We now leap beyond the crucifixion to add a last piece of evidence about the day of the cross. The Bible reports that the resurrected Messiah instructed his disciples not to leave Jerusalem until they received power from the Holy Spirit. They may have been confused, wondering if Jesus was talking about something political (1). But stay they did.
They were still there for the Jewish celebration of Pentecost, 50 days after the Passover Feast and the crucifixion. Jerusalem was full of worshipers from all over the Near East. The Bible reports sudden startling events during this celebration: the sound of a great rushing wind, something like flames hovering about the disciples. Just as strange, the disciples began to speak, but not in their native Aramaic or Hebrew. They spoke in languages they had not learned. They were understood by countless foreign visitors to the city (2).
There was pandemonium. A boisterous crowd jostled closer. Travelers heard their own languages spoken by Galileans and were bewildered. Hecklers shouted: “They’re all drunk!” The apostle Peter jumped up amid the confusion. We can imagine his hand outstretched to still the crowd. He then boomed out his explanation of what was happening. Listen and consider as Peter argues from the words of the prophet Joel recorded circa 835 BC. From the Book of Acts, Chapter 2:
14 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15 These men are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! 16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: 17 “‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. 18 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. 19 I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. 20 The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. 21 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.'”— Acts 2:14-21
Then Peter delivered the knockout punch. The Book of Acts, Chapter 2:
Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.”— Acts 2:22
Peter asserts that Joel’s prophesy has been fulfilled and that his listeners know it—that they have seen the signs themselves. This is the same argument the apostle Paul made, as discussed in Setting the Stage on this web site. This argument would have had exactly no persuasive force unless Paul’s and Peter’s audiences knew that signs had occurred. Both men assumed that everybody knew about the signs. That’s powerful evidence that they had occurred. Of particular interest for us: Joel said there would be astronomical signs. And now Peter says, “you’ve seen them.” What were they?
“The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood…”
The gospels do recount that the sun was darkened on the day of the crucifixion from noon until 3 in the afternoon (3). Ancient non-Biblical sources confirm this. Phlegon Trallianus records in his history, Olympiades (4):
In the fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad, [AD 32-33] a failure of the Sun took place greater than any previously known, and night came on at the sixth hour of the day [noon], so that stars actually appeared in the sky; and a great earthquake took place in Bithynia and overthrew the greater part of Niceaea,”— Trallianus, Olympiades
This was obviously not a simple astronomical event. (5)
But what about the bloody moon?
- The Book of Acts, Chapter 1: “4 On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: ‘Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. 5 For John baptised with water, but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.’ 6 So when they met together, they asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’ 7 He said to them: ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’”
- The Book of Acts , Chapter 2
- The Book of Mark, Chapter 15:33 “At the sixth hour darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour.”
As mentioned earlier, the gospel of Mark reckons the 24-hour day on Gallilean time, begining at sunrise, traditionally 6 A.M.. Thus, Mark is here reporting that the Sun was darkened from noon until 3 P.M..
- F. Richard Stephenson, Historical Eclipses and Earth’s Rotation (Cambridge University Press, July 1997) ISBN 0-52146-194-4
Phlegon was a Greek freedman who wrote his histories during the reign of Hadrian (117-138 AD). His birthplace, Tralles, was near Ephesus.
Phlegon’s Olympiades are largely lost to history, but this fragment concerning the failure of the Sun is unusually well-attested. Seven ancient historians directly quote it: Eusibius, The Chronicon Alexandrinum, Syncellus, Jerom, Anastasius Bibliothecarius, The Historia Miscella and Freculphus Lexoviensis. Other ancients, such as Julius Africanus, Joannes Philoponus, Maximus, Malelas and Origen, cite Phlegon’s account without quoting it. Kepler was familiar with Phlegon’s report, as it caused trouble for one of his historical theories. (As discussed on this site, Kepler’s mistaken understanding of First Century chronology led him to assert early dates for events in Christ’s life).
See, John Chapman, Phlegon Examined Critically and Impartially (Cambridge University Press, London, 1734) Chapman is long out-of-print, but is available in microform in some libraries.
- As Phlegon plainly understood, this was not an ordinary eclipse, and he describes it as extraordinary. What he may not have understood is that the darkening was not caused by the moon’s shadow.
Julius Africanus mentions Phlegon’s report of the darkness, and also a similar report of the darkness by Thallus, who wrote his History circa 50-100 AD. Thallus’ manuscripts have not survived, but Africanus perserves some of his writing by critiquing it. Specifically, Africanus faults Thallus for stating that the darkness was the result of a solar eclipse.
“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.”
Africanus realized that a solar eclipse cannot occur at the time of the Passover full moon. The means of the darkening is yet a mystery, although continuing research may yield clues. An obvious candidate explanation is volcanism. Israel is in a sheering subduction zone, the Levant is studded with volcanos, and multiple sources record tectonic activity on the day of Christ’s execution.