Heavenly Veil Torn
Fri Feb 20 13:15:12 2004
THE HEAVENLY VEIL TORN: MARK'S COSMIC "INCLUSIO"
[Originally published in Journal of Biblical Literature 110:1 (Spring 1991) pp.
In the past few years, several different scholars have argued that there was a
connection in the mind of the author of the Gospel of Mark between the tearing
of the heavens at the baptism of Jesus (Mk 1:10) and the tearing of the temple
veil at the death of Jesus (Mk 15:38).  The purpose of the present article
will be to call attention to a piece of evidence which none of these scholars
mentions, but which provides dramatic confirmation of the hypothesis that the
tearing of the heavens and the tearing of the temple veil were linked in Mark's
To begin with, we should note that the two occurrences of the motif of tearing
in Mark do not occur at random points in the narrative, but on the contrary are
located at two pivotal moments in the story-- moments which, moreover, provide
an ideal counterpoint for each other: namely, the precise beginning (the
baptism) and the precise end (the death) of the earthly career of Jesus. This
significant placement of the two instances of the motif of tearing suggests that
we are dealing here with a symbolic "inclusio": that is, the narrative device
common in biblical texts in which a detail is repeated at the beginning and the
end of a narrative unit in order to "bracket off" the unit and give it a sense
of closure and structural integrity.
Indeed, in his 1987 article, "The Rending of the Veil: A Markan Pentecost," S.
Motyer points out that there is actually a whole cluster of motifs which occur
in Mark at both the baptism (1:9-11) and at the death of Jesus (15:36-39). In
addition to the fact that at both of these moments something is torn, Motyer
notes that: (1) at both moments a voice is heard declaring Jesus to be the Son
of God (at the baptism it is the voice of God, while at the death it is the
voice of the centurion); (2) at both moments something is said to descend (at
the baptism it is the spirit-dove, while at the death it is the tear in the
temple veil, which Mark explicitly describes as moving downward), (3) at both
moments the figure of Elijah is symbolically present (at the baptism Elijah is
present in the form of John the Baptist, while at Jesus' death the onlookers
think that Jesus is calling out to Elijah); (4) the spirit (pneuma) which
descends on Jesus at his baptism is recalled at his death by Mark's repeated use
of the verb ekpneo (expire), a cognate of pneuma. 
According to Motyer, the repetition by Mark of this cluster of motifs at both
the baptism and the death of Jesus constitutes a symbolic inclusio which
brackets the entire gospel, linking together the precise beginning and the
precise end of the earthly career of Jesus. Seen in this context, the presence
at both moments of the motif of something being torn is unlikely to be
coincidental. However, at this point an important question arises: if there was
indeed a connection for Mark between the tearing of the heavens and the tearing
of the temple veil, which veil was it that he had in mind? For the fact is, of
course, that there were two famous veils associated with the Jerusalem temple.
It has been debated for centuries which veil it was that Mark was referring to:
was it the outer veil, which hung in front of the doors at the entrance to the
temple, or the inner veil which separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of
the temple?  Many interpreters have assumed that it was the inner veil, and
have understood the tearing of the veil to have been Mark's way of symbolizing
the idea that the death of Jesus destroyed the barrier which separated God from
humanity. Recently, however, favor seems to have shifted to the view that it was
the outer veil, the strongest argument for which is that Mark seems to have
intended the awestruck response of the centurion to the manner of Jesus' death
(Mk 15:39) to have been inspired by his seeing the miraculous event of the
tearing of the veil, but he could only have seen this event if it was the outer
veil that tore, since the inner veil was hidden from view inside the temple. 
In his 1987 article "The Death of Jesus in Mark and the Miracle from the Cross,"
Howard Jackson argues that the question of which veil it was that Mark was
referring to can be easily answered if we acknowledge that there was a link in
Mark's imagination between the tearing of the heavens at the baptism of Jesus
and the tearing of the temple veil at his death. For, says Jackson, if there was
a parallel in Mark's mind between the tearing of the heavens and the tearing of
the temple veil, then Mark must also have intended there to be a parallel
between Jesus at the baptism and the centurion at the crucifixion: just as Jesus
witnessed the tearing of the heavens, so the centurion witnessed the tearing of
the temple veil. But, as we have already noted, the centurion could only have
witnessed the tearing of the veil if it was the outer veil, since the inner veil
was hidden from view. Thus it must have been the outer veil that Mark had in
Jackson's argument is suggestive although certainly not conclusive. However,
there exists a piece of evidence which Jackson does not mention in his
discussion which, I believe, provides decisive proof that Mark had in mind the
outer veil of the temple, and which also provides rather spectacular
confirmation of the existence in Mark's imagination of a link between the
tearing of the heavens and the tearing of the temple veil.
The evidence to which I refer consists of a passage in Josephus's Jewish War in
which he describes the outer veil of the Jerusalem temple as it had appeared
since the time of Herod. According to Josephus, this outer veil was a gigantic
curtain 80 feet high. It was, he says, a
Babylonian tapestry, with embroidery of blue and fine linen, of scarlet also and
purple, wrought with marvelous skill. Nor was this mixture of materials without
its mystic meaning: it typified the universe....
Then Josephus tells us what was pictured on this curtain:
Portrayed on this tapestry was a panorama of the entire heavens.... 
In other words, the outer veil of the Jerusalem temple was actually one huge
image of the starry sky! Thus, upon encountering Mark's statement that "the veil
of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom," any of his readers who had
ever seen the temple or heard it described would instantly have seen in their
mind's eye an image of the heavens being torn, and would immediately have been
reminded of Mark's earlier description of the heavens being torn at the baptism.
This can hardly be coincidence: the symbolic parallel is so striking that Mark
must have consciously intended it.
We may therefore conclude (1) that Mark did indeed have in mind the outer veil,
and (2) that Mark did indeed imagine a link between the tearing of the heavens
and the tearing of the temple veil-- since we can now see that in fact in both
cases the heavens were torn-- and that he intentionally inserted the motif of
the "tearing of the heavenly veil" at both the precise beginning and at the
precise end of the earthly career of Jesus, in order to create a powerful and
intriguing symbolic inclusio.
 See S. Motyer, "The Rending of the Veil: A Markan Pentecost," NTS 33 (1987)
155-57; Howard M. Jackson, "The Death of Jesus in Mark and the Miracle from the
Cross," NTS 33 (1987) 23, 27, 31; Elizabeth Malbon, Narrative Space and Mythic
Meaning in Mark (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986) 187, n. 93. For earlier
scholars who suggested at least tentatively the possibility of a link between
the tearing of the heavens and the tearing of the temple veil, see the
references in Jackson, "Death of Jesus," 36, n. 22. For an argument against
there being a connection between Mk 1:10 and Mk 15:38, with additional
references to earlier scholarship, see Fritzleo Lentzen-Deis, Die Taufe Jesu
nach den Synoptikern (Frankfurt: Knecht, 1970) 280-81.
 This article is a revised version of a paper which I presented to the
Synoptic Gospels Section at the 1988 meeting of the Society of Biblical
 Motyer, "Rending," 155.
 For bibliography of modern scholarship on this debate see Jackson, "Death of
Jesus," 36, n. 23.
 Jackson, "Death of Jesus," 22-24.
 Jackson, "Death of Jesus," 23-24. Jackson goes on to argue that Mark
intended his readers to imagine that when Jesus expired, the spirit-wind (pneuma
meaning both spirit and wind), which had entered him after the tearing of the
heavens at the baptism, left him with such force that it was actually this
spirit-wind which was responsible for physically tearing the temple veil.
 JW 5.5.4 §§ 212-14. Trans. adapted from H. St. J. Thackeray, Josephus
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979) vol. 3, p. 265. Josephus goes on to
say that the astral iconography of the veil excluded "the signs of the zodiac,"
presumably in order to avoid any implication of astrology. For a detailed
discussion of Josephus's description of the temple veil see André Pelletier, "La
tradition synoptique du 'voile déchiré' à la lumière des réalités archéologiques,"
Recherches de Science Religieuse 46 (1958) 168-179.
For a paper of mine, presented at the 1996 meeting of the Society of Biblical
Literature, that explores further implications of the discovery described in
this article, click here.
For a summary of my book The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries: Cosmology and
Salvation in the Ancient World (Oxford University Press, 1989) click here.
To return to Home of David Ulansey click here.
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