A Geological Study May Indicate Earthquake Described by Matthew
Matthew 27:50-54 reads:
“Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’”
Geologists Jefferson B. Williams, Markus J. Schwab and A. Brauer examined disturbances in sediment depositions to identify two earthquakes: one large earthquake in 31 B.C.E., and another, smaller quake between 26 and 36 C.E. In the abstract of their paper, the authors write, “Plausible candidates include the earthquake reported in the Gospel of Matthew, an earthquake that occurred sometime before or after the crucifixion and was in effect ‘borrowed’ by the author of the Gospel of Matthew, and a local earthquake between 26 and 36 AD that was sufficiently energetic to deform the sediments at Ein Gedi but not energetic enough to produce a still extant and extra-biblical historical record. If the last possibility is true, this would mean that the report of an earthquake in the Gospel of Matthew is a type of allegory.”
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The geologists compared their findings with Biblical information, including the chronology of the reign of Pontius Pilate, the Gospels’ accounts of the crucifixion occurring on a Friday evening, and the Synoptic Gospel account that Jesus died just before Passover on the 15th day of Nisan. Using this Biblical information in conjunction with the geological report, the author of the Discovery News story reasoned that Friday April 3, 33 C.E. is the most likely date of the crucifixion.*** While there are no direct extant archaeological artifacts relating to Jesus’ crucifixion, the disturbances in soil deposition may reflect the earthquake described by Matthew. This quake, occurring during Jesus’ crucifixion, would have been too minor to be described by non-Biblical histories, but major enough to terrify the surrounding centurions.
Curious about what archaeology can tell us about Roman crucifixion? Read Hershel Shanks’s “Scholars’ Corner: New Analysis of the Crucified Man” as it appeared in Biblical Archaeology Review today in Bible History Daily.
* Williams, Jefferson B., Markus J Schwab and A. Brauer. “An early first-century earthquake in the Dead Sea” International Geology Review, Volume 54, Issue 10, 2012.
*** Update: Geologist Jefferson Williams responded to Bible History Daily about the online attention given to the geological study. Bible History Daily has updated the article to reflect his commentary, and has copied a portion of his comment here that clarifies the initial report (read the full comment in the comments section below):
“I am the primary author of the research article and the original Discovery Article grossly misrepresented our work… Our article had very little to do with the date of the crucifixion. The article discussed Earthquake Geology and primarily how we arrived at a date for this earthquake (31 AD +/- 5 years). Because of uncertainties associated with the text of Matthew 27, we departed from previous Dead Sea Paleoseismology and dated the earthquake based purely on what we saw in the sediments. We then used an article by Humphreys and Waddington to compare our earthquake date with the date range of the crucifixion and the two years most commonly cited; 30 AD and 33 AD. If I had a do-over, I never would have mentioned those years since the only relevant textual information for our 3 conclusions was the date range of 26-36 AD. We are not New Testament Scholars and did not try to add textual information to come up with an exact date. Unfortunately, that was the impression of the Discovery article and this spread all over the internet.”
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