Darkness at the crucifixion: metaphor or real history?
The preternatural darkness reported at Jesus’ crucifixion was no metaphor. It was a real historical event based on eyewitness accounts and independently corroborated by a number of highly qualified ancient historians. And just as the darkness recorded in the gospels was based on real history, the reason for Jesus’s death is rooted in the real history recorded in the Book of Genesis.
According to a straightforward interpretation of Genesis as written and intended, there was a real Adam and a real Eve, a real Garden of Eden, a real fall into sin, and real consequences to wilful rebellion against the Creator. Death, suffering, disease, natural disasters, and sin were the real outcomes of the historical Fall in the garden (see also The Fall: a cosmic catastrophe). We live with the indisputable evidence of these historical events on a daily basis.
With its very foundation built upon the historical events of Genesis, Jesus’ atoning death was God’s historical antidote to mankind’s grievous sin. The God-man, the Lord Jesus Christ willingly died a brutal and humiliating death on the cross in order to atone for the sins of Adam and Eve, for our sins, and for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2)—available by grace, through faith in God’s promised sacrificial Lamb (Ephesians 2:8–9).
During the last three hours of Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross, an eerie darkness struck the land. This darkness is documented by the Gospel writers Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It is also confirmed by three extra-biblical historians: Thallus, Phlegon, and Africanus. A closer look will reveal strong historical evidence for this unparalleled event.
The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke
Each of these authors briefly records the three-hour darkness during Christ’s crucifixion (Matthew 27:45, Mark 15:33, Luke 23:44–45). Matthew was one of Jesus’ apostles and an eyewitness to the event. Mark was a close companion of Peter, one of Christ’s three innermost apostles. Mark also travelled with Paul, Luke, and many of the earliest Christians in the Book of Acts. Luke was a Greek physician and historian who carefully investigated the events of Christ’s life. His historical investigation was based on direct and indirect eyewitness accounts from Paul, Peter, James, Mark, Mary (the mother of Jesus), and many of Jesus’ first female followers.1 Luke is considered to be one of the most reliable historians of all time.1
J.A.T. Robinson, a liberal New Testament scholar, conducted an in-depth study in which he discovered strong historical, textual, and logical evidence for dating all of the gospels between AD 40–65.2 And Robinson was no friend of conservative biblical Christianity. Based on these dates, Matthew, Mark, and Luke would have written about the darkness a mere 7 to 32 years after the actual event.3 Compared to other ancient historical accounts, this is like a news flash. Suetonius, a Roman historian, wrote his account of Caesar crossing the Rubicon at least 110 years after the event, and it is considered to be generally reliable.4 The earliest biographies of Alexander the Great, by Arrian and Plutarch, were written over 400 years after his death, and they are considered trustworthy accounts.1 (Compare also Who was Luke and what did he write?)
Even more compelling is the fact that Rudolph Pesch, the German New Testament scholar, dates the source for Mark’s passion narrative no later than AD 37 based on language, style, grammar, and personal references.5 This is a maximum of four years after the actual event! It can be conclusively stated that the Gospel accounts of the darkness at the crucifixion are extremely early, reliable, and based on eyewitnesses.
Thallus, Phlegon, and Africanus
Thallus wrote a history of the eastern Mediterranean world since the Trojan War. Thallus wrote his regional history in about AD 52.6 Although his original writings have been lost, he is specifically quoted by Julius Africanus, a renowned third century historian. Africanus states, ‘Thallus, in the third book of his histories, explains away the darkness as an eclipse of the sun—unreasonably as it seems to me.’ Apparently, Thallus attempted to ascribe a naturalistic explanation to the darkness during the crucifixion.
Phlegon was a Greek historian 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.’7
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 (Matthew 27:51). However, like Thallus, he fallaciously attempts to interpret the darkness as a direct effect of a solar eclipse.
Africanus composed a five volume History of the World around AD 221. He was also a pagan convert to Christianity. His historical scholarship so impressed Roman Emperor Alexander Severus that Africanus was entrusted with the official responsibility of building the Emperor’s library at the Pantheon in Rome. Africanus writes:
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. For the Hebrews celebrate the passover on the 14th day according to the moon, and the passion of our Savior falls on the day before the passover; but an eclipse of the sun takes place only when the moon comes under the sun. And it cannot happen at any other time but in the interval between the first day of the new moon and the last of the old, that is, at their junction: how then should an eclipse be supposed to happen when the moon is almost diametrically opposite the sun? Let opinion pass however; let it carry the majority with it; and let this portent of the world be deemed an eclipse of the sun, like others a portent only to the eye. Phlegon records that, in 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? Surely no such event as this is recorded for a long period.8
Africanus rightly argues that a solar eclipse could not have occurred during the lunar cycle of the Passover, as this diagram shows. He also questions the link between an eclipse, an earthquake, and the miraculous events recorded in Matthew’s Gospel. Eclipses do not set off earthquakes and bodily resurrections. We also know that eclipses only last for several minutes, not three hours. For Africanus, naturalistic explanations for the darkness at the crucifixion were grossly insufficient, as he showed by applying real science.
Local or global?
Many have pondered whether or not the darkness was a regional or global phenomenon. A vast majority of biblical translations records that the darkness was ‘over the land’, ‘over all the land’, or ‘over the whole land’. However, some translations of Luke’s account state the darkness was ‘over all the earth’ or ‘over the whole earth’.
The Greek has the usual word for earth, gē,9 here, from which we derive ‘geology’. The language of most translations appears to strongly suggest that the darkness was a local or regional phenomenon, which is a possible rendition in some contexts. All the same, 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.’7
On the other hand, Africanus writes of the darkness as a global event. Tertullian, the famous second century apologist, also hails the darkness as a ‘cosmic’ or ‘world event’. Appealing to skeptics, he wrote:
At the moment of Christ’s death, the light departed from the sun, and the land was darkened at noonday, which wonder is related in your own annals, and is preserved in your archives to this day.10
Apparently, Tertullian could state with confidence that documentation of the darkness could be found in legitimate historical archives.
It is plausible that future archaeological discoveries could lend stronger support to the notion that the darkness was indeed witnessed throughout the entire world.
Why aren’t there more sources?
Many skeptics ask why John’s Gospel does not mention the darkness at the crucifixion. Simon Greenleaf, of Harvard Law School, said it best about the gospels:
There is enough of a discrepancy to show that there could have been no previous concert among them; and at the same time such substantial agreement as to show that they were all independent narrators of the same great transaction.11
In other words, independent narrators will sometimes record different secondary details about the same exact event.
Many skeptics also ask why other early historians such as Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny the Younger fail to mention the darkness. But the skeptics are committing the fallacy of arguing from silence. It is unreasonable to expect every contemporary writer to include every event that happened—and there are good reasons not to expect these specific authors to mention the darkess (see Thallus: Darkness Rules). What we do have is a plethora of extremely early, historically reliable, and highly respected sources for the darkness during the crucifixion. The list of Matthew, Mark, Luke, Thallus, Phlegon, Africanus, and Tertullian is impressive indeed!
There is powerful evidence for the historicity of the darkness at Christ’s crucifixion. It was a real historical event, and its very existence was rooted in the real historical events in Genesis. As the last Adam (1 Corinthians 15:45), Christ came to suffer the horrible and ignominious death of crucifixion in order to die for the sins of the world. ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).’
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- Craig, William Lane, The Evidence for Jesus, 2005; see alsoLuke: A consideration of Gospel authorship and publication date. Return to text.
- Robinson, John A.T., Redating the New Testament, Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2000. Return to text.
- Cf. Wenham, John, Redating Matthew, Mark and Luke, IVP, 1992; see review. Return to text.
- Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars 1:31–33, AD 121. Return to text.
- Strobel, L. The Case for Christ, p. 220, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 1998. Return to text.
- Habermas, Gary. The Historical Jesus, pp. 196-7, College Press Publishing Company, 1996. Return to text.
- Maier, Paul. Pontius Pilate (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1968), p. 366. Phlegon’s citation is a fragment from Olympiades he Chronika 13, ed. Otto Keller, Rerum Naturalium Scriptores Graeci Minores, 1 (Leipzig Teurber, 1877), p. 101.
Return to text.
- http://www.christian-thinktank.com/jrthal.html Return to text.
- The Greek phrase in Luke 23:44 is καί σκότος εγένετο έφ ‘όλην τήν γήν (kai skotos egeneto eph holēn tēn gēn), ‘and darkness came upon the whole earth’. Return to text.
- Sanders, Oswald. The Incomparable Christ, p. 203, Moody Publishers, 1982. Return to text.
- Greenleaf, Simon. The Testimony of the Evangelists, vii, Baker, Grand Rapids, MI, 1984. Return to text.