With excitement building for Monday’s total solar eclipse, there’s also interest in how the eclipse might shed insights into the darkness while Jesus was hanging on the cross. Recorded in three of the four New Testament accounts, the darkness is noted in other ancient, non-Christian documents and is sometimes described as an eclipse.
Eclipses have fascinated people for centuries. The first recorded eclipse was chiseled in stone 5,000 years ago in Ireland. Over the centuries, the eerie feeling during an eclipse has spawned all kinds of “spiritual” associations. NASA notes “the brighter stars and the planets come out” in an eclipse and animals change their behavior. There’s a drop in light and air temperature.
Something amazing happens, and people respond with fear and all sorts of theories and meanings. Change is near in life, health, government or international affairs, etc.
Some have associated the “darkness” while Jesus hanged on the cross with an eclipse. Luke 23:44 says: “And it was now about the sixth hour, and darkness fell over the whole land until the ninth hour, the sun being obscured.”
Darkness and an obscured sun fit an eclipse-like phenomenon. Two ancient writers mention the darkness.
The first, Thallus, a Samaritan-born historian, was among the first Gentiles to write about Christ. Thallus might have provided the first written history of the darkness during the crucifixion — even before the gospels. However, his writings have disappeared, and we only know of them from fragments cited by other writers.
One of those writers, Julius Africanus, who later became a Christian, was commissioned by Emperor Severus (A.D. 222-235) to build his library at the Pantheon in Rome. In about A.D. 221 Julius Africanus wrote, “Thallus, in the third book of his histories, explains away this darkness as an eclipse of the sun — unreasonably, as it seems to me… .”
The second historian who wrote about the darkness, Phlegon (A.D. 80-140), penned a history called Chronicles or Olympiads. Like Thallus, we know of Phlegon’s work only because it is cited by three other writers: Julius Africanus, Philopon and Origen, whose account is of most interest. He wrote about gospel narratives that mention an earthquake, tombs opening, the veil of the temple being torn and “that darkness prevailed in the day time, the sun failing to give light.”
From these references and others, it is clear that the gospel account of three hours of darkness during the crucifixion, and very possibly the earthquake, were well-known.
Could the darkness have been an eclipse? At most, a total eclipse lasts seven minutes, while darkness during the crucifixion lasted three hours. Also, the crucifixion was on the Jewish Passover, which fell on the 15th of the Jewish month, a time when a full moon would not have passed between the earth and sun. This is why Africanus said that Thallus’ suggestion was unreasonable that the darkness was an eclipse.
How can the darkness over Jerusalem be explained? Some suggest it was God shielding his son, or that it was symbolic of judgment and mourning. Whatever the truth is, Monday offers an opportunity to experience a total eclipse and sense the wonder during the two minutes of darkness. It will be a brief taste of what those in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago felt during the three hours Jesus was on the cross.
David Oldham has a doctorate from Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. For the past three years he has been the vice principal/dean of students for a bi-lingual school in Honduras. He also is a researcher for Freethinkingministries in Kearney.