Jewish War Quake

68 AD

by Jefferson Williams

Introduction     Textual Evidence     Archeoseismic Evidence     Paleoseismic Evidence     Notes     Paleoclimate - Droughts     Footnotes    References


In the midst of the first Jewish War against Rome in 68 CE, Jewish Historian Josephus discusses a storm in Jerusalem that thundered through the night creating percussions which he describes as being "in an earthquake". The text seems to suggest that the "bellowings of the earth" were due to a storm but paleoseismic evidence in the Dead Sea erroneously attributed to the too far away Sibyl earthquake of 76 – 81 AD matches well with this date (68 CE). This earthquake is not listed in any prior catalog

Textual Evidence

In his book the Jewish War, Josephus recounts the following in 68 CE (Book IV Ch 4 Paragraph 5)
And now did the Idumeans make an acclamation to what Simon had said; but Jesus went away sorrowful, as seeing that the Idumeans were against all moderate counsels, and that the city was besieged on both sides. Nor indeed were the minds of the Idumeans at rest; for they were in a rage at the injury that had been offered them by their exclusion out of the city; and when they thought the zealots had been strong, but saw nothing of theirs to support them, they were in doubt about the matter, and many of them repented that they had come thither. But the shame that would attend them in case they returned without doing any thing at all, so far overcame that their repentance, that they lay all night before the wall, though in a very bad encampment; for there broke out a prodigious storm in the night, with the utmost violence, and very strong winds, with the largest showers of rain, with continued lightnings, terrible thunderings, and amazing concussions and bellowings of the earth, that was in an earthquake. These things were a manifest indication that some destruction was coming upon men, when the system of the world was put into this disorder; and any one would guess that these wonders foreshowed some grand calamities that were coming.
The historical backdrop for this excerpt is the Zealot Temple Siege in Jerusalem which took place in the midst of the First Jewish War against Rome (~66-~73 CE). As Josephus was an eyewitness to many of the events of this time, the date for this event is well fixed at 68 CE. However, the text may suggest that Josephus was describing rumblings from a violent storm.

Archeoseismic Evidence

Western Wall Tunnel in Jerusalem

Onn et. al. (2011) report earthquake damage at a pier under Wilson's Arch adjacent to the Western Wall Plaza by Temple Mount which they presume to be due to an earthquake in 33 CE although exact chronological dating of this event isn’t certain. The date is constrained by the endpoints of the approximate completion of the Herodian Temple rebuilding project and the destruction of the Second Temple by then Roman General Titus in 70 CE. Although the 70 CE endpoint is known with certainty, the end of the Herodian rebuilding project is not. The New Testament Gospel of John places this in ~27 CE [15] however Dan Bahat (personal communication, 2018) relates than in his work on excavations on the Western Wall Tunnels, he saw evidence that the rebuilding project was never fully completed. Josephus (Book VI Ch 11 Paragraph 3) relates foundation failures during the Temple rebuilding project that were not fixed until the time of Nero [16] who ruled from 54-68 ACE. Josephus (Book XX Ch 9 Paragraph 7) further states that the Temple was not “finished” until 62-64 ACE [17] when the Roman Procurator Albinus ruled. Although these indicate that construction work on the Temple continued for many decades, it is probable that the Temple itself was likely completed around the time stated by the New Testament Gospel of John as an apparently intact and functioning Temple is described in both the Talmud and the canonical New Testament Gospels in the years surrounding ~30 CE.

The relevant section in Onn et. al. (2011) states

Strata 15–13. The Second Temple Period: The Late Construction Phase

The beginning of this phase (Stratum 15) is related to the expansion of the Temple Mount during Herod’s reign and it continues until the destruction of the city in 70 CE (Figs. 13, 14). Extensive building activity occurred at the foot of the Temple Mount’s western wall at this time and Wilson’s Arch (Building C; see Fig. 3) is the principal structure belonging to this phase. The arch is part of an ‘interchange’ that is similar in its general shape to the ‘interchange’ at Robinson’s Arch. At some point in time, which cannot be dated with certainty (Stratum 14), destruction that resulted in the collapse of building stones with drafted margins (known as Herodian stones) had occurred. So far, this collapse has been documented near the Wilson’s Arch pier. The destruction can be ascribed to an earthquake that struck Jerusalem in the year 31 BCE, or more likely, in the years 30 or 33 CE; it may have been caused by some other, unknown reason. Subsequent to this earthquake event, construction was resumed and the damaged buildings were repaired (Stratum 13). The tops of the walls in Halls 21 and 23 of Building B were completed and new vaulted roofs were placed above them. Toward the end of this phase (Stratum 13), plastered installations were added, several of which have been identified as ritual baths in the vaulted spaces (C) of Wilson’s Arch ‘interchange’ and at the top of Foundation Wall A.
Another seismic possibility for the damage reported by Onn et. al. (2011) is the Jewish War Quake of 68 AD however since the Jewish War against Rome was in effect at that time, it seems unlikely that the subsequent building repairs (Stratum 13) would have been completed under such conditions. Regev et al (2020) performed radiocarbon dating and microarcheology on northern and southern piers under Wilson's Arch and reported radiocarbon dates of 20 BCE - 20 CE for the northern pier and drainage channel and 30 - 60 CE for the southern pier (Regev et al, 2020: 9, 13). This would associate the northern pier with the original Herodian rebuilding project and the southern pier with a southerly expansion initiated sometime after ~30 CE of the Bridge associated with Wilson's Arch. Given the earthquake damage present under this bridge, this bridge expansion suggests it was also a repair. Repairs can be indicators of a reaction to seismic damage. Thus it seems probable but not certain that the Jerusalem Quake (of the sediments) caused this seismic bridge damage.

Paleoseismic Evidence

Paleoseismic Evidence for an earthquake around 68 AD is summarized below:

Location Status
En Feshka possible - 1 cm. thick microbreccia
En Gedi possible - 0.4 cm. thick seismite
Nahal Ze 'elim possible - 4 cm. thick intraclast breccia
Taybe Trench possible
Qatar Trench Jordan no events seen around this date

Each site will now be discussed separately.

Dead Sea

En Feshka
In Table 3 of Kagan et. al. (2011) list a 1 cm. thick microbreccia seismite at a depth of 338 cm. which they dated to between 25 and 100 AD (1 σ). They listed the 33 AD earthquake (ie the Jerusalem Quake) as the most likely candidate although they also suggested the 76 AD Sybil Quake as a second possibility. However, the Sybil Quake was too far away to have created a Dead Sea seismite. The potentially dubious 68 CE Jewish War Quake might be a better second possibility.

En Gedi Core (DSEn)
In Table 2 of Migowski et. al. (2004) there is a thin seismite (0.4 cm. thickness) at a depth of 268 cm. (2.68 m) which was assigned a date of 76 CE based on the Sybil Earthquake which had an epicenter near Cyprus. The 76 date assignment is unlikely since En Gedi is too far from Cyprus to expect such an earthquake to leave a seismite. If Williams et. al. (2012) analysis of the uncertainty in Migowski's date assignments can be extended to this 76 CE date assignment, Migowski et al (2004) identified a seismite formed in 76 CE +/- 9 - i.e. between 67 CE and 85 CE. This suggests that the small seismite that Migowski observed in thin section analysis could have formed during the potentially dubious Jewish War Quake of 68 CE.

Nahal Ze ‘elim (ZA-2)
Kagan et. al. (2011) worked a site in Nahal Ze ‘elim (ZA-2) that was more seaward than the site ZA-1 of Ken-Tor et al. (2001a) and Williams (2004). There, they dated a 4 cm. thick seismite at a depth of 470 cm to 12-91 AD (1 σ) and associated it with the 33 AD earthquake (i.e. the Jerusalem Quake). They again listed the supposedly 76 AD Sybil Earthquake in Cyprus as possible second candidate but again, the the potentially dubious 68 CE Jewish War earthquake is also a possibility. (source: Table 3)

The Arava

Taybeh, Jordan
LeFevre et al. (2018) tentatively identified a poorly expressed seismic event (E5) in the Taybeh trench in the Araba which they modeled between 80 BC and 141 AD. Although they identified the 31 BC Josephus Quake as the most likely candidate, the ~31 AD Jerusalem Quake may be a more likely candidate. The potentially dubious 68 AD Jewish War Quake is also a possibility. LeFevre et al. (2018) noted that the poor expression of Event E5 (vertical cracks in the trench) meant that the cracks could have been caused by a later Event (E4) which they associated with the Incense Road Earthquake which struck between 110 AD and 114 AD.

Taybeh Trench Earthquakes
Figure S5: Computed age model from OxCal v4.26 for the seismic events recorded in the trench

Qatar, Jordan
Klinger et. al. (2015) did not observe any seismic events in this time window in a trench near Qatar, Jordan.
Qatar Trench
Figure 6. Age model computed for the trench stratigraphy using OxCal v4.2 (Bronk-Ramsey et al. 2010) and IntCal13 calibration curve (Reimer et al. 2013). Light grey indicates raw calibration and dark grey indicates modelled ages including stratigraphic information. Phases indicate subsets of samples where no stratigraphic order is imposed. Klinger et al (2015)


Jewish War Book IV Ch 4 Paragraph 5 in Greek (English Translation available in upper right)
Τούτοις τὸ μὲν τῶν Ἰδουμαίων ἐπεβόα πλῆθος, ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς ἀθυμῶν ἀνεχώρει τοὺς μὲν Ἰδουμαίους μηδὲν φρονοῦντας ὁρῶν μέτριον, διχόθεν δὲ τὴν πόλιν πολεμουμένην. [284] ἦν δὲ οὐδὲ τοῖς Ἰδουμαίοις ἐν ἠρεμίᾳ τὰ φρονήματα: καὶ γὰρ τεθύμωντο πρὸς τὴν ὕβριν εἰρχθέντες τῆς πόλεως καὶ τὰ τῶν ζηλωτῶν ἰσχυρὰ δοκοῦντες ὡς οὐδὲν ἐπαμύνοντας ἑώρων, ἠποροῦντο καὶ μετενόουν πολλοὶ τὴν ἄφιξιν. [285] ἡ δὲ αἰδὼς τοῦ τέλεον ἀπράκτους ὑποστρέφειν ἐνίκα τὴν μεταμέλειαν, ὥστε μένειν αὐτόθι πρὸ τοῦ τείχους κακῶς αὐλιζομένους: [286] διὰ γὰρ τῆς νυκτὸς ἀμήχανος ἐκρήγνυται χειμὼν ἄνεμοί τε βίαιοι σὺν ὄμβροις λαβροτάτοις καὶ συνεχεῖς ἀστραπαὶ βρονταί τε φρικώδεις καὶ μυκήματα σειομένης τῆς γῆς ἐξαίσια. [287] πρόδηλον δὲ ἦν ἐπ᾽ ἀνθρώπων ὀλέθρῳ τὸ κατάστημα τῶν ὅλων συγκεχυμένον, καὶ οὐχὶ μικροῦ τις ἂν εἰκάσαι συμπτώματος τὰ τέρατα.
σειομένης (seismos) is translated as shaking, earthquake, or storm here and here. Thus, there is doubt whether Josephus intended to relate shaking from a storm as if an earthquake or shaking due to an earthquake.

Paleoclimate - Droughts

It is possible that in the (2?) years prior to the Roman conquest of Jerusalem, a famine struck Judea and Samaria. In his book the Jewish War, Josephus frequently mentions famines during this perilous time however further research is required to ascertain whether these famines were due to climatic conditions, destruction of agriculture during the War, a deliberate starvation strategy of the Romans as they sieged the cities, or some combination of the above. Two excerpts which may allude to a natural famine are listed below.

Jewish War Book 4 Chapter 1 Paragraph 9
But of the people of Gamala, those that were of the bolder sort fled away and hid themselves, while the more infirm perished by famine; but the men of war sustained the siege till the two and twentieth day of the month Hyperberetmus, [Tisri] when three soldiers of the fifteenth legion, about the morning watch, got under a high tower that was near them, and undermined it, without making any noise; nor when they either came to it, which was in the night time, nor when they were under it, did those that guarded it perceive them. These soldiers then upon their coming avoided making a noise, and when they had rolled away five of its strongest stones, they went away hastily; whereupon the tower fell down on a sudden, with a very great noise, and its guard fell headlong with it; so that those that kept guard at other places were under such disturbance, that they ran away; the Romans also slew many of those that ventured to oppose them, among whom was Joseph, who was slain by a dart, as he was running away over that part of the wall that was broken down: but as those that were in the city were greatly aftrighted at the noise, they ran hither and thither, and a great consternation fell upon them, as though all the enemy had fallen in at once upon them. Then it was that Chares, who was ill, and under the physician's hands, gave up the ghost, the fear he was in greatly contributing to make his distemper fatal to him. But the Romans so well remembered their former ill success, that they did not enter the city till the three and twentieth day of the forementioned month.
Jewish War Book 4 Chapter 3 Paragraph 3
Now the Roman garrisons, which guarded the cities, partly out of their uneasiness to take such trouble upon them, and partly out of the hatred they bare to the Jewish nation, did little or nothing towards relieving the miserable, till the captains of these troops of robbers, being satiated with rapines in the country, got all together from all parts, and became a band of wickedness, and all together crept into Jerusalem, which was now become a city without a governor, and, as the ancient custom was, received without distinction all that belonged to their nation; and these they then received, because all men supposed that those who came so fast into the city came out of kindness, and for their assistance, although these very men, besides the seditions they raised, were otherwise the direct cause of the city's destruction also; for as they were an unprofitable and a useless multitude, they spent those provisions beforehand which might otherwise have been sufficient for the fighting men. Moreover, besides the bringing on of the war, they were the occasions of sedition and famine therein.
Later on, Josephus frequently mentions famine during the Roman siege of Jerusalem however much and probably most of this appears to be due to a Roman starvation strategy. Josephus may also mention that 70 AD was a wet year. I did not find any reference to this in Josephus while conducting a cursory examination.