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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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EARTHQUAKE.—Palestine abounds in traces of seismic and volcanic action. From the region of the Dead Sea northward along the Jordan valley and as far as Damascus the whole country must have been visited by tremendous earthquakes in prehistoric ages. Mention of several is made in the OT, sometimes coupled with significant reference to serious disaster and widespread alarm caused by them (1 Samuel 14:15, Amos 1:1, Zechariah 14:5 etc.). Regarded as supernatural visitations, signs of the times, they produced a deep impression.

Five times in the Gospels the noun σεισμός (fr. σείω, ‘to shake’) is used of an earthquake (Matthew 24:7; Matthew 27:54; Matthew 28:2, Mark 13:8, Luke 21:11), and once (Matthew 27:51) the idea is expressed by the phrase ἡ γῆ ἐσεισθη (Authorized and Revised Versions ‘the earth did quake’). In LXX Septuagint σεισμός (or συνσεισμος) is employed to render רִעִשׁ of the original. Though specifically applied to an earthquake, σεισμός properly has a wider connotation: thus in Matthew 8:24 it is used of a tempest (σεισμὸς μέγας ἑγένετο ἑν τῆ θαλασσκ). Hence Alford thinks that in Matthew 28:2 it denotes not an earthquake, but the ‘shock’ produced by the rolling away of the stone from the sepulchre.

1. Recorded earthquakes.—Of these there are two, namely, the earthquakes at the Crucifixion and the Resurrection (Matthew 27:51; Matthew 27:54; Matthew 28:2). The historicity of these earthquakes is disputed. St. Matthew alone mentions them; St. Mark (Mark 15:33; Mark 15:38) and St. Luke (Luke 23:44 f.), in agreement with St. Matthew in regard to the darkness and the rending of the veil, apparently know nothing of an earthquake at the Crucifixion [the Fourth Gospel has no allusion to any of the portents], and they are equally silent in the case of the Resurrection. Plummer (‘St. Luke’ in Internat. Crit. Com.) quotes a statement in the Gemara that some forty years before the destruction of Jerusalem the heavy gates of the temple were mysteriously flung open about midnight at the Passover; but it would seem that sufficient evidence of earthquake shocks being felt in or near Jerusalem at the date in question is wanting. Probably a legendary element must be recognized in the passages under consideration. At the same time it should be borne in mind that the circumstance narrated is ‘not in itself incredible’ (Cary, Synop. Gospels). Earthquakes are frequently accompanied by a ‘strange, bewildering darkness’ (Plumptre, Bibl. Studies), and if shocks did then take place they would naturally be interpreted of the ‘sympathy of nature.’ (Cf. Corn. a Lap.: ‘The earth, which trembled with horror at the death of Christ, as it were leaped with joy at the Resurrection’).

2. Predicted earthquakes.—Matthew 24:7, Mark 13:8, Luke 21:11. The question arises, Do the Synoptists here preserve ipsissima verba of our Lord? It must be remembered that ‘a generation and a half … bad passed between the events and the telling of the tale’ (F. C. Burkitt); hence a possibility that the eschatological discourses as reported are coloured by events which had already taken place when the narratives were compiled. On the assumption that the predictions were uttered by Jesus, account should be taken of the fact that they are clothed in the language of current Messianic expectation. The setting up of the Kingdom was at hand; it would be consequent on that national disaster which, looming in the near future, would be presaged by phenomena in which men saw the dread precursors of catastrophe. And this actually came about: between the Crucifixion and the destruction of Jerusalem the earthquake was frequent; the earth was a prey to the most violent convulsions (Godet, St. Mat. p. 149; Renan, L’Antichrist, ch. xiv.).

Literature.—Gilbert, Student’s Life of Jesus; Schürer, HJP [Note: JP History of the Jewish People.] , see Index; Gould, ‘St. Mark’ in Internat. Crit. Com.; Cary, ‘The Synoptic Gospels’ in Internat. Handbooks to NT.

H. L. Jackson.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Earthquake'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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