maybe there never was an earthquake
Stephen Jones doubts that Matthew was talking about an earthquake at all. In a comment to a reader of his blog he puts it best:
As I pointed out in my comment above, in Mt 28:2 "it was not actually an earthquake", i.e. a geologically-caused one, "It just FELT like one".
That is because Mt 28:2 says: "… there was a great earthquake [Gk. seismos megas], FOR an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it" (my emphasis). So it was the ANGEL’S descending and/or his rolling back the stone at the tomb’s entrance which was the cause of this "great earthquake", not geological activity.
I also pointed out that the Greek word "seismos means "a shaking" and in Mt 8:24 a "great storm" at sea is exactly the same Gk. words seismos megas translated "great earthquake" in Mt 28:2.
So the `earthquake’ caused by the angel on resurrection day would have been better translated, "And behold, there was a great SHAKING, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it" (my [=Stephen’s] emphasis).
So maybe because of a translation error there never was an earthquake. (If Stephen is right I must rethink my long held assumption that the earthquake was a metaphor).
Referring to the study published in the journal Meccanica Stephen had wondered:
. . . who peer-reviews these Bible-science papers? Did they consult any Bible-believing theologians?
Well, yes, in this case that might have been a good idea. Humor me; the paper hinges on one assumption, that there was an earthquake in AD 33. The paper cites various sources to establish this fact, but they may all hinge on Matthew’s Gospel. Maybe a biblical scholar or two, bible-believing or otherwise, theologian, historian or exegesist would have been a big help. Sounds crazy! After all this is supposed to be a scientific paper in a scientific journal. Unfortunately, it is bible-based more so than a casual reader might think.
Skeptics Community at the Stack Exchange
To understand this better, we need to turn to another source, a probing source. That is Skeptics Community at the Stack Exchange. There, prompted by a similar question in the Christianity Community, someone asked: Did a magnitude 8.2 earthquake hit Jerusalem in 33AD?
The paper that sparked the news story states in its conclusion:
Considering the historical documents attesting the occurrence in the “Old Jerusalem” of a disastrous earthquake in 33 A.D., the authors assume that a seismic event with magnitude ranging from the 8th to the 9th degree in the Richter scale could have produced a thermal neutron flux of up to 1010 cm−2 s−1.
The historical documents cited are:
NOAA’s National Geophysical Data Center "Significant Earthquake Database"
While it does list a number of earthquakes in the first century, the evidence for each is widely diverse. The August 24, 79 A.D. Naples earthquake is well documented since it coincided with the eruption of Vesuvius. The 33 A.D. earthquake in Palestine seems to have far less documentation. The two sources indicate:
33 A.D., Bithynia and Palestine. At the crucifixion. The city of Nisaea was destroyed. (reference #521)
33 A.D., Palestine, Jerusalem. (reference #1222)
Catalogue of Recorded Earthquakes from 1606 B.C. to A.D. 1850, Part I, 1606 B.C. to 1755 A.D. Report of the 22nd Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science held at Hull, Sept., 1853, John Murray, London, p. 1-176.
Historical seismicity of the Arab region. IASPEI/UNESCO Working Group on Historical Seismograms and Earthquakes, August 27-28, 1985, Tokyo; Preliminary Proceedings, p. 59-84.
It’s not at all clear (without reading those reports) where each got its data. One might expect the second used the first as a baseline. It’s possible the 1853 catalogue used the Gospel accounts.
We only have only have fragments of his third book of histories via Sextus Julius Africanus‘ History of the World, which has also been lost. However, Africanus was quoted by George Syncellus, who disputed Thallus’ apparent claim that the darkness reported at the same time was an eclipse. There is some doubt that Thallus was writing about the Crucifixion event at all.
The Narrative of Joseph of Arimathea
I’ve had some difficulty finding out much about this document, except that it appears to be legend, not history. In The Apocryphal Gospels: Texts and Translations Bart Ehrman and Zlatko Plese date the work between the 4th and 12th century. Therefore, it was likely influenced by Matthew’s accounts.
I don’t have access to this myself, but the article helpfully notes:
Modern writers say that Jerusalem is situated relatively close to the active Dead Sea Fault zone. They accept the occurrence of the Resurrection earthquake, to which they assign the severity of a catastrophic event, characterized by a local magnitude ML = 8.2, as well as of another earthquake that took place in Bithynia, during the same period, that would have had even a greater magnitude.
(Details of "local scale" may be found on Wikipedia’s Richter magnitude scale article.)
But the abstract of the paper cited reads in part:
However, as we go further back in time before our era, the historical record gradually disappears and the archaeological record takes over. Unfortunately, the archaeological record is too coarse and ambiguous, without any precise internal archaeological indicators. Dating is based on, or influenced by the very few historical records, such as in the Bible and inscriptions, which provide an example of how their assumed accuracy may influence archaeologists’ interpretation and dating. Quite often this develops into a circular process in which archaeological assumptions or theories are transformed into facts and used by earth scientists to confirm the dates and size of their proposed events. In this article we discuss the problems that arise when Biblical and archaeological information is used at face value to assess earthquakes in the Holy Land. This combination may produce earthquakes of hypothetical location and of grossly exaggerated magnitude with consequences for the assessment of seismic hazard.
Therefore the paper used to obtain the oddly specific local magnitude of 8.2 seems to express caution about the evidence for the dates and sizes of earthquake reports like "Old Jerusalem".
It seems likely that all the evidence for an earthquake at the time of the Crucifixion is derived from the Gospel of Matthew. The authors of "Is the Shroud of Turin in relation to the Old Jerusalem historical earthquake?" seem to have over-estimated the strength of evidence for such an event. It is perhaps worthwhile to note that conclusions of the paper depend on the precise timing and strength of the quake.
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2) Second up is Jefferson Williams:
The Dead Sea is not thought to be capable of producing a M 8.2 earthquake in Judea. Max I have heard about is M 7.5. There was an earthquake around the time of Jesus’ death but it was much smaller than M 8.2. It was estimated at M 6.0 to M 6.5 and was dated to between 26 and 36 AD. (http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00206814.2011.639996#preview)
It appears that the authors of the Turin Shroud article conflated an earthquake in Northern Anatolia in 29 AD that was associated with a solar eclipse with Matthew’s description of an earthquake in Chapters 27 and 28 and came up with Magnitude 8.2.
A significant amount of early Christian apologetic literature assumes that the Northern Anatolia 29 AD earthquake was what was described by Matthew in chapters 27 and 28 because the Anatolian earthquake was associated with midday darkness (due to the eclipse) and occurred around the right time.
However, this logic was faulty because the crucifixion occurred on 14 or 15 Nisan in the Jewish Calender which is the time of a full moon; meaning a solar eclipse was not possible. Further, earthquakes from northern Anatolia do not produce significant shaking in Jerusalem.
[ . . . ]
Painting is The Angel at the Tomb of Christ by Benjamin West (Brooklyn Museum). I share the position of the Wikimedia foundation that photographs of two-dimensional works of art in the public domain may not be copyrighted by the photographer.