Gospel accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection include some very strange stories: darkness, a torn temple curtain, earthquakes, and the resurrection of a number of deceased holy people. What do we make of these stories? Many believers think these stories actually happened, and that’s okay. It is not impossible, of course, but I don’t think this is the only possibility or the most likely one.
Some of the stories are shared by the synoptic gospels but not mentioned by John. This makes sense because most biblical scholars consider that Mark is actually a source for Matthew and Luke, so it is not surprising that their accounts would read similarly. But where did Mark get these stories?
My guess is that the book of Mark reflects the preaching of a very early follower of Jesus—perhaps Peter, as some early church fathers suggested. If this is the case, then Mark drew from the preaching of Peter and influenced Matthew and Luke in their reports on the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Lets take a look.
The Darkness from Noon Until 3 PM
Mark 15 tells us:
At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”)…With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.
Matthew follows Mark in chapter 27:
From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”)…And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.
And so does Luke in chapter 23:
It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining…Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.
Keep in mind that Matthew and Luke are not independent witnesses in this report of the darkness—they are simply following Mark, except that Luke adds that the sun stopped shining—I assume he meant this figuratively and not literally. John does not mention the darkness at all.
So what was significant about the three-hour darkness in Mark’s source (perhaps the preaching of Peter)? I don’t know. Maybe a natural darkness DID occur—dark clouds or a dust storm—but, more likely, the description symbolized something like the figurative darkness surrounding the imminent death of Jesus.
The Tearing of the Curtain in the Temple
Lets return to Mark 15 for a more complete report:
At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last…The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.
Again, Matthew 27 follows Mark:
And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.
As does Luke 23:
And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.
And, again, John does not mention this event at all. So was Mark’s report of the tearing of the temple curtain something that actually happened or was it a symbolic declaration in Peter’s preaching (or some other early follower) that Jesus’ death forever opens us into the very presence of God, which the temple curtain prohibited.
I favor the second option. Even today, preachers often go beyond literalism to elaborate on the significance of something. I think if the temple curtain was actually torn in two that Paul would certainly have used that fact in his letters about Jesus replacing the sacrifices and other temple services that attempt to grant us access to God.
And what about the writer of Hebrews? That writer actually dwells on the comparison of Jesus with the temple services. If the temple curtain was torn in two, it would have been a perfect point to make in the argument of Hebrews.
More Momentous Events Surrounding the Death of Jesus
Now we come to a report that is NOT mentioned in Mark, and neither Luke nor John mention it either. Only Matthew shares this story—in chapter 27:
And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.
Matthew says that the earth shook, the rocks split, and the tombs broke open. What might this mean, and why did the other gospels not mention such momentous apocalyptic events? I think these elements were most likely part of the preaching at the Matthean church to emphasize the tremendous significance of Jesus’ death. While there may not have been any historical earth shaking, rock splitting, or tomb opening, these things did describe the meaning of Jesus’ death (and coming resurrection). These occurrences would not have been apparent to observers, but they were enormously significant behind the scenes as would soon be evident in Jesus’ resurrection.
However, I would like to give more consideration to the resurrection of the many holy people. We will do that next time.