The earthquake of 363 shook Galilee and its neighboring regions between May 18th and 19th, with such a strong intensity that it also caused repercussions in the religious and political scenario in the Holy Land.
May, that was the penultimate month of the reign of the Roman Emperor Julian (361 to June 26, 363), in which the earth trembled creating a great devastation. The early Christian writers of the time, interpreted this event as the Hand of GOD descending to punish the arrogant emperor, and suppress the hopes of the Jews to rebuild the Temple.
In fact Julian, grandson of the first Christian emperor Constantine, according to historians seemed to be intent on fighting the rise of Christianity, a cause that often took the form of Jewish favoritism. He was the last non-Christian ruler to sit on the throne and, according to traditional narratives, also the last person to attempt to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.
Julian the Apostate Roman Emperor
Declared pagan, Julian tried, though unsuccessfully, to reform and restore the classical Roman religion, by then merged with the Greek one, after it was decaying in the face of the spread of Christianity.
Julian, called by Christians the Apostate, was pictured as a persecutor even if in his reign there were never any anti-Christian punishments or killings, always showing tolerance towards other religions. According to a program of restoration and strengthening of local religious cults at the expense of Christian monotheism, Julian came to the point of ordering the reconstruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, but the attempt was soon abandoned, and the reasons were also attributed to the seismic event that shook the earth and souls in Palestine.
When Constantine died in 337, the empire was divided among his three sons, but eventually only one, Constantius, became the sole ruler, and when he too died in 361, he was succeeded by his half-cousin and younger brother-in-law, Julian. But in reality not even Constantine (288-337) was actually a Christian because he was never baptized, and therefore not formally converted, until on his deathbed. Yet his spiritual conversion occurred before he defeated the “usurper” Maxentius at the Battle of Ponte Milvio in 312, and even when Constantine was alive, his success in that battle was attributed to GOD’s favor toward Christians, having commanded that the Christian monogram chi-rho (the first two letters of Christ’s Greek name) be engraved on the shields of his soldiers.
The old plan to rebuild the Temple
It was then attributed to this event of May 19th of the year 363 also the destruction of the projects and the progress made in the reconstruction of the Temple. A great fire broke out in Jerusalem, thus sanctioning its own destiny, in a clear symbolism: the event was a turning point of Christian power in the Roman Empire. The Temple had been destroyed and rebuilt before in pagan Rome, but this time it seemed to be GOD himself who wanted to stop the work of men.
Yet current historians argue that it was Julian’s untimely death that brought an end to the rebuilding of the Temple, unrelated to the natural disasters in Palestine and Syria, the connections between Roman religious trends and that earthquake cannot be ignored. Others also claim that the destruction of pagan temples that occurred due to the same earthquake in Petra and surrounding areas was a significant factor in the rise of Christianity and the decline of pagan worship in that area.
With all the significance attached to this 363 earthquake, it is easy to forget that this natural disaster also impacted many people who were simply going about their daily lives, unaware of long-term trends in religion and empire. As a testament to these lives, recent archaeology has uncovered some tombstones in the town of Zoar that tell us of the life, but also death that civilians found on that May 19th. The earthquake had taken the lives of their loved ones, and to these people the larger picture regarding the Temple and the politics of that event was surely of secondary importance.
Recent archaeological excavations near Hippos-Sussite near today’s Kibbutz Ein Gev in Israel, have brought to the surface evidence of the earthquake that shook Galilee and neighboring regions in 363 AD.
The May 363 earthquake shook large areas of the Roman Palestinian territories, from Galilee to Petra, as reported by a tombstone found in the city of Zoar where it is written in ancient Greek:
μεῖον Ὄββης Σαμά κωνος παυ σαμένης ἐτῶν ιεʹ ἐν τῷ σεισμῷ
ἔτους σνηʹ μηνὸς Ἀρτεμισίου ηκʹ θάρσει
Ὄββη οὐδεὶς ἀ θάνατος
Monument of Obbe, [daughter] of Samakon, who died [at the age of] 15 during an earthquake, in the year 258, on the 28th [day] of the month Artemisius, the day of the Moon [Monday].
Rejoice, Obbe, no one [is] immortal.
GOD [is] One.
The city of Zoar, thanks to the waters flowing down from the mountains of Moab, was a thriving oasis where balsam, indigo and date trees flourished luxuriantly. The biblical city Zoar, formerly called Bela (Genesis 14, 8), located along the lower Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea plain. It is said to have been spared from the “brimstone and fire” that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah to provide shelter for Lot and his daughters (Genesis 19, 22nd-30th). It is also mentioned by Flavius Josephus (Ant. Jud., XIII, xv, 4; Bell. Jud., IV, viii, 4), Ptolemy (V, xvi, 4), Eusebius and St. Jerome in the Onomasticon.
Unlike the opinion of the Jews and the pagans, the various contemporary Christian narratives of the time attributed a greater theological significance to this natural disaster, seeing the event as a sign of GOD’s wrath against a pagan emperor. An undeniable thing remains that from that date onwards the Temple was never rebuilt, and this remains a certainty and GOD’s will.
The only observation that we wish to assert in these conclusions is that if the Will, Providence, or whatever else we wish to call the “destiny”, has established that the time to rebuild the Holiest Place in the World was not yet to come, this has happened exclusively for our ultimate good.
We were not ready and certainly still are not today, but we trust that in the near and most imminent future the believers will be able to earn the blessings of GOD, to show the whole world what love and peace are capable of doing together.
Amen, may this be GOD’s Will.
- Russell, Kenneth W. (1980), “The Earthquake of May 19, A. D. 363”, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, American Schools of Oriental Research, 238 (238): 47–64, doi:10.2307/1356515, JSTOR 1356515
- “Julian | Roman Emperor.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed February 10, 2018. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Julian-Roman-emperor.
- Levenson, David B. “The Palestinian Earthquake of May 363 in Philostorgius, the Syriac Chronicon Miscellaneum, and the Letter Attributed to Cyril on the Rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple.” Journal of Late Antiquity 6, no. 1 (June 24, 2013): 60–83. https://doi.org/10.1353/jla.2013.0010.
- “Jewish History Sourcebook: Julian and the Jews 361–363 CE”. Fordham University.
- Sbeinati, Mohamed Reda; Darawcheh, Ryad; Mouty, Mikhail (June 2005), “The historical earthquakes of Syria – an analysis of large and moderate earthquakes from 1365 B.C. to 1900 A.D.” (PDF), Annals of Geophysics, Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia, 48 (3): 407
- Guy Le Strange, Palestine under the Moslems, 289
- Eusebius (2006) [manuscript, 1971]. Wolf, Carl Umhau (ed.). THE ONOMASTICON OF EUSEBIUS PAMPHILI, COMPARED WITH THE VERSION OF JEROME AND ANNOTATED. tertullian.org. Zeta, in Genesis.