April 11 (2): Luke 23:44-45

In commemoration of Holy Saturday, I offer brief meditations on two interesting details which occurred at the time of Jesus’ death: (1) the darkness which covered the land, and (2) the veil of the Temple which was torn in two. Both of these details appear in all three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 27:45, 51; Mark 15:33, 38; Luke 23:44-45), but I will be commenting specifically on Luke’s account.

1. The Darkness

Luke 23:44 states: kai\ h@n h&dh w(sei\ w&ra e%kth kai\ sko/to$ e)ge/neto e)f’ o%lhn th\n gh=n e%w$ w%ra$ e)na/th$ (“and it was now as if [i.e. about] the sixth hour and darkness came to be upon the whole earth until the ninth hour”), which differs only slightly from the wording in Matthew and Mark. However Luke adds: tou= h(li/ou e)klipo/nto$ (“[at] the sun’s leaving out [its light]”); this is the best reading, but some manuscripts instead have kai\ e)skoti/sqe o( h%lio$ (“and the sun was darkened”). I translate here e)klei/pw literally as “leave out”, but it has the general sense of “be deficient, lack, fade, fail”; many versions translate “for the sun’s [light] failed”, or something similar. On the historical level, this may have been a simple natural phenomenon (such as an eclipse, see below); however, it seems clear that in the Gospel tradition, the darkness has a symbolic import, in connection with Jesus on the cross. In the Gospel of Mark and Matthew, it occurs right before Jesus’ cry of dereliction (quoting Psalm 22, with transliterated Hebrew/Aramaic preserved): “My God, my God, for what have you left me behind?”—here the darkness may be taken to symbolize God’s forsaking of Jesus, a sense of sheer abandonment (in Matthew/Mark, these are Jesus’ only words spoken from the cross). The Greek translated “left behind” is an intensive form of katalei/pw, related to the very word Luke uses for the failing [“leaving out”] of the sun. Interestingly, Luke records no such cry: rather, Jesus cries out [lit. “gives voice”] with a loud voice (quoting a different Psalm 31), “Father, into your hands I set alongside my breath [i.e. spirit]”. Here there is no specific sense of abandonment; indeed, Jesus’ words suggest the opposite!

In Luke’s account, the darkness could be understood principally one of two ways: (a) a sign of the (temporary) dominance of sin/evil/suffering, or (b) a sign of judgment against the land (and people). The only other mention of “darkness” (sko/to$) in this context in Luke is from the scene of Jesus’ arrest (22:53): “this is your hour and the authority of the darkness”, which would suggest (a). Jesus’ two-fold mention of peirasmo/$ (“testing”) in the earlier Passion episode (22:40, 46) may also have eschatological overtones involving darkness, signs in the sun and moon etc. (cf. the apocalyptic language of Luke 21:25ff and par.), which could fit either (a) or (b). The fact that Luke records the tearing of the Temple veil (see below), right after the darkness (and before Jesus’ actual death), suggests more strongly the motif of darkness as judgment.

From early times, commentators have thought that Luke is specifically referring to a (solar) eclipse. This is possible, of course, at the historical level; but, I think, totally irrelevant to Luke’s narrative. However, it is worth mentioning the archetypal symbolism which was occasionally applied to the crucifixion scene in Christian art: where the sun and moon appear on either side of the cross, flanking Jesus, in parallel to the “good” and “wicked” thief—the sun associated with the good side, moon with the bad. In this regard, I am reminded of the Sefirotic Tree structure of Jewish mystical tradition (Kabbalah)—loving-kindness and mercy (dsj) on the right side, strength and judgment (/d/hrwbg) on the left, with beauty (trapt) in the center column. Are not the two “sides” even represented by the two separate cries of Jesus (Matthew/Mark and Luke)?—one, a cry in the face of judgment and desolation, the other, a cry of loving trust in God. An ancient form of this archetypal symbolism depicted two eyes on either side of the central panel: would not the “eclipse” be the juxtaposition of these two?—one eye, in the Person of Christ, shining in the darkness.

2. The Temple Veil

In Luke 23:45 we read: e)sxi/sqe de\ to\ katape/tasma tou= naou= me/son (“and the spread of the shrine was split in the middle”); Matthew and Mark differ slighting in stating/adding that it was split “in two from above and downward [i.e. below]”. katape/tasma (lit. something “spread downward”) is used here of the Temple curtain (veil), of which especially there were two: one guarding off the holy place (the shrine or sanctuary [nao$] proper), and the other the innermost shrine (the “holy of holies”). Which curtain is meant? This would seem to depend on the overall context of the scene; there are three main possibilities:

a) Soteriological: the rending of the temple curtain allows for access into the holiest place (where God dwells), cf. Hebrews 9
b) Covenantal: the rending of the curtain symbolizes the ‘end’ of the old covenant (with the Temple) and the beginning of the new (in the Person of Christ)
c) Apocalyptic: the rending of the curtain represents a time of (Divine) Judgment on the land, in which even the Temple will not be spared (cf. Luke 21:5-6 par.)

It is possible that the symbolism involves all three aspects; the fact that Luke connects rending of the veil with the darkness over the land suggests that (b) and/or (c) are more likely for his account. Mark and Matthew only mention the rending of the veil after Jesus’ death, which might imply (b). If an Apocalyptic symbol (c) is involved, then it is probably the curtain of the holy place that is meant, for it was decorated, according to Josephus, as “a kind of image of the universe” (Jewish War 5 §212).

There is an interesting parallel in John’s account: though he does not mention the rending of the veil, it is worth noting his description of the dividing of Jesus’ garments (John 19:23-24). He states that the soldiers “made four parts” (divided four ways among them) of his garments, but when they came to Jesus’ tunic/shirt (xitw/n) they noticed it was “without seam” and woven “from above” (a&nwqen) “through the whole” (i.e. downward to the bottom); and they said “let us not split (sxi/swmen) it”.  This language echoes the account of the rending of the veil (especially in Matthew/Mark). Is it too much for one to consider Jesus’ seamless tunic as a symbol of his own Body (or at least of its curtain/garment)? While the curtain of the Temple was torn from top to bottom, the garment of his Body remained whole.