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The ’Splainer: Did a solar eclipse darken the skies during Jesus’ crucifixion?

“Christ on the Cross,” by Carl Heinrich Bloch from 1870, showing the skies darkened. Image courtesy of Creative Commons

“Christ on the Cross,” by Carl Heinrich Bloch from 1870, showing darkened skies. Image courtesy of Creative Commons

The ’Splainer (as in “You’ve got some ’splaining to do”) is an occasional feature in which RNS staff give you everything you need to know about current events to hold your own at the water cooler.

(RNS) — It’s a scene familiar from movies and even some modern translations of the Bible: As Jesus Christ hangs on the cross, an eclipse blots out the sun.

But did a total solar eclipse actually darken the skies during the Crucifixion?


RELATED: Signs and wonder: How people of different faiths view the total solar eclipse


For centuries, scholars have debated the exact date of Jesus’ death and questioned whether an eclipse could have happened at that time.

“While most attempts to work out dates of historical events based on astronomical events can be problematical, this one is easy!” Brother Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory, wrote in an email to RNS. 

Let us ’Splain …

An early crucifixion depiction in an illuminated manuscript, from the Syriac Rabbula Gospels from 586 CE, shows both the sun and moon in the sky behind Christ. Image courtesy of Creative Commons

Wait, wait. Back up. Why do people think there was an eclipse during Jesus’ crucifixion?

Three of the four Gospels that record the earthly life and ministry of Jesus — Matthew, Mark and Luke — mention that the sky became dark as Jesus hung on the cross.

The Rev. James Kurzynski

“It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three, because the sun’s light failed,” according to Luke 23:44.

The New American Bible even translates this “because of an eclipse of the sun.”

From his perspective as a priest in the Roman Catholic Diocese of La Crosse, Wis., the Rev. James Kurzynski said he sees the question as “a byproduct of living in a modernist culture that tries to explain everything with science.”

“We begin to fall into the mindset that there must be a natural explanation for everything in the Bible,” Kurzynski said.

But the question isn’t new. Even Sir Isaac Newton had pursued it, according to John Dvorak, author of “Mask of the Sun: The Science, History and Forgotten Lore of Eclipses.”

That does seem like a good natural explanation. Could there have been a solar eclipse at the time of Jesus’ death?

Brother Guy Consolmagno, an astronomer and head of the Vatican Observatory. RNS photo by David Gibson

The Gospels make clear Jesus was crucified during the Jewish festival of Passover, Consolmagno said, which always is celebrated during a full moon in spring. But a new moon is needed for a solar eclipse to occur, making it “exactly the wrong phase of the moon,” he said.

Plus, the darkness that descended during the Crucifixion was too long to be a solar eclipse. The time from the beginning to end of a partial eclipse can run about three hours, but the darkness of a total solar eclipse only lasts a few minutes, according to the Vatican astronomer.

Not to mention, people knew what eclipses were and could predict them with accuracy, Consalmagno said, “so it is certain that they knew the darkness reported at the time of the Crucifixion could not be a typical solar eclipse.”

What about a lunar eclipse?

Because of the phase of the moon during Passover, if there was an eclipse during the Crucifixion, it would’ve been a lunar eclipse, according to Dvorak.

But scholars have zeroed in on April 3, 33 A.D., as the date of Jesus’ death, according to the scientist-author. And that presents a problem with the lunar eclipse theory: While there was a total lunar eclipse that night, it likely was not visible from Jerusalem, where the Gospels record Jesus was crucified outside the city walls.

So maybe that theory is not right. “Or another possibility is they knew a lunar eclipse was going to happen that night even though it wasn’t seen,” he said. “We just don’t have enough evidence to decide that right now.”

So how do Christian readers interpret this darkness, if it’s not an eclipse?

If not an eclipse, the darkness could have been caused by increased cloud coverage, or it may have been “a poetic device to emphasize the gravity of the moment,” according to Kurzynski.

It also could have been a miraculous sign. Evangelist Anne Graham Lotz said she believes the darkness “wasn’t just creation feeling sorry for the Creator, it wasn’t just a warning; it was a sign of God’s judgment.”

Christians who hold to the doctrine of substitutionary atonement believe Jesus died as a substitute for sinners, taking on the judgment they deserve. 

Author and speaker Anne Graham Lotz in Washington, D.C., on May 4, 2016. Religion News Service photo by Adelle M. Banks

Lotz pointed to other mentions of darkness in the Bible, including the plague of darkness described in Exodus, one of the 10 plagues God sent to Egypt to convince Pharaoh to free Jewish slaves. The Prophet Joel also describes the sun turning to darkness and the moon to blood before the day of the Lord.

“It’s just a sign of the absence of God and total judgment. … I think that judgment on the cross was much more significant than just a solar eclipse, but when we get to heaven, we’ll find out,” she said.

Aside from the religious significance, Dvorak said, “The bottom line here is people ever since Newton have been debating this point, and I suspect for another 100 years they will continue.”

About the author

Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.

33 Comments

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  • Whatever the cause, with all due respect to Father Kurzynsky, I don’t think a literary poetic device will serve in the context of the narrative. The event is reported as a straight forward historical event, not a metaphor or allegory such as one would find in Psalms, Proverbs, or the Apocalyptic literature.

  • “Did a solar eclipse darken the skies during Jesus’ crucifixion?”

    Two religious people with astronomical experience and knowledge – No

    “So how do Christian readers interpret this darkness, if it’s not an eclipse?”

    Apparently they do what the rest of us do – speculate – some (the first 2 lines) sensibly; some not.

  • But scholars have zeroed in on April 3, 33 A.D., as the date of Jesus’ death, according to the scientist-author.

    Amazing! In a time when finding definitive proof of someone’s existence is difficult, here we have the exact date of his death. Since it was supposedly the ninth hour we can even estimate the approximate time of day. Not to mention Ussher giving us the exact date of Adam’s creation.

  • Has she ever told the story about when Jesus personally granted her exemption from 1 Tim 2:12?

  • I doubt that anyone today takes the good bishop’s chronology to be a precise measure of the Creation timeline.

  • Such an instruction applies inferentially within the precincts of the Church, not outside it.

  • The Bible says that Jesus was full of “grace and truth.

    But these days, people only want to hear about grace, not truth. (And many folks aren’t even interested in grace!)

    These are singularly bad days for America, but God is fighting to save and renew her.

  • Forget about the eclipse — when Jesus died, earthquakes so powerful occurred that deceased holy people rose and came out of their tombs like zombies…they wandered though Jerusalem presumably visiting families and friends…Forget about Jesus, my dead grandparents are knocking on my door !!

    I’m sure Anne Graham Lotz thinks this is the inerrant word of God…

    Matthew 27:51-53 “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and[a] went into the holy city and appeared to many people.”

    An eclipse is small potatoes… The big question is why Jesus rising from the dead is such a big deal when Jerusalem was filled with crowds of zombies at the same time?

  • I assume you mean “a church” rather than “the Church.

    Your inference, and probably hers also. Neither supported nor contradicted explicitly within the text but if the writer intended a limited locational application it would have been easy enough to add it, wouldn’t it.

    Do you think that “women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with braided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array” and “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection” also only apply on church property?”

    What about women being saved through having kids – you OK with that? “…..the woman being deceived was in the transgression.
    2:15 Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.”

    and do they have to have the children/”continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.” only within the precincts?

  • It sounds impressive, but all it involves is using a backwards-looking calendar to determine when Passover was in 33 CE. It of course assumes that Jesus was born in either 1 BCE or 1 CE.

  • Based on my observation of the eclipse, which was just outside the path of totality, it seems to me unlikely that an eclipse occurred during the crucifixion. I’ve seen thunderstorms emanating a much greater degree of darkness.

  • How does it harm you if they that hold that belief, which rightly or wrongly they are entitled to? It does not pick your pocket, restrain your own point of view, or hinder your daily activities within the law.

  • I meant, in fact, the Church. The inference is implicit in the text. Some precepts are universal to Christians and to be practiced everywhere, some perhaps not. As to modest apparel, I believe men and women both, as Christians, ought to obey that admonition, in the sanctuary and out of it. It is basic to our message to the world. We are not called to live as the world lives. Childbearing is a natural and necessary function for the propagation of the race. Some families have ten, others have one. Some women are more naturally gifted as mothers than others, but it’s not beyond any woman who is willing to wrap her heart around it…but I do not judge those who choose not to bear children, I don’t see it in the same context as other choices a Christian has to make, with the exception that once a child is conceived no practicing Christian woman can affirm the right to abort her child and claim her decision is validated by scripture.

  • The Church – as in “the body of Christ” a.k.a. every believer?

    I think you see the inference because you want to – I don’t see it, but then I don’t care either way.

    Modest dress is a way of being different? – Modest uniforms perhaps since many non-believers dress modestly don’t they?

    What about those women who can’t have children – not due to any fault of theirs – just physically unable – did god make them unable to be saved? I note that you’ve inexplicably decided to vary your “context” (biblically?) as regards nuns.

    How do you square the need to have children in order to be saved with 1 Corinthians 7 which is usually thought to instruct the faithful to not marry, but if they must to abstain from sex? In fact, aren’t churches aiding and abetting the wrong side by performing marriages and baptising children? (thinking on the fly here you appreciate).

    Whilst we are going to disagree about the value of women, their rights over their bodies and when a collection of cells become a living being where do you stand re pregnancy through rape and/or incest? And do you support the reported pastoral objections to a termination vital to save the life of the women who is otherwise going to die before the foetus is anywhere near viable?

    I accept that it is unlikely that your scripture validates abortion, but does it actually (assuming life cannot be meaningful at least until the foetus is independently viable) say abortion is always wrong?
    Having said that, basing matters relating to human reproduction on the Bible is a bit like basing plans for interplanetary travel on Jules Verne’s ideas. The biblical writers and its pre-16th century translators did not understand the process of reproduction. Until Fallopius worked out the process it was thought that the foetus was a part of the father temporarily deposited in a woman which neatly facilitated the idea that the woman had a minor role (a custodial rather than proprietorial interest) and therefore deserved no rights regarding the developing “seed”.

  • If they were slaves in Egypt, they were Hebrews. They wouldn’t be Jews for another 2000 years.

    That’s what the Bible says, at any rate.

  • No not me but when they try to teach that crap to their children or in schools it needs to be called out. We have to promote truth.

  • I understand the day and month but the gospel accounts are full of historical errors yet they try to pinpoint the year.

  • People have the right to teach their children the beliefs and values they hold most dear, further, as their taxes support the public schools system they ought to have some input as to what their children are taught, whether you deem it as “crap” or not.

  • And everyone…absolutely everyone agrees with you. But I’m exercising my franchise as a curmudgeon.

  • Yes. the Church as in “the Body of Christ.” i.e. every genuine believer. I applaud all who dress modestly, Christian or not, I consider it a common courtesy. But it is an absolute obligation of Christians in my opinion. I think you take the text about women being saved through childbirth hyper-literally, which is not the proper context of the text. In 1st Cor. 7, Paul is speaking in an extemporaneous fashion to some degree. It is his advice, not a command, that people refrain from marriage, but “It is better to marry than to burn.” He advises celibacy as means to not be distracted from full service to God, but that again is a preferential view, not a command. Nor do I find any admonition in the text for married people to abstain from sex, except as an occasional practice, similar to fasting from food for a season as a spiritual exercise.
    In answer to your query regarding various circumstances related to the social narrative involving specific pregnancies I would answer thus: While the deliverance of a child conceived through rape or incest is naturally going to be an emotionally painful experience for a woman, or a young woman, it is not an argument in favor of abortion scripturally speaking. Life is full of injustices and uncertainties which are exceedingly painful. The gift lies in being able to rise above them. Abortion would merely be a further injustice perpetrated on an innocent being who had not part in its own creation. I’ve read of powerful examples of women who made the choice for life, and avoided the regressive trauma that often occurs to those women who choose abortion. As to the life of the unborn vs. that of the mother in medically rare cases where a pregnancy threatens the life of the mother, I’m prepared to accept that a woman who chose to end her pregnancy to save her own life may have a legitimate right to do so, yet I could not help but admire a woman prepared to sacrifice her own life on behalf of her child, which occasionally has happened, though at great emotional cost to her loved ones. But such a choice reflects the same act that our Savior volitionally took on the Cross. The biological science is of no consequence when assessing things morally and spiritually.

  • Yes. Jews came from tribe of Judah (after David’s death within the Southern Kingdom). The land of Judea [Judah] did not exist until the Twelve Hebrew tribes conquered Canaan.

  • A blood moon, observed during a total lunar eclipse, is often associated with the Crucifixion of Jesus.
    The passages in Revelation 12 may reflect this.

  • Could this have been reversal of Creation process which started with “Light” before Sun,moon,stars.? Any scientific or theological explanation?
    Loss Hall of Hewn Stones 30 AD fulfillment of Jacob’s Judah Messianic prophecy. See Genesis Rabbah 49.10 4th Day Creation of Sun points to 4th millenium Son of Judah as Messiah, Sun of Righteiousness.
    Genesis 49 happens to be part of lection for today.

    “John’s distress that no one is worthy to open the seals is met by a description of one who is the ‘Lion of the tribe of Judah’ and the ‘Root of David’. Both these titles evoke traditional messianic hopes based on Gen 49:9 and Isa 11:10 respectively. Indeed Donald Juel–Messianic Exegesis– points out that these verses are also found together in the Midrash on Genesis known as Genesis Rabbah (2.901):

    Furthermore, the royal Messiah will be descended from the tribe of Judah, as it says, ‘And it shall come to pass in that day, that the root of Jesse, that standeth for an ensign of the peoples, unto him shall the nations seek’ (Isa 11:10).
    It was chronologic prophecy based on Sun creation on fourth day, and that Messiah would come during fourth thousand year period. Judah was fourth son, daleth is fourth letter in his name and alef bet. He was fourth son of Jacob.”

    https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+1.1-3%2C14-19%2CGenesis+49.8-12%2CIsaiah+8.19-9.7%2C60.1-3%2C61.1-3%2CAmos+8.9-10&version=NIV
    Fulfillment of Amos 8 prophecy relates “Sign of Jonah” & eclipse June 15,763 BC
    John 8.12 When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
    .

  • “Abortion would merely be a further injustice perpetrated on an innocent being who had not part in its own creation.
    None of us had any part in our own creation.
    Further to what previous injustice, conception, being the fertilised egg that a god chose to implant rather than destroy?
    Why does concern for a putative human being override concern for a real, live one?

    “I’ve read of powerful examples of women who made the choice for life, and avoided the regressive trauma that often occurs to those women who choose abortion”
    How often is “often” – your sources please.

    “I’m prepared to accept that a woman who chose to end her pregnancy to save her own life may have a legitimate right to do so”
    You are at odds with some senior members of the RCC’s hierachy.

    “The biological science is of no consequence when assessing things morally and spiritually.”
    I think you’re saying that reality is irrelevant when applying wishful-thinking, mythology and unevidenced opinion (a.k.a. faith). If you think that the harmful effects of imaginary “spirituality” are more important that the welfare of human beings we are so opposed as to render communication (as opposed to words) impossible.

  • The “further injustice” is a reference to the circumstances as a whole (i.e. rape, incest, etc.) and the unique linkage between the woman and the child she bears.
    The concern for the unborn does not militate against the concern for the born. In the case of pregnancy such concern is inextricably bound together.
    My source for the trauma experienced emotionally by women who have chosen abortion comes from their own testimony which can be found on any number of prolife websites if one is interested in framing the question via such a resource. A Google Search would doubtless serve. For purposes of a specific example, a minor tier Hollywood celebrity/actress/model from the not too distant past will serve. You might examine the testimony of Jennifer O’Neil, a one time cover girl and actress from the 1970’s.
    I am not bound by the position of the RCC. As I stated, I would be moved immeasurably by a woman who chose to sacrifice herself on behalf of her child, in fact I respect the RCC position, however the legitimate question of “imminent” danger to the mother’s life, allows me to equivocate in that sole circumstance, but no other. Statistically speaking, such actual cases are extremely rare.
    Your definition of reality does not match my own, you refer to wishful thinking, mythology, and unevidenced opinion. I dispute the usage of each term as being inaccurate. As you succinctly note, we are so opposed, as to render communication impossible. But tomorrow’s another day.

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