The Paroikos Bible Blog exists as a resource to those interested in Biblical studies and Koine Greek. It is hoped that this blog will simultaneously provide food-for-thought to the reader while pointing him or her in the direction of valuable resources, both in print and on the internet, that will further help his or her studies in the Word.

Jul 11, 2013

The date of the crucifixion and NASA eclipse records

-->Note: the conclusions of the following discussion are not original with me; pride of place should go to the outstanding Tyndale Bulletin article by Humphreys and Waddington (both scientists, by the way), though other people have come to the same conclusion. I may be the first to actually go to NASA's website to verify data in that manner, however, but probably not. Regardless, though the conclusions in this discussion are not anything new, they may be new to the reader, and I hope they provide some food-for-thought.
Update [Saturday evening, 7/13/13]: The Acts 2 citation of the OT context of Joel is very difficult to work through, more difficult than I imply in this blog post. Like most dispensationalists, I would prefer to see a literal, future fulfillment for the Joel prophecy. On the other hand, it's really difficult to overlook Peter's fulfillment language in Acts 2. Perhaps something of an inaugurated fulfillment (which, I believe, is what some folks over at Dallas hold to)? Regardless, to be fair, for a more traditional dispensationalist take on this passage, see the good essay by Roy Beacham (I link to it in the first posted comment after this discussion).
Finally back at it! Finishing the dissertation (for which I am very grateful) and now working 2 jobs at 60 hours a week (for which I am grateful, but also tired) has taken a lot out of me, and there's so much I want to write. For now, higher priorities include revising my dissertation for attempted publication, if the Lord wills, and helping my father with his new Greek-to-Japanese New Testament.
Also, however, I have had the privilege of teaching through Matthew in a Sunday School class at my local church. I use my own curriculum, so to speak (relying heavily on the commentaries by Carson and Turner). Now, nearing the end of the series of lessons, we have been discussing the crucifixion. Before delving into the theology of the crucifixion, I had wanted to discuss some of the background (making liberal use of Martin Hengel's monumental book!), and part of that included discussing the date. Now, in my opinion, dating Christ's birth is impossible with our present knowledge (despite the attempts of some), but dating the crucifixion is very possible if a particular interpretation of Acts 2 is allowed to stand.
In Acts 2:14, Peter is beginning his Pentecost sermon; in verses 17-21, he takes a prophecy from Joel and applies it to the present day (as part of "the last days"); quoting that prophecy, he states:
"I will pour out my Spirit on all people, and your sons and your daughters will prophesy, and your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams, . . . and I will perform wonders in the sky above and miraculous signs on the earth below, blood and fire and clouds of smoke. The sun will be changed to darkness and the moon to blood before the great and glorious day of the Lord comes. And then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." [NET translation, from bible.org]
Now, Peter here seems to be applying that prophecy to the current era (as ushering in the end times; indeed, even though I'm a strong premillennialist, I believe we can say that all time since Christ's 1st coming represents the end times, in a sense). If, then, the first part of the prophecy is fulfilled at least in part (not discounting the possibility of more fulfillment at the Tribulation, but that's a different discussion), would it not be possible that the reference to "The sun will be changed to darkness and the moon to blood" [NET] might be a reference to the day of the crucifixion, especially since verses 22-23, the immediately subsequent context, refer directly to the crucifixion?
Now, there's two big "ifs" here. First of all, if Peter might those words literally; secondly, if Peter was referring to the crucifixion.
However, if both of those "ifs" are allowed, then we have a sure-fire way of dating the crucifixion, and here's why. First of all, we know that the sun was indeed covered by darkness at the crucifixion (see Matthew 27:45), basically from noon to 3pm. However, Acts 2:20 seems to mention a completely different, second occurrence, namely the moon turning to blood. This is basically a poetic way of speaking of a lunar eclipse (see Humphrey and Waddington, pp. 343-344), since the moon does indeed appear red during this process. In other words, we have a strange darkness in the hours leading up to Christ's death, followed by a blood-moon eclipse beginning at the time when (by Jewish custom) they would have had to have taken Christ's body off the cross (and possibly right around the time Joseph of Arimathea was taking away Jesus' body for burial). This would have made a stark impression on the  minds of the Jewish inhabitants of Jerusalem, since the very next day was the Passover, characterized, of course, by blood.
So, is there a viable candidate for such a lunar eclipse that would pin-point the date of Christ's death? Absolutely, and it's as easy to figure out as simply going over to NASA's website. Yes, "NASA," as in "that space agency." You see, at the following link: http://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/lunar.html NASA gives you a nifty tool to examine the statistics of basically every recorded eclipse back to 2000 BC (yes, 4,000 years of lunar eclipses!), including the option to pick a particular city and see what eclipses would have been visible from it (you need to open up the Javascript Lunar Eclipse Explorer). [Note: I'm not claiming here that the NASA records are infallible or should be an authoritative guide to Scripture! The lunar eclipse records are based on the work of one man, for the most part, a certain Fred Espenak. I am arguing that NASA records have the potential to help determine the date of the crucifixion, if we are correct in our interpretation of Acts 2]. So, if we input "Jerusalem" within the 1st century AD, we see that there are quite a few eclipses, (with varying degrees of visibility), but within AD 30-40, only two occurred in April, and only one right before the passover. See we see that April 3rd, AD 33 is the only possible option (and yes, that is on a Friday). If that is the case, then our Savior died roughly at 3 PM, April 3rd, 33 AD, and a few hours after he died there was a lunar eclipse which would have made the day even more memorable. So his death was bracketed on the one hand by an odd darkness that blotted out the sun, and on the other hand by a lunar eclipse that turned the moon red (at least to a certain degree). Our Lord then resurrected on the morning of April 5th, 33 AD.
So what's this all mean? Apologetically, this is of little help unless somebody wishes to argue that Peter was mistaken in Acts 2, or that Luke invented a lunar eclipse and attributed the idea to Peter. At least, however, we can say that there was a lunar eclipse at a date that would most definitely fit as the date for Christ's crucifixion; if Peter was referring to that, then he was referring to something that all the inhabitants of Jerusalem most definitely would have vividly remembered. The rhetorical force of applying Joel to that day, still fresh in the mind of his listeners, cannot be underestimated. Furthermore, this date, if accurate, gives us a better understanding of the times of Christ's ministry and may, in the long run, help with other dates in early Christianity.
As mentioned above, a must-read at the academic level is the article "The Jewish Calendar, A Lunar Eclipse and the Date of Christ's Crucifixion" by Colin J. Humphreys and W. G. Waddington in Tyndale Bulletin 43.2 (1992): 331-351.
At the popular level, it's worth watching the video The Star of Bethlehem narrated and presented by Frederick Larson (directed by Stephen McEveety; copyright 2009 by MPower Pictures, LLC; distributed through Sound Enterprises; thanks to my good friend Alex for introducing me to this presentation). However, two strong caveats about Larson's work: first of all, the last section of his DVD (dealing with Christ's death) is way better than the bulk of it (dealing with the Magi and the Star of Bethlehem), for a variety of reasons. However, even when he discusses the crucifixion, he argues that the eclipse would have been the cause of the darkness mentioned in Scripture, which I disagree with. Secondly, however, Larson seems to act (in my opinion) as if all this is his brand new discovery; in other words, he makes almost no reference to concrete instances of previous scholarship and shows no awareness of the work of Humprey and Waddington, which predates his presentation by over 20 years!
So anyways, all this pales in significance to the great theological truths inherent in Christ's death and resurrection, of course. The date doesn't matter so much; what truly matters is that it happened and by it we are reconciled to God. Nevertheless, in my opinion, the more we know about Scripture and its context and background, the more we can appreciate its words.