Monday, April 8, 2024

The Eclipse (?) at Jesus’ Crucifixion

With the 8 April 2024 eclipse in view, I am happy to extract and summarize a portion of my dissertation, Psalm 22 (LXX 21) and the Crucifixion of Jesus.

According to Matthew and Mark, the sky darkened for three hours when Jesus was crucified. Luke reports the darkness, but he specifically states, using the correct astronomical term, that it was due to an eclipse. Luke 23.45 states: τοῦ ἡλίου ἐκλιπόντος = tou hēliou eklipontos = while the sun eclipsed.

Luke’s reference to the eclipse was not a natural nor a fortuitous addition to the Passion narrative. Jewish[1] and pagan opponents of Christianity recognized that the phrase τοῦ ἡλίου ἐκλιπόντος introduces an absurd and difficult problem.  Origen summarizes their argument:

Eclipses always take place at a fixed time when sun and moon come together, when the moon running under intercepts the rays of the sun, and by its intervention cuts off its light. But in the time when Christ suffered it is clear that the sun and the moon did not meet together, since it was the time of the Passover, which is regularly held when the moon is at the full and shines all the night. How then could there be an eclipse of the sun when the moon was full and had the fullness of the sun?[2]

Not only is the conjunction of sun and moon impossible at this time, there also is the difficulty that Luke has just stated that the darkness lasted for three hours, but an eclipse is only a momentary occurrence. Julius Africanus appears to have been the first to respond to this difficulty. He acknowledges that a true eclipse is impossible, but says, “Let the cosmic portent be supposed to be an eclipse of the sun from the illusion of the sight.”[3] Origen in his commentary on Matthew, §134, takes greater pains to resolve the problem. He observes that some believers claimed that this impossibility was a necessity for it to be truly recognized as a miracle associated with Jesus’ crucifixion. Origen realizes, however, that such a wonder ought to be recorded in some history but is not. His solution is to suggest that this phrase should be rejected altogether as an unwise substitution by a scribe or, more likely in his opinion, as a malicious alteration by an enemy seeking to discredit the Gospel. He prefers instead the reading he finds in the majority of copies: καὶ ἐσκοτίσθη ὁ ἥλιος.[4]

Origen’s student, Dionysius of Alexandria, also realized that an eclipse was impossible, but for him, this only goes to show how miraculous and unique the event was.[5]  Tertullian hedges on the issue.[6]  Chrysostom, however, emphasizes that it was not an eclipse——lest anyone think that it was simply some naturally occurring event——but learns from this incident that it was a sign of God’s wrath at the Jews.[7]

Why has Luke inserted this problematic detail right at the point where he omits the cry of dereliction from Psalm 22 (LXX 21).2 from Mark 15.34?

ελωι ελωι λεμα σαβαχθανι; ὅ ἐστιν μεθερμηνευόμενον· ὁ θεός μου ὁ θεός μου, εἰς τί ἐγκατέλιπές με; = elōi elōi lema sabachthani? ho estin methermēneuomenon; ho theos mou ho theos mou, eis ti egkatelipes me?

I explain in detail in my dissertation, but the short version of it is that Luke reads Mark’s ελωι (or Matthew ηλι) and from it gets to ηλιος. I.e., ελωι > ηλιο-ς (or ηλι > ηλι-ος). There is further evidence that Luke was not the first to connect the Hebrew word for God in the psalm (אֵלִי = ʾēlı̂; Matthew’s Ἠλὶ = ēli) with the Greek word for the sun (ἥλιος = ēlios) which coheres with the numerous pagan solar deities.

Next, rather than Mark’s ἐγκατέλιπές = egkatelipes = “you abandoned,” Luke extracts the shared root from ἐγκατέλιπές (ἐγκατα-λείπω) and gets to ἐκλιπόντος (ἐκ-λείπω).

My conclusion: It was more reasonable for Luke to report the astronomical impossibilty that the sun eclipsed (τοῦ ἡλίου ἐκλιπόντος) than to think that God abandoned the Son (ὁ θεός μου ὁ θεός μου, εἰς τί ἐγκατέλιπές με).


[1]  Cf. Acts of Pilate 11.2 where the Jews respond to Pilate’s question about what had happened by saying that it was an ordinary eclipse.  Pilate responds incredulously by noting what time of the lunar month it was.

[2]  Origen, Commentary on Matthew §134, transl. by Harold Smith in Ante-Nicene Exegesis of the Gospels, 68-69.

[3] Fragment 1 (= Chronikon 5.50) in Routh (ed. 2.297), transl. by Smith, ibid. 67-68. Julius Africanus wrote ca. 221 CE.

[4] This reading is also preserved in the Old Latin and Vulgate (obscuratus est sol) and the Peshitta (ושמשא חשך). Cf. the critical apparatus to Luke 23:45 I provide on Table 3. Also cf. the Gospel of Nicodemus (Acts of Pilate) 11.1 which states: “And it was about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the land until the ninth hour, for the sun was darkened. (... Sole autem obscurante ecce.) Cf. R. M. Grández, “Las tinieblas en la muerte de Jesús. Historia de la exégesis de Lc 23,44-45a (Mt 27,45; Mc 15,33),” EstBib 47 (1989), 177-223.

[5] Cited in Smith, ibid., 73-73.

[6] Cf. his Apology 11: At the time of Jesus’ death, “in the same hour the light of day was withdrawn, when the sun at the very time was in his meridian blaze.  [The allusion is to Amos 8:9.]  Those who were not aware that this had been predicted about Christ, no doubt thought it an eclipse.”

[7] Homily 88: “... That darkness was a token of [God’s] anger at their [the Jews] crime.  For that it was not an eclipse, but both wrath and indignation, is not hence alone manifest, but also by the time, for it continued three hours, but an eclipse takes place in one moment of time...”

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