Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Veil Torn In Two

"And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom..." Matthew 27:51
Quite some time ago, I had heard mention of the thickness of the temple veil that had been torn in two (Matt. 27:51; Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45). If I am not mistaken, I believe the speaker claimed it was 15 inches thick. I had thought the speaker had been Todd Friel, but I am not certain after all this time and so I will not attribute anything to him that may be mistaken. Whether it was him or someone else, I would like to make it known that the speaker was entirely wrong. How they came to that conclusion or where they received their information I do not know, but I do know that it was incorrect. Recently, I had been thinking about that supposed thickness and I simply could not accept it. There is no way the veil was 15 inches thick. You could not move it. It would be like a solid wall. So how thick was the veil?

There is no detailed description in Scripture concerning Herod's Temple, and the brief description of the veil in Solomon's Temple (2 Chr. 3:14) does not comment with regard to its thickness. The Bible says absolutely nothing with regard to the thickness of the veil. So where does the information concerning it come from?

In the Ryrie Study Bible (which is no "study Bible" in the least—as is true for most so-called "study Bibles"), a note on Exodus 26:31-35 has this to say: "Josephus reported that the veil was 4 inches thick, was renewed every year, and that horses tied to each side could not pull it apart. It barred all but the High Priest from the presence of God, but when it was torn in two at the death of Jesus of Nazareth (see Mark 15:38), access to God was made available to all who come through him." First of all, Exodus 26 describes the Tabernacle; the veil that was torn in two was part of Herod's Temple. Here is just one of hundreds of examples where Dispensationalists apply information incorrectly to contexts that have nothing to do with that information. Second of all, Charles Ryrie is giving false attribution as Josephus has nothing to say concerning the thickness of the veil.

Ryrie failed to provide a specific reference to his quote (as is typical of Dispensationalists), but a search for the word "veil" in Josephus' work reveals that none of the references (War 5.5.4; Ant 3.6.4; Ant 3.7.7; Ant 8.3.3;Ant. 14.7.1) that speak of the temple address the thickness of the veil.

John Gill and Alfred Edersheim are likely two Christian sources that have led to information concerning the thickness of the veil as both demonstrate interaction with rabbinic sources. John Gill's comments, found in Matthew 27:51, say:
The account the Jews give of the veil, is this {w}: "R. Simeon ben Gamaliel said, on account of R. Simeon, the son of the Sagan, the thickness of the veil is an hand's breadth, and it is woven of seventy two threads, and every thread has twenty four threads in it: it is forty cubits long, and twenty broad, and is made of eighty two myriads; (which is either the number of the threads in it, or the sum of the golden pence it cost. Some copies read, is made by eighty two virgins {x};) two are made every year; and three hundred priests wash it.''
Gill cites these sources: {w} Misn. Shekalim, c. 8. sect. 5. Shernot Rabba, sect. 50. fol. 144. 2. Bernidbar Rabba, sect. 4. fol. 183. 2. {x} Vid. Bartenora & Yom. Tob. in ib.

In his work The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, while he does not reference the statement concerning the veil's thickness, Edersheim writes:
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.
There is a passage in the Mishnah, the early codification of Judaism's "oral law"—explanations of the Torah, that addresses the thickness of the veil:
Rabban Simeon b. Gamaliel says in the name of R. Simeon son of the Prefect: The veil was one handbreadth thick and was woven on [a loom having] seventy-two rods, and over each rod were twenty-four threads. Its length was forty cubits and its breadth twenty cubits; it was made by eighty-two young girls, and they used to make two in every year; and three hundred priests immersed it.
This statement is put forth straightforwardly and factually. Later rabbinic commentaries, however, suggest the statement is an exaggeration, a form of hyperbole. Regardless, this information is not borne of Scripture and so we ought to be careful when conveying it. We should say something like, "Early Jewish tradition stated that the Temple veil was as thick as a man's hand, although this might be an exaggeration." Supposing that it is not an exaggeration, this brings greater awe to the tearing of the veil upon Christ's crucifixion. If horses pulling it from either side could not tear it in half, having a width of 4 inches and suddenly sheering in two would be a miraculous and phenomenal event. A marvelous sign indicating that God no longer dwells in temples and that He can be reached by anyone at any time. A thin veil would be nothing to be seen torn in two, but a 4-inch-thick veil torn in two? Imagine the expression on the priests faces.