Friday, May 25, 2012

Earthquake Research and the Day of Jesus' Crucifixion

Usually speaking, these stories crop up around Easter so it's a surprise to see this one appearing now.  As usual on these occasions, it's a shame that journalists did not check in with Biblical scholars before going to press with a problematic article.  Here's the piece on Discovery News:

Quake Reveals Day of Jesus' Crucifixion
It's been debated for years, but researchers say they now have a definitive date of the crucifixion.
Jennifer Vegas

The article focuses on a detail in Matthew's story of the crucifixion:
Matt. 27.51: And behold, the veil of the temple was torn into two, from top to bottom.  And the earth shook and the rocks split open.
Geologist Jefferson Williams has investigated earthquake activity to see if he can use it to pinpoint the date of Jesus' crucifixion:
To analyze earthquake activity in the region, geologist Jefferson Williams of Supersonic Geophysical and colleagues Markus Schwab and Achim Brauer of the German Research Center for Geosciences studied three cores from the beach of the Ein Gedi Spa adjacent to the Dead Sea. 
Varves, which are annual layers of deposition in the sediments, reveal that at least two major earthquakes affected the core: a widespread earthquake in 31 B.C. and an early first century seismic event that happened sometime between 26 A.D. and 36 A.D.
Now I should say at this point I have not been able to consult Williams's work directly, but from this report, it becomes apparent that the research pinpoints the crucifixion to the decade between 26 and 36.  Given that the traditions locate Jesus' death during the time when Pontius Pilate was prefect, and given that Pilate was prefect from 26-36, this is not big news.  In fact, the precise correlation between Pilate's governorship and the window for the earthquake seems so striking that I wonder whether there is some confusion over the reporting.

Nevertheless, the article goes on to pinpoint the date of Jesus' crucifixion using other means, primarily the work of Colin Humphreys and Graeme Waddington, which dates back to 1985 (see The Date of the Crucfixion).  At least on the basis of the reports in the article, then, the earthquake research is only able to locate the crucifixion within the ten year period 26-36, but the older Humphreys and Waddington article is required for more precision.  

Several bullet-points are offered in order for the pinpointing:

  • All four gospels and Tacitus in Annals (XV,44) agree that the crucifixion occurred when Pontius Pilate was procurator of Judea from 26-36 AD.
  • All four gospels say the crucifixion occurred on a Friday.
  • All four gospels agree that Jesus died a few hours before the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath (nightfall on a Friday).
  • The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) indicate that Jesus died before nightfall on the 14th day of Nisan; right before the start of the Passover meal.
  • John’s gospel differs from the synoptics; apparently indicating that Jesus died before nightfall on the 15th day of Nisan.

The "all four gospels" is the kind of thing that might sound impressive to someone not acquainted with scholarship on the Gospels because it gives the impression of multiple independent attestation.  However, it is consensus in New Testament scholarship that Matthew and Luke knew Mark and were dependent upon Mark for their crucifixion narratives, so this is not independent attestation.  Views differ a little on John, but many (like me) think that John knew the Synoptics too. 

The first three bulletpoints are taken over from the article by Humphreys and Waddington, which also uses the rhetoric of "all four gospels".  The latter two bullet points contain errors.  The Synoptics appear to place the death of Jesus on the day of Passover, 15 Nisan, and not on 14th.  They depict Jesus engaging in the Passover meal at sunset, when the day begins, and being crucified that same day.  John does indeed differ from the Synoptics, but not in the way claimed here.  John depicts Jesus' death as occurring not on the day of Passover (15th), but on the day before (14th).  So either Williams is confused or the journalist is confused or both.

Typically, the same errors are taken over without any checking in other versions of the report, e.g. the Daily Mail.

However, the real problem with this kind of work is that it fails to take seriously the nature of the texts that are being studied.  What Matthew appears to be doing here is to rewrite his Marcan source in typical Matthean fashion.  Of all the evangelists, Matthew is the one who likes to add earthquakes to his accounts.  There is one again at the resurrection (Matt. 28.2).  Indeed, one should probably be wary of using the term technical term "earthquake" to describe all of these -- it is the evangelist's way of saying that the earth was shaking and something dramatic was happening.  He describes the big storm (Matt. 8.23-27) as a great earthquake (seismos) on the sea.

To take Matthew's "earthquake" as a geological report is to misread his account.  The story he is presenting here is one of those that very few New Testament scholars would take seriously as history.  It's even read with caution by the most conservative scholars, and for good reason.  The Discovery report ends its quotation of Matt. 27.51-2 with the tombs opening, but if it had continued its quotation, the reader would have seen how Matthew goes on to recount what some people call the Zombie Pericope, when bodies come out of the tombs, walk around and meet people.  This is not history but legend.

19 comments:

pejeiesous.com said...

This is a good word, Mark. Too often people outside the discipline approach the NT documents as if they are straightforward, western, 21st century attempts at biography and/or historiography. It would help if these researchers would have consulted someone on "the inside" of NT scholarship.

goulablogger said...

26-36 AD? Wow. We've pinned that one down.

Of course, there's always the strange incident of the solar event to add to the mix.

Seeing all the success people have had identifying Jesus' birthdate, I wish the death daters good luck.

Chuck Grantham

Reed Hamil said...

I can't help but wonder whether this takes into account the possibility that Jesus' ministry lasted only two years instead of the traditional three. Would that change the year? What about some dating Jesus' birth at around 5-4 BCE? It seems like there are more variables to be considered here.

Robert Cargill said...

Reed has a point. If Herod the Great Died in 4BCE, and Jesus was born during his reign, and was 'about 30' when he started his ministry, and said ministry lasted any where from one (Synoptics) to three (John) years, then that puts the crucifixion sometime before 26-29 CE, does it not? Still within Pilate's rule, but certainly not Friday April 3, 33 A.D. (like we need more 333 omens...)

For more see Why Christians Should Adopt the BCE/CE Dating System at Bible and Interpretation.

bc

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks for all of your comments.

You're missing one bit of data, Bob. Luke 3.1 has John the Baptist's ministry beginning in the fifteenth year of the emperor Tiberias, which would put it around 29CE. So Luke's "about thirty" (3.23) is already a little off if Jesus was born around 4BCE.

For what it's worth, Reed and Bob, I think John is depicting two years (Passover 1, John 2, Passover 2, John 6, Passover 3, John 13-21) and not three. And I think the Synoptics don't give us any indication of the length of Jesus' mission. I've sometimes wonder also whether we are seduced into thinking that there was a delimited period of "public ministry" because of the way that the Synoptics and John set things up. I suspect that things were not quite so straightforward.

Mark Goodacre said...

Just remembered that I have a podcast on the topic -- Did Jesus' Ministry Last Three Years?

http://podacre.blogspot.com/2009/10/nt-pod-16-did-jesus-ministry-last-three.html

AKMA said...

The Zombie Pericope deserv it's own Latin name! Like the pericope adulterated in John. But I don't know the Latin for Zombie.

Edward T. Babinski said...

Evidence for earthquake activity along the Jordan Valley is long (stretching as far back as the 7th millennium BC, and one must not forget about references in the OT to God “shaking the earth.” Even today earthquakes occur in Israel). As geologists point out, the Dead Sea Rift is not a small one. Google: earthquakes Israel

Interestingly, Josephus mentions an earthquake in a story involving a high priest in Palestine named “Jesus” the son of Gamalas, and a commander named “Simon,” the son of Cathlas, and includes a line about “amazing concussions and bellowings of the earth, that was in an earthquake. These things were a manifest indication that some destruction was coming upon men, when the system of the world was put into this disorder; and any one would guess that these wonders foreshowed some grand calamities that were coming.” -- The Wars of the Jews, Book 4, Chapter 4, Paragraphs 4-5 http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2850/2850-h/book4.htm#2HCH0004

The quake Josephus mentions was not an earthquake at Jesus’ death, but does give us an indication of how people viewed earthquakes back then, as foreshadowing human events, and perhaps indicative of the uses that someone like Matthew also might make of them when writing his story about Jesus. Whether an earthquake coincided with the death of the biblical Jesus as perfectly as Matthew depicts it does, is another question.

Speaking of Matthew’s introduction of an earthquake motif (found in none of the other Gospels) note that the Greek (Septuagint) translation of the book of Ezekiel mentions an “earthquake” accompanying the valley of dry bones resurrection scene. But the Hebrew (Masoretic) text of Ezekiel does not mention an “earthquake” in those passages. Only in the Greek translation of the Hebrew can you find mention of an “earthquake” in that scene, and since the author of Matthew relied on the Greek OT translation (rather than the Hebrew Masoretic text) he may have combined the idea of a mass resurrection with an earthquake in order to add a further “fulfillment” to Jesus’ death from the book of Ezekiel (well, a "fulfillment" of the Greek translation of the book of Ezekiel, not from the Hebrew text!).

As Goodacre pointed out Matthew also happens to be the only NT author who mentions an earthquake accompany Jesus' death, and the only one who mentions a mass resurrection accompanying Jesus’ death. He is also the only NT author to mention guards being terrified two times, once at the sight of the opening of tombs and mass resurrection when Jesus died, and once more then other guards were terrified a day and a half later at the sight of an angel descending from heaven and moving the stone in front of Jesus’ tomb and sitting on top of it. None of the other Gospels mention a single earthquake, nor that the tomb was sealed and guarded, nor do they mention an angel coming down from heaven and sitting on the rock outside the tomb. And both of those Matthean resurrection tales, viz., the opening of many tombs, and the opening of Jesus’ tomb, are preceded by an earthquake. But none of the other Gospels mention a single earthquake, let alone two of them as in Matthew.

Speaking of other earthquakes in the ancient world, they were probably connected with "the gods" in one way or another. And some of them are mentioned by Philostratus (AD 170–244/249) who records in the life of the miracle-working Apollonius that earthquakes occurred in Crete during the reign of Claudius. He also records earthquakes during the time period in Chios, Miletus, Samos and Smyrna. Tacitus mentions earthquakes in Laodicea and Rome during the reign of Nero in addition to Colosse and Hierapolis. Tacitus, The Annals, Book 12 and 14, written in approximately AD 109. The Roman philosopher Seneca (3 BC–AD 65) records an earthquake at Campania. Suetonius (AD 75–160) records an earthquake in Rome during the reign of Galba (AD 68–69).

Steven Carr said...

' Luke 3.1 has John the Baptist's ministry beginning in the fifteenth year of the emperor Tiberias, which would put it around 29CE.'

It is surprising that 'Luke' was unable to provide anything that could be used to date an event in Jesus's life, so that even top Bible scholars like Mark Goodacre are unable to tell us when Jesus died.

Didn't the stories Luke received have any historical context, enabling him to say which year they happened in?

I mean the stories about Jesus. Obviously Luke could provide historical context sufficiently to date John the Baptist.

Paul Regnier said...

AKMA - how about the pericope revenantorum? My Latin probably sucks but it has a nice ring to it :-)

Geoff Hudson said...

Babinski cited:“amazing concussions and bellowings of the earth, that was in an earthquake. These things were a manifest indication that some destruction was coming upon men, when the system of the world was put into this disorder; and any one would guess that these wonders foreshowed some grand calamities that were coming.” -- The Wars of the Jews, Book 4, Chapter 4, Paragraphs 4-5.

This was a just one small piece of the Roman propaganda, created well after any events, using the general perception of earthquakes then. This was not foreshadowing the destruction of Jerusalem by Vespasian. It was probably based upon Nero's original war records. The Idumeans were not Idumeans, they were twenty thousand of Nero's troops who were let into Jerusalem by their supporters. They came to destroy the priests in 66.

Here is a laughable bit of the propaganda: "for the Idumeans fenced one another by uniting their bodies into one band, and thereby kept their bodies warm, and connecting their shields over their heads, were not so much hurt by the rain." War 4.4.6. So not only do we have earthquakes, we have heavy 'rain' also. The Idumeans of course were so upset by what they did, that they departed en masse without a murmer. War 4.5.5.

Geoff Hudson said...

Babinski cited:“amazing concussions and bellowings of the earth, that was in an earthquake. These things were a manifest indication that some destruction was coming upon men, when the system of the world was put into this disorder; and any one would guess that these wonders foreshowed some grand calamities that were coming.” -- The Wars of the Jews, Book 4, Chapter 4, Paragraphs 4-5.

This was a just one small piece of the Roman propaganda, created well after any events, using the general perception of earthquakes then. This was not foreshadowing the destruction of Jerusalem by Vespasian. It was probably based upon Nero's original war records. The Idumeans were not Idumeans, they were twenty thousand of Nero's troops who were let into Jerusalem by their supporters. They came to destroy the priests in 66.

Here is a laughable bit of the propaganda: "for the Idumeans fenced one another by uniting their bodies into one band, and thereby kept their bodies warm, and connecting their shields over their heads, were not so much hurt by the rain." War 4.4.6. So not only do we have earthquakes, we have heavy 'rain' also. The Idumeans of course were so upset by what they did, that they departed en masse without a murmer. War 4.5.5.

Geoff Hudson said...

So earthquakes were just one of the the natural phenomena woven into the Roman propaganda. The Idumeans were portrayed as namby-pambies uniting their bodies to keep warm and their shields to to protect them from 'rain'. It doesn't stretch the imagination too much to realise what this was about. Why the historians haven't cottoned-on I'll never know. This was no different to other anti-Nero propaganda. In 66 Nero, aged 29, in his prime, left Rome, ostensibly on a tour of Greece, starting in September 66 (Seut. Nero 22.3-24). Among a large entourage, Nero had with him Augustiani said to number 5000, members of the praetorian guard and perhaps the German imperial bodyguard. Also present were Vespasian together with other commanders, senators and equestrians, Ofonius Tigellinus (praetorian prefect). Cynically, Dio (63.8.3) described the army as: “a multitude not only of the Augustiani, but of other persons as well, large enough, if it had been a hostile host, to have subdued both Parthians and all other nations. But they were the kind you would have expected Nero’s soldiers to be, and the arms they carried were lyres and plectra, masks and buskins.” Somehow, I don’t think they were that kind of army. The cynicism tells it all. This was a large, well equipped army, about to go on some serious business with some serious weaponry, before embarking on any Greek excursion.

Geoff Hudson said...

War 4.4.6: The 'Idumeans' expected that the citizens would be "but confined to their houses by the STORM." "but by the overbearing appointment of fate, ... the night was far gone and the STORM very terrible, Ananus gave the guards in the cloisters leave to go to sleep." "The noise of the WIND, and not inferior sound of the THUNDER, did here also conspire with their designs, that the noise of the saws was not heard by the others." What with earthquakes as well, it is difficult not to draw more than parallels with Matthew.

Sili said...

" Views differ a little on John, but many (like me) think that John knew the Synoptics too. "

Is there a good book on that subject? I've just finished you Way Through The Maze, and I'd love to read more about the synoptic problem.

I really like how you do your work in terms of hypotheses and testing them. Your weighing of the evidence is always very scientific, but I have to admit that it bothers me that it's necessary to use vague terms like 'probable', 'plausible' and so on. I would be so much more comfortable if the conclusions could be quantified.

Is it really not possible to something akin to phylogenetic analysis on the works of the New Testament? I would have thought that a quantification of the changes in the three text-types would allow one to use something like a molecular clock to give a better suggestion of their times of divergence. And similarly it should be possible to test the hypotheses of Q and Farrer quantitatively.

Or am I being too optimistic about what can be done with literature?

Geoff Hudson said...

And behold, the veil of the temple was torn into two, from top to bottom.

This part of Matthew's quotation has been overlooked. The writer intended that the 'earthquake' effected the temple too. Traditionally this is taken to mean that sacrifice had become redundant. Was the writer reflecting a reality that had occurred within Judaism? I happen to believe he was.

Geoff Hudson said...

I think that New Testament scholars would take this part of Matthew's quotation seriously.

Sili said...

"And behold, the veil of the temple was torn into two, from top to bottom."

That bit goes back to Mark, though.

MacDonald suggests it's meant to directly reference the Iliad, 22.411:
Pitifully his loving father groaned and round the king
his people cried with grief and wailing seized the city -
for all the world as if all Troy, looming above a ridge,
were torched and smoldering from top to bottom.

Notice also the passives "were torched", "was torn".

Apparently Josephus later imitated the same verse, so the imagery seems to have been well known in the first century, so that the reference would resonate.

city said...

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