The Crucifixion Eclipse

Astronomers have long speculated about how their science might fix the date of the birth ofJesus, given the Star of Bethlehem story.

My own favored dating involves multiple conjunctions of the planets Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars that we know occurred in 7 and 6 B.C. The Magi would therefore have been alerted to some impending event—the coming of the Savior had long been awaited by the Jews—which suspicion was confirmed in their minds by the appearance of a bright comet early in 5 B.C. We know from Chinese records that the comet was visible for over 70 days and moved across the sky in accord with the Magi following it from the environs of Babylon first westwards to Jerusalem, and then the final handful of miles south to Bethlehem. Various other aspects of the biblical story fit in with this picture and lead to a deduction of the Nativity occurring in mid-April of 5 B.C.

But what of the end of the mortal life of Jesus, when he was crucified in his thirties? When did that melancholy event take place? Various commentators have discussed how the range of possible dates can be restricted, based upon facets mentioned in the Gospels, such as the temporal relationship of the Crucifixion to Passover. Because Passover is at full moon, and the Crucifixion was on a Friday, only certain dates are feasible. The chief candidates are April 7, A.D. 30, and April 3, A.D. 33.

The essential clue of an eclipse was missed until quite recently. In 1983 Colin Humphreys (now at Cambridge University) and Graeme Waddington (of Oxford University) recognized that the date of the Crucifixion might be identified in this way. They noted that in various places in the Bible, and other early written accounts, allusions are made to the Moon being dark and "turned to blood" when it rose in the evening after the Crucifixion, which sounds like a lunar eclipse. Mention is also made of the Sun being darkened earlier that day. This may have been due to a dust storm caused by the khamsin, a hot wind from the south that blows through the region for about 50 days commencing around the middle of March, in accord with the expected time of year. Such dust storms and their sun-dimming effects are well known.

Under such circumstances—a lunar eclipse whilst there was much dust suspended in the air—one would expect the Moon to appear the dark crimson of blood. With that in mind Humphreys and Waddington computed the dates of all lunar eclipses possibly visible from Jerusalem between A.D. 26 and 36. And they found one on April 3, A.D. 33, one of the two possible dates mentioned above, occurring as the Moon rose a couple of hours after Jesus died, in accord with the Gospels.

This all relates back to the quote from the New English Bible with which Paul Davies began his Foreword to this book. Over the eons, memories of events in quite separate years can become confused or melded in the mind and then are written down in a way that deviates from historical reality. The Gospels were not written until the last decades of the first century A.D., a generation and more after the period described, and since then successive copying and translation have moved away from the original text.

It happens that the Sun was not in eclipse at the time of the Crucifixion, but would have been darkened by the khamsin dust. This is obvious simply from knowledge ofJewish custom: Passover is at full moon, and the definite biblical link between the Crucifixion and Passover makes a lunar eclipse the only possibility. On the other hand, there had been a solar eclipse thereabouts in recent times. On November 24, A.D. 29, the path of totality had passed just north ofJerusalem, over Damascus, Beirut, and Tripoli. Jerusalem itself would have been severely darkened. This would have left a strong local memory, but the date excludes it from being at the time of the Crucifixion: the year is too early, and Passover is not in November. It seems clear that over some decades the memory of lunar eclipse and dust-dimmed Sun in A.D. 33 became combined with the total solar eclipse in A.D. 29, leading to the false idea that the Sun was eclipsed at the Crucifixion. The computed lunar eclipse, then, allows us to allot a date to the Crucifixion. It was on the third day of April in the year A.D. 33.

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