A Solar Eclipse During the Crucifixion?
To faithful Christians, this question can be more than a passing curiosity. In the Bible, Matthew 27:45: “Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour.” and similar passages in the other gospels suggest a solar eclipse during the crucifixion of Jesus.
Rubens in his 1620 painting of Christ on the Cross depicts a Roman soldier piercing Jesus with a lance during this event. In the top left corner Rubens paints the partially eclipsed Sun, interpreting the above passage to mean that a solar eclipse occurred during the crucifixion. Totality lasts only a few minutes, but the recorded three hour time could include the partial eclipse. Could there have been a solar eclipse during the crucifixion?
The answer requires some knowledge of religious calendars, lunar phases, and eclipses . Christians celebrate the crucifixion on Good Friday through Easter Sunday, but historically these festivals could not have started until the year after the event. Hence, the crucifixion happened during the Jewish Passover. Neither of these holidays occurs on the same date every year. Our modern calendar is based on the Sun and cycles of the Sun’s motion in the sky. Jewish (and Islamic) religious calendars are however based on lunar rather than solar cycles. The 29.5 day lunar cycle does not divide evenly into the 365.24 day solar cycle, so religious holidays, including Passover and Easter, deriving from lunar cycles fall on different dates each year. In western tradition, Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal (spring) equinox. Passover falls on the 14th day of the first month after the vernal equinox. The first day is counted from the new moon, so the 14th day of the month is near the full moon. Hence, both of these holidays must occur near the full moon.
A solar eclipse occurs when Moon’s shadow falls on Earth. Hence it must be directly between Sun and Earth. New Moon! No other phase can produce a solar eclipse. We can never see a solar eclipse during Easter or Passover because these holidays fall near the full moon. They can not occur on the new moon like Christmas and other fixed solar dates. Any darkening during the crucifixion was not a naturally occurring solar eclipse.
What about a lunar eclipse? Earth’s shadow can strike the moon only when it’s full. If the instant of the full moon were late Saturday night just after the spring equinox, a lunar eclipse could last past midnight. We could have a lunar eclipse in the wee hours of Easter Sunday morning. But a solar eclipse on Easter, Good Friday, or Passover is not possible.
Miracles and the Laws of Science
So why did the sun fail during the crucifixion? A miracle? Most scientists would say that whatever it was it could not have been a miracle in the sense of something that violates laws of science. Why?
The foundation supporting the edifice of science contains a fundamental belief that the universe is rational and follows certain laws – always! If we find an exception to a law of science, it is not because these laws of nature can be violated. Rather we did not understand these laws. As dictated by experiment, the laws of science change. Note a subtle distinction here. The laws of science, which are our current best understanding of nature, change. However the laws of nature that scientists are trying to discover do not change. Scientists believe that they are never violated!
Scientists have a variety of religious beliefs that include all the world’s major religions. However they generally share the underlying belief of science that nature is not capricious. Whatever God most individual scientists believe in is not a capricious God who violates his laws. That belief underlies science.