This is Part 5 of a critical examination of the MMEL hypothesis of the Star of Bethlehem. Go to the index here.
In all of the previous sections of this critical look at the Star of Bethlehem documentary have looked at the Nativity story of Jesus. What else would you suspect given it is supposed to be about the Star of Bethlehem? However, there is another astronomical connection that has been made when it comes to the life of Jesus, so that seems to be a good enough reason to delve into the eclipse mentioned as taking place at the crucifixion. In the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke), there is said to have been three hours of darkness starting when Jesus finally dies on the cross, and Luke in particular uses a word to say that the Sun was eclipsed (there are some variants that only mean that the sun failed to give its light, and it is uncertain which variant is preferred). So what is up with this eclipse?
Now, eclipses are common enough, especially lunar eclipses, but not all of the solar type can be seen. Usually it is only a small region that is completely in the shadow of the Moon when it gets in the path of the Sun to the Earth. However, the real problem for there being a solar eclipse at the death of Jesus is the details about when he died according to the Gospels. In all versions, Jesus is killed around the time of the Passover, and the Jewish calendar is luni-solar (it tracks with the Moon and the Sun), and Passover is supposed to take place at the full Moon of the month of Nisan. This is important because, as even the ancients knew, there is a full Moon only when the Moon, Earth, and Sun are lined up with the Earth in between. This makes a solar eclipse impossible–the Moon has to be in between the Earth and Sun for that to happen. So everyone realizes that a solar eclipse is impossible on the Passover.
Moreover, a solar eclipse comes no where near fitting the description of the darkness event. An eclipse will only last in a certain area on the order of minutes, not even close to the three hours the Gospels say. Also, the darkness is said to be world-wide (Mark 15:33; Matt 27:45; Luke 23:44-5), while an eclipse will only darken a small region of the Earth for a moment, and only in a strip across the surface. The combination of a solar eclipse being impossible at the Passover and its failure to do what Matthew, Mark, and Luke describe makes this an obvious impossibility for a natural explanation
Nonetheless, there is plenty of speculation about just that using the sciences. Mark Kidger in his book on the Star of Bethlehem considers a solar eclipse in November of 29 CE. This is nowhere even close to the time of Passover which would be nearly half a year away, so the discussion is quite a non sequitur. However, this is very different from the discussion in the documentary with Rick Larson. Here he is presenting an idea published by two scientists back in the 1980s which was published in the journal Nature. Rather than a solar eclipse, they consider two things. One is that it was a localized sand storm of sorts that darkened the region for three hours. The eclipse, on the other hand, was that of the Moon on April 3, 33 CE (preferring the chronology of the Gospel of John). So, even though the text says it was the Sun that was blotted out, they are going to look at the Moon being eclipsed. You can see that we are in desperate territory.
Now, the authors of the Nature paper were not the first to consider this idea; it seems to have been first put forward in 1934 by John Fotheringham, though he had little confidence in the idea. But how does one even begin to come to this conclusion? Rather than looking at the Gospel stories of Jesus’ crucifixion and death, the alternative view looks at the speech given by Peter in Acts 2. There the super-apostle cites the prophet Joel (chapter 2) to explain the miracle of Pentecost, and in the process mentions from that prophecy “the Sun will be turned to darkness and the Moon to blood.” Since he mentions the Moon burning to blood, and that is a description of a lunar eclipse, then Peter must be referring back to the crucifixion. Well, that wouldn’t be a logical progression; Peter may be talking (actually reciting) about a lunar eclipse, but is he talking about the past or the future?
But before we get too deep into interpreting what Peter was talking about, let’s consider if the lunar eclipse in question is all what it cracks up to be. While indeed calculations show there to be a lunar eclipse on the date specified, there is the problem that the eclipse was almost completely over by the time the Moon rose above the horizon. The authors of the Nature article believed that it would have been just noticed on the horizon before the event was over. However, other scientists examined the situation and concluded that due to the effects of the atmosphere that low on the horizon, in fact the Moon would not have been seen during the eclipse phase at all (Schaefer, “Lunar Visibility and the Crucifixion”, Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society 31 (1990): 53-67; Ruggles, “The Moon and the Crucifixion”, Nature 345 (21 June 1990): 669-70; Kokkinos, “Crucifixion in A.D. 36: The Keystone for Dating the Birth of Jesus” in Vardaman & Yamauchi, Chronos, Kairos, Christos, p. 152).
The original authors of the Nature paper complained in a letter to the editor that the analyses against them were flawed; in particular, they argued that they used too high an extinction rate (how much light was blocked by the atmosphere). However, this is a rather laughable complaint because the same authors wanted enough sand and dust in the air on the same day to blot out the Sun! They also suggested the extra air-born dust would increase the darkness of the Moon to make sure it was blood-red when it rose on the horizon. So they are really trying to have it both ways.
But this isn’t the end of it either. Some have instead moved from having to actually see the lunar eclipse to just knowing it happened on the day Jesus died. Now, ask yourself this: if no one saw it, how were the first Christians supposed to know it happened? How was the audience supposed to know it happened so when Peter mentioned it they knew what the Gehenna he was talking about? More simply, how does Peter know that an invisible lunar eclipse happened? He is supposed to be illiterate (Acts 4:13), but is he now able to compute syzygies? This simply makes no sense. And remember, no lunar eclipse was mentioned in the actually accounts of Jesus’ death. So what is going on here really?
Is Peter talking about the past? Doesn’t seem likely. Remember, Peter (at least in the story) was citing the prophet Joel to explain that the apostles who were speaking in tongues were not drunk but given the power of the Holy Spirit. And the prophecy from Joel is supposed to be about the end times, something that hasn’t happened yet (let alone in the Book of Acts, let alone at the beginning of Acts). According to the scriptures, the gift of prophecy was assigned before the Coming of the Lord, and with it would comes the signs of the Sun not giving its light and the Moon would be like blood. If in the reading preferred by the Nature authors and Rick Larson the Coming of the Lord is referencing the Resurrection, then the miracle of Pentecost should have happened before then. Instead, the Coming of the Lord is really the return of JC to this world during Judgement Day (with or without Terminators, I don’t know). The loss of light from the Sun and the blood-coloring of the Moon were signs of the End Times, and not temporary situations but the beginning of the New Heavens and New Earth.
If you are wondering if my interpretation is novel, it is rather mainstream as can be seen in the commentary on Acts by Hans Conzelmann (Acts of the Apostles, p. 20). In fact, only one Bible commentator had given the thought that a lunar eclipse was at the crucifixion, F.F. Bruce, but he only considered it a possibility. Overall, John P. Meier considered the reading of the Gospels and Acts with the lunar eclipse “bizarre” (A Marginal Jew, p. 431 n. 111).
However, as a last resort for sources to support the hypothesis, the scientists look to a late, forged letter said to be written by Pontius Pilate (the Anaphora Pilati) but probably from the firth century. (Primary sources, what’s that?) Hoping that the text has some relation to the historical Pilate (and there isn’t a lick of evidence to support that), they use its mention of the blood-red Moon but miss other details that actually hurt their thesis. One thing is the text indicates that the Moon was blood-red at the same time the Sun was failing to give its light; this is impossible during a Full Moon because the Moon and Sun cannot be in the sky at the same time (they are opposite of each other w.r.t. the Earth). Also, the text says it was so dark that the stars came out; but if there was this great sand storm, how could the stars be seen? Again, we have an amazing failure to read and understand the sources in play.
The thesis here is just utterly bizarre. A lunar eclipse is not a solar eclipse, the lunar eclipse was not visible on the day of crucifixion, there is no early reference to the Moon being blood-red at the crucifixion (have to wait centuries until secondary, obviously fictional renditions of the story), and there is otherwise significant abuse of all the sources in play.
Now, part of the interest in the lunar eclipse was to help choose between the two most popular candidates for the date of Jesus’ crucifixion: 30 and 33 CE. However, this has been premised on a particular way of how the Jewish calendar is computed. As noted, Passover is supposed to take place at the Full Moon in the month of Nisan. This means that the month will need to begin at the New Moon (or the first sliver of crescent). Moreover, it has been believed that the way this is supposed to work is that Nisan starts at the first crescent of the Moon after the vernal equinox, which happens in March of April. However, there has been a good amount of scholarship that shows that this rule was not in place in the first century and wasn’t articulated until much later and wasn’t standardized until much later still. The way the calendar was moved about with the addition of months to keep the lunar calendar in line with the Sun (and that means in line with the seasons and harvests) was done by looking at the conditions of the crops and livestock (among other things) to see if an additional month was to be added. Sometimes things would start a month earlier than we may estimate. This is probably best explored by Roger Beckwith in Calendar, Chronology and Worship: Studies in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity. As he notes, given what we know was possible back then, the normal way of excluding certain years as possible candidates for when Jesus was crucified cannot be valid; instead of only years such as 30 and 33 being possible, all years from 29 to 36 are possible (except for 34 CE). Since I have seen some good arguments that favor 35 or 36 CE as the crucifixion year, that means they cannot be immediately discounted as they had been before by the straight-forward astronomical calculations.
Now, I won’t be getting into the details of which is the correct date for Jesus’ crucifixion given the Gospel accounts (that mess is bigger than I care to deal with), but I am including this to show that the situation is complicated and there are false premises even used in standard chronological works on the life of Jesus. It also means we shouldn’t be forcing ourselves to choose a date based on a bad line of reasoning when we can tell there are not two candidates but several.
To conclude, the lunar eclipse in April of 33 CE is not something that can be used to explain any of the details of the story of the crucifixion of Jesus, nor can it help make one date more likely than another for when Jesus was killed. In the end, it is another failed attempt to use astronomy to justify something miraculous. And now those failures stretch from the birth to the death of the Messiah (which are also two (three?) good books by Raymond Brown that are far more worth reading on the subject matter).