Less than two months after the Crucifixion, so we’re told, the disciples stood up in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost to declare a few home truths about what they believed had happened to Jesus. Chief among the disciples was Peter, who had this to say:
“Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem… this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel, ‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares… I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below… the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the day of the Lord comes…’
Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know — this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it… This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses.”
Something had happened in recent memory that allowed Peter to declare with confidence that the centuries old prophecy in Joel, many of which his Jewish counterparts are likely to have been familiar with, had come to pass.
Not only had the Spirit apparently been poured out on those that had followed Jesus — which some mistook as drunkenness on new wine — but signs and wonders in the heavens had foreshadowed this.
Whilst manifesting in different tongues is no doubt an unusual phenomena, it is nevertheless subjective and could be counterfeited. But it is much more difficult, nigh on impossible you might think, to recreate in the collective memory of a multitude of peoples from many nations and of many languages the suggestion that there has been such a recent universal upheaval that the sun was turned to darkness and the moon to blood red.
The moon appearing in this way is not that unusual. A lunar eclipse can happen as often as two, three or even four times a year in some years. Not that it would be witnessed as often as that — some eclipses would take place on the other side of the world — whilst others, known as penumbral eclipses, would be so feint as to hardly notice their effect.
But every so often, a partial or total lunar eclipse would occur, temporarily casting the light of the moon into to the reddish brown hue that occurs just as it passes through the umbral shadow of the earth. An example of this is shown at the start of this chapter: a photograph of a partial lunar eclipse over the Temple of Poseidon in Athens, Greece, at around 9:30pm on Monday 7th August 2017.
The great thing about lunar eclipses is that they can be predicted with real certainty by astronomers, because of the constant motion of the earth around the sun, and the moon around the earth. So if you can do the arithmetic, as NASA and others have done, you can calculate back to a particular day and time, and examine the historical record to see if an eclipse was observed that day.
In fact the only aspect of predicting historic (and future) eclipses which can affect the accuracy of when, precisely, an eclipse occurred or will occur, is the effect the tidal motions the earth’s oceans have which cause, over time, some gravitational variation.
What that means in plain terms is that going back as far as two millenia to the time of Christ, calculations we make about the time of an eclipse need to be adjusted by as much as 10,200 seconds (ΔT) that is, 2.8 hours, from the Terrestrial Dynamic (TD) time base.
With that not particularly huge caveat in mind, let’s consider global spring-time lunar eclipses around the time of Pontius Pilate:
• 27AD — None in March / April
• 28AD — None in March / April
• 29AD — None in March / April
• 30AD — None in March / April
• 31AD — 25 April at 23:03 TD lasting 123 minutes
• 32AD — 14 April at 11:56 TD lasting 222 minutes
• 33AD — 3 April at 17:37 TD lasting 170 minutes
• 34AD — 23 March at 18:02 TD lasting 163 minutes
The daytime eclipse of 32AD occurred on a longitude centered over the Pacific ocean, such that it would have only been visible on the Western seaboard of present day America and New Zealand. Although it did coincide with Passover that year, it can be discounted, unless — as some conjecture — the whole earth was spun on it’s axis by 180° at the moment of the crucifixion.
Likewise the eclipse of 33AD, although also occurring on the popularised Passover date of Friday 3rd April, had its midline over Indonesia and Australia, such that if it was seen at all in Jerusalem, it would likely have been in its penumbral phase only.
The eclipse for 34AD was before the date for Passover that year, and was in any event only a penumbral eclipse, rather than partial or total eclipse, so would not have had the blood red effect shown.
That leaves us with 25 April 31AD — a date we had already identified as the Passover in that year. We’re told that the duration of the partial phase of this lunar eclipse lasted 123 minutes — which means that for approximately an hour either side of the height of the eclipse at 23:03 TD the full moon would have been increasing and then diminishing in reddening intensity.
The longitude of this eclipse lay just east of Madagascar and Saudi Arabia, and would undoubtedly have been observed in the skies of the Middle East that night — unless it was cloudy that night!
After adjusting from 23:03 TD (Terrestrial Dynamic time) by subtracting the 2.8 hours (ΔT) explained earlier to arrive at Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), and then adding 2 hours 20 minutes back on to allow for the longitude of Jerusalem, we can say with some confidence that the moon will have appeared blood red over Jerusalem at some time around 10pm on 25 April 31AD.
Which is astounding really, if you think about it. Because we already have the independent testimony of Phlegon that during the reign of Tiberius, specifically Olympiad 202.2, the sun was turned to darkness during the daytime for three hours between midday and 3pm at the full moon time of the month.
Shortly after, dusk approached with the sun setting around 6:30pm. By 8pm, when astronomical twilight had ended and the last vestiges of daylight had vanished to leave complete night time darkness, the full moon was rising to reach its maximum brightness.
Yet by the second watch of the night, around 9pm, the foreboding shadow of the earth began to be cast on the moon — eerily cascading it into the blood red hue much like the Poseidon image overleaf.
Think about the psychology that must have had on those witnessing this. Quite apart from what was taking place in Jerusalem that day, for anyone in the region experiencing this previously unheard of daytime darkness, immediately followed by a lunar eclipse like the one demonstrated to have taken place, the effect must have formed a lasting impression on the memory and been the talk of the town.
Which explains why Peter felt emboldened to speak about it just a few weeks later — appealing to a factual circumstance observed by many and within the common knowledge of those around him. His interpretation of the prophet Joel might be challenged, indeed rejected, but not the recent collective experience on which the claim was founded. It would have been preposterous to maintain that such a prophecy had been fulfilled if the sun had not recently been turned to darkness, nor the moon to blood.
Yet it is the combination of these two remarkable events apparently on the same day, which the independent historical record appears to confirm, that very much lends credence to Peter’s account being a reasonable description as to what had actually taken place and been witnessed in Jerusalem at that time.
Couple this with the reference by Clement of Alexandria we have already considered, writing around 190AD, “And treating of His passion, with very great accuracy, some say that it took place in the sixteenth year of Tiberius, on the twenty-fifth of Phamenoth; and others the twenty-fifth of Pharmuthi” — clearly recalling the date of the month, if a little uncertain as to which month — and translating for the benefit of his Egyptian audience the Passover equivalent months of Phamenoth and Pharmuthi in place of Martius and Aprilis.
So if Pilate had looked down at his Roman pocket-diary on that fateful morning he was asked to execute Jesus, it seems most likely the red-letter day he would have circled was the 25th day of Aprilis, in the year we refer to now as 31AD.