Geologists pin a date on the crucifixion?

A team of geologists which studies evidence of ancient earthquakes has suggested that Jesus was probably crucified on Friday 3 April, in the year AD 33, according to a report in Discovery News.

The link between geology and the death of Jesus is an earthquake included in Matthew’s Gospel, as part of his story of the crucifixion: ‘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, the rocks split and the tombs broke open…’

To arrive at their date, the geologists examined sediments at Ein Gedi on the Dead Sea, which is 13 miles from Jerusalem. The sediments are normally laid down in even layers of mud, but when there is an earthquake, the top layer of sediment is folded and broken, leaving a record of the event.

The geologists found exactly this kind of broken layer at Ein Gedi which they dated to between AD 26 and 36. It seems that once they compared the geology, the text of Matthew’s Gospel and other sources, they suggested 3 April AD 33 as the date of the earthquake, and therefore the date of the crucifixion.

Their paper arguing the link is in the journal International Geology Review, which is behind a paywall, but a blog by Jefferson Williams, one of the geologists, includes the evidence in a rather unclear and garbled form.

Richard Burridge, Professor of Biblical Interpretation at King’s College, London, comments:

‘This is all very interesting and typical of scientists trying to read the Bible as though it is a scientific text book. However, the point of the earthquake from Matthew is more theological than geological. After all, there is another great earthquake two days later at the resurrection (in Matthew 28:2). Matthew knew his Hebrew scriptures very well and there are often earthquakes when God is doing something important: for example, Elijah on Mount Horeb.

Mark Goodacre, Associate Professor of New Testament at Duke University, North Carolina, agrees. On his blog he writes: ‘Of all the evangelists, Matthew is the one who likes to add earthquakes to his accounts… The story he is presenting here is one of those that very few New Testament scholars would take seriously as history.’

Photo: the Dead Sea at Ein Gedi, by roeyahram