Paul and Silas Quake

48 - 51 ACE

by Jefferson Williams

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


This earthquake report is based on a passage from the New Testament Book of Acts that describes an earthquake that allegedly ocurred in Philippi, Macedonia far away from the Dead Sea Transform. The passage describes a jail break oppurtunity created by a providential earthquake which is summarized below.
Paul, who is considered to be the first or second most important founder of Christianity, and his companion Silas were languishing in prison - in Phillippi, Macedonia. After singing holy hymns at midnight, an earthquake broke open the doors of the prison and Paul and Silas escaped to the home of their Jailer.
Obviously, this story does not describe an earthquake along the Dead Sea Transform. Even if it describes a real earthquake, its epicenter was too far away to have created serious damage. It's only mentioned here because multiple catalogs have reported an earthquake in 48 CE in Judea - based on this story. Unless you are examining earthquake evidence in Philippi, Macedonia and its environs, you can safely ignore this account of a supposedly Judean earthquake if you encounter it in one of several catalogs. If, however, you discover some affirmative or disaffirmative seismic evidence in Macedonia or nearby that speaks to this earthquake, please let me know about it.

See the Notes section for a discussion of how the erroneous claim that this was a Judean earthquake propagated through the catalogs thus supplying a cautionary tale why one should never rely solely on a catalog entry. Always check the source documents. If you do rely on a catalog, I suggest sticking to this catalog, Guidoboni et. al. (1994), or Ambraseys (2009). These are the only three catalogs I know of that examine source documents for every catalog entry. Beware of catalogs that are largely based on other catalogs where mistakes such as this one inevitably show up.

In Karcz and Lom (1987), Iakov Karcz, who frequently did the scientific community a service by correcting historical and other errors in Earthquake research, attempted to correct the record noting that ~48 AD catalogue entries for Judea are misrepresentations likely based on the story of Paul and Silas’ release from prison in Macedonia in Acts. Ambraseys (2009) dates this earthquake to 51 AD. He notes its location in Phillipi, Macedonia and doubts that it was a natural event.

Textual Evidence

In Chapter 16 of The Acts of the Apostles, the following passage can be found
25 And at midnight Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises unto God: and the prisoners heard them. 26 And suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken: and immediately all the doors were opened, and every one's bands were loosed.
Earlier in Chapter 16, the location for this event is specified. It was Phillipi, Macedonia . Whether this is a description of an actual earthquake or not is immaterial in the context of Dead Sea seismic history. The epicenter was too far away to have formed a seismite. Ambraseys (2009) date of 51 AD appears to be more in line with chronological reconstructions of the journeys of the Apostle Paul rather than Arvanitakis (1903)’s date of 48 AD.

Archeoseismic Evidence

Ahipaz et al (2017, p.126) interpreted numismatic evidence at Herodium to infer abandonment of the site in the 40's or 50's CE which they speculated might have been due to an earthquake. Ben-Menahem (1979) and Ben-Menahem (1991) listed archeoseismic evidence around the same time period attributing it to the spurious entry of a 48 CE Judean earthquake. The archeoseismic evidence cited by Ben-Menahem is discussed in detail in the Archeoseismic evidence section of the Jerusalem Quake Catalog entry under the sub heading Structures in the Arava.

Paleoseismic Evidence

None of the Dead Sea Paleoseismology researchers associated a seismite with a 48 - 51 AD earthquake event. Wechsler at al. (2014) did not list this earthquake as a possibility for any of the events studied at Bet Zayda, LeFevre et al. (2018) did not list this earthquake as a possibility for any of the events studied in a trench in Taybe, Jordan, and Klinger et. al. (2015) did not list this earthquake as a possibility for any of the events studied in a trench in Qatar, Jordan.


Case study in propagating catalog errors

The good news is that the last erroneous catalog entry occurred in 1994 so hopefully this erroneous catalog entry has died a natural death.

Willis (1927), whose earthquake catalog forms a reference for many of the more recent earthquake catalogs, noted that an earthquake in 48 AD was felt in Palestine and Jerusalem and that damage was light. Willis (1928)’s sole reference was Arvanitakis (1903) who reports on a 48 AD earthquake felt in Jerusalem and Palestine where damage was light. Arvanitakis (1903) also mentions that there was the collapse of houses. The source for Arvanitakis (1903) is the Acts of the Apostles (8:24) in the New Testament. Although there is mention of an earthquake in the Acts of the Apostles around 47-48 AD in Philippi, Macedonia while Paul and Silas were imprisoned, this account is not in 8:24. It is in 16:26.

The catalog of Amiran et. al. (1994) lists an earthquake in 48 AD with the description “Palestine, Jerusalem; slight”. Amiran et. al. (1994)’s references were Willis (1928) and Arvanitakis (1903). Ben-Menahem (1979) has a catalogue entry that reads as follows :
9 BC to 50 AD (Perhaps 48 AD), Along the Arava Fault (EAE,NG). Structures at the Nabatian Temple at Aram (Gebel-E-Ram, 40 km. east of Akaba, built ca 31-36 A.D), fortified to withstand earthquakes. Same at Tel-El Haleife, near Eilat, and at Petra. ML = 6.2.
The sources Ben-Menahem (1979) cites (EAE,NG) do not discuss textual evidence for a 48 AD earthquake. Rather, they refer to indirect archeoseismic evidence for earthquakes along the Arava Fault during this time period. This archeoseismic evidence is discussed in the entry for the Jerusalem Quake under the sub heading Structures in the Arava. It is likely that Ben-Menahem (1979)’s speculation about a 48 AD earthquake is also based on the catalog error of Willis (1928) and by extension Arvanitakis (1903). Ben-Menahem (1991, page 20198) again mentions the same three structures along the Arava Fault where in a somewhat garbled passage he opines that one or perhaps all three structures experienced an earthquake in 48 AD.

Paleoclimate - Droughts