Some time ago I was talking to my friend about historical evidences for what the events in the New Testament. One of his biggest challenges was that of the account in Matthew in regards to Christ’s death. In Matthew’s account, he records there was a great earthquake that damaged the temple and that the temple curtain was torn in two. My friends objection was that such a significant event should have some sort of secular, extra-biblical accounts backing it up. So, accepting his challenge I went off and did my research.
What I came across is striking. Of course, there is hardly any physical evidence that would actually entirely prove the entirety of the Bible. Nor can I say that this one piece of evidence completely supports all of the Gospels – that would be jumping to unjustifiable conclusions. Take a look at the evidence for yourself, however. I bolded what is particularly shocking about my research. It is either another huge coincidence – or Biblically accurate – that there was an earthquake that damaged the temple in 33 A.D (the same year we believe Jesus was crucified), is it not?
Below you will find the original text, a leading commentary on the text, and the research it led me to (with that research’s citations).
And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, 53 and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. 54 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!”
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 27:51–54.
Matthew’s characteristic And look (see on 1:20) makes for a vivid introduction to what follows, as the Evangelist goes on to speak of some unusual happenings that accompanied the death of Jesus. He starts with the temple and speaks of the curtain, which appears to mean the curtain that separated the holy of holies, into which even the priests might not go (except the high priest, and he only one day in the year), from the holy place, into which only the priests might go (most interpreters accept this view, for the meaning is surely that by the death of Jesus the way into the holiest has been opened). Alternatively it might signify the curtain that separated the holy place to which priests had access from the adjoining court to which lay Israelite men were admitted (McNeile favors this view on the grounds that it must have been visible to people in general and not only to the priests; Ridderbos also thinks of this curtain). Either way the thought is of judgment on the temple, and Matthew is indicating that symbolically the way into the holy place was opened by the death of Jesus (cf. Heb. 10:19–20). He emphasizes this truth by saying that the curtain was torn in two from top to bottom, which indicates more than a minor tear. He is speaking of a bisected curtain, a curtain that no longer functioned to keep what lay on the other side of it a secret from all those outside. Religion was never to be the same now that Jesus the Messiah had died for sinners. This phenomenon, Matthew says, was accompanied by an earthquake, the earth being shaken and the rocks split. He leaves his readers in no doubt that what had happened was no minor event, but, in the literal sense of the word, earth-shaking.
Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Inter-Varsity Press, 1992), 724.
The footnote for this commentary reads:
For earthquakes in the Jerusalem area see ISBE, II, pp. 4–5; this article refers to an earthquake that damaged the temple in A.D. 33. In the Talmud we read that the doors of the temple opened by themselves forty years before the destruction of the city (Yoma 39b). Allen cites this passage and others from Josephus and Jerome, and says, “A cleavage in the masonry of the porch, which rent the outer veil and left the Holy Place open to view, would account for the language of the Gospels, of Josephus, and of the Talmud.”
Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Inter-Varsity Press, 1992).
The Encyclopedia (the ISBE mentioned in the above footnote), with Seismology and Geography citations
EARTHQUAKE [Heb ra˓aš; Gk seismós]; AV, NEB, also RUSHING. A shaking of the earth’s crust, usually a tectonic activity of variable intensity. Egypt is relatively free from this hazard, but the area from Greece to Iran is especially vulnerable, as many catastrophes in the area indicate: a quake in Iran in the spring of 1972 took four thousand lives, and two decades earlier Greece suffered severely. Palestine is at the edge of this quake-prone area, the center of which lies in Turkey.
In the past two millennia Palestine has had seventeen recorded quakes of major proportions, an average of slightly less than one in each century. Amos alluded to one in his day (ca 760 B.C.): “two years before the earthquake” (Am. 1:1). Josephus (Ant. xv.5.2) reported the loss of ten thousand lives in a quake in 31 B.C., the effects of which may still be seen in the steps of a cistern constructed by the Qumrân community near the Dead Sea. On Jan. 1, 1837, an earthquake centered in Safat took nearly five thousand lives. Another, centered in Nâblus, resulted in the loss of 350 lives in 1927. The Ludd-Ramla area is also subject to earthquakes.
It is believed that the source of the major quakes is the Jordan or rift-valley. Antioch in Syria has often been an epicenter. Jerusalem is relatively free from severe quakes (though it seems to have been hit more frequently by small ones). A quake in 64 B.C. damaged the temple in Jerusalem, as did another in A.D. 33. This may have coincided with the disturbance mentioned at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion (Mt. 27:54; 28:2).
In addition to the major quakes reported above, seismic activity has been recorded in many places since NT times. A severe quake hit central Palestine in A.D. 130, and in 365 the fortress at Kerak in Transjordan was severely damaged. Severe shocks were experienced at Imwas in 498, at Acco in 502, in Galilee in 551, and at Jerusalem in 746. In 1016 the cupola of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem collapsed. The quake in 1033 was very severe and widespread. In 1546 and again in 1834 severe damage was done to the domes of both the Holy Sepulchre and the Dome of the Rock. Earthquakes dammed the Jordan River (as perhaps in the time of Joshua) at Damiya in 1546 and again in 1927; the latter shock left 860 dead.
The number of casualties normally depends not so much on the severity of the quake as on its location; when populated areas are hit, as at Safat in 1837, the loss of life is far more extensive than if the quake occurs in open country. Obviously buildings constructed of earth or stone are much more liable to damage than structures of wood, steel, or reinforced concrete.
The Bible sometimes refers to earthquakes as accompanying divine revelation (Ex. 19:18; 1 K. 19:11f; Isa. 6:4) or demonstrating God’s power (Job 9:6) and presence (Ps. 68:8 [MT 9]) or divine judgments (Ps. 18:7 [MT 8]; Nah. 1:5; Isa. 13:13; 29:6; Am. 9:1; Ezk. 38:19f; cf. Zec. 14:5). An earth tremor sufficed to free Paul and Silas at a very opportune time (Acts 16:26). Earthquakes are predicted to precede the end of the age (Mt. 24:7; Mk. 13:8; Lk. 21:11; Rev. 6:12; 8:5; 11:13, 19; 16:18).
Bibliography.—D. H. K. Amiran, IEJ, 1 (1950/51), 223–246; C. F. Richter, Elementary Seismology (1958); E. J. Arieh, Geological Survey of Israel, 43 (1967), 1–14; Encyclopedia Judaica, VI, sv; D. P. McKenzie, Nature (London), 226 (1970), 237–243.