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:
- 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).
- Jesus’ death renders obsolete a whole range of ceremonial and sacrificial exercises centered in the temple (cf. 14:23–24).
- The coming destruction of the temple, now inevitable because Jesus has been rejected, is already symbolically beginning (cf. 13:2).
- 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).
- 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  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.
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.
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  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:
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.