Sunday, September 16, 2012

Mark 15:37-39 Tearing down the Temple’s Veil

Powerful images such as the tearing of the temple’s curtain take on a life of their own in our understanding. We tend to assume the curtain must have been a problem. We also tend to assume that the curtain represented the sacrificial system, or the legal code behind it, or the even the priesthood; all of which must have inherently prevented people from direct access to God. While it is actually quite common for scripture to lament over the inadequacy of the sacrificial system, its inability to accommodate God’s full glory, its inability to change the heart of the individual toward obedience, and its tendency toward corruption and abuse, our modern aversion to rules and suspicion of institutions warps our perception of these internal critiques and prevent us from reading scripture as it was intended to be understood by its original audience.

Most of us understand the message behind the tearing of the temple curtain as one about removing the obstacle to our direct access to God. This interpretation is sooooo obvious to us, however, that its authenticity as a true ancient interpretation should be questioned. Would a first century Jew (or Roman), who could participate in the sacrificial system of priests and worship viscerally, feel that such a system kept them far from God? Or would they rather feel that it drew them in, dangerously close to God's presence?

This "access" understanding of the tearing of the veil can only be rooted in a post-Reformation Christianity obsessed with its own inner debates about the role of Roman Catholic priests. Nothing in the three accounts of this event suggests that Jesus' followers tried to physically enter the Holy of Holies when it happened. The surrounding passages, indeed the whole of Mark, never hint at any tension concerning access to God that needed resolve. Nor is there any evidence in the four decades the structure was left standing that any New Testament leader encouraged abandonment of either temple protocol or temple worship.

On the contrary, in the book of Acts, the Spirit baptized early church is lauded for gathering in the temple regularly (2:46). If the temple system of worship had become such a blockade to God, why would they gather there? And why would they gather there if not to participate in its prayers and offerings? Paul himself shaved his hair in the fulfillment of a vow in Acts 18:18, which could only be the Nazarite Vow which implicitly would have culminated in a sacrifice preformed by priests. Nor is this convention an isolated incident, for Paul was urged by the Jerusalem church leadership to assist others in this same kind of vow in order to show submission to the temple laws and traditions set up by Moses (21:24). Moreover, Paul testifies before a court that he came to Jerusalem to deliver alms and present offerings (24:17-18). The only reason to come to Jerusalem to present offerings is to do so at the temple. Clearly there is a disconnect when a modern reader, who is far removed from the temple's actual practices, reads about a destructive sign that takes place in it.

So what is this miracle intended to convey? There is a much better way to interpret this story than guessing what the author meant by including it. To pontificate about the tearing of the veil apart from the author’s use of it is like stealing a self-assembly product out of its box from a store and leaving the instructions behind. You will inevitably end up with left over, unused verses for which no one can account. A much easier (and safer) way to interpret is to examine how each gospel integrates the event into its teaching. For brevity sake, let us examine how the author of Mark weaves the tearing of the veil into his account.

Apocalyptic Judgment

Two main theories have emerged in scholarship about the “velum scissum,” the tearing of the veil. One, epitomized by Craig Evans1, views the tearing of the veil as primarily an act of judgment against a corrupt temple. In Mark 11 and 12, Jesus is found criticizing the temple’s leaders and predicting its structural demise. Here, by bounding the story of the fruitless tree with a temple void of pious prayer, the overt implication is that the temple also lacking fruit. The cursing of the one implies the withering of the other. But is Jesus critical of temple worship or temple fraud? The next chapter continues this same theme. In it we find the parable of the wicked tenant farmers, who must be overthrown in order to give the farm to others. The text is explicit at this point, “the religious leaders wanted to arrest Jesus because they realized he was telling the story against them – they were the wicked farmers” (v12 NLT). All these destructive apocalyptic judgments pronounced by Jesus remain unfulfilled even after he is affixed by nails to the cross in chapter 15. In this same chapter the onlookers mock Jesus that he will never be able to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days as he claimed he would (v29). A mere ten verses later, the tearing of the veil takes place immediately after Jesus shouts with a loud voice and dies. This juxtaposition of the two events is not random. The author wants us to visualize a final pronouncement of Jesus, shouted in a booming voice, which causes the tearing of the veil.

There exists evidence in the literature of the time that the temple curtain stood as a symbol of the entire temple,2 and that the end of the temple would be marked by the cutting of its veil, “into small pieces.”3 In this way Evans see the ripping of the veil as the ripping of the temple itself, the beginning of its destruction, a token fulfillment of Jesus’ predictions which comes to fruition by the Roman army four decades later.

Five centuries earlier, God had also brought judgment against the temple in Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians. This previous destruction, however, was never interpreted as a condemnation of the divinely instituted sacrificial system per se, but rather against the wickedness of the people who operated it. Otherwise God’s prophets would never have sought to resurrect the temple system in the first place. There is no reason to think that Jesus’ judgment of the temple was any different. In the tenant farmers parable, the farm is not evil. It is the workers that are evil. The real problem was that greed had replaced prayer, and that murder had replaced recognizing the time of God’s visitation.  

Repeated Pattern

There is good reason to think that the theology of the gospel writer runs deeper even than this theme of judgment. The author of Mark has deliberately phrased his account of the ripping of the veil in the language of the ripping of the heavens at Jesus’ water baptism.4 Both accounts reference the prophet Elijah, the first in the figure of John the Baptist, the second in the misunderstanding by the Romans of Jesus’ words. In both accounts something is ripped (σχιζω), first the heavens, and then the veil. In both accounts the author is careful to detail that this rending occurs in a downward direction, from top to bottom. Particularly intriguing about the association between the heavens and the veil is the little know fact that the outer veil of the temple was embroidered to look like the heavens.5 Thus Josephus describes this outer visible veil as being covered by, "a panorama of the entire heavens"6 The reference to the Spirit in the first account, and Jesus “breathing out” in the second account are both based on the same Greek root (πνευμα). In the first account God’s thunderous voice is heard, while in the second there is deliberate highlight of Jesus’ loud voice (φωνη). And both culminate in a proclamation that Jesus is son (υιος) of God. In addition to these linguistic parallels are literary parallels between the two accounts. One happens at the beginning of Jesus ministry while the other happens at the end. Furthermore, the connotations of death in water baptism mirror Jesus’ actual death at his crucifixion. In Mark 10:38-39, Jesus even refers to his coming death as a baptism. There can be no doubt that the gospel writer wants us as readers to see these two events together. Buy why?

Apocalyptic Revelation

Daniel Gurtner finds the answer to this question in the apocalyptic literature of the time.7 While destructive judgment may be described as “apocalyptic,” this is only one facet of Jewish apocalyptic literature. Features much more prominent in this genre are heavenly secrets which must leak through breaches in heavens gates in order to come to mortals.8 Thus the gospel author may be drawing our attention to the ripping of the heavens/veil in order to suggest that a piece of revelation has escaped heaven and been made know to humanity. It is natural to look for the content of this divine mystery in the dual statements of both God and the Roman soldier, that Jesus’ is “son of God”. In this light, the veil is not rent so people may enter to God, but so that revelation about Jesus may exit the temple. The messianic secret had gotten “out” so to speak.

Ripped Curtain, Ripped Messiah.

There is yet one more layer to consider that is not beyond the ability or artistry of Mark’s author. As a master theologian and story teller, the author has used some miracles as illustrations of the theological journey the disciples (and hence readers of Mark) have tread concerning the seemingly conflicted role of Jesus.9 One must ask whether the author intends the ripping of the veil to represent the shattering of a false theological picture of Jesus’ messianic role. That even the disciples of Jesus expected him to assume rule as God’s anointed leader speaks to how deeply seated the idea of messianic triumph was in Jewish milieu. In context, the author’s theology is not just that Jesus is messiah, but that this messiah must himself be torn, just as the temple curtain is torn. The tearing of the temple’s curtain thus becomes a way of demonstrating the perfection of the paradox concerning Jesus’ own demise. As uncomfortable an idea as messiah’s defeat may have been, experiencing the tear in the curtain shocks the reader the into a place of understanding and acceptance that Jesus can die and still be rightful messiah. Here, the tearing of the veil is used the same way a modern movie often accompanies self-realization with a lightning bolt in the background or a light bulb which turns on. Torn asunder with the veil is any preconceived notion we may have had that God's messiah must never lose. Jesus’ death and the tearing of the veil are one, because for Mark, Jesus is the veil. This realization is the moment the author of Mark has been driving toward, indeed, the climax of his theology.

Book of Hebrews

Now that we have dealt honestly with the Gospel of Mark and examined how the evangelist himself attempts to interpret the velum scissum, we may turn to an oft misunderstood reference to the veil in the book of Hebrews. In this book (as opposed to Mark) “access” to God is a major issue. It is, however, a gross miscalculation to retrofit this issue onto the tearing of the veil or assume that the veil was thought of as a problem.

First, of the three references to the veil in Hebrews (6:19, 9:3, 10:20), none describes it as being a problem or needing to be removed. Second, the veil being spoken of is not the one that was torn, but its divine counterpart in heaven. In the clearest reference, 10:19-20, the “entrance” (καταπετασματος) is modified by three clauses: 1) it is the entrance of the holy place, 2) it is opened (ενεκαινισεν) for us, 3) and it is way fresh and living. The author is interested in how this way was opened and qualifies this action with the clause, “through (δια) the veil.” The verb “opened” or “consecrated” need not indicate tearing (σχιζω) in any sense. It can simply mean that a gateway functioned as it was intended, by opening. The preposition (δια) also does not naturally lend itself to splitting, but rather indicates either a direction of motion (as in entrance), or more likely in this case the means through which a thing is accomplished.

The first word which smacks of destruction implicitly is “flesh”. By equating the heavenly veil with the “sacrificed” flesh of Jesus, the author is asserting that Jesus’ bodily death is the veil through which we must pass to enter heaven. It is this veil which Jesus “opened” for us. Having inside knowledge that that early Christians identified Jesus’ death with the tearing of the physical veil offers a rare glimpse into the origin of this theological picture of Jesus’ body and how they wrestled to understand his death. Through this visualization, a first century Jew could appropriate what would otherwise be incomprehensible, the abandonment and defeat of God’s anointed leader.  

So What?

The message of Hebrews is not that the veil of the temple unnecessarily hindered people from being near God. The message is that Jesus functions as a curtained entrance to heaven, its most sacred gate, a gate which still shuts out those who refuse to enter through it. Gates are by nature filters. They are meant to keep out some while admitting others. The veil in the temple properly functioned in this regard, keeping out everyone except the high priest once a year. Heaven above is a temple, with a thick impassible curtain, for no tainted mortal should be in God’s presence, nor can any withstand God’s presence without certain safety measures. This heavenly curtain is the death of Jesus. Either we enter by it, or we don’t enter at all.

The theology stemming from the temple’s veil in the book of Hebrews and Mark are complimentary and parallel. Neither suggests that the ripping of the veil overturned any God ordained law. Rather both seek to identify Jesus’ death with the veil itself. Previous to Jesus’ death the masses did not have liberty to heaven. The temple’s curtain did not cause this restriction, nor would its removal rectify it. As identified by Isaiah, who lived in the days of one of God’s temples:

“But your sinful acts have alienated you from your God…. For this reason deliverance is far from us and salvation does not reach us….” nevertheless, “A protector comes to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their rebellious deeds, says the LORD.” (NET Isaiah 59:2, 9 ,20)

Jesus’ death becomes a gateway to heaven precisely because it rectifies this sin issue by both protecting the repentant and transforming them into saints. 

1. Mark 8:27 – 16:20, Word Biblical Commentary, 34b.

2. In Sirach 50, the temple is referred to as, “the house of the veil”.

3. The Lives of the Prophets, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha,  ed. Charlesworth, 2:239.

4. David Ulansey, The Heavenly Veil Torn: Mark's Cosmic "Inclusio". Journal of Biblical Literature 110:1 (Spring 1991) pp. 123-25

5. Ibid.

6. Jewish Wars 5.5.4 §§ 212-14. Trans. adapted from H. St. J. Thackeray, Josephus (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979) vol. 3, p. 265.

7. Daniel Gurtner, "The Rending of the Veil and Markan christology: "unveiling" the 'ΥΟΙΣ ΘΕΟΥ' (Mark 15:38-39)" Biblical Interpretation 15 no 30 2007, pg 292-306.

8. Ibid, 302.

9. For example, the double touch healing of a blind man in Mark 9 serves to illustrate how Peter has realized (finally) that Jesus is the messiah, but is slow to “see” that this means that he must suffer and die. Peter is a “half seeing” disciple, just as the blind man became “half seeing” before he was fully healed.

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