Scientists have identified the date of the oldest recorded solar eclipse – an event that occurred on October 30 in 1207 BC and is even mentioned in the Bible. Using a combination of the biblical text and an ancient Egyptian text, researchers were able to refine the dates of the Egyptian pharaohs, in particular the dates of the reign of Ramesses the Great. The biblical text came from the Old Testament book of Joshua and has puzzled biblical scholars for centuries. It records that after Joshua led the people of Israel into Canaan – a region of the ancient Near East that covered modern-day Israel and Palestine – he prayed: “Sun, stand still at Gibeon, and Moon, in the Valley of Aijalon. And the Sun stood still, and the Moon stopped, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies.” “If these words are describing a real observation, then a major astronomical event was taking place – the question for us to figure out is what the text actually means,” said Colin Humphreys from the University of Cambridge in the UK. “Modern English translations, which follow the King James translation of 1611, usually interpret this text to mean that the Sun and the Moon stopped moving,” said Humphreys.
“But going back to the original Hebrew text, we determined that an alternative meaning could be that the Sun and Moon just stopped doing what they normally do: they stopped shining,” he said. “In this context, the Hebrew words could be referring to a solar eclipse, when the moon passes between the Earth and the Sun, and the Sun appears to stop shining,” he added. “This interpretation is supported by the fact that the Hebrew word translated ‘stand still’ has the same root as a Babylonian word used in ancient astronomical texts to describe eclipses,” he said. Independent evidence that the Israelites were in Canaan between 1500 and 1050 BC can be found in the Merneptah Stele, an Egyptian text dating from the reign of the Pharaoh Merneptah, son of the Ramesses the Great, researchers said.
The large granite block, held in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, says that it was carved in the fifth year of Merneptah’s reign and mentions a campaign in Canaan in which he defeated the people of Israel. Earlier historians have used these two texts to try to date the possible eclipse, but were not successful as they were only looking at total eclipses, in which the disc of the Sun appears to be completely covered by the Moon. They failed to consider annular eclipse, in which the Moon passes directly in front of the Sun, but is too far away to cover the disc completely, leading to the characteristic ‘ring of fire’ appearance.
The researchers developed a new eclipse code, which takes into account variations in the Earth’s rotation over time. From their calculations, they determined that the only annular eclipse visible from Canaan between 1500 and 1050 BC was on October 30, 1207 BC, in the afternoon. If their arguments are accepted, it would not only be the oldest solar eclipse yet recorded, it would also enable researchers to date the reigns of Ramesses the Great and his son Merneptah to within a year.