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Was the temple curtain torn before, or at the moment of, Jesus’ death?

Posted on May.03, 2009. Filed in Luke, Mark, Matthew. Average rating: 4.0 / 10 (Rate It).

In the synoptic gospels, Jesus’ death is accompanied by the tearing of the temple curtain from top to bottom. This curtain was a barrier between the Holy of Holies, God’s dwelling place which only the High Priest could enter, and the rest of the temple. It’s tearing symbolised the reconciliation between God and man accomplished through Jesus’ death on the cross. There is a discrepancy between the accounts, however, concerning whether the temple curtain was torn before Jesus died, or at the moment that Jesus died.

Luke’s account clearly describes the temple curtain being torn in two before Jesus died. The curtain is torn, then Jesus cries out, and then he breathes his last:

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 (NRSV)]

Matthew, equally clearly, has the temple curtain tear at the moment that Jesus dies:

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 27:50-51a (NRSV)]

Mark is less explicit, but seems to agree with Matthew, placing the tearing of the temple curtain at the same time as Jesus’ death: 

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)]

So was the temple curtain torn before, or at the moment of, Jesus’ death?

N.B. All posts are written in a style sympathetic to the claim of Biblical error, even in cases where the author ("Errancy") disagrees with the claim. See the About page for the site's philosophy.

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Comments

  1. 1
    WisdomLover

    In the Nestle-Aland, Luke doesn’t say “And the curtain of the temple was torn…Then Jesus, crying…”. He says “The curtain of the temple was torn…and Jesus, crying…” The initial “and” is absent, and the word rendered by the NRSV as “then”* is just “and” (kai). In the Byzantine and Textus Receptus, you do have that initial “and”, but you still have don’t have “then” you have “and”.

    Matthew doesn’t say “At that moment, the curtain…”. He says “And, behold (Kai idou), the curtain…”.**

    So nothing in the actual words of Scripture implies an ordering of these events. The loud cry and final breath might have occurred before, during or after the rending of the veil and all of the Gospel words would be consistent with the events.

    Now, in fairness, the Gospels are telling a story with events in order. So when we see A, and B, and C, We assume A, then B, then C. But when you’re listing events like this, and two events are simultaneous, one still must be listed first. Another way you could put this is that an account like this represents at best a weak ordering of events. That is, “A, and B, and C” does not mean “A < B < C” it means “A <= B <= C”.

    So, even taking the time-ordered narrative context of the Gospel words into account the most you get is that Matthew said that the loud cry and final breath occurred before or at the same time as the rending of the veil, while Luke said that the rending of the veil occurred before or at the same time as the loud cry and final breath.

    With all of this in mind, the harmonization of the accounts is straightforward: The rending of the veil occurred at the same time as the loud cry and final breath. Matthew and Luke both report these events, separating them with the word “and” (kai).

    ———————
    * Other renderings of “kai” at the beginning of Luke 23:46 –

    NASB “and”
    ESV “then”
    KJV “and”
    NIV “.”
    ASV “and”

    Literal Translations:
    DBY “and”
    YLT “and”

    ** Only the NIV agrees with the NRSV on “At that moment…” for “Kai idou”. Every other major translation I’ve checked says “And, behold!” or “And, lo!” (including the Literal translations)

  2. 2
    Errancy

    I agree: there isn’t enough chronology in the Greek for this to be as serious a problem as it first appears.

    First of all, the Greek “κ&alhpa;τ” doesn’t have the same chronological implications as the English “then”. Instead of the explicit temporal sequence of an “A, then B, then C” we have the implied but defeasible temporal sequence of an “A, and B, and C”.

    This means that Luke doesn’t clearly place the tearing of the temple curtain before Jesus’ death, and Mark doesn’t clearly place it afterwards.

    Second, “&kai;αι ιδου” doesn’t have any chronological implications at all. It comes from “ειδον”, “see”, and is used to draw attention to something notable in a narrative.

    This means that Matthew doesn’t clearly place the tearing of the curtain at the same moment as Jesus’ death. (My guess is that the NRSV uses “At that moment” to try to capture the prominence that Matthew gives to the tearing of the curtain without using an archaism such as “Lo!” or “Behold!”, and that the temporal implications are accidental.)

    So what was the order of events? Is it Luke that lists the events out of chronological order, or is it Matthew and Mark? I think that that we usually presume that “A, and B, and C” lists of events are in chronological order unless we can identify some other ordering principle that’s being used (with the strength of the presumption depending on the context), so what other ordering principle might be being used?

    It looks to me as though Luke’s list could well be out of chronological order, with the tearing of the curtain grouped with the other supernatural event that took place: the darkness from noon until 3pm. That would leave us able to read Matthew and Mark’s accounts as listing the events in chronological order without having to see them as contradicting Luke.

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