Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


In the greatest part of the known world every extraordinary phenomenon was for a long time believed to be the presage of some happy or miserable event. Thus the Roman historians have not failed to observe that an eclipse of the sun accompanied the birth of Romulus, that another announced his death, and that a third attended the foundation of the city of Rome.

We have already spoken of the article entitled “The Vision of Constantine,” of the apparition of the cross which preceded the triumph of Christianity, and under the article on “Prophecy,” we shall treat of the new star which enlightened the birth of Jesus. We will, therefore, here confine ourselves to what has been said of the darkness with which all the earth was covered when He gave up the ghost.

The writers of the Greek and Romish Churches have quoted as authentic two letters attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite, in which he relates that being at Heliopolis in Egypt, with his friend Apolophanes, he suddenly saw, about the sixth hour, the moon pass underneath the sun, which caused a great eclipse. Afterwards, in the ninth hour, they perceived the moon quitting the place which she occupied and return to the opposite side of the diameter. They then took the rules of Philip Aridæus, and, having examined the course of the stars, they found that the sun could not have been naturally eclipsed at that time. Further, they observed that the moon, contrary to her natural motion, instead of going to the west to range herself under the sun, approached on the eastern side and that she returned behind on the same side, which caused Apollophanes to say, “These, my dear Dionysius, are changes of Divine things,” to which Dionysius replied, “Either the author of nature suffers, or the machine of the universe will be soon destroyed.”

Dionysius adds that having remarked the exact time and year of this prodigy, and compared them with what Paul afterwards told him, he yielded up to the truth as well as his friend. This is what led to the belief that the darkness happening at the death of Jesus Christ was caused by a supernatural eclipse; and what has extended this opinion is that Maldonat says it is that of almost all the Catholics. How is it possible to resist the authority of an ocular, enlightened, and disinterested witness, since it was supposed that when he saw this eclipse Dionysius was a pagan?

As these pretended letters of Dionysius were not forged until towards the fifteenth or sixteenth century, Eusebius of Cæsarea was contented with quoting the evidence of Phlegon, a freed man of the emperor Adrian. This author was also a pagan, and had written “The History of the Olympiads,” in sixteen books, from their origin to the year 140 of the vulgar era. He is made to say that in the fourth year of the two hundred and second Olympiad there was the greatest eclipse of the sun that had ever been seen; the day was changed to night at the sixth hour, the stars were seen, and an earthquake overthrew several edifices in the city of Nicæa in Bithynia. Eusebius adds that the same events are related in the ancient monuments of the Greeks, as having happened in the eighteenth year of Tiberius. It is thought that Eusebius alluded to Thallus, a Greek historian already cited by Justin, Tertullian, and Julius Africanus, but neither the work of Thallus, nor that of Phlegon having reached us, we can only judge of the accuracy of these two quotations of reasoning.

It is true that the Paschal “Chronicle of the Greeks,” as well as St. Jerome Anastatius, the author of the “Historia Miscella,” and Freculphus of Luxem, among the Latins, all unite in representing the fragment of Phlegon in the same manner. But it is known that these five witnesses, so uniform in their dispositions, translated or copied the passage, not from Phlegon himself, but from Eusebius; while John Philoponus, who had read Phlegon, far from agreeing with Eusebius, differs from him by two years. We could also name Maximus and Maleba, who lived when the work of Phlegon still existed, and the result of an examination of the whole is that five of the quoted authors copy Eusebius. Philoponus, who really saw the work of Phlegon, gives a second reading, Maximus a third, and Malela a fourth, so that they are far from relating the passage in the same manner.

In short, the calculations of Hodgson, Halley, Whiston, and Gale Morris have demonstrated that Phlegon and Thallus speak of a natural eclipse which happened November 24, in the first year of the two hundred and second Olympiad, and not in the fourth year, as Eusebius pretends. Its size at Nicæa in Bithynia, was, according to Whiston, only from nine to ten digits, that is to say, two-thirds and a half of the sun’s disc. It began at a quarter past eight, and ended at five minutes past ten, and between Cairo in Egypt, and Jerusalem, according to Mr. Gale Morris, the sun was totally obscured for nearly two minutes. At Jerusalem the middle of the eclipse happened about an hour and a quarter after noon.

But what ought to spare all this discussion is that Tertullian says the day became suddenly dark while the sun was in the midst of his career; that the pagans believed that it was an eclipse, not knowing that it had been predicted by the prophet Amos in these words: “I will cause the sun to go down at noon, and I will darken the earth in the clear day.” “They,” adds Tertullian, “who have sought for the cause of this event and could not discover it, have denied it; but the fact is certain, and you will find it noted in your archives.”

Origen, on the contrary, says that it is not astonishing foreign authors have said nothing about the darknesses of which the evangelists speak, since they only appeared in the environs of Jerusalem; Judæa, according to him, being designated under the name of all the earth in more than one place in Scripture. He also avows that the passage in the Gospel of St. Luke, in which we read that in his time all the earth was covered with darkness, on account of an eclipse of the sun, had been thus falsified by some ignorant Christian who thought thereby to throw a light on the text of the evangelist, or by some illintentioned enemy who wished a pretext to calumniate the Church, as if the evangelists had remarked an eclipse at a time when it was very evident that it could not have happened. “It is true,” adds he, “that Phlegon says that there was one under Tiberius, but as he does not say that it happened at the full moon there is nothing wonderful in that.”

“These obscurations,” continues Origen, “were of the nature of those which covered Egypt in the time of Moses, and were not felt in the quarter in which the Israelites dwelt. Those of Egypt lasted three days, while those of Jerusalem only lasted three hours; the first were after the manner of the second, and even as Moses raised his hands to heaven and invoked the Lord to draw them down on Egypt, so Jesus Christ, to cover Jerusalem with darkness, extended his hands on the cross against an ungrateful people who had cried: ‘Crucify him, crucify him!’ ”

We may, in this case, exclaim with Plutarch, that the darkness of superstition is more dangerous than that of eclipses.

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25