Good Friday: The Day the Moon Turned to Blood

Today is Good Friday. We celebrate the death of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ today. When we think back to all that happened on Good Friday, we of course focus on Jesus’ becoming the “propitiation for our sins” (1 John 2:2).

But I want you to also think about all the signs and wonders which were on display that day. The sky turned dark, there was an earthquake and many who were dead came back to life. The veil of the Temple ripped from the top down. And on top of all of this, the weeks leading up to Jesus’ death were filled with all the talk of his many miracles including the raising of Lazarus from the dead.

Peter’s Sermon at Pentectost

Keep these signs and wonders in view as you look at Acts 2 with me, as Peter tries to explain another miraculous event – the mighty, rushing wind, tongues of fire, and the miraculous speech that enabled the 120 who were gathered in the upper room to tell the Good News to people of a multitude of languages, who all heard the Gospel in their native tongue.

For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel:

“And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy. And I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, 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.” [quoted from Joel 2:28-32]

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….

This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. (Acts 2:15-24, 32-33)

Put in this light, you can see what Peter is doing. He’s comparing both the signs and wonders that were seen on Pentecost with the larger story of all that was seen surrounding Jesus – and all of this is the fulfillment of Joel’s prophesy, which Peter quotes. We have the men and women speaking in tongues (the first part of Joel’s prophecy), and we have a darkened sky and other wonders (the second part). Peter is making a point that the “last days” have now come. He adds the words “last days” to Joel’s prophecy for this very reason (Joel has “and afterward”). The “signs of the times” as it were, were already being seen – and Peter felt like he was living with the “day of the Lord” in the near future.

Some object to this view of Peter’s sermon in Acts 2. They claim that Peter was just making an anlogy with Joel 2 to the current situation. Others claim that just the first part was being fulfilled, not the heavenly signs – which would obviously be in the future tribulation period. I won’t delve into all the arguments, but suffice it to say that the view that the New Testament authors understood the “last days” to have begun is quite strong and is attested to throughout the New Testament (see 1 Cor. 10:11, Heb. 1:2, 1 Pet. 1:20, 1 John 2:18).

Going back to Acts 2 now, let me quote from a book I’ve been reading: 40 Questions About the End Times by Eckhard Schnabel (Kregel, 2012):

The connections of the “wonders” and “signs” of Joel’s prophecy with Jesus’ ministry and death provide the basis for Peter’s subsequent arguments concerning the status and the significance of Jesus. The reference to the “last days” establishes how Peter reads the prophets: God has begun to fulfill his promises; the last days have arrived with Jesus’ ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension, and his bestowal of the Spirit. (pg. 21-22)

I agree with Schnabel’s conclusion, but I was especially intrigued with another point he made, almost in passing, in this chapter.

The Moon Turned to Blood

The suggestion that Acts 2:19 refers to a lunar eclipse during which the moon assumes a dull, red color, which was visible in Jerusalem at Passover in A.D. 33, is intriguing; however, it requires a later date for Jesus’ crucifixion, which is more plausibly dated in the year A.D. 30. (pg. 20)

Ever since I read Harold Hoehner’s Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Zondervan, 1978), I have held to a Friday crucifixion and to April 3, A.D. 33 as the most likely date for Jesus’ death. I am not alone in considering A.D. 33 to be the most likely date for Christ’s death and resurrection. If you click this link, you should be able to read the relevant section from IVP’s Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, edited by Joel Green, which concludes as I do. So I was not put off by Schnabel’s preference for A.D. 30. Instead I was very much intrigued by his reference to the moon turning to blood being explained by a lunar eclipse.

I must be honest in admitting that while I have understood Peter to be saying Joel 2 is fulfilled, I was thinking the literal fulfillment focused on the Pentecost event not on the darkening of the sun at Christ’s death. Or at least I hadn’t thought very much about this. So I was eager to read the paper that Schnabel cited which dealt with this lunar eclipse. I was happy to find that the paper is freely available online. It is titled, “The Jewish Calendar, a Lunar Eclipse and the Date of Christ’s Crucifixion” by Colin J. Humphreys and W. Graeme Waddington (Tyndale Bulletin 43, 1992).

I encourage you to read the entire paper (available here), but for my purposes I will excerpt the chief evidence presented for understanding a lunar eclipse to be in view with the prophecy that the moon would turn to blood.

Evidence from Early Christian Writings

In addition to quoting from the apocryphal “Report of Pilate”, the authors of the paper cite Cyril of Alexandria (A.D. 412) as evidence:

The so-called ‘Report of Pilate’, a New Testament apocryphal fragment states, ‘Jesus was delivered to him by Herod, Archelaus, Philip, Annas, Caiphas, and all the people. At his Crucifixion the sun was darkened; the stars appeared and in all the world people lighted lamps from the sixth hour till evening; the moon appeared like blood’. [No matter the authenticity of this later document,] there must have been a tradition that at the Crucifixion the moon appeared like blood….

Further evidence is provided by Cyril of Alexandria, the orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria in AD 412. After stating that there was darkness at the Crucifixion he adds, ‘Something unusual occurred about the circular rotation of the moon so that it even seemed to be turned into blood’, and notes that the prophet Joel foretold such signs. (pg. 342)

The Technical Nature of the Phrase “Moon Turned to Blood”:

The moon turning to blood is a graphic description of a lunar eclipse. The reason an eclipsed moon appears blood-red is well known and the effect has been well documented. Even though during an eclipse the moon is geometrically in the earth’s shadow, some sunlight still reaches it by the refraction of light passing through the earth’s atmosphere. The light reaching the moon is red since scattering by air molecules and very small particles along its long path through the atmosphere preferentially removes the blue end of the spectrum. The phrase ‘moon turned to blood’ has been used by writers and historians to describe lunar eclipses for many centuries, and the expression dates back to at least 300 BC….

In the medieval European annals compiled by G.H. Pertz there are so many lunar eclipses described by ‘the moon turned to blood’ that the phrase appears to be used as a standard description. (pg. 343-344)

For additional corroboration, see the picture at the top of this post (taken from this article about a lunar eclipse in Brooklyn from 12/21/10). In that article, the moon is described as going “dark red” — very similar to the “blood red” description of the medieval era.

Conclusion

On this point, the authors put forth the following conclusion:

There is therefore strong evidence that when Peter, the ‘Report of Pilate’, and Cyril of Alexandria refer to the moon turning to blood on the evening of the Crucifixion, they were describing a lunar eclipse. It is surprising that this deduction does not appear to have been made before, although F.F. Bruce almost reaches this conclusion. He states, with reference to Peter’s Pentecost speech, ‘It was little more than seven weeks since the people in Jerusalem had indeed seen the sun turned into darkness, during the early afternoon of the day of our Lord’s Crucifixion. And on the same afternoon the paschal full moon may well have appeared blood-red in the sky in consequence of that preternatural gloom’. Presumably Bruce and other commentators have not been aware that a blood-red moon is a well-documented description of a lunar eclipse. (pg. 344)

The paper goes on to document how there was only one lunar eclipse that would have been visible from Jerusalem during the Passover in any of the years that are possible dates for his death. That eclipse is dated to Friday, April 3, A.D. 33 – the most likely date of the crucifixion.

This study has forced me to see the Crucifixion anew — to realize what a world-shattering event it really was! The death of Christ and His resurrection marked the end of the old age and the beginning of a new one. And miraculous signs in the heavens and on earth all attest to the prophetic undertones of what is happening. This also should serve to wake us up to the importance of the Cross of Christ and the Empty Tomb. The Gospel of Christ really is world-shattering. The realities we are sharing through the indwelling Spirit and our present realization of the blessings of the Gospel are all a brand new experience which is a foretaste of even greater things to come!

We are living in the last days and Jesus’ return draws near. May we live soberly and righteously in light of all that Christ has done for us. And may we not forget that the power of His resurrection has been given to us — we can live lives that testify to the glory of the age to come.

~ Originally posted at Fundamentally Reformed