There is a growing excitement in the US about the unique opportunity on August 21, 2017, to see a total solar eclipse, the first opportunity on American soil for 38 years. Air transportation, motel reservations, and car rentals have seen a surge in business in cities located along the path where the eclipse will be total. It has also kindled interest in how this coming eclipse might provide insights into the ancient event of the “darkness” that suddenly occurred while Jesus hung on the Roman cross. And that is not an inappropriate interest because that ancient event was recorded in 3 of the 4 historical accounts in the New Testament Gospels, and it is further noted in other ancient, non-Christian documents, in which it is sometimes described as an eclipse.
Perhaps, then, this is an excellent time to explore what connection the two might have. To do so, two tasks must be considered: (1) There needs to be a careful understanding of the science of an eclipse; and (2) there needs to be a study of the phenomena that occurred just hours before Jesus died according to the ancient accounts—both New Testament and non-Christian sources—and thereby determine if an eclipse reasonably can be sustained as the explanation of the darkness.
The Science of an Eclipse
A solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the sun and the earth and the sun’s rays are blocked either partially or totally from striking the earth. As can be seen in the diagram below, there is a difference between a partial eclipse (seen by those who are in the “penumbral” shadow) and the total eclipse (seen by those who are in the “umbral” shadow). While all the US will see the partial eclipse on August 21, a tiny slice 70 miles wide going diagonally across the center of the country starting from Salem, Oregon, to Kearney, Nebraska, and ending in Charleston, South Carolina, will see a total eclipse.
This diagram—provided by NASA—is accompanied by some important details about the August 21 eclipse, but which are applicable for all total eclipses: 
- The time the sun is totally obscured lasts no longer than 7 minutes and usually is less than 3 minutes. On August 21, the longest the sun will be totally obscured will be 2 minutes and 40 seconds in Carbondale, Illinois, and less in all other places across the US.
- The total time from the beginning of a total eclipse (from the time it begins to obscure the rays of the sun) until it passes so the sun is no longer obscured is less than 3 hours.
- During an eclipse the moon moves from an “old” moon to a “new” moon, and thus only a crescent is visible from a person’s perspective on the earth. A “full” moon comes approximately 15 days later when the moon has traveled half way in its orbit around the earth. Therefore, an eclipse never occurs during a “full” moon.
Eclipses have fascinated people for centuries. The first recorded eclipse dates back 5000 years and is chiseled in stone (thus called a “petroglyph”) at the Loughcrew Cairn L Megalithic Monument in Ireland. And over the centuries the eerie feeling that occurs during an eclipse has spawned all kind of “spiritual” associations, as a search on the internet reveals. NASA notes that when there is an eclipse: “The brighter stars and the planets come out. Animals change their behavior. Birds and squirrels nest. Cows return to the barn. Crickets chirp. There is a noticeable drop in both light level and air temperature.” Something amazing is indeed happening, and people have responded with fear. Further, anecdotal associations have bred all sorts of theories of meanings: a change is going to occur in ones life, in government, in health, in international affairs, etc.
Darkness & Jesus’ Crucifixion
Not surprisingly, then, some have associated the “darkness” during the hours Jesus was hanging on the cross with an eclipse, and to a consideration of this attention is now turned. The Gospel of Luke (23:44f) describes the phenomenon like this:
“And it was now about the sixth hour, and darkness fell over the whole land until the ninth hour, the sun being obscured….”
Certainly the mention of darkness and the sun being obscured would fit an eclipse-like phenomenon. And two ancient writers (which we know about) mention the darkness:
- Thallus, the Samaritan-born historian
He one of the first Gentile writers to mention Christ, and he might well have provided the first written history—possibly even before the Gospel accounts—of the darkness during Jesus’ crucifixion. Thallus, who wrote in A.D. 52, wrote a history of the Eastern Mediterranean from the time of the Trojan War to his own time. However, his writings have disappeared, and we only know of them from fragments cited by other writers. One such writer is Julius Africanus, who was commissioned by Roman Emperor Severus (222-235) to build the emperor’s library at the Pantheon in Rome, later became a Christian. In about A.D. 221 Julius Africanus wrote,
“Thallus, in the third book of his histories, explains away this darkness as an eclipse of the sun—unreasonably, as it seems to me….”
(More on why Africanus says “unreasonably” later.)
- Phlegon (A.D. 80-140)
Phlegon wrote a history that is called Chronicles or Olympiads. His history has disappeared, and we only know of it from fragments cited by three other writers: Julius Africanus, Origen, and Philopon. Origen’s account is of most interest. He is responding to an antagonist—Celsus—to Christianity:
But,” continues Celsus… “although we are able to show the striking and miraculous character of the events which befell Him, yet from what other source can we furnish an answer than from the Gospel narratives, which state that ‘there was an earthquake, and that the rocks were split asunder, and the tombs opened, and the veil of the temple rent in twain from top to bottom, and that darkness prevailed in the day-time, the sun failing to give light?’
Answer: “With regard to the eclipse in the time of Tiberius Caesar, in whose reign Jesus appears to have been crucified, and the great earthquakes which then took place, Phlegon too, I think, has written in the thirteenth or fourteenth book of his Chronicles” (Origen, Against Celsus, 2.33)…. He (Celsus) imagines also that both the earthquake and the darkness were an invention; but regarding these, we have in the preceding pages, made our defense, according to our ability, adducing the testimony of Phlegon, who relates that these events took place at the time when our Saviour suffered. (Origen, Against Celsus, 2.59)
From these references it is clear that the gospel account of the darkness (three hours long) which fell upon the land during Christ’s crucifixion and very possibly the earthquake were well-known and thus provide “outside” sources giving support for the primary documents of the Gospels (See Historical References to Christ from Non-Biblical Authors).
But to return to the question raised earlier: Could the darkness during Jesus’ crucifixion have been an eclipse? There are at least two convincing reasons to say that it could not have been:
- A total eclipse lasts at most 7 minutes, while the darkness during the crucifixion is stated to have lasted from the “6th hour” (noon) until the “9th hour” (3:00 p.m.). Even allowing that these could be approximate times, the length of an eclipse could not account for the duration.
But far more convincing is the second reason:
- The crucifixion of Jesus occurred during the Passover (Unleavened Bread) Feast which fell on the 15th of the Jewish month Nisan. Since the ancient Jews reckoned time on the basis of a lunar calendar, the 1st of Nisan would have been a “new” moon (the only time an eclipse could occur). But the 15th of Nisan—when Jesus hung on the cross—would have been a “full” moon, at which time the moon would be not between the sun and the earth, but on the opposite side. This is why Africanus said that Thallus’ suggestion that the darkness was an eclipse was “unreasonable.”
If it was not, could not have been an eclipse, what explanation might be given for what was happening? One possibility comes from those who suggest that it was God’s way to shield his Son when he began to take on himself the sins of the world. Others suggest that it was symbolic of judgment and mourning, appealing to Amos 8:9f, where similar events are given as illustrations. Whatever, the opportunity to experience the total eclipse on August 21 in the US (especially here in Nebraska) will afford people a sense of the wonder during the approximate 3 minutes of darkness and may provide a brief taste of what those who were in Jerusalem that day 2000 years ago felt and experienced for three hours.
 Cp. Robert E. van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament, p. 23.
 Julius Africanus, Chronography, 18.1.