Darkness of the Crucifixion
An historical study
The darkness which Matthew, Mark and Luke all record as enshrouding the land from the sixth hour to the ninth ‑ noon to 3.0 pm is often assumed to be the result of an eclipse of the sun. In fact, the NEB, Dr.Moffat and the 20th Century NT, use this term. In so doing they have all fallen into what ought to have been a fairly obvious error. The Crucifixion was at the time of the Passover, when the moon is of necessity at the full, and there cannot be an eclipse of the sun at full moon. Furthermore, the darkness is said to have continued for the space of three hours whereas the longest time that an eclipse of the sun can persist at any one place is seven minutes. Whatever the nature of this rather mysterious darkness, it certainly was not an eclipse.
The happening is mentioned in Matt.27.45, Mark 15.33 and Luke 23.44-45. Matthew and Mark would have been eye witnesses: Luke got his information from someone who had been an eye-witness. Matthew says that there was an earthquake at the same time; the others say nothing about this. Apart from that remark, the three accounts are identical in detail and this points to a very clear and undisputed recollection of what actually took place. Throughout all time since the event, this darkness has been accepted as having actually occurred and generally taken as a sign of Divine displeasure with those then guilty of the condemnation of the Lord. Matthew's statement that the Veil of the Temple was rent in twain, throwing the sacred Most Holy open to public view at this time, is taken as pointing to the same conclusion.
Confirming evidence that this darkness did in fact occur is extant from a secular source. Phlegon Trallianus, a Greek historian, who was born not long after the Crucifixion and died in the middle of the Second Century, wrote a history of the times from 776 B.C. to his own day. and had this to say, "In the Fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad there was a great eclipse of the sun, greater than had ever been known before, for at the sixth hour the day was changed into night and the stars were seen in the heavens. An earthquake occurred in Bithynia and overthrew a great part of the city of Nicaia."
Although existing copies of Phlegon's statement use the word ekleipsis, from which our technical word "eclipse" is derived. it is not implied that he intended the modern meaning since the word in his day was used to denote darkening of the heavens from whatever cause. Of greater importance is the relation of the date given to that of the Crucifixion. Dates in Greece at the time of the First Advent were denoted by Olympiads, four-year periods starting from the institution of the Olympic games in Greece in the midsummer of 776 B.C. Thus summer 776 B.C. to summer 775 B.C. was the first year of the First Olympiad, and this system of dating continued until AD.394. On this basis the Fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad would commence in July A.D.32 and finish in June A.D.33. At some time during that twelve months occurred the darkness over Asia in which lay Bithynia and Nicea to which Phlegon refers. It is astronomically established that during that year there was no eclipse of the sun visible from the territory in question.
The date of our Lord's death is generally agreed nowadays, in the light of modern knowledge of relevant history, to have been in the spring of A.D.33 and of course at the time of the Jewish Passover, on the 14th day of the first month of the Jewish year, Nisan. One of the essentials in this matter is that 14th Nisan in the year of the Crucifixion must have fallen on a Friday. There are only two years in the relevant period when this was the case. In A. D. 30 the 14th Nisan fell on Friday 7th April (Julian) and in AD. 33 on Friday 3 April (commencing at 6.0 pm. on the evening of 2nd April in accordance with Jewish custom). Phlegon makes no mention of the happening as affecting Judea. It is doubtful if he ever heard of Jesus of Nazareth, and Bithynia is six hundred miles from Jerusalem. The fact that the year he specifies is the same as the year of the Crucifixion is presumptive evidence that Phiegon records the same darkness and the same earthquake as do the three Gospels. It extended over the entire Middle East from Bithynia on the shores of the Black Sea, across Greek Asia and Syria into Galilee and Judea. Thallus, a Syrian historian contemporary with Phlegon, is credited with recording a similar day of darkness without, however, giving the date of the occurrence, which does at least give some ground for thinking that it was also observed in Syria.
The cause of the darkness, apart from being an act of God remains a mystery. The apparent area affected precludes its being the effect of low-lying clouds blotting out sunlight, such as does occur sometimes over valleys when by a vagary of the wind dense cloud masses build up and remain stationary over a relatively small area and block all light. Volcanic dust from an eruption has been known to produce the same effect, but always in the vicinity of volcanoes and there are no volcanoes. A rather interesting parallel to this darkening at the Crucifixion is the celebrated 'Dark Day of 1780'. This happening is so near to our own time that it is fully authenticated, although despite investigation by the best scientific minds of the time, the cause has never been established. It does seem, however, to have been a similar phenomenon, from the physical point of view, to that associated with the death of Jesus. May 19, 1780, dawned on the eastern coast of North America without incident and the customary daily routine of the citizens of New York State. Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and New Hampshire was soon under way. But at 10am sunlight began inexplicably to fail from the sky and by 11 o'clock an area of some six hundred and fifty miles in each direction was completely dark. Work ceased and workers returned to their homes, where lights burned as at night. The Connecticut Legislature, in session at the time, adjourned its proceedings and noted the phenomenon in the Journal of the Senate. A few hours later, discovering that an impression was gaining ground to the effect that the Last Day had come and the Judgment was at hand, the members returned to the House that they might be found doing their duty should the Lord return unexpectedly. The darkness continued until about 2.00 am. the following morning, although the moon was full at the time. The disturbance, whatever it was, affected sunlight and moonlight equally. By 4.00 am. on the morning of the 20th, normal conditions were restored everywhere.
No explanation has ever been found. Sir William Herschel, the celebrated British astronomer, who lived at the time, said "the dark day in Northern America was one of those wonderful phenomena of Nature which will always be read of with interest, but which philosophy is at a loss to explain '. A New Hampshire eye-witness, Judge Tenney, writing on the subject five years later, said "I could not help conceiving at the time, that if every luminous body in the Universe had been shrouded in impenetrable darkness, or struck out of existence, the darkness could not have been more complete. A sheet of white paper held within a few inches of the eye was equally invisible with the blackest velvet". Another eye-witness, Rev. Elam Potter. expressed himself in a sermon nine days after the happening "Specially I mention that wonderful darkness on the 19th of May last. Then, as in our text, the sun was darkened; such a darkness as was probably never known since the crucifixion of our Lord. People left their work in the house and in the field; travellers stopped; schools broke up at 11 o'clock; people lighted candles at noon-day and the fire shone as at night. Some people, I am told, were in dismay, and thought whether the Day of Judgment was not drawing on. A great part of the following night also was singularly dark. The moon, though in the full, gave no light, as in our text"
The minister was, of course, referring to Biblical references associated with the Second Advent such as Joel 3.15 "The sun and the moon shall be darkened and the stars shall withdraw their shining" and Matt. 24. 29 "Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven". It is not surprising that some sections of the Christian world hailed this strange happening as the fulfilment of such predictions, a physical sign that the time of the Second Advent was at hand. Who shall say that they were not justified, even although these texts are primarily symbols of realities greater by far than a transient darkness over a small patch of earth's surface on a particular day. As a literal sign, repeating that given at the Crucifixion, incomprehensible to men and incapable of explanation by the then state of human knowledge there is much to recommend the conclusion.
One other related point is of interest. If Phlegon's record is accepted as factual, the area covered by the darkness in our Lord's day must have been almost identical with that known to have been covered in 1780. From Bithynia to Jerusalem is about the same distance as that across the extremities of the dark area in North America. The two incidents appear to be of one and the same nature and both inexplicable to human scientific knowledge. Is this an indication that God does from time to time in the course of human history interject an occasional reminder that there are things outside not only the understanding but the control of man, by means of which all humanity's boasted powers and achievements could be rendered impotent? Suppose there was a third such inexplicable darkness, not of three hours this time, nor yet of fifteen hours, but of fifteen days or fifteen weeks; not limited to Judea or to a few American States, but over all the world! And all life on earth depends on sunlight. Without the sun we perish! How easily God can cry "Halt!" to human self-will when in His wisdom He sees the time is ripe, and that without necessarily losing a single human life, just by taking the light away for a short while.