Phlegon of Tralles and the darkness

The limited information known about Phlegon, mainly from secondary sources, is that he was a native of Tralles, in the south-eastern region of modern Turkey — then known as Asia Minor — and that like Eusebius he composed an account of the Olympiads through to the 229th Olympiad in 137AD.

Whilst he may not have been a first hand eye-witness of Jesus, he lived and wrote at a time shortly afterwards, and when events were feasibly within living memory of those he spoke to.

It is said that he was a freedman either of Caesar Augustus (died 14AD) — unlikely, as that would make him at least 120 years old, or of Emperor Hadrian — which on balance is much more probable given his reign was between 117AD to 138AD.

He is understood by all accounts to have been pagan in persuasion, documenting not only history over time, but also recording in another work called ‘Marvels’ a number of fanciful stories concerning ancient superstitions of the day. He does not appear, however, to have come under the influence of the pernicious and stubborn superstition held by adherents to the Christian faith. His account is helpful in correlating some factual information from a perspective independent of the Jesus followers.

At the end of the last chapter we referenced Julius Africanus, who recalls, with a degree of cynicism, Phlegon’s observations about an eclipse of the sun at the time of the full moon lasting a period of about 3 hours, between 3pm and 6pm, during the reign of Tiberius.

This quote by Phlegon is similarly preserved in the works of Philipon, a 6th century writer who records, as transcribed by Balthesare Corderio in De Mundi Creatione published in 1630:

“And of this darkness, or rather of the night, Phlegon in the Olympiads made mention. He says ‘in the second year of the 202nd Olympiad there was an eclipse of the sun, of a greatness never known before. At the sixth hour of the day it was night, so that the stars in the sky appeared.’”

Note that Philipon confirms that it was Phlegon who asserted this eclipse of the sun was in the second year of the two hundred and second Olympiad, as highlighted in the Latin translation and original Greek manuscript shown below.

De Mundi Creatione — Page 88 — Balthesare Corderio 1630

You would have thought it beyond contention now — Phlegon cited by two different authors (Africanus and Philipon) accounting for an eclipse that occurred during the reign of Tiberius in Olympiad 202.2 — which is 31AD. Right? Well, not quite.

Back to our friend Eusebius, who, by the time he comes to compile his Chronicle early in the 4th Century, has the following to say:

202nd Olympiad [July 29AD]

16th Tiberius [September 29-30AD]
Jesus Christ the Son of God preaching the way of salvation to all performs the miracles which were written in the Gospels.

17th Tiberius [September 30-31AD]
Jesus Christ the Son of God imparting the divine sacraments to his disciples commands that they announce the opportunity and the need for conversion to God for all peoples.

18th Tiberius [September 31-32AD]
Jesus Christ according to the prophecies which had been spoken about him beforehand came to the passion in the 18th year of Tiberius at which time we also find these things written verbatim in other commentaries of the Gentiles — an eclipse of the sun happened in Bithynia shaken by an earthquake and in the city of Nicaea many buildings collapsed all of which agree with what occurred in the passion of the Saviour.

Indeed Phlegon who is an excellent calculator of olympiads also writes about this in his 13th book writing thus “However in the 4th year of 202nd Olympiad an eclipse of the sun happened greater and more excellent than any that had happened before it. At the sixth hour day turned into dark night so that the stars were seen in the sky” And an earthquake in Bithynia toppled many buildings in the city of Nicaea, these things the  aforementioned man says.

The proof however of this matter that in this year the Saviour suffered, the Gospel of John presents, in which it is written that after the 15th
year of Tiberius Caesar, the Lord preached for three years.

Eusebius introduces several inconsistencies here:

• He quotes Phlegon as stating it was the 4th year of the 202nd Olympiad, conflicting with Africanus who quotes Phlegon as stating it was the 2nd year;
• He asserts this occurred at the Passover both in the 18th year of Tiberius (spring 32AD) and in Olympiad 202.4 (spring 33AD);
• His narrative documents that Jesus preached for only 3 years according the Gospel of John, from the 15th year of Tiberius, i.e. September, Olympiad 201.4 — yet calculating until Passover, Olympiad 202.4, is a timespan of 4.5 years — and if using Luke’s 15th year of Tiberius, counting from October 27AD through to April 33AD, as long as 5.5 years.

The critical academic might proudly declare that Eusebius clearly didn’t know what he was talking about write off his Chronicle as historically inaccurate.

An alternative view, cutting against the modern propensity to believe that we know better now than in bygone days, asserts that Eusebius was faithfully preserving oral and written traditions handed down to him — even if as a matter of logic they didn’t easily fit a single congruous timeline.

The inconsistencies highlighted above actually serve to highlight the core traditions and original earlier memories of others:

• Phlegon’s record of the 202nd Olympiad;
• The Passion occurring in the 18th year of Tiberius;
• The length of Jesus’ ministry lasting 3 years after Tiberius 15.

Let’s look at these three early traditions in reverse order.

3 year ministry according to John
The account of the life of Jesus’ as set out in the Gospel of John mentions only three Passovers he participated in after his baptism:

After this he went down to Capernaum, with his mother and his brothers and his disciples, and they stayed there for a few days. The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

John 2.13

Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples. Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand.

John 6.3-4

Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

John 13.1

Allowing time between his baptism and his first Passover, it can be seen from the above how the Gospel of John — as explicitly referred by Eusebius — supports the early tradition that Jesus preached over the course of 3 years only, and no longer than this.

Passion in the 18th year of Tiberius
Luke is the only one of the four Gospel writers to provide details fixing the timeline to the reigning Roman Emperor. A ministry commencing after the 15th year of Tiberius and lasting for a period 3 years would conclude in the Passover in the 18th year of Tiberius.

It is clear why early tradition understood that if Jesus was crucified 3 years after the 15th year of Tiberius, it was in the 18th year of Tiberius. What needs to be borne in mind, however, is that by Syro-Macedonian dating, Passover in the 18th year of Tiberius was in spring 31AD — in Roman terms this was the 17th year of Tiberius.

Phlegon’s record of the 202nd Olympiad
A few pages overleaf we set out what Philipon, writing in the 6th century, documented Phlegon as having recorded. It began like this, with Phlegon’s direct quote highlighted in bold:

“And of this darkness, or rather of the night, Phlegon in the Olympiads made mention. He says ‘in the second year of the 202nd Olympiad there was an eclipse of the sun, of a greatness never known before. At the sixth hour of the day it was night, so that the stars in the sky appeared.’”

It then continues, no longer directly quoting Phlegon but summarising the account he gave, with added interpretation:

“Now that Phlegon also makes mention of the eclipse of the sun as the event which transpired when Christ was put on the cross, and not of any other, is manifest: First, because he says such an eclipse was not known in times prior; for there is but one natural way of every eclipse of the sun: for the usual eclipses of the sun happen only at the conjunction of the two luminaries: but the event at the time of Christ the Lord transpired at full moon; which is impossible in the natural order of things.

And in other eclipses of the sun, although the whole sun is eclipsed, it continues without light for a very small period of time: and at the same time begins presently to clear itself again. But at the time of the Lord Christ the atmosphere continued entirely without light from the sixth hour to the ninth.

The same thing is proved also from the history of Tiberius Caesar: For Phlegon says, that he began to reign in the 2nd year of the 198th Olympiad; but that in the 4th year of the 202nd Olympiad the eclipse has already taken place…

Helpfully, Olympiad 198.2 was the 1st year of Tiberius, in 14AD, so we know that Phlegon used standard Greco-Roman dating.

But we must be careful in separating Phlegon’s account from the interpretation given to it by early Christian historians. Phlegon was not writing about the year of the Crucifixion, or linking what was observed to the life of Christ, or to the Jewish festival of Passover.

Rather, Phlegon was describing a previously unknown and unusual eclipse during the 202nd Olympiad. Previously unknown and unusual because:

• it occurred at the time of the full moon (which is impossible)
• it lasted for 3 hours, not just a few minutes (again, impossible)
• it was so dark the stars were seen during an eclipse (unheard of)

Phlegon then concludes that by the 4th year of the 202nd Olympiad the eclipse has happened — the Greek verb used here is γεγονέναι — the perfect active infinitive tense for something already completed.

What isn’t clear, because we don’t have Phlegon’s original 13th Book of the Olympiads to hand, is whether he is simply confirming that the unusual eclipse of Olympiad 202.2 had already occurred by Olympiad 202.4 — seemingly a statement of the obvious — or if he is referring to another eclipse which would have been observed during the fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad, such as the one which occurred on 19 March 33AD.

For our purposes, all that really matters is that two separate lines of tradition are clearly documented to have emerged citing Phlegon and an unusual eclipse in the 2nd year of the 202nd Olympiad (Africanus and Philipon) as well as an eclipse connected with the 4th year of the 202nd Olympiad (Eusebius and Philipon).

The earliest citation by Africanus, repeated by Philipon who quotes Phlegon directly, lends toward Olympiad 202.2 being the earlier — and so likely more accurate — tradition.

If that is right, let us not miss the magnitude of what Phlegon was reporting as having occurred and sighted by witnesses during the course of the 202nd Olympiad, many miles away from Jerusalem.

First, he says that this was an unusual eclipse — being the best word to describe the failing of the sun during the daytime — because it occurred during the time of the full moon. It was known then, as it is now, that an eclipse of the sun only happens at the time of the new moon, and never during the middle of the lunar month.

The reference to the full moon narrows down this unique observance to one of only 12 or so days during Olympiad 202.2, one of which happened to be the Passover in the spring of 31AD.

Second, with remarkable parallel to the Gospel account, Phlegon says that this darkness occurred from the 6th hour to the 9th hour of the day. Luke records something very similar in these words, describing the day of the crucifixion, “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.

Third, and finally, we read how the unknown eclipse that Phlegon records was accompanied by an earthquake in the Asia Minor region, including the cities Bithynia and Nicaea. Here is what Matthew records about the moment of Jesus’ death, “And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split… When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’”