Crucifixion eclipse

According to the Christian synoptic gospels, on the day Jesus was crucified there was a period of darkness in the afternoon for three hours. Although ancient and medieval writers treated this as a miracle, modern writers tend to view it either as a literary invention or a natural phenomenon, such as a solar eclipse. Some writers, interpreting it as an eclipse, have sought to use it as a way of establishing the date of Jesus' crucifixion.

Biblical account

See also Chronology of Jesus

The original biblical reference is in the Gospel of Mark, usually dated around the year 70 CE. In its account of the death of Jesus, on the eve of Passover, it says that after Jesus was crucified at nine in the morning, darkness fell over all the land, or all the world ( can mean either) from around noon ("the sixth hour") until 3 o'clock ("the ninth hour"):

When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land [or, earth] until three in the afternoon.

— Mark 15:33

The account adds a detail that follows immediately on the death of Jesus:

And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.

— Mark 15:38

The Gospel of Matthew, written around the year 85 or 90 CE, and using Mark as a source, has an almost identical wording:

From noon on, darkness came over the whole land [or, earth] until three in the afternoon.

— Matthew 27:45

The Matthew account adds some dramatic details, including an earthquake and the raising of the dead, which were stock motifs from Jewish apocalyptic literature:

(…) At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” [or, a Son of God]


27:51-54

The Gospel of Luke, written around the year 90 CE and also using Mark as a source, has none of the details added in the Matthew version, moves the tearing of the temple veil to before the death of Jesus and includes an explanation that the sun was darkened, appearing to explain it as an eclipse:

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land [or, earth] until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed [or, the sun was eclipsed]; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two.

— Luke 23:44-45

The account given in the Gospel of John is different: it takes place on the day of Passover,[1] the crucifixion does not take place until after noon, and there is no mention of darkness, the tearing of the veil, or the raising of the dead.

Later versions

Apocryphal writers

Major events in

Jesus' life
in the Gospels

A number of accounts in apocryphal literature build on the synoptic accounts. In the Gospel of Peter, from the second century CE, as one writer puts it, "accompanying miracles become more fabulous and the apocalyptic portents are more vivid". In this version the darkness which covers the whole of Judaea leads people to go about with lamps believing it to be night.[2] The fourth century Gospel of Nicodemus describes how Pilate and his wife are disturbed by a report of what had happened, and the Judeans he has summoned tell him it was an ordinary solar eclipse. Another text from the fourth century, the purported Report of Pontius Pilate to Tiberius claimed the darkness had started at the sixth hour, covered the whole world and, during the subsequent evening, the full moon resembled blood for the entire night.[3] In a fifth- or sixth-century text by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, the author claims to have observed a solar eclipse from Heliopolis at the time of the crucifixion.[4]

Ancient historians

There are no original references to this darkness outside of the New Testament; the only possible contemporary reference may have existed in a work by the chronicler Thallus. In the ninth century CE, the Byzantine historian George Syncellus quoted from the third-century Christian historian Sextus Julius Africanus, who remarked that "Thallos dismisses this darkness as a solar eclipse".[5] It is not known when Thallus lived, and it is unclear whether he himself made any reference to the crucifixion.[6] Tertullian, in his Apologeticus, told the story of the crucifixion darkness and suggested that the evidence must still be held in the Roman archives.[7]

Until the Enlightenment era, the crucifixion darkness story was often used by Christian apologists, because they believed it was a rare example of the biblical account being supported by non-Christian sources. When the pagan critic Celsus claimed that Jesus could hardly be a God because he had performed no great deeds, the third century CE Christian commentator Origen responded, in Against Celsus, by recounting the darkness, earthquake and opening of tombs. As proof that the incident had happened, he referred to a description by Phlegon of Tralles of an eclipse accompanied by earthquakes during the reign of Tiberius (probably that of 29 CE).[8]

In his Commentary on Matthew, however, Origen offered a different approach. Answering criticisms that there was no mention of this incident in any of the many non-Christian sources, he insisted that it was local to Palestine, and therefore would have gone unnoticed outside. To suggestions that it was merely an eclipse, he pointed out that, since the crucifixion took place at Passover, at the time of the full moon, an eclipse could not have taken place. Instead, and drawing only on the accounts given in Matthew and Mark, which make no mention of the sun, he suggested other explanations, such as heavy clouds.[9]

Explanations

Miracle

Because it was known in ancient and medieval times that a solar eclipse could not take place during Passover (solar eclipses require a new moon while Passover only takes place during a full moon) it was considered a miraculous sign rather than a naturally occurring event.[10] The astronomer Johannes de Sacrobosco wrote, in his The Sphere of the World, "the eclipse was not natural, but, rather, miraculous and contrary to nature".[11]

Literary creation

A common view in modern scholarship is that the account in the synoptic gospels is a literary creation of the gospel writers - Burton Mack describes it as a fabrication by the author of the Gospel of Mark[12] - intended to heighten the importance of what they saw as a theologically significant event:

"It is probable that, without any factual basis, darkness was added in order to wrap the cross in a rich symbol and/or assimilate Jesus to other worthies".[13]

The image of darkness over the land would have been understood by ancient readers as a cosmic sign, a typical element in the description of the death of kings and other major figures by writers such as Philo, Dio Cassius, Virgil, Plutarch and Josephus. Géza Vermes describes the darkness account as "part of the Jewish eschatological imagery of the day of the Lord. It is to be treated as a literary rather than historical phenomenon notwithstanding naive scientists and over-eager television documentary makers, tempted to interpret the account as a datable eclipse of the sun. They would be barking up the wrong tree".

Naturalistic explanations

A solar eclipse could not have occurred on or near the Passover, when Jesus was crucified, because solar eclipses only occur during the new moon phase, and Passover always corresponds to a full moon. Solar eclipses are also too brief to account for the darkness described. The biblical accounts refer to a period of three hours. However, the maximum possible duration of a total solar eclipse is seven minutes and 31.1 seconds.[14] A total eclipse on 24 November 29 CE was visible slightly north of Jerusalem at 11:05 AM.[15] The period of totality in Nazareth and Galilee was one minute and forty-nine seconds, and the level of darkness would have been unnoticeable for people outdoors.[16]

In 1983, Colin Humphreys and W. G. Waddington, who had used astronomical methods to calculate the crucifixion date crucifixion as 3 April 33 CE,[17] argued that the darkness could be accounted for by a partial lunar eclipse that had taken place on that day.[18] Astronomer Bradley E. Schaefer, on the other hand, pointed out that the eclipse would not have been visible during daylight hours.[19][20] Humphreys and Waddington speculated that the reference in the Luke Gospel to a solar eclipse must have been the result of a scribe wrongly amending the text, a claim historian David Henige describes as 'indefensible'.

Some writers have explained the crucifixion darkness in terms of sunstorms, heavy cloud cover or the aftermath of a volcanic eruption.[21] Another possible natural explanation is a khamsin dust storm that tends to occur from March to May.[22]

Interpretations

Some commentators have noted the part this sequence plays in the gospel's literary narrative. One writer, describing the author of the Mark Gospel as operating here "at the peak of his rhetorical and theological powers", suggests that the darkness is a deliberate inversion of the

Another approach has been to consider the theological meaning of the event: for instance, that "the whole universe joins in mourning the cruel death of the Son of God".[26] Others have seen it as a sign of God's judgement on the Jewish people, sometimes connecting it with the destruction of the city of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE; or as symbolising shame, fear or the mental suffering of Jesus.

Many writers have adopted an end times.

Another likely literary source is 14:6-7.

Notes

References

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