Science in the Service of Absurdity

Science in the Service of Absurdity May 30, 2012

A couple of geologists are now claiming that they may have nailed down the year that Jesus was crucified by looking at varve data to determine the year that an earthquake occurred, because the Bible says that when Jesus was resurrected, the earth shook. Yes, I’m serious.

The latest investigation, reported in the journal International Geology Review, focused on earthquake activity at the Dead Sea, located 13 miles from Jerusalem. The Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 27, mentions that an earthquake coincided with the crucifixion:

“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.”

To analyze earthquake activity in the region, geologist Jefferson Williams of Supersonic Geophysical and colleagues Markus Schwab and Achim Brauer of the German Research Center for Geosciences studied three cores from the beach of the Ein Gedi Spa adjacent to the Dead Sea.

Varves, which are annual layers of deposition in the sediments, reveal that at least two major earthquakes affected the core: a widespread earthquake in 31 B.C. and an early first century seismic event that happened sometime between 26 A.D. and 36 A.D.

The latter period occurred during “the years when Pontius Pilate was procurator of Judea and when the earthquake of the Gospel of Matthew is historically constrained,” Williams said.

“The day and date of the crucifixion (Good Friday) are known with a fair degree of precision,” he said. But the year has been in question…

When data about the Jewish calendar and astronomical calculations are factored in, a handful of possible dates result, with Friday April 3, 33 A.D. being the best match, according to the researchers.

Wow, how compelling. Except, as Staks Rosch points out, the verse from Matthew says much more than that. It said that this earthquake, which seems not to have been noticed by any non-Biblical historian or contemporary account, continued “…and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.”

Imagine for a moment that a document claimed that when Martin Luther King was killed, an earthquake occurred that shook Washington, DC, and the zombies of Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson rose from the grave and wandered around the city, appearing to many people — with no one actually noticing that it happened. The Washington Post didn’t report either the earthquake or the band of zombies wandering the streets, nor did anyone else. And if a scientist came by and said, “Hey, we found evidence of a small earthquake somewhere within a few years of King’s assassination,” would you accept that as evidence of this happening? Of course not.

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  • Sounds like someone is desperate for grant money, and is trying to get some Bible-Belt suckers to fund his “research.”

  • eric

    According to the USGS, there are between 50 and 3,500 earthquakes per day; the wide range is due to what size magnitude of earthquake you decide to count.

    So, not much of a prediction. I predict that the morning after I die, the sun will rise in the east. All bow down to my predictive powers!

  • Blondin

    Well, at least they’re not wasting money on fruit flies or climate change…

  • Artor

    “…and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.”

    THIS! I want to know when scientists are going to investigate the far more important zombie outbreak. Who cares about Jeebus when the zombie apocalypse could threaten us all?

  • Gregory in Seattle

    But does the earthquake coincide with the many documented accounts of the curtain in the Temple miraculously being ripped clean in half? Certainly, something that stupendous would have been noted by dozens of chroniclers independently.

  • I’m sure this will soon be a History Channel documentary.

  • raven

    Who cares about Jeebus when the zombie apocalypse could threaten us all?</blockquote.

    It wasn't that bad. Those were nice Zombies. The magic book even calls them "saints". I don't see how there could be saints back then. Xianity was on day 3 when the tombs opened. Does Judaism even have saints?

    They should ask the Jews about the date when the temple veil rent (ripped). The temple was god's home away from home and the center of their religion. They must have noticed something like that.

  • Trebuchet

    I’m sure this will soon be a History Channel documentary.

    Hey, Animal Planet is pushing mermaids so why not?

  • Hercules Grytpype-Thynne

    I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced that “religion poisons everything”, but I’d say it’s pretty clear that it’s poisoned this research.

  • There was also a zombie outbreak. Maybe if they find signs of bodies that were killed in the zombie plague?


    The obvious way to fix jesus’ death would be based on contemporary accounts or Roman documentation. That ought to be easy to find; people were literate by then, after all. I mean, otherwise you’d sort of have to conclude jesus was fictional or something, right?

  • Of course, Christian literalists run into a problem using varves for dating, as there are varve records that date back well over 10,000 years, showing that the earth is older than creationists like to believe.

  • KG

    How often are earthquakes associated with zombie outbreaks? And what is the mechanism linking the two phenomena? Clearly, further research is needed.

  • dingojack

    Too bad the dates don’t match up with either the claimed lunar or solar eclipses as claimed in the babble.



  • jeroenmetselaar

    Varves are not a save issue for fundies! At several places they go way, way back beyond the 6000 years confirming C14 dating on the way/

    There was an absolutely epic thread on the lake Suigetsu varves on FRDB once.

  • jba55

    I think the most important question to ask is are these old school slow, stupid zombies or the new breed of faster, more intelligent ones?

    @8 to be fair to AP that show was a mockumentary, they aren’t anywhere near as bad as History or Discovery. I think it was Discovery that did a credulous pro-angels show.

  • roxchix

    International Geology Review, well, lets just say it doesn’t have a very high impact factor. I think a lot of the other authors in that edition are going to be a little pissed.

  • Midnight Rambler

    FYI, almost every journal with a name beginning with “International” is a hack open-access journal run out of India or Egypt with little or no peer review. Some do actually publish decent research sometimes (I don’t know about this one), relying on scientists in poorer countries with a need for cheaper open-access, but they also publish so much crap that you can’t trust anything in them.

  • raven “It wasn’t that bad. Those were nice Zombies. The magic book even calls them ‘saints’. I don’t see how there could be saints back then. Xianity was on day 3 when the tombs opened. Does Judaism even have saints?”

    They were nice. Jewish undead don’t eat people (not Kosher). Like gentile zombies, they shuffle around slowly. Unlike them, they mostly just complain about the poor selection of cold cuts that was put out for them (“Oy oy oy! Would it have killed you to put out a little corned beef?”).

  • matty1

    Even if I was to take the overall Gospel naratives seriously I’d suggest the earthquake and zombies are literary devices to add emphasis not fact claims. They are the written word equivalent of a cartoon showing birds flying round someones head when they hit it. It doesn’t mean cartoonists think this really happens and I suspect the early Christians were using a similar approach to say they regarded the crucifixion as ‘world shaking’.

    Actually I suspect a lot of the more colourful language in the Bible can be explained that way, people were not by and large more stupid than now and knew perfectly well that animals don’t talk and bushes only burn for a short time but they found such things useful ways of adding emphasis to their re-working of oral history into religious propaganda.

  • marcus

    Well obviously just about everyone who saw these “Saint Zombies” had their brains eaten. That is going to reduce the numbers of witnesses able to testify considerably. You have to think these things through!

  • Why, this is simply brilliant, seminal research, if I’ve ever seen it…

    Think of the many, many other fascinating questions we can answer with these general techniques! I hereby proclaim dibs on all of the following:

    1) Determining the location and time in which existed the storied Land of Honalee, from locating and dating Puff the Magic Dragon’s ash deposits…

    2) Working out precisely when Snow White was poisoned by the wicked queen, by looking for reduced quantities of apple seeds in kitchen middens…

    3) And, of course, pinpointing the precise moment Jack cut down the beanstalk. Also from seismic readings.

    (Sooooo… I’m off to write up some grant proposals. Ta.)

  • … However, first, I suppose, I really have to direct the lab to look into a technological fix for runaway italics in comments postings. ‘Til then.

  • jeffersonwilliams

    Don’t believe everything you read in the press; ,especially when it comes form big media corporation more interested in the bottom line than journalistic integrity.

    I am the primary author of that article. I’ll send it to anyone who is interested but I warn you, it is a dense article that is 12 years in the making. Very unlikely you will understand it if you aren’t a Geologist.

    I created a website to explain this to the general public.

    Yes, it sounds like I am assuming that the earthquake in question which I dated to a 26-36 AD time period is the earthquake of the crucifixion but I did not do that.

    Discovery News printed a misleading article due to a combination of inability to understand our work and desire to make money with sensationalistic corporate media mediocrity.

    Please try to understand the research before commenting.

    On subjects such as this people have a tendency to assume one is in a camp of beleivers or non-beleivers and discovery news wrote an article to imply were are in the camp of believers.

    But we are scientists. we are in the camp of truth. we want to read our poublications in 5 years and be proud that we got things right; not that we supported one agenda or another.

    These are the articles conclusions

    This leaves three possibilities for the cause of the

    26–36 AD earthquake observed in the Ein Gedi section:

    (1) the earthquake described in the Gospel of Matthew

    occurred more or less as reported;

    (2) the earthquake described in the Gospel of Mathew

    was in effect ‘borrowed’ from an earthquake that

    occurred sometime before or after the crucifixion,

    but during the reign of Pontius Pilate;

    (3) the earthquake described in the Gospel of Matthew

    is allegorical fiction and the 26–36 AD seismite

    was caused by an earthquake that is not reported

    in the currently extant historical record.

    And w e don’t have a clue which conclusion is correct but I’m not done researching this earthquake. I’ve got lots of ideas how to test the sediments.

    The sediments have no agenda.

    I trust them more than human produced documents and human interpreted documents and, OK, I do believe that all documents are human produced i.e. that there is no such thing as inerrant scripture.

  • Harry Organs

    “nailed down the year”… I see what you did there.

  • typecaster

    The obvious way to fix jesus’ death would be based on contemporary accounts or Roman documentation. That ought to be easy to find; people were literate by then, after all.

    This is true, of course. However, a major problem with researching real history on Christian origins is the fact that the Revolt of 66 – 70 AD did a pretty good job of destroying written records that may have been kept in the area. Preserving records was, sadly, not a priority with the troops charged with destroying Jerusalem after it’s fall. Much of what we have about anything that happened in first-century Judea was written after the war ended. The epistles that are authentically Paul’s are among the exceptions, mostly because they were written to people outside of Judea.

  • jeffersonwilliams “The sediments have no agenda.”

    It’s the igneous ones you gotta look out for!

  • roxchix

    Mr. Williams (and others reading this)

    Neotectonisists look at local historical records for three main reasons:

    1)When the geology clearly shows an earthquake but dating methods leave too much ambiguity in the date (i.e., carbon dating an event plus or minus 30 years)

    2)To determine the intensity(amount of shaking at the surface) of an earthquake that left a geologic record (i.e. a trench showing a sandblow or seismites in a lake can show an earthquake occured, but trenching to completely reveal an offset during an eartquake to get the magnitude is incredibly rare)

    3)To obtain a record of regional quakes that leave little or difficult to interpret geologic records (many seismically active regions have abundant depositional environments that leave obvious traces, but often access is difficult, or reworking has erased the records)

    But, local records must be detailed enough to be able to provide a firm anchor in time to the events recorded, and must be screened for factual content. (see, for example, the exhaustive work done by Roger Bilham from the University of Colorado:, and some of the references in mr. Williams paper) Oral histories that talk about earthquakes in mythological senses, can inform about a societies view of earthquakes, but are rarely utilized for timing information.

    Regardless of whether or not previous analysts used the gospel of Mathew as a historical reference, I am puzzled by your paper’s reporting of dates and occurances in the gospel (and other chapters) as fact when the historical accuracy of the book has not been proven, and there is little evidence that events purported in the books were recorded in permanent records at the time of purported occurance, and why your paper even attempts to further confirm or disprove a 33 AD date for that seismite layer. Your introduction fails to introduce why it’s important to further constrain the varve counts for the 60 odd year interval you concentrate on, what the impetus for your study was, and your conclusion fails to explain why this is scientifically relevant.

    Your paper itself (not the main stream media summary) reads more like a scientifically literate apologist track rather than a science driven study. And contrary to your assertion above that the paper is beyond the understanding of this blogs readership, I think most readers could get through the paper with the aid of wikipedia for explantations of such concepts as varves, seismites, aragonite, etc. I also think that most readers of your paper would come to the same conclusions as myself, that the conflation of the scientific study with the abundant biblical tracts (even more so on your webpage), is puzzling from a scientific viewpoint, but fits into a christian apologist agenda.

    In summary, after having read the paper itself, not just the MSM summary, it seems like a work of dubious utility to conflate the geologic record and legitimate historical sources with biblical references, in an attempt to identify an earthquake mentioned in the gospel of matthew, even if other’s have attempted the same.

  • jeffersonwilliams


    If you really read the article, you should know that we came up with a date of 31 AD and not 33 AD. We mention that 31 AD quite a bit.

    You would also know that our anchor earthquake is from 31 BC.

    The articles about what is best in Afghanistan and India are great and I’d love to read the full articles if you can send them to me, but I have not been indiscriminately looking at the “historical” record and your assertion that I have is seriously uninformed; especially if you had read the 6 previous articles which assigned a date to this ~31 AD seismite.

    What you probably fail to appreciate is that in a place often known as “the Holy Land”, source documents frequently have religious overtones. And Geologists who refer to historically reported earthquakes by only looking at published earthquake catalogs do so at their own peril because these catalogs are full of errors. These errors are not only present due to possible exaggeration or invention in religious texts (e.g. for the 64 BC, 33 AD, and 363 AD reports) but also because of the general ambiguity involved in looking at ancient texts.

    I have combed the catalogs and the source documents, am current on the literature, and am far more aware than you are about the problems present in the Near East earthquake catalogs. I have also been in a minority of Geologists who believe you have to go to and evaluate the source document for every seismite you want to assign to a catalog date. I have an earlier unpublished work available on the internet where I started this work of trying to sift through the sediments and the old texts.

    So, I am in the habit of going to and quoting the source document for every earthquake. This is why Matthew 27 and 28 were quoted. Refusing to rely on Matthew alone is also why we looked at a Magnitude distance chart for every other reported earthquake within 20 years of 31 AD. It is also why we considered the very real possibility that the earthquake we assigned at 31 AD =/- 5 year date to was caused by an unreported earthquake.

    Unfortunately, I have discovered that many underinformed people are prone to making unsupported assumptions that if you quote a biblical source document you must believe it; which is an error that you are making by labeling the article as an apologia.

    In the article I also quoted Josephus twice; regarding the 31 BC earthquake and a 28 BC drought and how that could impact on our understanding of geochemistry and palynology. Nobody noticed that I quoted Josephus and I don’t see you complaining. I am going to reproduce Josephus’ quote on the ~28 BC drought below :

    Now on this very year, which was the thirteenth year of

    the reign of Herod, very great calamities came upon the

    country; whether they were derived from the anger of God,

    or whether this misery returns again naturally in certain

    periods of time (14) for, in the first place, there were perpetual

    droughts, and for that reason the ground was barren,

    and did not bring forth the same quantity of fruits that it

    used to produce. (Josephus 1930)

    Notice how he speculates that the drought might have been caused by God. Am I to discard Jospehus entirely as a source document because of this superstition ? Or because he probably compiled his books from oral histories that were full of mythology and references to the supernatural. It would appear to me that is what you would have me do yet if we do so, we have no source document for the 31 BC earthquake. This earthquake shows up all over the Dead Sea. It is C14 dated at 4 sites, it is in a trench at another sites, and Migowski’s varve count assigned it a date of 31 BC. Josephus can be, I will readily admit, a very problematic source especially when it comes to dates but I don’t think it is a good idea to discard him entirely.

    It was a common belief among the ancients that earthquakes were caused by God. See Guidoboni’s Mediterranean earthquake catalog for more discussion of this. Basically, if we discard texts that refer to God for this historical time period, we don’t have a lot of texts to deal with. So, in this part of the world, we use them; as imperfect as they may be always knowing that that embellishment or invention may be present.

    As for this Biblical account, if you knew the previous literature, you would see that I made a departure. I did not round up or down to arrive at 33 AD as did every previous published article. I decided that the text could not be relied upon and that the year assignment had to be based on varve counts alone. This meant I had to count varves inside the seismite itself.

    If you really do object to assigning a 33 AD earthquake based on this biblical reference, I suggest you contact the authors of the 6 previous papers and let them know how you feel.

    I can supply you with those articles along with an exhaustive list of earthquake catalogs and discussions of the accuracy of those earthquake catalogs, source documents, etc. etc. so that you can catch up on the literature so that when you do share your opinions with them, you won’t be as underinformed as you have been in sharing your opinions with me.

  • dingojack

    And what does Matthew 27 actually say?

    Here is the text from Young’s Literal Translation:

    Matthew 27:45-54 (the relevant text)

    45 And from the sixth hour darkness came over all the land unto the ninth hour,

    46 and about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a great voice, saying, `Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ that is, `My God, my God, why didst Thou forsake me?’

    47 And certain of those standing there having heard, said — `Elijah he doth call;’

    48 and immediately, one of them having run, and having taken a spunge, having filled [it] with vinegar, and having put [it] on a reed, was giving him to drink,

    49 but the rest said, `Let alone, let us see if Elijah doth come — about to save him.’

    50 And Jesus having again cried with a great voice, yielded the spirit;

    51 and lo, the vail of the sanctuary was rent in two from top unto bottom, and the earth did quake, and the rocks were rent,

    52 and the tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who have fallen asleep, arose,

    53 and having come forth out of the tombs after his rising, they went into the holy city, and appeared to many.

    54 And the centurion, and those with him watching Jesus, having seen the earthquake, and the things that were done, were exceedingly afraid, saying, `Truly this was God’s Son.'”

    Basing the creditability of the ‘witness’ on the totality of the evidence:

    a) We are looking for darkness between 1200hrs and 1500hours local time. (Solar eclipse)

    b) damage to the temple (large rents in the temple’s curtain wall

    c) Zombie attack recorded locally by Pilate or one of the other Roman sources (not likely to have been destroyed in a local war in Judea)

    There is little to none evidence of b) or c).

    As to a): no solar eclipse matches the criterion of occurring between 1100hrs and 1400hrs in the spring (March or April) [or anywhere near passover]*

    You’re basing your theory on sand (Biblical enough for you?)



    * there isn’t even a solar eclipse in 31ce

  • dingojack

    Oops blockquote fail. The second layer of blockquoting after the biblical quote shouldn’t have been inside the quote, obviously.


  • jeffersonwilliams

    Post your email address and I’ll send you the article and you can read it and respond to what is actually written in it rather than whatever fantasy you have imagined it to be based on.

    In the meantime, why don’t you explain what theory you think I am espousing.

    Please try to be specific.

  • jeffersonwilliams

    In the meantime, it would be nice to see if one of you all (including whoever wrote this ridiculous blog post) will show up and admit that your much vaunted reasoning and critical thinking skills failed you.

    Because you took the bait and believed a poorly written mischaracterization of a research article.

    A clue to the problems with the Discovery News article could be gleaned from the fact that the earthquake IN THE SEDIMENTS was dated to 26-36 AD. Did any of you ever bother to think that an earthquake dated within a 10 year time window is incompatible with the conclusion of an earthquake occurring on a specific day ? Apparently not.

    Dingo seems to think the article is based on a literal interpretation of a biblical account which also shows reading comprehension problems since that should be dispelled based on my responses in this thread if he ever bothered to read and digest them.

    He also could have looked up the article and abstract on the internet but apparently Dingo is just as intellectually lazy as the reporter who wrote the Discovery News article. Thus far, he has not taken me up on my offer to send him the original research article.

    The article’s primary focus is dating a seismite in the sediments that was caused by an earthquake around 31 AD (+/- 5 years). roxchix who claims to have read the article missed that date.

    All previous work assigned a date of 33 AD to this earthquake based on published earthquake catalogs. Investigation of the earthquake catalogs revealed that the date assignment of 33 AD was based exclusively on Matthew 27.


    I’m not normally prone to typing in ALL CAPS but in this case it appears that more emphasis is required on a key point to make this sink in for some (or perhaps all) of you.