Questions From Readers
● Was the darkness, reported at Mark 15:33, that occurred while Jesus was on the torture stake the result of a solar eclipse?—B.A., U.S.A.
The Bible account of that period of darkness is brief. It reads: “When it became the sixth hour a darkness fell over the whole land until the ninth hour.” (Mark 15:33) The records in Matthew 27:45 and Luke 23:44, 45 provide basically the same information, Luke adding the observation that “the sunlight failed.”
The inspired writers of the Gospel accounts presented matters in such a way as to credit God with this unusual darkness. Over the years, though, certain commentators have tried to provide a scientific explanation of it by saying that a solar eclipse happened to coincide with Jesus’ impalement. However, Jesus died on Passover day, 33 C.E., and it is widely recognized that at the time of a Passover full moon a normal solar eclipse is astronomically impossible, because the moon is not between the sun and the earth, but is on the other side of the earth, away from the sun. Additionally, the darkness lasted three hours, from 12 noon to 3 p.m., but a total solar eclipse seldom lasts, in one location, more than two or three minutes. It is estimated that under the most favorable conditions the maximum duration of such an eclipse would be 7.5 minutes. So the darkness associated with Jesus’ impalement cannot be explained as resulting from a natural eclipse of the sun, caused when the moon comes between the earth and the sun in such a way as to blot out the sun to human view.
Some have endeavored to link this occurrence with an eclipse mentioned by Phlegon of Tralles, a freedman of the second century C.E. He wrote of a remarkable eclipse that caused such darkness that the stars were seen in the heavens. The date he assigned to this, the fourth year of the 202d Olympiad (four-year periods counting from 776 B.C.E.), appears to coincide with the year Jesus died. While it is possible that a person with a limited knowledge of astronomy might incorrectly credit the darkness associated with Jesus’ death to an eclipse, we cannot be certain that this was the event to which Phlegon was making reference because he does not give details as to the time of year that it happened.
The failing of the sunlight, resulting in hours of darkness from noon until 3 p.m., at the time of Jesus’ impalement must be attributed to a direct act of God. The same is true of the earthquake and the ripping of the curtain in the temple when Jesus expired. (Matt. 27:51; Mark 15:38) Arguments that endeavor to dismiss these events as nothing more than coincidences with natural explanations are not based on sound evidence.
Eyewitnesses of these events, an army officer and others with him who were watching over the impalement of Jesus, when they saw the earthquake and the things happening, recognized that what took place was of supernatural origin, and they “grew very much afraid, saying: ‘Certainly this was God’s Son.’”—Matt. 27:54.