Paleoseismic Evidence of the Good Friday Earthquake in Matthew 27

Geologists working in the Dead Sea may have discovered (paleoseismic) geological evidence of the earthquake that occurred in Jerusalem on the day Christ was crucified 2,000 years ago. In 2011, a paper was published in the International Geology Review by Jefferson B. Williams, Markus J. Schwab & A. Brauer. In the paper, Williams, Schwab and Brauer outline an extensive study of varve, or sediment deposits drilled from Ein Gedi, on the western shore of the Dead Sea[1] (article can be downloaded here). The study involves a detailed analysis of seismic deformation of sea floor sediments from ancient earthquakes in Israel. The authors are not believers. In the article abstract, they ponder the possible relationship between the first century earthquake they discovered, with Matthew’s account in chapter 27.

Matthew 27:45-54 records the momentous event (and earthquake) when Christ died on the cross.

Now from the sixth hour until the ninth hour there was darkness over all the land. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” Some of those who stood there, when they heard that, said, “This Man is calling for Elijah!” Immediately one of them ran and took a sponge, filled it with sour wine and put it on a reed, and offered it to Him to drink. The rest said, “Let Him alone; let us see if Elijah will come to save Him.” And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit.Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split, and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many.So when the centurion and those with him, who were guarding Jesus, saw the earthquake and the things that had happened, they feared greatly, saying, “Truly this was the Son of God!”

Williams, Schwab and Brauer tentatively date the seismic event to 31 A.D. with an accuracy of +/- 5 years.

Among Conservative New Testament scholars there are about 2-3 dates assigned to Christ’s crucifixion, and all of them fit within the 31 A.D. +/- 5 years accuracy of the Dead Sea varve deposit.

Biblical chronology is, and can be a contentious subject among Bible believers. For more on this vitally important subject, see our previous article here.

Calculating the date of Christ’s death is not a simple, or straightforward enterprise. It involves a detailed knowledge of biblical languages, culture, history, and ancient calendrical and dating systems. That being said, however, there are internal clues in the biblical text, as well as extrabiblical history which can help calculate certain times, dates and events in the New Testament.

The late New Testament scholar and archaeologist, Dr. Jack Finegan calculates a date of Friday, 3 April, 33 A.D. as the likely date of the crucifixion of Jesus. This date was not arbitrary, but based on a careful and detailed analysis of historical and biblical sources. He writes:

The Johannine requirement of having Nisan 14 fall on a Friday (and Nisan 15 on a Saturday) can be satisfied in A.D. 30 and in A.D. 33, both of which years seem to be well within the range of likelihood. Astronomically calculated, therefore, the likely dates for the crucifixion of Jesus appear to be either Friday, Apr 7, A.D. 30, or Friday, Apr 3, A.D. 33. Therewith, in terms of the standard Jewish calendar, the representation of the day in the Fourth Gospel appears to be confirmed. Along with this confirmation of the Fourth Gospel, a historical consideration also weighs in favor of the date of A.D. 33. As attested by Tacitus and Josephus (Ant. 18.64) as well as in the Gospels, the crucifixion of Jesus took place under and by order of Pontius Pilate as governor (hyenov, Matt 27:2; Latin praefectus [Greek ênap-xos] in the Pilate inscription from Caesarea; later title procurator/ènirportos) of Judea. Pilate’s dates in office in Judea are almost always given as A.D. 26-36, in accordance with information from Josephus, who tells us (in Ant. 18.89, as ordinarily translated), that Pilate had a ten-year term in Judea and that when he was removed from office by Vitellius, the legate in Syria at the time, and sent to Rome to answer to the emperor for his conduct (especially actions against the Samaritans), Tiberius “had already passed away” (d. Mar 16, A.D. 37). Pilate was appointed to office through Sejanus, the anti-Semitic prime minister of Tiberius, and particularly in his earlier years in authority in Judea, Pilate gave offense to the Jews in many ways. In the last weeks of the year 31, however, Tiberius deposed and allowed the killing of his previously powerful minister and thereafter instructed his provincial governors to treat the Jews with more consideration. This changed situation can very well account for the vacillation of Pilate during the trial of Jesus (as is reported in all four Gospels) if the trial was in 33 but not if it was in 30 while Sejanus was still in power. By way of comparison, John P. Meier agrees that, for all practical purposes, the choice for the year of the death of Jesus is between A.D. 30 and 33, and he thinks that A.D. 30 is more likely, with Friday, April 7, A.D. 30 the probable date and year; while Harold Hoehner, Paul L. Maier, and Paul Keresztes place the death on Friday, Apr 3, A.D. 33, as we too prefer.[2]

As mentioned by Finegan, Harold Hoehner’s groundbreaking PhD dissertation at Cambridge University also places the date of Christ’s crucifixion on Apr 3, A.D. 33. Hoehner draws heavily on ancient sources, such as Josephus, Philo, Suetonius, as well as astronomy.

…in examining the day of the crucifixion it was concluded that it occurred on a Friday, Nisan 14. With the help of astronomy the only possible years on which Friday, Nisan 14 occurred were A.D. 27, 30, 33, and 36. One can eliminate 27 and 36 when one looks at the ministry of Christ, leaving only A.D. 30 and 33 as feasible dates. However, upon further examining the evidence from astronomy and the life of Christ the most viable date for the death of Christ was A.D. 33. This date is confirmed when one looks in to history for it not only fills several passages of the Gospels with meaning but it also prevents the charge that the Gospels are inaccurate in some parts of the passion narrative.
Here, then, is the case for the A.D. 33 date for the crucifixion of our Lord, more specifically Friday, April 3, A.D. 33.[3]

Added to this historical analysis, we believe that the Dead Sea varve deposit, tentatively dated to A.D. 31 with an accuracy of +/-5 years, comfortably fits the historic day Christ died on a Roman cross under Pontius Pilate. On that day the veil of the temple was torn in two from the top to the bottom and the rocks were split.

Not only were rocks split, but the very sediments under the earth and Dead Sea recorded that momentous day that Christ died on the cross.

When that happened, “...the centurion and those with him, who were guarding Jesus, saw the earthquake and the things which had happened, they feared greatly, saying, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’(Matt. 27:51-54)


[1]  Jefferson B. Williams, Markus J. Schwab & A. Brauer, “An early first-century earthquake in the Dead Sea,” International Geology Review (2011). Also see, https://www.ngdc.noaa.gov/hazel/view/hazards/earthquake/event-more-info/8178

[2] Jack Finegan, Handbook on Biblical Chronology: Principles of Time Reckoning in the Ancient World and Problems of Chronology in the Bible, Revised Edition (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishing, 1998), 362.

[3] Harold W. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Academie Books, 1975), 113-114.