Friday, June 14, 2013

Pay No Attention to the Dead Man Behind the Curtain

Once sentenced to His fate, Jesus carried the cross to His own crucifixion, at least according to John. The other Gospels suggest that a man named Simon carried it for Him.

While hanging on the cross, Jesus possibly granted Salvation to one of the two thieves who were crucified at the same time as Him; "possibly" because Luke alone recorded this forgiveness of the repentant thief, while Matthew and Mark record that both thieves mocked Jesus instead. Then the sun stopped shining for three hours; which is an event unsubstantiated by John, or by resources outside of the Bible, or by physics, but we are talking about miracles here.

Pay No Attention to the Dead Man Behind the Curtain

Jesus died. Like everyone else will experience, His mortal body stopped its life-sustaining functions. Of course, it was only a partial death for Him, because His spirit went on living, even before His body was resurrected. Unlike anyone else, Jesus' death was accompanied by miracles as He took His last breath. Let us take a fateful look at this moment of death.

We will examine Matthew 27:50-53, Mark 15:37-38, Luke 23:45-46, and John 19:30. This time, we will begin with John.

John 19:30 goes like this:
When He had received the drink, Jesus said, "It is finished." With that, He bowed His head and gave up His spirit. NIV
It was a quiet, solemn release. Jesus' work was done, for now, so, with a bow of His head, He shed His mortal body. It was an understated, yet powerful scene. Even beautiful. Now let us turn to the Synoptic Gospels to see how they will mess it up, beginning with Mark, who was the source for the other two.

In Mark 15:37-38 we find:
With a loud cry, Jesus breathed His last. The curtain of the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom. NIV
So, no quiet, solemn release here. Instead, Jesus yelled. There are no details of what this cry was, so we can only guess, and given that it was the moment of death, a reasonable guess would certainly be something along the lines of a guttural gasp of pain or anguish.

The curtain of the Temple... what curtain are they talking about? Well, we have dig a little into the background to understand this. The layout of the Temple was strongly inspired from the mobile version of the Temple called the Tabernacle. With the Tabernacle, a perimeter fence of curtains established the Tabernacle grounds, or courtyard, where the altar for burnt offerings was on display and put into use.

Inside that courtyard was a tent, sometimes referred to as the Tent of Meeting, and that tent was subdivided into two chambers.

The first tent chamber, known as the Holy Place, where the golden lampstand, altar of incense, and table of the showbread were kept according to God's instructions.

Separating the first chamber from the second was heavy, decorative, purple curtain (Exodus 26:31-33).

The second tent chamber, known as the Most Holy Place (a.k.a. Holy of Holies), contained (among other things) the Ark of the Covenant and the Atonement Cover (a.k.a. Mercy Seat), and hosted the very presence of God. Literally, God was there, which is why prayers were directed towards it (Psalm 28:2), and why in Leviticus 16:2 we read:
The Lord said to Moses: “Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come whenever he chooses into the Most Holy Place behind the curtain in front of the atonement cover on the ark, or else he will die. For I will appear in the cloud over the atonement cover. NIV
This verse was obviously written with no intent of the High Priest having a close, personal relationship with God, as God would kill him if he showed up at non-appointed times. Anyway, back to the torn curtain...

The curtain which Mark referenced is undoubtedly the curtain separating the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place. While nearly every other part of the facade of the Tabernacle and Tent of Meeting were replaced by stone or wood, this curtain remained integral to the Temple design. So ripping open the only vale between God and the people would be both symbolic of removal of the barrier between God and man, as well as a more literal indication that God had left the building.

There is a big problem here though... how did anyone know about the curtain; that it was ripped, that the rip corresponded to Jesus' time of death, and that the direction of the rip was top to bottom?

It was torn in two, so to know the direction of the tear (other than with the assistance of modern CSI technology) would have been impossible without an eye witness, but that seems unlikely. Access to this holy place was very, very restricted, thanks largely to verses like Exodus 28:43:
Aaron and his sons must wear them whenever they enter the Tent of Meeting or approach the altar to minister in the Holy Place, so that they will not incur guilt and die. "This is to be a lasting ordinance for Aaron and his descendants." NIV
With this restricted access, and factoring that access is not permitted at non-appointed times, the chances of there being a witness to this event are statistically very small.

Yet even assume that there was a witness or two, we still have the fact that the witnesses would have been the religious elite, and would have been under no obligation, and certainly no motivation, to reveal to anyone that the curtain had been torn, let alone in what direction the tearing took place. Releasing such easily-concealed information would have been damning evidence against themselves. So, again, how is it that Mark knows anything about this curtain?

Now we come to Matthew. Matthew polished up Mark's verbiage a little more that usual, as Matthew 27:50 reveals:
And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, He gave up His spirit. NIV
The "again" could convey a few different things. Least likely, but still possible, is inference of just some loud, nondescript utterance. Instead it may have been an intelligible cry, similar but different to the "Why have you forsaken me?" cry in Matthew 27:46, but for some unknown reason the exact words not recorded. Also possible is that Matthew intended it to mean that Jesus made the exact same cry as in Matthew 27:46.

Whatever the content of that scream, it was a far cry from being a quiet passing portrayed by John. Yet, conspicuously, we find in Matthew the "He gave up His spirit", as seen in John. Given that John's lack of mentioning a cry would not guarantee that there was not one, and with other queues from across the Gospels (at least for this particular section), believers can quite reasonably claim that these different versions appear to be be describing the same event, which enhances their credibility... at least until we consider what Matthew recorded soon thereafter.

In Matthew 27:51, the Temple curtain is torn, top to bottom. No surprise there, but Matthew also aggregated onto the story that there was an earthquake at that moment too, one powerful enough to split rocks. And in Matthew 27:52-53, we find this remarkable addition:
The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus' resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people. NIV
This mini-zombie-apocalypse is not mentioned in any other Gospel. As implied above, an argument from silence is not usually a strong one, and can never be taken as solid proof, but are degrees of strength based on the circumstances of the situation. We are not talking about whether or not some speech snippet was recorded, which was essentially unessential to the story here.

Sure, the Jesus'-death-synchronized earthquake could qualify as simply just another miracle which adds trivially to the story. However, resurrected holy people is incredibly significant, possibly even more than that of Jesus! Why?

Consider this: God made man by scooping up some dirt and blowing into it (Genesis 2:7). Any God that could do that could easily bring Himself, as Jesus, back to life in the flesh. Other than it being a miracle by our standards, it is no big deal. In fact, such a God could easily bring anyone back to life.

On the other hand, the resurrection of these saints represents the fulfillment of God's promise of resurrection for the rest of us. So even more than Jesus' resurrection, the resurrection of these holy people demonstrated the veracity of God's offer of Salvation through Jesus.

The absence of this resurrection anecdote from the other Gospels, which Matthew himself barely included with a single verse, creates one of the strongest types of arguments from silence that there can be. This is because, based on the implications of the content described above, it would have been extremely advantageous to include in the other Gospel accounts, as it both reassures Salvation and it could be used to explain to those who had heard about or seen these resurrected holy people why that had occurred.

And that is just it. It probably did not occur. It is not mentioned in any other Gospel, nor in the rest of the New Testament. When you read passages like Acts 4, where Peter and John are apprehended for preaching about resurrection of the dead, their obvious, go-to defensive evidence would have been to point to these holy people coming back to life because of Jesus, but we do not find that, not even as a footnote to their speech.

OK, enough about the zombies. Let us wrap this study up with a quick look at Luke, the editor. Luke had the curtain torn in two also, but had it happen just before Jesus' death and wisely dropped the "top to bottom" directionality. Then in Luke 23:46 we read the famous line:
Jesus called out with a loud voice, "Father, into your hands I commit My spirit." When He had said this, He breathed His last. NIV
I have to applaud Luke here. Other than Jesus screaming this sentence, which seems unnecessary unless God is hard of hearing, Luke really portrayed Jesus in a beautiful moment of submission to God's Plan, but, in turn, that also portrayed Jesus as being subservient to God. So it is one more verse to muddy the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

About the Image
The image is of a triptych depicting Saint Anthony the Great (a.k.a. Anthony Abbot), with the third panel illustrating his meeting with a centaur.  You cannot make this stuff up.  :-)


  1. Great post as always.

    With regard to the little zombie uprising, do you know what the standard christian counter-argument is there? It would seem to be pretty indefensible to me.

  2. Thanks Hausdorff! I have not heard this argument made before. I came up with it independently, and have not used it in a debate.

    Usually the standard Christian/Atheist argument with this verse is the apparent contradiction with the interpretation that these dead saints came back to life before Jesus, because there are several verses in the NT where it claims that Jesus was the first to rise from the dead. (Of course, they are referring to the "final" state of resurrection as opposed to the other instances of people coming back to life.) The Christian defense to that apparent contradiction, which I find reasonable, is that the way that the verse is written could also yield the interpretation that the earthquake opened the tombs, while the saints did not come back to life until after Jesus did.

    However, back to the argument in the post, I do remember hearing that some liberal Christian scholars have decided that this zombie uprising probably did not occur. I never heard the full reasoning behind why they felt that way, but, after taking a closer look at it myself, I can certainly understand that position.

    And obviously, though I claim an independent derivation, I am not the first person to make this kind of observation! :-) Even the faithful who take time to really study it come to the same conclusion. But that is the kicker: for this argument to make any impact in a debate, you have to be dealing with a person who is willing to fully consider the situation and evaluate honestly it without feeling threatened. Unfortunately, as you know, that is far from "standard". ;-)

  3. "This mini-zombie-apocalypse is not mentioned in any other Gospel. "

    Zombie is contradictive, they were like us.. alive and brought back to original state, likewise we once didn't exist and now do, yet we aren't zombies. not being mentioned in other Gospels doesn't mean it didn't happen.

  4. Rafael, I used the term "zombie" as a figure of speech, a little playful language, not as a technical term. I am sorry if that was not clear to you.

    As for the resurrected saints and whether or not silence in the other Gospels, and Acts, means that it did or did not happen, please refer to my discussion above which begins:

    "The absence of this resurrection anecdote from the other Gospels, which Matthew himself barely included with a single verse, creates one of the strongest types of arguments from silence that there can be."