by Doug Ward

The Gospel of Matthew records that at the time of Jesus' death on the cross, "the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom" (Matt 27:51, NIV).


The tearing of the temple curtain, or "veil," always has been viewed by Christians as symbolic and highly significant. However, Matthew does not pause in his narrative to discuss the meaning of this event. Neither do Mark or Luke, who also mention it (Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45).


Because the Gospels do not provide explicit interpretations of the curtain's rending, there has been room for plenty of speculation, and many possibilities have been proposed over the centuries.1 In this article I will survey some of the leading proposals, with the goal of describing as much as possible of what Matthew 27:51 has to teach us.


Torn Body and Torn Tunic

The most familiar interpretation of the torn curtain is one that appears elsewhere in the New Testament, in the Epistle to the Hebrews. The author of Hebrews encourages his readers based on the implications of this event:


"Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, ... ." (Heb 10:19-22)


The author of the epistle identifies the torn curtain as the one at the entrance to the temple's Most Holy Place and sees the curtain as symbolic of Jesus' torn body. According to this symbolism, the tearing of the curtain points to a key consequence of Jesus' sacrificial death: Christians, no longer cut off from God, can come freely before God's throne of grace in heaven (Heb. 4:14-16).


Viewing the curtain as representing Jesus' body is not the only possibility, though. Further symbolism is suggested by the wording of Matt 27:51. Scholar David Daube2 observes a connection between Matt 27:51 and 2 Kings 2:12, where the prophet Elisha rips apart his cloak in mourning when his mentor Elijah is taken away from him in a whirlwind.  Daube notes that the Aramaic word for the Temple curtain can also denote a tunic, giving a linguistic basis for associating the curtain with a garment.


A connection between Matt 27:51 and 2 Kings 2:12 makes sense in the context of Matt 27. Matthew relates that when Jesus quoted from Psalm 22:1 on the cross (vv. 45-46), bystanders thought he was calling for Elijah. Someone joked, "Let's see if Elijah comes to save him" (v. 49). In this context, the tearing of the curtain could be saying, "Here is a prophet even greater than Elijah. Elijah's departure was mourned by the tearing of Elisha's cloak. But Jesus, who will soon depart to his Father in heaven, is mourned by the tearing of the very curtain of the holy temple."


Daube shows that additional meanings are suggested when we consider the ancient custom of tearing a garment as a sign of mourning. A rabbinic tradition based on 2 Kings 2:12 and 2 Samuel 1:11-12 says that it is appropriate to leave a torn garment unrepaired when it is ripped for certain special reasons. According to the Talmud (b. Mo'ed Qatan 26a),


"These tears on the garments are not to be sewn up again: he who makes a tear for his father or his mother, his master who taught him wisdom, a patriarch, a principal of the court, for having bad news, for having heard blasphemy, when a scroll of the Torah has been burned, for seeing the ruined cities of Judea, the holy house, or Jerusalem."


Several of the items in this list can be connected with the crucifixion. The torn temple curtain can be seen as mourning the death of a great teacher of the Torah who conveyed wisdom to his disciples. Since Jesus prophesied the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, the tearing could also be a confirmation of that prophecy. One document from the early centuries of Christianity, the Clementine Recognitions, gives such an interpretation. Book 1, Chapter 41 of this document states that "the veil of the temple was rent, as in lamentation for the destruction impending over the place."


Daube also mentions the possibility that the tearing of the curtain was an answer to the high priest Caiaphas, who tore his clothes in response to what he saw as blasphemy by Jesus (Matt 26:65-66). According to this interpretation, the torn curtain was responding, "Here is the real blasphemy, that the Messiah was put to death."


Symbolism of the Curtains

Daube's analysis is impressive, but it turns out that much more can be said about the message of Matt 27:51. More recently, Daniel M. Gurtner has carried out an in-depth study of this subject in his doctoral dissertation.


Since the curtains at the Jerusalem temple were patterned after those from Israel's tabernacle in the wilderness, Gurtner begins his investigation with a study of the tabernacle curtains, first described in the book of Exodus.3 There were three such curtains:

1.       One curtain was placed at the entrance to the courtyard of the tabernacle (Exod 27:16-17). The courtyard could be entered by any Israelite who was in a state of ritual purity and brought a sacrifice.

2.       A second curtain separated the courtyard from the Holy Place (Exod 26:36-37). It could be crossed only by priests, not by ordinary Israelites.

3.       A third curtain stood between the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies (Exod 26:31-33). It could be crossed only by the High Priest, and only on the Day of Atonement.

All three of the curtains were carefully constructed from beautiful materials of the highest quality. The third, inner curtain was the finest of all. Sewn into it were pictures of cherubim, a detail of symbolic significance. Cherubim traditionally are guardians and protectors, going back to the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:24). As cherubim restricted access to the tree of life in Eden, the inner curtain restricted physical and visual access to the presence of God.


Dr. Gurtner notes that katapetasma, the Greek word for the curtain in Matt 27:51, is used in the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures five times for the curtain at the courtyard entrance, twice for the curtain between the courtyard and the Holy Place, and thirty one times for the inner curtain. When the word appears in the Septuagint without any qualification, it always refers to the inner curtain. Taking into account this data and the symbolic importance of the inner curtain, Gurtner concurs with the traditional view that the curtain referred to in Matt 27:51 is the inner curtain.


Gurtner goes on to investigate the meanings attached to this curtain in Second Temple Judaism. He shows that the curtain came to be associated with the "firmament" of Gen 1:6. In this connection the curtain was seen as a barrier between heaven and earth, behind which were hidden divine secrets. The idea of temple curtain as firmament is based on Psalm 104:2 and Isa 40:22, which picture God spreading out the heavens like a curtain. In describing the curtain, the first-century historian Josephus wrote, "On this tapestry was portrayed a panorama of the heavens, the signs of the Zodiac excepted" (War 5:214/v.4).


According to Gurtner's findings, the inner temple curtain served to restrict access to God's presence and to heavenly secrets. Presumably, the ripping apart of the curtain would indicate that the curtain could no longer carry out those functions. Therefore, the torn curtain may be proclaiming that the death of Jesus brings increased access to God's presence and revelation of heavenly secrets.


Hints from Matthew 27

Gurtner demonstrates that these insights are confirmed and extended when we take into account the additional signs that accompanied the rending of the curtain. In Matt 27:51-54, we read that at the time of the crucifixion (a) the earth shook; (b) rocks split; (c) tombs broke open; (d) saints were restored to life; and (e) Roman soldiers recognized Jesus as the Son of God.


Gurtner asserts that Israelites who witnessed these events would have been reminded of two passages from the prophets. One is Zechariah 14, where rocks split and saints are resurrected at the coming of the messianic age (Zech 14:4-5). So the signs accompanying Jesus' death can be taken as a statement that the messianic age had begun.


The second scripture connected with these signs is Ezekiel 37, which pictures the earth shaking (v. 7) and graves opening (v. 12). Ezekiel 37 predicts a national resurrection of Israel in the messianic age, with the nation saved, cleansed from sin (v. 23) and living in the presence of God (vv. 24-28). The signs of Matt 27 are thus saying that the fulfillment of Ezekiel 37 is brought about by the work of Jesus on the cross. Verses earlier in Matthew's Gospel state that Jesus "will save his people from their sins" (Matt 1:21) and that his blood "is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins" (Matt 26:28). These verses connect well with Ezek 37:23. The torn curtain promises increased access to God's presence, as pictured in Ezek 37:24-28.


Gurtner notes that other passages from Matthew support the idea that the torn curtain symbolizes the possibility of closer fellowship with God. For example, Matt 5:8 says that the pure in heart will "see God", and it is Jesus' work on the cross that brings forgiveness of sins and thus purity of heart.


Moreover, the signs in Matt 27 suggest that heavenly secrets are being revealed. Specifically, Matt 27:53 says that the resurrected saints appeared in "the holy city", a designation for Jerusalem previously used in Matt 4:5, where the devil calls into question Jesus' identity as the Son of God. In Matt 27:54, a centurion who sees the signs accompanying the crucifixion confirms that Jesus is indeed the Son of God. He has been shown an important secret.


The tearing of the curtain, with its pictures of cherubim, may also predict the reopening of Eden. Rev 2:7 and 22:14 promise access to the Tree of Life for the saints.



The findings of Daube and Gurtner suggest that the torn temple curtain of Matt 27:51 has multiple meanings, corresponding to the manifold implications of Jesus' death on the cross. The curtain is a garment, torn in mourning that a great prophet and teacher has died, and that Jerusalem and its Temple will soon be destroyed. It is sewn with pictures of cherubim that guard Eden and God's presence, so that its tearing indicates a reopening of Eden and an opportunity for closer fellowship with God. (Note that this aspect of the curtain's symbolism backs up the message of Heb 10.) It represents the heavenly firmament, so that its tearing announces the revelation of divine secrets. With the other signs of Matt 27 it announces the inauguration of the messianic age, bringing the restoration of Israel and resurrection of the saints.


Generally speaking, "more is better" in the world of biblical symbolism. Since biblical symbols teach spiritual truths, it is a good thing if a symbol points toward multiple truths. On the other hand, not all proposed meanings for a symbol are necessarily valid. A valid meaning must be supported by the text of scripture.


In the case of the torn curtain, I do not believe that all meanings that have been proposed over the centuries are valid. For example, I do not believe that the torn curtain necessarily announces the obsolescence of the sacrificial system. On the contrary, Gurtner (The Torn Veil, chapter 5) shows that in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus gives a positive portrayal of temple worship, although he strongly corrects those who are in charge of the temple. The early Jerusalem Christians were active participants in temple worship, as the book of Acts shows. Prophecy also suggests a future role for worship in a new temple (e.g., Ezek 40-48).


1Dr. Daniel M. Gurtner compiles and classifies a number of these possibilities in the first chapter of his book, The Torn Veil: Matthew's Exposition of the Death of Jesus, Cambridge University Press, 2007.


2The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism, University of London, Athlone Press, 1956, pp. 23-26.


3See The Torn Veil, chapters 2 and 3.

Issue 27


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On 03 Jul 2012, 17:58.