(רִעִשׁ, ra'ash, a shaking, σεισμός).The proximate cause of earthquakes, though by no means accurately defined, seems referable to the action of internal heat or fire. That the earth was once subject to the action of a vast internal power springing probably from the development of subterranean or central heat, the elevations and depressions, and the generally scarred and torn character of its exterior make sufficiently evident. A power similar in kind, but more restricted in degree, is still at work in the bowels of the earth, and occasionally breaks down all barriers and devastates certain parts of the world. There is good reason for holding that earthquakes are closely connected with volcanic agency. Both probably spring from the same cause, and may be regarded as one mighty influence operating to somewhat dissimilar results. Volcanic agency, therefore, is an indication of earthquakes, and traces of the first may be taken as indications of the existence (either present or past, actual or possible) of the latter. (See Hitchcock's Geology, p. 234 sq.) The manifestation of these awful phenomena. is restricted in its range. Accordingly, geologists have laid down certain volcanic regions or bands within which this manifestation takes place. Over these regions various traces of volcanic agency are found, such as either gaseous vapors, or hot springs, or bituminous substances, and in some instances (occasionally) active volcanoes. Several sources of bitumen are found on the Tigris, in the Persian mountains, near the Kharun, and at Bushire, as well as along the Euphrates. At Hit, especially on the last-mentioned river, it exists on a very large scale, and, having been much used from the earliest times, seems inexhaustible. Abundant traces of it are also to be seen amid the ruins and over the entire vicinity of Hillah, the ancient Babylon. Syria and Palestine abound in volcanic appearances. Between the river Jordan and Damascus lies a volcanic tract. The entire country about the Dead Sea presents indubitable tokens of volcanic agency. Accordingly, these places come within one of the volcanic regions. The chief of these are,
(1) that which extends from the Caspian Sea to the Azores; (2) from the Aleutian Isles to the Moluccas; (3) that of the Andes; (4) the African; (5) the Icelandic.
Syria and Palestine are embraced within the first band, and these countries have not unfrequently been subject to earthquakes. (See Stanley, Palest. pages 279, 283, 285, 363; Volney, Trav. 1:281; Rusegger, Reisess, page 205). SEE PALESTINE.
That earthquakes were among the extraordinary phenomena of Palestine in ancient times is shown in their being an element in the poetical imagery of the Hebrews, and a source of religious admonition and devout emotion. An earthquake, when great, overturns and changes the surface of the earth, subverting mountains, hills, and rocks, sinking some parts, elevating others, altering the course of rivers, making ponds and lakes on dry lands, and drying up those that already existed; and is therefore a proper symbol of great evolutions or changes in the government or political world (Heb 12:26). See Wemyss, Symbolical Dict. s.v. In Ps 18:7, we read, "Then the earth shook and trembled; the foundations also of the chills moved and were shaken, because he was wroth" (comp. Hab 3:6; Na 1:5; Isa 5:25). It was not an unnatural transition that any signal display of the will, sovereignty, or goodness of Providence should be foretold in connection with, and accompanied as by other signs in the heavens above or on the earth below, so by earthquakes and their fearful concomitants (see Joe 2:28; Mt 24:7,29). Earthquakes are not unfrequently attended with fissures of the earth's surface; instances of this are recorded in connection with the destruction of Korah and his company (Nu 16:32; compare Josephus, Ant. 4:3, 3), and at the time of our Lord's death (Mt 27:51); the former may be paralleled by a similar occurrence at Oppido, in Calabria, A.D. 1783, where the earth opened to the extent of 500 and a depth of more than 200 feet, and again by the sinking of the bed of the Tagus at Lisbon, in which the quay was swallowed up (Pfaff, Schopfungsgesch. p. 115). These depressions are sometimes on a very large scale; the subsidence of the valley of Siddim, at the southern extremity of the Dead Sea, may be attributed to an earthquake. Similar depressions have occurred in many districts, the most remarkable being the submersion and subsequent re- elevation of the temple of Serapis at Puteoli. The frequency of earthquakes about the Dead Sea is testified in the name Bela (Ge 14:2; compare Jerome ad Isaiah 15). SEE SODOM. The awe which an earthquake never fails to inspire, "conveying the idea of some universal and unlimited danger" (Humboldt's Kosmos, 2:212), rendered it a fitting token of the presence of Jehovah (1 Kings, 19:11); hence it is frequently noticed in connection with his appearance (Jg 5:4; 2Sa 22:8; Ps 77:18; Ps 97:4; Ps 104:32; Am 8:8; Hab 3:10). Earthquakes, together with thunder, lightning, and other fearful phenomena of nature, form no small portion of the stock of materials which the interpreters of the German rationalistic school employ with no less liberality than confidence in order to explain after their manner events recorded in the Scriptures which have been commonly referred to the immediate agency of God. Hezel, Paulus, as other miracle exploders would, but for this resource, find their "occupation gone." But, if there is reason for 'the statement that truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, it may with equal propriety be observed that their " natural" causes are most unnatural, unlikely, and insufficient. SEE MIRACLES.
The first visitation of the kind recorded as having happened to Palestine was in the reign of Ahab (about B.C. 905), when Elijah (1Ki 19:11-12) was directed to go forth and stand upon the mountain before Jehovah: "And behold Jehovah passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before Jehovah; but Jehovah was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but Jehovah was not in the earthquake: and after the earthquake a fire; but Jehovah was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice." A terrible earthquake took place "in the days of Uzziah, king of Judah" (B.C. 781), which Josephus (Ant. 9, 10, 4) says " shook the ground, and a rent was made in the Temple, so that the rays of the sun shone through it, which, falling upon 'the king's face, struck him with the leprosy," a punishment which the historian ascribes to the wrath of God consequent on Uzziah's usurpation of the priest's office. That this earthquake was of an awful character may be learned from the fact that Zechariah (Zec 14:5) thus speaks respecting it: "Ye shall flee as ye fled from before the earthquake in the days of Uzziah, king of Judah:" and it likewise appears from Amos (Am 1:1) that the event was so striking, and left such deep impressions on men's minds, as to become a sort of epoch from which to date and reckon; the prophet's words are, "two years before the earthquake." SEE UZZIAH. From Zec 14:4 we are led to infer that a great convulsion took place at this time in the Mount of Olives, the mountain being split so as to leave a valley between its summits. Josephus records something of the sort, but his account is by no means clear, for his words (τοῦ ὄρους ἀποῥῥαγῆναι τὸ ἣμισν τοῦ κατὰ τὴν δύσιν) can hardly mean the western half of the mountain, as Whiston seems to think, but the half of the western mountain, i.e., of the Mount of Evil Counsel, though it is not clear why this height particularly should be termed the western mountain. We cannot but think that the two accounts have the same foundation, and that the Mount of Olives was really affected by the earthquake. Hitzig (Comm. in Zechariah) suggests that the name מִשׁחַית "corruption," may have originated at this time, the rolling down of the side of the hill, as described by Josephus, entitling it to be described as the destroying mountain, in the sense in which the term occurs in Jer 2:25. SEE AZAL.
The only important or clear earthquake mentioned in the New Testament (except the doubtful one of Mt 28:2) is that which happened at the crucifixion of the Savior of mankind (Mt 27:1-50; compare Lu 23:5-44; Mr 15:33). The concomitant darkness is most naturally held to have been an attendant on the earthquake. Earthquakes are not seldom attended by accompaniments which obscure the light of day during (as in this case from the sixth to the ninth hour, that is, from 12 o'clock at noon to 8 o'clock P.M.) several hours. If this is the fact, then the record is consistent with natural phenomena, and the darkness which skeptics have pleaded against speaks actually in favor of the credibility of the Gospel. Now it is well known to naturalists that such obscurations are by no means uncommon. It may be enough to give the following instances. A very remarkable volcanic eruption took place on the 19th of January, 1835, in the volcano of Coseguina, situated in the Bay of Fonseca (usually called the coast of Conchagua), in Central America. The eruption was preceded by a rumbling noise, accompanied by a column of smoke which issued from the mountain, increasing until it assumed the form and appearance of a large dense cloud, which, when viewed at the distance of thirty miles, appeared like an immense plume of feathers, rising with considerable velocity, and expanding in every direction. In the course of the two following days several shocks of earthquakes were felt; the morning of the 22d rose fine and clear, but a dense cloud of a pyramidal form was observed in the direction of the volcano. This gradually ascended, and by 11 o'clock A.M. it had spread over the whole firmament, entirely obscuring the light of day, the darkness equaling in intensity that of the most clouded night: this darkness continued with little intermission for three days; during the whole time a fine black powder continued to fall. This darkness extended over half of Central America. The convulsion was such as to change the outline of the coast, turn the course of a river, and form two new islands. Precisely analogous phenomena were exhibited on occasions of earthquakes that took place at Cartago, in Central America, when there prevailed a dense black fog, which lasted for three days (Recreations in Physical Geography, page 382). In the case of the volcanic eruption which overwhelmed Herculaneum and Pompeii (A.D. 79), we learn from the younger Pliny that a dense column of vapor was first seen rising vertically from Vesuvius, and then spreading itself out laterally, so that its upper portion resembled the head, and its lower the trunk of a pine. This black cloud was pierced occasionally by flashes of fire as vivid as lightning, succeeded by darkness more profound than night, and ashes fell even at Misenum. These appearances agree perfectly with those witnessed in more recent eruptions, especially those of Monte Nuovo in 1538, and Vesuvius in 1822. Indeed earthquakes appear to exert a very marked influence on our atmosphere: among other effects, Lyell (Principles of Geology, 1:400) enumerates sudden gusts of wind, interrupted by dead calms; evolution of electric matter or of inflammable gas from the soil, with sulphurous and mephitic vapors; a reddening of the sun's disk, and a haziness in the air often continued for months (Joe 2:30-31). Other interpreters, however, understand the earthquake in Mt 27:54 to have been merely some special and supernatural operation of God, in attestation of the marvelous work that was in progress, producing a tremulous motion in the immediate locality, and in connection therewith a sensible consternation in the minds of the immediate actors; hence there is no other historical allusion to it. This view is confirmed by its being in the second case connected with the angel's descent (Mt 28:2; compare 1Sa 14:15). Like the one that occurred at Philippi (Ac 16:16), it is perhaps to be regarded as a somewhat exceptional phenomenon, wrought for a specific purpose, and consequently very limited as to its sphere of action. Nor does it appear from any notices of Scripture that the phenomena of earthquakes in the ordinary and extensive sense of the term, played more than a very occasional and subordinate part in the scenes and transactions of sacred history. Treatises in Latin on the earthquake at our Savior's passion have been written by Berger (Viteb. 1710), Posner (Jen. 1672), Schmerbauch (Lubbeai. 1756), Schmid (Jen. 1683). SEE DARKNESS.
An earthquake devastated Judaea some years (31) before the birth of our Lord, at the time of the battle of Actium, which Josephus (Ant. 15:52) reports was such "as had not happened at any other time, which brought great destruction upon the cattle in that country. About ten thousand men also perished by the fall of houses." Jerome writes of an earthquake which, in the time of his childhood (about A.D. 315), destroyed Rabbath Moab (Jerome on Isaiah, 15). The writers of the Middle Ages also speak of earthquakes in Palestine, stating that they were not only formidable, but frequent. In 1834 an earthquake shook Jerusalem, and injured the chapel of the nativity at Bethlehem. In 1837 (January 1) Jerusalem and its vicinity were visited by severe shocks of earthquake, yet the city remains without serious injury from these subterranean causes. This last earthquake totally overthrew the village of Safed, in Galilee (Thomson, Land and Book, 1:428 sq.). For a full account of these and others, affecting various parts of Syria, see Kitto, Phys. Hist. of Palest. volume 2, chapter 4, Comp. Bulenger, in Graevii Thesaur. 5:515 sq.; Forbiger, Handb. d. alt. Geogr. 1:636 sq.