What does science say about the darkness during the Crucifixion?

This Sunday I winced when we got to the following line in the Gospel reading:

It was now about noon and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon because of an eclipse of the sun (Luke 23:44-45).

“An eclipse of the sun”? Really? Surely the translators of the New American Bible, which we hear at Mass, didn’t render the passage that way!

But they did.


Here’s why I had the reaction I did . . .


How the Moon Works

Luna—or “the moon” (as anyone who’s ever lived there calls it)—orbits the earth every 29.5 days. It also rotates on its axis once every 29.5 days.

That’s not a bizarre coincidence. It’s due to a phenomenon known as tidal locking.

Just like the moon’s gravity raises tides on earth, the earth’s gravity also tugs on the moon—so much so that over time this tugging adjusted the moon’s rotation and orbit until they were in synch.

This isn’t unique to our moon. Bunches of moons in the solar system are tidally locked to the planets they orbit.

One consequence of tidal locking is that the moon keeps the same face turned toward the earth at all times. We didn’t know what was on the far side of the moon until we started sending probes and space ships to orbit it.

But, much of the time, we can’t even see all of the near side of the moon.

When the moon is on the same side of the earth as the sun, the sun’s rays fall on the far side of the moon, so the near side—the side that always faces us—is dark. We call that the new moon.

When the moon is on the opposite side of the earth from the sun, the sun’s rays fall on the near side of the moon, illuminating it fully. We call that the full moon.

When the moon is alongside the earth, the sun’s rays fall on half of the near side, so half of it is lit up. We call that a half moon.

This is the true explanation for the phases of the moon we see each month. It isn’t the earth’s shadow falling on the moon (that rarely happens). It’s because of which part of the near side the sun’s rays are falling on as the moon goes around us.

So what does this have to do with the Crucifixion?


How Eclipses Work

An eclipse occurs when one astronomical body moves between two others.

Earth experiences two types of eclipses: solar ones and lunar ones.

A solar eclipse occurs when the moon moves directly between the earth and the sun, blocking (or partly blocking) our view of the sun.

A lunar eclipse occurs when the earth moves directly between the sun and the moon, causing the earth’s shadow to fall on the moon and turn some or all of it dark (or red! Cool!).

Lunar eclipses are the rare occasions when the earth’s shadow really does fall on the moon.


When Eclipses Occur

Now, based on what we said about how the phases of the moon work, let me ask you a question: When is it possible for eclipses to occur?

If you think about it, the answers should come pretty quickly.

If a solar eclipse occurs when the moon moves directly between the earth and the sun then the moon must be between the earth and the sun—at the phase that we call a new moon.

Solar eclipses can’t occur at any other time, because the moon is in the wrong part of the sky.

(Also: Solar eclipses don’t occur every full moon because being on the same side of the earth as the sun is not the same as being directly between the earth and the sun.)

Conversely, if lunar eclipses occur when the earth is directly between the sun and the moon then they must happen when the moon is on the opposite side of the earth from the sun—at the phase we call the full moon.

That’s the only time lunar eclipses can occur.

(And: Lunar eclipses don’t occur every full moon because there’s a difference between being on the opposite side of the earth from the sun and being directly opposite the sun from the earth.)

So, again, what does this have to do with the Crucifixion?


How the Jewish Calendar Worked

In Jesus’ day, Jews used what is known as a lunisolar calendar. That means that it took into account information about the moon (like what phase it was in) and information about the sun (like when the equinoxes and solstices occurred).

The relevant part for our purposes is the lunar part. Specifically: The Jewish months were tied to the phases of the moon.

Every month began with a new moon feast, as we read about in the Bible (e.g., Colossians 2:16).

At Jerusalem, they even had a court declare the beginning of the month with the sighting of the new moon.

The Mishnah—a collection of oral laws written down around A.D. 200—even has rules about who can serve as a witness to the sighting of the new moon and how to test them to see if they’re lying or mistaken.

Once the court determined that the new moon had been sighted, messengers were sent from Jerusalem to proclaim the beginning of a new month (even in English, the word “month” comes from the word “moon”) to nearby Jewish communities.

So the sighting of the new moon was essential to the beginning of a month and to any holydays that occurred during that month.

Like Passover.


Why Passover Is Important

Passover, the holiday that celebrated the deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, is important for our purposes, because it is when Jesus was crucified.

All four of the Gospels link Jesus’ Crucifixion to Passover:

“You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of man will be delivered up to be crucified” (Matt. 26:2).

It was now two days before the Passover and the feast of Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth, and kill him” (Mark 14:1).

Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the passover lamb had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the passover for us, that we may eat it” (Luke 24:7-8).

[Pilate said:] “But you have a custom that I should release one man for you at the Passover; will you have me release for you the King of the Jews?” (John 18:39).

So, chronologically speaking, we have really, really good evidence that Jesus was crucified at Passover.

In fact, it was in part because of Passover that Jesus was crucified then: He was in Jerusalem for the feast when the Jerusalem authorities decided to have him killed.


How Passover Worked

Passover took place on the 14th day of the month of Nisan. Leviticus explains:

In the first month [i.e., Nisan], on the fourteenth day of the month in the evening, is the Lord’s Passover (Lev. 23:5).

Nisan—like every month of the Jewish calendar—began with the sighting of the new moon.

So . . . what phase was the moon at when Passover occurred?

If the moon orbits the earth every 29.5 days then 14 days into that cycle would be at or very near the full moon.

Now the other shoe can drop: What kind of eclipse can occur at the full moon?

A lunar eclipse.

Not a solar eclipse.


That’s Why I Flinched

The reason I flinched at Mass was because the translators of the New American Bible rendered Luke 23:44-45 as:

It was now about noon and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon because of an eclipse of the sun.

GAH! No! That’s the kind of eclipse that can’t occur at Passover!

Now, you might think that the NAB translators didn’t know this.

But that’s not plausible, because the fact this wouldn’t have been a solar eclipse is regularly commented upon in commentaries on Luke, and the translators certainly were familiar with and consulted such commentaries in the translation process.

They knew, but for some reason they just didn’t care.


An Unforced Error

If you check the Greek text that they translated “because of an eclipse of the sun,” you’ll see that it reads:

tou hēliou eklipontos

Tou hēliou means “of the sun” (“of” here plausibly being taken in the sense “because of”).

Eklipontos sounds very much like the word “eclipse,” doesn’t it?

Was Luke asserting that there was an eclipse?

It’s possible that Luke didn’t understand the timing of eclipses. This was not widely understood in the ancient world, though some people were aware of how eclipses worked.

In fact, more than 600 years earlier, the Greek philosopher Thales wowed his contemporaries by predicting an eclipse that occurred on May 28, 585 B.C.

Even if Luke didn’t know about the timing of eclipses, though, he wasn’t asserting that an eclipse in our sense was occurring.

Eklipontos is a participle of the verb ekleipō, which means “fail/leave off/cease.”

This is where we get the English word “eclipse.” A solar eclipse is when the sun’s light fails or ceases because the moon passes in front of it.

But to say that the sun’s light failed is not the same thing as saying that a solar eclipse occurred. (After all, the sun’s light fails every single evening.)

The translators of the NAB have thus committed an unforced error.

The Greek text does not require the translation they have given. It is perfectly acceptable—and preferable—to translate the passage like other translations do:

  • [there was] darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed (RSV).
  • and the sun's light failed, so that darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour (NJB).
  • there was darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour. And the sun was darkened (Douay-Rheims).
  • there was a darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour. And the sun was darkened (KJV).
  • and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining (NIV).


What Science Says

Science does not tell us what the darkness that covered the land during the Crucifixion was.

It could have been caused—through divine providence—by any number of agencies God choose.

Some scholars have proposed that God used a sirocco to stir up a dust storm. Others have proposed it was dense cloud cover.

It could have been something else—including something even more directly miraculous.

Yet if science suggests anything about the darkness, it suggests that it was not a solar eclipse.

But our scientific detective story isn’t over yet.

To quote Lt. Columbo, “Just one more thing . . .”


One More Thing

Remember I asked what kind of eclipse could occur during the full moon at Passover?

A lunar one, right?

So it’s natural to ask: Did one occur?

I’ve discussed elsewhere the fact that Jesus was most probably crucified on April 3, A.D. 33.

Guess what!

There was a partial lunar eclipse visible from Jerusalem when the moon rose that night.

We may even have a reference to this in the New Testament.

On the day of Pentecost, as Peter preaches, he quotes a prophecy from Joel 2:31, telling the assembled crowd:

the sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood (Acts 2:20).

Peter indicates Joel’s prophecy was being fulfilled in their own day, and the fact that the sun had turned to darkness during the Crucifixion was known to Peter (and recorded by Luke, the author of Acts).

A lunar eclipse can make the moon appear reddish, and Peter may be alluding to the lunar eclipse that occurred a few weeks earlier, on April 3 of 33—the night that Jesus lay in the tomb.

Consider the symbolism: Jesus had just shed his blood, and now the moon in the sky seems to bleed.

No wonder Peter might see this as the fulfillment of prophecy!

So, next time you hear the NAB’s awful translation of Luke 23:44-45 read at Mass, take comfort in the fact that there may well have been an eclipse at the Crucifixion—just not a solar one.


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