Why the tearing of the temple curtain is a bad thing

It’s Easter! At this time of the year, Christians the world over commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus as the Son of God. The ‘greatest story ever told’ gets retold. On Facebook, Christians post snippets from the Gospels, or lines from songs celebrating the significance of the story (like I have!). But there’s one particular part of the Gospel story that I think has been misunderstood. It’s the tearing of the temple curtain.

The Synoptic Gospels all tell the story that at the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross, the curtain in the temple was torn in two (Matt 27.51; Mark 15.38; Luke 23.45). This is a reference to the large, heavy curtain that cordoned off the Holy of Holies within the Jerusalem temple’s inner sanctum. The presence of God was said to occupy the Holy of Holies, which was only accessed once a year on the Day of Atonement by the High Priest. Every other day of the year, the Holy of Holies remained off limits to everyone. Yet the Evangelists tell us that without any human agency, this curtain that marked the divide between the human and divine worlds was ripped apart at the moment Jesus breathed his last. This is how Matthew relates it:

Jesus shouted again with a loud voice and gave up His spirit. Suddenly, the curtain of the sanctuary was split in two from top to bottom; the earth quaked and the rocks were split. (Matt 27.50–51)

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So what’s the significance of the temple curtain being ripped?

Most Christians will say that it’s the moment that free access to God was won. The curtain, which hitherto had kept God hidden from people and at a distance, was now dramatically rendered obsolete. Jesus’ death had granted access to God for all. This strange event, therefore, is seen as a good thing.

This particular interpretation probably comes under the influence of a few New Testament texts. Probably the most prominent of these is from the letter to the Hebrews:

Therefore, brothers, since we have boldness to enter the sanctuary through the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way he has opened for us through the curtain (that is, his flesh), and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water. (Hebrews 10.19–22)

The author here, writing from within the Jewish framework that held the temple to be the heart of Jewish life, informs his readers that through the work of Christ the entire temple cult had been fulfilled. ImageHe argues that Jesus did everything the temple was designed to do, namely provide atonement for sin and access to God, and he had done so once and for all. Jesus was the ultimate High Priest who had blazed a trail to God, allowing his followers to be cleansed and have free and permanent fellowship with the one true holy God. As such there was no need for ethnically Jewish Christians to return to the old temple service, or even to desire the rebuilding of the temple (I understand the pretext for the author writing the letter was to articulate a specifically Christian response to the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in AD 70).

It’s this theologically potent message that we tend to read back into the moment of Jesus’ death. It almost seems like the writer to the Hebrews had this particular moment of the Gospel story in mind in framing the excerpt quoted above.

However, as important as this point was to the writer of the Hebrews, I do not believe he was saying that this was the significance of the tearing of the temple curtain. For a start, note that he equates the temple curtain with Jesus’ flesh, not with the actual curtain that used to hang in the temple. The writer to the Hebrews sees Jesus himself as the one who joins the divine and human worlds, and interprets the significance of his work as akin to one going through the temple curtain, as the High Priest used to do. In other words, the temple curtain provides the writer with an image he can use to talk about the import of Jesus’ work in fulfilling what the temple stood for. In this way, he uses the temple curtain metaphorically and positively.

The Gospel writers, on the other hand, were making a rather different point. I believe that they were specifically portraying the tearing of the temple curtain as an ominous sign—a prefiguring of judgement. Let me explain.

All three Synoptic Gospels portray the last week of Jesus’ life as prophetically charged. Jesus rides into Jerusalem with messianic portent, but then proceeds to declare judgement on the nation of Israel and the temple. He causes a minor riot on the temple grounds when he overturns the stalls of the money changers. In Matthew’s Gospel, as he leaves the temple, Jesus utters these words:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem! She who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her. How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, yet you were not willing! See, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will never see me again until you say, ‘He who comes in the name of the Lord is the blessed One’!” (Matt 23.37–39)

Jesus then proceeds to tell his disciples that not one stone of the temple will be left on another. In addition to these events, Jesus also curses a fig tree, which then withers and dies. The gesture is symbolic of the judgement to come upon Israel. The fact that it withers has a sense of permanence: Israel has rejected Jesus, the Chosen One sent from God, and as a result the covenant nation is being brought to an end.

Matters come to a head when Jesus is arrested and the nation’s authorities succeed in having him crucified. Their rejection of God’s Chosen One—the messiah of Israel—is complete. And so, as Jesus dies, the curtain is torn asunder to confirm the judgement that Jesus has pronounced upon the nation. Note also the roughness of the action—it is a ripping, rather than a parting, raising, or drawing aside. It is suggestive of violent destruction. In all of this, God validates that Jesus was indeed the messiah, and also expresses his displeasure at his covenant nation for their rejection of him.

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The scene is somewhat reminiscent of Ezekiel 8–11, where God takes Ezekiel on a visionary tour of the temple to show him the multiple abominations that have forced him to abandon the temple to destruction by the Babylonians. The Synoptic writers depict Jesus’ death as a similar abomination that leads to the downfall of the nation and the loss of its temple—something that would ultimately occur a generation later in AD 70 when the Romans put down the Jewish Revolt and razed the temple to the ground. One might say that the tearing of the temple curtain is how the Gospel writers imply that God was bringing down the curtain on old Israel and its temple. It was 586 BC all over again!

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Detail of the Arch of Titus in Rome commemorating the Romans’ destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in AD 70. The relief depicts Romans parading paraphernalia from the temple in triumphal procession.

ImageThis feature of the Gospel storyline, therefore, is not seen as a positive thing. It is symbolic of the end of old Israel, and of the temple destruction in AD 70. However, the Evangelists are also keen to say that there is hope beyond this destruction. The community that Jesus gathers around himself is the beginning of a new people of God—one that will survive AD 70. And Jesus is subsequently raised to life again, heralding a new era that will see Gentiles take their place alongside Jews as full members of the new people of God. Indeed, it is those who represent the destroyers of the temple—Roman soldiers—who are the first to express a confession acknowledging Jesus:

When the centurion and those with him, who were guarding Jesus, saw the earthquake and the things that had happened, they were terrified and said, “This man really was God’s Son!” (Matt 27.54)

Thus, the Gospels depict the curtain tearing as a moment of judgement. Yet, they are still very much in the spirit of what the writer to the Hebrews was saying to his readers. The new community of Jesus’ followers are in no need of a temple building. All they need is Jesus himself.

What this little examination shows us is that while we need to get our theology from the whole canon of Scripture, we also need to let each book speak on its own first. Just because the writer to the Hebrews was making a particular point with the imagery of the temple curtain does not mean that Matthew was making that same point in his Gospel when he talked about the temple curtain. We mustn’t cross pollenate one author with another. The writer to the Hebrews was sounding one note, and the Gospel writers another which, although it was a different note, was still in ‘theological harmony’. Just like the destruction and exile of Judah in 586 BC was a bad thing, but something which also led to new theological insight, so also the tearing of the temple curtain at Jesus’ death was indicative of coming destruction, yet also lead eventually to new theological insight.

So when the Gospel stories are read again this Easter time, we should pause when hearing that the curtain in the temple was torn and realise that for the Gospel writers it was a confirmation of judgement for the rejection of Jesus.

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20 thoughts on “Why the tearing of the temple curtain is a bad thing

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  2. great thought provoking thoughts here. My question is simply upon the fact that the points made being distinct from each author (hebrews and gospel writers) is it at all an error to make the other interpretation for both books true, even if there may be a primary and secondary interpretation, so that it is both/and? Once again, thank you for provoking these thoughts

    • Hi Sandile! Good question. Within the context of the entire canon, which brings together all the theological threads of all biblical writers, we can say that the tearing of the curtain was something good. However, my point is that before we rush to the entire canon, we need to understand each biblical writer individually first, on their own terms. Only once we have understood each of them can we then see how they contribute to the entire canon and let scripture interpret scripture. It’s theologically valid, for example, to say that Jesus was sin on the cross (as Paul does). But I don’t think this is what the Synoptic writers were aiming to portray. So it’s valid to affirm what the writer to the Hebrews wrote (it is Scripture after all!) but I don’t think we should automatically attribute the same thing to the Synoptic writers.

    • Another way to say all that is that it’s valid to read biblical texts with intertextuality within the rest of the canon. But before that can happen, we should understand each book on its own first to determine what its authors were trying to say.

  3. Finally got a chance to read this one – was just waiting for a quiet moment! Thanks for challenging the common interpretation. Next time I read a Synoptic gospel I’ll be sure to take note of this part and how it fits in context. Thanks George 🙂

  4. George, thanks so much for this post, that’s very thought-provoking. Your overall point about intertextuality being preceded by an appropriate understanding of a particular author’s own intentions is a really good one. Thanks for your reminder to treat each author individually before we try to see the way that they do fit together, lest we mash them together!

    Having said that, I’m not sure I can see the idea of judgement being conveyed by the temple curtain being torn. I’m looking at Matthew 27:51ff. while I write this. While the earthquake certainly would be compatible with this judgement, doesn’t it seem a bit strange that he also writes about the resurrection of the dead here (v.52)? It doesn’t seem like a strong picture of judgement.

    I mean, if you mean ‘judgement’ on the temple establishment (and in the sense of replacing it and rendering it obsolete), I suppose I could see that. You mentioned Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree as a sign of his judgement on Israel, but isn’t it more likely that its actually a sign of judgement on the temple establishment? I’m thinking of Mark’s Gospel in particular, when the temple action is sandwhiched by the fig tree cursing pericope.

    I totally agree with your underlying methodology, and I’m down with your deconstruction of seeing Matt 27:51 only through the lens of Heb 10. That’s a good reminder for us all.

    I suppose my only point of divergence would be to question if the curtain ripping is less a sign of judgement on ISRAEL, and more a sign of judgement on the TEMPLE ESTABLISHMENT and it’s obsolescence/fulfilment/replacement.

    Sorry, I didn’t mean that to be so long. Thank heaps for you post, really thought-provoking!!!

    • Hi Ben!

      I’d argue that Matthew is about judgement on Israel, but not only about judgement. God doesn’t just judge Israel and then walk away. Rather, he builds a new people of his own around Jesus. So while there is judgement on old covenantal Israel such that it is brought to an end, a new people begins based on faith in Jesus, rather than the Mosaic covenant. That’s why the Gospel doesn’t end with the death of Jesus, but includes his resurrection (in addition to the graves breaking open).

      We can see that Israel is being brought to an end because the Gospel finishes with the command to make disciples of all nations (not just Jews). Israel’s only hope is to join the new people of God around Jesus.

      So I don’t think it’s simply a judgement on the temple establishment. It is a judgement on Israel as a whole, but there is still hope for Israel if they put their trust in Jesus and join the new international people of God.

      I hope this clarifies things a little further.

    • One final point: That a new people is being formed is also demonstrated by Matthew’s very clear intention to parallel Jesus with Moses. Just as Moses oversaw the birth of Israel, so Jesus oversees the birth of the Church.

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  8. Tearing of the Temple curtain was a message from God as in Jewish tradition that you tear a piece of clothing upon hearing of a loved ones death. Every Jew understood this unspoken message. It is not a metaphor, but simply a visible sign of God’s sorrow. Peggy Hall, Pittsboro NC, USA

    • That symbolism is not quite what we see in biblical literature. Tearing clothing could be for grief at a person’s death or a sign of personal repentance. But it’s not clothing being torn, but a curtain that pertains to a building at the heart of Israel’s covenantal life. So I don’t think the connection to grief works here.

  9. Hi George, thanks for your thoughts. The methodology (let each book shape our understanding of it’s own texts) is helpful. However I think your conclusions fall down in three areas:

    1) Hebrews is not altogether positive about the role of the temple curtain.
    Jesus did not do “everything the temple was designed to do” as you say. Hebrews argues that the earthly Temple cultic system with it’s curtain was hugely insufficient compared with Jesus – it could NOT atone for sins, it could NOT allow access to God, for sacrifices had to be made again & again showing they were not effective (Heb 10.1-4). There is a positive & negative aspect to the earthly Temple cultic system (including the curtain): it points forward to the work of Jesus in providing us access to God & cleansing of sin and theologically teaches us about the True Temple in heaven (Heb 8.5, 10.1) – all positive things … BUT it is also strongly criticised in Heb as “weak & useless” (7.18-19), as “ineffective” in clearing our sin or providing a way to God (9.8-9) – definitely NEGATIVE!

    2) It’s not clear that the earthly Temple curtain functioned as the WAY into God’s presence, which you seem to imply in your discussion about Jesus’ body in Heb 10.19-20.
    The curtain was NEVER described like that previously nor elsewhere as far as I’m aware. While Heb 10.19-20 does indeed describe Jesus’ sacrificed body as the WAY for humans to enter into the most Holy Place, the presence of God, it’s not clear in these verses that the EARTHLY temple curtain is viewed positively as “the Way” we humans can enter into the presence of God. The emphasis is on the effectiveness of Jesus providing access for us. More can be said from elsewhere in Hebrews that the curtain functioned a barrier to humans accessing God.

    3) As mentioned by another commenter, you haven’t shown that the tearing of the temple curtain definitely symbolises God’s judgment on Israel. This is an assumption you make without backing it up.
    There is no comment anywhere in the bible that ripping the Curtain confirms or symbolises God’s judgment on Israel. Other places that use the earthly Temple as a sign of judgment on Israel speak of God’s presence LEAVING the temple (Ezek 10) and of the Temple’s TOTAL DESTRUCTION (2Chron 36:11-21, Jer 7.1-15, Jer 26.18, Jer 52:12-23, Dan 9.26-27, Micah 3.12). Jesus repeats this theme that it’s the destruction of the WHOLE earthly temple which is a sign of judgment against Israel (Mt 24.2, Lk 19.44). But Jesus or other biblical writers never discuss the tearing of the Temple Curtain in the context of God’s judgment on Israel.

    For these reasons I would have to disagree with your conclusion that the tearing of the temple curtain is a bad thing. I would argue that it symbolises one of the great benefits of Jesus death.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Nigel. I agree with your first two points. I don’t see how you thought my argument was stating something different to them, really. The only thing I’d modify is that I don’t think Hebrews sees the temple/tabernacle as negative—that would imply it’s bad. It’s just inadequate. BUT its purpose has, in any case, been über-fulfilled in the person and work of Christ. So there’s no need for a temple now.

      On your final point, I’m not sure what you’re actually trying to say. You seem to acknowledge that there are symbols associated with the destruction of the temple and the judgement associated with this, but you see the temple curtain as being somehow separate to this? I’m not sure I follow why you would separate the two. Also, the final objection you offer is one based on silence: there is no other discussion of it, so it can’t be right. But I have to disagree with that kind of logic, as it assumes something must be overtly discussed in at least two places for it to be real. So I really don’t see how your three point counteract the argument I’m putting forward. Maybe I’m blind or maybe I just haven’t understood you properly.

      The main argument is that within the flow of the Gospels themselves, Jesus is enacting judgement on Israel. There is salvation to be found in this, but we must not lose sight of the judgement that Jesus brings. It begins with John the Baptist’s message of judgement and culminates in the tearing of the curtain and the death of the King of the Jews. It spells curtains for old covenant Israel.

  10. Hi George – I’m not an academic, so please forgive me if I do not express myself as clearly as others might.
    I’m interested to know how you would marry Matt 27: 52-53 with your thesis here, as I think it does not seem to fit with the theory of God’s judgment on Israel, and would seem completely out of place if that is what is being symbolised here.

    However, if grouped together with the other events that are being depicted, (which it is) they all add up to something much more awesome than judgment on Israel – it is that God has just acted powerfully in history through the death of His perfectly obedient Son, to achieve the single greatest goal of His Kingdom – the salvation of humanity through the judgment on sin that brings us back into the presence of God and gives life eternal to all who believe.

    Matt 27: 52-53
    ….The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. 53 They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people.

    I believe that the Roman centurion was terrified at the awesomeness of the power that was manifested at the point of Christ’s death (just as the people were when God appeared to Moses on the mountain) and this manifestation of power immediately demonstrated that this was in fact the Son of God and that they had just crucified Him! His fear stemmed from this revelation, not from a prophetic sign that pointed to judgment coming to Israel. This must have been a “..rocks hide us and mountains fall on us!!” moment for him and the others gathered who had sanctioned His crucifixion.

    I think this also makes sense in light of Matt. 28:2-4; “There was a violent earthquake , for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. 4 The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.” The Kingdom of God broke into the world again – there was another earthquake and another lot of awe inspired fear.

    In Acts 16 we read of another earthquake after Paul and Silas had been worshipping the Lord in prison, where the foundations of the prison are shaken. This type of earthquake also appears many times throughout the book of Revelation and in particular in Revelation 8 where it is a result of the prayers of the saints being mixed with incense and fire from the altar and then being hurled to the earth – these earthquakes are all related to the immense power involved when great actions of the Kingdom of God are taking place.

    This being clear, ie that the earthquake was a manifestation of God’s power at work rather than a sign of impending judgement for Israel, all the events following Christ’s death, including the tearing of the curtain fall into place and make sense.

    I believe therefore, that the tearing of the curtain, the earthquake, the tombs breaking open and the saints coming to life are symbolic of what I mentioned previously (ie. through Christ’s death and resurrection, humanity’s sins are judged in full, we are we are brought back into God’s presence and given eternal life through faith.) There is something much bigger here than the judgment coming to Israel and the destruction coming to the temple in AD.70. This is the single greatest event in human history and in the history of God’s Kingdom and it took all of God’s immense power to accomplish it. God’s Son had successfully completed his mission and it was utterly awesome at a universal level, not just a minor national one.

    The enormity of the Grace and goodness of God was being demonstrated here – with aftershocks of signs and wonders and Israel’s rejection of their Christ was certainly not going to dictate proceedings or upstage this cataclysmic fulfilment of God’s purposes!

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Darien. I’m not denying that there is salvation happening at the cross. That’s definitely the good news. But the salvation that occurs is a new thing. It is a new covenant that is established because the old covenant is being brought to an end. In all the Gospels, but especially in Matthew, Jesus’ ministry occurs to and within Israel. And the announcement of the kingdom is given to Israel. Jesus throughout Matthew is portrayed as a new Moses—the broker of a new covenant. He survives as an infant despite the attempts of a monarch to take his life. He comes out of Egypt. He ascends a mountain and discusses law with God’s people. He gathers a group of twelve around him. But in the background of all this is the failure of the nation to repent. They don’t repent—they crucify him. However, there is the small faithful remnant of Israel that gathers around him that listen to his voice and survive the cataclysm to come—the destruction of the nation and its temple. It’s only with the end of the old covenant and the judgement on the old covenant people of God that the new covenant can be established, beginning with the faithful remnant of Israel: the apostles. From there, the new covenant is preached to all nations. But this can only occur because judgement has been flagged for the old covenant people of God. So, it’s not that there is only judgement at the cross. There is both judgement and salvation. However, the tearing of the curtain is very specifically on the judgement side of the ledger. The temple is to be destroyed as part of the judgement. However, even within this there is ultimately a good outcome, because the new covenant does require a temple building anyway (see Hebrews).

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