Geological and historical evidence to support the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion is abundant, so the intention of this writing is to share this information and to provide support for the historicity of Jesus.
At Jesus’ crucifixion, Matthew (27:45-54) reported “From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (cf., Psalm 22)…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. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people. When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, ‘Surely he was the son of God!’”
Matthew’s passage includes two events that can be historically and geologically confirmed: (1) Darkness covered the land for three hours (c.f., Matthew 27:45; Mark 15:33; Luke 23:44-45) and (2) An earthquake occurred.
Historical Extra-biblical Sources for the Darkness
Thallus (52 AD), historian, (as quoted in Julius Africanus “History of the World,” 221 AD)
Africanus states: “Thallus, in his third book of histories, explains away the three hours of darkness as an eclipse of the sun – unreasonably as it seems to me. For the Hebrews celebrate the Passover on the 14th day according to the moon, and the passion of our Savior falls on the day before the Passover, but an eclipse of the sun takes place only when the moon comes under the sun. And it cannot happen at any other time but in the interval between the first day of the new moon and the last day of the old, that is, at their junction: how then should an eclipse occur when the moon is almost diametrically opposed the sun?”
Tertullian (197 AD), Jewish Consul
“At that same moment about noontide, the day was withdrawn; and they, who knew not that this was foretold concerning Christ, thought it was an eclipse. But this you have in your archives; you can read it there. Yet nailed upon the cross, Christ exhibited many notable signs, by which his death was distinguished from all others. At his own free-will, he with a word dismissed from him his spirit, anticipating the executioners’ work. In the same hour, too, the light of day was withdrawn, when the sun at the very time was in his meridian blaze. Those who were not aware that this had been predicted about Christ, no doubt thought it was an eclipse.”
Phlegon (2nd century AD) Greek historian, “Olympiads”
“In the 4th year of the 202nd Olympiad, there was a great eclipse of the sun, greater than had ever been known before, for at the 6th hour the day was changed into night and the stars were seen in the heavens. An earthquake occurred in Bythinia and overthrew a great part of the city of Nicaea.” The 202nd Olympiad is dated between July 29 to June 33.
Origen (184 – 253 AD), Greek scholar and early Christian father who confirmed Phlegon’s writings.
“With regard to the eclipse in the time of Tiberius Caesar, in whose reign Jesus appears to have been crucified, and the great earthquakes which then took place, Phlegon too I think has written in the 13th or 14th book of his Chronicles…Celsus imagines also that both the earthquake and darkness were an invention, but regarding these, we have in the preceding pages made our defense, according to our ability, adducing the testimony of Phlegon, who relates that these events took place at the time when our Savior suffered.”
Julius Africanus (160-240 AD), Christian historian
“Phlegon records that in the time of Tiberius Caesar, at full moon there was a full eclipse of the sun from the 6th hour to the 9th, manifestly that one of which we speak.”
John Philoponus (Philopon), an Alexandrian historian (490 – 570 AD) confirmed Phlegon’s writings.
“And about this darkness, Phlegon recalls it in the Olympiads…he mentioned the eclipse which took place during the crucifixion of the Lord Christ, and no other (eclipse), it is clear that he did not know from his sources about any (similar) eclipse in previous times, and this is shown by the historical account of Tiberius Caesar.”
Eusebius (315 AD), Historian of the Emperor Constantine.
“Jesus Christ underwent his passion in the 18th year of Tiberius [33 AD]. Also at that time in another Greek compendium we find an event recorded in these words: ‘the sun was eclipsed, Bithynia was struck by an earthquake, and in the city of Nicaea many buildings fell.”
What Caused the Three-hour Period of Darkness?
Before determining that the three-hour period of darkness is due to supernatural causes, we must rule out the natural possibilities. We have experienced natural events that have caused darkness during the daylight hours. These include when volcanoes erupt and emit dark clouds and when storms occur and cover the sky with clouds. Yet no Biblical or secular sources indicate any support for a volcanic explosion or storms, so we can rule out those two natural events.
What about an eclipse? The positioning of the sun and moon is required to answer this question. We have much support for the dating of Jesus’ crucifixion on Friday the 14th of Nissan in the year 33 (April 3, 33). This date was further predicted in the book of Daniel (9). Passovers only occurred during a full moon, so an eclipse would not have been possible due to the moon’s location on the far side of the earth away from the sun. Even if the positioning were conducive to an eclipse, eclipses only darken the earth for short moments, not for three hours, so we have another reason to rule out that natural option.
Is the Best Explanation to Explain this Event a Supernatural Explanation?
I will let readers answer that question for themselves.
Geological Support for the Earthquake
Scholars have reported that devastating earthquakes occurred in Jerusalem during Christ’s death (Mallet, 1853; Rigg, 1941). This occurred in a region that includes the Dead Sea fault, which is a plate boundary that separates the Arabian plate and the Sinai sub-plate (Garfunkel, 1981). This fault has been active since the Miocene (Kagan, Stein, Agnon, & Neuman, 2011) and the fault is still active today (De Liso & Fidani, 2014). The fault extends from the Red Sea in the south to the Taurus Mountains in the north.
Kagan and colleagues (2011) analyzed seismites in the Holocene Dead Sea basin by constructing two age-depth chronological models based on atmospheric radiocarbon ages of short-lived organic debris with a Bayesian model. Seismites are sedimentary beds and structures, which are deformed by seismic shaking. The scholars analyzed seismites in different areas of the basin, finding that several synchronous seismites appeared in all sections during particular years, including 33 AD (+/- 2 sigma; 95% confidence interval). Other years in which earthquakes occurred as evidenced by seismites are (AD unless otherwise noted): 1927, 1293, 1202/1212, 749, 551, 419, 33, 31 BC, and mid-century B.C.
After analyzing laminated sedimentary cores recovered at the shores of the Dead Sea, Migowski, Agnon, Bookman, Negendank, and Stein (2004) also confirmed an earthquake in 33 AD with a magnitude of 5.5. They documented earthquakes around 33 AD in 31 BC and 76 AD. The scholars analyzed seismites using radiocarbon dating.
Ben-Menahem (2014) conducted a literature review of empirical studies over 4,000 years of seismicity along the Dead Sea Rift. The scholar referenced the aforementioned studies along with one by Enzel, Kadan, and Eyal (2000) before concluding that earthquakes occurred in Masada in 31 BC, Jerusalem in 33 AD, and near Nablus in 64 AD.
In summary, the literature on seismicity along the Dead Sea basin supports the assertion that an earthquake occurred either in or very close to the year 33 AD.
We can pinpoint the date even closer – to April 3, 33. A United States government federal agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has documented the major earthquakes throughout history. According to their website (NOAA.gov), in 33 AD, an earthquake occurred at the crucifixion of Jesus Christ in Bithynia and Palestine and Palestine, Jerusalem.
In summary, we have extensive extra-biblical support for the accounts of darkness and the earthquake during Jesus’ crucifixion. Taken together, these events support the historicity of the account of Jesus’ crucifixion.
- I initially included the “Acts of Pilate” in this article, yet too much controversy surrounds the “Acts of Pilate,” which some believe to be an early forgery or a fiction piece. Accordingly, I have deleted this reference from the article. According to a recent academic study, the Bishop and theologian Epiphanius of Salamis cited a work called “The Acts of Pilate” around 375 A.D. in his writings. The Acts of Pilate were in “robust” circulation at the time and the Acts of Pilate was a popular non-canonical Christian text during the Middle Ages. A fragment of the Coptic text is now housed at the Newark Library (Zellman-Rohrer, 2018). Please see further information on this piece from J. Warner Wallace: https://coldcasechristianity.com/2017/why-shouldnt-we-trust-the-non-canonical-gospel-of-nicodemus-or-the-acts-of-pilate/
Ben-Menahem, A. (2014) Geophysical studies of the crustal structure along the southern Dead Sea fault. In Garfunkel, Z., Ben-Menahem, Z., and Kagan, E. (2014). Dead Sea Transform Fault System: Reviews. Springer.
Clough, W.O. (1895). Jesus before Pilate: A monograph of the crucifixion. Accessed January 3, 2019 at http://brittlebooks.library.illinois.edu/brittlebooks_open/Books2009-04/clouwi0001jesbef/clouwi0001jesbef.pdf
De Liso, G. & Fidani,C. (2014). Electrical charges associated with sky darkening and the Turin shroud. International Journal of Development Research, 4(12): 2790-2797.
Enzel, Y., Kadan, G., & Eyal, Y. (2000). Holocene earthquakes inferred from a fan delta sequence in the Dead Sea graben. Quat Res., 53: 34-48.
Garfunkel, Z. 1981. Internal structure of the Dead Sea leaky transform (rift) in relation to plate kinematics, Tectonophysics, 80, 81–108.
Genesis Apologetics. (2017) Miracles at the Crucifixion of Christ. Accessed January 3, 2019 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Q8jk41AI3E
Hoehner, H.W. (1977). Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ. Zondervan: Grand Rapids
Humphreys, C.J. and Waddington, W.G. 1985. The Date of the Crucifixion, JASA, 37, 2-10.
Kagan, E., Stein, M., Agnon, A. and Neumann, F. 2011. Intrabasin paleoearthquake and quiescence correlation of the late Holocene Dead Sea, J. Geophys. Res., 116, B04311.
Mallet, R. 1853. 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, pp 1–176.
Migowski, C., A. Agnon, R. Bookman, J. F. W. Negendank, & M. Stein (2004), Recurrence pattern of Holocene earthquakes along the Dead Sea Transform revealed by varve‐counting and radiocarbon dating of lacustrine sediments, Earth Planet. Sci. Lett., 222, 301.
NOAA.gov. (2018). Global significant earthquake database. 2150 B.C. – present. Accessed January 3, 2019 at: NOAA.gov.
Rigg, H. 1941. Thallus: the Samaritan? Harv. Theol. Rev., 34, 111–119.
Roberts, A. & Donaldson, J. (1873). Ante-Nicene Christian Library: Apocryphal Gospels, Acts and Revelations. Available at https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=N4FPAAAAYAAJ&hl=en&pg=GBS.PA3
Sordi, M. 1983. I cristiani e l’Impero Romano, Ed. Jaca Book, ISBN 88-16-40118-4, p. 25.
Stothers, R.B. 2002. Cloudy and clear stratospheres before A.D. 1000 inferred from written sources, J. Geophys. Res., 107(D23), 4718-4728.
Swindoll, C.R. (2009). Jesus: The Greatest Life of All. Thomas Nelson.
Zellman-Rohrer, M. (2018). A New Coptic Witness to the Acts of Pilate (Gospel of Nicodemus). P. Newark Museum ACC. 75.98. The Journal of Theological Studies, 69(2).