Phlegon of Tralles, a Greek historian who lived in the second century, has been referenced by Christian apologists for over a thousand years now as confirmation of the events surrounding the Crucifixion.
Key to this text though, is that it has never been found in an original form. It has only been referenced in Christian apologist books hundreds of years later. Is it accurate? Or has it been changed and contaminated by ambitious Christian defenders?
Here is the quote:
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. These things [are according to] the aforementioned man.
This is writing from an early Christian apologist named Jerome. Christians claim this corroborates the Gospels; opponents say it has nothing to do with the events described during the Passion and only perpetuates a false conclusion. Is this a powerful confirmation of the events described in the New Testament? We will analyze from two perspectives: one that asserts both Phlegon’s writing to be uncompromised and authentic, and one that assumes Phlegon has been compromised and is unauthentic.
Let’s get started.
The 4th year of the 202nd Olympiad was 32-33AD:
Hellenic Month Established Per Athens
The 202nd Olympiad
|Last Olympiad||Next Olympiad|
Modern context of the calendar of ancient Olympics would put the 4th year of the 202nd Olympiad at July 32-33AD.
According to NASA, there WAS an actual solar eclipse in the fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad:
Note that the path of this eclipse was over present-day Russia.
This information augment’s Phlegon’s credibility as a historian; citing sources that preceded his lifetime and were thus out of his control, as they would have recorded the event about a century before he was writing. Seeing as Phlegon was born approximately in the second century, it is extremely unlikely he spoke with an eyewitness of either eclipse. Therefore, he relied on transcribed information; either written or oral.
Please note, I do not believe that this eclipse is connected with the crucifixion. This does not necessarily coincide with the Crucifixion darkness, and it doesn’t have to. It does however, place Phlegon’s writing, transposed hundreds of years later by Christian writers, as a scientifically-accurate writing. There is little doubt that this information was passed from ancient source to ancient source before it reached Phlegon; however; it’s place in historical writings is scientifically confirmed nearly 2 millenia later. Even with the loss of the original writing, if the transposition of the original to the copy were to be altered, there would be significant doubt as to when the event occurred, or if, it even occurred. Solar eclipses during this time frame that were visible to that part of the world were rare, which puts obvious delimiters on when they occurred.
Even if there is speculation on whether this is the correct eclipse referenced, there is only one more that would have been visible by the Persian Gulf and Rome during the Olympiad:
This one too is during the 202nd Olympiad, although in the first year, not the fourth.
Now before the accusations fly about me ascribing random astronomical events to this writing, consider this: these are the only two solar eclipses that occur within the time frame reference by Phlegon, and from 20-40AD there are only 3 other eclipses that could even possibly have been seen by Rome or the Persian Gulf; one in 20AD and the other two occur after 36AD. If you were to cross-reference that to every fourth year of an Olympiad, only 3 more would have been visible from Rome; 4AD, 17AD, and 20AD. However, these are all unlikely candidates as their timing is off from the Olympiad calendar.
Don’t believe me? Check it out for yourself http://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/SEcat5/SE0001-0100.html
But why is this significant, if it doesn’t even validate darkness during the Crucifixion as referenced in the Gospels? Well, for starters, it places a high degree of scientific precision for a writing that could considered to be hearsay or speculative because of its inference from another source. Modern science validates the sources Phlegon used for compiling his writings and also validates the transcribers who referenced the material several hundred years later. This information would be every unlikely to have been added at a later time due to its specificity in time.
Even more fascinating is the mention of an earthquake. Does this necessarily mean that Phlegon was referencing the seismic activity, if you dare to call it that, that occurred during the Crucifixion in the Gospel accounts? No, but again, it doesn’t have to either. Again, modern science has corroborated that not only is the Persian Gulf was a seismically-active area, but that a major earthquake did hit the region between 26-36AD:
This research again confirms Phlegon’s writing. Sure, there is a degree of speculation as to whether this actually was an occurrence during the Crucifixion (I fully realize there a 10-year swing is 3650-ish days according to modern calendar, which means a .0274% chance that it was on the actual day), but here again is evidence that the transcription from ancient origins that Phlegon relied on and passed to writers who referenced his collected materials is scientifically plausible. And accurate. And just for fun, who could possibly falsely place this earthquake during the time of Tiberius Caesar and roughly the time period of the 202nd Olympiad (and I fully grasp the weight of the word roughly)?
Just for reference, Nicea is in western Turkey, approximately where the city of Bursa is. Bursa is approximately 600 miles from Jerusalem. Los Angeles is approximately 380 miles from San Francisco, by comparison. The San Andreas fault is 800 miles long, running along the California coast; Israel and Turkey sit on…you guess it…a major fault line!
This earthquake would have been massive to be felt in Israel and Turkey at the same time…think of the catastrophe! It is believed to be an 8.2-magnitude earthquake.
Sure, it’s certainly possible to wildly claim an earthquake happened somewhere, at some time, as they occur on Earth all the time; I could generalize that a major earthquake hit San Francisco in 1900, as I was born approximately 80 years later and have no direct source, but would I be inaccurate in claiming that? What about all the other earthquakes that have hit California in the first part of the 20th century? The span of distance between Bythnia and Jerusalem would have put the earthquake in a cataclysmic category, and the evidence confirmed by science supports that conclusion. The ancient world still has historical buildings standing to this day built two millennium ago; wouldn’t it be logical to build an extremely strong building that could withstand an earthquake in an earthquake-prone location? The point is that the destruction of the discovered earthquake had to be catastrophic in order to destroy buildings there, which leads to the conclusion that the big one that hit Jerusalem also hit Turkey along the fault line at the same time.
Now consider if this were either all fake or unauthentic; Christian historians have used this writing to cite as an “extra-biblical” account of the Gospel accounts and opponents have used the writing to discredit the theory as contrived. How could the science not possibly confirm this level of coincidence?
The placement in time within the text is just too precise. Phlegon would have had no way to misreport an actual earthquake that hit in the region, because the region has the history to confirm the account passed to him. Even if there was an issue of corruption or inaccurate translation of the Phlegon writing, how could the science possibly have been faked when there would have been no way of faking it hundreds of years later without it being obviously exposed?
Now you may be asking yourself, why is this even relevant? Well, Phlegon does mention this guy named Jesus…