More Nonsense from Discovery: Day of Jesus’ Crucifixion

File this under ‘stupid claims Discovery made’:

Jesus, as described in the New Testament, was most likely crucified on Friday April 3, 33 A.D.

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.

Once more Discovery’s craptastic policy ‘if it mentions Jesus, print it’ has bit them in the pants.  That no one bothers to fact-check these claims with credible historians is tragic.

Mark Goodacre beat me to the punch this morning and already dealt with the discrepancies in the report, clearly showing that someone behind this report doesn’t know their Bible (which is sort of important, one would think, since they seem to want to prove it is reliable):

The “all four gospels” is the kind of thing that might sound impressive to someone not acquainted with scholarship on the Gospels because it gives the impression of multiple independent attestation.  However, it is consensus in New Testament scholarship that Matthew and Luke knew Mark and were dependent upon Mark for their crucifixion narratives, so this is not independent attestation.  Views differ a little on John, but many (like me) think that John knew the Synoptics too.

The first three bulletpoints are taken over from the article by Humphreys and Waddington, which also uses the rhetoric of “all four gospels”.  The latter two bullet points contain errors.  The Synoptics appear to place the death of Jesus on the day of Passover, 15 Nisan, and not on 14th.  They depict Jesus engaging in the Passover meal at sunset, when the day begins, and being crucified that same day.  John does indeed differ from the Synoptics, but not in the way claimed here.  John depicts Jesus’ death as occurring not on the day of Passover (15th), but on the day before (14th).  So either Williams is confused or the journalist is confused or both.

Typically, the same errors are taken over without any checking in other versions of the report, e.g. the Daily Mail.

Mark’s conclusion is perhaps most appropriate:

To take Matthew’s “earthquake” as a geological report is to misread his account.  The story he is presenting here is one of those that very few New Testament scholars would take seriously as history.  It’s even read with caution by the most conservative scholars, and for good reason.  The Discovery report ends its quotation of Matt. 27.51-2 with the tombs opening, but Matthew goes on to recount what some people call the Zombie Pericope, when bodies come out of the tombs, walk around and meet people.  This is not history but legend.

Indeed, the article makes a point to show multiple attestation of certain events, but the day it proposes to have discovered–the day of crucifixion–based upon a particular event–the earthquake–is not multiply attested, though this is never explained in the article (which also seems like an important detail).

This is rather important.  I’m glad Mark left open some room to discuss why scholars don’t consider this history.  What is most important is, as Mark aptly states, first recognizing that the Gospel authors were not independent witnesses or sources; Luke and Matthew used Mark and John probably used the synoptic gospels to create his own narrative.  Incidentally, the passion narratives best represent this dependence upon one another.  It is easy to demonstrate and I’ll do so below using just the synoptic gospels.

Mark’s gospel portrays the events of Jesus’ death in a subtle manner (at least, more subtle than the others).  Jesus dies and is buried and that is pretty much it.  Jesus’ tomb is found empty the day after the Sabbath, but there is no great commission, no visitations by Jesus–those who went to the tomb the next day are met by a child clothed in white who tells them the tomb is empty and then they flee.   I would here argue that this motif is actually an allegory for the destruction of the temple, where the tomb represents the destroyed temple and the boy represents the ‘coming up of the holy ones’; the scene is a possible intertextual reference to Zech. 14:2-5:

I will gather all the nations to Jerusalem to fight against it; the city will be captured, the houses ransacked, and the women raped. Half of the city will go into exile, but the rest of the people will not be taken from the city. Then the Lord will go out and fight against those nations, as he fights on a day of battle. On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives will be split in two from east to west, forming a great valley, with half of the mountain moving north and half moving south. You will flee by my mountain valley, for it will extend to Azel. You will flee as you fled from the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah. Then the Lord my God will come, and all the holy ones with him.

Matthew and Luke expand upon this story in common myth-making fashion.  But it seems as though they recognized the reference and built upon it in their own way.

At Jesus’ death Matthew adds the earthquake (cf. Zech. 14:5), the tearing of the veil in the temple (cf. Zech. 14:4), and the saints rising from the grave (cf. Zech. 14:5). After Jesus is buried, after the Sabbath, the tomb is again approached by followers (specifically two women: Mary and the “other Mary”).  There is another earthquake and Mark’s boy in white is now, through the process of myth-making, a full-blown angel, who descends from above and rolls back the stone and sits on top of it.  He tells the women to enter the tomb and see that jesus is risen, and then Matthew includes visitations by Jesus to followers and a great commission.

Luke does not bother with the earthquake or the saints rising in zombie-like fashion, but he does include the tearing of the veil and adds, for all its theological worth, the darkening of the sun (cf. Zech. 14:6-7) showing once more that Luke understood Mark’s original theological imitation of the Hebrew Bible.

Following Jesus’ burial, on the first day of the week, followers approach and find the tomb already opened.  This time Luke portrays them entering the tomb first, prior to any visitation.  Then when they find it empty, Mark’s simple boy in white and Matthew’s single angel are now rewritten as two men is dazzling white garments.  In this narrative, when the women return to explain the events at the tomb to the disciples, they refuse to believe until they go there and see it for themselves.  Along with this there are additional visitations (like the road to Emmaus which has a similar feel to the visitations by Romulus to Proculus).

John’s version is even more mythologized than the others, showing clearly (in my opinion) that he was aware of previous gospel narratives and used them to rewrite his own version of the events, as the other authors had done. But John does not include an earthquake; instead he shows his recognition of the motif and allegory in Mark and the other two gospels by writing that Jesus’ side was pierced, and that from the wound poured “blood and water”, reminiscent of the verse:

On that day living water will flow out from Jerusalem, half of it east to the Dead Sea and half of it west to the Mediterranean Sea, in summer and in winter. (Zech. 14:8)

The value of this narrative is not in its historical core, which there is none–there was no worldwide darkness (otherwise everyone on the planet forgot to mention that this happened except Luke), not even a darkness in Jerusalem, no earthquake the author is referencing, no dead rising from the graves.  The value is the theological and political significance.  That may not make some people comfortable, but as they say, critical scholarship doesn’t exist to ease comfort.


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  1. […] More Nonsense from Discovery: Day of Jesus’ Crucifixion […]

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