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.

February 5: 2 Cor 4:3-4, etc

In the previous note, on 1 Cor 15:1-2, as well as the earlier note on Rom 1:1, 16, etc, I discussed how Paul, in his letters, only rarely expounds the theological aspects of the term eu)agge/lion. Most prominently this is done throughout the main body of Romans (the probatio, 1:18-11:36). There are, however, a few other passages where it is touched on—notably, in 1 Cor 15:1-2, and 2 Cor 4:3-4, which we will examine below.

It may be worth recalled the background of the eu)aggel– word group (and the corresponding root rcb in Hebrew/Aramaic). It was often used in the context of (good) news involving the outcome of a battle, or other public action (by the ruler/government) related to public welfare and protection; however, the military aspect—victory in battle, deliverance from danger—was prominent. Interestingly, there is little indication that this context (or connotation) was primary for the earliest Christians in their use of the word group. The main influence, as I discussed, was from the use of the verb rc^B*/eu)aggeli/zw in several key passages of (Deutero-)Isaiah, most notably 40:9; 52:7; 60:6, and, especially, 61:1. In these oracles, the idea of “good news” is tied to the future/end-time restoration of God’s people (the faithful remnant of Israel). The passages came to have a marked eschatological and Messianic sense—especially Isa 40:3ff and 61:1ff as they appear in the Gospel tradition, and as used by John the Baptist and Jesus himself. This eschatological/Messianic dimension appears to have shaped the earliest Christian usage of eu)agge/lion and the verb eu)aggeli/zomai; in this regard, the “good message” may be summarized as follows:

  • Jesus is the Anointed One sent by God, whose appearance was promised/prophesied in the Scriptures
  • Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, God has exalted him to the divine/heavenly status and position as Son of God; at the same time the exalted Christ is also identified with the “Son of Man” savior-figure who will appear at the end-time
  • The faithful ones—identified as those trusting in Jesus—will be saved/rescued from the end-time Judgment that is about to come upon humankind

For the earliest Christians, salvation was fundamentally eschatological—being saved from the end-time Judgment. Paul very much followed this emphasis, as we can see from the opening of the probatio (1:18ff); that is to say, he begins his exposition of the Gospel with a warning of the anger (o)rgh/) of God that is about to be revealed upon all sin and wickedness in the world. This is the end-time Judgment that Paul declares so succinctly in the Athens speech of Acts 17: “…He established a day in which He is about to judge the inhabited (world) in (His) justice” (v. 31).

However, Paul’s understanding of salvation was certainly not limited to this eschatological aspect. More than any other New Testament author (or speaker), it is Paul who also defines salvation fundamentally in terms of deliverance from the power of sin. Interestingly, though, this understanding is presented in detail only in a few passages. By far, the most prominent and clearest presentation occurs in chapters 5-8 of Romans. After the eschatological warning of 1:18-32, Paul, in chapters 2-4 of the letter, argues vigorously for the proposition that all human beings—Jew and non-Jew alike—are justified (“made right”) in God’s eyes, and thus are saved, only (and entirely) through trust in the “good message” of Jesus Christ. The old covenant and observance of the Torah does not lead to salvation in any sense; quite the opposite, in Paul’s view (his view on the Torah is discussed in detail in the series “The Law and the New Testament”, soon to be posted here). But what, exactly, does this salvation entail? From Paul’s standpoint there are two principal, related aspects for the believer, which follow, as a necessary consequence, from the eschatological aspect:

  • Believers in Christ are saved from the coming Judgment
    however, since the Judgment is due to sin and wickedness, it is first necessary that human beings be freed from sin, for which there is a dual aspect:
    • (1) We are cleansed from sin, and
    • (2) We are freed from the power of sin

The first aspect is central to the very earliest preaching, going back to John the Baptist, Jesus, and the first apostles (Mark 1:4-5, 15 par; Matt 3:2; Acts 2:38; 3:26, etc). It is tied to the ritual of baptism, and is associated with the role (and presence) of the Holy Spirit. The second aspect, on the other hand, is more distinctly Pauline, informing the soteriology expressed by Paul in his letters. And he expresses the idea of the power of sin in various ways. In Romans 5ff, for example, sin is personified as tyrant, a conqueror who enslaves the population. All of humankind is in bondage to the ruling power of Sin. However, the sacrificial death (and resurrection) of Jesus perfectly and totally reverses this situation, freeing from bondage (to sin) all who trust in him.

Much of this same basic idea may be found in Paul’s declaration regarding the Gospel in 2 Corinthians 4:3-4 which I will now discuss briefly.

2 Corinthians 4:3-4

In this passage, Paul personifies sin and evil in a different way, using the expression “the god of this Age” (o( qeo\$ tou= ai)w=no$ tou/tou). Like many Jews and Christians of the time, Paul held the fundamental worldview that the current Age was thoroughly wicked, dominated by sin and evil. This was related to a dualistic mode of thinking common to the eschatology of the period—i.e., a contrast between “This Age” and “the Coming Age”, which will be ushered in by God at the Judgment. The current Age (and world-order, ko/smo$) was seen as sinful/evil and opposed to God; Paul expresses this dualism just as forcefully as the Johannine writings, if not through such distinctive use of the word ko/smo$. Rather, Paul tends to use the word ai)w/n (“life[time], period of time, age”); it occurs, in a negative (and contrastive) sense, in 1 Cor 1:20; 2:6ff; 3:18; Rom 12:2; Gal 1:4; also Eph 2:2. The word ko/smo$ (“world[-order]”) is used in a similar way in Gal 4:3, 9; Col 2:8, 20; 1 Cor 3:19, etc. In Gal 1:4, he uses the expression “the evil Age (that) has been set in (place)”. In referring to the “god” (qeo/$) of this Age, Paul presumably has in mind the Satan (or ‘Devil’) and various unclean/evil (“demon”) powers which God has allowed to exercise influence and control over the world (cf. 1 Cor 15:24; Gal 4:8-9; Col 2:8-10; 2 Thess 2:9; Eph 2:2, etc).

Here in 2 Cor 4:3-4, the power of sin, wielded/controlled by “the god of this Age”, is described in terms of a darkness which blinds the eyes of human beings (cf. 2 Thess 2:9-12). This, of course, is another way of referring to humanity as being in bondage to sin (note the play on bondage/blindness in Isa 61:1 MT/LXX, discussed in the earlier note). The dualism of Light vs. Darkness is natural and was widespread in the ancient world; Paul makes use of it, though not so thoroughly as the Johannine writings and discourses of Jesus do. The entire section of 3:7-4:6 develops the theme of seeing and revelation (vb. a)pokalu/ptw, literally “take the cover [away] from”, “uncover”). Believers in Christ are able, through trust, and through the Spirit, to see the glory/splendor (do/ca) of God in a way that was impossible (even for Moses) under the Old Covenant. Here in 4:3-4, the implication is that it is the very Gospel message (eu)agge/lion) that illumines believers and allows us to see the glory of God in the person of Jesus.

Salvation—freeing believers from the power of sin—is thus described in terms of (1) dispelling the darkness and (2) restoring sight to the blind. In the Gospel tradition, the association of the Gospel with recovery of sight (by way of Isa 61:1 LXX), was taken literally, being fulfilled in the healing miracles of Jesus (cf. the note on Lk 7:22 par). Paul, however, understands this symbolically, in a spiritual sense—the “good message” of Christ does away with the blinding power of sin (for a similar development, or interpretation, see John 9). There is then an absolute contrast between believer and non-believer in this regard:

“But if our good message is covered (up), it is covered (up) among the (one)s going away to ruin, (among) the (one)s whom the god of this Age (has) blinded the minds, the (one)s without trust, unto (there being) [i.e. so there would be] no shining forth of the good message of the splendor of the Anointed (One), who is the image of God.” (2 Cor 4:3-4)

Note the conceptual structure, which may be outlined as a chiasm:

  • the good message
    • is covered up
      • the ones going away to ruin (i.e. lost, perishing)
        • the message is covered up/over for them
          • the Age of sin and evil (“god of this Age”)
        • their minds are blinded
      • the ones without trust (in Jesus)
    • it does not shine forth
  • the good message

This structure helps to demonstrate how and why many do not respond to the Gospel—it involves a complex dynamic between the reigning power of sin and the person’s ability/willingness to trust in the Gospel. Paul details a similar sort of dynamic in Romans 7. It is also worth noting the significance of the double use of eu)agge/lion that brackets this passage:

    • the good message [eu)agge/lion] that is proclaimed by Paul and his fellow ministers (v. 3a)
    • the good message [eu)agge/lion] characterized as being that which reveals (“shines forth”) the splendor of the Anointed (do/ca tou= Xristou=), the Messiah Jesus being further described as “the image of God” (ei)kw\n tou= qeou=) (v. 4b)

Thus the common/traditional (early Christian) usage of the term eu)agge/lion is transformed into a powerful Christological statement, about who Jesus is in relation to God the Father. Through this, Paul effectively explains his earlier declaration in Rom 1:16, that the good message is “the power of God unto salvation”. It is just this Christological statement in 2 Cor 4:3-4, which, in turn, frees believers from “the power of sin.”