Dynamics of Prophetic Interpretation: An Analysis of the Historicist Reading of Daniel 8 by Martin Luther, Isaac Newton, William Miller, and Ellen White

Jón Hjörleifur Stefánsson

Research output: PhD ThesisPhD-Thesis - Research and graduation internal

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This dissertation seeks to analyze the development of one interpretation of Daniel 8, the so-called “historicist” reading. Since the Book of Daniel was written, Jews and subsequently Christians believed that its visions portrayed a sweeping panorama of history from the claimed age of the prophet (6th century BC) until the end of time. Modern critical scholarship dates the book, however, to the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the mid-2nd century BC. In the earliest centuries of the Christian era, a mix of these two perceptions had already emerged. On one hand, Christians acknowledged that Antiochus IV was the main villain in chapters 8 and 11, with the caveat that he played this role as the “type” of the future Antichrist. On the other, they believed that chapter 9 pointed to the earthly ministry of Christ and that chapters 2 and 7 reached to the end of the world. With the rise of biblical criticism in the 17th century, critical scholars increasingly interpreted the whole book in line with chapters 8 and 11. Some Christians, however, went the opposite direction and eventually interpreted chapters 8 and 11 in harmony with the other visions so that Antiochus was no more to find at all in Daniel. In that sense, Daniel 8 can be seen as a significant fork in the road of traditional understanding of prophecies which spelled both its decline and creative renewal. The most pertinent reason why the subject is important is that it serves as a good case study of a new proposed methodology to study eschatological beliefs, whether they are past or present. It seeks to combine research foci used by modern scholars of various specialties with the insights of those conservative theologians and historians who believe that the Bible contains genuine predictions. Scholarship in general has contributed significantly to the understanding of eschatological beliefs from the perspectives of psychology, sociology, and history. It has, however, remained relatively aloof from exploring the systems of these beliefs, deeming that they are shaped to a large degree (or even mostly) by external factors. Conservative scholars who believe in “the prophecies,” on the other hand, have command of the insider vocabulary and the detailed system involved in how the visions are interpreted. They are, however, often not too keen on outside contributions, feeling they deconstruct what they see as God’s guidance in discovering what these visions mean. This present work argues that the combination of these two approaches provides a fuller insight into the theology of eschatological beliefs, without the necessity of validating or dismissing them. It combines these methods by exploring the historical context (à la general scholarship), the methodology of interpreting the visions (à la confessional scholarship), and the overall theological beliefs, as three crucial dynamics that are at work when believers interpret perceived biblical predictions. It concludes that while personality and historical forces influence such interpretation (called “prophetic interpretation” in the study), there is also a theological system at work which influences the development as well. It proposes such a combined methodology to scholars who study eschatology, apocalypticism, millennialism, and the reception history of Daniel and Revelation and other similar texts.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
  • van Peursen, Willem, Supervisor
  • Wisse, Maarten, Supervisor
Award date15 Dec 2021
Publication statusPublished - 15 Dec 2021


  • Book of Daniel, historicism, prophetic interpretation, apocalypticism, millennialism, eschatology, Martin Luther, Isaac Newton, William Miller, Ellen G. White


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