Christian apologist Tertullian in AD 197 considered this not an eclipse but a portent, which he claimed was recorded in Roman archives. The third-century Christian commentator Origen offered two natural explanations for the darkness: that it might have been the eclipse (presumably of AD 29) described by Phlegon of Tralles, or that it might have been clouds.
Modern scholars have found no contemporary references to the darkness outside the New Testament, but have found mention of it in ancient writings that reference sources lost to us today, such as those of the Greek historian Thallus. Some scholars favour natural explanations such as a khamsin (sand storm). Others note that similar accounts were associated in ancient times and in the Old Testament with the deaths of notable figures, and see the phenomenon as a literary invention that attempts to convey a sense of the power of Jesus in the face of death, or a sign of God’s displeasure with the Jewish people.
The oldest biblical reference to the crucifixion darkness is found in the Gospel of Mark, written around the year 70. In its account of the crucifixion, 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 (Greek: γῆν, translit. gēn can mean either) from around noon (“the sixth hour”) until 3 o’clock (“the ninth hour”). It adds, immediately after the death of Jesus, that “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom”.
The Gospel of Matthew has an almost identical wording: “From noon on, darkness came over the whole land [or, earth] until three in the afternoon.” The author includes dramatic details, including an earthquake and the raising of the dead, which were also common motifs in Jewish apocalyptic literature: “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.”
The Gospel of Luke has none of the details of the Matthew version, mentions the tearing of the temple veil immediately before the death of Jesus, and provides the obscuring of the Sun as the cause of the darkness:
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.
It appears that Luke’s Gospel originally explained the event as an eclipse. The majority of manuscripts of the Gospel of Luke have the Greek phrase eskotisthe ho helios (“the sun was darkened”), but the earliest manuscripts say tou heliou eklipontos (“the sun’s light failed” or “the sun was in eclipse”). This earlier version is likely to have been the original one, amended by later scribes to correct what they assumed was an error, since they knew that an eclipse was impossible during Passover. One early Christian commentator even suggested that the text had been deliberately corrupted by opponents of the Church to make it easier to attack.
In the account of the crucifixion given in the Gospel of John there is no mention of darkness, the tearing of the veil, or the raising of the dead.
A number of accounts in apocryphal literature built on the accounts of the crucifixion darkness. The Gospel of Peter, probably from the second century, expanded on the canonical gospel accounts in creative ways. 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. 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. 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.
No contemporary references to this darkness have been found outside of the New Testament.
Tertullian, in his Apologeticus of AD 197, referred to the biblical crucifixion darkness and claimed that an independent account of the omen was held in the Roman archives: “And yet, nailed upon the cross, He exhibited many notable signs, by which His death was distinguished from all others. At His own free-will, He with a word dismissed from Him His spirit, anticipating the executioner’s work. In the same hour, too, the light of day was withdrawn, when the sun at the very time was in his meridian blaze. Those who were not aware that this had been predicted about Christ, no doubt thought it an eclipse. You yourselves have the account of the world-portent still in your archives.”
In AD 248, the crucifixion darkness story was used by the Christian apologist Origen as an 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, Origen responded, in Against Celsus, by recounting the darkness, earthquake and opening of tombs. As proof that the incident had happened, Origen referred to a description by Phlegon of Tralles of an eclipse, accompanied by earthquakes felt in other parts of the Empire during the reign of Tiberius (probably that of 29 CE). 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 it was merely an eclipse, Origen pointed out that this was impossible and suggested other explanations, such as heavy clouds, drawing only on the accounts given in Matthew and Mark, which make no mention of the Sun.
In the ninth century, 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”. It is not known when the chronicler Thallus lived, and it is unclear whether he himself made any reference to the crucifixion.
New World accounts of darkness
In the Huarochirí Manuscript Spanish cleric Francisco de Ávila records
In all the stories and fables of these people I have never been able to make out which came first, or in what order they should be placed, for they are all very ancient traditions. They relate that, a long time ago, the sun disappeared and the world was dark for a space of five days; that the stones knocked one against the other; and that the mortars, which they call mutca, and the pestles called marop, rose against their masters, who were also attacked by their sheep, both those fastened in the houses and those in the fields. This p. 132 may have been the eclipse which occurred when our Redeemer died; but I cannot clearly make this out, for when it was day in that hemisphere it was night here, so that here the eclipse would have taken place at night. The rest of the story consists of lies, for, as these people had no watches, how could they tell that the sun was absent for five days, seeing that we count days by the absence and presence of the sun?
In El señorío de los Incas, the second part of the Chronicle of Peru, Pedro Cieza de León retells stories from the natives regarding Ticiviracocha (Viracocha). It describes a people that existed before the Incas that experienced a period of suffering without light. The people prayed and the sun rose from Lake Titicaca. Toward midday, a white man of great authority and veneration came, turning hills into plains and plains into hills, making fountains from stones, calling him the Maker of all things, originator of them, Father of the sun, and who caused animals and men to be.
The Book of Mormon
In the Book of Mormon, Samuel the Lamanite is alleged to have prophesied around 5 BC:
But behold, as I said unto you concerning another sign, a sign of his death, behold, in that day that he shall suffer death the sun shall be darkened and refuse to give his light unto you; and also the moon and the stars; and there shall be no light upon the face of this land, even from the time that he shall suffer death, for the space of three days, to the time that he shall rise again from the dead. Yea, at the time that he shall yield up the ghost there shall be thunderings and lightnings for the space of many hours, and the earth shall shake and tremble; and the rocks which are upon the face of this earth, which are both above the earth and beneath, which ye know at this time are solid, or the more part of it is one solid mass, shall be broken up; Yea, they shall be rent in twain, and shall ever after be found in seams and in cracks, and in broken fragments upon the face of the whole earth, yea, both above the earth and beneath. And behold, there shall be great tempests, and there shall be many mountains laid low, like unto a valley, and there shall be many places which are now called valleys which shall become mountains, whose height is great. And many highways shall be broken up, and many cities shall become desolate. And many graves shall be opened, and shall yield up many of their dead; and many saints shall appear unto many. And behold, thus hath the angel spoken unto me; for he said unto me that there should be thunderings and lightnings for the space of many hours. And he said unto me that while the thunder and the lightning lasted, and the tempest, that these things should be, and that darkness should cover the face of the whole earth for the space of three days. And the angel said unto me that many shall see greater things than these, to the intent that they might believe that these signs and these wonders should come to pass upon all the face of this land, to the intent that there should be no cause for unbelief among the children of men—
At the time of Jesus’ death, the Book of Mormon records the fulfillment of this prophecy:
And it came to pass in the thirty and fourth year, in the first month, on the fourth day of the month, there arose a great storm, such an one as never had been known in all the land. And there was also a great and terrible tempest; and there was terrible thunder, insomuch that it did shake the whole earth as if it was about to divide asunder. And there were exceedingly sharp lightnings, such as never had been known in all the land. And the city of Zarahemla did take fire. And the city of Moroni did sink into the depths of the sea, and the inhabitants thereof were drowned. And the earth was carried up upon the city of Moronihah, that in the place of the city there became a great mountain. And there was a great and terrible destruction in the land southward. But behold, there was a more great and terrible destruction in the land northward; for behold, the whole face of the land was changed, because of the tempest and the whirlwinds, and the thunderings and the lightnings, and the exceedingly great quaking of the whole earth; And the highways were broken up, and the level roads were spoiled, and many smooth places became rough. And many great and notable cities were sunk, and many were burned, and many were shaken till the buildings thereof had fallen to the earth, and the inhabitants thereof were slain, and the places were left desolate. And there were some cities which remained; but the damage thereof was exceedingly great, and there were many in them who were slain. And there were some who were carried away in the whirlwind; and whither they went no man knoweth, save they know that they were carried away. And thus the face of the whole earth became deformed, because of the tempests, and the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the quaking of the earth. And behold, the rocks were rent in twain; they were broken up upon the face of the whole earth, insomuch that they were found in broken fragments, and in seams and in cracks, upon all the face of the land. And it came to pass that when the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the storm, and the tempest, and the quakings of the earth did cease—for behold, they did last for about the space of three hours; and it was said by some that the time was greater; nevertheless, all these great and terrible things were done in about the space of three hours—and then behold, there was darkness upon the face of the land. And it came to pass that there was thick darkness upon all the face of the land, insomuch that the inhabitants thereof who had not fallen could feel the vapor of darkness; And there could be no light, because of the darkness, neither candles, neither torches; neither could there be fire kindled with their fine and exceedingly dry wood, so that there could not be any light at all; And there was not any light seen, neither fire, nor glimmer, neither the sun, nor the moon, nor the stars, for so great were the mists of darkness which were upon the face of the land. And it came to pass that it did last for the space of three days that there was no light seen; and there was great mourning and howling and weeping among all the people continually; yea, great were the groanings of the people, because of the darkness and the great destruction which had come upon them.
Revelation of the Magi
In Revelation of the Magi by Brent Landau (containing a translation of a Syriac text purported to have been originally written by the Magi, and discovered recently in the Vatican library), the Magi prophesied that at the time of Christ’s death, there would be earthquakes, lightnings and darkness covering the land, and that many of the dead would rise from their graves.
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. 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”. Modern writers who regard this as a miraculous event tend either to see it as operating through a natural phenomenon—such as volcanic dust or heavy cloud cover—or avoid explanation completely. The Reformation Study Bible, for instance, simply states “This was a supernatural darkness.”
The Gospel of Luke account states “and the sun was darkened”. However, the biblical details do not accord with an eclipse: a solar eclipse could not have occurred on or near the Passover, when Jesus was crucified, and would have been too brief to account for three hours of darkness. The maximum possible duration of a total solar eclipse is seven minutes and 31.1 seconds. The only total eclipse visible in Jerusalem in this era occurred late in the year AD 29, on 24 November at 11:05 AM. Around the Sea of Galilee, it would have been visible for just one minute and forty-nine seconds.
Some writers explained the crucifixion darkness in terms of sunstorms, heavy cloud cover, or the aftermath of a volcanic eruption. A popular work of the nineteenth century described it as an ‘oppressive gloom’ and suggested this was a typical phenomenon related to earthquakes.
In his 2011 book, unlike his 1983 paper, Humphreys accepted that Luke was referring to the Sun, and proposed a khamsin dust storm that tends to occur from March to May and typically obscures the sun for several hours.
In 1983, Colin Humphreys and W. G. Waddington noted that the reference to a solar eclipse is missing in some versions of Luke and argued that the reported sun’s darkness could be accounted for by confusion with a partial lunar eclipse that had taken place on 3 April AD 33: lunar eclipses can last much longer than solar ones. In other words, Humphreys and Waddington speculated that the apparent reference in Luke’s Gospel to a solar eclipse could have been the result of a scribe wrongly amending Luke’s original text. This is a claim that historian David Henige described as “indefensible”. Astronomer Bradley E. Schaefer moreover stated that the lunar eclipse would not have been visible in Jerusalem during daylight hours.
A common view in modern scholarship is that the account in the synoptic gospels is a literary creation of the gospel writers, intended to heighten the importance of what they saw as a theologically significant event. Burton Mack describes it as a fabrication by the author of the Gospel of Mark, while G. B. Caird and Joseph Fitzmyer conclude that the author did not intend the description to be taken literally. W. D. Davies and Dale Allison similarly conclude “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”.
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”.
This sequence plays an important part in the gospel’s literary narrative. The author of Mark’s gospel has been described as operating here “at the peak of his rhetorical and theological powers”. One suggestion is that the darkness is a deliberate inversion of the transfiguration; alternately, Jesus’s earlier discourse about a future tribulation mentions the Sun being darkened, and can be seen as foreshadowing this scene. Striking details such as the darkening of the sky and the tearing of the temple veil may be a way of focusing the reader away from the shame and humiliation of the crucifixion; one professor of biblical theology concluded, “it is clear that Jesus is not a humiliated criminal but a man of great significance. His death is therefore not a sign of his weakness but of his power.”
When considering the theological meaning of the event, some authors have interpreted the darkness as a period of mourning by the cosmos itself at the death of Jesus. 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; or as symbolising shame, fear, or the mental suffering of Jesus. Fitzmyer compares the event to a contemporary description recorded in Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews, which recounts “unlawful acts against the gods, from which we believe the very sun turned away, as if it too were loath to look upon the foul deed”.
Many writers have adopted an intertextual approach, looking at earlier texts from which the author of the Mark Gospel may have drawn. In particular, parallels have often been noted between the darkness and the prediction in the Book of Amos of an earthquake in the reign of King Uzziah of Judah: “On that day, says the Lord God, I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight”. Particularly in connection with this reference, read as a prophecy of the future, the darkness can be seen as portending the end times.
Another likely literary source is the plague narrative in the Book of Exodus, in which Egypt is covered by darkness for three days. It has been suggested that the author of Matthew’s gospel changed the Marcan text slightly to more closely match this source. Commentators have also drawn comparisons with the description of darkness in the Genesis creation narrative, with a prophecy regarding mid-day darkness by Jeremiah,and with an end-times prophecy in the Book of Zechariah.
Roman literary sources have also been postulated, namely those on the apotheosis of the mythical king Romulus, and about the death of Julius Caesar.
FAQ about Jesus
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