Pig on the Wall Quake

64 BC

by Jefferson Williams

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


This earthquake account is best described as a conundrum. A fanciful story about an earthquake initiated when a pig clawed its hooves into the Temple Walls in Jerusalem is the sole textual account. Although the story seems implausible, there is paleoseismic and possibly archeoseismic evidence for an earthquake around this time leading one to wonder if an actual earthquake seeded the imagination of the writer of the story.

Textual Evidence

Babylonian Talmud

In the Babylonian Talmud, a curious story from the eve of a distant Passover has generated an entry in a number of earthquake catalogs [1]. In 64 BC, Aristobulus II was the Hasmonean King of Judea. He was challenged by his elder brother John Hyrcanus II who recruited Nabatean allies to help him fight for control of the Kingdom. While Hyrcanus II and his allies laid siege to Jerusalem, an agreement was forged before the onset of Passover. Money was sent down the walls of the second Temple in exchange for animals to be sacrificed at the Temple. When the time came to send the animals up the walls, a trick was played. The nature of this trick differs in two different texts. According to Josephus, the animal sacrifices were not delivered. The Babylonian Talmud however states that a pig was placed in the basket and hoisted up the walls of the Temple. As the basket rose, the pig stuck its claws in the wall and the entire land of Israel was shaken for a distance of 400 parsangs (1463 km.) [2] where 400 parsangs may be hyperbole or a euphemism indicating a wide area [3].

Babylonian Talmud Sotah 49b
When the kings of the Hasmonean house fought one another, Hyrcanus was outside and Aristobulus within. Each day they used to let down denarii in a basket, and haul up for them [animals for] the continual offerings. An old man there, who was learned in Greek wisdom, spoke with them in Greek, saying: 'As long as they carry on the Temple-service, they will never surrender to you'. On the morrow they let down denarii in a basket, and hauled up a pig. When it reached half way up the wall, it stuck its claws [into the wall] and the land of Israel was shaken over a distance of four hundred parasangs.
According to Josephus, divine retribution for this trick came not in the form of an earthquake but “a strong and vehement storm of wind that destroyed the fruits of the whole country”. Roman Historian Dio Cassius also recounts the siege of Jerusalem but does not discuss the supposed Passover animal in the basket trick.

Earthquake Catalog Descriptions

The entries for this supposed event in some of the earthquake catalogs are brief. For example Amiran et. al. (1994) tersely describe earthquake details as “Jerusalem: strong. Damage to Temple and city walls.” Ben-Menahem (1979) conflates the Antioch earthquake of ~65 BC (i.e. the Pompey Quake with this 64 BC account (“Destruction of Antiochia. Felt in Cyprus. Damage to the Temple walls during the siege of Jerusalem (Δ ≈ 500 km.) by Hurkanos and the Nabatians.”). His 1991 catalog entry is fundamentally similar. Sometimes, the references listed for this earthquake are older even more problematic earthquake catalogs with no mention of source documents. Amiran et. al. (1994) for example only cites Arvanitakis (1903), Willis (1927), and Sieberg (1932a) or Sieberg (1932b). As such, this illustrates the problem with relying on earthquake catalogs alone for understanding the nature of a historical earthquake report. An example of this can be found in Ken-Tor et al. (2001a) which assigns a date of 64 BC to a seismite (Event A) in Nahal Ze ‘elim when the age-depth profile presented suggests the seismite was formed in the middle of the second century BC. Ken-Tor et. al (2001a) appear to base their date assignment on one or two earthquake catalogs (Willis (1928), Amiran et. al., 1994) rather than examining the historical sources. Recognizing this mistake, Williams (2004) and Agnon et. al (2006) redated this seismite (Event A) to ~150 BC.

Archeoseismic Evidence

Vadun Jacob aka Tel Ateret

Ellenblum et. al. (2015) noted possible archeoseismic damage in the mid first century BC at Vadun Jacob aka Tel Ateret – a location which straddles an active fault. They estimate ~1.5 meters of fault slip occurred on the site between its abandonment probably in the middle of the first century BC and when a Crusader fortress was built at the end of the 12th century AD. Due to the sites abandonment and lack of new construction during this time, it is difficult to resolve the ~1.5 meters of slip into individual earthquake events. However, abandonment of the site may have been precipitated by an earthquake. The latest Hellenistic coin excavated from the site dates to 65/64 BC indicating desertion of the site occurred afterwards.

Paleoseismic Evidence

Paleoseismic Evidence for an earthquake(s) associated with the Pig on the Wall Quake is summarized below:

Location Status
Tekieh Trenches Syria possible - ~2 m displacement
Bet Zayda possible
En Feshka two small seismites from around this time - see below
En Gedi not reported - expected to be masked by the 31 BC Josephus Quake
Nahal Ze 'elim (ZA1 and ZA2) none reported
Taybeh Trench Jordan no events seen around this date
Qatar Trench Jordan no events seen around this date

Tekieh Trenches Syria

Gomez et. al. (2003, p. 15) may have seen evidence for an earthquake in the 1st or 2nd century BCE in paleoseismic trenches in Syria (Event B). Event B is estimated to have created ~ 2 meters of displacement Gomez et. al. (2003, pp. 16-17).

Tekieh Trench Seismic Events
Figure 13. Summary of events observed in the trenches and the interpreted palaeoseismic history of the Serghaya fault. Colluvial wedge deposits post-date palaeoseismic events. Stratigraphic ties provide additional constraint on the relative timing of events. Ages represent calendar corrected radiocarbon ages for given features (2 sigma uncertainties provided). Gomez et al (2003)

Bet Zayda

Wechsler at al. (2014) records event CH4-E6 (modeled age 392 BCE – 91 CE) in paleoseismic trenches at Bet Zayda just north of the Sea of Galilee (aka Lake Kinneret).
Bet Zeyda Earthquakes
Figure 9. Probability density functions for all paleoseismic events, based on the OxCal modeling. Historically known earthquakes are marked by gray lines. The age extent of each channel is marked by rectangles. There is an age uncertainty as to the age of the oldest units in channel 4 (units 490-499) marked by a dashed rectangle. Channel 1 refers to the channel complex studied by Marco et al. (2005).

Dead Sea

En Feshka
Kagan et al (2011) in Table 3 assigned a sub centimeter thick microbreccia at a depth of 377 cm. to a 64 BC quake. They also identified another sub centimeter thick microbreccia at 377.8 cm. which dates from around this time.

En Gedi
Migowski et. al. (2004) observed that any possible 64 BC seismite in En Gedi was masked or overprinted by the thick 31 BC Josephus Quake seismite (Table 2).

Nahal Ze 'elim (ZA1)
Williams (2004) and Agnon et. al (2006) both revised an original date assignment of Event A at Nahal Ze’elim (ZA1) by Ken-Tor et al. (2001a) from ~64 BCE to approximately mid second century BCE since the mid second century date better matched the radiocarbon profile and estimates of sedimentation rate.
Nahal Ze 'elim (ZA2)
Kagan et al (2011) did not assign a 64 BC earthquake to any of the seismites observed in ZA2 although it was listed as a secondary candidate for mid second century BC seismite at a depth of 516 cm.

Taybeh, Jordan
In paleoseismic trenches near Taybeh, Jordan, LeFevre et al. (2018) did not date any seismic events to an earthquake from around this time.

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)


Antiquities of the Jews by Josephus - Book XIV, Chapter II, Paragraph 2
While the priests and Aristobulus were besieged, it happened that the feast called the passover was come, at which it is our custom to offer a great number of sacrifices to God; but those that were with Aristobulus wanted sacrifices, and desired that their countrymen without would furnish them with such sacrifices, and assured them they should have as much money for them as they should desire; and when they required them to pay a thousand drachmae for each head of cattle, Aristobulus and the priests willingly undertook to pay for them accordingly, and those within let down the money over the walls, and gave it them. But when the others had received it, they did not deliver the sacrifices, but arrived at that height of wickedness as to break the assurances they had given, and to be guilty of impiety towards God, by not furnishing those that wanted them with sacrifices. And when the priests found they had been cheated, and that the agreements they had made were violated, they prayed to God that he would avenge them on their countrymen. Nor did he delay that their punishment, but sent a strong and vehement storm of wind, that destroyed the fruits of the whole country, till a modius of wheat was then bought for eleven drachmae.
Roman History by Dio Cassius - Book 37 – 15.3 – 16.3
Thence he [Pompey] proceeded against Syria Palaestina, because its inhabitants had ravaged Phoenicia. Their rulers were two brothers, Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, who were quarrelling themselves, as it chanced, and were creating factions in the cities on account of the priesthood (for so they called their kingdom) of their god, whoever he is. Pompey immediately won over Hyrcanus without a battle, since the latter had no force worthy of note; and by shutting up Aristobulus in a certain place he compelled him to come to terms, and when he would surrender neither the money nor the garrison, he threw him into chains. After this he more easily overcame the rest, but had trouble in besieging Jerusalem. Most of the city, to be sure, he took without any trouble, as he was received by the party of Hyrcanus; but the temple itself, which the other party had occupied, he captured only with difficulty. For it was on high ground and was fortified by a wall of its own, and if they had continued defending it on all days alike, he could not have got possession of it. As it was, they made an excavation of what are called the days of Saturn, and by doing no work at all on those days afforded the Romans an opportunity in this interval to batter down the wall. The latter, on learning of this superstitious awe of theirs, made no serious attempts the rest of the time, but on those days, when they came round in succession, assaulted most vigorously. Thus the defenders were captured on the day of Saturn, without making any defence, and all the wealth was plundered. The kingdom was given to Hyrcanus, and Aristobulus was carried away.

Paleoclimate - Droughts

Mention is made of a drought preceding this siege of Jerusalem which may have some expression in the sediments and may assist in resolving chronology. In Antiquities of the Jews , Josephus writes in Book XIV, Chapter II, Paragraph 1
Now there was one, whose name was Onias, a righteous man be was, and beloved of God, who, in a certain drought, had prayed to God to put an end to the intense heat, and whose prayers God had heard, and had sent them rain.


[1] e.g. Ben-Menahem, 1979 and 1991, Amiran et. al., 1994.

[2] A parsang is a Persian mile. There are differing accounts of the exact distance of a parsang. Karcz (2004) states that this is 4000 yards which is in approximate agreement with other estimates. Using the reckoning of Karcz (2004), 400 parsangs equals to 1463 km.

[3] 400 parasangs shows up in a Talmudic description of an earthquake in Megilla 3a (2nd paragraph) which is discussed in the Textual Evidence section for the Incense Road Earthquake of 110 – 114 AD.