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)
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. He 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.
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!
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.
This 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.