The Torn Curtain in Matthew 27

This morning in our adult education hour we were discussing the resurrection narrative in Matthew. Naturally to discuss resurrection it’s important to go back over the crucifixion narrative. We were specifically talking about Matthew 27:51, the moment just after Jesus dies: “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” Our teacher (a professor of New Testament at Wheaton College) said that although this is usually taken as implying that people now have direct access to God, he didn’t think so. Rather, he said, the torn curtain indicated that God’s presence had left the temple. We pushed him on this, and he gave three reasons why he thinks this is the case (with some of my extrapolations along the way).

First, the former reading (that the torn curtain represents unmediated access to God), is anti-Jewish in a way that is otherwise foreign to Matthew’s Gosepl. In other words, it implies that God wasn’t active in Jewish religion prior to Christ. Christ fulfilled Israel’s hopes as the Messiah; he didn’t introduce something totally new. It still represents judgment (see third point below) but not in a way that wouldn’t have made sense to Jews, for whom Matthew was writing. Furthermore, mediation is always necessary on some level—even if all you mean by that is that now Christ is our mediator. This would have represented a reinterpretation of the role of Israel’s messiah, but not a clean break. I would add that this makes sense in that the action of Yahweh is now associated with Christ and his people (i.e., the church) and not with temple ritual.

Second, the idea doesn’t fit with Christ’s directionality in the Synoptic tradition (i.e., Matthew, Mark, and Luke). That is, Jesus is presented as coming out or coming into—he comes into the world; he comes out of the tomb. The former reading presents God as passive, but the Synoptics present God as active. Even if you give it a trinitarian gloss, Jesus comes from the Father. He is eternally begotten of the Father.

Third, In the Old Testament and other Jewish literature, murder and sin typically result in God’s abondonment of the temple. Two examples: the exilic literature presents the destruction of the temple as a result of God’s abandonment of his people due to their recalcitrant idolatry. The temple was destroyed in the sixth century B.C. because God had withdrawan his presence from the temple in judgment. Josephus does the same thing when the Romans destroy the temple again in A.D. 70. According to him the zealots had acted wrongly, and God had withdrawn his presence from the temple, allowing it to be destroyed. The  highly apocalyptic imagery of Matthew 27:51-53 (earthquakes, the torn curtain, Old Testament saints rising from the dead and walking around) seems to reinforce this as a passage of judgment rather than of God’s opening up to his people. Of course, it still represents an opening up, just in a different way.

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8 comments so far

  1. chad on

    I’m a bit confused. What’s the problem with seeing the two interpretations as harmonious rather than dichotomous? Why can’t we say that the torn temple represents BOTH that God’s presence has “left” the particular place of the temple AND that all people now have “access,” if you will, to God–both tied to the salvific work of Christ? I’m not sure this is “anti-Jewish.” Who doesn’t want direct access to the one whom they love with all their heart, soul, mind and strength? Thanks be to God!

  2. derekryanbrown on

    Chad, I think that the issue Jeff’s class was addressing, given the nature of the professor’s points, is the age old one of biblical studies: what did the text (originally) mean? Nothing is stopping us to say, as you want to, that both meanings are possible. But if we want to determine what Matthew intended when referring to the torn curtain in the temple, then it’s history we are after rather than later theological glosses which interpret the passage through, say, the lens of a text such as Eph 2:15 or Heb 10:19–25.

  3. jeffreimer on

    Derek’s right, the point is mainly historical, but it is historical in a way that comports with a more robust sacramental and incarnational theology. (See the observations in points one and two on mediation and the Trinity respectively.) What you’re saying, Chad, sounds more like a Jesus-and-me theology where the role of the church as Christ’s mediating presence through the sacraments fades into the background. So while the tearing of the temple curtain represents access, it is a different kind of access: not one without mediation but with a universalized mediation through the incarnation and death of Christ, and associated with his people, the cruciform church (rather than ritual and ethnic purity associated with the physical temple and the particular nation of Israel).

  4. chad on

    I can’t say I’m after history as conceived by most of the biblical scholars you mentioned, Derek, I’ll concede that. If both readings help penetrate into the deposit of faith, and they are supported by the canon and the Church’s tradition of reading the text, I’m in favor of them both.

    Jeff – I don’t even know what to say to you. I’d smack you if you were close enough. Look, Mr. I’m now Anglican, don’t go project your frustration with the evangelicalism you despise by isogeting such things into what I said. I merely said we all want direct access to the God we love. This is not necessarily Jesus-and-me theology, or better, improper Jesus-and-me theology. How better to get direct access than to believe that the bread and wine in front of you (!) is Christ’s body and blood (say its transubstantially the body and blood and you [!] have even greater direct access, but the Roman Church is hardly a church that undermines the sacraments and ecclesial mediation, wouldn’t you say?). Let me go the grace route. Thomas Aquinas, for example, claims that thanks to work of Christ, each individual believer (!) now has a created participation in the divine nature through the infusion of grace by the Holy Spirit. Is Thomas Aquinas a Jesus-and-me theologian? Does he undermine the sacraments and ecclesial mediation? So, it seems that merely saying one wants (and has) direct access to God does not necessary undermine the sacraments or the mediation of the Church. Ask the entire Roman Church. Errrr (smack, smack).

  5. jeffreimer on

    Chad Chad!! Calm down!!! :) That’s not at all what I was trying to do! I don’t think that about you, and I don’t think that about all (or even most) of evangelicalism. I’m sorry I didn’t express myself more clearly.

    How about this instead? You say: “If both readings help penetrate into the deposit of faith, and they are supported by the canon and the Church’s tradition of reading the text, I’m in favor of them both.” I was simply trying to explain the scriptural reasoning in a way that would do exactly what you say here. While the sacraments do give us direct access to Christ, this direct access is in itself a mediation and is mediated through the church. Christ’s divinity is mediated to us through his humanity. God’s presence is mediated through Christ, God himself. I should hope this bolsters, not undermines, both Roman Catholic and Protestant doctrine, whether you think about it in sacramental terms or not.

  6. chad on

    Ok, Ok. Whew. You only get one smack for your previous comment, then.

  7. Joeseph on

    Would someone please explain why the Catholic faith is so hated.

  8. Rip Curl on

    Slightly off the subject maybe, but a request for you to consider the ethics of buying wetsuits. Do try and think about, for example, the materials your item is manufactured from, the human rights of the factories where they’re made and the green credentials of retailers. Oh, and endeavour to recycle rather than discarding. Thanks!!!!


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