Sunday, February 03, 2008

Darkness at the sixth hour Mark 15:33

I have written before about darkness at noon but now we come to this verse in the exposition of Mark's gospel. For those who are new to this series may I say that I have been listening to the sermons of Pastor Chris Kelly at Lansdowne Baptist Church, Bournemouth and then meditating on what I have learnt. As this series nears its end I do recommend that readers order the series on tape, CD or DVD from this site. I value this series of sermons particularly be cause Chris has devised a structure to Mark's gospel that I have never seen before and one that explains why there is an apparent lack of consistency between the various synoptic gospels.

Skeptics regard this miraculous happening as fiction. If such an extensive period of darkness occurred over such a large area, why was it not mentioned by contemporary writers?

Actually, it was. In AD 52 Thallus wrote a history of the eastern Mediterranean world since the Trojan War. Although his original writings have been lost, he is specifically quoted by Julius Africanus, a renowned third century Christian historian. Africanus states, ‘Thallus, in the third book of his histories, explains away the darkness as an eclipse of the sun—unreasonably as it seems to me.’

As Africanus recognized it is indeed an unreasonable explanation. Eclipses of the sun last for only a few minutes; certainly not for three hours. Even more significantly, it is physically impossible to have an eclipse of the sun at the time of full moon, and as everyone knows, the Jewish Passover, when Jesus was crucifies, takes place at the time of a new moon.

Phlegon was a Greek historian who wrote an extensive chronology around AD 137 writes:
"In the fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad (i.e., AD 33) there was ‘the greatest eclipse of the sun’ and that ‘it became night in the sixth hour of the day [i.e., noon] so that stars even appeared in the heavens. There was a great earthquake in Bithynia, and many things were overturned in Nicaea.’

Phlegon provides powerful confirmation of the gospel accounts. He identifies the year and the exact time of day. In addition, he writes of an earthquake accompanying the darkness, which is specifically recorded in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 27:51). However, like Thallus, he attempts to interpret the darkness as a direct effect of a solar eclipse.

Africanus composed a five volume History of the World around AD 221. He was a pagan convert to Christianity. His historical scholarship so impressed Roman Emperor Alexander Severus that Africanus was entrusted with the official responsibility of building the Emperor’s library at the Pantheon in Rome. This is what Africanus wrote: "On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness Thallus, in the third book of his History, calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun. For the Hebrews celebrate the Passover on the 14th day according to the moon, and the passion of our Savior falls on the day before the Passover; but an eclipse of the sun takes place only when the moon comes under the sun. And it cannot happen at any other time but in the interval between the first day of the new moon and the last of the old, that is, at their junction: how then should an eclipse be supposed to happen when the moon is almost diametrically opposite the sun? Let opinion pass however; let it carry the majority with it; and let this portent of the world be deemed an eclipse of the sun, like others a portent only to the eye. Phlegon records that, in the time of Tiberius Caesar, at full moon, there was a full eclipse of the sun from the sixth hour to the ninth—manifestly that one of which we speak. But what has an eclipse in common with an earthquake, the rending rocks, and the resurrection of the dead, and so great a perturbation throughout the universe? Surely no such event as this is recorded for a long period."

What about other early historians such as Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny the Younger, who all fail to mention the darkness? Arguing from silence is a hazardous profession. It is unreasonable to expect every contemporary writer to include every event that happened—and there are good reasons not to expect these specific authors to mention the darkness.

This objection (the argument from silence)was first raised by Edward Gibbon and has been parroted ever since by skeptics who have never read Pliny or Seneca (neither have I, though I have read Josephus)

Pliny's work is entitled Natural History, and it is a multi-volume work covering a wide variety of subjects - geography, meteorology, mineralogy, zoology, and botany. Volume 2 of this work is concerned with cosmology and astronomy, and is the place we might expect Pliny to have recorded this event - if he indeed did intend to record all such events. He offers examples; he makes descriptions, but frequently from his own observations. There is no indication that his work is intended to be an exhaustive catalog of all possible relevant data. But he was a skeptic and a rationalist of the highest order. He wrote: "I deem it a mark of human weakness to seek to discover the shape and form of God. That that supreme being, whatever it be, pays heed to man's affairs is a ridiculous notion." Temperamentally he would not seek to confirm an event that supported a religious idea.

Seneca's work, Naturales Questiones is even less likely to mention the darkness. His book mostly comprises theoretical surveys of natural phenomena - by no means an attempt at an exhaustive catalogue of events - and he is far more concerned with drawing morals from what he records that with listing events, of which he does very little.

As for Josephus, he was writing for the favor of his patron Vespasian, whom he had credited with fulfillment of Messianic prophecy. He might be safe in mentioning that Jesus did miracles, but to ascribe to Jesus some sign that would have signified special status with God would likely offend his patron.

The phrase 'Darkess at Noon' was, of course, used by Arthur Koestler, the British writer of Hungarian origin, for his famous novel dealing with failings of communism. Koestler suffered from CLL and so may be of interest to some of my readership. But the idea of darkness as a prelude to a terrible event is much older.

In Exodus ch 10 the ninth of the Egyptian plagues is darkess that covered the land. It preceded the death of the first born and the Passover. In Amos 8:10 the LORD says, "I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight" as part of his wrath against his people. Darkness is a symbol of the absence of God. "The light shines in the darkness," says John, "the true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world."

Isaiah Ch 60 begins "Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn." He sees in the darkness only the opportunity for God to enlighten it, and so it has proved. But before he does so we must visit Hell itself.

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