We’ve all heard the story. Jesus is on the cross, about to die. Darkness covers the earth. As he cries out, the temple veil — the curtain that covers the place where God himself was said to dwell — is ripped in two, from top to bottom.
A fine story, I guess, for a son of a god dying on a cross, as long as you don’t nitpick the details. Which is exactly what I propose to do about the timing of the torn veil.
The only “early” sources in history that claim the curtain was ripped are the synoptic gospels. Mark, the earliest gospel (written around 70AD), says it takes place after the death of Jesus:
Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. (Mark 15:37-38, NRSV)
That seems pretty straightforward. Jesus dies, and then after the curtain was torn. But what do the other gospels say?
Matthew: During or After
Matthew is based on Mark, and thus we can expect it to agree. And we would be almost right:
Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. (Matthew 27:50-51)
The author of Matthew is a little more specific as to when the curtain was torn — the exact moment Jesus took his last breath. It’s a nice touch of drama, only slightly different from the first source in emphasis.
Pullquote: According to the Bible, the curtain ripped before, during, and after Jesus’ death, depending on which writer you read.
Now let’s look at Luke. Luke is a compilation, and so it occasionally disagrees with Matthew and Mark. Here is Luke’s version:
It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. (Luke 23:44-46)
How Would They Know?
Here’s question to consider: Assuming the veil did rip, how would the writers know when it ripped? They didn’t have watches. There wasn’t a video. Jesus didn’t die near the veil, so it would be very difficult if not impossible to know the sequence of events.
Who is their source (if they had one)? How do they know their source is reliable? Why didn’t any of the Jews or Romans write about it? How did they know it was ripped from the top to the bottom, instead of the bottom to the top? We are left with many questions, and no answers except “take it on faith!”
But It Didn’t Happen
Pullquote: The temple veil didn’t rip. It’s a storytelling device — it adds drama and makes the story more interesting, with the added benefit of heavy Jewish symbolism.
The temple veil didn’t rip. It’s a storytelling device — it adds drama and makes the story more interesting, with the added benefit of heavy Jewish symbolism.
But surely this event would not have gone unnoticed until 70 AD! It would have been a scandalous event in the Jewish world. A 4 inch thick veil, covering the Holy of Holies, supernaturally rips in two around the same time as the death of Jesus — don’t you think that would have been worth mentioning?
The first mention of it is by an anonymous Christian biographer penning the life of Jesus — someone who has incentive to make an interesting story that centers on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
There is no reason to believe this event happened. The only source is the Bible, written a decades after the event happened, by a writer who had reason to embellish the story. It is not mentioned by any Jewish or Roman sources. And the Bible contradicts itself as to when it happened.
Why should anyone believe it?