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A Telegraph article makes an interesting claim, in a discussion about the Shroud of Turin:

However a new study claims than an earthquake in Jerusalem in 33AD may have not only created the image but may also have skewed the dating results. The Italian team believes the powerful magnitude 8.2 earthquake would have been strong enough to release neutron particles from crushed rock.

And, USA Today reports something very similar:

...where Italian researchers suggest that an 8.2-magnitude earthquake that rocked Jerusalem in 33AD both formed the image and distorted the results of radiocarbon dating...

Ignoring the question of the age of the Shroud of Turin, the specificity of the magnitude 8.2 earthquake makes me ask - are there extant records of such an earthquake, or is the journal suggesting that there was an earthquake, and had it been magnitude 8.2, you have seen the effects in this shroud?

Obviously, the Biblical resurrection account mentions the earthquake, but is there any other corroboration?

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Are you asking specifically about the precision of the date and Richter magnitude? Or are you asking about the possibility of evidence of a large earthquake in the (non-Biblical) historical and archeological records? (Also, the Shroud of Turin angle seems like it's a red herring to the question itself.) –  Jon Ericson Feb 12 at 22:04
    
    
@JonEricson I agree the Shroud of Turin thing is a bit of red herring - it was just the context in which this earthquake appears to have been sourced. I've long wondered if the earthquakes mentioned in the Biblical account had any external corroboration. –  Affable Geek Feb 13 at 0:11

4 Answers 4

up vote 14 down vote accepted

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Considering the historical documents attesting the occurrence in the “Old Jerusalem” of a disastrous earthquake in 33 A.D., the authors assume that a seismic event with magnitude ranging from the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The historical documents cited are: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)

    #521:

    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.

    #1222:

    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.

  • Thallus

    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.

  • Dante's Inferno

  • Ambraseys N (2005) Historical earthquakes in Jerusalem: a methodological discussion. J Seismol 9:329–340

    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".

Summary

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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And, if I may add, overestimated be 10 times at least! A 9th degree event is described as "near-to-total destruction with 50k deaths", which would make it an event of epic historical proportions and not simply little more than a footnote, so it's completely implausible... Also, a neutron blast strong enough to xray someone on a linen shroud would certainly have the same effect on any other shroud/linen in the area. Again, it's unsustainable that this would not be recorded in history. –  Sklivvz Feb 12 at 23:14
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@Sklivvz: In fairness, it depends entirely on where the epicenter was. Last spring, an 8.2 in Russia left no deaths. But yeah, the whole article is full of contradictions and overstatements. The NOAA database guesses the presumed Crucifixion quake to be "moderate" (Damage De = 2). –  Jon Ericson Feb 12 at 23:30
    
There have been large earthquakes in populated areas recently, that are not historically disputed in any way. If this is remotely plausible (the imaging part), there should be numerous documented cases of such a thing happening. –  Larry Gritz Feb 13 at 19:12
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@LarryGritz: Are you talking about the Shroud-imprinted-by-radiation angle? I agree that doesn't seem viable, but I didn't even bother addressing it. The question seemed to be more about the earthquake itself. –  Jon Ericson Feb 13 at 19:26

There is one major problem with this team's hypothesis. Though there is plenty of information out there to historically and scientifically date the crucifixtion along with many other events at the time to include 2 major earthquakes 1 in 31 A.D. and another seismic account between 26-36 A.D. the later occurred during the time Pontius Pilate was governor (several recent geologists and other scientists and scholars are studying this) , the eclipses, the darkness etc. This team overlooks the fact that the earthquake when Christ was crucified did not occur after He was placed in the tomb. Biblically, it occurs when He was on the cross. The simply conclusion there would be it is impossible for the 33 A.D. quake to make the image on the shroud because Jesus was not yet wrapped or even in the tomb. When in doubt go to the source. The Gospels in the Bible give a clear timeline that conflicts with this research. See Matthew 27: 46-60, Mark 15: 34-47, Luke 23: 44-53 and John 19: 17-42. In all 4 Gospels, Jesus was on the cross when the earthquake occurred. After the fact, Joseph of Arimathea requested the body of Christ and then along with the help of Nicodemus wrapped it in strips of linen and placed His body in the tomb. Completely making the shroud impossible to have been created at the time of the earthquake. For those interested in the topic and timeline there are many fantastic resources out there. For a documentary, "The Star of Bethlehem" and a project that is in the works called "The Christ Quake" dealing with this specific information compiling many different fields and researchers' studies over the centuries.

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Welcome to Skeptics!. Could you explicitly quote some of the references you are citing? I can't see how the bible conflicts with the claims (putting aside its qualities as a legitimate reference.) –  Oddthinking Apr 25 at 0:56

Based on the faults in the area, the biggest possible fault break seems to be around 100 km. (e.g. 31 BC, 746/749 AD) for the Jordan Valley Fault to break from The North Dead Sea to the South Sea of Galilee. Using Wells and Coppersmith (1994), that leads to a Magnitude of about 7.3. There is a paper (Austin et al, 2000 ?) postulating a magnitude 8.0 earthquake from the Amos Quake in 759 BC but the thought right now (e.g. Kagan et. al. (2011)) is that may have been two earthquakes with a southern and northern epicenters spaced as much as 20 years apart. In any case, none of the ~31 AD seismites seen in Dead Sea outcrops indicate that this earthquake was bigger than ~6.5.

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Welcome to Skeptics! Can you please provide more detailed references so we can check what you are saying? –  Oddthinking Oct 10 at 14:01

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.

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"The Dead Sea is not thought to be capable of producing a M 8.2 earthquake in Judea." Says who? Welcome to Skeptics! Please provide some references to support your claims. –  Oddthinking Feb 14 at 4:59

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