Darkness at Noon – Ancient Scholars Unintentionally Validated a Miracle During Jesus’s Crucifixion

Darkness at noon during the crucifixion of Jesus

It’s AD 33. Jesus has been put through multiple farcical trials through the night and has been scourged. It’s now noon, and Jesus has been on the cross for a few hours. Suddenly, around noon, there’s a shocking and unexpected darkness. This darkness was recorded by Matthew, Mark, and Luke in their Gospel accounts. What’s possibly even more intriguing is that this darkness was also witnessed and recorded by other historians and philosophers who had nothing to do with the biblical writers. And what they said unintentionally validated the darkness at noon as a miracle.

First, let’s look at what the Gospel writers said about the darkness.

What did Matthew, Mark, and Luke say about the darkness at noon?

Here are the relevant parallel passages from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Matthew also includes that after Jesus died, there was an earthquake. This is significant as we’ll see a correspondence from a secular scholar.

Matthew 27:45-46

"From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”)."

Mark 15:33-34

"At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”)."

Luke 23:44-45

"It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two."
"And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open." - Matthew 27:50-52

The three Gospel writers document that darkness came over the whole land, where “whole land” can be understood to be an unspecified general area, but likely not the entire planet. Matthew, Mark, and Luke don’t provide enough details to help us understand exactly what this darkness was, but it appears to have been a surprise, much more so than any general darkness due to a typical natural phenomenon. However, Luke includes something very suspicious and important, namely that “the sun stopped shining.” This will be important as we delve into what the darkness may have been and try to harmonize the Gospel accounts of the darkness and those from extrabiblical sources.

What did ancient scholars say about the darkness at noon?

Most may be surprised to learn that there are extra-biblical sources that validate the darkness at noon. For those still under the impression that the New Testament is just a set of fabrications, things such as this look eerily difficult to reconcile with that assumption. Let’s take a look at what those ancient scholars said.

What did Thallus say about the darkness at noon?

Thallus was a historian and one of the earliest to mention Jesus outside the New Testament writings. In AD 52, He wrote a history of the Eastern Mediterranean from the Trojan War to his own time. His works did not make it to us in one piece, but they were preserved in fragments as citations by other scholars of antiquity. In AD 221, Julius Africanus cites the darkness at noon that Thalus had written about,

full solar eclipse

“Thallus, in the third book of his History, explains away this darkness as an eclipse of the sun – unreasonably as it seems to me (unreasonably, of course, because a solar eclipse could not take place at the time of the full moon, and it was at the full moon season of the Paschal full moon that Christ died).”

– Julius Africanus, Chronography 18.1

From Thallus, we simply know that there was darkness at noon, and he thought it might have been a solar eclipse.

What did Phlegon say about the darkness at noon?

Phlegon of Tralles (born c. AD 80) was a historian. His works also failed to reach us in one piece. However, his work, Chronicles, was also fortunately preserved in fragments by Julius Africanus, Origen, and Philopon. According to Africanus, Phlegon stated,

“During the time of Tiberius Caesar an eclipse of the sun occured during a full moon.”

– Julius Africanus, Chronography 18.1

Phlegon added that the darkness at noon occurred “during the time of Tiberius Caesar,” which puts the event in AD 14-37.

Another citation of Phlegon’s writings made by historian Eusebius of Caesarea (AD 264–340) reads,

“In the fourth year, however, of Olympiad 202, an eclipse of the sun happened, greater and more excellent than any that had happened before it; at the sixth hour, day turned into dark night, so that the stars were seen in the sky, and an Earthquake in Bithynia toppled many buildings of the city of Nicaea.

– Eusebius of Caesarea, Chronicle, (202 Olympiad)

We do have a lot more information from the citation by Eusebius. First, Phlegon verifies the unusual darkness and the earthquake recorded in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 27:51). Additionally, Phlegon’s details are absolutely breathtaking. According to Phlegon, this darkness happened “in the fourth year of Olympiad 202.” We know that Olympiad 202 was from AD 29-33. The fourth year of Olympiad 202 would be AD 33. Scholars hold the dating of Jesus’ crucifixion to be either AD 30 or AD 33 – consistent with the date arrived at through Phlegon’s reference to the darkness.

Phlegon gets even more specific. He tells us that it happened “at the sixth hour,” which, according to the common way of using dawn (6 am) as the beginning of the day, would put the sixth hour at noon. Perhaps the most important portion of what Phlegon said was that what he thought was an eclipse was,

“greater and more excellent than any that happened before it…day turned into night, so that the stars were seen in the sky.”

This will be important as we look at what the darkness could have been.

What did Tertullian say about the darkness at noon?

Tertullian (A.D. 145-220) was an early Christian author and apologist. Now, one might object to a Christian providing support for a supernatural event mentioned in the New Testament, but Tertullian makes a reference for his readers that what he’s writing about can be validated by the Roman archives. In his commentary, Apology, he stated,

“In the same hour, too, the light of day was withdrawn when the sun at the very time was in his meridian blaze. Those who were not aware that this had been predicted about Christ, no doubt thought it an eclipse. You yourselves have the account of the world-portent still in your archives.”

– Tertullian, “The Apology,” in Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. S. Thelwall, vol. 3, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 35.

Tertullian’s phrasing is a bit strange: “…the light of day was withdrawn.” This is notable, and we’ll investigate why he may have phrased the phenomenon that way.

What did Dionysius say about the darkness at noon?

Dionysius the Areopagite (5th–6th century AD) was a philosopher and author. Before he became a Christian himself, Dionysius saw the darkness…in Egypt. He wrote,

“How, for instance, when we were staying in Heliopolis (I was then about twenty-five, and your age was nearly the same as mine), on a certain sixth day, and about the sixth hour, the sun, to our great surprise, became obscured, through the moon passing over it, not because it is a god, but because a creature of God, when its very true light was setting, could not bear to shine. Then I earnestly asked thee, what thou, O man most wise, thought of it. Thou, then, gave such an answer as remained fixed in my mind, and that no oblivion, not even that of the image of death, ever allowed to escape. For, when the whole orb had been throughout darkened, by a black mist of darkness, and the sun’s disk had begun again to be purged and to shine anew, then taking the table of Philip Aridaeus, and contemplating the orbs of heaven, we learned, what was otherwise well known, that an eclipse of the sun could not, at that time, occur. Next, we observed that the moon approached the sun from the east, and intercepted its rays, until it covered the whole; whereas, at other times, it used to approach from the west. Further also, we noted that when it had reached the extreme edge of the sun, and had covered the whole orb, that it then went back towards the east, although that was a time which called neither for the presence of the moon, nor for the conjunction of the sun. I therefore, O treasury of manifold learning, since I was incapable of understanding so great a mystery, thus addressed thee — “What thinkest thou of this thing, O Apollophanes, mirror of learning?” “Of what mysteries do these unaccustomed portents appear to you to be indications?” Thou then, with inspired lips, rather than with speech of human voice, “These are, O excellent Dionysius,” thou saidst, “changes of things divine.”

– Letter xi. Dionysius to Apollophanes, Philosopher. Letters of Dionysius The Areopagite. (biblehub.com/library/dionysius/letters_of_dionysius_the_areopagite/letter_xi_dionysius_to_apollophanes.htm)

There’s a lot here. Dionysius confirmed that the darkness began at the sixth hour in Jewish time. He did not completely understand what happened when the darkness occurred, but he states, “an eclipse of the sun could not, at that time.

What was the darkness at noon?

Let’s summarize all the references to the darkness at noon when Jesus was on the cross and get an idea of what the people who witnessed it thought it was. Was it a solar eclipse? A thick, dark cloud cover? Or something else entirely?

Matthew and Markdarkness came over the land
Lukethe sun stopped shining
Thallusexplains away this darkness as an eclipse of the sun
Phlegonthe day turned into dark night, so that the stars were seen in the sky
Tertullianthe light of day was withdrawn when the sun at the very time was in his meridian blaze
Dionysiusthe sun, to our great surprise, became obscured…the moon approached the sun from the east, and intercepted its rays, until it covered the whole; whereas, at other times, it used to approach from the west

Could the darkness at noon have been a solar eclipse?

As has been mentioned in various references above, the people reporting this unusual darkness uneasily (perhaps because of the lack of any other better natural explanations) thought it may have been a solar eclipse. At the same time, some mentioned that it could not have been an eclipse. Jesus was crucified at Passover, which was during the full moon phase. In the full moon phase, the moon is on the opposite side of the earth, away from the sun.

Solar Eclipse Graphic
How a solar eclipse works

The only way to have a solar eclipse is for the moon to be between the Earth and the sun. Additionally, all references to the darkness that include timing unilaterally say that the darkness lasted three hours – from noon to 3 pm. Solar eclipses last at most 10 minutes. Moving heavenly bodies do not on their own stop for hours. If a natural impossibility is not enough, I suppose we can also check the NASA data, which confirms that there is no record of a solar eclipse during the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. We can quickly exclude a solar eclipse as an explanation of the darkness at noon.

Could the darkness at noon have been a dark, thick cloud covering?

Many have proposed a thick cloud covering as the explanation for the darkness at noon. It’s a tempting solution. Dark clouds can obviously make things fairly dark and can certainly last for at least three hours. However, dark clouds don’t typically make things that dark. Also, if these were dark clouds, it’s extremely odd that no one referencing this darkness made a reference to clouds. No one tried to explain the darkness as cloud coverage, which would have likely been a much easier way to state a very natural event. There’s no reason to be vague about the darkness if it was merely the result of dark, thick cloud coverage. Everyone referred to the darkness at noon with a sense of awe and mystery. If this were some common occurrence, it would have been more precisely identified; no shroud of mystery would have been needed.

asperitas dark clouds in gloomy sky

Additionally, Phlegon’s testimony that “day turned into dark night, so that the stars were seen in the sky” militates against the dark cloud covering. If there were clouds blocking the sky, the stars in the sky would not have been visible.

What was the darkness at noon?

The darkness at noon doesn’t seem to have been the result of a solar eclipse or a thick, dark cloud cover. There is no other known natural explanation that could have possibly caused the darkness. Whatever caused the darkness was something at least slightly confounding to all the witnesses since no one gave much precision about the cause. Those who thought it may have been a solar eclipse were mistaken that it was an eclipse, though their testimony that it was an eclipse tells us a bit about what the cause of the darkness was like – it was like a solar eclipse. In other words, all indications are that the sun was “veiled,” “blocked,” “obscured,” and “stopped shining” without an eclipse.

Let’s set the stage for the darkness at noon with some context. The man who claimed to be God, who had led the perfect moral life, who many people had claimed to have performed miracles, resurrected people from the dead, who had claimed to be the Savior of the world, and was now being crucified for all of the sins of mankind upon a Roman cross, was being tortured to death. Here, we have ancient historical testimony that leads us to an inescapable conclusion – the darkness at noon was most likely a supernatural event or miracle.

Furthermore, let’s recall something interesting that Dionysius said about the way the sun was obscured – “…we observed that the moon approached the sun from the east, and intercepted its rays, until it covered the whole; whereas, at other times, it used to approach from the west.” He assumed the object that obstructed the sun to have been the moon without any other frame of naturalistic reference, but based on his explanation of the movement of that body, it’s clear it could not have been the moon since. The moon approaching the sun from the east instead of the west would have meant that the moon had reversed its rotation around the earth without impacting its balanced system – something even more miraculous than any other foreign object obscuring the sun.

Miracles confound the mind of modern man, but the context of the event, the lack of realistic alternative natural explanations, and the conglomeration of the evidence we do have from history and science lead us to the conclusion nevertheless – the darkness at noon during the crucifixion of Jesus was most likely a supernatural act by God!

Shares