A reader writes:

One of my co-workers yesterday was somewhat up in arms over the part of Palm Sunday’s account where an eclipse was specifically called out in the text.  His implication I believe was that scientific things had entered into the text where the Church had no basis for doing so.  If you’ve seen other similar tempest-in-a-teapot ravings and haven’t already commented upon them, your take would be interesting to read.

I did some digging and gave my coworker this answer this morning.

Subject: Luke 23:45

After we chatted yesterday, I figured I’d look up the passage from Luke that we heard translated as ‘eclipse’ on Sunday.  I have a couple of references at home that tell me what the original Greek is and how it could be rendered in English.  The word used is transliterated as ekleipō. It can be translated as ‘fail’, ‘end’, ‘gone’, or ‘stopped shining’ as it was in Lk 23:45 where it was used in the Passion account.  An eclipse (‘eclipse’ itself looks like it comes from ekleipō) just from the term used doesn’t appear to be out of the realm of possibilities here.  It’d be interesting to know what other extra-biblical sources (e.g. Church Fathers) have to say about what may have been observed to have caused the three hours of darkness that day.  As you noted, it’d also be interesting to see historically what eclipses can be calculated to have happened in that region during that timeframe.

I think your answer was pretty good!

An eclipse in the modern sense of the term (i.e “solar eclipse caused by the moon blocking the sun”) would be impossible during the Passion for the simple reason that the Passion took place at Passover and the Moon was full or just past full. (Passover occurs at the first full moon after the Spring equinox.)  You can’t have a solar eclipse during a full moon.

That said, all the biblical text is trying to get across is that the sun was darkened.  By what, we aren’t told.  Could have been supernatural.  Might even have been local (as, for instance, the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima was local).  Might have been natural, such as a sandstorm or other atmospheric phenomenon blackening the skies.  There are a couple of other ancient witnesses to the phenomenon but they seem to be assuming the truth of Christian accounts and trying to find natural explanations.  If it was a natural phenomenon, such as a particularly black sky of storm, there are, I think perfectly reasonable explanations for why no independent accounts of it exist.  As I wrote here:

We have to remember that mere “occurrences” don’t become events until they have meaning for us. We hear, for instance, that some shrine in, say, Iraq gets blown up by a suicide bomber and think, “More violence in the mideast” but then get on with our day. We read about a storm someplace or a quake here or there and then almost immediately forget about it. That’s normal. It is only when something “coordinates” these events and makes them part of an Important Memory that we start to speak of them as Significant. So for the early Church it was Death of Jesus + Quake + Darkness that made the Quake and Darkness memorable. No death of Jesus and the quake and darkness would have been unnoticed (as quakes and ominous dark skies—which are happening somewhere on earth right now—go unnoticed by people who are not involved in them, and even by people who are involved if the quake is not too severe). Here in Seattle we had a quake on Ash Wednesday 2001 that was memorable to us, but give it forty years and how many people in, say, Kansas City will be able to say from memory, “There was a quake in Seattle on Ash Wednesday 2001.” Subtract a media and a scientific interest in recording quakes (something the ancient world distinctly lacked) and the lack of any contemporary record of the quake becomes perfectly understandable. I remember the quake and associate it with Ash Wednesday because I think a quake was a particularly appropriate start for Ash Wednesday. But most of my secular Seattle neighbors had no idea it was Ash Wednesday. So I will not be surprised at all if, in a generation, people have only the dimmest memory of it as “that quake when I was a kid” and people not from the immediate area have no knowledge of it at all.

It does indeed look as though the translators opted to simply render the Greek word into its most literal English equivalent.  I’m not so sure that was smart here, for precisely the reason your friend’s reaction demonstrates.  Moderns hear, not “darkness” or “failure to shine” but “solar eclipse by the moon” and that is a problem because the biblical authors are not trying to make scientific claims here any more than when they say the women came to the tomb “at sunrise” means they are trying to argue against Copernicus.  All they really mean is “it got eerily dark when Jesus was crucified and we don’t think that was a coincidence, but a sign”.  But moderns  tend to hear "scientific mistake" and not "no intention of trying to do science" when they hear such words.

This is because Moderns have a habit of imposing their categories on ancients and then judging them when they don’t comply with those categories.  Most famously, of course, is the habit of fundamentalists (both atheist and Christian) of imposing on the Genesis creation account the insistence that it is really trying to do science.  If you are an atheist fundamentalist, you deride it as bad science.  If you are a Christian fundamentalist, you exalt it as perfect science.  But in fact, it is not a scientific account.  It is a liturgical account.  It sees the universe as a gigantic temple with the image of the god (man and woman) placed in the temple just where the clay idol would normally go.  It’s very subversive of pagan Semitic religious culture (i.e. all of Israel's neighbors).  The sun and the moon are called “lights” just as the Temple and Tabernacle had “lights”.  Man is set in the garden to tend it and the word used to describe his work is the same Hebrew used to describe the work of the Levitical priests in the Temple.

Another pretty funny example of the imperial modern tendency to impose our categories on ancients is found in that vast repository of pooled ignorance, Yahoo Answers:

Did god think bats were birds?
Leviticus 11:13-19 And these are they which ye shall have in abomination among the fowls ; they shall not be eaten, they are an abomination: the eagle, and the ossifrage, and the ospray,
And the vulture, and the kite after his kind;
Every raven after his kind;
And the owl, and the night hawk, and the cuckow, and the hawk after his kind,
And the little owl, and the cormorant, and the great owl,
And the swan, and the pelican, and the gier eagle,
And the stork, the heron after her kind, and the lapwing, and the bat."

Bats are mammals, not birds, silly god.

Relatedly, one issue that pops up now and then is the “God is stoopid cuz rabbits don’t chew cud” schtick.

Why would God lie and say that rabbits chew their own cud in Leviticus 11:6? Doesn't that prove God is fake?
an all knowing God would know that rabbits do not produce nor chew cud, but an ignorant human would assume that before learning of the biology of rabbits.

The context of both these texts is Levitical purity regulations and the delineation of which animals are clean and unclean.  To the flat-footed literalist of modernity who imagines the Bible is being written with the Linnean categories of living things as the true and only way of describing reality, the biblical authors come up short and get an F in biology.  Problem is, of course, they aren’t categorizing according to modern science.  They are categorizing according to “clean/unclean critters”. These are social and cultural categories, not scientific ones.  (And, by the way, such categories are shared with us, which is why it's probably been a while since you ordered insect larvae or sheep's eyes for dinner at McDonalds, even though the food value of these delicacies is comparable to other sources.) So bats are reckoned as “birds” because the Hebrew word applied to both doesn’t mean “feathered creatures” but merely “flying creatures”.  Likewise, “chewing the cud” is, in the Hebraic reckoning, simply “making that chewing motion thing with their mouths”.

The biggest challenge moderns face in reading, not just the Bible, but almost all pre-modern literature is our profoundly provincial insistence on forcing our ancestors to think just like us.  We are a Civilization of Lina Lamonts:

Lina Lamont: Gee, this wig weighs a ton! What dope'd wear a thing like this?
Rosco: Everybody used to wear them, Lina.
Lina Lamont: Well, then everybody was a dope.

This is what C.S. Lewis calls “Chronological Snobbery”:

the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also "a period," and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.

We live in a scientific age and so imagine ancients were striving (badly) to be like us.  It seldom occurs to us that ancients could have an entirely different set of priorities.