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With the solar eclipse that occurred Monday, it occurred to me to consider the darkening of the sun that occurred when Jesus was on the Cross. Though some wish to explain it scientifically (as an eclipse), there may have been more at work than mere astronomy.
In Luke 23:44, we read, It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour (i.e., from noon until 3:00 PM).
Although this seems to describe a solar eclipse, it isn’t appropriate to insist that it was an eclipse (at least as we define the term today). Matthew, Mark, and Luke all speak to the darkness of that day using the Greek term σκότος (skotos), meaning simply “darkness.” Only Luke went on to state the reason for the darkness: the sun was darkened (Luke 23:45). He even used the Greek word ἐκλιπόντος (eklipontos), from which the word “eclipse” was derived. In Greek, however, the word eklipontos simply means “darkened,” whereas our word “eclipse” refers to a darkening as a result of the moon blocking the light of the sun. But that is not necessarily, or even likely, what Luke meant here.
As a general rule, we should avoid applying a scientific meaning to a text that is more specific than the author intends. That there was darkness over the land from noon until three is certainly attested to in the sacred texts, but the cause of that darkness is not definitively stated to be an eclipse, at least not as we use the term today. Perhaps God made use of other natural causes, such as very heavy clouds, to cause the light of the sun to dim. It is also possible that the darkness was of purely supernatural origin and was experienced only by some of those present.
Trying to explain the darkness simply in terms of the laws of science risks doing a disservice to the text by missing its deeper meaning: that the darkness of sin had reached its zenith. Whatever the physical mechanism of the darkness, its deepest cause was sin and evil.
Jesus said elsewhere, “This is the judgment: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” (Jn 3:19). Referring to His passion, He also said, “Night is coming, when no one can work” (Jn 9:4). And when Judas left the Last Supper to betray Jesus, John observed simply and profoundly, “And it was night” (Jn 13:30). Yes, deep darkness had come upon the world.
Some also question whether the occurrence of darkness on that day has any “basis in fact” or whether the biblical accounts are mere theologizing. Although a few modern scholars consider the reference to be a mere literary device, there seems little reason to doubt that it actually occurred. While some refer to a purported Letter of Pontius Pilate to Tiberius verifying it, the letter’s historical veracity is highly disputed.
Yet it is recorded in three of the gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and most of the Fathers of the Church treated the darkness as historical.
That said, how many people experienced the darkness and how deep it was, is not clearly specified. We should balance accepting its historical accuracy with an appreciation that the biblical texts are restrained in terms of precise details and were written with a theological purpose more so than to provide a detailed description.