Is the Story of Darkness During Jesus’ Crucifixion Pure Fiction?

Skeptics tell us that one of the reasons we can’t trust the Gospels is because they make so many historical gaffes. In particular, the evangelists tell us of far-out tales that aren’t corroborated by other contemporary historians. One of those stories is the darkness that happened during Jesus’ crucifixion, according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke. 

Here’s Mark’s version: 

And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour.

Mark 15:33, cf. Matthew 27:45, Luke 23:44

We know from history that historians like Pliny and Seneca have carefully described much less exciting events in the same kind of remote regions. But they failed to note an eclipse occurring in Judea. What’s up with that? Pliny the Elder wrote a whole book on natural history. How could he have missed this? 

Arguments from silence are notoriously weak. 

The first thing we need to note here is that this is an argument from silence. And arguing from silence is almost always a poor way to make your point. 

In 79 AD, Herculaneum and Pompeii were destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. We learn about it from Pliny’s nephew, Pliny the Younger, and it wasn’t in any of his histories but in a letter to Tacitus. The eruption killed at least 16,000 and up to 60,000 people. No one draws from the silence of other historians that the event didn’t happen. We have plenty of archaeological evidence that it did.

In 49 AD, Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome. The Jewish writers Josephus and Philo both fail to mention the event, we only read about it in Suetonius and in Acts 18:2. We’d clearly expect a couple of Jewish contemporaries to take note of this event, but they didn’t. But we don’t infer that their silence means the expulsion didn’t happen. 

Regarding the relative weakness of arguments from silence, here’s philosopher Tim McGrew:

“Such arguments from silence are pervasive in New Testament scholarship, but they are tenuous at best….it is a risky business to speculate upon the motives of authors for including or omitting various facts. To create an appearance of inconsistency by this device…is methodologically unsound.” 

Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology

Why Would Pliny or Seneca Report The Eclipse? 

Neither Pliny nor Seneca lived in Judea or near Judea during the time of Jesus. We’re not even sure that the darkness was due to a solar eclipse, it could have been some other natural or supernatural occurrence. Furthermore, while Pliny does write in great detail about other natural events, he doesn’t go into detail about eclipses. There’s a one-sentence ‘chapter’ on the topic in Natural History 2.30. Here it is: 

“Unusually long, portentious eclipses of the sun also take place, as when Caesar the dictator was slain; and in the war against Antony, the sun remained dim for nearly a year.”

This isn’t what you’d call a full history of strange periods of darkness throughout the Roman Empire! The critics are overstating their case here.

Were Historians Really Silent About The Darkness During the Crucifixion? 

As it turns out, historians may not have been so silent about this darkness that happened during Jesus’ crucifixion. Admittedly, this isn’t an ironclad confirmation of the event, but it is at least interesting. 

There’s an obscure first-century Roman historian by the name of Thallus. Like many historians of the time, his works have been lost over time. But in one of the surviving fragments of the third-century Christian historian Julias Africanus, Julius makes an offhand reference to Thallus. He wrote: “In the third book of his history Thallus calls this darkness an eclipse of the sun — wrongly in my opinion.” Julius argued that it would have been physically impossible due to the timing. Many scholars agree that Thallus was writing in the 50s, so this would be the earliest reference to Jesus outside of the New Testament and before when Mark is traditionally dated. 

Critics argue that it isn’t clear that Thallus was referring to the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, this is just Julius’ interpretation. Furthermore, if Thallus was referring to the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, the source of this information may have been Christian tradition itself. If so, Thallus was just providing a natural alternative explanation for what reportedly happened by the early church. So it’s argued that Julius’ reference to Thallus can’t be taken as independent historical confirmation of what happened in the Gospels. 

Reasons To Take The Thallus Reference Seriously

That said, it seems unlikely that a Roman historian would take this claim so seriously if it had no basis. Christianity was just a tiny sect at that time, so for him to respond with such seriousness suggests that he believed it to have actually happened and that it was necessary to provide a naturalistic explanation. He would have just denied the event if he had no knowledge that it happened.

Also, why did Julius Africanus argue that Thallus mistakenly interprets the event? Historian Maurice Goguel remarks: “If Thallus had been writing simply as a chronographer who mentions an eclipse which occurred in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius, Julius Africanus would not have said that he was mistaken, but he would have used this as evidence to confirm the Christian tradition.” (Jesus the Nazarene, pp 91-92)

Tertullian, writing in 197 AD, also says that this event was in the Roman archives. Could he have been referring to Thallus’ writings? It’s an interesting question. Tertullian wrote:

“And yet, nailed upon the cross, He exhibited many notable signs, by which His death was distinguished from all others. At His own free-will, He with a word dismissed from Him His spirit, anticipating the executioner’s work. In the same hour, too, the light of day was withdrawn, when the sun at the very time was in his meridian blaze. Those who were not aware that this had been predicted about Christ, no doubt thought it an eclipse. You yourselves have the account of the world portent still in your archives.

Apology

Tertullian does mention Thallus by name in the same work. It takes some guts or a lot of stupidity to challenge skeptics to look into the archives to corroborate this event if it didn’t happen.

For these reasons, it seems more likely that Thallus’ comment can be taken as the earliest evidence we have of Jesus outside the New Testament. And it’s an early confirmation of something that happened during Jesus’ crucifixion. 

There’s No Good Reason to Doubt the Story.

There are some important takeaways here: Thallus and Julius Africanus’ works are lost. We have a-quote-of-a-quote in history. This goes to show why arguments from silence are so notorious. Much of what we have from the first-century history has vanished, but Tertullian appeals to well-known histories that the event occurred and he’s obviously much closer to the event than we are.

Plus, we have plenty of manuscripts of the Synoptics and they report it happened. Simply dismissing them demonstrates a double standard.

And we’ve seen earlier that just because we expect a historian to mention a significant event doesn’t mean that we can deduce from their silence that it didn’t happen. And again, we do at least have a fragment that seems to confirm what the Gospels report, but critics often won’t even mention Thallus as an external confirmation. This seems a little too convenient to at least not give it a mention.

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