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There are three gospel accounts that mention the torn veil:

    • Matthew 27:51 NKJV - Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split,
    • Mark 15:38 NKJV - Then the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.
    • Luke 23:45 NKJV - Then the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was torn in two.

Yet, Josephus makes no mention of the torn veil. [a]

This seems like an event many priests and Jews would have noticed. However, it does not seem to be present in any historical works that I've seen.


How do we reconcile this with scripture?

4 Answers 4

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The most likely explanation is that no one witnessed the invent, and the torn curtain/veil was not noticed until much later. When it was eventually discovered, Christians saw a correlation between the torn veil and the crucifixion, but Jews did not.

Here is why: Only the high priest was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies, and even then only at Yom Kippur, in the autumn of the year. Also, in this period, historical sources indicate there were two curtains protecting the Holy of Holies, so that anyone entering the outer chamber would not notice a tear in the inner veil. The Jewish Encyclopedia, based on Talmudic records, says:

In the Herodian Temple the Holy of Holies was divided off from the rest of the hekal by... two curtains, a cubit apart, partitioned the inner chamber from the outer room.

Thus, attendants in the outer chamber would not notice if the inner curtain were torn. Even after an earthquake, they would remain in the outer area, as was it forbidden to go further until the high priest would do so several months later. When the damage became known, it would have been quietly repaired. This being at least half a year after the crucifixion, Jewish authorities would not be likely to connect the two events.

On the other hand, we learn from Acts 6:7 that "a large group of priests" had become Christians after the Pentecost experience. These priests would be likely to know of the repairs to the inner veil. As Christians, they or the apostles would associate the tear with the crucifixion. Thus, what was a question of straightforward temple maintenance for Jews became a portent of great significance for Christians.

Conclusion: The crucifixion of Jesus is the central event in the Gospel narratives but plays virtually no role in Jewish history. Temple authorities probably did not notice the torn veil/curtain in the Temple because it was not time yet for the high priest to enter the Holy of Holies. When it became known, the tear was much more significant to Christians - who connected it with the crucifixion, than to Jews, who might not even have known when the tear occurred or remembered the earthquake as clearly as Christians did.

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    The high priest would have had a strong incentive to advoid saying/writing anything that helped Christianity. Apr 24 at 11:46
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    @IanRingrose: I doubt it. Recall that (1) at the time, Christianity was still a relatively small "cult", and (2) the priesthood was controlled by the Sadducees, who played a relatively tiny role in the New Testament compared to the Pharisees. Apr 24 at 17:21
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    That the crucifixion was unimportant for the Jews at that time can be easily seen by the number of Messiah candidates running around in that time period. From the point of view of the Jews, Jesus was just one of the dozens of false messiahs, several of whom were executed if they gathered enough followers to be seen as troublesome (like John the Baptist for example)
    – vsz
    Apr 25 at 10:32
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    This makes me wonder how the gospel writers knew that the veil tore at the moment of Jesus' death. That is, if it wasn't found till much later. +1
    – Jason_
    Apr 26 at 4:06
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    @Jason_ Then those priests who heard it, who later became Christians, would have told the gospel writers. Perhaps some of them might have almost immediately declared faith in Christ. Remember, priests went daily into the Holy part. One answer says Jewish literature recorded “The Door of the Temple proper opened of its own accord, mysteriously.” Some priests would have been sound witnesses, and if two or more of them told the apostles, that would have confirmed the matter to them.
    – Anne
    May 2 at 10:10
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Earth-shaking Events Earth-shaking events regarding the Temple did not go unnoticed in Jewish literature, even though the torn-veil is not mentioned. These, according to the Jewish literature, happened 40 years before the Destruction of Jerusalem. (=30 A.D.)

(1) The Door of the Temple proper opened of its own accord, mysteriously.
(2) The lot for the scapegoat appeared in the different hand than was customary, when drawn out by lots.
(3) The Sanhedrin had to begin meeting in a different place than the Temple mount (earthquake damage?).
(4) The continuously-burning light on the Temple mount that was used to light all the other ("campus" lights there) was extinguished! The Temple was shrouded in darkness.
(5)The power of "capital punishment" was taken away.

The inner Curtain (Veil) of the Holy of Holies being torn would not have been seen by the normal, outer court worshippers since only the High Priest was allowed in there once a year on the Day of Atonement much later in the year (appx. September). The Passover (crucifixion) happened in April (approximately).

There were enough number of traumatic events openly experienced to let the Jews know something tragic was happening. Even though the torn veil wasn't one of them listed as noticed.

[Jerusalem Talmud, Jacob Neusner, The Yerushalmi, p. 156-157; Babylonian Talmud, Soncino version, Yoma 39b]

Addendum Consider how embarrassing it would be to the rabbis and high priest when they became aware of such a horrendous breach of the veil that revealed NO Shekinah Glory shining in there (representing No Presence of God).

Jesus High Priest Since there is now no more physical Temple nor physical Holy of Holies, a physical veil is of no consequence, whole or torn. But spiritually, believers do still have a precious Day of Atonement every day, with a High Priest interceding for us!

Having therefore, brothers, boldness to enter into the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way---which He has consecrated for us through the veil, that is to say, His flesh---and having a High Priest over the House of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith... (Hebrews 10:19-22)

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    Great points. I hadn't heard about "The lot for the scapegoat appeared in the different hand than was customary, when drawn out by lots." Where might I read up on this? (I'll give you +1 after my votes renew!)
    – Jason_
    May 2 at 18:35
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  1. Only someone who believed God's revelation of the Law to Moses would see any significance in the veil tearing from top to bottom.

  2. While we most likely know about the torn veil from Jewish leaders who believe Jesus was the Messiah, the Jewish leaders who did not believe Jesus was the Messiah tried to cover up and even destroy the evidence.

a. Notice how they delt with Jesus healing the man born blind in John 9.

b. In John 11:9-11 the leaders sought to kill Lazarus because many people believed Jesus because of Jesus raising him from the dead.

c. In Matthew 28:11-15 The chief priests paid the guards to say the disciples stole the body.

Thus, it is not surprising that only Christians reported this.

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I think it's a little hard to deal with your question since any answer is going to be an argument from silence. But, let me share some thoughts.

  1. From a 1st CE perspective, Christians appear to have latched onto the association between "Messiah crucified" and "torn veil". Jews would act to not promote that same story. The whole idea of a crucified Messiah was a "stumbling block" to them. I prefer the term snare, or better, catch-22. That is, the Jews either crucified their Messiah, or they don't have one. It's a lose-lose for them. Best (from their perspective) to ignore it altogether.
  2. There's a natural reticence to express in history events that paint your failures. As they say, "history is written by the victors." So, historiography is inherently positive from a given perspective. A Temple Veil rip would portray that either God is mad at you, or he is impotent. Neither of which a Jew would want to record in history. Sometimes there's no choice. Like the Exile, or Germany's recording of the Holocaust. Those aren't secret to begin with. A torn veil? Something only Priests would see? Let's hush that one under the rug. Especially when what it probably means is so bad.
  3. It wouldn't have been too hard to repair it to the point that no-one really noticed. So, the story was easy to make disappear. The veil wasn't commonly seen anyway.
  4. Jews had no explanation. So, don't give one. It's not like we never see such responses by human nature today in political and religious and power contexts. Change the subject to some other office gossip.
  5. Interestingly, Christians learned of the event. So, one argument that is not from silence, is that there apparently was a leak. And the Christians latched onto it. Three gospels record it like each author wanted to make sure this story got out, even though there's so little detail that the telling of it appears almost parenthetical. So, the Jewish silence tends to suggest that the silence was commanded by those in power. But, someone leaked it.
  6. Josephus was a shrewd historian and it appears that the history he writes is compromised with his protecting his own skin. If there was a "hush this story or else" rule, he would have likely followed the rule.

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