Awesome signs and wonders accompanied the death of the Messiah (Matthew 27:51–53). The earth shook. The temple veil was torn in two. The tombs were opened and, later, many of the saints were resurrected from the dead! Even the sun "failed" for about three hours. The Creator of the universe and "The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" had died (John 1:29).
The amazing truth—that God gave His Son to die for the sins of the world—is something for which Christians are deeply thankful, and as we grow in spiritual maturity and understanding, we become even more grateful for the love that the Father and the Son have for Their creation and for each one of us individually. As Psalm 145:3 records, "Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; and His greatness is unsearchable."
While it is the actual sacrifice, death and resurrection of our Savior that is the greater reality and subject of the gospels, the specific events surrounding His crucifixion are also worthy of study and meditation. How can we know the year of His crucifixion? How can we understand the timing of when He was in the grave? And what about the signs that accompanied His death? As is always the case, a close study of Scripture and an honest look at history reveals that the Bible remains without error in its original writing. And there is one event that accompanied Christ's sacrifice in particular—the darkness that fell on the earth—that is especially instructive to study, because it helps us answer some of the above questions.
The Counterfeit Solar Eclipse Theory
Some believe that it was a solar eclipse that marked the crucifixion and death of Jesus. Was it? Were the gospel writers wrong in their observations? Did they confuse a routine, natural solar eclipse—moments when the earth's moon blocks the light of the sun—for a miraculous sign from God? Or can we trust that Scripture is inerrant and can we believe the literal biblical account? These are very important questions because not only does the solar eclipse error cause confusion in dating Jesus' ministry, it also ignores historical accounts and science and, most problematically, it contradicts Scripture!
There is a truth about the darkness during the crucifixion that has been obscured for nearly two millennia and continues to be obscured today! What really happened at Jesus' crucifixion was both amazing and was well-documented—and it was no mere solar eclipse! It is no wonder that the false solar eclipse narrative has been presented for nearly 2,000 years—Satan wants to undermine the authority of Scripture and the deity of the Son of God!
Supporting the "solar eclipse" theory, many attempt to date the crucifixion to either 29ad or 33ad because of known solar eclipses in Judea at those times. In fact, numerous lists of "famous eclipses in history" will place the crucifixion of Jesus as possibly occurring on one of those dates. As Space.com noted, "Some historians tie the crucifixion to a one minute 59 second total solar eclipse that occurred in the year 29 C.E., while others say a second total eclipse, blocking the sun for four minutes and six seconds, in 33 C.E. marked Jesus' death" ("The 7 Most Famous Solar Eclipses in History," November 13, 2012). Even NASA lists 29ad and 33ad as possible years of the crucifixion of Christ on their list of "Solar Eclipses of Historical Interest."
But as will be shown, the 29ad and 33ad accounts do not match the biblical account. Moreover, the Bible does not recount an eclipse-event of less than a mere two minutes! And according to NASA and NOAA, the longest duration of a solar eclipse is just over 7.5 minutes. But as Mark 15:33 reads, "Now when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour." That is a full three hours! While God could make an eclipse last three hours, as we will see, we can know from the biblical account that this is not what happened at Jesus' crucifixion nearly 2,000 years ago.
The solar eclipse theory actually goes back almost 2,000 years and was argued by such famous figures as the Greek scholar (and Christian apologist) Origen. In the third century, Origen wrote in Against Celsus that the darkness, earthquake and opening of tombs was all proof that the crucifixion had indeed happened. In his writings, Origen referred to an earlier account by one Phlegon of Tralles, who stated that it was an eclipse during the reign of Tiberius—probably in 29ad—that accompanied the crucifixion of Christ. However, the "eclipses" that Origen and Phlegon are referring to were natural solar eclipses, such as those listed by NASA on its website. But, as we will see, when darkness fell upon the earth for three hours, it was not—and could not have been—a solar eclipse that occurred during Jesus' crucifixion!
Notice another ancient account, one that gives more details and precisely matches the gospel records. The respected third-century historian Sextus Julius Africanus wrote, "[I]n the time of Tiberius Caesar, at full moon, there was a full eclipse of the sun from the sixth hour to the ninth—manifestly that one of which we speak. But what has an eclipse in common with an earthquake, the rending rocks, and the resurrection of the dead, and so great a perturbation throughout the universe?… But it was a darkness induced by God, because the Lord happened then to suffer" (The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Translations of The Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325, p. 137).
Africanus was quoting an earlier historian named Thallus. Thallus wrote his history in 52ad, which was only about twenty years after the crucifixion, at roughly the same time the Apostle James wrote his epistle and Paul wrote 1 and 2 Thessalonians and Galatians, and about a decade before Matthew, Mark or Luke were written! Notice that Thallus points out that the "eclipse" occurred during the time of a "full moon," and that it was no normal eclipse: it was "a darkness induced by God." Thallus understood what we also know today: that solar eclipses only occur when the moon is between the earth and the sun, which is impossible during a full moon. In ancient Greek, the word translated as eclipse does not always mean that the moon has blocked out the sun from shining on the earth, or that the earth has blocked the sun from shining on the moon. The word originally simply meant "to fail" or "to come to an end" such as in Luke 22:32 where Jesus said, "But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail." The Greek word for "fail" in that verse is a form of ékleipsis, from which we get "eclipse."
Thallus' writings reveal that, like many of the learned ancients and like the gospel writers, he understood the basics of astronomy. In fact, later in the same passage of his writings, Thallus comments, "Let no one now think us unskilled in the calculations of astronomy" and then goes into considerable depth discussing things such as intercalary months, lunar periods, the exact computation of lunar months and years, and the counting of years from Nehemiah and Artaxerxes to the reign of Tiberius Caesar.
Simply stated, Thallus knew this was no regular eclipse, but rather that the sun failed because of the death of the Savior. Thallus understood the simple concept that a solar eclipse occurs when the moon comes between the sun and the earth, and therefore this would be impossible during any Passover, regardless of the year! As the gospel records make clear, the crucifixion occurred during the Passover season, and that is always during the time when there is a full moon. Thus, this was no "solar eclipse."
Dating Jesus' Ministry and Crucifixion
At the age of thirty (Luke 3:23), in the fall of 27ad, Jesus Christ was baptized by John (cf. Matthew 3:13–16). Based on the gospel accounts, the prophecy of the Messiah in Daniel 9, and an understanding of the observance and the meaning of the annual Holy Days, the Church has long taught that this began Jesus' three-and-a-half year ministry and that Jesus was crucified in the spring of 31ad. (For a more detailed study on the dates of Jesus' ministry and crucifixion, please read our booklet Easter: The Untold Story and "The Hebrew Calendar and God's Church" in the March-April 2000 Living Church News.) What do we know about the timing of Jesus' crucifixion?
The Bible is clear that, just as Jesus promised, He would spend three full days and three full nights in the tomb, just as Jonah spent in the body of the fish. This is a crucial point because according to Christ Himself, this was the sign of His messiahship: "But He answered and said to them, 'An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth'" (Matthew 12:39–40).
Then, just as He also promised, exactly at the end of those 72 hours—not an hour early and not an hour late—He was resurrected. As is often overlooked, Jesus was already risen and had already departed from the grave when the women arrived to embalm Him early Sunday morning: "Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen.... And entering the tomb, they saw a young man clothed in a long white robe sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, 'Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid Him'" (Mark 16:2, 5–6). He was already gone from the tomb! He had already been resurrected!
Scripture tells us that Jesus was crucified on the preparation day before a "Sabbath." Notice Mark 15:42, for example: "Now when evening had come, because it was the Preparation Day, that is, the day before the Sabbath…." But the "preparation day" referred to in this passage was not a Friday as many presume, and the Sabbath referred to here was not the weekly, seventh-day Sabbath (although many Bible commentaries are confused on this point). Jesus was crucified on Nisan 14, during the daylight period of the Passover. In 31ad, the Passover (always on the 14th day of the month of Nisan, also known as the month of Abib—see Leviticus 23:5) occurred on a Wednesday and was the "preparation day" before Thursday, which in 31ad was the annual Sabbath (or "high day") beginning the Feast of Unleavened Bread (John 19:31).
Jesus was the ultimate and perfect Passover sacrifice. He was "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29), and the authenticating sign He gave was that He would be in the tomb for three full days and three full nights—a full 72 hours, like Jonah was in the fish! It is simply impossible for a full three days and a full three nights to fit between Friday afternoon (before sunset) and Sunday morning (before sunrise) in the manner of worldly "Good Friday" and "Easter Sunday" celebrations. A 31ad crucifixion fits the prophesied dating of Jesus' ministry and exactly fits the timing of the Passover, the annual Sabbath beginning the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and the weekly Sabbath! It is impossible for a 29ad or 33ad crucifixion to meet all of these criteria! Those who attempt to place Jesus' crucifixion in these two years because of documented solar eclipses are simply at odds with Scripture on multiple levels!
Satan wants to counterfeit and deceive. Just as Satan has tried to substitute Sunday for the Sabbath, and a false version of Christianity for the true, he also attempts to counterfeit in small but important details, including the details around the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ.
Whether suggested innocently or not, the erroneous "solar eclipse" assertion has ancient roots going back nearly 2,000 years. It eventually became dogma and is occasionally heard in "mainstream" thinking today. However, the solar eclipse claim denies other ancient accounts, has led many to inaccurately date the year of Jesus' crucifixion, and most importantly, contradicts the explanation given in Scripture.
Reflecting the Magnitude of the Messiah's Sacrifice
When "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29) became our perfect Passover (1 Corinthians 5:7), the creation groaned at the death of the Savior. When the Messiah died, the Father marked His death with awesome signs! "Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split, and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many" (Matthew 27:51–53). When the Son of God died for the sins of man, darkness fell over the land, and it appeared for a period of three hours that the sun had failed! This was no solar eclipse!
The "solar eclipse theory" is another lie propagated by the one Jesus calls the father of lies (John 8:44). Satan continually attempts to attack the inerrancy of Scripture, the deity of Christ (1 John 4:3) and the awesome reality of what the Son of God did when He died for the sins of the world. When the Creator of the universe (Colossians 1:16), who became the Savior of the world, died that Passover, the reaction in creation and the abundance of miraculous signs left even Roman soldiers fearfully amazed and convinced that they had indeed murdered the Son of God! "So when the centurion and those with him, who were guarding Jesus, saw the earthquake and the things that had happened, they feared greatly, saying, 'Truly this was the Son of God!'" (Matthew 27:54).
Christians are profoundly thankful, not for the awesome signs that accompanied Christ's sacrifice, but for the fact that the Son of God did give His life for us. We are thankful for the amazing truth that the Father loved the world enough to give His Son as a sacrifice for the sins of all—and that the Son loved the world enough to become that perfect, willing sacrifice! "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3:16).
Thank God and Jesus Christ for Their love for us and for our Savior's perfect sacrifice. And thank God that the very same Savior will return, this time as Lord of lords! Two thousand years ago, Jesus Christ lived a perfect life, He overcame Satan, He died and was resurrected, and He sat down at the right hand of the Father to prepare for His return with a reward for His saints (Hebrews 1:3–4; John 14:3). And He will return and establish His Father's Kingdom over all kingdoms and all dominions at the appointed time.