Sunday, January 25, 2015

Biblical Accounts of Volcanic Eruptions with Tsunamis-Part I of II

The waves of death were all around me. A destroying flood swept over me.” 2Samuel 22:5


There are at least 26 references in the Bible to smoking or melting mountains but there are only a few references that also include language that sounds like a tsunami. In an appendix at the end of this blog I list all the Bible passages that seem to reference volcanoes. Only two known volcanic events, that happened before the Bible was written, may have produced tsunamis in the Mediterranean Sea. Connecting these events with the Bible was not possible until the last 40 or 50 years because the details of these eruptions were unknown until scientists investigated and dated them. This means that these Biblical accounts are references to recently discovered actual historical events and I think they provide the most detail of the Thera eruption (3600 years ago) from any source. This eruption , also known as the Minoan Eruption, was the most violent and the most catastrophic event known to science in the Mediterranean Sea. It also produced a mega-tsunami.

The Bible is rarely referenced in volcanic research. Stothers and Rampino (1983) wrote “like others, we find that Biblical and Egyptian literature is generally too sparse and too ambiguous concerning natural phenomena to be really useful and is applicable mostly to the period before ca. 700 B.C.” They discuss the Thera eruption but provide no literary accounts. Foster and Ritner (1996) looked more closely at possible Egyptian references of the Thera eruption. They used a datable text (Tempest Stela) that might be a reference to the effects of this cataclysmic eruption. However, this in text expressions like “rain, darkness, louder than the cries of the masses” is much more ambiguous than the Biblical text that I will consider. Surely the story of Thera was not excluded from the Bible, but if it is included where is it? Many have tried to make this connection before mainly by trying connect the story of Exodus with this eruption. But if we accept traditional timelines for this period, we find that the Thera eruption occurred at least 150 years before the Exodus and before any dates proposed for the birth of Moses. In writing this I only considered widely accepted Biblical dates and timelines.


Figure 1 shows a timeline of Biblical dates and period volcanic activity in the Mediterranean starting with the Thera and Avellino eruptions. The first passage I consider was written or edited
www.thecosmiccorner.blogspot.comprobably late in life by King David (1040-970 BCE). The second account I review was written by Nahum and it is thought that this book was written before 612 BCE when Nineveh was destroyed and after 663 BCE when Thebes in Egypt was destroyed. So David is writing roughly about 990 BCE and Nahum is writing sometime before 612 BCE. So we are looking for violent volcanic eruptions prior to these times that produced a tsunami. The Thera eruption apparently occurred between 1570 BCE and 1628 BCE. Radiocarbon dating places the eruption closer to the 1628 BC date. So the text of David was written roughly 640 years after the Thera eruption and the Nahum text was written roughly 350 years after the text of David and nearly 1000 years after the Thera eruption. The last account considered was written about 1700 years after Thera but only 190 years after an eruption at Mount Etna.


The Mediterranean and adjacent areas rank among the seismically most active regions of the world and are the second largest source for tsunami around the globe. The reason for this seismicity is the collision between the African and the Eurasian tectonic plates. Besides seismicity there exist other sources for tsunami, such as, volcanic eruptions and landslides. Tsunamis are created when a large amount of water is suddenly displaced by a geologic event.  A tsunami in the Indian Ocean 2004 killed 290,000 and another in 2011 killed 15,885 in Japan. These tsunami’s were caused by earthquakes. The Thera and the Avellino eruptions are considered to be Plinian, because they were similar to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. These powerful eruptions produce plumes of ash that rise up to 45 kilometers (28 miles) into the atmosphere. They are called Plinian because of well known written account of the AD 79 event by Pliny the Younger.

When I first started working on this, I thought that these Biblical accounts could have only been descriptions of the Thera eruption at Santorini Greece, I still think that is correct but there are other possibilities that should be considered. This includes the more distant and smaller Avellino eruption of the Somma-Vesuvio Volcano, Italy and a third event at Mt Etna several thousand years before. However, in the last case the tsunami might not have been produced by volcanic activity. So this event does not correlate well with the Biblical accounts that I consider. Continued study of ancient Mediterranean eruptions will certainly add to our understanding of these Biblical connections.


1. The Thera eruption at Santorini occurred about 1000 kilometers (620 miles) from the eastern coast of the Mediterranean. According to radiocarbon dating the Thera eruption occurred sometime over a 28 year span between 1596 and 1624 BCE. This eruption is believed to be the second or maybe the third largest in human history. To evaluate the size of an eruption, scientist compute the (DRE) dense rock equivalent of ejected magma, pumice and ash. This eruption had a DRE of 60 cubic kilometers (14 cubic miles) of ejected material. The eruption created tsunami’s mainly because it occurred on a small island out in the Aegean Sea that joins the Mediterranean Sea. Geologists have studied deposits made by the eruption and have pieced together what caused the related tsunamis. McCoy and Heiken (2000) describe 4 phases of the Thera eruption and explain how each could have produced tsunamis. This included large pyroclastic flows that encountered the sea and later when the caldera collapsed into the evacuated magma chamber below to create an island ring caldera and a mega-tsunami. In 1981 Kastens and Cita reported that “the collapse of the caldera of the volcano of Santorini caused a huge tsunami which is recorded archaeologically and geologically around the eastern Mediterranean.” The most comprehensive evidence that a tsunami from this eruption reached the Eastern Mediterranean coast came from a study by Goodman-Tchernov, B. N. et al. 2009. They found Thera age tsunami deposits at Caesarea Israel (see Figure 2) in off shore core samples. McCoy and Heiken (2000) estimated that the wave heights along coastal areas were about 7- 12 m based on other tsunami deposits. According to a University of Rhode Island press release:
An eruption of this size likely had far-reaching impacts on the environment and civilizations in the region. The much-smaller Krakatau eruption of 1883 in Indonesia created a 100-foot-high tsunami that killed 36,000 people, as well as pyroclastic flows that traveled 40 kilometers across the surface of the seas killing 1,000 people on nearby islands. The Thera eruption would likely have generated an even larger tsunami and pyroclastic flows that traveled much farther over the surface of the sea.
2. The Avellino eruption. The much wider time frame of this eruption overlaps that of the Thera eruption. Studies of this eruption show it occurred sometime between 1500 and 2000 B.C.E. and it was about 10 times smaller than the Thera eruption. It was also twice as far from the Eastern Mediterranean coast. The evidence for a related tsunami has been disputed. If there was a tsunami created by the eruption, the effects probably were limited to the area near the volcano. A group of researchers found evidence for a tsunami that effected the Bay of Naples. For the people living nearby there were evacuations recorded as footprints in the volcanic ash. Mastrolorenzo, Pappalardo, and colleagues (2009), analyzed ash deposits and reconstructed the Avellino event in detail. This “ plinian eruption produced an early violent pumice fallout and a late pyroclastic surge sequence that covered the volcano surroundings as far as 25 km away, burying land and villages. “

3. Mount Etna. This event seems to be a tsunami that may have been connected with volcanic activity of unknown magnitude. In 1996 Calvari and Groppelli attributed part of the Chiancone deposit (a volcaniclastic fan on the eastern flank of Mt. Etna) to a huge mud flow that may have been associated with an important eruptive event. In 2007 Pareschi et al. wrote “About 8.3 ka (8300 years) ago a devastating tsunami flooded the coasts of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. That tsunami was triggered by a landslide from the collapse of the eastern flanks of Mt. Etna volcano... inducing a scar on the slopes, named Valle del Bove... The tsunami had a large impact, effecting... Lebanon and Israel. In Israel the tsunami ravaged the Neolithic village of Atlit-Yam caused the death of villagers and animals...” The impact of this event on the coast of Israel was disputed by Galili et al. (2008).

Other events occurred near Mt. Etna after the Prophetic Books of the Hebrew Bible were written, but before the New Testament and the book of Revelations was written. These events occurred between 425 and 122 BCE (see Figure 1).The nearby Vucanello volcano was active during this period and built a new island, but there are no known tsunamis associated with this activity.


Figure 2 shows a map of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea showing the locations of places mentioned in these Biblical accounts. It also shows how the tsunami could
Figure 2. Map of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea showing locations
of Biblical references made by Nahum, David's Kingdom, the island
of Patmos and the Thera volcano. Contours show tsunami distance-
arrival times by Yokoyama, 1978.
have propagated eastward and the location of Caesarea where offshore tsunami deposits were found. The following passages are from the New International Reader’s Version of the Bible. It is interesting to read different versions of this passage. This version seems to describe the tsunami better than others. The most detailed account is also the oldest account and closer in time to the Thera eruption.

1.-- 2 Samuel 22; 5-16 NIRV (also Psalm 18: 4-15).
5 The waves of death were all around me. A destroying flood swept over me. 6 The ropes of the grave were tight around me. Death set its trap in front of me. 7 When I was in trouble I called out to the Lord. I called out to my God. From his temple he heard my voice. My cry for help reached his ears. 8 The earth trembled and shook. The pillars of the heavens rocked back and forth. They trembled because the LORD was angry. 9 Smoke came out of his nose. Flames of fire came out of his mouth. Burning coals blazed out of it. 10 He opened the heavens and came down. Dark clouds were under his feet. 11 He got on the cherubim and flew. The wings of the wind lifted him up. 12 He covered himself with darkness. The dark rain clouds of the sky were like a tent around him. 13 From the brightness that was all around him flashes of lightning blazed out. 14 The LORD thundered from heaven. The voice of the Most High God was heard. 15 He shot his arrows and scattered our enemies. He sent flashes of lightning and chased the enemies away. 16 The bottom of the sea could be seen. The foundations of the earth were uncovered. It happened when the LORD's anger blazed out. It came like a blast of breath from his nose. 17 “He reached down from heaven. He took hold of me. He lifted me out of deep waters. 18 He saved me from my powerful enemies. He set me free from those who were too strong for me.

ANALYSIS:  This passage as written in Psalms is one of the theophany events of the Bible. According to the Dictionary of Bible Themes a theophany is a visible manifestation of God that may also be a natural phenomena.  I will attempt to show that this passage is actually a recently discovered but a well known and established historical event. The possible references to a tsunami are: (5) “ The waves of death were all around me. A destroying flood swept over me. ”; (12-other translations) “gathering of waters”, and (16) “The bottom of the sea could be seen.” Seeing the bottom of the sea must be a tsunami. References with a volcano are self evident but there are added elements like “lightning” that occurs in the smoke of larger Plinian volcanic eruptions and possible pyroclastic flows in (10) “ Dark clouds were under his feet.” Taddeuci and Wohletz, (2001) reported that the pyroclastic deposits of the Thera eruption are well documented in the volcano-logical literature. In this text there are references to lava or volcanic bombs in verses 9 “Burning coals blazed out of it” and 13. In verse 13 (other translations) lava bombs are expressed as “coals of fire flamed forth.”  Barber and Barber (2004) show a photo of a Minoan structure at Akrotiri (Santorini) destroyed by a large lava bomb from the Thera eruption.

This is an eruption that we know from scientific studies produced pyroclastic flows, lava bombs and a tsunami that all match this Biblical passage. Is there any other passage in the Bible that provides this kind of detail of an event established through scientific studies? 

To best understand this passage we must perform an observer analyses that considers the location of the observer and the chronology of the observation. This shows whether the whole story is one of a single observer or a collection of observations made by more than one person. We must also understand that these are ancient descriptions made of an eruption. The people that experienced this event did not have a modern language with words we use today to explain this kind of event. There was no word for tsunami, volcano or lava or any pyroclastic material. The result is description of a volcano and a tsunami made without any of the words of a modern language to describe these events.

Lets begin with verse 16: “The foundations of the earth were uncovered.” I think that if you walked across a desolate land recently covered with lava or ash you might conclude that the ground is not ordinary and that it might be ground underneath the normal surface of the earth and that you might describe this in this way. This part of the story is produced by the understanding that the normal rock, sand or soil normally seen on the surface of the Earth is missing.  If this is correct then this is most likely a description of the land made long after the event when people began to go back into the area. Also to survive the “mega-tsunami” produced by this eruption you would most likely be hundreds of miles away from the volcano, maybe to far away to see the lightning and the pyroclastic flows and certainly to far away to see lava bombs. So these verses seem to be mixed descriptions of a volcanic eruption from the point of view of someone far away caught in the tsunami, someone else close enough to see lightning,  pyroclastic flow and lava bombs and thirdly someone that saw the land long after the event occurred.

From reading these passages we might conclude that King David was a part of this terrible event, that is certainly a possibility, but there is no known volcanic event during his life (see timeline in Figure 1). I list 5 possible passages about volcanoes (see appendix) in Psalms, but if David had actually been a part of this event, I think he would have had even more to say about it. It seems most likely that David heard the stories of this eruption that were passed down from survivors and he then parallels with this event with and his own life struggles and his relationship with the Lord. This passage includes at least 3 different points of view indicating that it is a collection of stories. If we assume that this is the Thera eruption, we can see David comparing the story of Thera with his own story in verses 17 and 18. Verse 18 has no reference to the event in question but I included it because it shows this context for the other verses. David compared with other Biblical writers had a unique advantage to hear stories of past events as a ruler of a large part of the Eastern Mediterranean. His kingdom as described in earlier passages in 2 Samuel is shown in Figure 2.

David references this eruption again in Psalm 97: 2-5, Psalm 104:32, and Psalm 144: 5-7. In Psalm 97 he repeats the reference to lightning in verse 4 and adds a reference to lava in verse 5 with “The mountains melt like wax.” There had to be lava to produce lava bombs as we saw in 2 Samuel 22. But in this case there is no reference with a tsunami but in Psalm 144: 7 he cross references this event with the phrase “rescue me from the mighty waters.” This phase is repeated from 2 Samuel 22:17 and Psalm 18:16.

Lastly I must ask the question: Why is there two slightly different versions of this event in the Bible?  Did David or his writer make two versions of the same story and just change a few words or is the result of latter editing? In some commentaries it is suggested that 2 Samuel was the original version. If this is a collective account of the Thera eruption then the 2 Samuel version provides more detail of that event. Note that in the 2 Samuel account “chords of death” is replaced by “waves of death”.  If you Google “waves of death” you find a documentary of the disastrous 2004 tsunami and this 2 Samuel account. There is a great deal more information about this event in this account than anywhere else in the Bible or any other text that I know about.

In part II of this blog I will look at other possible accounts in Nahum, Amos, and Revelations and then provide a summary and conclusion. I will talk more about 2 Samuel 22 in that conclusion.