A Pandect of Gripes: Crucifixions, Earthquakes, Open Access, and Outreach

Okay … this one hit the internets yesterday and I’ve been nursing vipers in my breast ever since. It begins with an item at Discovery Newswhich begins thusly:

The front side (recto) of Papyrus 1, a New Tes...
The front side (recto) of Papyrus 1, a New Testament manuscript of the Gospel of Matthew. Most likely originated in Egypt. Also part of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri (P. oxy. 2) Currently housed in: (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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. […]

… I won’t bother getting into my abject disappointment that Discovery News could not even think of the obvious major difficulties of assigning an exact date to an otherwise unspecifically-dated ancient earthquake (although we will note that April 3 is one of the calculated dates for the crucifixion which we annually mention in our This Day in Ancient History feature; it is mentioned in Wikipedia as well). I also won’t bother commenting on all the various text-critical difficulties with the claim, which seems more the realm of our Biblioblogger colleagues and has been more-than-adequately dealt with by Mark Goodacre and Tom Verenna.

What actually bothered me the most about this was that it was yet another article with an ancient history sort of bent published in a high end journal outside of our field. They way I figure it, the publisher (Taylor and Francis) must have sent the article out as a way to promote the current issue of the journal — I really have a hard time believing that journalists sit around and suddenly think, “Hmmm … seems to be a slow day … think I’ll wander to the library and see what’s happening in the latest International Geology Review … I can’t wait to see the followup to that middle Cenozoic ignimbrite flareup thing I was reading about a while ago.” So it seems obvious that the publisher sent it out.

As such,  if some roguescholar wants to see if the journalist is passing on sufficient information for the author of the article not to be ridiculed and happens to check it out, he/she will come across a nice abstract:

This article examines a report in the 27th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament that an earthquake was felt in Jerusalem on the day of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. We have tabulated a varved chronology from a core from Ein Gedi on the western shore of the Dead Sea between deformed sediments due to a widespread earthquake in 31 BC and deformed sediments due to an early first-century earthquake. The early first-century seismic event has been tentatively assigned a date of 31 AD with an accuracy of ±5 years. Plausible candidates include the earthquake reported in the Gospel of Matthew, an earthquake that occurred sometime before or after the crucifixion and was in effect ‘borrowed’ by the author of the Gospel of Matthew, and a local earthquake between 26 and 36 AD that was sufficiently energetic to deform the sediments at Ein Gedi but not energetic enough to produce a still extant and extra-biblical historical record. If the last possibility is true, this would mean that the report of an earthquake in the Gospel of Matthew is a type of allegory.

… which seems to suggest that there might indeed be some disconnect between the Discovery News article and the original journal article. Of course, if further perusal is wanted by the likes of myself), he/she will have to shell out $43.00!!!! (I really need to figure out how to put interrobangs in my posts). If not, one would have to hope to have access to an institution which was willing to fork out over two grand for an annual subscription (I don’t think regular folks can even subscribe)! Personally, if I were a scholar and some journal was promoting my article to get attention for their journal, I’d be doing all I could to ensure that the people to whom the article was being promoted — i.e. the general public — could access the article so I didn’t come across looking silly, unless I don’t know any better.

What’s even more annoying is the viral nature of the internet news cycle. The Discovery News coverage has already been picked up/is being rewritten by a number of other outlets (e.g. the Daily Mail and Huffington Post) Whatever the case, all this silliness merely emphasizes/underscores/insert-the-synonym-of-your-choice what I was suggesting earlier this week about the need for organizations like the APA and CAC to  forge direct ties with journalists to promote conferences (Something That’s Been Bugging Me: Outreach II ~ The Conference).  Give the journalist something to write about and they’ll run with it.

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