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Was there an Eclipse on Good Friday and Passover?

Updated: Apr 28

Like millions of other Americans, I travelled two weeks ago to get a front-row seat for the total solar eclipse.  It is truly amazing to see that bright light in the sky that is always too bright to look at suddenly change into a pitch-black orb surrounded by a halo of light.  We fully understand today the astronomical numbers that make this possible and how rare it is.  We can also imagine that to the ancients it must have been a scary, foreboding sight.  It is easy to see how they would have thought it to be a sign of displeasure from the gods, or God.   There are reports of armies abandoning the battlefield at such an omen.  



On Good Friday, the day of Christ’s crucifixion, the gospels mention that during the afternoon there was a short period when the sun was darkened.  Some have suggested this may have been a total, or near total, solar eclipse.  But a little knowledge of the Jewish festivals rules this out.  For Good Friday occurred the day before the beginning of Passover—known now with near certainty to have occurred on April the 3rd, 33 AD.  We know this date because that is the only year near that time that the preparation date for Passover (Nisan 14) fell on a Friday, the day before the sabbath, as recorded in the gospels.  Given that the Jewish calendar is lunar based, and the first of every month begins at a “new” moon, the 14th of Nisan occurs two weeks later at a full moon.  A total solar eclipse occurs at a new moon, when the moon and sun are very close or right on top of each other.   As Good Friday occurred at a full moon, a total solar eclipse would have been impossible.  Just as tomorrow (April 22, 2024) is the beginning of Passover and a full moon, two weeks after our total solar eclipse.


Although solar eclipses cannot occur during a full moon, lunar eclipses do.  And the ancients also believe these events were the sign of God’s displeasure.  For example, Josephus records that Herod the Great had one year murdered two prominent priests.  The following night a lunar eclipse happened and Herod fell ill—and did not recover—he died one month later.  Josephus is clearly suggesting this lunar eclipse was God’s displeasure.  So, one might ask—did a lunar eclipse occur on Good Friday?



 A blood-red lunar eclipse in 2011. Photo from NASA.


Interestingly, this question has been addressed by astronomers who published their results over 100 years apart, the latter in the most highly prestigious British scientific journal, Nature.  The first was in 1872, when J. R. Hind showed that there was indeed a lunar eclipse on the generally received date of the Crucifixion, April 3, AD33.  But the calculations at the time showed it would not have been visible in Jerusalem.  But then in 1983 and 1990 other scientists published results showing that improved astronomical programs—which made historical eclipse calculations much more precise—predicted a partial lunar eclipse would have been visible in Jerusalem on Good Friday.   Or by the Jewish reckoning on Nisan 15, just as the moon rose above the horizon—right after the sunset—marking the beginning of Passover week.  So a lunar eclipse occurred both on Good Friday (by the Julian Calendar) and the first day of Passover (by the Jewish calendar).


This lunar eclipse at sunset, at the beginning of Passover, would have appeared rising in the East over the Mount of Olives.  With the eclipsed part rising first. It would have been an omen to the Jews of God’s displeasure.  Also, due to the effect where the horizon makes sunsets orange and red, the eclipsed partial rising moon would have appeared to be very red.  During a lunar eclipse the moon does not go black like during a total solar eclipse—there is backlighting from the earth that makes it appear a pale orange color normally.  But near the horizon that color would have been deeper—a blood red. 


I have my own blood-red moon story. In the year 2000 I was doing field work in the desert of the United Arab Emirates. My colleague and I were taking measurements of humidity at ground level all night long. We were on the very flat coastal plain along the Persian Gulf. It was a couple of hours after sunset. You could see very close to the horizon everywhere as there were no trees. The highway ran not far from us so you could see headlights coming at us from the east. Then we noticed a redder light just at or above the horizon that twinkled. Then it began to grow and waver like a flame. It was eerie. We could not figure out what it was. Then it appeared to move sideways as well. But we realized eventually that was just an illusion from seeing it relative to the headlights' apparent sideways motion. It was getting spooky. We thought about how the nomads in ages past reported genies appearing in the desert during the night. But we just kept watching. Finally it became obvious. It was the moon. Rising in the east. Because it was so close to the horizon, the strong atmospheric interference effect had made it initially red in color.


This blood-red partial rising moon over the Mount of Olives occurred only a few hours after the crucifixion and would have harkened back to the prophet Joel.  The Apostle Peter quoted Joel’s prophecy seven weeks later at Pentecost, recounting: “The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD.

 

References:

 

Hind, J. R. (1872). Historical eclipses. Astronomical register, vol. 10, pp. 207-21410, 207-214.


Humphreys, C. J., & Waddington, W. G. (1983). Dating the crucifixion. Nature306(5945), 743-746.


Ruggles, C. (1990). The Moon and the crucifixion. Nature345(6277), 669-670.


In the Cry for Jerusalem blog section Ward covers subjects to do with the vast amount of research that went into the Cry for Jerusalem historical novel series, including Ancient Jerusalem, the Roman Empire, Biblical topics, and the writings of Josephus.


To learn more about the novel series click here or for purchasing click here.

 

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