In my experience, one of the first questions that Biblical skeptics ask about the miracle claims in the Bible is this – “Is there any evidence for this event outside the Bible?” I think this is a very reasonable question.
My previous blog focused on extra-Biblical evidence for Jesus Resurrection and his claims to be God. http://tinyurl.com/k7ltbp9
For this one, I’d like to focus on a very specific event that the Bible records as happening on the day Jesus of Nazareth was crucified.
The Synoptic Gospel accounts (Matthew 27:45; 51-52, Mark 15:33 and Luke 23:44-45) all record an unexpected period of darkness during Jesus’ crucifixion. Matthew goes further to give it duration – 3 hours – and also claims it was accompanied by something like an earthquake.
Are there any extra-Biblical references to this?
If it really happened then surely it would have been a source of shock and surprise to the wider population of Jerusalem that day? The gospel account does not give any clue as to how large an area was affected by the claimed darkness. Was it restricted to the areas surrounding Jerusalem in some way? Was it felt by people living elsewhere on the planet? The text does not tell us. Again – we can assume it…but we don’t know from the Gospel itself.
Well – a very ancient extra-Bibical account of the 3 hour long darkness and rock splitting earthquake – does in fact exist. To find it we need to read reports from one pagan Roman historian who was a contemporary of Jesus living in Palestine, one pagan Roman historian from the 1st century and another who lived two hundred years later in Jerusalem.
Thallus, est. AD50:
Roman historian Thallus, believed to be a Samaritan, recorded strange events during Tiberius Ceasar’s reign around Jerusalem. Thallus is mentioned by various historical sources including his colleague Josephus. Thallus describes an “eclipse of the sun”; he gives a naturalistic explanation of an event which is dated to the time period of the crucifixion.
Phlegon, est. AD137:
Phlegon was believed to have been born around the time of Jesus crucifixion, and wrote an account later in the 1st century. He too mentions the darkness and even records the time and duration of the event; and it lines up with Matthew’s report – between the 6th hour and the 9th hour. He also mentions the earthquake affecting Bythinia and part of Nicea (hundreds of miles north of Jerusalem). I will quote a surviving fragment of his “The Olympiads” below.
Neither Thallus or Phlegon appear to have made any attempt to link the events specifically to Jesus crucifixion. Why would they? Yet a later 3rd century historian – Julius Africanus – did just that.
Julius Africanus, est. AD230:
He researched the earlier Thallus and Phlegon reports…and he added some commentary of his own. I will quote Julius Africanus at the bottom of this blog…but let me pull out some threads of what he is saying – and what he is not saying – in his account.
1 – He points specifically to “This darkness” . It was a well-known historical event that is being discussed. The three hour darkness – and its associated earthquake – clearly affected a large region because many people got caught up in the discussion about it afterwards. Just how large the region was, though, is hard to tell.
2 – He quotes Thallus’ historical mention of the darkness. But he challenges Thallus’ reasoning for its occurrence. How can this have been an eclipse of the sun when the dates and times were all wrong? There was a full moon at that point in the Jewish calendar, and an eclipse of the sun would have been impossible.
3 – It seems that there were many different conflicting explanations suggested for this darkness at the time. This is to be expected; people are curious – and inquisitive. We aren’t talking a cloudy day or a sudden rain downpour. This was a significant event that was debated amongst learned people at the time. There must have been many theories for what had happened that day! Julius is not convinced by Thallus’ naturalistic explanation. This is not just any astronomical event that is being discussed here – this is a very specific one which occurred during the reign of Tiberius Ceasar – around the time when Jesus Christ was crucified.
4 – He also points out Phlegon’s precise timing of the darkness and rock splitting event. This lines the account up with the claims in Matthew’s Gospel. He goes further and mentions the “resurrection of the dead” – a claim that Matthew’s Gospel specifically makes as having occurred at the moment of Jesus’ death. (Matthew 27:52-53). Julius is writing a hundred years after these events. But his report seems to refer to events that were known from the time.
5 – Julius is not specifically arguing that a supernatural event occurred that day. I will sometimes hear skeptics talk down to those who lived in 1st century Palestine. “Oh, they would have believed anything back then!” But these people were not stupid – and not as naive as many folks assume. Julius’ focus here is on recording what happened that day and when. He is also very focused on arguing what did not happen – this event could NOT have simply been a natural eclipse.
6 – Julius is not writing a Christian apologetic on the crucifixion, here. This is written as a historical commentary underpinning the tradition that had been communicated by the canonical Gospels for over 100 years prior to Julius investigations.
In summary, we have independent, extra-Biblical witnesses of an unexpected and specific 3 hour period of darkness on the day Jesus was crucified. And we have historical evidence of a debate for the cause of this unexpected astronomical event. We also have the Phlegon account of the earthquake felt as far north from Jerusalem as Nicea. I am unsure whether Thallus or Phlegon mentioned the resurrections as well; but Julius certainly does (although Julius was not an eyewitness of those events himself).
So the answer to my question is – YES. I think we DO have corroborative evidence outside the Bible for another of its miracle claims.
On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness Thallus, in the third book of his History, calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun. For the Hebrews celebrate the passover on the 14th day according to the moon, and the passion of our Savior falls on the day before the passover; but an eclipse of the sun takes place only when the moon comes under the sun. And it cannot happen at any other time but in the interval between the first day of the new moon and the last of the old, that is, at their junction: how then should an eclipse be supposed to happen when the moon is almost diametrically opposite the sun? Let opinion pass however; let it carry the majority with it; and let this portent of the world be deemed an eclipse of the sun, like others a portent only to the eye. Phlegon records that, in the time of Tiberius Caesar, at full moon, there was a full eclipse of the sun from the sixth hour to the ninth–manifestly that one of which we speak. But what has an eclipse in common with an earthquake, the rending rocks, and the resurrection of the dead, and so great a perturbation throughout the universe? Surely no such event as this is recorded for a long period. (The Extant Fragments of the five Books of Chronography of Julius Africanus XVIII.1)
In the 4th year of the 202nd Olympiad, there was a great eclipse of the sun, greater than had ever been known before, for at the sixth hour the day was changed into night, and the stars were seen in the heavens. An earthquake occured in Bythinia and overthrew a great part of the city of Nicea. (The Extant Fragments of The Olympiads of phlegon)