Volume 45 - Issue 3

The Earthquakes of the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ

By Daryn Graham


This article analyses the effects of the earthquakes of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, including possible damage done to the temple, the darkness that accompanied the crucifixion, the splitting of rocks, the opening of tombs and the resurrection of saints, and the responses by the centurion and his accompanying guards. By far the most prevalent method used throughout is that of sociohistorical analysis. In order to draw conclusions about the factual nature of the Gospel of Matthew, this article does not present a discussion of biblical usage of earthquakes generally, but rather tests Matthew’s precise evidence for these two particular seismic events against their contemporaneous geological, archaeological, and historical contexts in an historical manner. By contextualizing the Matthew passage within its wider cultural and historical world in this way, this article finds that this Gospel’s factual basis is strongly supported by extra-biblical data.

1. Biblical Texts as History

Some critics have questioned whether biblical texts such as Matthew should be usable for historical purposes, and they draw distinction between ancient meaning of biblical texts on the one hand and modern experiences relating to them on the other. These critics view history as a tradition that is “of the world,” while contemporary revelation is more “of the spirit.” However, as Craig Keener points out, by learning the ancient meaning of a biblical text, our modern realizations and revelations drawn from it can be better informed and come closer to its original intention.1 This article seeks to find a realistic interpretation of its original intention, at least amongst its immediate audience.

On a more theoretical level, other critics warn that by transposing the biblical text into its ancient historical context one automatically foists one’s own value-laden and limited socio-historical knowledge of the ancient world onto them, making them rather less authentic as well as less appealing to modern minds who do not possess such values and knowledge when it comes to the past.2 It is further argued that although biblical texts like Matthew use traditional, historical references, and utilize language contemporary to their writing, their limited use of such devices means that the written text in itself does not contain God in his entirety, but is rather one singular instrument among many the ever-living God uses over many ages of humanity.3 Consequently, so it is argued, biblical texts have no fixed meaning but have many potential meanings according to their readers and the socio-historical and cultural worldviews they bring to each text.4 Therefore, just as it is natural to interpret biblical texts differently depending upon one’s contemporary society, culture, historical period, and individual worldview, so too, Ulrich Luz encourages, multiplicities of interpretation must be created and promoted universally.5

However, as Luz observes, in order to interpret a biblical text like Matthew better, one should understand something of its historical and cultural context, while acknowledging one’s own cultural biases and individual juxtapositions towards the “other,” especially when approaching texts written centuries ago.6 Therefore, Luz points out, biblical texts such as Matthew should be contextualized historically to interpret it factually; and biblical texts like Matthew can be used as a means to contextualize secular historical documents.7 Certainly, this article does not exhaust all potential interpretations one can draw from these passages. However, it should provide a useful basis for one wishing to better understand the world in which Jesus, and Matthew, lived.

2. The Physical Setting

According to Matthew’s Gospel, immediately after Jesus committed his spirit to his Father and died on the cross just outside Jerusalem’s outer western wall, the curtain of the temple was torn from top to bottom. Matthew then lists a number of other events associated with Jesus’s death, some of which took place during the crucifixion, others later. Matthew 27:51–53 describes these in the following words:

And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city [i.e. Jerusalem] and appeared to many. (ESV)

Matthew’s testimony that this earthquake occurred in this time and place is historically convincing as it is striking, and sits well with what we know about earthquakes produced by tectonic plate shifts that characterize the geology of the Judea. Throughout the first and second centuries AD, both large- and small-scale earthquakes occurred there on a fairly regular basis. Produced by the tectonic Dead Sea Rift Valley, statistics drawn from the ancient evidence shows that approximately one hundred large scale earthquakes have taken place over the last twenty-two centuries, occurring on average at least once every sixty years. Of these, seventy-one took place in the Judea-Samaria region.8

Small-scale, localized tremors in the region that occurred there practically on an annual basis.9 Large-scale ones could produce much damage. Byzantine chronographer, John Malalas recorded that in 65 BC, a series of earthquakes hit Syrian Antioch, causing much damage to civic buildings there.10 The Jewish historian Josephus also recorded that on 1 September 31 BC, Judea was hit by an earthquake so destructive, it killed thousands of people.11 The next recorded earthquake to hit the region was that which the Gospel of Matthew states occurred during the crucifixion of Jesus Christ dated to AD 30–33, and another at his resurrection days later.12 The next, John Malalas recorded hit Antioch on 9 April AD 37, after which the emperor Gaius (Caligula) rebuilt that city in a monumental fashion. Archaeologists have even found signs of this earthquake at satellite sites Defneh and Al-Quds.13 According to Malalas, another major earthquake hit Antioch in AD 47, and according to the Roman historian Tacitus yet another hit that city in AD 53.14 Archaeology has also revealed evidence of other earthquakes in the area. Coins found by archaeologists beneath collapsed debris at Petra in Nabataea, were minted under the Nabataean king Rabbel II (reigned AD 71–106), suggesting that an earthquake occurred there either during, or soon after, Rabbel II’s reign.15 At the ancient stronghold of Herod the Great at Masada as well, which was the famous site of the Jews’ last stand against the Romans in the First Jewish War (AD 66–70), coins from the “potter’s workshop” dating to Trajan’s principate found beneath collapsed debris there point to another earthquake there, too, between AD 98 and 117, or shortly thereafter. Coins minted in AD 110/111 found by archaeologists underneath collapsed debris in building VII at Masada, indicates that another earthquake occurred there in that year or soon after. It is possible but unclear whether these two last seismic events belong to the same earthquake or not.16 And then there is the vast earthquake that which hit Syrian Antioch in AD 115, destroying much of that city,17 and the AD 129–132 earthquake that also hit Syrian Antioch.18

The most destructive earthquake to hit Judea in the Roman period took place on the night before the Battle of Actium which took place on 2 September 31 BC between Octavian (the future Augustus) and Marc Antony, off the west coast of Greece. Its epicenter was close to Jerusalem. According to the first century Jewish historian Josephus, although the Judean armies escaped injury since they were encamped in open fields west of the Jordan River, many of Judea’s ordinary civilians were caught fast asleep and unawares in their houses when the earthquake hit, resulting in terrible loss of life and damage to property. In his Jewish War, Josephus provides a round mortality figure of 30,000 human dead. But even if roughly ten years later he downsized that number to 10,000 dead in his Jewish Antiquities, these numbers are still extremely high, and total confusion and mayhem must have reigned—which was probably Josephus’s aim to get across by using exaggerated mortality figures in the Jewish War. But that was only the start of trouble. When the Nabatean army, which was camped just to the east of the Jordan River, heard of this catastrophe for the Jews, they invaded Jewish territory, killing more people. But from this fire of hardship a new Jewish nation was forged, for Herod, who was encamped with his unharmed army in the Judean fields, marched his men, and crossed the Jordan to meet the invaders, near Philadelphia, where the Jewish and Nabatean armies met. In this battle the Jews were resoundingly victorious, taking over 4,000 prisoners, while an astonishing 7,000 Nabateans lay dead on the battlefield. So comprehensive was this victory that the Nabateans submitted to Herod’s terms and Herod was proclaimed Protector of the Arabs. The Nabateans tried to conquer the Jews. Instead, it would be they who were reduced to the Jews’ terms, bringing peace to Judea. The remnants of the Nabatean army then withdrew to their homeland with its capital at Petra.19

The earthquake of 31 BC thus was viewed by many Jews to usher in a new era in Judea’s history, and though the Jews had won a major battle themselves, they soon heard that Octavian had proven victorious in the Battle of Actium, and that the Mediterranean world, including Judea, now found itself under the control of a new Roman master. During the Roman period, Jewish Apocalyptic literature paired occurrences of earthquakes with the eschatological battle between God and the devil, and both earthquakes and darkness accompany the final battle between good and evil, as can be seen in the Assumption of Moses.20

However, it was not the 31 BC earthquake that would be remembered by later Christians as the pivotal point in world history, but that which took place at Jesus’s crucifixion. Variously dated to AD 30, 31, or 33, the search for physical evidence of this earthquake has resulted various wild headline grabbing claims, the most notable being in 1998, when geologist Lavvas informed the world’s media that he had found a visible crack in the earth’s surface beneath the floor of the Church of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which stands over the traditional site of Golgotha, that was caused by the earthquake at Christ’s crucifixion. This fissure measures 12 cm wide and extends east-west.21 But, very quickly, other geologists proved that this fissure was actually caused by water erosion weathering away the soft limestone surface.22

Actual real, tangible, scientific proof outside the Bible that this earthquake actually took place came to light in 2011 when a trio of geologists Williams, Schwab, and Brauer took core samples of earth near Ein Gedi, just to the west of the Dead Sea, and found evidence not only of the 31 BC earthquake described by Josephus, but also another that clearly had deformed the sediments in the core samples in the year AD 31—plus or minus a narrow window of five years, on each side of this date, easily overlapping with the crucifixion of Jesus. According to these geologists, this earthquake was not a terribly intense one, but nevertheless it was still energetic enough to disrupt the sediment and rocks in the Ein Gedi area. That this earthquake affected mainly what was exposed sediment at the time, this may point to its epicenter being close to the ground surface. These three geologists concluded that this sedimentary disturbance in their core samples clear scientific proof of the earthquake in Matthew’s Gospel.23

3. The Temple and the Torn Curtain: Earthquake Damage or Act of God?

According to Matthew, the curtain was torn from utmost top to lowest bottom. Actually, this is not the only time an event like this occurred in the ancient Roman world. According to the philosopher and statesman Seneca, writing the mid-first century, there were a number of well-known cases of top-down tearing and cracking of buildings and other structures as a result of earthquakes throughout the Roman world. In the following passage, Seneca cites a case of a certain bronze statue he surveyed which split in half from top to bottom during an earthquake:

I am not surprised that a statue was split apart [from top to bottom] in an earthquake since I have described how mountains were separated from mountains and the ground itself was disrupted all the way from its depths…. But if an earthquake cracks whole walls and entire homes and splits the sides of great towers, however solid they might be, and scatters pilings that support great structures, what reason is there that anyone should think it worth noting that a statue has been cut equally in two from top to bottom?24

However, the Jewish temple was more prone to this kind of earthquake damage than other buildings in the Roman world. Josephus states that the colonnades of the upper heights of the temple were always damaged, and often partly toppled, during earthquakes. This was due to subsidence within the foundations of the Herodian temple itself, which was caused by Herod’s enlargement of the temple Mount. This enlargement meant that the ground below often sank under its heavy weight, and this sinking often resulted in the toppling over of parts of the temple’s upper heights during earthquakes. Josephus states that Herod attempted to redesign and rebuild these foundations to correct this fault, however, this was only partly successful and the upper levels of the temple colonnades still remained unstable and susceptible to earthquake damage.25 Thus, it is certain that the earthquake of the crucifixion caused some damage, at least to the upper reaches, to the temple. In AD 41, King Agrippa also made plans to repair this aspect of the temple, probably owing partly to the damage to the temple by the crucifixion earthquake among other local earth tremors, but these plans remained unrealized at his death in AD 44.26 During Nero’s reign the Jewish ruling bodies finally resolved to fix all structural weaknesses once and for all, meaning that all damage in the temple done to it by the crucifixion earthquake and other earthquakes in the area still remained unrepaired up until then, but the outbreak of the First Jewish War (AD 66–70) halted work for good.27 Thus, the structural subsidence of the temple, and the damage done to it by the crucifixion earthquake, were never entirely fixed.

However, even if the temple sustained some damage at this earthquake in its upper reaches, there is no evidence that the temple curtain’s tearing from top to lowest bottom occurred as a result of the earthquake of Christ’s crucifixion. Based on Josephus’s testimony, one might argue that if the upper regions of the temple were susceptible to earthquake damage, so too were the upper parts of the curtain. However, no earthquake could tear this curtain all the way from its top down to its bottom levels. Indeed, given this earthquake was of a localized sort, this earthquake lacked the power to tear the thick temple curtain from top to bottom on its own.28

When analyzing this tearing asunder of the temple curtain, it is worthwhile exploring which curtain this was, because the Herodian temple actually had two curtains. The average Bible reader will be familiar with the temple of Solomon in the Old Testament, which had just one curtain, and with the various references to “the temple” in the New Testament, and so when thinking about the torn curtain, most of us can conjure mental pictures of the same inner veil of the Old Testament temple being torn in two in the temple in the Gospels. However, Solomon’s temple and the temple of the Gospels were not identical, and did not follow the same design. Solomon’s temple was destroyed and rebuilt over many centuries since the tenth century BC, until Herod expanded the existing temple structure in his own time. It is true that the Solomonic temple of the Old Testament, according to its descriptions 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles, had one curtain of red, blue and purple material that divided the Most Holy Place (or “Holy of Holies”) from the Holy Place.29 However, the Herodian temple featured two temple curtains, which made it resemble the Mosaic tabernacle over the Solomonic temple, since the tabernacle had two dividing curtains just as the Herodian temple did.30 According to Josephus, the curtain that divided the Most Holy Place (or “Holy of Holies”) from the Holy Place in the Herodian temple was viewable only to Jews in the Holy Place in the Sanctuary itself. Situated at the back of the inner Sanctuary and placed atop a raised platform, any view of this curtain was cut off to all Gentiles in the open-air Gentile court areas.31 Josephus cautiously provided no description of this curtain, deeming it too sacred even for the mind’s eye of his Gentile readers. He simply notes,

The entire house [inner Sanctuary] was divided into two parts within, it was only the first part of it that was open to our view…. But the inmost part of the temple of all was of twenty cubits. This was also separated from the outer part by a veil. In this there was nothing at all. It was inaccessible and inviolable, and not to be seen by any; and was called the Holy of Holies.32

However, the second dividing curtain at the front of the Sanctuary facing east between the Holy Place from the Court of the Priests, was visible to all Gentiles wishing to see it through two large open gates, which, extending east from the Sanctuary, included the gate that divided the Court of the Israelites and the Court of Women, and the gate that divided the Court of Women and the Outer Gentile Courts. This curtain was considered throughout the Roman Empire to be a wonder of weavers’ skill, and it attracted many Gentiles to the temple, who came just to catch a glimpse of its beauty. Josephus describes this second curtain in the following glowing terms:

There were golden doors 82 ½ feet high and 24 wide. In front of these was a curtain of the same length. It was a Babylonian curtain, embroidered with blue, and fine linen, and scarlet, and purple, and of a contexture that was truly wonderful. Nor was this mixture of colors without its mystical interpretation, but was a kind of image of the heavens; for by the scarlet there seemed to be enigmatically signified fire, by the fine flax the earth, by the blue the air, and by the purple the sea. In the two cases the resemblance was one of color; in the linen and purple it was a question of origin, as the first comes from the earth, the second from the sea. Worked in the tapestry was the whole vista of the heavens except for the signs of the Zodiac.33

Some interpreters such as Gurtner and Keener argue that the curtain Matthew refers to must be the inner curtain, rather than this second curtain, on the grounds that the inner curtain receives more prominence and attention in the Old Testament and in Hebrews.34 However, as the above passages in Josephus make clear, it was actually the second curtain that was most prominent among visitors to the temple in Jesus’s time. Furthermore, Matthew states that when this Roman centurion with his Roman guard entourage “saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe, and said, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’” (Matt 27:54 ESV).

There is some debate among commentators as to what took place that the centurion and the guards actually saw—Gurtner and Keener argue that what they saw were those immediately visible events from the foot of the cross.35 Ulrich Luz, on the other hand, argues that what they saw included all that of which is included in verses 51–53.36 To determine which of these arguments is more likely to be historical, it is worthwhile returning to Matthew’s text:

And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs were also opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city [i.e., Jerusalem] and appeared to many. When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe, and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matt 27:51–54 ESV)

Gurtner argues that these events formed a revelatory vision given to the centurion by God, for he could not have seen the torn second curtain from Golgotha.37 However, given that this passage covers a period several days until the raising of the saints after Jesus’ resurrection, it is more than likely the centurion and his guard inspected the torn curtain sometime over that period. If the centurion and the guard did see all these events in this passage, this discredits the argument that the first curtain was the one torn, for as we’ve seen Josephus states Gentiles like this centurion and his guard were not allowed to lay eyes upon it. However, the second curtain—the one that was so beautifully embroidered to attract the eyes and look like the heavens, was available to wide Gentile perusal. Therefore, on the basis of this evidence we can conclude that the second curtain described by Josephus that Matthew refers to being torn from top to bottom.38

Looking towards other New Testament passages, in the mid-1960s F. F. Bruce advocated that Matthew’s torn curtain is a veiled reference to damage sustained to the 4 ½ feet high balustrade wall that separated the Jewish precincts from the outer Gentile courtyards in the temple during the quake. Although this balustrade was clearly much lower than the temple’s upper heights, meaning that it probably never sustained earthquake damage, Bruce’s view has a neat following. Bruce and other commentators point to passages in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians which contains several references to this balustrade.39 However, a simple reading of these passages undercuts those claims. Paul simply comments,

Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (that done in the body by the hands of men)—remember that at that time you were separated from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two [Jews and Gentiles] one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. (Eph 2:11– 16 NIV)40

R. T. France also argues that it was the damage done to this balustrade that prompted the centurion and his accompanying guard to exhibit their sense of universalism at the crucifixion, and to boldly announce that Jesus was the Son of God.41

By the late 1960s, F. F. Bruce changed his view, advocating that the passages Hebrews 6:9, 9:12, and 10:19 indicate that it was the first curtain—not the balustrade—that separated the “Most Holy Place” from the “Holy Place,” allowing Jesus, and us through him, to physically access the “Most Holy Place.” This line of argument is still popular and is followed by Gurtner and Keener – Gurtner proposes a twofold argument. Firstly, he soberly argues that the inner curtain was torn on account of its prominence in the Old Testament, and that Matthew presumed his readers would understand he meant the inner curtain on account of that prominence.42 Secondly, Gurtner creatively advocates that the tearing of the inner curtain took place in a revelatory sense seen by the centurion as an unveiling for the vision of the earthquake, split rocks, and opening of the tombs and raising of saints that is to follow.43 Keener, following de Jonge, argues the same case on account of the inner curtain’s prominence in Hebrews.44 Edersheim and Keener also observe that since Jesus’s death occurred just before dusk, the tearing of the inner curtain must have been obvious to the temple priests attending the evening sacrifice that day.45 However, Keener argues it was kept a secret by these priests—hence its omission by Josephus, and thereby Tacitus who used him as his source. But insider knowledge of this event was leaked to the Christian group in Jerusalem, which the letter to the Hebrews utilized.46

Keener’s is a brilliant argument, and Hooker endorses it, observing that the classical Greek word “temple” (ναὸς) that Matthew uses can mean the inner sanctuary of a temple rather than its precincts.47 Witherington likewise assures us that the tearing of the inner curtain had more potential to unleash God into the world than the second curtain could have had.48 However, these arguments fail on three counts. First, the word ναός (“temple”) occurs nine times in eight verses in his Gospel and consistently denotes the temple Sanctuary building, consisting of both the Holy Place and the Holy of holies.49 Furthermore, Matthew’s use of the word in 27:51 (ναοῦ) is genitive, meaning that a more accurate translation is “the curtain of the temple” (τὸ καταπέτασμα τοῦ ναοῦ) rather than “the curtain in the temple”; and the curtain of the temple most recognized by visitors to the temple was the curtain of the temple described so beautifully by Josephus, i.e., the second curtain. Indeed, as Gurtner astutely notes, whilst καταπέτασμα is the default translation of “inner veil” in the Septuagint, which Gurtner argues may be evidence of Matthew’s intention to relate the inner veil was torn, the genitive can mean other curtains of the temple.50 Second, as we have seen already, the inner curtain was not viewable to Gentiles, including the centurion and his guard, but Matthew states clearly that they saw the things that happened—which, it may be argued, included the torn curtain, which implies the second curtain given they were not Jews. Thirdly, as for Hebrews itself, nowhere does it state that the inner curtain was rent.51 That letter simply assures readers/hearers that Jesus, the perfect High Priest, now assumes spiritual access to the Father on our behalf continually as an eternal high priest would the “Most Holy Place” on a constant basis.52 As Hebrews 10:19–21 itself states,

Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. (NIV)

Although the writer of Hebrews correlates the death of Jesus with the conceptual opening up of the temple’s inner curtain for access by Jesus and his followers through him into the “Most Holy Place,” otherwise called the “Holy of Holies,” as Attridge points out, nowhere does this passage actually indicate that the inner curtain of the Herodian temple was torn asunder, at all.53 In fact, the main focus of Hebrews is not even the temple of Herod, but the much older tent of the tabernacle, the cloth forerunner of the temple, which had been out of use for centuries.54 Therefore, the “Most Holy Place” that Hebrews refers to is most certainly not that of the Herodian temple, nor even that of the Solomonic temple, but of the far more ancient and idyllic tent of the tabernacle.55 Hebrews’s use of language is figurative and metaphorical, and surrounds the tent of the tabernacle and is not intended to be regarded as literal description of the temple. In any case, as deSilva, Koester, and other commentators now agree, this epistle’s author hoped its immediate audience would appreciate that every believer in Jesus Christ, whether Jewish of Gentile, is now given equal access to a spiritual holiness by God, and that this spiritual holiness, is given by the atoning sacrifice of Jesus, the perfect High Priest, not just for Jews, but for Jews and Gentiles alike—a new situation complimented by the divine tearing asunder of the second curtain, echoed and greatly reinforced by the “Great Commission.”56

Primary sources also seem to turn us away from both of Bruce’s positions. According to Josephus and Tacitus, in just less than forty years before the destruction of the temple by Titus in AD 70—a period that overlaps with the crucifixion of Christ—the same gold temple doors that hung immediately behind the second curtain opened entirely of their own accord, without any human agency, nor with any outside help. Blomberg argues that this may be a garbled references to the tearing asunder of the curtain that hung just outside those very same doors as recorded by Matthew.57 Josephus, writing in the 70s, recorded that all those present in Jerusalem at the time regarded this event as “the best of omens,” believing that it signified that God was opening to the very “gate of happiness” to the whole world, Jews and Gentiles alike.58 Tacitus, following Josephus, also recorded that “few people placed a sinister interpretation of this” and that many people in Jerusalem believed it to be a clear sign that God was establishing his kingdom on earth—one that it would include all peoples.59 It may very well have been that this same omen of happiness caused by the tearing of the curtain created this atmosphere of inclusiveness that encouraged the centurion and his guards to embrace Jesus and the Jewish God after they laid eyes on the torn curtain. For Matthew, these soldiers represented the Gentile world that was, with the death of Jesus, welcomed into the people of God in a new chapter in salvation history ushered in by the torn curtain.60

However, cultural divisions would eventually return, and the curtain was soon to be replaced by a new curtain woven in Babylon. After the destruction of the temple in AD 70, Josephus, Tacitus, and the writers of the Talmud, would go on to claim only that all portents that took place during that forty year period were in fact signifying the temple’s impending destruction at the hands of Gentiles.61 Such was the dominating presence of the temple authorities in Jerusalem after the crucifixion.62 Indeed, this is the view still held by Bible commentators, Davies and Allison, although for them the rending of the curtain was more a sign of God’s judgment upon the temple priesthood for their role in Jesus’s execution rather than condemnation of the temple buildings, for Jesus had days earlier announced in respect to them that they were meant to be used for a house of prayer, and not the den of thieves that the priesthood had turned it into.63 Nineham, Borg, and Keener identify in these words that God’s judgment was specifically against the use of the temple priesthood for the secular purposes they pursued there and the flouting of sacred ground with mercantilism.64 However, Bammel and Keener note, Jesus’s actions in the temple were more a prophetic spiritual declaration rather than the political call-cry challenge of a zealot.65 Nonetheless, as Gurtner and Witherington point out, by the time of Jesus’s death, the temple priesthood had become redundant, with the legitimacy of both the high priest and the sacrificial system being assumed by Jesus.66 Whether one chooses to look at these events from an historical or theological vantage-point, Davies and Allison are most certainly correct that no seismic event, however violent, could have torn a curtain of its thickness and size into two parts from utmost top to lowest bottom. For it was only the upper reaches of the temple that were affected by earthquakes, and not the lower ones—lower ones we would expect needed also to be affected by the crucifixion earthquake if the tearing of the curtain was to be completed from top to bottom, but were not. The origins of the torn curtain must be found beyond the natural realm.67

4. The Earthquake and the Darkness

There are four main positions held by commentators on the nature of the earthquake, the splitting of rocks, and the raising of many saints after the resurrection. First, Gurtner claims that these events were not historical, but formed an apocalyptic vision that was experienced by the centurion guarding Jesus at his crucifixion.68 According to Gurtner’s brilliant arguments, the torn curtain is a literary device used by Matthew to indicate to readers an unveiling revelatory vision experienced by the centurion is to follow—in this case the earthquake, split rocks, opened tombs and raised saints—to inform readers that the Messiah had come and that Ezekiel 37 was being fulfilled in Christ’s death.69 Second, Davies and Allison, and Michael Licona have put forward independent hypotheses that, once again, these events were not historical, but nor were they part of the centurion’s vision, and were rather included by Matthew in his text to highlight the profound meaning of Jesus’ death.70 Third, Raymond Johnson argues that Matthew included these events as a deliberate literary device to echo Ezekiel 37:1–14 and also to fill out the content of his otherwise heavily Markan reliant narrative.71 Fourthly, R. T. France and N. T. Wright argue that these events are historical, and that Matthew knew stories of strange goings-on around the time of the crucifixion, but because their content did not all occur at the same time Matthew struggled to retell them with biblical allusions and strict historical narrative in the one place. Still, Matthew places them together in his Gospel to emphasize that they were all associated with Jesus’s death.72 This article argues this fourth view to be the most convincing—we have already seen that the earthquake is indeed historical. Of course, that is not to say that the first three arguments are less worthy of thoughtful consideration than this article is. However, as Gurtner points out, his and others’ arguments on these issues are not the final word, but have been written to serve as stimulus to further discussion, including that contained in this article.73 Now we will turn to the darkness, the splitting of rocks and the opening of tombs, as well as the centurion and his guard’s response, and demonstrate these too are historical, and although not all occurring at precisely the same time, were brought together by Matthew to show their connectedness and association with Jesus’s death on the cross. This examination of the evidence will confirm that Matthew’s Gospel, far from being fanciful, actually holds up to close historical scrutiny.

Darkness held an ominous position in Jewish thought as a sign of God’s judgment, and of the eschatological battle of good and evil.74 Among later generations of Jews with the gift of hindsight, earthquakes and darkness were believed to herald the immanent destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in AD 70. Josephus, in line with Roman propaganda, states that during one night at the Pentecost festival held in the year immediately preceding the Jewish War, an earthquake and a rumbling roar occurred in the dark of night, then a sound that seemed like the words “let us remove from here.” According to Josephus, this signified that at the crucial point of the escalation into eschatological war, God had switched sides from the Jews to the Romans, on account of the decline of Jewish morals among Jerusalem’s leaders and their lack of repentance.75 Tacitus recorded in more Roman tones that this “voice” was a declaration by the Roman gods that they were departing from the temple.76 Both Josephus and Tacitus believed that these events indicated that Jerusalem’s fate was sealed in accordance with the God’s wishes.77 However, what Matthew does by recording the earthquake and darkness of the crucifixion, is point audiences to Jesus’s sacrificial death as the moment of God’s victory over evil by which He masterfully atoned for all sins of believers on the cross, including those of the Jewish believers, as well. Whilst most Jews would never have accepted that God’s victory over evil would happen with his Messiah on a cross—Matthew, however, suggests that it did.

The traditional view held by Keener that the darkness at the time of the crucifixion was caused by heavy cloud cover is still a popular one.78 However, other scholars have fashioned a new argument that deserves attention. They posit that the darkness that befell Jerusalem during the crucifixion could have, in fact, been caused by the crucifixion earthquake. They suggest that the earthquake might have produced a dust storm that caused the darkness. Actually, this is not an uncommon feature of earthquakes, to project dust into the air if accompanied by winds, the most famous examples being observed during the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811 and 1812.79 This scenario is highly likely, and certainly more likely to have caused the darkness than a solar eclipse could, for NASA records show that although solar eclipses did occur on 19 March AD 33 and 9 March AD 34, the moon’s shadow passed over the southern hemisphere only, and so therefore could not have passed over Jerusalem.80

This might appear, at first glance, to undermine the biblical chronology, given Matthew states the darkness began at noon but only mentions the earthquake with Christ’s death at 3 p. m. But this is actually, not so. The language of Matthew’s narrative at this point is symbolically apocalyptic.81 Flowing in quick succession with one event after another, this passage is not unlike Jesus’s use of apocalyptic language in the temple in Matthew 24:7: “For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places” (ESV).

Whereas Jesus’s apocalyptic language regard future events, those events are not necessarily in order, but are brought together as they are because of their association with the destruction of the temple and the end of the age. The earthquake and other events that Matthew associates with the death of Jesus are likewise not necessarily in order, but are brought together as partial fulfilments of Jesus’s prophecy. Thus, what we have is a story within a story—a discourse used to illustrate and expand on the crucial event of Matthew’s narrative—that of Christ’s death. Matthew uses a “sandwich technique,” moving from the cross to other spaces in and around Jerusalem experiencing the torn curtain, the earthquake, the rocks splitting, and the resurrection of many saints, and then back to the cross. In this way, Matthew reminds the reader/hearer of the “deeper reality” of the death of Jesus and the cosmic atmosphere accompanying it.82 In other words, Matthew brings these cosmic events together in their place in the Gospel narrative to emphasize the greatness of Jesus and the greatness of his death, which heralded the beginning of the new age in which forgiveness and atonement are to be found not in the temple or sacrifices, but in the death of Jesus, and just as the resurrection of many saints occurred on Resurrection Sunday, so too the resurrection of these and of any believer is reliant on the atoning sacrificial power of Christ’s death on the cross.83 For Matthew, it was imperative to notify Jews that Jesus’s sacrificial death was the victorious move on God’s part for the salvation of believers. Later generations of early Christians would develop these concepts further, circulating the belief that whilst this earthquake was a sign of God’s judgment on humanity’s accumulated wickedness and blindness in crucifying Jesus, it also highlights the unique all-conquering salvation that is to be found in the same Jesus.84

5. The Splitting of Rocks and the Resurrection of Many Saints

In the next breath of his narrative, Matthew states that the rocks around Jerusalem split and that a number of saints buried nearby were resurrected and entered the city. According to Raymond Johnson, Matthew deliberately included these details to parallel Jesus’ resurrection and show their lesser importance to Jesus’ greater resurrection, highlighting his Divine Sonship. However, Johnson concludes, these details are ahistorical, used by Matthew with similar language to Ezekiel 37:1–14, to instruct readers that the final resurrection is to be found in Jesus, and that disobedience to him can be changed to reconciliation to God through him.85 Others also see a fulfillment in the common Pharisaic tradition that the Messiah would come to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives and that the hill would split open and the dead arise—a tradition still held by ultra-orthodox Jews who desire to be buried near its summit so they may be among those first raised. This Pharisaic tradition may very well have stretched back into Jesus’s lifetime, meaning that Matthew may have included the splitting of rocks and the resurrection of these saints to indicate a divine fulfilment of these Pharisaic prophetic beliefs.86 From Matthew’s use of language makes it clear that these saints’ tombs were opened after Jesus’s resurrection, and that the “saints” were resurrected and walked into Jerusalem shortly thereafter.87 We do not know exactly who these “saints” were. Our earliest source in identifying them is Ignatius’s Letter to the Magnesians, which states that certain “prophets of old” were visited by Jesus after his death, who then “raised them from the dead” with himself on resurrection morning.88 Although Eusebius claimed that this letter was written while Trajan was emperor (AD 98–117),89 commentators and historians now believe a date for the letter in the late 130s or early 140s is more accurate.90 Thus, this evidence in Ignatius’s letter comes down to us more than a century after the events themselves. Later Christian sources also mention Adam, Moses, Job, and Simeon and his sons as among those who were resurrected.91 However, we don’t know what these resurrected saints did after they appeared in Jerusalem, or what they did for the duration of the rest of their lives. All Matthew tells us is that their tombs were opened and they appeared in Jerusalem after the resurrection of Jesus, not during the crucifixion, which means that their tombs were most probably opened by the more violent earthquake of resurrection morning, rather than during the milder earthquake of the crucifixion. In fact, the only event in Matthew’s collection of signs that Matthew seems to emphasize took place at the moment of Jesus’s death is the tearing of the temple curtain.92

Based on the geological evidence was can say that if this earthquake did produce dust clouds which caused the darkness recorded by Matthew, then this seismic shock must have occurred shortly before noon, when the darkness appeared, producing dust clouds that blocked out the Sun producing dark skies that lasted until roughly 3 p.m. when Jesus died. If so, then this noontime earthquake also caused the rocks to split. What Lavvas missed is that Matthew never claims that the earth’s crust was cracked. Rather, Matthew actually states that rocks on the earth’s surface near Jerusalem split, and splits and fissures in rocks caused by earthquakes in the ancient past can be seen all around Jerusalem.93 These split rocks help us to determine the intensity of the crucifixion and resurrection earthquakes, for of the eight main limestone types known collectively as “Jerusalem Stones” found around Jerusalem, six are hard and do not normally split during seismic events in the area, but two others do, including the Nari variety and the Kakuleh. The Kakuleh is a soft and malleable limestone variety found mostly around the Mount of Olives to the east of Jerusalem that was often worked by Jewish potters in Roman times to create ossuary boxes, vessels, and tombs. Indeed, many of the tombs built to the east of Jerusalem were actually caves excavated into the soft Kakuleh rock in the western side of the Mount of Olives, directly outside the ancient eastern side of Jerusalem. Thus, one may argue that the crucifixion earthquake split rocks made of this Kakuleh limestone rock. However, there is another seismic candidate, a far more powerful earthquake that may have split even some of the harder “Jerusalem Stone” limestone rocks, and opened the tombs of the “saints”—the resurrection earthquake. According to Matthew 28:2, at dawn on resurrection morning, a more intense, “violent earthquake” also took place. Matthew 28:1–4 reads as follows:

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. (NIV

Matthew’s emphasis that this tremor was “violent”, or more accurately “great” (μέγας), a term missing in his description of the crucifixion earthquake, tells us that the resurrection earthquake was far more powerful than that which had occurred only days earlier at Christ’s crucifixion. Not only does this mean that the temple sustained further damage and more rocks split as a result of this earthquake, it also stands as a more likely candidate to have been the earthquake that opened the tombs at Jesus’s resurrection—precisely when Matthew states the “many saints” emerged from those same tombs and appeared in Jerusalem shortly afterwards. It also means that the disrupted sediment found at Ein Gedi 41 kilometers southeast of Jerusalem was caused by this second earthquake as well.94

Table 1. Revised Timeline Presented in This Article
Crucifixion Friday
Before 12:00pm Earthquake
Rocks Split, Damage to Temple
12:00pm Noon Darkness (Dust Storm?)
3:00pm Death of Jesus Christ
Temple Curtain Torn, Exclamations by Centurion (Mark, Luke)
Resurrection Sunday
Dawn Second Earthquake (Aftershock?)
Tombs Open, Holy Men resurrected and appear in Jerusalem
After Dawn Exclamation by Centurion and His Roman Guard (Matt)

This resurrection earthquake can rightly be categorized scientifically as an earthquake after-shock. Aftershocks were common throughout the Levant after an initial tremor like that which took place at the crucifixion. As Roman historian Cassius Dio states, after the AD 115 earthquake in Syrian Antioch, for “several days,” “Heaven” sent many “shocks.”95 However, although earthquakes and after-shocks were not unknown to the region, the timing of the earthquake of the crucifixion and resurrection indicate that God had used the geology of the region to produce both.

6. The Roman Centurion and His Guards’ Response

Next Matthew’s text records that when an unnamed, but presumably important, pagan Roman centurion with his pagan Roman guard entourage: “saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe, and said “Truly this was the Son of God!” (ESV). In Matthew’s Gospel, this exclamation appears to have taken place after the resurrection. For, among “what took place” that prompted this response, Matthew infers were the opening of tombs and the collective resurrection of “many saints” who went into the holy city [Jerusalem] and appeared to many people, which Matthew states occurred after Jesus’s resurrection. Thus, it could have taken the best part of Easter Saturday for these particular Roman soldiers to survey the torn temple curtain and the split rocks by the Mount of Olives, as well as Easter Sunday for them to catch glimpses of the resurrected saints, before their collective agreement that, “Truly this was the Son of God!”

Intriguingly, Matthew states that the guards that had guarded the tomb approached the temple priests, and after telling them all that happened, were bribed to spread the rumor that Jesus’s body was stolen by his disciples. Thus, they could not to have been the same guard to have watched over Christ’s crucifixion, for an exclamation so soon after the resurrection that Jesus was the Son of God hardly corroborates with a story of a stolen body (Matt 28:11–15).

This exclamation by the centurion and his guards ought to be differentiated with the Gospel of Mark’s inclusion of the saying of the centurion alone at Jesus’s death, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39). Of course, had the centurion and the guard in Matthew’s Gospel simply been responding to “what took place” at the foot of the cross, it’s quite possible Matthew and Mark were recording the same statement. However, in Mark’s account of this declaration was by the centurion alone. Davies and Allison suggest that Matthew was correcting Mark’s Gospel.96 Nonetheless, given their differences and the span of time under our examination, it is more probable that Mark’s lone centurion’s statement took place on Friday at the foot of the cross, while Matthew’s centurion and guards’ collective exclamation occurred after the resurrection. In other words, Matthew and Mark shift emphasis of two different historical moments, and as time progressed after the crucifixion, more and more people came to assert Christ’s divinity, and just as at the crucifixion the centurion asserted it, by resurrection morning so too were his accompanying Roman guard.97

7. The Earthquake as a Prodigium in Matthew’s Gospel

Whilst Matthew certainly knew well the prevailing Jewish beliefs of his day, it is also clear that Matthew appealed to those who belonged to the Roman belief system while writing his Gospel, and assigns this earthquake and the darkness prodigia-like status—as signifiers of the breakdown in humanity’s relationship with the Divine—hence the importance of the centurion and his guard’s reconciliatory belief in Jesus days after they had crucified him. This Roman flavor confirms Matthew’s reputation among biblical scholars of a “Gentile bias” to meet an immediate audience comprised of Gentiles, as well as Jews.98 That shouldn’t surprise us—Matthew lived and wrote in a Roman world. However, there are some important differences between typical Roman views of prodigia and Matthew’s. For Matthew, this earthquake and darkness provided a foretaste of the divine judgment for those who rejected Jesus, and were warnings sent by YHWH, not a Roman deity.99 In addition, since religion was a tool for Roman state-craft and rule, the Roman Empire exclusively addressed prodigia using state-endorsed, traditional, religious rituals. This meant that to deny the emperor’s religious importance was to deny an important source of his state-endorsed temporal power-base.100

We have looked at Matthew and touched on Mark, now we shall look at Luke’s Gospel. Luke also captures the prodigia-like status of the earthquake and the darkness of Jesus’s crucifixion among people at the time. In Luke 23:47, the timing of this earthquake and the darkness during the death of Jesus prompted the centurion to also state “Surely this was a righteous man.” In both Jewish and Roman cultures, signs were often said to accompany the death of a righteous or great man.101 The Roman poet Virgil celebrates in his Georgics that an earthquake shook the Alps at the time of Julius Caesar’s death.102 Added to this, Plutarch records that for the whole of the year following Caesar’s funeral, “the sun’s orb rose dull and pale; the heat which came down from it was feeble and ineffective.”103 Julius Caesar was remembered among Romans as a brilliant general and speaker who not only exercised total power over Roman religion as pontifex maximus but also claimed descent from the goddess Venus. When the centurion saw the same signs accompanying Jesus’s death that had accompanied Caesar’s own, naturally he judged Jesus “a righteous man,” perhaps equating Jesus with a sanctified greatness comparable to Julius Caesar himself, descent from God. This confirms Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts that the centurion called Jesus “Son of God.” Although Matthew recorded different words uttered by the centurion and the guards to Luke, days had transpired between Jesus’s death and his resurrection allowing much time for the centurion to say many things to be emphasized differently by Matthew and Luke due to their different interests.104

By exemplifying this centurion and his guards, Luke, like Matthew, also encourages his audience—an audience that included Romans—to put their own faith in Jesus. Incredibly, of such importance is this faith that the Synoptic Gospels forefront the confession of this Roman centurion and the guards, even over the fact that they had just been involved in Jesus’s crucifixion. For Matthew and the other evangelists, whatever one’s past sins, a personal response to God arising from earthquakes such as this is a true response, irrespective of a given state’s policies.105

8. The Centurion and the Guards’ Affirmation in Its Political Context

If the solders’ open and public announcements that Jesus is the Son of God and a righteous man in tones comparable to Julius Caesar was typical in the sense that they were renewing a relationship of peace with the Divine, their verbal content was most certainly atypical. Indeed, they flew in the face of traditional Roman religion with its own pantheon of traditional Roman gods and lesser gods and goddesses, members of whom had also had several offspring to both divine and human beings. Moreover, they indicate a degree of individual rebellion against the politico-religious foundations of the emperor Tiberius’s own claims to divinity. Tiberius styled himself a living son of a god, Augustus, his adoptive father. Interestingly, the centurion and the guard announced Jesus was Son not just of any god of the Roman pantheon, but of God – Jupiter, king of the Roman gods – a far more powerful Deity than the human-god Augustus. Given the geographical context they were in, these Romans syncretized Jupiter with the Jewish God, YHWH. It may be argued that these Gentile individuals accepted the torn second curtain’s invitation to open up this God’s worship to Gentiles, and after encountering the prodigia of earthquakes that signaled a breach in the pax deorum from their Roman standpoint, they decided to act on God’s opening up to the Gentiles and repair their relationships with God. By all accounts the centurion and his guard exhibited faith in Jesus at a religious level, and in doing so made deliberate statement of the extent of their political loyalties.106 They were clearly stunned by what they had witnessed over the course of several days from the crucifixion to the appearance of the saints in Jerusalem.107 However, their response to Jesus’s righteousness and divinity also follows the typical Roman protocol to deify great human heroes only after they had died.108

It was a dangerous move for a group of Romans to make at that time, for Tiberius had already begun to repeatedly buttress his right to exercise total power at the cost of the bloodshed of any person he suspected of attempting, or even considering to attempt, subversion of his politico-religious position as sole ruler. In AD 31 Tiberius’s one-time closest confidant turned betrayer Sejanus was executed by the emperor,109 then in AD 32 Publius Vitellius was forced to suicide for sedition, while all of Sejanus’s children were killed on the emperor’s orders. In this climate of political cleansing by Tiberius, it quickly became very apparent, very quickly, that the only safe way to defend oneself against condemnation from the emperor was diversion of his suspicions away from oneself and onto other individuals through informants. As Tacitus states, “In the Forum, at a dinner-party, a remark on any subject might mean prosecution. Everyone competed for priority in marking down the victims. Sometimes this was self-defense, but mostly it was a sort of contagion, like an epidemic.”110

Through informant methods and tactics, Roman senators like Sextius Paconianus and Decimus Haterius were able to escape their own execution for previous alliances with Sejanus while previously close to Tiberius, informing on other more unfortunate memebers of the senate promptly executed in their stead, as the senator Lucanius Latiaris was.111

More bloodshed was to quickly follow. In AD 33, Tiberius had the senator Considius Proculus, and three equites, Geminius, Celsus and Pompeius, charged with treason as conspirators, and summarily executed.112 From that point every person, senatorial or otherwise, who had ever been complicit with Sejanus, Tiberius had purged113 This volatile political climate may go some distance to explain why during these times Pontius Pilate, despite his initial hesitation to execute Jesus who he believed had committed no crime, eventually handed him over to be crucified. For, when the chief priests of the temple cried and declared in full voice in front of teeming crowds before him, “If you let this man [Jesus] go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar…. We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:12, 15) Pilate realized the mortal danger he would find himself in if this talk continued, and so Jesus had to be crucified immediately.

These historical events highlight the potential danger in the centurion’s and the guards’ simple and plain admissions that they happened to believe that Jesus was the Son of God and comparable in standing to the founder of the Julio-Claudian imperial line, Julius Caesar. Their public declaration of their personal belief in Jesus’s divine sonship and nature, were something entirely new and unfamiliar to all other Roman citizens, who had never even heard of Jesus, and who stood quite opposed to each one of Judaism’s beliefs and practices. Furthermore, these soldiers expressed these new, non-traditional, non-Roman, foreign, subversive beliefs, with seemingly carefree attitudes that may have appeared to other Romans in the vicinity not only irresponsible and foolish, but even partly rebellious, being as they were in diametric opposition to the prevailing mood of self-survival at the time, as evidenced in Pilate’s words and actions. Perhaps to protect their identity, Matthew and Luke did not record these Roman soldiers’ names.

9. Conclusion

This article highlights the historical evidence for the earthquake that took place at Jesus’s death, together with the after-shock of Resurrection Sunday. I accept that the approach here may be unusual to some, and that the use of the Bible as a historical source is still somewhat controversial. However, it does lead to a number of important findings that support the biblical account. The earthquakes of the crucifixion and resurrection sit well in the geological nature of the region. The tearing of the curtain was of an unnatural or supernatural origin. The rocks splitting is in keeping with the general activity of limestone rocks around Jerusalem during earthquakes. The opening of tombs which led to the resurrection of many saints could have occurred on account of the more violent aftershock of Resurrection Sunday. The darkness due to a dust storm may have taken place during the crucifixion. The verbal responses by the centurion and his guard are grounded in contemporary Roman cultural practices to make reparation with the Divine and declare a man a Son of God.

These conclusions confirm the factual basis of Matthew’s Gospel. It may very well be that through personal belief, many readers never questioned that factual basis. But, given Hebrews 11:1 defines faith in terms of conviction and assurance, the examination of historical facts behind the biblical accounts of Jesus’ life in this article can be used to help strengthen one’s conviction and assurance, and by doing so strengthen one’s faith as well. With that in mind, it is hoped that this article will stimulate further discussion about its contents.

[1] Craig S. Keener, Spirit Hermeneutics: Reading Scripture in Light of Pentecost (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), 119, 134, 143.

[2] Rudolf Bultmann, “The Problem of Hermeneutics,” in Essays Philosophical and Theological, trans. J. C. G. Greig (London: SCM, 1955), 236–40; G. E. Lessing, “On the Proof of the Spirit and of Power,” in Lessing’s Theological Writings, trans. H. Chadwick (London: A. C. Black, 1956), 53; Jürgen Moltmann, Perspectiven der Theologie (Gütersloh: Kaiser, 1968), 115; Hans-George Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans. J. Weisenheimer and D. G. Marshall (New York: Crossroad, 1982), 270; Baruch Spinoza, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, trans. S. Shirley (Leiden: Brill, 1989), 104–7, 270; Ulrich Luz, Matthew in History: Interpretation, Influence, and Effects (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994), 7–14, 17–19.

[3] P. Ricoeur, “La function herméneutique de la distanciation,” in Exegesis: Problèms de méthode et exercices de lecture, eds. F. Bovon, G. Rouiller (Paris: Delachaux and Niéstlé, 1975), 203–7; J. S. Croatto, Biblical Hermeneutics, trans. R. Barr (London: Orbis, 1987); Luz, Matthew in History, 18–19.

[4] H. R. Jauss, Literaturgeschichte als Provokation (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 1970), 183; A Schindler, “Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Kirchengeschichte für das Verständnis der Bibel heute,” in Reformatio 30 (1981): 265; Gadamer, Truth and Method, 275; Luz, Matthew in History, 19–20.

[5] Luz, Matthew in History, 28, 30.

[6] Luz, Matthew in History, 28, 30.

[7] Luz, Matthew in History, 28–30.

[8] E. J. Bickerman, Chronology of the Ancient World (New York: Cornell University Press, 1974), 75–76; Kenneth W. Russell, “An Earthquake Chronology of Palestine and Northwest Arabia from the 2nd through the Mid-8th Century AD,” BASOR 260 (1985): 40.

[9] Amos Salamon, “Patterns of Seismic Sequences in the Levant—Interpretation of Historical Seismicity,” Journal of Seismology 14 (2010): 343, 353; Motti Zohar, Amos Salamon, Rehav Rubin, “Reappraised List of Historical Earthquakes that Affected Israel and Its Close Surroundings,” Journal of Seismology 20 (2016): 975, 982–83.

[10] John Malalas, 8.30, in The Chronicle of John Malalas, ed. Elizabeth Jeffreys, Michael Jeffreys, and Roger Scott (Melbourne: Australian Association of Byzantine Studies, 1986), 111.

[11] Josephus, J.W. 1.370–90; Ant. 15.121–22.

[12] Matt 27:51–53; 28:1–4.

[13] John Malalas, 243.16–20; A. Sieberg, “Untersuchungen übar erdeben und bruchscholenbau in Östlichen mittelmeergebiet,” Denkschriffen der Medizinsch-Naturwissenschaft Gesellschaft zu Jena 18 (1932): 161–273; E. Guidoboni, A. Comastri, and G. Traina, eds., Catalogue of Ancient Earthquakes in the Mediterranean Area up to the 10th Century (Rome: ING, 1994); M. R. Sbeinati, R. Darawcheh, and M. Monty, “The Historical Earthquakes of Syria: An Analysis of Large and Moderate Earthquakes from 1365 B.C. to 1900 A.D.,” Annals of Geophysics 48 (2005): 383–407.

[14] For the earthquake in AD 47, see John Malalas, 246.9.19; E. Guidoboni, Comastri, Traina, Catalogue, 383–407. For the earthquake in AD 53, see Tacitus Ann. 12.58; J. Poier and M. Taher, “Historical Seismicity in the Near and Middle East, North Africa, and Spain from Arabic Documents (VII–XVIII Century),” Bulletin of the Seismology Society of America (1980): 2185–2201. For both earthquakes, see also Sbeinati, Darawcheh, and Monty, “The Historical Earthquakes of Syria,” 383–407.

[15] For earthquakes in Nabatea in the early second century AD, see A. Negev, The Nabatean Potter’s Workshop at Oboda, Rei Cretariae Romanae Fautorum, Acta Supplemente, Vol 1 (Bonn: Rudolf-Habelt, 1974); Russell, “An Earthquake Chronology,” 40–41.

[16] For earthquakes at Masada at the outset of the second century AD, see Y. Yadin, “The Excavation of Masada—1963/64: Preliminary Report,” Israel Exploration Journal 15 (1965): 118–19; Y. Yadin, “Masada and the Limes, Israel Exploration Journal 17 (1967): 43–45; Russell, “An Earthquake Chronology,” 40–41.

[17] Cassius Dio, Roman History 68.24.1–25.6.

[18] For the earthquake felt throughout the Levant during the 227th Olympiad (AD 129–132), see Jerome, Chronicle 227; A. A. Vasiliev, History of the Byzantine Empire: 324–1453, vol 1 (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1958), 119.

[19] Josephus, J.W. 1.370–90; Ant. 15.121–22.

[20] As. Mos. 10:4–5; T. Levi 4.1.

[21] G. Lavvas, “The Rock of Calvary: Uncovering Christ’s Crucifixion Site,” Jewish Art 24 (1998): 147–50; G. Lavvas, “The Holy Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem: The First Construction Phase During Constantine the Great,” Corpus 60 (2004): 30–47.

[22] A. Israeli, Geotechnical Map of Jerusalem and Surroundings: Report MM/12/77 (Geological Survey of Israel, 1977); D. Gil, “The Geology of the City of David and its Subterranean Waterworks,” in Excavations at the City of David 1978–1985, eds. D. T. Ariel and A. De Groot (Jerusalem: Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1996); Nicholas Ambraseys, Earthquakes in the Mediterranean and Middle East: A Multidisciplinary Study of Seismicity Up to 1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 109–10.

[23] Jefferson B. Williams, Markus J. Schwab, and A. Brauer, “An Early First-Century Earthquake in the Dead Sea,” in International Geology Review 54 (2012): 1219–28.

[24] Seneca, Nat. 6.30.1, 5.

[25] Josephus, Ant. 15.391.

[26] Josephus J.W. 5.36–37.

[27] Josephus, Ant. 15.391.

[28] Josephus, J.W. 5.212; W. D. Davies, Dale C. Allison, Matthew 19–28, ICC (Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2004), 628–32.

[29] 1 Kgs 6:1–38; 2 Chr 3:1–17.

[30] For a description of the tabernacle, see Exod 26:1–37.

[31] Josephus, J.W. 5.188–212; J. H. Iliffe, “The Thanatos Inscription from Herod’s Temple,” QDAT 6 (1938): 1–3; Dan Bahat, “The Herodian Temple,” in The Cambridge History of Judaism, Vol 3: The Early Roman Period, ed. William Horbury, W. D. Davies, and John Sturdy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 45, 52, 57.

[32] Josephus, J.W. 5.209, 219.

[33] Josephus, J.W. 5.212–14.

[34] Daniel M. Gurtner, “LXX Syntax and the Identity of the NT Veil,” NovT 47 (2005): 344–47; Daniel M. Gurtner, The Torn Veil: Matthew’s Exposition of the Death of Jesus, SNTSMS 139 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 42–46, 70–71; Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 686 n. 243.

[35] Gurtner, “LXX Syntax,” 352; Gurtner, The Torn Veil, 5; Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 687–88.

[36] Ulrich Luz, Matthew 21–28, Herm (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), 561.

[37] Gurtner, “The Rending of the Veil (Matt 21:51a Par): A Look Back and a Way Forward,” Themelios 29 (2004): 7; Gurtner, “LXX Syntax,” 352.

[38] Davies and Allison, Matthew 19–28, 630–31.

[39] F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Ephesians: A Verse by Verse Exposition (London: Pickering and Inglis, 1961), 297–98; William Hendrickson, Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1967), 133; C. L. Mitton, Ephesians (London: Oliphants, 1972), 105–6; James E. Howard, “The Wall Broken: An Interpretation of Ephesians 2:11–22,” in Biblical Interpretation: Principles and Practices. Studies in Honor of Jack Pearl Lewis, ed. F. F. Kearley, E. P. Myers, and T. D. Hadley (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986), 303; C. McMahon, “The Wall is Gone!,” RevExp 93 (1996): 262; M. Y. MacDonald, Colossians and Ephesians, SP (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 2000), 244; M. Y. MacDonald, “The Politics of Identity in Ephesians,” JSNT 26 (2004): 434; Davies and Allison, Matthew 19–28, 684.

[40] Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, NAC 22 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1992), 421.

[41] R. T. France, Matthew: Evangelist and Teacher (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1985), 232.

[42] Gurtner, “LXX Syntax,” 352; Gurtner, The Torn Veil, 42–46, 70–71.

[43] Daniel M. Gurtner, “The Rending of the Veil,” 7; Daniel M. Gurtner, “The Veil of the Temple in History and Legend,” JETS 49 (2006): 112.

[44] Marinus de Jonge, “Mathew 27:51 in Early Christian Exegesis,” HTR 79 (1986), 67–79; Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 686.

[45] Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, reprint ed. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1993), 614; Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 686.

[46] Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 687.

[47] Morna Hooker, The Gospel According to St. Mark, BNTC (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1992), 378.

[48] Ben Witherington III, Matthew (Macon, GA: Smyth and Helwys, 2006), 521.

[49] Matt 23:16–17; 23:21; 23:35; 26:61; 27:5; 27:40; 27:51.

[50] Daniel M. Gurtner, “LXX Syntax,” 352.

[51] Harold W. Attridge, The Epistle to the Hebrews, Herm (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989), 286.

[52] See T. Benj. 9.3; Ephrem, Hymns on the Nativity 25.16; F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 246; Davies and Allison, Matthew 19–28, 630–31.

[53] Attridge, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 286.

[54] Heb 3:1–6; 9:1–10, 11–18.

[55] Heb 9:1–28.

[56] See Heb 6:9; 9; 10; Harold W. Attridge, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 284–87; John M. Scholer, Proleptic Priests: Priesthood in the Epistle to the Hebrews, JSNTSup 49 (Sheffield, JSOT Press, 1991), 201; David A. DeSilva, Perseverance in Gratitude: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Epistle “to the Hebrews” (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 336–37; Craig R. Koester, Hebrews: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, AB 36 (New York: Doubleday, 2001), 443–44; Luz, Matthew 21–28, 562–63.

[57] Blomberg, Matthew, 421.

[58] Josephus, J.W. 6.290–301.

[59] Tacitus, Hist. 5.13.

[60] Josephus, J.W. 6.290–301; Stephen Motyer, “The Rending of the Veil: A Markan Pentecost?,” NTS 33 (1987), 155–57; Blomberg, Matthew, 421.

[61] Josephus, J.W. 6.293–96; Tacitus, Hist. 5.13; b. Yoma 39b; y. Yoma 6 43c; Davies and Allison, Matthew 19–28, 630.

[62] Tessa Rajak, Josephus: The Historian and His Society, 2nd ed. (London: Duckworth, 2003), 22.

[63] Davies and Allison, Matthew 19–28, 134, 631, 632

[64] See m. Ber. 9:5; D. E. Nineham, Saint Mark (London: SCM, 1977), 304; Marcus J. Borg, Conflict, Holiness and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus (New York: Mellen, 1984), 171–72; Marcus J. Borg, Jesus: A New Vision (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987), 174–76; Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 499.

[65] E. Bammel, “The Poor and the Zealots,” in Jesus and the Politics of His Day, ed. E. Bammel and C. F. D. Moule (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 124–26; Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 497–98.

[66] Gurtner, The Torn Veil, 100; Witherington, Matthew, 521.

[67] Davies and Allison, Matthew 19–28, 630.

[68] Gurtner, The Torn Veil, 138–198.

[69] Gurtner, “The Veil of the Temple,” 112; Gurtner, “The Rending of the Veil,” 7; Gurtner, The Torn Veil, 178–79.

[70] Davies and Allison, Matthew 19–28, 632; Michael Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010), 185, 552–53.

[71] Raymond Johnson, The Function of the Resurrection of the Saints in Matthew 27:51–54, Reformed Academic Dissertations (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2019), 6–7, 81–92.

[72] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 1081–83; N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God 3 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 632–35.

[73] Gurtner, The Torn Veil, 201.

[74] On judgment, see Exod 10:21–23; Wis 17; Sib. Or. 4:56–58; 11:45; 2 Enoch 7:1–2; Gen. Rab. 28:1. On eschatological importance, see 4 Ezra 5:4–5; 7:38–42; LAB 3:10; Sib. Or. 3:800–4; T. Mos. 10:5; Pesiq. Rab Kah. 9:1; Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 685.

[75] Josephus, J.W. 6.299–300.

[76] Tacitus, Hist. 5.13.

[77] Tacitus, Hist. 5.13.

[78] Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 685.

[79] Davies and Allison, Matthew 19–28, 632.

[80] Eric Adler, “Was Jesus Crucified During a Solar Eclipse?,” Miami Herald, 7 August 2017,

[81] Blomberg, Matthew, 420–21.

[82] Luz, Matthew 21–28, 562–63; Timothy J. Harris, “Distinctive Features of the Gospels,” in The Content and Setting of the Gospel Tradition, ed. Mark Harding and Alanna Nobbs (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 309.

[83] Howard Clark Kee, Miracle in the Early Christian World: A Study in Sociohistorical Method (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), 189; R. T. France, Matthew, TNTC 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 400; Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 684; Davies and Allison, Matthew 19–28, 632.

[84] Origen, Cels. 3.15; Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 9.7.8–9.

[85] Johnson, I See Dead People, 3–7, 81–92.

[86] Donald Hagner, Matthew 14–28, WBC 33B (Nashville: Nelson, 1995), 850–52; Witherington, Matthew, 522.

[87] Donald Senior, “The Death of Jesus and the Resurrection of the Holy Ones,” CBQ 38 (1976): 312–29; J. W. Wenham, “When Were the Saints Raised?,” JTS 32 (1981): 150–52; Blomberg, Matthew, 421.

[88] Ignatius, Magn. 9.

[89] Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 3.36.

[90] Timothy D. Barnes, “The Date of Ignatius,” ExpTim 120 (2008): 119–30; Richard I. Pervo, The Making of Paul: Constructions of the Apostle in Early Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010), 134–35.

[91] Adam: LAE 42.2; Gk. Apoc. Ezra 7.1–2; Eastern Orthodox icons of the resurrection (which also feature Eve). Moses: Armenian History of Moses. Job: T. Job subscript, ms. V (contrast Job 42.17a LXX). Simeon and his sons (Luke 2): Acts of Pilate 17.1; Davies and Allison, Matthew 19–28, 633.

[92] Davies and Allison, Matthew 19–28, 632.

[93] Davies and Allison, Matthew 19–28, 632 n. 120.

[94] Denis Baly, The Geography of the Bible (New York: Harper and Row, 1974), 25.

[95] Cassius Dio, Roman History 68.25.1, 2, 5.

[96] Davies and Allison, Matthew 19–28, 635–36.

[97] Leon Morris, Luke: An Introduction and Commentary, TNTC 3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 26.

[98] Graham N. Stanton, A Gospel for a New People: Studies in Matthew (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1992), 378; France, Matthew: Evangelist and Teacher, 102–8; Rick Melick, “Why There Are Four Gospels,” in Harmony of the Gospels, ed. Steven L. Cox and Kendell H. Easley (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2007), 10–11.

[99] Luz, Matthew 21–28, 562–63.

[100] Barbara Levick, Tiberius the Politician (London: Routledge, 1976), 102.

[101] Among the Jews, see m. Sota 9:15; p. ‘Abod. Zar. 3:1, 2; Pesiq. Rab Kah. 27:1; Gen. Rab. 49:4; 62:4; Gustaf Dalman, Jesus-Jeshua: Studies in the Gospels (New York: Macmillan, 1929), 200. Among the Romans, see Cicero, De Re Publ. 6.22; Virgil, Georg. 1.472–90; Ovid, Fast. 2.493; Metam. 11.44–47; Pliny the Elder, Nat. 2.30.97; Josephus, Ant. 14.309; Plutarch, Rom. 27; Caes. 69; Cassius Dio, Roman History 51.17.4–5; 60.30.1; Raymond E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah: From Gethsemane to Grave: A Commentary on the Passion Narratives in the Four Gospels, ABRL (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 1114.

[102] Virgil, Georg. 1.472–90.

[103] Plutarch, Caes. 69.

[104] Morris, Luke, 26.

[105] Matt 3:2; 5:47; 28:16–20.

[106] Harris, “Distinctive Features of the Gospels,” 305.

[107] Ivor H. Jones, The Gospel of Matthew, Epworth Commentaries (London: Epworth, 2003), 169.

[108] Alfred Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Commentary According to St. Luke, ICC (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1896), 539; Morris, The Gospel According to St. Luke, 330; Blomberg, Matthew, 422.

[109] See Cassius Dio, Roman History 58.5.1–11.7.

[110] Tacitus, Ann. 6.6–8.

[111] Tacitus, Ann. 6.1–7.

[112] Tacitus, Ann. 6.13–19.

[113] Tacitus, Ann. 6.18–19.

Daryn Graham

Daryn Graham is a PhD graduate from Macquarie University and lives in Sydney, Australia.

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