As Jesus Christ was dying on the Cross, the light of the afternoon sun was darkened for three hours. Was this, this total eclipse of the sun, a sign from Heaven validating His claim of being the Son of God? Did the prophecies foretell this singular eclipse? Further, was it a natural or supernatural phenomenon? Is there corroborating evidence to substantiate the biblical accounts? Did this celestial wonder have symbolic meaning? Finally, is there any conclusion which may be drawn from it?
Older translations of the New Testament say that it happened from the sixth until the ninth hour. And since the hours of the Jewish day were counted from sunrise, the time of its occurrence would correspond to around 12 noon to 3 p.m. Three Gospel writers have in fact testified to it:
“From noon onward, there was darkness over the whole land until midafternoon.” — Matthew 27:45
“When noon came, darkness fell on the whole countryside and lasted until midafternoon.” — Mark 15:33
“It was now around midday, and darkness came over the whole land until midafternoon with an eclipse of the sun.” — Luke 23:44(1)
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As to the particular relevance of this eclipse to the fulfillment of the sacred prophecies, there are several Old Testament passages cited by the “Fathers of the Church,”(2) which they say, make reference to it. Here are two notable ones. Some eight centuries prior to the event at Calvary the prophet Amos wrote:
“On that day, says the Lord God, I will make the sun set at midday and cover the earth with darkness in broad daylight.” — Amos 8:9
In the Book of Joel composed about 400 B.C. it is also written:
“And I will work wonders in the heavens and on the earth . . . the sun will be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, at the coming of the day of the Lord, the great and terrible day.” — Joel 3:3-4
The first pope, Peter, declared the words of Joel fulfilled just fifty-two days after the Crucifixion. Peter so stated this in the preface of his address to the people in Acts 2:16-21 after the Holy Spirit’s descent on the morning of Pentecost. The assembly, presumed eyewitnesses also to the sun’s eerie and mysterious disappearance, undoubtedly understood that the prophecy had, indeed, come to pass.
But was the timing of this eclipse at the Crucifixion merely a coincidence? Or is there any evidence to indicate that this solar eclipse had violated physical law, that somehow it took place when it wasn’t supposed to?
NASA physicist Fred Espanak remarks, “The probability of witnessing a total solar eclipse from any given place on the planet is about once every 375 years.” The odds then are “astronomical” for a total eclipse of the sun to have occurred by chance over Jerusalem during Christ’s Crucifixion.
Now to the issue of a solar eclipse occurring unexpectedly. “According to the laws of science,” says Sandra Kitt, manager of library services at the Richard S. Perkin Library of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, “a solar eclipse occurs when the moon comes directly between the sun and the earth and is in a straight line with both. And this can happen only at the time of a new moon.” ( see illustration )
However, on the night of the Crucifixion of Jesus the moon was full — approximately fourteen days and eighteen hours away from a new phase — proceeding in orbit on the opposite side of the earth. We know this with certainty for, in accordance with Jewish law, this Friday — the 14th day of the Jewish month Nisan (corresponding to March/April on our calendar) — the Passover was celebrated and this always occurs at the time of the full moon. The conditions, therefore, for an eclipse of the sun to occur did not exist! It was the absolute will of God that when the designated time arrived this astonishing departure from the norm would miraculously take place. Fittingly, the head of the apostles, exercising his supreme teaching authority, publicly and boldly pronounced it as so.
The Crucifixion eclipse had at least two other supernatural characteristics: namely, it was total from the very beginning and remained total for three hours! Although the English translation of the New Testament misses these finer points, the word egheneto(3) from the original Greek renders the meaning that the darkness happened “suddenly.” By contrast, in an ordinary eclipse of the sun, the process of the moon covering the sun is a gradual one. When darkness does reach its peak, it remains that way usually for a few minutes but never longer than 7 ½ minutes.
Concerning the significance of this eclipse, one commentator, St. John Chrysostom (344-407 A.D.), bishop, “Father of the Church” and “Doctor of the Church,” says in a sermon on the Passion that “Creation could not bear the indignities inflicted upon the Creator.”(4) Similarly, from Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen comes this insight:
“From twelve o’clock until three o’clock there was an unearthly darkness that fell over the land, for nature, in sympathy with its Creator, refused to shed its light upon the crime of deicide. Mankind, having condemned the Light of the World, now lost the cosmic symbol of that Light, the sun. At Bethlehem, where He was born at midnight, the heavens were suddenly filled with light; at Calvary, when He entered into the ignominy of His Crucifixion at midday, the heavens were bereaved of light.”(5)
One of the most important, non-biblical documents of antiquity to verify this dramatic solar eclipse is “The Report of Pontius Pilate, Procurator of Judea.”(6) This official, over one-thousand word report was written by Pontius Pilate and sent to the Emperor Tiberius in Rome. It contains a descriptive account of the miracles of Jesus and the mysterious events surrounding His Crucifixion. A second Greek translation of the lost original confirms:
“And when he had been crucified, there was darkness over the whole earth, the sun having been completely hidden, and the heaven appearing dark though it was day, so that the stars appeared, but had at the same time their brightness darkened, as I suppose your reverence is not ignorant of, because in all the world they lighted lamps from the sixth hour until evening. And the moon, being like blood, did not shine the whole night, and yet she happened to be at the full.”(7)
In about the year 200 A.D. Tertullian, a renowned Christian jurist and writer, appealed to the Romans with great confidence concerning this ‘Report of Pilate’ stating, “Yet you have this disappearance of the sun all over the world related in your own archives.”(8)
Whether or not this eclipse was seen literally “all over the world” is not known. For, the expression used in the original Greek could also be translated to mean “over the whole land” or “over the whole region.” Some theologians speculate that this solar wonder veiled only Jerusalem and its vicinity, or, at most, over the whole of Judea. Others surmise that it extended over the entire hemisphere reached by the sun’s rays. To this day, this too remains a mystery. It seems probable though that navigators and astronomers at the time would have chronicled such a unique and intriguing spectacle.
We conclude now by summarizing the findings: 1) There occurred before the death of Christ an eclipse of the sun lasting three hours at totality. 2) This sudden and unexpected eclipse on that first Good Friday clearly operated outside the laws of science. 3) This solar eclipse fulfilled biblical prophecies written centuries before. 4) The New Testament records that this solar darkening was seen by numerous and credible witnesses. 5) Pontius Pilate confirmed in his official report that this extraordinary eclipse, indeed, took place at the time of the full moon. 6) Tertullian, in about the year 200 A.D., strongly argued that the corroborating Pilate manuscript was still in existence and was housed in the Roman archives. Thus, the body of evidence presented, unmistakably demonstrates that the Crucifixion eclipse was a supernatural sign from God validating Christ’s claim of being the promised Messiah and Son of the Living God.
Copyright © 1995 by Chick Pallotta
Editor’s note: Chick Pallotta is director of the Marian Media Apostolate. He welcomes any information on the existence of any manuscript or documentation which relates to the geographical extent of this solar eclipse. Write: 2295 East First Street, Brooklyn, New York 11223-5143 (USA). Telephone: (718) 375-1245.
(1)This 44th verse of the 23rd Chapter of St. Luke is part of the long Gospel narrative (Chapter 22:14 through Chapter 23:56) proclaimed on Passion (Palm) Sunday “C” cycle years — 1998, 2001, 2004 etc. Liturgical years run in three-year cycles: A, B and C.
(2)”Fathers of the Church” is a title given to certain early Christian writers who were very close to apostolic sources. According to present usage those writers are called “Fathers” who have the four characteristics of antiquity, orthodoxy, sanctity and approbation of the Church.
(3)This same verb form egheneto meaning “was made or became” is used in John 1:14 “The Word was made flesh.” Just as the Incarnation happened “the moment” the Blessed Virgin Mary gave Her consent, in a like manner, the sun “suddenly” was made or became dark. The source consulted was:
Augustinus Merk, S.J., editor, Novum Testamentum Graece Et Latine (Sumptibus Pontificii Instituti Biblici, Romae, 1951) Matthew 27:45 p. 104; Mark 15:33 p. 181; Luke 23:44 p. 298; John 1:14 p. 307.
(4)Fr. James Groenings, S.J., The Passion of Jesus and its Hidden Meaning, Sixth Revised Edition (TAN Books and Publishers, Inc., Rockford, Illinois, copyright 1900 by Joseph Gummersbach) p. 381.
(5)Most Rev. Fulton J. Sheen, Ph.D., D.D., Life of Christ (Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., New York, New York; a reprint of the 1958 edition published by McGraw-Hill, New York; copyright 1958, 1977 by Fulton J. Sheen) p. 378.
(6)It was Pilate’s obligation to inform Rome of this whole matter. Not to do so would have constituted a dereliction of duty on his part. Neither a Jew nor a Christian, but a pagan, Pilate had absolutely nothing to gain to exaggerate or to fabricate the story.
(7)The Rev. Alexander Roberts, D.D., and James Donaldson, LL.D., editors, The Ante-Nicene Fathers — Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325, Volume VIII, American reprint of the Edinburgh Edition (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1926) pp. 462-463.
(8)Roy Joseph Deferrari, editorial board director of The Catholic University of America, The Fathers of the Church—a new translation, Volume 10, Tertullian, Apologetical Works founded by Ludwig Schopp (Fathers of the Church, Inc., New York, 1950) p. 65.
All scriptural passages, unless otherwise noted, were taken from The New American Bible, translated from the original languages with critical use of all the ancient sources by members of the Catholic Biblical Association and sponsored by the Bishops’ Committee of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (The Catholic Press, Chicago, Illinois, 1970).
Deferrari, Roy Joseph, editorial board director of The Catholic University of America, The Fathers of the Church–a new translation, Volume 10, Tertullian, Apologetical Works founded by Ludwig Schopp (Fathers of the Church, Inc., New York, 1950).
Groenings, Fr. James, S. J., The Passion of Jesus and its Hidden Meaning, Sixth Revised Edition (TAN Books and Publishers, Inc., Rockford, Illinois; former title: The History of the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, copyright 1900 by Joseph Gummersbach).
Merk, Augustinus, S.J., Novum Testamentum Graece Et Latine, Editio Septima (Sumptibus Pontificii Instituti Biblici, Romae, 1951).
Roberts, The Rev. Alexander, D.D., and James Donaldson, LL.D., editors, The Ante-Nicene Fathers– translations of The Writings of the Fathers down to AD 325, Volume VIII, American reprint of the Edinburg Edition (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1926).
Sheen, Most Rev. Fulton J., Ph.D., D.D., Life of Christ (Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., New York, New York; a reprint of the 1958 edition published by McGraw-Hill, New York; copyright 1958, 1977 by Fulton J. Sheen).
Sincere gratitude is expressed to the following who have contributed in some way to the development of this article: Most Rev. (Archbishop) John P. Foley, President of the Pontifical Council For Social Communications, Vatican City; Charles C. Lindner, director of the Francis X. McDermott Library at the Immaculate Conception Center of the Diocese of Brooklyn, Douglaston, New York; Rick Salbato who writes under the pen name, “The Publican”; Very Rev. Eugene Pappas, pastor of Three Hierarchs Greek Orthodox Church, Brooklyn, New York; Rabbi (Orthodox) Eli Greenwald, Torah Israel Congregation, Brooklyn, New York; Sandra Kitt, manager of library services at the Richard S. Perkin Library of the Hayden Planetarium, New York, New York; Fred Espanak, physicist, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland; Gary Bogner, director, South Florida Science Museum, West Palm Beach, Florida; Janis Harper, associate director, Miami Space Transit Planetarium, Miami, Florida.
The Report of Pilate
Alignment of the sun, moon and earth during an eclipse of the sun. The moon, blocking out the light of the sun, casts its shadow on the earth. This happens only at the time of a new moon, a phase when the side of the moon facing us is darkened and, therefore, not in view.
At the Crucifixion, the full moon of the Passover celebration was on the opposite side of the earth.