Based on both the Bible and some scientific data, it might seem reasonable to think that a solar eclipse like the one millions of people will view on Aug. 21 occurred during the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
A translation of the Gospel of Luke 23:44-45 in the New American Bible says so without qualification:
“It was now about noon and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon because of an eclipse of the sun.”
Two other gospels note the sudden midday darkness. From the King James version of the Gospel of Matthew 27:45, “Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour.” Mark 15:33 says, “And when the sixth hour was come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour.”
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Scholars, to be sure, still debate the exact year that Christ was crucified, certain that it was between 26 A.D. and 36 A.D when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea. Jesus is thought to have been 33 when he died.
In 2012, German researchers, looking at earthquake data along with Biblical clues — for example, Jesus was killed at Passover about the 14th day of Nisan on the Jewish calendar — posited that the most likely date of his crucifixion would have been April 3, in the year 33.
NASA maps charting the paths of some 5,000 years worth of solar eclipses — from 2000 B.C. to 3000 A.D. —do, indeed, chart eight total solar eclipses and a bevy of annular and partial eclipses between 26 A.D. and 36 A.D. (In an annular solar eclipse, the moon covers the center of the sun, but its outer edges remain visible.)
One of those total solar eclipses even falls in the year 33 on March 19. However, the path of totality of that eclipse — the path of the moon’s shadow as it speeds across the Earth’s surface — was nowhere near Jerusalem. Instead, it was near Antarctica.
The path of another total solar eclipse, on March 9 in the year 34, hardly came closer. Its path of totality crossed oceans near Australia. Neither eclipse would have done much to darken the skies of Judea.
The bigger problem isn’t the path of the solar eclipses, scientists said, but the timing: If Jesus died anywhere near the time the Bible says, no solar eclipse would have occurred.
According to the all of the Gospels, the crucifixion of Jesus occurred at Passover.
From Matthew 26:2, “When Jesus had finished all these words, He said to his disciples, ‘You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of man is to be handed over for crucifixion.’”
From Luke 22:1-2, “Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which is called the Passover, was approaching. The chief priests and the scribes were seeking how they might put Him to death; for they were afraid of the people.”
There is the rub of it, said Brother Guy Consolmagno, a research astronomer who is also director of the Vatican Observatory.
Astronomically, Passover occurs when there is a full moon, meaning when the moon is on the opposite side of the Earth from the sun and thus is fully illuminated by the sun’s rays. A partial or total solar eclipse, meanwhile, occurs only with a new moon, defined as the phase when the moon is passing between the Earth and the sun, which is why it blocks the sun’s rays.
“While most attempts to work out dates of historical events based on astronomical events can be problematical, this one is easy!” Consolmagno said in a an email to The Star. “The Crucifixion took place on Passover, which is the first full moon of spring. You need a new moon, not a full moon, for a solar eclipse. Exactly the wrong phase of the moon.”
That might seem to put an end to the matter.
But at Benedictine College, a Catholic liberal arts college in Atchison, Kan., Ryan Maderak, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy and director of the astronomy program, has a different take.
Scientifically, yes, the moon would have been on the wrong side of Earth at Passover, making a solar eclipse during the crucifixion impossible, Maderak said.
But as a man of faith as well as science, he said, he also holds out the possibility for miracles.
“I personally take this approach of not wanting to mix my science and my faith too much,” said Maderak, who on Aug. 20 and 21 will be hosting two colleagues of Consolmagno from the Vatican. Atchison sits along the eclipse’s path of totality; the Vatican scientists will come to view it.
“From a theological perspective,” Maderak said, “if God is omnipotent, then he has sort of a little, shall we say, a little leeway to override the laws of physics.
“If this is something that happened due to divine intervention, we may or may not be able to understand how that occurred. What I’m getting at here: Miraculous occurrences are just that.”
Another explanation may be this: Not a solar eclipse, but a lunar eclipse, when the sun and the Earth and moon align in such a way for the earth’s shadow to cover the moon.
NASA has historic maps of those, too. A partial lunar eclipse occurred on what we now know as April 3 in 33 A.D., the day some think Jesus died.