Astrophysics, Bible Confirm Earliest Recorded Eclipse

By Nathaniel Scharping | October 30, 2017 4:08 pm
(Credit: Bryan Goff/Unsplash)

(Credit: Bryan Goff/Unsplash)

In 1207 BCE, as an army of Israelites waged a bitter conflict against soldiers from Canaan, the sun all but disappeared. The event had all the markings of divine intervention, and the auspicious occurrence would go on to be recorded in the Old Testament. Today, eclipses have lost the aura of religious significance, but this particular occasion was special. It’s the first time we can confirm that an eclipse was ever recorded for posterity, say researchers from Cambridge University.

Their work drew from not only the Bible, but an Egyptian stele and complex calculations describing the movements of heavenly bodies. The new insights provide both a better timeframe for the Egyptian pharaonic dynasties and more precise measurements of changes in the Earth’s rotational speed.

Clue By Clue

The researchers began with the Biblical passage, one translation of which reads: “And the Sun stood still, and the Moon stopped, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies.” This has been interpreted, though controversially, in the past as a description of a total solar eclipse, but there’s one problem — eclipse models show us that none happened in that area at the time.

That analysis is missing a critical bit of context, though, say the researchers in a paper published in News & Reviews in Astronomy & Geophysics. In ancient times, scholars don’t seem to have distinguished between total solar eclipses, when the moon covers the sun entirely, and just the corona is visible, and annular solar eclipses, when the moon is far enough away from the Earth that it can’t cover the sun completely, leaving a fiery ring. Using a modified model of eclipse timings, the researchers found that an annular eclipse passed right over the land of Canaan (present-day Syria and Jordan) on Oct. 30, 1207 BCE.

With this information in hand, the researchers could match the eclipse’s location with that of the ancient battle. The Bible doesn’t provide much in the way of dates, though. For that, the researchers turned to ancient Egypt. A stele, or massive carved stone tablet, from the reign of the pharaoh Merneptah describes a military campaign in the land of Canaan involving a fight against the Israelites within the first five years of his reign. Merneptah was known to have taken the throne from his father, Ramesses II, around 1213 BCE, about five years before the eclipse would have occurred.

The circumstantial evidence was enough for the researchers to conclude that the Bible does indeed contain the first known description of a solar eclipse. Other, earlier eclipses, may have been recorded as well, but this is furthest back that we’ve ever been able to actually confirm that what ancient scholars were describing happened.

Spin Slowdown

It’s more than just a new record, too. The discovery helps researchers better pin down the rate at which Earth’s rotation has been slowing down over time, something crucial for accurately predicting eclipses. The gravitational pull the moon exerts on the Earth is slowly leaching our planet of rotational momentum, mostly from the sloshing of the tides.

Atomic clocks have shown that we’ve added about 1.7 milliseconds to the day over the course of the past century, a rate that’s held fairly steady recently. That’s not a lot, but if you add up those fractions of a second over millions of years, it starts to get noticeable. Six hundred million years ago, before life moved to land, the day would have been about 21 hours long. We won’t see a 25-hour day for another 140 million years or so.

The rate of slowdown varies based on things like the movement of the Earth’s crust and the climate, and the 1.7 millisecond figure is just an average. Models show that we should actually be gaining about 2.3 milliseconds per century, though, if the ancient trend holds. Researchers think this can be explained by the fact that the Earth’s mass distribution shifted at the end of the last Ice Age, when glaciers retreated toward the poles, but it serves as a reminder that we still don’t quite understand how the planet’s spin evolves. Scientists’ predictions of where eclipses will occur depends on knowing how the Earth’s rotation is changing. If it’s faster or slower, the moon’s shadow will fall on a different part of the planet than predicted.

That the scientists’ model predicted a historical eclipse right around where and when ancient texts said it happened reaffirms the accuracy of their calculations. It also tells us that the 1.7 millisecond per century rate of slowdown held all the way back to 1207 BCE, 500 years earlier than a study using eclipses to model Earth’s rotational slowdown found last year. The knowledge lets us be sure of when the next eclipse is coming, but it also confirms that scientists are looking in the right direction when it comes to understanding how our planet moves through the universe.

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  • Erik Bosma

    The Abrahamics will be jumping for joy thinking this exonerates them somehow when, in fact, it shows how ignorant those people were. It actually says that the Sun and Moon were stopped by God so the Israelites could have all day to battle their opponents. Also, since the Israelites of this era were inhabitants of a rural area that later became the two provinces of Israel and Judah, they couldn’t have been fighting the Canaanites since they were also Canaanites. Instead, it was probably a rebellion against a Canaanite town. The Canaanite civilization began deteriorating around this time and many of the cities simply emptied out and many were destroyed. It is thought that the rural folk, feeling the same hatred of government such as is still common even today (taxes, lack of services, liberal vs. conservative thought, etc.), took advantage of this and finished off what was left (smaller towns) after whoever it was had already razed the larger cities. Eventually these groups carved up what was left of Canaan. The Philistines were another such group but may have come in from the sea. It wasn’t long, however, before mean old Egypt came in and took it over and they became vassals of Egypt. Then Assyria. Then Babylon. Then Persia. Then Greece. Then Rome. Then the Arabs. You figure out how this brief time in the sun gives a religion the right to reclaim a whole country after all those millennia.

    • https://www.facebook.com/numberofGod Douglas J. Bender

      The Sun and Moon actually were stopped by God. It is arrogant “scientists” and atheists who are ignorant. And the whole context of the Biblical account is that the light REMAIN long enough for the Israelites to wipe out their enemies — the OPPOSITE of what an ECLIPSE would do.

      • Dennis Shelton

        One theory is that the phrase “stopped the sun” was a euphemism for rising before dawn. Under this interpretation, that would be why the Israelites had extra daylight. Whatever. How God intervened is not important.The point of the story is that God was on their side. And the point of this article is that the battle could have coincided with an eclipse. No theological themes were noted.

        • https://www.facebook.com/numberofGod Douglas J. Bender

          That “theory” is laughable, since in the story the Israelites were worried that their enemies would escape due to the Sun going down and it getting dark. That would NOT apply to a “rising before dawn” explanation.

          How God intervened IS important, since the primary point of the story is that God DID intervene, and did so in a way that proved to all that He, God, did. (That is, in supernaturally stopping the Sun from setting.)

          Lastly, I must reiterate that the story is NOT consistent with an eclipse, since the whole point was to MAINTAIN sufficient light so that the Israelites could pursue and defeat their enemy. An eclipse would be completely contrary to that purpose.

          • photontamer

            For the sun to “stop”, the rotation of the earth must stop. Just think about the speed of the earth”s rotation. If it really stopped, the earth couldn’t maintain its orbit. For some, everything can happen if God did.

          • https://www.facebook.com/numberofGod Douglas J. Bender

            If God is God, and created the Universe and all that is in it, including the physical laws by which it apparently runs, performing that miracle would be a minor thing for Him. How He did it is a separate issue.

          • Erik Bosma

            Yeah, the issue being someone’s imagination and your gullibility. Try reading the Bible verse for verse sometime instead of just listening to what your preacher tells you. When I did that for the first time, it was actually the final nail in the coffin for my already failing Christianity. And, please, keep an open mind!!!

          • https://www.facebook.com/numberofGod Douglas J. Bender

            Pffffffft. You certainly are the arrogant assumer, aren’t you? For one thing, I check any and all Biblical teachings with the Bible, all by my lonesome, and have done so since I became a Christian. For a second thing, I am fairly good at logical reasoning and reading comprehension; I am not perfect, but I am by no means “gullible”. For a third thing, I was a hardcore atheist for the two years prior to my becoming a Christian — when I became a Christian, I learned that all of the supposed “evidences” against the Bible were either clearly lies, or distortions based on a bias against God. For a fourth thing, I would say the same to you: “Please, keep an open mind!!!”

          • Erik Bosma

            For pete’s sake… their’s a major contradiction in the first 2 pages. Then read all the millions and millions of people who “were slain” in Kings or the fact that more than a million people wandered in the desert for 40 years. It goes on and on and on. C’mon, READ IT.

          • https://www.facebook.com/numberofGod Douglas J. Bender

            I HAVE read it. All of it several times; large portions of it many times. There are no contradictions in it, nor does it contain any factual or historical errors. (Unlike your post above, in which you claim that the Bible states that the Israelites wandered in the DESERT for 40 years — no, they wandered in the WILDERNESS for 40 years.)

          • Robert Meier

            couldn’t have made the point simply by placing the Lime in the Coconut?

          • https://www.facebook.com/numberofGod Douglas J. Bender

            No. I hate coconut. Mars’ “Almond Joy” is an abomination.

          • Lorie Franceschi

            As my cheerleaders used to sing “eat them all up.”

          • Robert Meier

            At least someone understood

          • Erik Bosma

            “And then drink ’em bo’ together”

        • Erik Bosma

          A god wouldn’t take sides. If there actually is one. Read up on henotheism. If the Earth was stopped (because in regard to the Earth, the Sun is always ‘stopped’) then all the people in Israel would immediately keep moving at app. 700 mph. Please guys, use your heads. This is a 2500 year old interpretation of how things work.

          • https://www.facebook.com/numberofGod Douglas J. Bender

            If the physical laws as we know them were not “abrogated” or “superseded” at that moment, then, yes. But you are assuming that which you attempt to prove.

    • Dennis Shelton

      Actually, the “Abrahamics” didn’t claim the country. It was given to them by the UN. Before that, it was under British Control, as was much of the Middle East. How did that happen? The Arab countries were on the losing side of WWII.

      • Prester Kahn

        Try WWI, when the Ottoman Empire was on the losing side.

      • Erik Bosma

        And the Zionists had been infiltrating the ME already since the mid 1800’s. So they just switched who ran the country and were immediately supplied with weapons and training. The UN was controlled by the US then where more Zionists lived than even in ‘Israel’. For the US, it was a good way to get some white ‘monitors’ into the ME.

    • JerseyCowboy

      You must be fun at parties. Seriously, lighten up. This is a cool story. You sound unnecessarily bitter and angry.

      • Erik Bosma

        Do you tell all people who know so much more than you the same thing? Cuz it’s getting stale.

      • Erik Bosma

        Thanks for the “bitter and angry” diagnosis. Are you a psychiatrist? Because you are definitely no historian.

  • Raimo Kangasniemi

    This is nonsense, and its truly appalling how its gets reported uncritically.

    It’s based on three suppositions that have no factual basis, and these three are then used to support each other:

    – The idea that the Pharaoh in Bible’s ‘Exodus’ story was intended to be Ramses II has no support. It has become popular in biblical crackpot circles because he’s famous, and then become ‘accepted’ in these pseudo-scientific phantasies by the weight of being popular. The biblical story has no details that could be connected to what we know from the real historical Ramses except that he was a pharaoh also.

    As the story in the bible is not historical writing and was never intended to be historical writing (our idea of historical writing would have been utterly alien to those who wrote it, annals being the extent of their understanding of historical writing), the Pharaoh is a representative figure whose character and role has been created based on the demands of the story, the myth, and not what the authors of the story might have known about past historical pharaohs (little beyond their immediate past):

    If we want to find models for the ‘Pharaoh of the Exodus’, and have any scientific credibility, we would look at what historical phraohs authors of the story could have actually used as models and then sculpted for the demands of their story; someone very close to the time of the composition of the story as an oral version and and then another one at the time of it being written down.

    – The idea that the biblical story represents a solar eclipse. That theory has been proposed before, but its a theory. As can be seen, the original text offers multiple ways of interpretation. The idea that there must be a real natural event to explain what is an event in a myth is something that we can’t be sure of.

    The biblical story is not constrained by scientific facts, but only by the imagination of the people who came up with it. There is no archaeological or historical evidence for any part of it, and there is no astronomical either.

    The demands of the story decide how the event is portrayed, the story wasn’t adapted to fit what we understand as scientific credibility.

    – Even if the story would describe a solar eclipse, it doesn’t have to describe some particular historical eclipse. If we could be sure that it’s a solar eclipse in the story, even then we could only know that the people who came up the story knew a such phenomenon existed; we couldn’t know that they recorded a real historical solar eclipse instead of using an overall description of solar eclipse in what they came up with.

    The authors of the Exodus myth were not constrained by a real historical events; again, they were only constrained by their imagination. If they wanted to insert a solar eclipse in their story to create a dramatical event in the story, nobody would have said they couldn’t do it.

    If they wanted to make a solar eclipse to last a day, again no one among their peers or audience would have said them that real solar eclipses don’t last a day.

    Myths and religious stories don’t obey the rules of scientific writing.

    – Trying to fit Biblical stories into scientific frame to ‘prove them’ should be a thing of the past; when crackpot theories based on circular reasoning are reported alongside valid science, these Biblical phantasies get credibility that they don’t deserve.

    I suggest people actually read the Exodus story and see it as the religious myth constrained only the imagination of their writers and the demands of the religion; the few most famous points that the biblical crackpot theories try to prove again and again have a multitude of other far-fetched points that go far beyond realism – I suggest, for starters, that you try to keep a record of the death toll for example.

    • neoritter

      Kettle logic.

    • Sunday Akpore

      I see you re struggling to disprove the article without giving any recent scientific support for your points. You’re wrong in generalizing the Bible as myth. While our concept of history differs from that of the ancient, they rather tend to mix history and myth. Can you deny the historicity of people like David, Omri, Jehu, etc, just because they were first mentioned in the Bible?

      • Raimo Kangasniemi

        Of those Omri is a real historical person because he is referenced in sources that are written in some cases just decades after his reign. Sources that actually predate the writing down of earliest parts of the bible from oral legends and myths.

        In fact, the Bible probably downplays his importance – historical sources seem to treat him as a dynastic founder or at least in equal in importance. His successors seem to have all been seen as ‘Sons of Omri’ by their neighbouring states.

        • Sunday Akpore

          You’re quite right about that. The case of “House of David” in the Stele Tel Dan, though plausble, is still under debate. However, the mention of Israel in the Meneptah’s stele lends credence to a people called Israel around the 11th century.

          • Raimo Kangasniemi

            The problem with the Merneptah stele comes from the fact that when it was published, the scholars doing so “translated” place-names into biblical and later ones, including Greek names from the Hellenistic period (Heliopolis, Memphis).

            There is no Israel in the text anymore than there is for example Ashkelon or Libya which Petrie et. al. anachronistically put in it in 1896.

            Petrie also put in Palestine, although that tends to be forgotten for “some reason”… Naturally using Egypt in itself as a name (Petrie does use the correct Kemet also st few points) in it is anachtonism.

    • Not_that_anyone_cares, but…

      Oh. Dear me.

      TL;DR

      • Raimo Kangasniemi

        Dear me indeed. This is like those utter nonsense ‘articles’ that hoaxers got published in philosophical magazines in the 1990s.

    • DaMadOne

      Bang. I bet you believe in the mythical big bang theory. Never question it, because its called science and you see a cool animation of how people believe it to happen.

      It seems like the people that hypothesized the big bang have a big imagination

      • neoritter

        Also was a Catholic priest…

      • Raimo Kangasniemi

        The term ‘Big Bang’ was invented as denigrating term by the astronomers and physicists behind the defunct Solid State Theory in 1948.

        There is no scientific alternative to it. Even the colliding branes theory results in a Big Bang that wipes the colliding brane universes ‘clean’ and in effect starts a new universe from scratch – the Big Bang then just happens everywhere simultaneously.

        The science behind Big Bang is solid, unlike this piece of biblical fantasy. I would compare this fantasy to the attempts to use Tolkien’s WWI-inspired works as a historical guide to military history of the time.

        • DaMadOne

          The science behind the Big Bang is so solid that according to it, the universe shouldn’t exist. When the theory is in trouble, they make up things like dark energy/dark matter. Have to come up with an ad hoc theory about why there’s not a lot of anti-matter.

          • Raimo Kangasniemi

            That’s just ignorance sprouting from tabloid headlines.

            The universe would exist even if antimatter and matter would have completely destroyed each other; the universe would be just a very desolate place, like it will be in the far future.

            That antimatter and matter are not exact mirrors is based on science. not just theory but observation. That one group of scientists fail yet to find differences in their study doesn’t negate other observations nor their own expectation that better resolution will bring out differences explaining why we live in a universe dominated my matter.

          • Raimo Kangasniemi

            You are mixing headlines written by scientifically illiterate journalists with what scientists actually say.

  • Jefe Mixtli

    My understanding has always been that the slowing of earth’s spin is linked to the raising of the moon’s orbit.

    Did this have to be taken into consideration as well or is this effect negligable?

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    If polar ice melts, the water centripetally puddles at the equator, slowing Earth’s rotation for the same angular momentum. Conversely, ice ages move vast masses of water to high latitudes, speeding Earth’s spin. Cooling the Earth as a whole contracts its surface

    Recovered ancient Hebrew has thousands of single occurrence words with no obvious meaning. It lacks written vowels, including modern Sephardic Hebrew. It was a small language. Big, “gadol,” could be handful or a whale. 3000+ years of intense study by the most powerful human minds sums to circumstantial befuddlement. Add games of multilingual telephone and political connivance.

  • Sunday Akpore

    It is rather funny how some people turn an article admitting that the Bible has the first recorded case of eclipse into an attack on the whole Bible instead of attempt to prove the findings wrong. If the findings prove the HISTORICITY OF THAT PARTICULAR ACCOUNT, how will such affects science?

  • Bill Mayberry

    An interesting discussion below. It is unclear if everyone read the entire article. Correlating the Bible, history as carved into a stone stele, and astronomical interpolations adds up to a strong legend. Legend differs from myth in the quantity of truth, reality, common sense, and logic.
    The science contained is science. Just because it supports a particular Biblical legend does not make it controversial at all.

  • Tejas Prajapati

    I am not sure about the Bible but as far as I know the earliest recorded Solar Eclipse can be found in the Mahabharta. I am not trying to offend anyone but scientist needs to look in that as well. And based on this there are papers also available, please have a look once

  • Ray Mainer

    Melting of the polar ice will change the Earth’s moment of angular momentum and slow down the Earth’s rotation. Longer days are coming.

  • Lorie Franceschi

    Of course both sides are not taking into account that eclipses darken the skies. So if God stop everything so the Israelites could win the battle and that stoppage caused an eclipse, then it would be dark all day. If the stoppage accrued naturally, then the stoppage of the rotational velocity everyone and everything would fly off the face of Earth. So come on guys, think about your arguments before you spout them off and show your ignorance of not doing that thinking.

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