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I know that there is quite a bit of information about the possibility of an eclipse at the time of Jesus' execution. But none of the accounts actually mention why there was darkness:

And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour.—Mark 15:33 (ESV)

Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour.—Matthew 27:45 (ESV)

It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun's light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two.—Luke 23:44-45 (ESV)

Having observed a total eclipse, I can see how these accounts might be interpreted as examples of one. But it seems equally consistent with a really cloudy afternoon or a miraculous obscuring of the sun. Since a solar eclipse can't naturally occur except during a new moon and since Passover occurs immediately after a full moon, doesn't the text demand that either a miracle occurred or the darkness was caused by weather?

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My son and I pulled out the telescope I bought for observing Halley's Comet to watch this afternoon's eclipse. I figured I might as well ask an astronomy question while it was on my mind. –  Jon Ericson May 21 '12 at 6:59
That is a very long eclipse - too long to be coincidental. If it was an eclipse, I would say that it falls under the same jurisdiction as Joshua 10. –  swasheck May 21 '12 at 14:47
It sounds like you've already shown that it can't be a (natural) solar eclipse. What are you asking? –  zpletan Jun 9 '12 at 18:18
@zpletan: I suppose the question could be phrased,"What was the nature of the darkness before Jesus died?" –  Jon Ericson Jun 13 '12 at 8:37
Or perhaps as they so often did, the evangelists weren't really bound by "history" in the sense that we understand it but were speaking metaphorically of the passing of the light from this world. –  Onorio Catenacci Jun 15 '12 at 0:18
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3 Answers

Since there are theories that work from a total eclipse back to a date for a crucifixion see wikipedia, and since people debate what year Jesus died anywhere from 28-40 AD, you may choose your date and location and determine if an eclipse occurred.

NASA eclipse maps are available here

You can pick a day you think Jesus died on and see if there was an eclipse in Jerusalem. The maps go from 1999 BC to 3000 AD.

But if he died on passover, there was no natural eclipse, since the moon is on the opposite side of the earth on the 14th of Nissan.

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Bob, what do these maps show? Is there record of an eclipse around the time of Jesus' death? –  Ray Jun 12 '12 at 16:27
People debate when he died. Pick a date and a place and it tells you if there was an eclipse there then. Although Mike's answer is good. If there is a full moon, you can't have an eclipse since the moon is on the opposite side of the earth from the sun. –  Bob Jones Jun 12 '12 at 18:55
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Alfred Edersheim, on Page 1135 of his book, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, writes:

It could not have been an eclipse, since it was the time of full moon; nor can we place reliance on the later reports on this subject of ecclesiastical writers. It seems only in accordance with the Evangelic narrative to regard the occurrence of the event as supernatural, while the event itself might have been brought about by natural causes; and among these we must call special attention to the earthquake in which this darkness terminated.

Personally I do not see how this event can be explained by natural phenomena at all. Possibly God miraculously did 'something' to the earth, in and around the region where Christ died, that started with darkness and ended with an earthquake.

Subsequent thoughts: I could not shake this question, after mulling it over I have an alternate option that came to mind. Although God is free to reverse the laws of nature when He performs a miracle, He often uses natural causes directed by His hand. Like with the plague of locusts, He sent a wind to blow existing locusts into Egypt (Exodus 10:13). It seems possible (not probable) that God caused an volcanoe in an unpopulated region to blow an ash cloud at a high elevation over the cross. There is volcanic activity around Israel, but even much further away God may have blown in a black ash cloud. Earthquakes are directly related to Volcanoes, so this also supports the rest of the narrative. If this was the case, it would have been a very ominous site, for the sky could have been filled all around with a dense gray-black plume-like covering.

Under this scenario the miracle would be in God causing it to fill the sky and then be whisked away, just at the right time, without any noticeable wind blowing on the surface of the ground. There is no mention of wind during the crucifixion so the still silence under a black covering would have been all the more eerie, creating a deafening silence, so that all would hear when the centurion said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39)

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The ancient Hebrew calendar was based on the cycle of the moon. Passover happened at the 14th of Nissan. Since we know that 1 Nissan would have been a new moon (required for a total eclipse), we know that the moon would have been waxing and nearly full on the 14th. This makes a natural total solar eclipse impossible.

That said, it says nothing of a supernatural eclipse (akin to the plague in Exodus or the sun standing still in Joshua) nor does it say anything about the possibility of a natural phenomenon which would cause the same lack of light. (And as an aside, alternate understanding of Joshua and Exodus can both be explained by a natural phenomenon such as a sandstorm (Exodus) and a hailstorm (Joshua — this does require you to believe that the sun's stopping was around dawn)).

It might help to consider the testimony of the apocryphal, Gospel of Peter:

And it was noon, and darkness came over all Judaea: and they were troubled and distressed, lest the sun had set, whilst he was yet alive.

Notice how it says, "lest the sun had set"? To me this implies that there was not a way to know whether the sun was up to begin with. There must have been some obstruction (cloud cover, perhaps? vulcanic ash?). The arrival of darkness would then mean that there was then greater obstruction, and the removal of the darkness would have been the decrease of the obstruction.

Actually, I think that solves the problem quite nicely. I may be mistaken, but I don't believe that any account suggests that the sun came out, rather that there was darkness and then the darkness stopped.

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