Finally, a scientific dating of Jesus’ death.  I was trolling through old posts and came across this one.  Whoa!  Really?


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

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?

Scholars have had a number of ways of trying to calculate it.

  • Which of those years (26-36 CE) did Passover fall on a Friday, for example?  Answer: apparently none!  That’s a problem, obviously.
  • How does establishing Paul’s chronology help? Answer: it narrows it down to probably 33 CE or earlier; probably sometime between 29 and 33 CE, since Paul almost certainly converted around 36 CE or so — if you work out when he did what when based on his off-the-cuff remarks — and that had to be 3 or 4 yours after Jesus’ death.
  • And…. Well now there is a new theory.

In the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus dies, an earthquake hits (Matthew 27:51).   And so, if, in theory, one could figure out when an earthquake shook Judea, we could know what year the crucifixion took place.  It all makes sense!  (Well, at first….)

German geologist Jeffery Williams and his colleagues at the German Research Center for Geophysics have determined that there was a significant earthquake in Judea some 60 years earlier, in 31 BCE; and another one that appears to have come right around the time of the reign of Pontius Pilate.   They have concluded, putting all the evidence together, that the earthquake came on April 3, 33 CE, at the time of Jesus’ death.  See the link above.

What is one to make of all this?   The first thing to be said is

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that you should always be cautious when a scientist who is not trained in biblical studies starts making pronouncements about the Bible.  It’s almost as bad as when a Bible scholar starts making pronouncements about science!  (I’ve known a few who have; and there are always, of course, the creationists).  The problems with this geological approach to establishing the historicity of a biblical account are wide and deep.

To begin with, Matthew is the only Gospel  that mentions an earthquake.  Why would that be, if there really was an earthquake?  Why would Mark, Luke, and John forget or neglect to mention that part?  It would seem to be a supernatural sign that something significant was happening on earth at the moment – so significant that the earth began to quake!  Wouldn’t the others mention it, if it was known to have happened?

It should be noted that the earthquake in Matthew goes hand in hand with the “darkness” that came over the land – itself obviously a symbolic statement that the hour of darkness had come and the light (of the world) was being extinguished.  In other words, these well-meaning scientists have taken a highly symbolic rendering of Jesus’ death and read it literalistically.   This can be especially seen in Matthew’s account in particular, the only one that mentions the quake.  It also indicates that the veil of the temple was ripped in half from top to bottom; that the graves in Jerusalem were opened up; that the corpses in those graves came back to life and appeared to many in Jerusalem; and that the centurion seeing the quake confessed that “Truly this was the Son of God.”

Each of these events is to be understood as symbolic, not as actual events recorded literally by someone who was there to see them happen.  If the curtain in the Temple was in fact ripped in half at this moment, it is surprising that there is no mention of any such thing in any source written in later times, for example, in the Jewish authors Philo and Josephus (who mentions the temple veil, and says nothing about it having to be repaired!).  The tearing of the curtain shows – symbolically – that the God who before now had been removed from the people in his own place, the Holy of Holies in the Temple, was now fully accessible to everyone through the death of Jesus.

The bizarre story of the raised corpses is also not mentioned in any other source (again, this would be a point that Christian authors would have wanted to emphasize, had they known about it).  It too is symbolic: Jesus’ death is the beginning of the resurrection of the dead.  When he returns in judgment, according to Christian reckoning, he will complete the job.

Nor is the confession of the Centurion a literal event.  There is no reliable record of pagans converting to believe in Jesus at the moment he was killed.  That was to come later.  But this “event” narrated in Matthew prepares the way.  For this Gospel, it is not the Jewish leaders or the Jewish people as a whole who repent – or even a Jewish person.  It is a Gentile, who recognizes by the signs attendant on Jesus’ death that he really is the son of God, not despite the fact he was killed by his enemies, but precisely because he was killed.  He is the suffering messiah.

The earthquake too is a symbolic statement, not a literal historical event.   When Jesus died, the entire cosmos was thrown into upheaval.  The sun went dark, and the earth trembled.  The Son of God fulfilled his destiny, an awful death at the hands of his enemies (for Matthew), the Jewish leaders.  The world itself could not help but groan and grumble, as the rocks split apart, the sun went dark, the dead were raised, and the earth quaked.

This is not a literal account that can help us date the death of Jesus; it is a symbolic statement in which Matthew is trying to convey his theology.   Dating Jesus’ death on the basis of this kind of scientific datum is to misread and misinterpret the text.  And that is the same thing as misusing and even abusing the text.