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Bible Gem 1277 - The Three Hours of Darkness - What the Experts Say (Luke 23:44-45)

September 16, 2019


The three hours of darkness from Noon to Three p.m.


Matthew 27:45

45  At noon, darkness fell across the whole land until three o'clock. 


Mark 15:33

At noon, darkness fell across the whole land until three o'clock. 


Luke 23:44-45

44  By this time it was noon, and darkness fell across the whole land until three o'clock. 
45  The light from the sun was gone. . . 



The biblical text about this darkness is matter of fact. It doesn’t embellish the event, it merely reports that it happened. But of course for many of us, it leaves us with more questions than answers.


Allow me to order the input or answers under the questions I posed to you two Gems ago. 


This darkness as described by all three synoptic gospels seems so unnatural. It does not appear to fit what we know of typically natural earth processes to account for what happened. These biblical records are based on eye witness accounts. Matthew was one of the disciples present at the time. Mark is likely to have also been there, or at least in the vicinity at the time of the darkness and earthquake and the graves opening. He is likely to have been the one who shed his clothes and ran away at the time of the arrest. Luke while not a disciple undertook the task of gathering all the details together and then order them with respect to his themes. Also he ordered the facts in ways that would help God Lovers into the future. We do have reliable accounts in these gospels, the essence of which was penned between 7 to 30 years after the events. I have talked before of the nature of the documentary evidence from the ancient world. Biblical documents are recorded only a few short years after the events they describe. Suetonius, a Roman historian, wrote his account of Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon c. 110 years after event. The earliest written records for Alexander the Great’s conquests were recorded by Arrian and Plutarch some 400 years after his death. This kind of time frame is acceptable when it comes to ancient records of events. It is perfectly trustworthy.   


Notice the similarity between Matthew, Mark and Luke on the matter of the darkness, see the yellow colouring above. These three biblical witness are in harmony on what happened. Darkness fell across the land for three hours from noon till 3.00 pm. There have been many attempts to question this short succinct account. Challenges to the chronology, attempts to explain the duration and biblical time frame away by suggesting it was merely an eclipse of the sun. To do that appeals have been made to what has been written by the secular ancient witnesses. 



Was it a Solar Eclipse?

Thallus, who wrote a history of the Eastern Mediterranean world after the Trojan War (c AD 52) first suggested the events happened as the result of a solar eclipse. He was quoted by Julius Africanus, a third century historian, who stated, “Thallus, in his third book of his histories, explains away the darkness as an eclipse of the sun.” But Africanus added "unreasonably as it seems to me.” Africanus pointed to the fact that a solar eclipse cannot occur during a lunar cycle of the Passover, at the time of a full moon.  The earth is between the moon and sun at the time of the full moon. Therefore it is impossible for a solar eclipse to occur. An eclipse can only occur when the moon is between the earth and the sun.  Africanus also pointed out there is no rational way to link an eclipse with an earthquake nor graves opening and bodily resurrections occurring. Furthermore, eclipses naturally only last a matter of seven and half minutes at the most, not of a duration of three hours. For this to have been an eclipse of the sun for would require a miracle greater than Joshua's long day or Hezekiah's reversal of the sun’s shadow by 10 degrees (lengthening that day by forty minutes). In this case the moon would have to have jumped 800,000 kms,  stopped its orbital motion, and stayed in front of the sun for three hours before it sprang back 800,000 kms to where it should have been in the first place.  No, an eclipse wasn't the answer. 

Africanus and Tertullian suggested this happening could be explained by natural planetary movements. As Lyall the father of modern geology claimed, the present is the key to the past, the suggestion is that we look for the normal processes around us to explain what is happening here. This brings up the next point. 



Was it Local or Global?

What is the meaning of “land”?

Does this mean Earth, Israel or the local area around Jerusalem? Was this darkness regional by nature or did it occur on a global scale?

The Greek word gē, from which we get the word geology,  has been translated in various ways among the versions – land, whole land, entire land, region, country, earth, entire earth. Many of the ancients, including Africanus and Tertullian, saw this as a world event, a cosmic phenomenon. Others see this as being a regional event, occurring over the Eastern Mediterranean. Most translations appear to suggest that the darkness was a local or regional phenomenon. If it was regional, it was over an extensive region. Dr Paul Maier, professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University, notes ‘This phenomenon, evidently, was visible in Rome, Athens, and other Mediterranean cities.’ Many skeptics also ask why other early historians such as Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny the Younger fail to mention the darkness. The secular accounts consistently claim the darkness extended over the Mediterranean area, if not the whole world. Gerardus Bouw,  suggests "given the time of day, if the sun was darkened world-wide, then there may still be other accounts, undiscovered, of this darkening in Europe, Asia, Africa, and as far east as Australia and the Western-most Pacific. (It was night in the Americas throughout the three hours.)"  


"When I started this research I thought the darkness was local, but now I believe it more likely to have been world-wide.”



What other natural phenomena could explain what happened?

It is possible that the sun was obscured by a cloud of interplanetary matter, which would also explain the lackluster of the stars. If a natural event has to be found this is the most likely. An interplanetary cloud could redden the moon, could obscure the sun, and could even provide a meteor shower. A less likely one is that the entire sun became one huge sunspot. This may be caused by magnetic fields just under the surface of the sun. [Gerardus Bouw]



Can it be substantiated by sources outside of the Bible that this really happened?


Phlegon was a Greek historian / astronomer who wrote an extensive chronology around AD 137:

In the fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad (i.e. AD 33) there was ‘the greatest eclipse of the sun’ and that ‘it became night in the sixth hour of the day [i.e., noon] so that stars even appeared in the heavens. There was a great earthquake in Bithynia, and many things were overturned in Nicaea.’


Africanus writes: Phlegon provides powerful confirmation of the Gospel accounts. He identifies the year and the exact time of day. In addition, he writes of an earthquake accompanying the darkness, which is specifically recorded in Matthew’s Gospel (27:51). "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."


Reports of Pontius Pilate to Augustus and to Tiberius


The reports in question are part of a collection called “Letters of Herod and Pilate” which stem from a Syraic manuscript of the sixth or seventh centuries. The manuscript is in the British Museum. The entire work is probably a forgery occasioned by a mention of such a letter (particularly the second of these, to Tiberius), Nevertheless, forgeries are always based on some element of truth which makes them partially believable.  


The Report of Pilate the Governor, Concerning our Lord Jesus Christ; Which was Sent to Augustus Caesar, in Rome reads: Now when he was crucified, there was darkness over all the world, and the sun was obscured for half a day, and the stars appeared, but no luster was seen in them; and the moon lost its brightness, as though tinged with blood; and the world of the departed was swallowed up; so that the very sanctuary of the temple, as they call it, did not appear to the Jews themselves as their fall, but they perceived a chasm in the earth, and the rolling successive thunders.


”The Report of Pontius Pilate, Governor of Judea; Which was Sent to Tiberius Caesar in Rome” reads as follows: Now when he was crucified darkness came over all the world; the sun was altogether hidden, and the sky appeared dark while it was yet day, so that the stars were seen, though still they had their luster obscured, wherefore, I suppose your excellency is not unaware that in all the world they lighted their lamps from the sixth hour until evening. And the moon, which was like blood, did not shine all night long, although it was at the full, and the stars and Orion made lamentation over the Jews because of the transgression committed by them.



Origen quoted Phlegon: That heathen author, in treating of the fourth year of the two hundred second Olympiad, which is supposed to be the year in which our Lord was crucified, tells us “That the greatest eclipse of the sun which was ever known to happened then; for the day was so turned into night that the stars in the heavens were seen.”


Tertullian In his Apologeticus, written about A.D. 197 wrote:  … at that same moment, about noontide, the day was withdrawn; and they, who knew not that this was foretold concerning Christ, thought it was an eclipse. But this you have in your archives; you can read it there.


Eusebius, the historian and friend of the emperor Constantine, wrote about the year 315, in his Chronicle, volume II: Christ suffered this year, in which time we find in other commentaries of the heathen these words: “There was a defection of the sun: Bithynia was shaken with an earthquake, and many houses fell down in the city of Nicea.”  Eusebius did not give us the details of the “other commentaries of the heathen” to which he referred. But it is clear there is much that has been written about this by those in ancient times.


Amos 8:9 says: “And it shall come to pass in that day, saith the Lord GOD, that I will cause the sun to go down at noon, and I will darken the earth in the clear day.” 


I will add more in the next Gem. This has already grown beyond what I imagined it would.  Ponder the above input and weigh up what you think about it all. Must we find a logical, naturalistic explanation for everything we find in the Bible? Continuing story in the next Gem.



Why is it called "after dark" when it's really "after light"?


Don’t be afraid, darkness cannot put out the Light. It can only make God brighter. Sidney Mohede


Faith is a bird that feels dawn breaking and sings while it is still dark.


Deal with the darkness by turning on the light. Darkness flees in the light of God’s Word. Ian




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