NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Another thing to consider was how far this darkness extended beyond Jerusalem. In other words, did it become dark as far away as Antioch or Damascus? There was a Greek author named Phlegon of Tralles, born about 80 AD, who was a secular historian, and who lived into the second century. There are two books credited to his name: Chronicles and the Olympiads. Little is known about Phlegon, but he made several references to Jesus Christ. Some of those statements were recorded by other writers. For instance, this reference: “And with regard to the eclipse in the time of Tiberius Caesar, in whose reign Jesus appears to have been crucified, and the great earthquakes which then took place . . . ”1 And another quote from Philopon is found where he mentions the eclipse which took place during the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus and no other eclipse; it is clear that he did not know from his sources about any similar eclipse of previous times . . . and this is shown by the historical account of Tiberius Caesar.2
Then we have the third quote by Sextus Julius Africanus,3 “Phlegon records that, in the time of Tiberius Cæsar, 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? . . . And calculation makes out that the period of 70 weeks, as noted in Daniel, is completed at this time.”4 And finally a quote from St. Jerome. “In the fourth year, however, of Olympiad 202, 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 of the city of Nicaea.”5
As mentioned before, Phlegon’s comment that an eclipse of the sun occurred during Jesus’ death was impossible since the Jewish Passover occurs during a full moon. It is important to note that 1) an eclipse of the sun cannot occur during a full moon since the moon would be on the opposite side of the earth and 2) that Jesus died on Passover during a full moon. It is important to read Thallus’ history of the Mediterranean world to completely understand the issue.6 But the obvious point here is this, with Phlegon and Thallus writing so close to the event and being quoted by so many authors as valid, surely that should give any historian cause to take what happened according to Matthew’s account seriously.
I like what one of the earliest church scholars had to say about examining the facts concerning the validity of Jesus being the Messiah. He wrote: “If the Jews object, we answer that Moses, who was but a man, taught them their religion; against the Greeks we urge that Orpheus at Pieria, Musæus at Athens, Melampus at Argos, Trophonius in Bœotia, imposed religious rites; turning to yourselves, who exercise sway over the nations, it was the man Numa Pompilius who laid on the Romans a heavy load of costly superstitions. Surely Christ, then, had a right to reveal Deity, which was, in fact, His own essential possession, not with the object of bringing peasants and savages by the fear of multitudinous gods, whose favor must be won into some civilization, as was the case with Numa; but as one who aimed to enlighten men already civilized, and under illusions from their very culture, that they might come to the knowledge of the truth. Search, then, and see if that divinity of Christ is true. If it be of such a nature that the acceptance of it transforms a man, and makes him truly good, there is implied in that the duty of renouncing what is opposed to it as false; especially and on every ground that which, hiding itself under the names and images of dead, that labors to convince men of its divinity by certain signs, and miracles, and oracles.”7
Furthermore, in the Suda (or Souda),8 Dionysius the Areopagite, who was a judge of the Areopagus as chronicled by Luke,9 and was converted to Christianity by the preaching of the Apostle Paul during his sermon before the Areopagus council, while he was still a heathen, observed this midday darkening of the sun as far away as Egypt. In the Suda10 we read: “So such a report has descended to us, transmitted from father to son from above, concerning the holy Dionysius, that at the time of the Savior’s passion, when the sun at midday was hidden, being very much astounded at the marvel and surpassing his human understanding, perceiving the event, he said, ‘An unknown god is suffering, through whom everything is darkened and shaken.‘”11 Add to this the fact that it lasted three hours; whereas a natural eclipse of the sun is but of a short duration: “The Lord God also said, ‘At that time I will make the sun set at noon and make the land dark on a clear day.‘”12
In an interesting passage in the Jewish Zohar on “The Coming of the Messiah,” based on the Book of Exodus (Shemot) we read: “After twelve months, the Messiah will be raised inside that pillar into the firmament, where he will receive strength and the crown of kingship. And when he descends to the earth, that pillar of fire will be seen again as before, in the eyes of the whole world. Afterward, the Messiah will appear and many nations will gather to him, and he will make wars throughout the world. At that time, the Creator will awaken all the peoples of the world with His might, the Messiah King will be known throughout the world, and all the kings in the world will awaken and unite to wage war against him. Several rulers in Israel will revert and return to the gentiles and will come with them to wage war against the Messiah King. Then, the whole world will darken for fifteen days and many from the people of Israel will die in that darkness. This is why it is written, “For, behold, darkness shall cover the earth.”13
If they will believe that about the future, then it should not be hard to believe that God darkened the skies for just three hours by His own divine hand. Not only that, but the time for our Lord to complete His mission had arrived. According to the earliest Jewish verbal traditions, this was the hour for the slaying and offering of the daily sacrifice. This time frame is confirmed by Rabbi Joshua ben Levi who said, “The idiom ‘twilight’ is made up of two words that yield ‘between the evenings.’ How is this to be understood? Divide ‘between the evenings’ in the sense of the two periods in which the day becomes darker; hence, divide between the post-noon period, when the day grows darker, and the post-afternoon period, when the day becomes even darker with the onset of night and assign two-and-one-half hours before the sacrifice and two-and-one-half hours after it and one hour for involvement with the planning and preparation of the Daily Whole Offering offering. You may say that the Daily Whole Offering offering is offered at the ninth-and-one-half hour and the time of the Passover sacrifice is derived from that of the Daily Whole Offering offering. Therefore it should be fit to offer a Passover sacrifice from the sixth hour and on.14
To put it simply, anytime after 3 pm and before it got dark, the Passover Lamb was to be sacrificed. Perhaps that is why the Lamb of God who was being sacrificed at this moment suddenly cries out! Did not Isaiah say: “But the Lord was pleased with this humble servant who suffered such pain.”15 Also what Jeremiah said may have crossed our Savior’s mind at this moment, “All you who pass by on the road, you don’t seem to care. But look at me and see. Is there any pain like my pain? Is there any pain like the pain that has come to me? Is there any pain like the pain that the Lord has punished me with?
He has punished me on the day of His great anger.”16
1 Origen, “Against Celsus”, Book 2.33
2 Phiopon: De opificio mundi libri
3 A Christian historian, who lived c. 160-240 AD, and composed a five-volume chronology of world history from creation up to 221 AD, which had great influence upon Eusebius and on many writers of Church history.
4 Sextus Julius Africanus, Chronography, Fragment 18.1
5 Phlegon’s 13th book quoted in Jerome’s translation of Eusebius’ Chronicle, 202 Olympiad.
6 Thallus was a Greek historian who in 52 AD wrote a three-volume history of the Mediterranean world from approximately 112-109 BC.
7 Tertullian, Apology, Ch. 21
8 The Suda or Souda (meaning “Stronghold”), is a massive 10th-century Byzantine Greek historical encyclopedia of the ancient Mediterranean world, covering the whole of Greek and Roman antiquity and also including Biblical and Christian material.
9 Acts 17:34
10 Suda: Medieval Greek: is a massive 10th-century Byzantine encyclopedia of the ancient Mediterranean world, formerly attributed to an author called Suidas. It is an encyclopedic lexicon, written in Greek, with 30,000 entries, many drawing from ancient sources that have since been lost, and often derived from medieval Christian compilers.
11 Suda: Headword: Ἀνέκαθεν, Adler number: alpha, 2231
12 Amos 8:9
13 Jewish Zohar, which means “Splendor” or “Radiance,” and is the foundational work in the literature of Jewish mystical thought known as Kabbalah, which loosely means, “Tradition,” pp. 103-104
14 Jerusalem Talmud, Second Division: Tractate Pesahim, Ch. 5:1, [I:1 K]
15 Isaiah 53:10
16 Lamentations 1:12