It’s the Passover/Easter season, so I would like to share something fittingly remarkable. Biblical faith is always evidential, and I contend that our relational Creator has provided sufficient reason for us to know He is real and that He has spoken. (You can read about the evidential nature of Biblical faith here.) Among these reasons are the many times when observable scientific data intersects with Biblical history.
Last Christmas I posted about a scientifically plausible explanation for the fantastical-sounding story of the Star of Bethlehem (here.) As an aside, I will say that I don’t think God is obligated to prove Himself in this way. But the fact that there is a correspondence between the Judeo-Christian scriptures and the observable universe is only fitting if God is who the Bible says He is.
This post is about astronomical events surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus. This is a bit different from the case of the story of the Star of Bethlehem, which explicitly refers to astronomical events. In the case of the crucifixion, the heavenly events are less explicit, but they are implied in the scriptures nonetheless.
The information that follows summarizes research from Rick Larson, creator of The Star of Bethlehem video. This pertains to astronomy, not astrology.
In short, the idea is that the movement of the stars and planets is fixed and predictable, like the workings of a clock. The laws of planetary motion were first discovered by Kepler, and further refined by Newton. There is now software that, using these laws, can calculate the exact position of the stars, past or future. We can now run the “clock” back, and know exactly what the sky looked like at any point in history. Furthermore, the software can show us how the sky looked from any point on earth, say, in Jerusalem, around the time of the crucifixion of Jesus.
What I like about Larson’s research is that this is all outside of human debates about when Jesus was born, or when Herod died, or what year, or on what day of the week Jesus was crucified. The astronomical data is, literally and figuratively, above all of that. These things were going on in the sky regardless of anyone’s calendar, theories, religious beliefs, or atheism. I think that’s profound, and powerful.
So…What was going on?
The Bible provides details that can be used as coordinates for pinning down the date of the crucifixion of Jesus. He must’ve been killed in a year when Passover (the 14th of Nisan,) fell on a Friday. Luke says Jesus was about 30 years old when He began His ministry (3:23,) and John mentions 3 Passovers during Jesus’ ministry (2:23; 6:4; & 13:1.) We know He was killed during the reign of Pilate, between 26 and 36 AD. For these and other reasons, Larson believes only April 3, 33 AD fits. Remarkably, it happens that there was a full lunar eclipse visible from Jerusalem on April 3, 33 AD. What is the significance of this?
A lunar eclipse produces a phenomenon called a blood moon. (Google “lunar eclipse” to see some cool photos.) During a lunar eclipse the moon is in the earth’s shadow and receives no direct light from the sun, causing it to glow a dull red color. Bear that in mind as you read the following timeline of events for the day of the crucifixion:
- Jesus spent a sleepless night in the wee hours of Passover Friday enduring betrayal; abandonment by His followers; mocking; false accusations and an illegal trial by the Jewish religious authorities; being bound and presented to the crowd He loved – a crowd that became riotous and called for his death; an excruciating flogging; sentencing by the Roman Government; beatings, mocking, and abuse by Roman soldiers, including a crown of thorns beaten into His head with rods; and finally, a long public march to the place to the place of His crucifixion.
- Mark’s gospel says “It was the 3rd hour (9am) when they crucified Him” (Mk 15:25)
- Mark 15:33 says the sky went dark from noon to the 9th hour (3pm.)
- Matthew’s gospel says it was “about the 9th hour” (3pm) when Jesus cried out and “gave up His spirit.”
- As the Sabbath was approaching, and as Jesus was already dead, we are told His followers removed the body before evening, and hurriedly prepared and entombed the body before the Sabbath began. The Jewish leaders requested and were granted a Roman guard of 4 soldiers to seal and watch the tomb.
That evening when the moon rose, it was already in eclipse – a blood moon. One has to wonder if that might’ve been an “uh-oh” moment for some people. All the Jewish families in Jerusalem were busy with Passover. Having each selected a spotless male lamb for the Passover sacrifice, they had placed the lamb’s blood on their doorposts at twilight, commemorating how YHWH had freed Israel from bondage to Egypt. No one realized at the time that Jesus, the spotless “Lamb of God,” was in the process of accomplishing a more profound freedom for them – freedom from bondage to sin and death. Using modern astronomy software we can now know something else that none of them could’ve known – below the horizon, when the day’s events were still unfolding, the moon began to go into eclipse at 3pm, as Jesus was dying, according to Matthew.
We could write all this off as an amazing, admittedly highly symbolic, coincidence if it hadn’t all been written about in the Torah and Hebrew prophets. But fifty days after Passover, at the feast of Pentecost, the Apostle Peter makes the claim that the words of the prophet Joel were being fulfilled, and that everyone in Jerusalem had seen, and was continuing to see, their fulfillment. He didn’t appeal to some vague, internal “knowing.” Layer upon layer of implicit foreshadowings and explicit prophecy had been fulfilled in Jesus. Here is part of the prophecy from Joel to which Peter referred, written hundreds of years before:
“And I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; (these occurred at the crucifixion and at Pentecost)
the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, (both occurred on “Good Friday,” April 3, 33 AD)
before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day.
And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:19-21)
Then Peter states:
“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…” (Acts 2:22-24)
The position of the blood moon in the sky on “Good Friday,” April 3, 33, is also portentous. First we must recall that thirty five years earlier, around the time of the conception of Jesus, it is a fact that in September of 3 BC, the sun was in the constellation of the Virgin with a new moon under her feet. This corresponds exactly with scripture. The gospel writer John refers to this heavenly configuration as a “great sign,” giving it prophetic significance in the book of Revelation:
“And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth…” (Rev 12:1-2)
John goes on to say that she gave birth to a male child who will rule the nations. He also mentions a great dragon standing before the woman waiting to devour the child when it is born. It seems plausible that this is a reference to Herod’s “slaughter of the innocents” in Bethlehem in an attempt to destroy the child Jesus. Following is my depiction of the sky around the time of Jesus’ conception:
Some thirty five years later, on “Good Friday,” April 3, 33 AD, the moon was again at the feet of the constellation of Virgo, this time not as a new moon, but as a full, blood moon. I suggest this signifies that the Messiah had fulfilled God’s plan. By His sacrificial death, the Messiah simultaneously satisfied the justice of God, and demonstrated His love for us at great cost to Himself.
What blows me away in considering these things is the sovereignty of God. I hate to throw around religious words, but these events – the birth and death of Jesus – must have been planned, fixed, and ordained at the time of creation, since these precise dates and celestial movements were fixed in the stars when the universe began. It had to have been a divine combination of love, predestination, and free will. In fact the Bible says as much:
“…You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Messiah, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for your sake…” (1 Pet 1:18-20.)
For more information visit Rick Larson’s website at www.bethlehemstar.net