Answering Ehrman: Did the Temple Curtain Rip Before or After Jesus Died?

The following is a guest post by Jacob Varghese, who is the director of SAFT Apologetics. (Seeking Answers, Finding Truth). You can find his website at saftapologetics.com and also follow him on Instagram at instagram.com/saftapologetics/.

Recently a friend of mine placed before me a couple of Biblical contradictions raised by Bart Ehrman, in his presentation at the 2019 Defenders Conference, for me to try and solve. One of the contradictions was concerning the tearing of the veil and its temporal placement in relation to Jesus’ death on the cross.

The account is recorded in Mark 15:37-39, Matthew 27:50-51, and Luke 23: 45-46. Admittedly this alleged contradiction had me puzzling in the beginning. As I couldn’t (nor one of my apologetics powerhouse friends) find anything on the web, I had to work from scratch. 

The problem seemed to fade away when I looked at the Greek text. Across all three accounts of the torn veil the phrase that serves as a conjoiner is Καὶ (and). The only difference in Matthew is that right after using and, Matthew draws attention to the torn veil with the word behold. The word Καὶ has no temporal implication. Just as saying ‘take bread and butter from the table’ doesn’t necessarily follow that butter must have been taken only after the bread was taken, there is no strict reason to say that the veil was torn only after the death of Christ.

It could just be that Luke placed this phrase textually before the other phrase, unlike Mark and Matthew. Consider these two instances. In Matthew 27:47 the bystanders say that Jesus must be calling out to Elijah. Their utterance of this statement is caused by the preceding cry of Jesus. In this instance, no author can posit, contra to logic, that the ridicule preceded Jesus’ cry. Any such recording would be both logically contradictory as well as internally contradictory to the other Gospel accounts. But is this the case in our alleged contradiction? We’ll see in a minute. 

In verse 48 we see καὶ εὐθέως (and immediately) as a person runs with a sponge. Here the usage of the word immediately qualifies and; it implies a temporal connection here. The person running with the sponge is a phrase that is textually placed after the preceding phrase and is temporally placed to be consequent to the preceding phrase. There is no ambiguity here and any detraction from this form of a presentation by any author won’t be textually or logically contradictory but would be contradictory to what the other Gospels record.

Therefore we do not see any textual contradiction in the way Luke, Mark, and Matthew describes the event. Further, is there any logical or theological condition that necessitates the occurrence of the tearing of the veil after Jesus’ death? If so then Luke stands at the chance of contradicting logic or theology. But there is none. In fact, as my friend Brian Auten pointed out, theologically it would make sense that the veil was torn right at the moment of Jesus’ death.

This leads me to another point. Standing from Golgotha one cannot see the veil. This is because the Temple would have to be pivoted 180o for anyone standing on Golgotha to even see the Beautiful Gate, let alone the Inner Court and Altar.

So then, collecting the accounts of the events, how did Mark, Matthew, and Luke come to place the tearing of the veil right next to Jesus death when there was no way for anyone to know whether these two happened in close succession, let alone the order in which one preceded the other?

The hint is visible in Luke. Luke 23:45 places the tearing of the veil temporally consequent to the darkening of the Sun and does so by using the Greek word δὲ (then). The connecting event, that enables the writers to identify that the tearing of the veil is to be recorded near the death of Jesus, is the publicly visible event of the darkening of the sky. It is therefore impossible for anyone to claim that they know for a fact that the veil was torn prior to or after Jesus’ death on the cross.

Hence I posit that it is ridiculous to demand of any historian of any caliber that they must indubitably place the tearing of the veil either temporally before or after the death of Jesus on the cross.

Given the limited information at hand, and quite possibly influenced by the knowledge of the theological impact of Jesus’ death on the cross, the authors place the tearing of the veil adjacent to Jesus’ death on the cross and don’t leave behind any specificity as to which event preceded which event in occurrence. Here the authors are not altering, unlike Plutarch, any detail to emphasize any point. Therefore this allegation of contradiction bites the dust as I have been able to plausibly reconcile them, the bar set by Bart Ehrman.

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