When Jesus died, the curtain in the temple was torn from top to bottom:

Mark 15:38-39 (NIV)

38 The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. 39 And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”

What made the centurion say that? What is the significance of the torn curtain - does it have doctrinal significance?

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    Since nobody have pointed out this fact, I will. That specific curtain is made with materials used today to make carpet. Is it possible to rip a carpet? unless you were like some kind of a sumo wrestler, it is almost immpossible. Commented Aug 25, 2011 at 18:58
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    Also wanted to point out that the curtain was woven in such a way that it was as thick as a man's hand (4 inches), and took 300 priests to carry (Alfred Edersheim, + various rabbinical sources). It would have been completely impossible to tear the veil by hand. It was truly a supernatural occurrence.
    – Bob Black
    Commented Sep 4, 2011 at 1:56
  • This question is asking about two arguably unrelated things. The question does not specifically link the two, nor is it obvious that the text links the two. As it is now this is asking for two explanations of two things which are next to each other in the passage, not for one explanation of the passage. I think it could be appropriate to close the question as too broad, but perhaps it can be edited to improve it first.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Dec 24, 2015 at 3:05

7 Answers 7


Two things are significant. The first is that the curtain symbolically divided the Holy of Holies, the most revered place in the temple where God was believed to dwell and only priests were allowed to enter, from the rest of the temple where ordinary people were allowed. Removing that division was a symbol that there was now no barrier between ordinary people and God; we no longer needed specially appointed people to intercede for us.

The second is that the curtain was torn from top to bottom, as opposed to from bottom to top. This indicates that the curtain was not ripped by man but by God.

  • 1
    If I could +2 this answer I would because of your top to bottom comment, great and very important! Commented Aug 27, 2011 at 5:55
  • "...we no longer needed specially appointed people to intercede for us." Probably just semantics, but I want to mention that we do need a specially appointed person to intercede for us. Hebrews is clear that Jesus replaced the need for earthly priests with Himself as our priest now.
    – Ben
    Commented Sep 26, 2012 at 13:03
  • Additionally, the curtain was reportedly so heavy it would have taken several teams of oxen on either side to tear it, even bottom to top
    – SSumner
    Commented Mar 26, 2013 at 20:26

First understand the architecture of the temple. There were three chambers. A large courtyard where a very large altar lay. An indoor lobby where only the priests could enter after washing and finally the Holy room which only the high priest himself could enter.

The Holy room contained the ark of the covenant. This room was shielded from the lobby by a large curtain, the curtain was said to be something like one hundred feet wide and one hundred and fifty feet tall.

Anybody that entered past the curtain into the Holy room would surely die, the high priest could only enter once a year.

When Jesus died, Jesus became our ambassador to God. No longer did we require a high priest to enter the Holy room and sprinkle blood on the mercy seat. Jesus died and once and for all completed this requirement.

Thus God tore the curtain in the temple and opened up His Holiness to the entire world, through Jesus Christ.

  • 1
    "No longer did we require a high priest to enter the Holy room and sprinkle blood on the mercy seat." Well... not really. We do require a High Priest, and Jesus is that High Priest (cf Heb 4). The significance is that the vestibule and the Holy of Holies where the Vessel of the Covenant was housed were separated before but are separated no longer. That is, through our new High Priest Forever, all have access to the Holy of Holies, the Vessel of the Covenant, and the presence of Yahweh, all which are Messiah himself.
    – Andrew
    Commented Dec 21, 2015 at 0:42

The Veil: Its meaning

Most scholars are in agreement on the ultimate conclusion and meaning of the tearing of the curtain. Perhaps none are so succinct as Ezra Palmer Gould in A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Mark stating:

The rending of the vail would signify therefore the removal of the separation between God and the people, and the access into his presence.

And he notes the importance of this event stating:

It is narrated by all the Synoptists.

The Pulpit Commentary: St. Mark Vol. II. states:

Now, this rending of the veil signified (1) that the whole of the Jewish dispensation, with its rites and ceremonies, was now unfolded by Christ; and that thenceforth the middle wall of partition was broken down, so that now, not the Jews only, but the Gentiles also might draw nigh by the blood of Christ. But (2) it further signified that the way to heaven was laid open by our Lord’s death. “When thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death, thou didst open the kingdom of heaven to all believers.” The veil signified that heaven was closed to all, until Christ by his death rent this veil in twain, and laid open the way.

And Dr. James R. Edwards says in The Gospel According to Mark:

its destruction signifies that at the death of Jesus the veil between God and humanity is removed. The Holy of Holies, which was believed to contain the very presence of Yahweh, is made accessible not by the high priest’s sacrifice on the Day of Atonement, but by the atonement of Jesus on the cross.

In his commentary Mark from the Life Application Bible Commentary series, Bruce Barton states:

Symbolically, the curtain separated the holy God from sinful people. By tearing the curtain in two, God showed that Christ had opened the way for sinful people to reach a holy God. Some scholars think the tearing of the curtain was merely a foreshadowing of the destruction of Jerusalem and represented the Son of Man’s judgment on unbelieving Israel. However, the New Testament stress is that the torn curtain represents our free access to God and that barriers between God and people have been broken (see Hebrews 10:19–22).

In Mark: Jesus, Servant and Savior, Dr. Kent R. Hughes also notes that Paul supports this view in Hebrews and provides a short homily on the topic:

The high priest could only go into the Holy of Holies once a year, but now the way was wide-open for all who are in Christ. By Jesus’ blood we no longer must stand outside, but can advance into the presence of God. The word is access! The writer of Hebrews says:

We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where Jesus, who went before us, has entered on our behalf. (Hebrews 6:19, 20) … 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. (Hebrews 10:19–22)

As ministers of the gospel, “entrusted with the secret things of God” (1 Corinthians 4:1), we can invite others to Christ and the Holy of Holies, to be liberated to a new life. In demonstration of the freeing power of Christ’s death, at the instant of his expiration some of Jerusalem’s tombs cracked open, and out stepped believers who had been raised to life. Evidently their earthly stay was very short, just enough to establish the power of Christ and instill a grand appetite for what is to come at the Resurrection at the end of time. As to how they returned to eternal life we do not know, but for them it was probably not soon enough!

The torn curtain and fractured tombs say it all. Christ’s death liberates those who believe from the bonds of death. It gives them free access to God’s holy presence. Full freedom is what the Cross offers—spiritual liberty now which will eventuate once again in a grave-popping liberation at Christ’s return. The word here is freedom, what Paul calls “the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). Free access! Freedom from death! Have you been liberated?

In The Preacher's Commentary Series, Volume 25: Mark, Dr. David L. McKenna and Dr. Lloyd J Ogilvie note that the tearing of the curtain was the fulfillment of one of four prophetic signs. They termed this one the "Revelational Sign," saying:

Simultaneously with Jesus’ last breath, the curtain of the temple is “torn in two from top to bottom” (v. 38). ...the revelational sign is most important. At its roots, revelation means “unveiling.” With the death of Christ, then, the tearing of the temple curtain signifies the unlocking of the mystery, which as Paul wrote, “has been hidden from ages and from generations, but now has been revealed to His saints” (Col. 1:26). The mystery is out: Jesus is the final revelation and the Most Holy Place is open to all people, including the Gentiles.

Dr. Craig A. Evans also notes the Revelational Sign in The Word Biblical Commentary: Mark 8:27-16:20, stating:

It is the second supernatural sign that has taken place during the crucifixion, the first being the odd darkness that fell upon the land (v 33).

As does Dr. James A. Brooks in his commentary, Mark from the New American Commentary series:

The second apocalyptic sign interpreting the death of Jesus is the rending of the temple curtain. It represents the climax of the antitemple motif in Mark (cf. 11:12–25; 13:2; 14:58). It symbolizes the destruction of the temple and the invalidation of the sacrificial system on the one hand and the opening of the way to God to all people on the other. It suggests the abrogation of the old covenant with Israel. The same idea is found in Heb 6:19–20; 9:8–15; 10:19–22.

Dr. Timothy J. Geddert summarizes his research in the Believers Church Bible Commentary:

I have encountered 35 proposals for interpreting the torn temple veil (T. Geddert, 1989:141–3). Among them, at least these five can be well-defended by the content and/or the context of Mark 15:38

He then goes on to list these as:

  1. The veil over Jesus’ divine sonship is removed (for those with eyes to see, Jesus’ death reveals that he is truly God’s Son; cf. v. 39).
  2. Jesus’ death renders obsolete a whole range of ceremonial and sacrificial exercises centered in the temple (cf. 14:23–24).
  3. The coming destruction of the temple, now inevitable because Jesus has been rejected, is already symbolically beginning (cf. 13:2).
  4. Through death, Jesus enters into God’s presence, having accomplished the sacrifice that atones for all human sin (he fulfills the meaning of the Day of Atonement; cf. 14:24; Heb. 9:1–15).
  5. Through Jesus’ death, Gentiles have access into the very presence of God (cf. v. 39).

However, in The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text. Dr. Richard T. France does find one other (brilliant) meaning in the tearing of the curtain:

With Jesus’ death, the old religious order comes to an end; those who have rejected Jesus, the religious leaders, have now been rejected by God.

Evans puts forth the view that it was literally the force of Christ's dying shout which tore the curtain, stating:

The power of Jesus is displayed in his death audibly in the loud shout of v 37, but it is displayed even more impressively and more tangibly in the tearing of the καταπέτασμα τοῦ ναοῦ, “veil of the temple.” That the tearing of the veil is the result of Jesus’ sudden expiration, and not merely a coincidental omen, is probable (Gundry, 948–50). This death shout and the tearing of the temple veil constitute a single action that counters all of the previous mocking. Jesus, ... surprises the onlookers with an unexpectedly and inexplicably powerful shout, the force of which actually tears the temple veil. He who had spoken of the temple’s destruction (cf. 13:2; 14:58) has now on the cross struck it with his dying breath, tearing the veil ἀπ ʼ ἄνωθεν ἕως κάτω, “from top to bottom,” that is, tearing it completely.

R.T. France disagrees, however, saying:

As Jesus dies, God acts to show what is to be the sequel to his death. This seems a more likely explanation of Mark’s language than the bizarre suggestion that he used ἐξέπνευσεν in v. 37 to describe a blast of wind (or the release of ‘the Spirit’) which (along with Jesus’ loud cry) tore the curtain, thus making Jesus himself directly responsible for the tearing.

However, Evans supports his argument by noting a connection to Mark 1:10:

Just as the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus at his baptism tore the heavens (1:10, σχιζομένους), so now the loud exhalation of Jesus’ spirit has torn (ἐσχίσθη) the veil of the temple. This interpretation gains support from a study by Ulansey (JBL 110 [1991] 123–25), who draws our attention to Josephus’s description of the outer veil as “a panorama of the entire heavens” (J.W. 5.5.4 §214). ...

Edwards concurs, stating:

Josephus describes the outer curtain as a tapestry portraying “a panorama of the heavens” (War 5.213). That is a striking parallel to the tearing of heaven in 1:10. Thus, at both uses of schizein Mark signifies the rending of the skies — to open heaven to humanity in the baptism of Jesus and to open the temple as the locus Dei to humanity at the death of Jesus. At the baptism and death of Jesus the heavenly and earthly dwellings of God are opened to humanity.

Which Curtain?

Dr. Robert G. Bratcher and Dr. Eugene Albert Nida in their work A Translator's Handbook on the Gospel of Mark note the massive nature of the curtain:

it is generally assumed that the katapetasma (only here in Mark) was the veil separating the holy place from the holy of holies. This curtain is described by Edersheim (Life and Times of Jesus II, 611) as being sixty feet long, thirty feet wide, and the thickness of the palm of a man’s hand.

They suggest that it might be better thought of as a cloth door:

Curtain is not always easily translated, since in many societies such objects are not known. In Zoque the closest equivalent is "cloth-closure", literally equivalent to cloth door. In a number of languages curtain has been rendered by a borrowed form. It is important, however, to avoid a literal translation of veil, since this may apply only to veils worn by women, and accordingly the veil of the temple would be quite meaningless.

In The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Volume 2 Alfred Edersheim states that:

The Veils before the Most Holy Place were 40 cubits (60 feet) long and 20 (30 feet) wide, of the thickness of the palm of the hand, and wrought in 72 squares, which were joined together; and these Veils were so heavy, that, in the exaggerated language of the time, it needed 300 priests to manipulate each. If the Veil was at all such as is described in the Talmud, it could not have been rent in twain by a mere earthquake or the fall of the lintel, although its composition in squares fastened together might explain, how the rent might be as described in the Gospel

The issue with this is that only the outer curtain, which separated the Court of Israel from the Court of Women, is described by Josephus in War and we simply do not know how thick the inner curtain was. James R. Edwards explains:

There were actually two curtains in the temple in Jerusalem (see Heb 9:1–5), one before the Court of Israel and one before the Holy of Holies. Mark uses the Greek word naos to describe the temple rather than his more customary hieron, but the terms are used interchangeably in the NT and do not enable us to determine what part of the temple is intended. The Court of Israel, also known as the Holy Place, was the main sanctuary where Jewish men worshiped; it contained a seven-branch lampstand, a table with twelve loaves of bread on it, and an altar of incense. The curtain before the Court of Israel was a beautifully embroidered Babylonian tapestry, mystically depicting the earth, sea, and heavens that “typified the universe,” according to Josephus (War 5.210–14). The second curtain (Exod 26:31–37), which Josephus also mentions but does not describe, hung before the “unapproachable, inviolable, and invisible” Holy of Holies, a cubicle some twenty cubits (=thirty feet) square that the high priest entered once a year on the Day of Atonement (War 5.219).

It is unclear which of the two curtains Mark intends in 15:38 (so, too, Gospel of Peter 20; T. Levi 10:3). The Greek word for curtain in v. 38, katapetasma, is used by ancient authors of both curtains, although it is used more frequently of the curtain before the Holy of Holies. The biblical usage of the term confirms this distinction. Katapetasma occurs three times in Heb 6:19; 9:3; 10:20(?), each with reference to the curtain before the Holy of Holies. In the LXX, likewise, katapetasma is used of the curtain before the Holy of Holies (Exod 26:31–37), whereas a different word (Gk. kallyma) is used of the curtain before the Court of Israel (Exod 27:16; Lev 16:2, 12). On linguistic grounds the torn katapetasma of v. 38 would appear to be the curtain before the Holy of Holies. If this is the curtain intended, then its destruction signifies that at the death of Jesus the veil between God and humanity is removed. The Holy of Holies, which was believed to contain the very presence of Yahweh, is made accessible not by the high priest’s sacrifice on the Day of Atonement, but by the atonement of Jesus on the cross. Other reasons, however, argue in favor of the main curtain separating the Court of Israel from the Court of Women. The outer curtain (the only one described by Josephus) was the only curtain visible to all people.

Most of the scholars here note that there were two curtains and most say it is difficult to know for certain which Mark intended. Dr. Craig A. Evans, Ezra Palmer Gould, Dr. Henrey Swete, Dr. David Turner, A.E.J. Rawlinson, Bruce Barton, William Henderson, and Drs. McKenna and Ogilvie all favor the idea that it was the inner curtain that tore while E. Klostermann, Dr. Ernst Lohmeyer, Dr. David Ulansey, Drs. Bratcher and Nida and Dr. James A. Brooks favor the outer curtain. Dr. James A. Edwards himself, Dr. R.T. France, Allen Black and Dr. Rudolph Pesch all hedge their bets on the other hand, stating it is impossible to determine which curtain it was.

Most, (even many opposing the idea that it was the inner curtain which tore) believe that Hebrews implies it was the curtain between the Holy of Holies.

I, however, prefer the idea that it was the curtain separating the outer court from the court of Israel. I like to believe that Jesus brought salvation and the Gospel to more than just mankind, but womankind also. Just as Jesus was concerned with restoring the marginalized - often seen elevating the role of women in the face of cultural norms and customs. I believe that in death, just as in life, Jesus continued to seek restoration for the marginalized.

The tearing of the outer veil would signify not just that God was accessible to all of mankind, but the ordinances of the temple and the priests were no longer necessary - not just the role of the High Priest.

The Centurion

In The Gospel According to St. Mark. The Greek Text With Introduction, Notes and Indices, Henry Barclay Swete tells us:

The traditional name of this centurion was Longinus (Acta Pilati, ed. Tisch., p. 288); the same name is also given to the soldier who pierced the side of Christ and the prefect charged with the execution of St Paul (D.C.B., s.v.). In the fourth century Longinus the centurion was already believed to have subsequently become a saint and a martyr (Chrys. hom. in Mt. ad l.); but the testimony which the Gospels attribute to him is merely that of a man who was able to rise above the prejudices of the crowd and the thoughtless brutality of the soldiers, and to recognise in Jesus an innocent man (Lc.), or possibly a supernatural person (Mt., Mc.).

Regarding his motivation for the proclamation of Jesus as the Son of God, we must remember some of the supernatural occurrences surrounding the event. McKenna and Ogilvie, remind us of one of the 4 signs (which they term the Eschatologial sign) writing:

Three hours of unnatural darkness covers the land from the sixth hour of the day until the ninth hour when Jesus dies. Amos prophesied hours of blackness during these final, fatal hours: “And it shall come to pass in that day, saith the Lord God, that I will cause the sun to go down at noon, and I will darken the earth in the clear day” (Amos 8:9, kjv).

Darkness is the sign for God’s judgment throughout the Scriptures. The plague of darkness in Egypt served as the final warning for Pharaoh before God sent the death angel to slay the firstborn of every household (Ex. 10:21–23). Jesus Himself announced that the coming of the Son of Man in judgment will be signaled by the sun being darkened, the moon not giving its light, and the stars of heaven falling (13:24–25). Thus, three hours of darkness preceding Jesus’ death aligns the Crucifixion with the Passover and the Second Coming as a sign of God’s judgment preceding His redemption.

Barton lists the four events:

Christ’s death was accompanied by at least four miraculous events: darkness (15:33), the tearing in two of the curtain in the temple, an earthquake (Matthew 27:51), and dead people rising from their tombs (Matthew 27:52). Jesus’ death, therefore, could not have gone unnoticed. Everyone knew something significant had happened.

and Kent also reminds us that:

St. Matthew’s version adds:

At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. 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. (Matthew 27:51–53)

Thus, Gould points out that:

The only thing narrated by Mk. to which the οὕτω can refer is the darkness over all the land. So Lk. Mt. adds to this an earthquake. The portent(s) accompanying the death of Jesus convinced the centurion that he was υἱὸς θεοῦ, not the Son of God, but a son of God, a hero after the heathen conception. Lk. says δίκαιος, a righteous man.

So what Gould is saying is that while in other Gospels the Centurion's response would be not just to the darkness, but also the earth quaking and the dead rising, Mark does not record these things - only the darkness.

Of course, Evans believes the response to be also to the supernatural final breath, stating:

the centurion has observed the power of Jesus’ expiration, his breathing out (ἐξέπνευσεν) that tore the temple veil. ὁ παρεστηκὼς ἐξ ἐναντίας αὐτοῦ, “who stood opposite him,” should be taken to mean that the centurion is standing before Jesus, as opposed to behind him or off to the side. Thus, he witnesses fully the powerful shout and consequent tearing of the temple veil (Jackson, NTS 33 [1987] 28; Gundry, 950–51).

ἀληθῶς οὗτος ὁ ἄνθρωπος υἱὸς θεοῦ ἦν, “Truly this man was the son of God!” When the heavens were torn at Jesus’ baptism, God declared, “You are my beloved Son!” (1:11 rsv, adapted). With the tearing of the temple veil, a human declares in agreement with God himself, “Truly this man was the son of God!” Impressed by the manner of Jesus’ death and the signs that attend it, the Roman centurion confesses of Jesus...

The Pulpit Commentary tends to agree, but also says that this belief was influenced by Jesus' demeanor throughout his crucifixion, stating:

It was the business of the centurion to watch all that took place, and to see that the sentence was executed. He must have been standing close under the cross, and there was that in the whole demeanour of the dying Sufferer, so different from anything that he had ever witnessed before, that it drew from him the involuntary exclamation, Truly this man was the Son of God. He had observed him through those weary hours; he had noticed the meekness and the dignity of the Sufferer; he had heard those words, so deeply impressed upon the faith and reverence of Christians, which fell from him from time to time as he hung there; and then at last he heard the piercing cry, so startling, so unexpected, which escaped him just before he yielded up his spirit; and he could come to no other conclusion than this, that he was in very deed God’s Son.

Despite this, The NIV notes that the words translated “heard his cry and” is absent in some ancient manuscripts.

Several of the Commentators, like R.T. France, note that it would have been impossible for the Centurion to see the curtain tear, so it is doubtful that his response is to this.

The account of the tearing of the curtain intervenes between Jesus’ death and the centurion’s reaction to that death (with ἐξέπνευσεν repeated to link the two together). Many interpreters therefore conclude that Mark intends us to include the tearing of the curtain in what the centurion saw which formed the basis for his exclamation. But Mark does not say that the centurion saw it, and at the narrative level this would be impossible since one would have to be standing east of the temple (and nearer to it than any likely location of Golgotha) in order to see the curtain. The account of the curtain is for the benefit of Mark’s readers as they think about the significance of Jesus’ death, not in relation to the following mention of the centurion; the centurion’s comment is evoked simply by how Jesus died.

Regarding the Comment that Jesus was the Son of God, many commentators note the significance of this. For example:


In calling Jesus the “son of God,” the centurion has switched his allegiance from Caesar, the official “son of God,” to Jesus, the real Son of God ... The centurion now ascribes to Jesus what he had earlier ascribed to Caesar: Caesar is not divi filius, “son of God” (alluding to the title of the great emperor Augustus), but Jesus is...

Edwards covers the topic in great detail, saying:

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In New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Gospel According to Mark by William Hendriksen and Simon Kistemaker, the authors write

Legend says that this man became a Christian. Let us hope that he did.

And The Pulpit Commentary says, that the centurion:

was ultimately himself put to death for the sake of Christ in Cappadocia. St. Chrysostom repeats the common report, that on account of his faith he was at last crowned with martyrdom.

So while many scholars like Geddert insist:

We cannot assume that the Roman centurion who has crucified Jesus knowingly makes a full Christian confession.

Tradition clearly regards Longinus as having done so and as having been martyred for his faith.

  • Whew. That Edwards section put me over the character limit, so I had to post it as a pic. I'll do some additional cleanup in the near future. Commented Dec 17, 2015 at 9:44
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    Bounty awarded as part of the 2015 Advent Bounty challenge.
    – ThaddeusB
    Commented Dec 23, 2015 at 23:32

The torn curtain

The significance of the torn curtain is as a theological statement that highlights the very moment of Jesus' death - even if it was unlikely to have been an actual event. Remember that the curtain could only be seen by someone within the Temple, but anyone in the Temple could not see Jesus being crucified outside the city walls. The priests who had remained in the inner courtyard of the Temple would not have known the moment of Jesus' death, yet Mark's Gospel clearly tell us that the veil was torn at the moment of death:

Mark 15:37-38: And Jesus cried with a loud voice, and gave up the ghost. And the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom.

Luke tells it slightly differently, but still requires those in the Temple to know the moment of Jesus' death. Raymond E. Brown says, in An Introduction to the New Testament at page 260, that in this gospel all the negative signs that accompanied the crucifixion, including the rending of the sanctuary veil, are placed before Jesus dies, so that the positive, salvific results of the death can stand out clearly. Brown recognises that this is also a theological statement, but with a slightly different emphasis than in Mark:

Luke 23:45-46: And the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was rent in the midst. And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit: and having said thus, he gave up the ghost.

Unless the account was allegorical, someone would have to have told the evangelists of the torn curtain. It is more than doubtful that the priests would have mentioned any damage happening to the curtain on the day of Jesus' crucifixion, and the associates of Jesus were all outside the city and watching the crucifixion from afar off, in a safe place:

Luke 23:49: And all his acquaintance, and the women that followed him from Galilee, stood afar off, beholding these things.

We are fortunate in that Josephus had been a priest in the Temple shortly before its destruction in 70 CE. He was too young to have witnessed the events of some forty years earlier but he does describe the curtain in some detail, with no mention of any damage or repairs:

War of the Jews, V.5: But that gate which was at this end of the first part of the house was, as we have already observed, all over covered with gold, as was its whole wall about it; it had also golden vines above it, from which clusters of grapes hung as tall as a man's height. But then this house, as it was divided into two parts, the inner part was lower than the appearance of the outer, and had golden doors of fifty-five cubits altitude, and sixteen in breadth; but before these doors there was a veil of equal largeness with the doors. It was a Babylonian curtain, embroidered with blue, and fine linen, and scarlet, and purple, and of a contexture that was truly wonderful. Nor was this mixture of colors without its mystical interpretation, but was a kind of image of the universe; for by the scarlet there seemed to be enigmatically signified fire, by the fine flax the earth, by the blue the air, and by the purple the sea; two of them having their colors the foundation of this resemblance; but the fine flax and the purple have their own origin for that foundation, the earth producing the one, and the sea the other. This curtain had also embroidered upon it all that was mystical in the heavens, excepting that of the [twelve] signs, representing living creatures.

This would be the curtain of which the evangelists wrote, but Josephus also goes on to mention an inner curtain, that certainly only the priests could ever see, again without mention of damage or repairs. The evidence of Josephus tends to support a conclusion that the curtain was not actually torn. The evangelists describe a series of dramatic events to highlight the moment of Jesus' death. The torn curtain has the same significance as an allegory as if it had really ocurred, in that there was no longer a barrier dividing God from his people.

The centurion

The centurion was first mentioned in Mark, the first New Testament gospel to be written. Rhoads, Dewey and Michie point out in Mark as Story, 3rd edition page 105, that in this gospel, the centurion is the only human character who calls Jesus 'Son of God'. The centurion is unaware of the torn curtain, but it is 'sandwiched' between Jesus crying out and the centurion's response to Jesus' cry, such that the reader is likely to perceive the centurion to be responding to the tearing of the curtain. By calling Jesus the Son of God when he heard him cry out and give up the ghost, the centurion is being ironic:

Mark 15:39: And when the centurion, which stood over against him, saw that he so cried out, and gave up the ghost, he said, Truly this man was the Son of God.

Matthew's Gospel adds to the miracles surrounding the moment, and the centurion responds to these things, not Jesus' plaintive cry. Here, the centurion really believes Jesus to be the Son of God:

Matthew 27:51-54: And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many. Now when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God.

Luke makes no mention of Matthew's earthquake or the dead bodies rising up, which Ian Wilson, in Jesus: the Evidence, page 143, regards as pious embroideries by an author demonstrably over-fond of the miraculous. However, the author emphasises the darkness over the land and the dignified last words of Jesus, upon which the centurion glorified God:

Luke 23:46-47: And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit: and having said thus, he gave up the ghost. Now when the centurion saw what was done, he glorified God, saying, Certainly this was a righteous man.

Here, the centurion has not called Jesus the Son of God, but no one present and hearing Jesus' last words could have disputed the centurion's description of Jesus as a righteous man.


Since nobody has mentioned this yet, let me add one other important point to the great answers already given (ie: that since it was from top to bottom, it shows it was God doing the ripping -@Waggers, that it meant God was opening His holiness to all men through Jesus -@Jonathon Byrd).

With the tearing of the curtain, the atonement ritual for Yom Kippur (the day of atonement) could no longer be performed.

Therefore, ever since that very moment, the Jews have not been able to perform the yearly atonement ritual required by God under the Mosaic pact (especially since the temple was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 AD). In other words, they no longer have any God-approved means of having their sins atoned for under the Mosaic pact.

By physically removing the ability to perform the atonement ritual and sacrifice, God sent the message that "it is done", and that:

  • as He promised in Isaiah, the Messiah atoned for our sins, and
  • as He promised Abraham, He provided the sacrifice.

Jeremiah 31:31 tells us that God promised He would establish a new pact with Israel. This new pact supersedes the Mosaic pact (which can no longer provide atonement for sins) and is a pact in Jesus' blood (Matthew 26:28). The tearing of the curtain also gives the picture of a contract being ripped in half. The old pact is literally torn in half, and the new one is now in effect.


I can provide an answer to this based on the "correspondential" mode of interpreting the Bible found in the theological works of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), and in commentaries on the Gospels written by Swedenborgian ministers.

Part 1: The tearing of the veil of the temple

The general meaning of curtains, veils, and other cloth coverings

In Swedenborg's mode of interpreting the Bible as having a deeper, spiritual meaning throughout, curtains, veils, and other cloth coverings, including clothing that people wear, correspond to outward truth, often called in his writings rational truth, that both conceals and expresses inward, spiritual truth. He writes in Arcana Coelestia ("Secrets of Heaven") #2576:2:

As regards rational truths being like a covering or garment for spiritual truths, the position is that the inmost parts of man's being belong to his soul, while the more exterior belong to his body. Man's inmost parts consist in goods and truths from which the soul has its life, or else the soul would not be a soul. Those which are more exterior however derive their life from the soul, and each one of them is like a body, or what amounts to the same, a covering or garment.

Later in the same section, he turns to a lengthy explanation of the meanings of the various veils or curtains in the Tabernacle—which was the original model for the later Jewish Temple:

Since the matter of rational truths being like a covering or garment to spiritual truths is being discussed here, and since in Moses a description of the Tent is given—of its coverings or of its screens, and also of its veils in front of places of entry—let an explanation be given, for the sake of illustration, of what specifically was meant by the veils. . . . The Tabernacle had three veils, the first, which made a division between the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies; the second, which is called a screen serving as a door into the tent; the third, which is called a screen serving as a gate into the court.

His full explanation can be read at the "#2576" link above. About the first veil, described in Exodus 26:31-33; 36:35-36, which was in front of the ark of the covenant, he writes:

This veil represented the most immediate and inmost appearances of rational good and truth, which occur among the angels of the third heaven. These appearances are described by the violet, purple, twice-dyed scarlet, and fine-twined linen, the red of which represented the goods that belong to love, and the white its truths. Also, the gold and silver with which the pillars were overlaid, and of which the hooks and bases were made had a similar representation.

The meaning of the tearing of the veil of the temple

He then goes on to comment on the meaning of the tearing of the veil at the time of Jesus' death:

This shows what is meant by the veil of the temple being torn in two, Matthew 27:51; Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45—namely that once all appearances had been dispelled the Lord entered into the Divine Itself, and at the same time He opened a means of access to the Divine Itself through His Human that had been made Divine.

In other words, he here gives the tearing of the veil two meanings, which can be expanded as follows:

  1. At the time of Jesus' death, the last of the appearances that Jesus was a mere human being, like other human beings were dispelled. (We will come back to this when dealing with the centurion's exclamation below.) From the outside, to human reason, Jesus appears to be an ordinary man. However, through his death he left behind everything that was merely human—meaning everything of the finite humanity that he had received from his human mother—and became fully divine. In Swedenborg's language here, he "entered into the Divine Itself," so that he was now fully one with the Father. He was, from this time forward, the approachable, divinely human expression (called "the Son" in the New Testament) of the unapproachable and unknowable core of the divine being (called "the Father" in the New Testament.) For more on this, see my answer to the question, "How does the Swedenborgian Church explain passages where Jesus talks/prays to the Father?"

  2. Now that the Lord's (Jesus') human side had been made fully divine and one with the Father, this opened a new pathway for humans to have a direct relationship with God. Through the Divine Humanity, which we know as Jesus Christ, human beings could gain access to the divine being of God without the need for priests as human intermediaries and without the need for the sacrifices, offerings, and other rituals prescribed in the Law of Moses.

The second meaning here assigned by Swedenborg to the tearing of the veil at the time of Jesus' death is similar to the meaning assigned to it by many Christian commentators over the centuries, as reflected in the other answers here.

The first meaning is perhaps unique to Swedenborg, since it draws on his doctrine of the "glorification" of Jesus, in which Jesus during his lifetime on earth successively put off everything of the finite humanity that he had derived from his mother, and replaced it with a divine humanity that became, by the time of his resurrection and ascension to the Father, a full expression to humanity of the divine nature of God, as expressed in Colossians 2:9:

In him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.

In Arcana Coelestia #4772, Swedenborg provides a third meaning for the tearing of the veil:

Jacob [represents] the Ancient Church . . . and also the Primitive Church, that is, the Christian Church when it first began. . . . The reason Jacob here represents not only the Ancient Church but also the Primitive one—that is, the Christian Church when it first began—is that the two are exactly alike so far as internal features are concerned and differ from each other only so far as external ones are concerned. The external features of the Ancient Church consisted of all the representatives of the Lord and of the celestial [heavenly] and spiritual realities of His kingdom, which are love and charity, and faith derived from these, and so the kinds of things that constitute the Christian Church. When therefore the external features of the Ancient Church, and also of the Jewish, are opened out and are so to speak stripped away from what is present within them, the Christian Church is laid bare. This was also meant by the veil in the Temple being torn apart, Matthew 27:51; Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45.

By "the Ancient Church" Swedenborg means an early religious era of humankind, represented in the Bible by the section of the narrative stretching from Noah and his sons after the Flood down to the time of Jacob and his sons.

Here Swedenborg is saying that spiritually speaking, or seen from an inward view, this Ancient Church had a character similar to that of the early Christian Church of the first century or so after Christ. And the tearing of the veil, he says here, represents an opening up of the deeper nature of Christianity that was present in the early followers of Christ, but was then quickly lost.

More specifically, the early Christian church was characterized by a simple willingness to follow Jesus as Lord and Savior, without the major overlay of dogma, ritual, and an intermediary priesthood that later developed in the church and formed a barrier between Christians and Christ in a way very similar to the barrier that formed between the ancient Jews and their God after the Exodus, when the tabernacle and a sacrificial worship mediated by priests developed, replacing the simpler and more direct relationship with God that the earlier Hebrew people (called "the Ancient Church" by Swedenborg) had experienced.

The tearing of the veil of the temple in this third meaning, then, represents the more direct relationship of the community of believers with their Lord, Jesus Christ, now that the external observances and ritual laws that had been developed in Judaism by that time were stripped away, and there was no vast body of ritual law to stand between the people and God.

To summarize these three meanings—which represent the three levels of deeper, spiritual meaning that Swedenborg saw in the Bible—the tearing of the veil from top to bottom at the time of Jesus' death represents:

  1. The tearing of the "veil" between the human and divine sides of Jesus, so that his humanity was now fully one with his divinity.
  2. The availability of a direct relationship between individual Christians and God through the divine humanity of Jesus Christ, who is God's own expression of himself to humankind.
  3. The new relationship of the community of believers with God in Jesus Christ, in which the whole edifice of ritual and sacrifical law, and the priesthood as intermediaries, has been stripped away, so that the people as a body can have a direct relationship with God.

Here is one more brief commentary from Swedenborg's unpublished (in his lifetime) work Apocalyse Explained, #400:14:

That the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom, signified that His Human was made Divine; for within the veil was the ark in which was the testimony, and by the testimony was signified the Lord as to His Divine Human (as may be seen shown above, n. 392). The veil signified the external of the church which was with the Jews and Israelites, and which covered their eyes, so that they might not see the Lord and the Divine truth, or the Word in its own light.

Swedenborgian commentary on the tearing of the veil

Here is a Swedenborgian commentary on the parallel passage in Matthew 27:51 from Commentary on the Gospel according to St. Matthew, by the Rev. William Bruce (1867: London), which can be read in full starting at the bottom of the page here.

When the Lord by his death had finished the work of redemption and glorification, the effects of that divine work began to be manifested. And behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom. This was evidently a miracle wrought for the sake of its significance. The temple, we know, was a symbol of the Lord's body; and the Divinity that dwelt within the veil was the hidden Divinity that dwelt in the temple of the Lord's humanity. When death rent asunder the veil of mortality within which the eternal Divinity dwelt in the person of our Lord, one grand purpose of the incarnation was accomplished—an immediate communication was opened between God and man. We say immediate, because, although the Lord's humanity is a medium, or a mediator, between God and man, yet, being divine-human, it brings the divine and the human—God and man—into the most direct and intimate saving relation to each other. This holy event was indeed represented in the temple and tabernacle service, as is clearly pointed out in the apostolic writings. [Several examples from Hebrews are here provided.] Thus the rending of the veil symbolized the glorification of the Lord's humanity; and the veil is said to have been rent from the top to the bottom, to represent the completeness of that divine work by which the humanity was glorified for ever, from first principles to ultimates. The rending of the veil represented also the effects of the Lord's glorification—in rending the veil of the letter, which gave access to the internal of the Word; in rending the veil of ceremonial worship, by which an internal church could exist; and in rending the veil of appearances in the human mind, by which a way was opened to the internal man, so that from being natural he might become spiritual . . . .

And a brief commentary on Matthew 27:51 from another late nineteenth century Swedenborgian commentary, Matthew's Gospel, by John Worcester (1898: Boston, Massachusetts New-Church Union), which you can read online here:

The veil of mere representatives was now rent in twain from the top to the bottom, that the love and truth of God might come forth unveiled.

And from a more recent Swedenborgian commentary, Person to Person: The Gospel of Mark, by Paul V. Vickers (1998: Swedenborg Foundation, West Chester, PA), commenting on Mark 15:38:

The message of the gospel is that Jesus tore aside the veil between God and humankind. As John says, "No man has seen God at any time. The only-begotten son who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known." The human quality of God had never been realized before, nor that this quality was love and all the wisdom it brought. God had created the human race, cared and provided for it, but had never before been manifest at the earthly level of life. In Jesus, we have a way of thinking about God who, in his creative power, is beyond our understanding. We have seen God's love where we must live, showing compassion and a love that enlightens life and makes its meaning clear. But the work of Jesus is greater than that, for he brought the power of the divine itself into our level of mind. It means that, when we try to live as he commands, we are not distanced from him, but have his power of love ready to act in us and replace our old selfishness. It was inevitable that God would find a way to be with humanity and help people in their selfishness. The whole of the Old Testament foretells it and, indeed, religions across the world have some concept of a savior God. It was necessary for God to wait until all the evil that might beset men and women was manifest. Yet the delay was not from lack of urgent love but so that when he came to tear aside the veil between God and humanity, the work could be complete and make his power of love available to all, in all times and places.

These commentaries take up and explore some of the themes and meanings expressed in Swedenborg's writings about the tearing of the veil of the temple.

Part 2: The exclamation of the centurion

Swedenborg does not provide any direct commentary on the exclamation of the centurion. He refers to the relevant verses only in passing in the course of explaining his understanding of Jesus as the Son of God.

However, Swedenborgian commentaries do take up the centurion's exclamation.

First, from Bruce's Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew, which you can read online here:

Now when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God. These Gentile soldiers represented the Gentile world, who were about to receive the Lord as their Saviour, whom the Jews had so entirely rejected. It may naturally seem that the Romans could have had very imperfect ideas of what their confession involved; but the effect of the Lord's character—the power of the divine sphere with which he was surrounded—was such as to produce extraordinary impressions upon impressible minds. But their acknowledgment does not necessarily imply a true knowledge of the divine character of Jesus. It only implies that they were struck with the conviction that he was a Son of God, according to their own ideas of divine sonship; although it may be understood that they now admitted Jesus to be, what in the course of these events they had heard him accused of having claimed to be, the Son of God. The definite article is not here used before "God" and "Son." In this respect the confession of these Romans differs from the famous confession of Peter (Matt. xvi. 16), where the language has the definite form, which is, too, expressive of a definite idea. But, perhaps, this more vague language of these Gentile soldiers better expresses the more general and obscure light then diffused through the Gentile world; as also the nature of the first perception of this divine truth in every Gentile mind.

And continuing immediately after the earlier quote from Worcester's Matthew's Gospel, which you can read online here (starting on the last line of the page):

The change that was coming over the church was represented by the quaking of the earth; the breaking up of false dogmas, by the rending of the rocks; the new freedom to the spirits of men in both worlds, by the opening of the graves, and the appearance of the saints to many.

The candid world has seen these changes in the past, and is seeing them in their present more wonderful form; and it will say, "Truly this was the Son of God."

And from Vickers's Person to Person:

The recognition of Jesus' quality by the Roman centurion shows that unbiased civil power recognizes the nature of love in everyday life. It does not understand its divine origin, but it sees the power it has in the life of a community and acknowledges that it works from another source than mere social pressures. It comes to see in it, as the centurion had in Jesus, forgiveness of others and a willingness to endure on their behalf without looking for worldly power or reward. It is important that Christians maintain such a witness in the world, not asking for civil power but earning its respect by bringing compassion, forgiveness, and a willingness to sacrifice self for the good of others.

The general interpretation of Swedenborgian commentators, then, is that the centurion represents "gentiles"—or in today's culture, non-Christians and secularized Christians—whose minds will be struck, even if not in full clarity, with the divinity behind the character and person of Jesus.

In the manner of his death, so unlike that of other people these Roman soldiers had witnessed when they crucified malefactors and revolutionaries, and in the miraculous signs surrounding Jesus' death, the Roman soldiers recognized that they were dealing with more than a merely human power and presence.

In Jesus, God had shown his own true nature, which is of such great love as to "lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). So in the very act of dying, Jesus tore away the veil covering the true nature of God's love in such a way that even pagan nonbelievers were struck with awe and a sense of the divine presence.

This gives marching orders to Christians today as well. We can teach and preach as much as we want, and it will certainly make some impression on people and do some good. But when we show God's love in our lives by our willingness to lay down "our own lives"—meaning our self-interest, profit, reputation, and so on—in order to serve and show love to those around us, this will cause people to see God at work in us more than any sermon or doctrinal exposition.

So for Christians today, from a Swedenborgian perspective, Mark 14:39 is a call to live so fully as Christians that the ordinary people around us will see the love and truth of God working in us, and may themselves come to accept the presence of the Lord in their lives as well. Jesus himself gave us this message when he said:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34-35)

This, then, is a Swedenborgian exposition and understanding of the tearing of the veil of the temple at the time of Jesus death, and of the exclamation of the Roman centurion, "Surely this man was the Son of God!"


Answer 1:

The screen was torn. Yes. It gives the way to everyone to approach, pray for forgiveness, praise and worship God directly through Jesus Christ. It gives the direct access to God to talk with him through Jesus Christ! Earlier It was possible only by high priest. Hebrews 4:14-16 says:

14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

So the Lord Jesus Christ, the great high priest, has done everything for us on the cross. He was resurrected and lives forever. That is the meaning of the torn screen.

Answer 2:

If you read the same verse from Matthew 27:54, you can understand better. Here it is:

When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!”

The verse is self-explanatory. If you read verses 44-54, the centurion and the guards were mocking and insulting our Lord Jesus continuously. All that time, Jesus was so calm; and suddenly when He raised his voice louder and gave up his spirit, they were shocked. Along with that, when seeing the earthquake, rocks split, and tombs broken, they were terrified and exclaimed.

That made centurion to confess that, "Surely He was the Son of God" and: Yes He is! Amen!

  • 1
    Welcome to Christianity, and thanks for taking the site tour. Thanks also for offering an answer. Though you do directly address the question, your answer could use a little more focus on the doctrinal significance, as requested by the question—especially for your Answer 2. For some tips on writing good answers here, please see: What makes a good supported answer? Meanwhile, I do hope you'll stick around! Commented Dec 23, 2015 at 12:03

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