A Question of When: The Temple Veil

Again, prompted by an article by Mr. Daniel Florien, I will examine the question, “When did the temple veil rip?

The Claim

That Mark, Matthew and Luke give different times of the tearing of the temple veil, and thus contradict each other — Mark says after Jesus dies, Matthew says during or after, and Luke says before.

The Examination

The Three Accounts — Different?

Here are the quoted verses, including the portions emphasized by Mr. Florien:

Mark:

“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)

(This “and” (και) must mean to Mr. Florien an explicit ‘after,’ when in fact the two events are not given a straightforward time relation, which would indicate they happened simultaneously or possibly that the second happened directly after, for example, as a result of the first.)

Matthew:

“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, NRSV)

(The NRSV does indeed read “at that moment,” but this is a superfluous addition to the original Greek, which reads ιδου which is not at all a measure of time, but rather it is a verb in the imperative, meaning behold or lo. Young’s Literal, which was more painstaking in its care not to add anything, does not add this “at this moment,” which is not in the Bible. What is there, ιδου, suggests a simultaneous occurrence or one that is a direct result (he died and behold! this happened). So far, so same.)

Luke:

“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)

(Again, this “then,” which does appear in the NRSV, is not in the Greek. The actual Bible says “and” (και) again, just like it did in Mark. His telling the events in a different order is not problematic, especially if the two events happened simultaneously. More on the “how did they know” below.)

Now, the following are from Young’s Literal Translation:

Mark 15:37-38. 37And Jesus having uttered a loud cry, yielded the spirit, 38and the veil of the sanctuary was rent in two, from top to bottom,

Matthew 27:50-51. 50And Jesus having again cried with a great voice, yielded the spirit; 51and lo, the vail of the sanctuary was rent in two from top unto bottom, and the earth did quake, and the rocks were rent,

Luke 23:44-46. 44And it was, as it were, the sixth hour, and darkness came over all the land till the ninth hour, 45and the sun was darkened, and the vail of the sanctuary was rent in the midst, 46and having cried with a loud voice, Jesus said, `Father, to Thy hands I commit my spirit;’ and these things having said, he breathed forth the spirit.

It is hoped that after looking, everyone will see the difference between the Literal Translation of the Greek and the NRSV that Mr. Florien is dismissing, as well as see the lack of a difference between the gospel stories.

How would they know?

Florien then asks how the gospel writers would have known the time the veil tore in two, since they didn’t have watches, there was no video, and the veil wasn’t near Jesus.

One possibility is that, since the temple sanctuary was a very sacred and very important place to the Jews, the area behind the veil the holiest, for it to be rent in two would be sensational to them; it would be the talk of the town, at least for a while (until the veil gets replaced, at the very least). They would have learned about it from all over; the people, for a while, would be talking about the day the temple tore in half and what time it was and what they were doing when it happened. It would not be difficult at all for the apostles to realize that it happened at the same time their Teacher died. Also, the strangeness of its tearing from top to bottom and, as Mr. Florien says, its being 4-inches thick and just ripping, would add to the sensation.

He says it didn’t happen at all

Because the first written mention of the veil ripping in two is in the Bible, and no Jewish or Roman sources mention it, Mr. Florien dismisses the possibility of its occurrence.

Conclusion

The translation which Mr. Florien criticizes for being inconsistent is a mistranslation. The accounts in the Greek say the same thing on this matter — it is the NRSV, not the Bible, which contains the “at this moment” and the “then” which have caused him to come to the conclusion of a contradiction in the timing of an event. The basis of his argument is an erroneous English translation; what he is criticizing is extra-Biblical, not written by the Evangelists.

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2 thoughts on “A Question of When: The Temple Veil

  1. Austin says:

    Well the veil of the temple must not have torn, then, right? I mean that’s a possibility, and a likely one at that. If you examine the Bible critically, you’ll come to find that people in those days wrote things down not for the sake of preserving the history of reality, but for the sake of a theological point. The veil represents the barrier between God and man, and the Christ bridged that gap, broke that barrier. That’s the purpose of the event described. If it did not serve the author that purpose, even if it actually happened, it probably wouldn’t have been recorded in the accounts. On a side note it’s important to recognize that Matthew and Luke are probably written independent of each other, but they both probably used a copy of Mark as a source. Therefore, it wasn’t so much that all Christians everywhere came to believe this story right off the bat, but that it was included in the gospel accounts because of its importance within the Markan narrative.

    • Austin says:

      Also, with the translation issues… Mark used the phrases: “and immediately,” and “then,” as a grammatical device. He doesn’t literally mean that. “immediately,” in ancient Greek, was a typical conjunction to bridge parts of a narrative together. It’s sort of like when we say, “And then…” when we mean to tell a story in an engaging manner. It was a Greek grammatical construction that Mark overused (the author of Mark is decidedly a bad writer of Greek — the authors of Matthew and Luke used his accounts, but they cleaned up his Greek a lot). So I think this issue is not really that big of a deal.

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