Eclipses In The Bible

Total solar eclipse tracks are narrow. To be able to say with surety, looking far back in time, that a certain eclipse was visible from a specific location requires that we know how the spin of the planet has varied over the past several millennia. Although we only have definite eclipse records dating back to 700 B.C., the trend can be extrapolated for perhaps another thousand years. This opens the possibility of identifying dates for a few of the eclipses mentioned in the Old Testament.

One of the best-known allusions to an eclipse occurs in the book of Genesis. Referring to Abraham in Canaan, the text says, "And when the Sun was going down . . . great darkness fell upon him." It is possible to identify this description with a computed solar eclipse occurring on May 9, 1533 B.C., which would have occurred at about 6:30 P.M. local time (indeed, when the Sun was going down).

In the biblical account, a great comet was seen the following year, a fact in itself of interest to modern astronomers. To investigate the dynamical history of comets, long temporal baselines of observations are important. For Halley's Comet, observations back to 240 B.C. are known, and earlier records would be useful. The comet of 1532 B.C. is not linked with any recently observed object, but maybe it will reappear soon.

The most famous solar eclipse in the Bible is that ofJoshua. This has long puzzled scholars, because it describes the Sun as stopping still during an eclipse, and even moving backwards. In terms of a date, this appears to have been the solar eclipse of September 30, 1131 B.C. But in regard to the phenomenon reported (the Sun halting or retreating), we are pretty sure that

Joshua was wrong. Similar claims have been made for several other eclipses, for example one that affected a fifteenth-century civil war in Ireland. This is merely a visual illusion produced by the Moon overtaking the Sun, the latter seeming to slip backwards in consequence.

Various events around 760 B.C., culminating in a major earthquake that damaged Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem and caused a huge destructive wave in the Sea of Galilee, clearly had a considerable effect upon the people ofJudea. The fact that the rumble was felt over 800 miles away allows us to estimate that the tremble was about magnitude 7.3 on the Richter scale. In the Bible there are eight separate allusions to a solar eclipse around that time, which may be identified as June 15, 763 B.C. We are told the eclipse was followed closely by a bright comet. If this was Halley's Comet (we cannot be sure due to the sparsity of the information) then we know from a backwards extrapolation of its orbit that the comet indeed would have been visible in August of 763 B.C., five centuries before the earliest definite observation cited above. The combination of these pieces of biblical information leaves us pretty sure that the earthquake happened four years later, in 759 B.C.

That year's identification stems from our ability to back-calculate the eclipse. Clearly eclipses (and periodic comets) are important phenomena in that the modern understandings of astronomers and mathematicians enable historians to assign definite dates to events in the distant past. For example, when was Jesus crucified?

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