Art of Reason – Ancient earthquakes

The inability to understand what makes a good argument, and the inability to critique arguments is one of the key ingredients in miscommunication and the tendency to become argumentative. As described previously, good arguments help keep the tempers down. In order to develop a sense for logical glitches it helps to examine bad arguments to see where they go wrong. This is something else I would like to explore through my blog. The first “Art of Reason” example comes from a Christian website so I cannot be accused of deliberately making non-Christians look bad.

By the way, I intend to mix up my Tuesday posts a bit. I’ve been focusing on debriefing conversations so we can all learn from them, but I’ll start diversifying the content a little bit. “Art of Reason” will be one of the themes I use to diversify.

This one has a bit of history to it. Some time ago there was a bit of a tiff going on between a couple of Christian scholars. Norm Geisler and Mike Licona were having a difference of opinion with respect to how to understand this passage:

And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split.

(Mat 27:51 ESV)

The claim is made that there was an earthquake at the time of Jesus’ death. Now the question that has stumped scholars for quite some time is whether that entire passage (verses 51-53) was meant to be understood as describing actual events, or whether it was the kind of apocalyptic language used by Jews that was never meant to be understood literally. In other words, was Matthew writing in such a way that his audience would have understood that these were real events, or was he writing in a kind of “it’s raining cats and dogs” style where it was obvious to his audience that he was expressing the magnitude of what had happened using metaphor?

This issue apparently turned rather heated at one Christian convention. Dr. Licona came down on the side of “apocalyptic” and Dr. Geisler came down on the side of “literal.” Harsh words were exchanged, articles written, videos produced, etc. Honestly, I don’t have the stomach for Christian political in-fighting so I didn’t keep track of most of it. If you care to look into it yourself I’m sure a couple of internet searches will bring you up to speed.

During the course of all this discussion, though, I happened upon an interesting article entitled, “The Exact Date that Christ was Crucified Discovered by Looking at Seismic Activity.” The opening line of the article is a quote from another article that read,

The geological survey, published in the International Geology Review, suggests that Christ was crucified on Friday, April 3, in the year 33.

Now you need to know a little more background information in order to understand why this surprised me. Scholars are fairly evenly divided (so I’m told) on whether Jesus was crucified in AD 30 or AD 33. What’s interesting – and I learned this from Dr. Craig Evans when he visited Calgary for a presentation several years back – is that scholars have reason to believe it is either the one year or the other; this is not a range! In other words, historically there are reasons to believe Jesus died in AD 30 and there are reasons to believe he died in AD 33, but there are no reasons to believe he died in AD 31, for instance.

So this geological discovery would seem to answer two questions in one fell swoop.

  1. It would confirm that there was, in fact, a literal earthquake at the time of Jesus’ death.
  2. It would settle the issue of whether Jesus died in AD 30 or AD 33.

If true, that is no small discovery!

Back to the Geisler/Licona tiff, though, the Credo House article was obviously written by somebody who sided with Geisler because the article includes a friendly jab, “Mike Licona, care to comment?” Indeed, a discovery like this would seem to pretty much settle the issue, wouldn’t it?

Well, here’s where we put on our thinking caps and use our critical thinking spidey-senses. The first thing that jumped out at me was using geological data to establish the exact date of an earthquake that occurred roughly 2000 years ago. I could believe that they could narrow it down to the closest century, or maybe even a couple of decades, but to pinpoint the exact year down to the exact date? That seemed suspicious. We’ll get back to that in a minute.

Secondly, though, assuming they have pinpointed the precise date, and assuming it is, in fact, April 3, 33 AD, that does not actually establish that Jesus died on that date. He could have died in AD 30 (the other possible date) and there was an earthquake three years later. Mind you, if the options are April 3 in either AD 30 or AD 33 and there was an earthquake on precisely April 3 AD 33 and the Bible reports an earthquake at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, that coincidence would seem pretty compelling to believe that we have not only established the date of the crucifixion and proven that the passage under consideration was meant to be taken literally, not as apocalyptic literature.

But, that brings us to the question of whether the date was really established with that level of precision. The Credo House article links to another “read more here” link. That brings us to a Christian Post article. It does not add significantly more detail; it just provides a little more background. However, there was a very interesting claim in there, “… the best match for the date of crucifixion would be Friday, April 3, 33.” Well, hold on a second, “best match” suggests some ambiguity in the results. This means, obviously, that the data does not establish the exact date, but there would be some range. I alluded to this earlier. Are we talking a couple of weeks leeway? A month or two?

Poking around on the internet brings us to the Bible History Daily website and this article. At the bottom of the article is an update received from the author of the original geological article. He writes,

I am the primary author of the research article and the original Discovery Article grossly misrepresented our work… Our article had very little to do with the date of the crucifixion. The article discussed Earthquake Geology and primarily how we arrived at a date for this earthquake (31 AD +/- 5 years).

That does paint a very different picture, doesn’t it? The earthquake could have been anywhere from AD 26 to AD 36. So back to the two questions that this earthquake evidence was supposed to answer.

  1. This certainly does not confirm that there was a literal earthquake at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. The earth quake could have been in AD 28, for instance; at least 2 years, and at most 5 years away from Jesus’ crucifixion.
  2. This certainly does not settle the date of the crucifixion. Given that the earthquake not only covers, but extends several years beyond the range of possible dates, this offers no confirmation about the precise date of the crucifixion.

The caution of the authors in the update at the Bible History Daily is well warranted. On the other side of the discussion, then, to answer Credo House I imagine Mike Licona would probably say something along the lines of, “never believe the headlines.” I’ve mentioned before that the media tends to enjoy sensationalism – the truth is rarely as interesting as the headline reads. In this case the Credo House gave us a good illustration of why we need to dig around to make sure the foundation of our argument actually supports the point we are making. Is the evidence really in our favour? In other words, do your homework!

On the flip side, let’s not make another error in all this. Just because this geological data does not establish the date of the crucifixion, nor does it prove that an earthquake occurred at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, both dates are still historical possibilities and it still remains possible that there was an earthquake. Frankly there simply is no conclusive data in here. The only real conclusion that we can draw is that the region of the world in which Jesus was crucified experienced earthquakes around the time that Jesus was crucified. This is something worth considering, really, because if the claim was made that there was an earthquake at the time of his crucifixion but he lived in a part of the world that was not seismically active at the time of his crucifixion then that might give us reason to believe that the Matthew passage was apocalyptic.

As it stands, though, the debate is just as unsettled now as it was prior to the publication of the geological report.

As a final note, I hope nobody reads this as an attack on Credo House. Part of what I try to get at with Arguing with Friends is the idea that we can disagree with people while still holding them in high respect and making sure our disagreements are respectful. I believe this little article I just wrote was written with the utmost respect – I made sure there was nothing derogatory or disrespectful – and I hope it illustrates the cordial nature of civil disagreements. I appreciate the work Credo House is doing, and I have appreciated the work of both Dr. Geisler and Dr. Licona in the past as well.

Have you seen some flawed arguments used by others? Let me know so we can all learn from them together.


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