The Historicity of the Crucifixion Darkness

April 13, 2017 (Steven O’Reilly) –  Good Friday approaches. On this day, Christians recall especially that part of the Creed in which we affirm of Jesus Christ: ‘for our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered, died and was buried.’ These things we affirm to be historical facts. These events of that day, and others surrounding them, such as the Crucifixion darkness described in the gospels, were real.  They were not myths or “literary devices”—as skeptics or modernist biblical scholars might now suggest. No one has ever met a “literary device” walking down the street or stubbed their toe on one, thus we should not expect that any early Christian would have suffered martyrdom for one. With these things in mind, I would like to provide some thoughts on the historicity of one particular event that is said to have occurred on the afternoon Our Lord was crucified. I speak of the midday or Crucifixion darkness which the gospel accounts assert fell over the earth between noon and 3 pm.  Let us, briefly, consider the case for the historicity of this event by first quoting the relevant gospel accounts.

The testimony of Matthew:

“Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over the whole earth, until the ninth hour.”   (Matthew 27: 45)

The testimony of Mark:

“And when the sixth hour was come, there was darkness over the whole earth until the ninth hour. ” (Mark 15: 33)

The testimony of Luke:

“And it was almost the sixth hour; and there was darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour.  And the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was rent in the midst.”  (Luke 23:44-45 )

The question is: should we accept the historicity of this Crucifixion darkness? The answer is a resounding “yes.” Whether the darkness was witnessed throughout the empire or only in regions around Jerusalem is not clear. In either case, many would have witnessed it. The Crucifixion darkness would have been observable to many hundreds of thousands of people—if not millions. Even if the darkness had not been seen throughout the whole empire, word of it would have spread to Rome as the center of government and commerce.  Also, word of it would have spread from Jerusalem to Jewish communities in Rome and throughout the empire.

In light of the mass observation and notoriety of a three hour darkness, it would not have made any sense for the Apostles—in preaching or writing about the truth of Christ to believers and nonbelievers alike—to have mentioned this darkness if it had not really happened. Why would the Apostles allude to a darkness their hearers and readers knew did not happen? Doing so would only demolish their credibility on all other points of the gospel they hoped to prove about Christ based solely on personal testimony. Therefore, the reason the apostles could confidently mention a three hour darkening of the sun is because it was an actual occurrence already known to many in their audiences – either by firsthand experience or by word of mouth.

With this principle in mind, let us now consider the evidence. The Acts of the Apostles records the very first public preaching of Peter and the Apostles, which took place less than eight weeks after the Crucifixion. The Acts of the Apostles recounts Peter’s words on Pentecost.

“But Peter standing up with the eleven, lifted up his voice, and spoke to them: Ye men of Judea, and all you that dwell in Jerusalem, be this known to you, and with your ears receive my words. For these are not drunk, as you suppose, seeing it is but the third hour of the day:  But this is that which was spoken of by the prophet Joel:

And it shall come to pass, in the last days, (saith the Lord,) I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.

And upon my servants indeed, and upon my handmaids will I pour out in those days of my spirit, and they shall prophesy.

And I will shew wonders in the heaven above, and signs on the earth beneath: blood and fire, and vapour of smoke.

The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and manifest day of the Lord come.

And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord, shall be saved.

Ye men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you, by miracles, and wonders, and signs, which God did by him, in the midst of you, as you also know: This same being delivered up, by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, you by the hands of wicked men have crucified and slain. Whom God hath raised up, having loosed the sorrows of hell, as it was impossible that he should be holden by it.” (Acts 2: 14-24)[Emphasis  and formatting added]

In the verses above, Peter cites a scripture which speaks of various signs “which God did by Him,” inclusive of the sun being darkened and the moon turning red. Peter reminds his hearers these things were done “in the midst of you, as you also know.”  Clearly, Peter referenced an event—the three hour darkening of the sun—which was previously witnessed by all hearing him that day. It would be absurd to think that Peter would have asserted that his hearers had witnessed the darkening of the sun if they in fact had not. Clearly, Peter and his hearers had seen the sun darken.

Next, we consider the Gospel of Matthew. This is the first of the gospels, written some time between 38 and 45 A.D. Originally written in Aramaic, it was intended for a Jewish audience.  Being written within a dozen years of the Crucifixion, many of Matthew’s readers would have been witnesses to the three hour darkness which had fallen over the earth (cf Matthew 27: 45) years before. Here, too, we see an Apostle feared not to mention the event precisely because it was already widely known among his readers. Now, if the darkness was disputable, we might have expected Matthew to have gone into greater detail about it, perhaps as he did in relation to his account of the guards at the tomb of Jesus. In chapter 28, Matthew provides an account—probably sourced to either one of the guards and or a Jewish elder—of how the guards were bribed, and the lie was spread that the disciples had stolen the body of Jesus (cf Matthew 28:1-15). In telling the story of the guards, Matthew takes into account what his Jewish audience would already know—i.e., there was a claim being spread abroad that the body of Jesus had been stolen—and then he proceeded to provide facts to explain the true origin of that lie. This example underlines the point that Matthew did not have a similar need to defend the truth of the three hour darkness, precisely because it was a well known, accepted and indisputable fact.

Next, let us consider the argument with regard to the Gospel of Mark.  Tradition informs us that Mark’s gospel derives directly from Peter’s oral preaching in Rome (see here).  Since Mark’s written gospel contains an account of the Crucifixion darkness, it follows that Peter included this event in his oral preaching.  Those who heard Peter preach in Rome would have previously known about this darkness in several ways, including: (1) having witnessed it firsthand in Rome – if it had been a universal darkness; (2) hearing of it from travelers to Rome; and or (3) through letters or official reports received from the provinces, the latter of which were kept in the Roman archives. Rome had a Jewish community, and it is probable that word of the darkness would have reached and been known within it.  In Rome, Peter spoke—as he had to the Jews of Jerusalem (cf Acts 2:14-24)—to an audience that had prior knowledge of the three hour darkness.  It is improbable that he would have created such an event from his own imagination.  Why preach something that was manifestly untrue? The Romans and Jews could have falsified Peter’s claim—had it been false. The Romans, for example, are known to have have kept archives which included data on eclipses of the moon and sun. Thus, the Christian apologist Tertullian (155-240 A.D) could still say to the Romans in the late second century A.D. with regard to the Crucifixion darkness:

“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.” (Tertullian, Apologia 21) (Emphasis added)

Tertullian’s statement certainly suggests he himself had seen the account of this “world-portent.” Otherwise, it would have been foolhardy of him to have made such a bold challenge to such sticklers for record keeping as the Romans, who could have proven him wrong. It is also interesting to note that Sextus Julius Africanus (160-240 A.D.), a Christian historian who had established a library in Rome for Emperor Severus Alexander, referred to the Crucifixion darkness as a “portent of the world.” Given the similarity in terms—Africanus’ “portent of the world” and Tertullian’s “world-portent,” it is tantalizing to wonder if each were referencing the same description of the darkness ‘still in the Roman archives.’  We pass over this speculation to consider Tertullian’s words, quoted earlier, which suggested that there were those who attempted to explain away the Crucifixion darkness as being a normal solar eclipse. However, such an explanation for the Crucifixion darkness is absurd because solar eclipses are counted in minutes, not hours.  Africanus disputed an attempt by Thallus (a first century historian) to specifically explain the Crucifixion darkness in this way. While the actual words used by Thallus no longer survive, the response of Africanus (below) give us a sense of what he must have said:

“As to His (i.e., Jesus Christ) works severally, and His cures effected upon body and soul, and the mysteries of His doctrine, and the resurrection from the dead, these have been most authoritatively set forth by His disciples and apostles before us. On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness Thallus, in the third book of his History, calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun. For the Hebrews celebrate the passover on the 14th day according to the moon, and the passion of our Saviour fails on the day before the passover; but an eclipse of the sun takes place only when the moon comes under the sun. And it cannot happen at any other time but in the interval between the first day of the new moon and the last of the old, that is, at their junction: how then should an eclipse be supposed to happen when the moon is almost diametrically opposite the sun?  (Sextus Julius Africanus, Fragment 18. On the Circumstances Connected with Our Saviour’s Passion and His Life-Giving Resurrection)

Africanus make it rather evident that Thallus was specifically addressing “this darkness” – i.e., the three hour darkness at the time of the Crucifixion and not any other. Africanus refutes the attempt of Thallus to explain away “this darkness” as being a regular solar eclipse. Africanus does this by noting that the eve of Passover falls on a date of a near full moon, i.e., when the moon is opposite the sun in relation to the earth. Thus, a solar eclipse, which happens when the moon passes between the earth and sun cannot be a valid explanation for the Crucifixion darkness. In sum, the words of Tertullian and Africanus show us that in ancient times only the explanation of the cause of the three hour darkness was in dispute, not the fact of it.

Early Christian writers, such as Origen, Africanus and Eusebius, also cited a 2nd century writer, Phlegon, as having written of the Crucifixion darkness. Origen tells us in his work, Against Celsus (cf Contra Celsus II, 14), that Phlegon had some knowledge of Jesus. Elsewhere in this same work, Origen wrote in relation to the Crucifixion darkness: “And with regard to the eclipse in the time of Tiberius Cæsar, in whose reign Jesus appears to have been crucified, and the great earthquakes which then took place, Phlegon too, I think, has written in the thirteenth or fourteenth book of his Chronicles” (Contra Celsus II, 33).  Regarding this same 2nd century historian, Africanus also wrote: “Phlegon records that, in the time of Tiberius Caesar, at full moon, there was a full eclipse of the sun from the sixth hour to the ninth— manifestly that one of which we speak” (Sextus Africanus, Fragment 18. On the Circumstances Connected with Our Saviour’s Passion and His Life-Giving Resurrection). Unfortunately, Africanus does not quote Phlegon directly.  We do not know what other sources that Africanus—who established a library for Severus Alexander— might have had at his disposal with regard to Phlegon’s writings. Eusebius of Caesarea (265-340) quoted Phlegon as follows (as translated by Jerome):

“However in the fourth year of the 202nd olympiad, an eclipse of the sun happened, greater and more excellent than any that had happened before it; at the sixth hour, day turned into dark night, so that the stars were seen in the sky, and an earthquake in Bithynia toppled many buildings of the city of Nicaea.” These things the aforementioned man (says).” (Jerome, Chronicle (2005), 256/258, as found on www.tertullian.org) (Emphasis added)

From the direct quote above, it is clear Phlegon’s source is an observer in Bithynia (in modern day Turkey), which is well over 500 miles away from Jerusalem. However, the sixth hour in Bithynia is also at the same time as the sixth hour in Jerusalem. Therefore, it is possible Phlegon’s source witnessed the Crucifixion darkness from there at the same hour—suggesting the darkness and earthquakes reached far beyond the region around Jerusalem.  The year given by Phlegon for this eclipse is the fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad (i.e., 33 A.D.), which is consistent with one of the possible dates of the Crucifixion (i.e., April 3, 33 A.D.). The astronomical science tells us there was no solar eclipse over Bithynia in that year. Thus, if the quote is accurate, and Phlegon’s eclipse has not been conflated with one which occurred in 29 A.D., then Phlegon is another source who supports the Crucifixion darkness. Be that as it may, and even if the dating of Phlegon is not correct, this does not diminish the case made thus far for the historicity of the Crucifixion darkness.

Having provided an argument for the historicity of a three hour darkness based on historical sources and reason, we may now address the objection made to it by skeptics, which may be stated as follows.

There is a silence of historical sources with regard to this Crucifixion darkness. Certainly, other ancient writers, most notably Pliny the Elder (23 – 79 AD), would have written of a three hour darkness had it really happened.

In reply. this objection is something of a fallacious argument. It amounts, in effect, to asserting the following: ‘leaving aside all the evidence you do have, you do not have any other evidence.’  Thus, the skeptic discards all evidence against his case, and then declares victory: ‘aha, you have no other proof!’ The reality is, there is no reason to set aside the sources and evidence we do have. We have already cited the Acts of the Apostles, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Tertullian, Africanus, the 1st century historian Thallus, and the 2nd century historian, Phlegon, and these sufficiently demonstrate the historicity of the Crucifixion darkness.

The skeptic’s objection is an argument from silence—that other writers would have said something if the darkness had really happened. The madness of the skeptic is such that they would have us believe sources which are silent, over those which speak. Unfortunately for the skeptic—and a sign of his desperation as well—the argument from silence is, perhaps, one of the most difficult types of arguments to make. In order to make it, the skeptic must demonstrate that the other surviving ancient sources we do have certainly would have mentioned the darkness if it had happened and that there is no sufficient reason why these sources excluded it. That is a nearly impossible standard to meet. Thus, upon closer examination, the force of the skeptic’s objection inevitably dissolves away into nothingness as we examine the works of other ancient writers who the skeptic would cite as a silent witness for their case.

The above said, the skeptic’s objection appears strongest when they allege that Pliny the Elder – an ancient Roman writer who penned a natural history—would surely have have mentioned the Crucifixion darkness. Here, the skeptic’s case is seemingly more plausible on first glance. It cannot be denied that Pliny the Elder wrote on topics like eclipses of the sun.  In fact, Pliny’s Natural History includes a chapter entitled “Of Unusual Long Eclipses of the Sun.”  Therefore, it seems at first glance that the skeptic is on to something when he points out that a three hour long darkness is nowhere to be found in this chapter. On the subject of “unusually long eclipses of the sun,” Pliny states the following:

“Eclipses of the sun also take place which are portentous and unusually long, such as occurred when Cæsar the Dictator was slain, and in the war against Antony, the sun remained dim for almost a whole year” (Pliny the Elder, Natural HistoryII, 30) [Italics added]

From this brief statement, the skeptic wants to declare victory and go home.  To home he may go—but, it must be with his tail between his legs. The reality is, Pliny’s statement is not evidence against the Crucifixion darkness.  While Pliny tells us there have been “unusually long” eclipses, he then says “such as“—indicating he means to give examples and not a comprehensive list of them. Pliny then proceeds and gives only two examples. Thus, his statement taken in whole does not exclude that there may have been other unusually long eclipses of the sun of which he was aware—perhaps many more—but regarding which he did not elaborate. The Crucifixion darkness could certainly have been one of these excluded “eclipses.” However, whether there was or was not a Crucifixion darkness, it can not be proven from Pliny. Such is the difficulty of the argument from silence.

This argument is sufficient to diffuse the skeptic’s argument with regard to Pliny. However, we might venture to reasonably speculate why Pliny—if he had known of the Crucifixion darkness—chose not to include it in his examples. Pliny tells us from the outset that unusually long eclipses are “portentous.” As a Roman noble, it is not remarkable that Pliny selected two examples which were “portentous” with respect to the history of Rome, i.e., the eclipses at the times of Caesar’s death and the war against Antony.  Now let us consider how he might have categorized the Crucifixion darkness. By the time he wrote his Natural History (73 A.D.), the Christians had already been claiming for the prior forty years that the Crucifixion darkness was a sign worked by their God. It should then not come as a surprise to us that Pliny, who scorned the idea of God and religion (cf Natural History I, 5), would pass over in silence this “world-portent” now claimed by and associated with the Christian religion, which was—at that time he wrote—a portent of a persecuted, criminal and maligned sect.

The above said, we may venture still further in suggesting another reason for the seeming silence. We have already seen there is strong reason to believe a record of the Crucifixion darkness was held in the Roman archives. Jerusalem is another place where we might have expected there to be records of the events of Matthew 27, and to hope that individual residents of Jerusalem—contemporaneous to the events—might have commented on these wondrous happenings in personal records, etc. However, history provides a sufficient answer as to why such documentary evidence has not survived on these topics of great interest. In 70 A.D., just forty years after the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the city of Jerusalem and the Temple were utterly destroyed by the Romans and the surviving population carried off into captivity.

Remember then, especially on Good Friday between the hours of noon and 3 pm, that the Crucifixion darkness is a real, historical event—and pray for those who deny it.

Steven O’Reilly is a graduate of the University of Dallas and the Georgia Institute of Technology. He lives near Atlanta with his wife Margaret. He has four children. He  has written apologetic articles and is working on a historical-adventure trilogy, set during the time of the Arian crisis. Book one of the trilogy will be completed in 2017. He can be contacted at StevenOReilly@AOL.com.


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