Earthquakes and the year of Jesus’ crucifixion — still an unsolved issue

When Jesus died on the cross, according to Matthew 27, an earthquake shook the ground: “And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split.” (NIV 1984).

The exact date of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection is unknown, but most Biblical scholars have argued for a crucifixion on 14 Nisan (the Friday of Passover week) of either AD 30 or 33. The ESV Study Bible concludes its article on “The Date of Jesus’ Crucifixion” with

Given the arguments above, the evidence for a date of AD 33 for Jesus’ crucifixion seems much stronger. However, because the date of A.D. 30 is held by a number of respected NT scholars, both dates are included in the various chronologies herein. (ESVSB p. 1810).

There have recently been a number of articles on internet news sites stating that new geological evidence points to the AD 33 date. For example, Discovery News states that

“Geologists say Jesus, as described in the New Testament, was most likely crucified on Friday, April 3, in the year 33.” (from Quake reveals day of Jesus’ crucifixion, researchers believe).

The article goes on to explain

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 a seismic event that happened sometime between the years 26 and 36.

The research paper, by Jefferson Williams, Markus Schwab, and A. Brauer,  that these stories are based on was published this month (May 2012) in International Geology Review. The paper is “An early first-century earthquake in the Dead Sea,” and the abstract (summary) reads as follows:

This article examines a report in the 27th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament that an earthquake was felt in Jerusalem on the day of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. We have tabulated a varved chronology from a core from Ein Gedi on the western shore of the Dead Sea between deformed sediments due to a widespread earthquake in 31 BC and deformed sediments due to an early first-century earthquake. The early first-century seismic event has been tentatively assigned a date of 31 AD with an accuracy of ±5 years. 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.

Perhaps there is more to it than what is written in the abstract, but I think it clearly states that the earthquake that disturbed the sedimentary record occurred in AD 31±5, that is, between AD 26 and 36. Being that the two years most likely for Jesus’ crucifixion—AD 30 and 33—fall in this range, the research doesn’t really nail down the year. In this case, I can see Biblical scholarship helping the geologists out more than geologists helping the Biblical scholars. The Bible provides a historical record of a powerful earthquake in either 30 or 33, which could eliminate the years 26-29, 31-32, and 34-36. On the other hand, the earthquake recorded in these Dead Sea varves could be one completely unrelated to the crucifixion of Christ, as the abstract points out.

There are other problems with the news articles (as usual), such as the statement that there is a contradiction concerning the timing of the death of Christ when one compares the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) and the gospel of John.

In the end, it doesn’t matter to me much whether Jesus was crucified in AD 30 or 33 (or 29 as I’ve seen defended by some). None of this affects the historical nature of the gospel accounts and the radical transformation that his resurrection had on the apostles and the first Christians, who clearly believed that he had risen from the grave.

Christ was crucified, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

Grace and Peace


The Gospel Coalition

4 thoughts on “Earthquakes and the year of Jesus’ crucifixion — still an unsolved issue

  1. Peter

    you wrote:
    “which could eliminate the years 26-29, 30-31, and 32-36”

    I believe you meant:
    “which could eliminate the years 26-29, 31-32, and 34-36”


  2. Pingback: Rabbit Trails (6/9/12) « Simple Profundity

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