WHY DID GOD TEAR THE TEMPLE VEIL FROM TOP TO BOTTOM? For centuries, Christians have traditionally taught that the reason God tore the Temple veil was to bring an end to the Temple sacrificial system and to allow people direct access into the Presence of God. Jesus’ death did not bring an end to the Temple system; in fact, it continued for another 40 years until in 70 C.E., when the Romans, under Titus, attacked and destroyed Jerusalem, including the Temple. Nor did the Temple prevent people from praying to God outside the Temple. People could pray to God anywhere and anytime they wanted, so that there was no reason to tear the veil if the reason was to allow people access into God’s Presence through prayer, because they already had that. So then we must re-examine the evidence to see why then was the veil torn in half?
IN PURSUIT OF TRUTH
To begin with, I need to point out that my motivation for writing this is not to discredit the Bible or anything that it teaches. But I understand that there’s a difference between what the Bible says and what we interpret it to be saying. I’ve had too many instances in my life where I was told the Bible taught something, only to discover when I studied it for myself that it did not teach that at all. The person had taken the words of Scripture out of context. I’m not interested in “feel good theology,” I simply want the truth.
TWO BASIC RULES OF HERMENEUTICS
In interpreting any thing from Scripture, we must adhere to the rules and guidelines of Hermeneutics, which is “the science and art of biblical interpretation.” And there are three basic rules that I want to highlight here.
- Rule of Context. In order to properly understand any idea, word, phrase, or concept, we must understand it within its proper context. The context would include not only its immediate context (the surrounding materials around that
text, the material within the entire chapter, and the entire book), but it would also
involve its historical, cultural, social, religious, and linguistic contexts. If we
remove it from its original context, then we open the door to misinterpretation,
misunderstanding and error.
- “Out of the mouth of 2 or 3 witnesses, a thing [or truth] shall be established.” This teaching began as part of capital punishment (Numbers 35:30; Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:15), but by the 1st century, C.E., it was a general principle for establishing something to be true (Matthew 18:6; 2 Corinthians 13:1; I Timothy 5:9; Hebrews 10:28). In other words, if some idea, teaching, or truth is really important to God, He will repeat the same idea a number of times. God is the Teacher of all teachers, and just like in school, if the teacher says it once, it might be on the test. But the more often the teacher repeats it, the more certain students can be that idea will be on the test. Therefore, the doctrines of God are those teachings which are found repeated again and again throughout His Word from Genesis to Revelation.
- The Law of First Mention. The Law of First Mention states that wherever a
word, phrase, idea, or concept is first used in Scripture, this establishes its basic,
fundamental meaning, and although the rest of Scripture may build on and
develop this meaning, later passages cannot annul or contradict this original
So then to understand the meaning of the tearing of the garment, we must go back and see where it is found in the Bible, and understand its use there in its original context.
THE TEARING OF THE GARMENT
— ITS ORIGINAL CONTEXT
Throughout the Bible, the tearing of one’s garment is seen as an act of intense anguish and suffering over some tragedy, like in mourning a loved one’s death. We see this in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. The first occurrence of this is found in the story of Joseph.
In Genesis 37, Joseph’s brothers go off for a few days to allow the sheep to graze. Jacob sends Joseph to check on them and to bring them some food. But when Joseph’s brothers see him coming, they want to kill him, because of their envy, jealousy, and anger due to the dreams he had been having about his future. but Reuben told them to not kill him but to throw him into a nearby pit. Reuben was planning on sneaking him out of the pit and then returning him to their father (Genesis 37:22). While Reuben was gone, Midianites came and drew Joseph out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmeelites for 20 pieces of silver as the brothers watched, and then they took Joseph to Egypt (Genesis 37:25-28). It is after this that Reuben returns.
And Reuben returned unto the pit; and, behold, Joseph was not in the pit; and he rent [tore] his clothes. And he returned unto his brethren, and said, This child is not; and I, where shall I go? (Genesis 37:29-30)
They then took Joseph’s coat of many colors and covered it with the blood from a baby goat in order try and cover up what had actually done. They then brought the blood-covered coat to their father, Jacob, telling him that some wild animal had apparently attacked and devoured Joseph. (Genesis 37:31-33). In response, Jacob rents [tears] his clothes:
And Jacob rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his loins, and mourned for his son many days. (Genesis 37:34)
Then about 20 years later, there’s a drought throughout the land, and Jacob sends his 10 sons to Egypt to buy grain, except Benjamin, his youngest son, and the last remaining son of his by his beloved wife Rachel. When his sons return with grain, but one of his sons was missing, Simeon. Jacob learned that the Egyptian governor, Zaphenath-paneah, believed that the brothers were spies, so he put the brothers in prison for 3 days. After 3 days, he releases all the brothers but one, gives them the grain they requested, and then told them that they needed to bring back the youngest brother to Egypt to prove their story that they were one family and not spies.
Jacob is horribly distraught at this and refuses to allow them to take Benjamin with them. However, as the drought continued and the food almost gone, Jacob was left with no other options. The brothers return again to Egypt with Benjamin this time. When the brothers arrive, they are brought to the house of Zaphenath-paneah, where Simeon is restored to them and they are all provided a meal with the governor. The next day, the governor tells his house steward,
Fill the men’s sacks with food, as much as they can carry, and put each man’s money in the mouth of his sack. And put my cup, the silver cup, in the mouth of the sack of the youngest, and his money for the grain. (Genesis 44:1-2)
The servant did as he was instructed. The brothers had no idea what had happened until the Egyptian guards came out to them. They argue that they would never steal anything from the governor, and then said, “With whomever of your servants it [the silver cup] is found, let him die, and we also will be my lord’s slaves” (Genesis 44:9). In searching the bags of grains, the silver cup was found in Benjamin’s bag (Genesis 44:12). Then the Scriptures say,
Then they [the brothers] tore their clothes, and when each man loaded his donkey, they returned to the city. (Genesis 44:13)
It is later, after returning to the home of the governor, that they discovered that the governor Zaphenath-paneah was really Joseph, their brother, the one they had watched being sold into slavery years before. Rather than taking revenge, he forgives them, and tells them to bring their father there to Egypt so that he may care for them during the remaining years of drought.
In these beginning three accounts of someone tearing their garments, we repeatedly see that it is an outward physical act to express the anguish, pain and horror of discovering some calamity and of mourning some loved one’s death. And when the garment is torn, it is torn from the top to bottom. We see this same pattern repeated over and over again.
— THE LAW OF FIRST MENTION
Remember the Hermeneutical Law of First Mention: That wherever word, phrase, idea, or concept is first used in Scripture, this establishes its basic, fundamental meaning, and although the rest of Scripture may build on and develop this meaning, later passages cannot annul or contradict this original meaning. And the beginning use of this act is never used to indicate the ending of God’s commandments or the end of the Levitical sacrificial system since at the time of Joseph, there was no Levitical priesthood, Temple, or sacrificial system. Since these things did not exist yet, the act of tearing the garment could not have any connection to them.
FURTHER BIBLICAL EXAMPLES
— “OUT OF THE MOUTH OF TWO OR THREE WITNESSES”
Remember that the truth of God is always found in those things that God repeats, not in just a single verse. Therefore, we must always base our doctrines on those things that we see repeated throughout the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, and not just upon the New Testament.
The three accounts in Genesis that we’ve seen is by far not the only accounts in which a person tears their garments as an expression of their anguish, pain and horror of discovering some calamity and/or of mourning some loved one’s death. For example:
- Joshua and Caleb rent [or tore] their clothes when the children of Israel believed the counsel of the 38 other spies who told the people there was no chance of them entering the Promised Land. The people they said were too big and strong for them to defeat. (Numbers 14:6)
- Joshua tore his clothes and fell to the earth when 36 men were killed and the army of Israel defeated by the men of Ai. (Joshua 7:5-6)
- A man of Benjamin tore his clothes and put dust on his head when in a battle, the ark of God was captured and the two sons of Eli, the high priest, were killed. (I Samuel 4:11-12)
- A man tore his clothes and dust on his head, after escaping an attack by the Philistines, to tell David that King Saul and his son Jonathan were dead. (2 Samuel 1:2-3)
- David and all his men tore their clothes when they heard the news of Saul’s and Jonathan’s deaths. (2 Samuel 1:11)
- After being raped by her half-brother Amnon and then thrown out of his place, Tamar tears her garment and puts ashes on her head. (2 Samuel 13:14-19)
- Ahab tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and fasted when he heard God’s judgment against him, his wife Jezebel, and his household for their great evil from the prophet Elijah. (1 Kings 21:27)
- King Hezekiah tore his clothes when he heard the news that the king of Assyria was going to attack Jerusalem. (2 Kings 19:1; Isaiah 37:1)
- King Josiah tore his clothes when they found the book of the Law, and discovered that they had not been keeping God’s commandments. (2 Kings 22:8-11;
2 Chronicles 34:15-19)
- Mordecai tore his clothes when he learned that a law had been passed to exterminate all the Jews in Persia in one day. (Esther 4:1)
As we can see, in all these examples, we see over and over again throughout the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures (“the Old Testament”), the pattern of Scripture is that the tearing of the garment/clothes was done when someone experienced anguish, great pain, something horrific, or if they discovered that someone died.
FATHERS WHO TORE THEIR CLOTHES
Besides Jacob, who tore his clothes, when he had been told that Joseph had been killed and devoured by a wild beast, there were other loving fathers who tore their clothes over the death of their children.
- In the book of Judges, Jephthah has been asked to lead Gilead’s army in a battle against the Ammonites. Prior to the battle, he makes the following vow to the LORD: “If You shall without fail deliver the children of Ammon into my hands, then it shall be, that whatever comes out of the doors of my house (part of which was also a barn), when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering” (Judges 11:30-31). I am sure he was expecting one of his animals to come greet him, but instead, it was his daughter, his one and only child (Judges 11:35). He tears his clothes when he sees her coming out to greet him, and after two months, he carried out his vow to the LORD. (Judges 11:35-40).
- David tore his clothes and lay on the ground when he heard the report that his son Absalom had killed all of his other sons. He later discovers Absalom did not kill all of them, but only Amnon, who had raped Absalom’s sister, Tamar. (2 Samuel 13:31-32)
- Job tore his clothes when he heard the report that all of his 7 children had been killed at once when a strong wind came and blew done the house upon them. (Job 1:20)
Again, we see the same thing. The pattern of Scripture is consistent throughout the Hebrew Scriptures (“the Old Testament”), and we shall see the same consistency in modern Judaism today.
MODERN JEWISH TEACHING
In Rabbi Hayim HaLevy Donin’s book, To Be a Jew: A Guide to Jewish Observance in Contemporary Life, he writes in regard to mourning:
Tearing a garment that one is wearing is the religiously proper way to express grief for the dead. It is a time-honored and ancient sign of grief and mourning among Jews extending back to Biblical times. The garment that is torn is worn throughout the week of mourning [called in Hebrew shiva], except for the Sabbath day. (Cutting a small black ribbon is not a religiously authorized substitute for rending the garment, or kriah.) 
From our study of the Scriptures, we can see that what Rabbi Donin says here is in complete agreement with the Scriptures: the tearing of the garment to express grief for the dead does, in fact, extend back into biblical times as we’ve seen.
The tearing of the garment as an expression of grief for the dead can also be seen in the movie Yentl, starring Barbara Streisand. In the movie, Yentl and her father live in a Jewish village in Eastern Europe around the beginning of the 20th century. During this time, women were not encouraged to study religious texts, so her father teachers her in secret. When her father dies, she is given a small pair of scissors and she makes a small incision in her dress, and then she tears the garment more over her heart. She then reads the traditional prayer, called Kaddish, which is a prayer for those who are there at the funeral mourning for the deceased. But again, we can see that the tearing of her garment is in keeping with the pattern of Scripture and Jewish tradition.
THE TEARING OF THE TEMPLE VEIL
Now, let’s go back and look again at the tearing of the Temple veil as it is recorded in the Gospels. Jesus has been crucified by the Romans, and He has been on the cross now for 6 hours.
And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. And behold, the veil of the Temple was torn from top to bottom, and the earth shook; and the rocks were split,… (Matthew 27:50-51)
And Jesus uttered a cry, and breathed His last. And the veil of the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom. (Mark 15:37-38)
And it was now about the sixth hour, and darkness fell over the whole land until the ninth hour. And the sun being obscured; and the veil of the Temple was torn in two, and Jesus, crying out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.” And having said this, He breathed His last. (Luke 23:44-46)
Now in all three of these accounts, the temple veil was torn at the time when Jesus died on the cross. In two of the accounts the tearing of the Temple veil is mentioned right after His death, but only in Luke is the tearing of the Temple veil mentioned just prior to His death. How do we explain the difference? Luke included more details in his account, so I believe that the account flowed better for Luke having the tearing of the Temple veil mentioned right prior to His death, rather than afterwards. However, when we compare his account to the other two accounts, including Matthew’s, who was one of Jesus’ 12 disciples, then we can see that the tearing of the Temple veil did, in fact, happen right after Jesus’ death.
Is the specific sequence important? I believe that it is, because by God tearing the Temple veil after seeing the horrific death of His One and Only beloved Son upon the cross, the act of tearing the veil was an expression of God’s anguish, pain and horror at what He had just witnessed. He reacted the same way that any Jewish father would have acted, if they had witnessed the crucifixion and death of their one and only beloved son, which perfectly follows the pattern of Scripture that we’ve seen from Genesis to the end of the Gospels. To see the tearing of the Temple veil as anything other than God expressing His deep grief and anguish for Jesus’ death is taking it out of it context, and reading something into it which has no previous biblical support.
GOD’S VIEW OF THIS MOMENT
There have been a few times where God has shared with my wife, this moment when Jesus died and what it was like for Him. These and other messages that God has shared with Karen can be found on her blog “Karen’s Shofar” (located at http://karensshofar.wordpress.com). What you are about to read are His words that He spoke to her through the Holy Spirit:
“Being a Light in a Dark World,” November 9, 2015
My Son has accomplished what I had sent for Him to do, and it is finished. He has opened the gateway, so that Jews and Gentiles can both come to Me because of the rent and split of My robe and tallit in My very Holy Tabernacle. That very moment when My Son took His last breath, My heart also took its last breath, and it pained Me so hard that I split My very heart of who I am from the top to the bottom to show you how much I love you, My people. The veil of My heart, the very source of who I am, who I was with your fathers, which I was a light of fire by day and a cloud of smoke by night in the wilderness. This is Me, says the LORD God Almighty, I change not and can’t change, because “I am that I am,” says God.
I ripped the veil from top to bottom because that is My sign to My people Israel. They knew exactly who My Son was and what an evil and perverse people they had become by crucifying the One and Only Lamb of God who came to bring light and love into a sick and dying world. They tried to kill the One they proclaimed to be seeking after, but when I did come and I didn’t look like they had preconceived Me, they called Me cruel and vicious names, and also called Me “a son of Beelzebub.”
They were caught up in so many legalist doctrines of their father, the devil, that they who thought they were doing right had become blind and could not see….They were so blinded by their doctrines of men, just like you, My Church, is today. Don’t keep continuing in your self-righteousness ans unholiness, because I love you so very much and desire for My Church, both Jew and Gentile, to become One as I and My Father are One. Don’t stay lost in your sins. Repent and do your first works over again, so that our hearts can relight that once relationship I hungered so very long ago to have with Adam and Eve in My Garden.
“Teach My People What I Have Been Teaching You,” January 30, 2018.
How ludicrous that you think that I have done away with My sacrifices and offerings. I did what a good Jewish father would’ve done if one of their children would’ve died. My people knew exactly what happened. They weren’t in the dark. Why do you think they wanted to have My tomb guarded?”
As we can see, God ripped the veil of the Temple in response to His own broken heart from watching the torture and death of Jesus, His own Beloved Son. Even though his death had been planned from before the foundations of the world, it still does not change the anguish, pain and hurt the Father experienced watching His Son’s death. In response to that pain, He did what any loving Jewish father would’ve done, He took the cloth over His heart – the Temple veil – and He ripped it from top to bottom.
Some have even thought that since the Temple veil was torn in half after Jesus’ said, “It is finished,” that this meant that the Temple system was finished. However, this is not the case. In fact, even His statement “It is finished” had nothing to do with the Temple either. Jesus died during Passover, which is an observance remembering God delivering Israel from slavery in Egypt. His statement “It is finished” meant that their time of slavery was over. But slavery to what? There’s only one thing that Jesus ever referred to as “slavery,” and that is sin. “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin” (John 8:34). At no point in time does Jesus ever call or insinuate that the Law of God or the Temple system is “slavery.”
GAINING ACCESS TO GOD
Another idea associated with the tearing of the Temple veil is the idea that until that moment, people had to go through animal sacrifices and the Temple priesthood to get to God. But once the Temple veil was torn, Christians teach, now we have access to God without having to go through a priesthood and animal sacrifices.
However, again, Christian interpretation is in error. Jews were able to pray to God anywhere they wished at any time, without the need to go to the Temple to do so. Most Christians do not know this because they have never stepped foot inside of a Jewish synagogue. If they had, they would realize that there’s no priesthood, no sacrifices in the synagogue, nor is there any rank or status of people there. Everyone is equally able to stand before God in prayer to pray both as a community and as an individual. Many researchers believe that the synagogue system began in Babylon, during the 70 years they were away from their land, and it continued when the Jewish people came back to the land.
Therefore, there was no reason to bring the Temple system to an end to provide people with a way to God apart from the Temple Levitical system or animal sacrifices. It was already in existence 300-400 years before the first century, C.E.
Consequently, as we’ve seen, traditional Christianity’s interpretation of Jesus’ statement “It is finished” and the tearing of the Temple veil to mean that God was bringing the Temple Levitical system to an end, and that people could now access God without the need to go through a priesthood and animal sacrifices, are a gross misinterpretation of the events and the Scripture itself that has no basis in the Hebrew Scriptures (“Old Testament”) or in the teachings of Jesus Himself.
This erroneous traditional interpretation was applied to the event by later Christians who knew that the Temple had been destroyed by then, and believed that they had replaced the Jewish people as “the people of God,” a doctrine known as “Replacement Theology.” Their misinterpretation of the tearing of the Temple veil was part of their justification for the separation and division between Judaism and Christianity, since evidence that Christians were beginning to see themselves as part of a separate religion cannot be seen until the writings of the Early Church Fathers in the 2nd century, C.E., beginning with “The Letters of Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch,” which was written about 30-50 years after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple.
And as I have shown, the biblical evidence does not support traditional Christianity’s interpretation of the event, nor do I believe that it supports “Replacement Theology,” therefore, I reject both beliefs and stand solely on what is clearly taught within the Scriptures and what God has revealed to us in and through His Spirit.
Thank you for sharing!
What a wonderful refreshing teaching and interpretation of scripture, I truly believe the Holy Spirit led me to this study, as after a study in the tearing of the curtain, I was captivated with the thought of so what happened to the animal sacrifices after the curtain was torn, I knew the temple was destroyed later down the years, how did the priests respond? Business as usual! Thanks so much what a rich blessing this has been to me tonight. God’s heart was truly revealed.
Well done. The only thing you might add was that the outer veil to the Temple was actually called “Elohim’s garment”, which is an additional clincher in determining what was going on here. –Stephen (“Remez”) Zimmerman (See note on Luke 23:45 at http://ancientpath.chazaq.info/Luke17.html#anchor_101)
Christ Sacrifice Once and for all. Hebrews 10https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Hebrews+10&verse
Sue, So what is your point?