EARTHQUAKE (Heb. ra‘ash, quaking; Gr. seismos, earthquake). There are four actual earthquakes recorded in Scripture: the one that occurred at Mount Horeb for Elijah’s benefit (1Kgs.19.11); the one referred to by Amos (1Kgs.1.1) and Zechariah (1Kgs.14.5) as occurring in the reign of Uzziah, king of Judah; the one that happened at the resurrection of Christ (Matt.28.2); and the one that freed Paul and Silas from prison (Acts.16.26). An earthquake is mentioned in Isa.29.6 as a form of judgment from the Lord on the enemies of his people, and this is in line with the steady biblical testimony that all natural phenomena—earthquake, wind, storm, rain, hail, and the rest—are under divine sovereign control and are part of his armory for ruling the world in righteousness.

EARTHQUAKE, the shaking of the ground resulting from the release of stored elastic strain energy due to the sudden deformation of a region of the earth which has been in a state of stress. The destruction with which earthquakes are commonly associated is caused by seismic waves which travel outward in all directions from a focus where fracturing or faulting occurred. The focus of most major earthquakes, and those causing most destruction, is less than 25 m. below the earth’s surface. However, earthquakes as deep as 420 m. have been recorded.

About 50,000 earthquakes annually are noticed without the aid of instruments, with about 100 intense enough to cause substantial damage if their centers are near regions of habitation. The great majority of these earthquakes occur in well-defined zones, particularly in the circum-Pacific belt and in the Trans-Alpine belt, which stretches from Burma across southern Asia through Iran and Turkey, to Bulgaria, Greece and Italy. Another seismic belt corresponds with the ocean ridge system together with the apparently connected E African Rift Valley, the Levantine rift including the Jordan Rift Valley and the region of the Red Sea (Fig 1). All these major seismic regions can be related to major features of the earth’s crust and in particular to the margins and relative motions of “plates” of the lithosphere in the order of 30-60 m. thick and up to several thousands of m. across.

There is considerable evidence suggesting that the present Mediterranean Sea represents only a remnant of a large ocean that once existed between Eurasia and Africa. The high seismic activity of the region is related to the general northward movement of the African and Arabian plates together with the relative motions of two rapidly moving plates which generally correspond with the regions of Greece/Aegean Sea and western Turkey. These regions and those of eastern Turkey and Iran are seismically active throughout (Fig. 1). Very destructive earthquakes have occurred in the past few years in Iran and Turkey while 60,000 and 45,000 people, respectively died in earthquakes in Cilicia, Asia Minor, in a.d. 1268 and in Corinth, Greece in a.d. 856. Hence the region of Mesopotamia, with which the beginnings of human activity in the ancient Near E is so closely associated, and the region of the Pauline journeys, have been and are both subject to considerable earthquake activity, some of it very destructive (Acts 16:26).


E. M. Blaiklock (ed.), The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Atlas (1965), 3-5; 438-452; H. Benioff and F. Press, “Earthquake,” E Br, 7 (1970), 853-861; D. P. McKenzie, “Plate Tectonics of the Mediterranean Region,” Nature Lond., 226 (1970), 237-243; D. P. McKenzie, D. Davies and P. Molnar, “Plate Tectonics of the Red Sea and East Africa,” Nature Lond., 226 (1970), 243-248.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(ra`ash; seismos):

1. Earthquakes in Palestine: The last earthquake which worked any damage in Palestine and Syria occurred in 1837, and destroyed the village of Safed, near Mt. Hermon, and was felt even all the way to Hebron. Since that time a few feeble shocks have been felt but no damage was done. The region is just on the edge of the great earthquake circle whose center is in Armenia, and is liable to earthquakes. The large number of references in the Bible to earthquakes, and the evident fear in the minds of the people of those times, would seem to indicate that they were more frequent in Bible times than recently.

2. Causes of Earthquakes: There are three main causes of earthquakes:

(1) Earthslips. In the slow process of cooling, the crust of the earth tends to wrinkle and fold as it contracts. This causes a stress to be set up in the strata composing the crust. If the strata are too rigid to bend there must come after a time a break or fault. The shock caused by the break, which is usually several miles below the surface of the earth, is an earthquake, and it spreads in the form of earth waves from the break as center. Seismographs in all parts of the world are now adjusted to receive the waves even though the origin is on the opposite side of the earth.

(2) Explosion of Steam or Gases under the Surface. Some earthquakes, especially those underneath the sea, are thought to be caused by water seeping through the soil and rocks and finding its way to the heated masses below. Steam is formed and if there is no escape for it, an explosion takes place whose force is felt on the surface.

(3) Volcanic. As earthquakes are of common occurrence in volcanic regions it seems likely that there is some connection between the two, but the relation has not been fully traced. It may be that the second cause is the origin of both the volcano and earthquake.

See further, DELUGE OF NOAH.

3. Earthquakes in Jerusalem: Many destructive earthquakes have been recorded in the history of Syria, but they have been mostly in the north, in the region of Aleppo. Jerusalem itself has seldom been affected by earthquakes. The Hauran beyond the Jordan is covered with volcanic remains and signs of violent shocks, and the cities on the coast have suffered much, but Jerusalem on the higher ground between has usually escaped with little destruction.

LITERATURE. Milne, Earthquakes (Inter. Scient. series); Plumptre, Biblical Studies, 136; Dutton, Earthquakes.

Alfred H. Joy