies in how the text reads… more precisely around “hebdomehkonta-kis hepta” (i.e. the added suffix “-kis” is on the end of “hebdomehkonta” makes it become “hebdomehkonta-kis”). To add the “-kis” means “to multiply”… or as the translators have written: “times”… so it does seem to make sense that they have translated this to be “seventy times seven”. But hence our contention, because the confusing phrase ‘encourages’ biblical readers to potentially think “490”.
Not only do we have the problem of trying to understand how the Hebrews and Greeks write… but we also have no other New Testament examples to compare “hebdomehkonta-kis” to… because, as mentioned, it only appears once. Subsequently, we must now refer to the Old Testament for clarity:
In the Old Testament, the term “seventy-times” (or “seventy-fold”) is NOT FOUND, but there are several references to “seven times” used specifically in areas of multiplication… where once again, the translators have added “-fold” or “times” to “sheba” so as to make it easier for the reader to understand (even though the Hebrew word for “-fold” is not actually there):
Leviticus 26:18 And if you will not yet for all this hearken unto me, then I will punish you “seven times” (sheba) more for your sins.
Proverbs 24:16 For a just man falls “seven times” (sheba), and rises up again: but the wicked shall fall into mischief.
Psalm 119:164 “Seven times” (sheba) a day do I praise thee because of thy righteous judgments.
Yes, the translators have ‘assisted’ the reader by adding “times” so as to ‘help’ with our understanding of the text… However, the other side of the coin is that by adding words that are not actually in the biblical text can be a dangerous game, as this could change the entire meaning of the text.
Overall, there is absolutely no evidence in any of the Hebrew (or Greek) examples that demonstrate “number times number”. None. In other words, this is not a biblical literary practice… which therefore reinforces that although the Greek translators have interpreted the suffix “-kis” to be in the middle of the Matthew 18:22 text, they should have kept it in context with all other biblical motifs (e.g. Genesis 4:24). That is, by changing the incorrect literary style “seventy times seven”, and position the “times” at the end of the phrase so as to make it “seventy seven times”. This is more in context with biblical literature.
Added Weight to the Argument:
If one must translate “hebdomekontakis hepta” as “490”… then in principle, we should also translate 2 Corinthians 11:24 in the same way:
2 Corinthians 11:24 “Of the Jews, five times (penta-kis) received I forty stripes save one”.
The Greek word order for Paul’s numerical expression is precisely the same as in Matthew 18:22… So we have to ask: did Paul receive thirty nine stripes on five different occasions or did he get 199 lashes all at once?
Fortunately, Deuteronomy 25:3 has the answer: that the Jews were forbidden to give more than forty lashes.
In summary, throughout all scripture (whether Greek or Hebrew), the terms “week” and “seven” are NEVER interchangeable. “Weeks” means “weeks” (which is to do with literal days), and “seven” means “seven” (which is to do with numbers). Consequently, the Matthew 18:21-22 verses has nothing to do with the Daniel 9 prophecy.
Additionally, this study has shown that Jesus uses the Cain & Lamech’s “seventy seven-fold” revenge story as an allegory towards forgiving each other “seventy seven times”.
With this in mind, the translators should position the word “times” at the end of the sentence structure… so that there is no confusion among biblical readers…. That is, the phrase should not read “seventy times seven” but rather “seventy seven times”.
P.S. The above art piece is called “The First Mourning”: an oil canvas painted in 1888 by William Adolphe Bouguereau, depicting when Adam & Eve found the body of their son Abel, who was murdered by Cain. This is the first human death recorded in the Bible.