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Religion in the News: Dating Jesus’ Death by the Earthquake

Geologists claim now that they have established the date of Jesus’ death. It was April 3, 33 CE. Thus:

Jesus ‘died on Friday, April 3, 33AD’, claim researchers, who tie earthquake data with the gospels to find the date

For those who don’t know, the date of Jesus’ death has long been in dispute. The reality is, we are not sure when Jesus was executed (i.e., what year). It almost certainly happened during a Passover feast during the reign of Pontius Pilate as the Prefect of Judea. His rule lasted between 26-36 CE. All of our early Gospel accounts agree that the crucifixion happened on a Friday. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, this Friday was the day after the Passover meal was eaten (and so, technically, it was still “Passover Day; see Mark 14:12). According to John the Friday was the day before it was eaten – on the day of Preparation for the Passover (John 19:14).

But which year was it?

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Q&A With Ben Witherington: Part 1
Question: Would I Be Personally Devastated if the Mythicists Were Right?



  1. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  May 31, 2012

    I bet those ‘scientists’ are Evangelical Christians wanting to prove their religious belief. Just the same nonsense as with an actual ‘star of Bethlehem.

    Jeffrey Williams doesn’t sound very German though 😉 Oh, I see, the actual text says: “Geologist Jefferson Williams of Supersonic Geophysical, and colleagues from the German Research Center for Geosciences”, seems like someone is trying to hype his own business through stuff like that: http://www.acousticpulse.com/

    What utter nonsense. It’s rightly published in the Daily Mail though.

    • Avatar
      tcc  June 2, 2012

      Yeah, “scientists” pushing their religious beliefs with pseudo-science isn’t that uncommon. There are actual, working chemists who believe the Earth is 6,000 years old and that we’re all descended from Adam and Eve. Really.

      • Avatar
        Xeronimo74  June 5, 2012

        The important word there is ‘chemists’.

  2. Avatar
    gregmonette  May 31, 2012

    Bart, I think you hit a home-run with this post. I have a question that I’m not sure is the sort of thing you will discuss on your blog. I remember asking you a while back about your opinion on how to do effective preaching. I know you’re an agnostic but you were once a pastor and I know you care deeply about helping the masses to understand the bible since it’s one of the most important, if not THE most important text in western literature. How do you think preaching should be done? If you were to find your way inside a church, maybe with your wife, what sort of sermon would your respect even though you no longer identify as a Christian? If you were asked to give some motivational presentations on the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, how would you do it? Thanks, Bart! -Greg

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 1, 2012

      Interesting question. Maybe I’ll devote a blog to it!

      • Avatar
        Xeronimo74  June 5, 2012

        Isn’t the advantage that this ‘Jesus figure’ has that everyone can project all his wishes and desires into him? That’s why you have a ton of different (and contradicting) opinions and descriptions of Jesus among believers. Hell, even I as an unbeliever could come up with a description of Jesus that would make him sound cool (and likable to me). I would just have to ignore all the crazy stuff though. And that would be incoherent. Yet all the others don’t seem to be bothered about incoherence …

  3. Avatar
    lbehrendt  May 31, 2012

    Bart, terrific piece. How do we know that Passover could not have fallen on a Friday between 26 and 36 CE? Under current Jewish practice (really, since the perpetual Jewish calendar was established after the fall of the Second Temple in Jerusalem), the first day of Passover can never fall on a Friday (or to be more clear, the first night of Passover can never fall on a Thursday night). But how do we know when the first night of Passover fell before the establishment of this calendar?

    (Also a question for anyone who might know: why can’t the first day of Passover fall on a Friday under the perpetual Jewish calendar? I’m sure it has something to do with Sabbath observance coming up the next day … )

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 1, 2012

      Good question! Off hand, I don’t remember!! I hvae read it, but never tracked down the logic. (My assumption was that scholars simply applied the ancient calendrical logic for determining passover and worked it out backwards to the first century)

      I don’t know the answer to your other question. Sorry!

      • Avatar
        Pat Ferguson  June 2, 2012

        Q. lbehrendt asked: “…: why can’t the first day of Passover fall on a Friday under the perpetual Jewish calendar?”

        A. As a Scotch-Irishman, I’m definitely no expert on things Jewish. Nevertheless, and as I understand the methodology of the perpetual Jewish Calendar, Passover can begin on a Friday; e.g., the first day of Passover in 2015 and 2016 is scheduled for Saturday, April 4 and 23, respectively. But, Passover actually begins at sundown on the preceding days (Friday, April 3 and 22).

        ~Source: http://www.jewsforjesus.org/judaica/passover/resources/perpetual-jewish-holiday-calendar-for-passover-through-2018

  4. Avatar
    Adam  May 31, 2012

    Do you think symbolic stories (that sound historical!) are regularly employed throughout Matthew? For example, would you consider Matthew’s account of Jesus’ miraculous birth as symbolic like his stories about the earthquake or the dead being raised, or do you interpret it as legend/myth, or something else?

    Crossan calls symbolic stories like Matthew’s story of the earthquake and the dead being raised as “parables.” He suggests the story of Jesus’ resurrection as a parable: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/greg-carey/dont-fear-this-book-cross_b_1417435.html.

    On the surface this seems to resemble the way David Friedrich Strauss interpreted many of the gospel stories.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 1, 2012

      It’s a good question. I think most of Matthew is “meant” to be taken as actual history. My objection is primarily to the line of thinking that suggests it really *is* actual history. Matthew would have had no access to what happened in Judea on April 3, 33 CE (to pick a date out of the hat). What he’s trying to say, though, is that it was something BIG and COSMIC! Yes, that is more or less how STrauss, and now Crossan, would read the passage. My sense is that Matthew thinks it all really happened, AND that it has theological significance. I can understand the latter claim, butr reject the former — if that makes sense.

  5. Avatar
    proveit  May 31, 2012

    Really messes up Easter Sunday!

  6. Avatar
    Mikail78  May 31, 2012

    Bart, I haven’t yet read the link to the article that you provided. I will later. But could it be that these scientists are Christians who are trying, out of desperation, to validate the gospel of Matthew as a historically accurate record by attempting to demonstrate that an earthquake really did happen when Jesus died? I’m just raising a question. I’m not saying that for sure, this is what they are doing. I just wonder. if my suspicion is accurate (and I admit that it could be totally wrong), this is unfortunately typical behavior of Christian apologists and proselytizers.

  7. Avatar
    tcc  May 31, 2012

    If I were a scientist that was taking Matthew literally, I’d be way more intrigued by the part about a bunch of dead people coming back to life than an earthquake. Earthquakes happen all the time, but dead bodies getting reanimated by cosmic intervention is sort of rare.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 1, 2012

      Yeah, doesn’t happen a whole lot….

    • Avatar
      Xeronimo74  June 5, 2012

      Surprisingly no one else mentioned those zombies … I guess it’s all part of a big anti-Christian conspiracy!! 😉

  8. Avatar
    stuart  May 31, 2012

    I thought you would be more supportive of those seeking independent confirmation of events described in the Bible? An earthquake is not impossible simply because it is also symbolic (it would have been a huge coincidence of course). I think things get tricky when we say an event in scripture must be non-historic because it is symbolic. The tearing of the curtain I agree seems only symbolic, in part because Philo and others don’t mention it. But would you have said don’t search Philo’s writings for a mention because it is just symbolic? I guess my point is, when are we 100% sure something is just symbolic, and then can comfortably laugh at those still looking for evidence?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 1, 2012

      I’m not saying it didn’t happen *because* it is symbolic. I am saying that it does not pass any of the criteria that we use for establishing what happened historically, and that since it is clearly functioning theologically, it is probably best taken theologically (rather than as a historical datum). See what I mean? I see it as a big difference.

  9. Avatar
    bryarusher  June 1, 2012

    So, have scientist collaborated the timing of the eartquake with an eclipse of the sun?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 1, 2012

      Nope! These scientists are now looking into the possibility of a dust storm at the time, accounting for the “eclipse.” For me this is like all the naturalistic explanations for the Plagues against Egypt in the book of Exodus: fun news stories, but bad readings of the text (as if the “miracles” are explicable on natural grounds — the view of the 19th century Rationalists)

  10. Avatar
    whatnow  June 1, 2012

    Bart, so you’re saying that when “Matthew” put together his gospel, he meant this portion of the story—the earthquake, the born again zombies, the darkness, etc. to be taken symbolically, though the other “facts” of the story were to be taken literally? Is this somehow clear in the Greek, or is this interpretation on your part? Does it have to do with the author’s intended audience? Is it possible that it was intended to be taken literally? At least from my casual reading, it seems similar to some of the fantastical stories in the noncanonical gospels, the martyrdom narratives in the apostolic fathers and some of the Christian interpolations. I’ve just assumed that these authors were usually throwing in fantastical claims, sometimes of their own making, but more often repeating the stories that had been mutating over the decades.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 1, 2012

      No, that’s not quite what I think. I think Matthew himself imagined such things actually happened, historically. I think the chances of them happeneing historically are about nil (especially the resurrected bodies! But the rest as well). For Matthew, this *historical* events had theological significance. I’m willing to grant that such things would be theologically significant, and that for Matthew, it is the theological significance that really matters; I am not willing to grant, though, that they actually happened (as the scientists want to claim — or at least as they assume).

  11. Avatar
    DMiller5842  June 1, 2012

    My way of thinking — this finding that an earthquake may havae occurred near the day that Christians celebrate Easter does not provide proof of the year of the death of Jesus.

    Greece exists, there are temples there to commerate the Greek Gods. We know that in ancient times floods happened, solar eclipses happened, earthquakes happened too. Many of these natural events attributed to the gods. Using modern techniques to assign dates to those earthquakes, eclipses or floods would not make the Greek Gods either REAL OR DIVINE much less establish their fictious birth or death dates.

    The dates Christians use to celebrate Christmas and Easter were “borrowed” from previously celebrated pagan holidays. Never mind the unknown year of the death of Jesus — the actual date each year is moveable and seems to be determined by the position of the sun and moon.

    From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Easter:
    “Easter is a moveable feast, meaning it is not fixed in relation to the civil calendar. The First Council of Nicaea (325) established the date of Easter as the first Sunday after the full moon (the Paschal Full Moon) following the northern hemisphere’s vernal equinox.[8] Ecclesiastically, the equinox is reckoned to be on 21 March (even though the equinox occurs, astronomically speaking, on 20 March in most years), and the “Full Moon” is not necessarily the astronomically correct date. The date of Easter therefore varies between 22 March and 25 April. Eastern Christianity bases its calculations on the Julian calendar whose 21 March corresponds, during the 21st century, to 3 April in the Gregorian calendar, in which the celebration of Easter therefore varies between 4 April and 8 May.”
    And :
    “In 725, Bede succinctly wrote, “The Sunday following the full Moon which falls on or after the equinox will give the lawful Easter.”[70] However, this does not reflect the actual ecclesiastical rules precisely. One reason for this is that the full moon involved (called the Paschal full moon) is not an astronomical full moon, but the 14th day of a calendar lunar month. Another difference is that the astronomical vernal equinox is a natural astronomical phenomenon, which can fall on 19, 20 March, or 21, while the ecclesiastical date is fixed by convention on 21 March.[71]”

    HUH???? Sounds kinda like the stuff one reads from the mythicists, Bart.

    I have just started reading Did Jesus Exist? Maybe you have answered my questions about this in that book.
    I have high hopes.

  12. Avatar
    rbrtbaumgardner  June 1, 2012

    Are these symbolic events a kind apocalyptic fulfillment of Jesus’ ministry in Matthew?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 1, 2012

      In a sense. I think they show that the death of Jesus is the apocalyptic climax of history, preparatory for the End.

  13. Avatar
    sleonard  June 1, 2012

    A related question to your post – How often were earthquakes or other such natural events recorded by ancient historians? Do Josephus or Pliny mention any?

  14. Avatar
    CuriousKat  June 1, 2012

    It just keeps on coming! Reminds me of a time when certain psuedo-scholar friends of mine were trying to pinoint when was Jesus visiting the Aztecs as Quetzaloatl (there are several obvious problems with that) and my wonderful Sensei at the time looked at me and quoth: “It looks like everyone wants a piece of Jesus, doesn’t it?”

  15. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  June 1, 2012

    I read this earthquake article prior to your post and my first question was much more basic. How in the world did these “scientists” scientifically date the “day” of this earthquake? How does one scientifically do that to the exact “day” 2,000 years after the quake?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 1, 2012

      I think they get the “day” from other sources (the Bible).

  16. Avatar
    hardindr  June 1, 2012

    Anything published in the Daily Mail (UK) is immediately suspect, but I see that there is another account from a popular science magazine states: http://news.discovery.com/history/jesus-crucifixion-120524.html

    “In terms of the earthquake data alone, Williams and his team acknowledge that the seismic activity associated with the crucifixion could refer to “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 A.D. that was sufficiently energetic to deform the sediments of 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,” they write.

    Williams is studying yet another possible natural happening associated with the crucifixion – darkness.

    Three of the four canonical gospels report darkness from noon to 3 PM after the crucifixion. Such darkness could have been caused by a dust storm, he believes.

    Williams is investigating if there are dust storm deposits in the sediments coincident with the early first century Jerusalem region earthquake.”

    So, it may just all be allegory? Hard to understand what all the fuss (and media attention) is all about. I see that at least this is a news article about a published paper, but I have not found a link to it yet, just secondary sources. The abstract is here http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00206814.2011.639996 , however the article itself is hidden behind a paywall, so you can see it. I wonder what colleagues of Williams, Schwab and Bauer think of their findings? I suppose nobody in the media has thought to ask…

  17. Avatar
    tcc  June 2, 2012


    This was a pretty big religious news story this week. What makes it even more tragic is the fact that Mark’s serpent/scorpions/poison ending was tacked on by later scribes.

  18. Avatar
    Ron  February 17, 2013

    The geologist Jeffery Williams is not a Christian, he’s an agnostic, if anyone cared to visit his website (http://www.deadseaquake.info/). It might prove worthy also to email him (jeff.williams@acousticpulse.com) for a copy of the paper “An early first-century earthquake in the Dead Sea,” International Geology Review, Vol. 54, No. 10, July 2012, 1219-1228.

    The date of the Crucifixion (April 3, 33 AD) was not determined exactly by Mr. Williams based on their study of earthquake data; in fact, the news articles that are cited here have all “grossly misrepresented” Mr. Williams et al. (see http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/crucifixion/jesus%E2%80%99-crucifixion-reflected-in-soil-deposition/). They are apparently relying, however, on an article written by Colin Humphries and W.G. Waddington, “Dating the Crucifixion,” NATURE 306, 22/29 December 1983, pp. 743-46, for a good part of their reasoning. And, they ought to, since it’s a well-written paper that cast much light on what really happened on that Friday in 33 AD.

  19. Avatar
    Ron  February 18, 2013

    I should add that the only conclusion that Jeffery Williams et al. are making in the paper is that, based upon their analysis of the seismite, the earthquake in the Dead Sea area dates between 26-36 CE. They were only comparing their data with the Humphries and Waddington conclusions, which was misrepresented in media outlets.

    Jeff has informed by email me that Dr. Humphries will be working with him in the next three weeks on analyzing dust storm deposit detection using electron microscopy. Why would they be doing this? They’re scientists – ask them. And why would an agnostic like Jeff be involved?

  20. Avatar
    GokuEn  March 9, 2014

    Prof. Ehrman, if we assume that all our gospels are 100% accurate wouldn’t Jesus’ death be dated at the very last on 29AD?

    Luke says he was “about 30” when he started, John implies his ministry lasted 3 years and Matthew and Luke place his birth within the reign of Herod the Great (who died on the year 4 BCE).

    • Avatar
      GokuEn  March 9, 2014

      On that note, how secure is the date of Herod’s death in modern scholarship?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 11, 2014

      I don’t think they *are* accurate! But “about 30” could mean 32 or 28 or something else. In John the ministry must last just over two years, but not necessarily three. So even if they’re accurate, there are uncertainties.

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