RESPONDblog: Evidence for Bible Miracle Claims – an Unexpected Darkness

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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)

 

 

 

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stuartgrayuk

I live in the UK, I'm married to Janet and I'm passionate about proposing a case for the historic Christian faith. You can find me on Twitter at @stuhgray.

5 thoughts on “RESPONDblog: Evidence for Bible Miracle Claims – an Unexpected Darkness”

  1. Thanks, again, for another interesting article! I hope you won’t mind a bit of friendly criticism, on my part.

    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 two historians who were contemporaries of Jesus living in Palestine.

    Phlegon of Tralles most certainly was not a contemporary of Jesus, living in Palestine. He lived in Tralles, in the region of Caria (modern day western Turkey) during the 2nd Century. While his report mentions an eclipse and an earthquake in the year which is traditionally cited for Jesus’ crucifixion (33 CE), he does not state at what point during the year these things occurred, and he specifically states that the earthquake occurred in Nicaea, in the region of Bithynia, which is around 600 miles away from Jerusalem. Some quick astronomical calculations show that there was a solar eclipse visible at Tralles in the year 33 CE– therefore, likely to be the one Phlegon discusses– but it occurred on September 12, not at any time close to the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.

    Thallus is more mysterious. We don’t actually known very much about him, at all. The idea that he was a Samarian, and that he was mentioned by Josephus, are both due to a mistake which John Hudson made when preparing his 1720 edition of Antiquities in which he added a theta to the Greek work “αλλος.” No edition of Josephus’ text prior to 1720 mentions Thallus. Since Thallus is most usually cited in reference to Syrian and Assyrian history, it would seem reasonable to think that he was from Syria, not Palestine. Furthermore, we don’t actually know what it is that Thallus says, precisely, about the darkness– his exact words are lost to history. All we know is that Thallus refers to an “eclipse of the sun” which Sextus Julius Africanus believes is a reference to the darkness after the crucifixion mentioned in the gospels. It is quite likely that Thallus is referring to the same eclipse which Phlegon likely mentioned: September 12, 33CE.

    1. hello mate – how you doing?

      Thanks for clarifying for me. You sent me back to do some more digging…and you are absolutely right about Phlegon. My mistake. I’ve corrected my blog in the light of that dating too. Thallus – original text lost – is the earliest and he’s believed to have written his account around AD50. Its not surprising his text got lost…just the way ancient history works and the materials they used to store the valuable information, I guess. Today we suffer hard drive crashes and desk clearouts…back then the materials they used eventually crumbled away. Its amazing that fragments of Phlegon’s work remain! Fascinating stuff – and thanks for challenging me to look deeper.

      I was interested in your comments mentioning a solar eclipse in AD33. If it was a full solar eclipse which was completely visible in AD33…then that would definitely have a darkening effect on people during the daytime.

      Helpfully – the NASA website has a website all about eclipses…dating back centuries…as well as predicting future events. Which is cool. They do indeed mention a LUNAR Eclipse in AD33. And they even show us what effect this would have had on the people living in Palestine at that time.

      http://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/LEhistory/LEplot/LE0033Apr03P.pdf

      What I can see here is that – first this is a Lunar Eclipse – not an Eclipse of the Sun. So it occurs at night, not during the day time. Looking at the map – ancient Israel could have spotted the Lunar Eclipse at Moon Rise…which is not easily estimated. But we are probably looking at 1am in the morning…something like that? So because the AD33 eclipse happened at night…it does not qualify as a natural explanation to the events discussed by Thallus, Phlegon + Julius…whatever time of the year it occurred.

      I dug a little further – and the page on ancient Solar Eclipses is also interesting. If I am reading it correctly (and that’s a big if, mate) there was a solar eclipse in September AD34 which would have been visible across Africa. But the nearest Solar Eclipse that Palestine was able to view was in November AD24. So – again – we don’t have anything close to matching the events described by our ancient pagan + christian sources. Fascinating stuff.

      All this contemporary mathematical evidence – to my mind – goes to lend weight to Julius Africanus ancient argument that Thallus’ naturalistic explanations were completely inappropriate to explain “This darkness” around the crucifixion of Christ. The other dimension to this is the earthquake which is also mentioned by Phlegon. And would have contributed to the unexpected nature of this event. Unexpected darkness + rock splitting earthquake in the middle east = mayhem!

      So…right now I think my blog conclusion does still stand. We do have extra-Biblical…completely non-Christian historical sources…that corroborate this miracle claim of the Bible. (Miracle being defined as an event that cannot be explained purely thru naturalistic processes)

      What do you think?

      Thanks again, mate.

      Stu

      1. Thanks again for the response! This has certainly been an interesting and enlightening conversation, thus far!

        The Sept 12, 33 CE, eclipse which I mentioned can be found elsewhere on the NASA website, in their Five Millennium Catalog of Solar Eclipses, compiled by Fred Espenak. According to my eclipse software, it would have peaked at about 11:30 am (local time) for observers in Caria, Bithynia, and Palestine, causing a significant darkening of the daylight. You can find it listed at this link:
        http://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/SEcat5/SE0001-0100.html

        Now, I will gladly admit that there is one thing which certainly does not match up between this historical eclipse and Phlegon’s account. Phlegon refers to the eclipse as “greater and more excellent than any that had happened before it;” however, it appears that this particular eclipse would have actually been one of the weakest visible in that region over the whole First Century. Still, if there actually had been both an eclipse and an earthquake within a short time period, as Phlegon implies, it is quite likely that the eclipse would have been aggrandized in legend by the time stories reached the historian a century later. Such an ominous portent could hardly have been considered an insignificant coincidence, at that time.

        Considering how extremely vague our knowledge of Thallus and his claims remains, I do not see that he can be reasonably cited as corroboration for the crucifixion darkening event described in the synoptics. And since Phlegon of Tralles might be referencing an actual eclipse half-a-year removed from the crucifixion, and since his earthquake occurred in Bithynia (not Palestine), I don’t think his work corroborates the miracle claims of Matthew, either.

      2. Hi mate –

        How are you doing today? Yes – thanks again for taking the time to explore this topic with me.

        I’ve done some digging again and I’ve found two solar eclipses on the page you linked to. Catalog Number 04856 19th March 33AD. If you follow those links thru to an analysis of the eclipse…I think you would need to have been in a boat floating on the Southern Ocean to have had a chance of seeing that one then.

        The next next one is Catalog Number 04857 12th September 33AD. This looks like the eclipse you are referring to? If you follow the link thru to the analysis, you will see that the people living in the far north of the Northern Hemisphere in those days would have had a chance of catching that one (I wonder what those people were doing in the 1st century…something else to investigate one day?). According to the measurements provided on the site, the people in the Middle East would not have been aware of the Solar Eclipse on 12th September 33AD.

        So – we have both looked thru some interesting…if not slightly contradictory…data on 1st century eclipses from the 1st century on the nasa eclipse website.

        We are comparing scientific prediction with historical reporting from Thallus, Phlegon and Africanus and finding that the expected data does not fit the historical reports.

        Now from a naturalistic worldview…I can understand why you would put more faith in the scientific numbers and turn to viewing the historical reports as simply legends. The report does not fit with your expectations from nature…and so the people involved must be mistaken or making this up…perhaps with good intentions…but mistaken all the same.

        And yet the Africanus argument based on the early reports suggests that the darkness and indeed the earthquake events were particularly well known and the cause debated by people. Further – we have the reports clearly documented by the New Testament Gospels themselves. You have questioned Thallus a few times now…and from a historical perspective I would challenge this. Are there not other historical figures from antiquity who are reported only second hand who we receive as factual and people of historical credibility? I’m thinking of Socrates and his student Plato here.

        Certainly Thallus is well regarded by other scholars as a 1st century Roman historian. He is reasonably cited by them. In fact one has commented on the amazing irony that POSSIBLY the earliest documented report of Jesus and his Crucifixion comes not from the earliest written Christian Gospel (MARK) but from a pagan Roman historian (THALLUS).

        Some observations on Phlegon – You have decided that the Phlegon evidence must be referencing the September eclipse. Yet the data we are looking at does not actually lead us to that conclusion. Further – it strikes me that just because the earthquake is reported in Bythinia…how do we know it did not also affect Palestine? The reports suggest it had a devastating effect. Given the data in front of us…it makes more sense to assume the tremors affected both regions rather than just one?

        Because the scientific data and the historical reporting does not fit with the worldview you bring…you are choosing to dismiss the historical reports. Am I right?

        If so – I would suggest that actually this debate is less about eclipses and unexpected earthquakes (fascinating as this discussion is…I have learned lots myself!) This debate is about worldviews. Specifically, Naturalism…interpreting our observations thru the narrow lenses that assume a closed system of cause and effect, natural laws…a closed Universe. A naturalistic worldview is very different from a Christian Biblical worldview. What do you think, mate?

        I wrote the original blog to provide some extra Biblical corroborative evidence supporting the New Testament account of the crucifixion. The nature of corroborate evidence is that it is one small piece of a bigger puzzle. You don’t hinge an entire case on a single bit of corroborative evidence…you build up a jigsaw of many pieces pointing to a conclusion. I think our discussion has shown that – even though the scientific eclipse data does not support the reported events – the events are nevertheless documented, historical evidence. Surely this begins to provide us grounds to consider rethinking our pre-conceptions and reevaluate the reports in the New Testament…and follow the historical reporting where it leads?

        Just my questions to you, mate. Again – I’ve enjoyed learning lots thru this discussion…sorry if i’ve gone on abit there. BTW – are you on twitter? Would love to follow you.

        cheers for now

        Stu

      3. The next next one is Catalog Number 04857 12th September 33AD. This looks like the eclipse you are referring to? …According to the measurements provided on the site, the people in the Middle East would not have been aware of the Solar Eclipse on 12th September 33AD.

        That is, indeed, the eclipse to which I was referring, but I don’t think you’re reading that map quite correctly. The Red lines show the track for Totality– only observers within that track would have seen a complete, total eclipse. However, the Green lines demarcate the visibility boundary for the eclipse– anyone within those lines would have been able to witness an Annular eclipse of the sun. The Dotted Green line is the 0.50 magnitude marker. The regions of Caria, Bithynia, and Palestine would have seen almost 20% of the sun darkened by the eclipse (magnitude 0.172, in that area). Certainly not the all-encompassing darkness Phlegon mentions, as I admitted, but definitely visible and quite significant.

        Now from a naturalistic worldview…I can understand why you would put more faith in the scientific numbers and turn to viewing the historical reports as simply legends. The report does not fit with your expectations from nature…and so the people involved must be mistaken or making this up…perhaps with good intentions…but mistaken all the same.

        I’m not saying that they must be mistaken or making it up. Rather, I’m simply saying that it seems far more likely that they were mistaken or reporting upon accrued legendry given the data than otherwise.

        You have questioned Thallus a few times now…and from a historical perspective I would challenge this. Are there not other historical figures from antiquity who are reported only second hand who we receive as factual and people of historical credibility? I’m thinking of Socrates and his student Plato here.

        I’m not questioning Thallus’ historicity– I completely believe that he existed and that he wrote histories. The problem is that we don’t actually have any of his work extant; and though Julius Africanus cites Thallus, he does not quote the earlier writer, so we do not actually know what Thallus wrote about this purported darkness. That is not an impugning of Thallus’ credibility– it is an admission that we don’t actually have any of Thallus’ work.

        As an aside, Socrates is actually a fairly bad example, here. There is a rather large proportion of scholarship devoted to uncovering the historical Socrates, and most historians tend to take Plato’s characterization of his old master with a grain of salt. However, I do understand your meaning, and I think a better example might be found in one of my favorite personages of history, Hypatia of Alexandria. None of her work survives, but we know that she was an eminent and prolific mathematician and astronomer due to the extant references to her in other documents; unfortunately, the fact that the content of her written works has been lost means that we cannot know precisely how brilliant she was. Similarly, we know that Thallus was a respected historian, but we do not know much more than that.

        In fact one has commented on the amazing irony that POSSIBLY the earliest documented report of Jesus and his Crucifixion comes not from the earliest written Christian Gospel (MARK) but from a pagan Roman historian (THALLUS).

        I would agree that it is possible that Thallus made reference to Jesus, but such a proposition is wildly speculative and completely unsupportable. Even if Julius Africanus is completely accurate in his characterization of Thallus’ awareness of the darkness, there is no reason to think that Thallus was aware of Jesus or the crucifixion, specifically.

        …it strikes me that just because the earthquake is reported in Bythinia…how do we know it did not also affect Palestine? The reports suggest it had a devastating effect. Given the data in front of us…it makes more sense to assume the tremors affected both regions rather than just one?

        If there had been an earthquake which was so incredibly powerful that it toppled buildings in Nicaea while splitting rocks and shattering open tombs in Jerusalem, it would be reasonable to expect that most other historical documents detailing this particular period would have also noted it. However, no such corroboration of an insanely strong earthquake exists– not even by the other gospel writers. Furthermore, the fact that Phlegon notes that the earthquake occurred in Bithynia would seem to indicate that it was not felt in his own region of Caria, which was far closer in proximity that Palestine. It simply seems incredibly unlikely that Phlegon was reporting upon the same event that Matthew describes.

        Because the scientific data and the historical reporting does not fit with the worldview you bring…you are choosing to dismiss the historical reports. Am I right?

        Not at all! I’m simply saying that I do not believe the historical reports indicate what you are suggesting.

        The nature of corroborate evidence is that it is one small piece of a bigger puzzle. You don’t hinge an entire case on a single bit of corroborative evidence

        I would certainly agree with this. My contention is not that corroborative evidence is irrelevant; rather, I am simply saying that Thallus and Phlegon are not actually corroborative.

        Just my questions to you, mate. Again – I’ve enjoyed learning lots thru this discussion…sorry if i’ve gone on abit there. BTW – are you on twitter? Would love to follow you.

        I’ve enjoyed it quite thoroughly, myself! Thanks, so much!

        Unfortunately, I’m not on Twitter– not enough time in the day– but I try to get one or two blog posts written up, each week, so the best place to check me out is certainly: http://boxingpythagoras.com/

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