In chapter 3 of A Chronological Revision of the Origins of Christianity, I mentioned verse 135 of the Nag Hammadi gospel of Philip. In that verse ‘the cross’ is mentioned with three elements of the destruction of the Temple: the tearing of the veil, the desolation of the Temple building, and the flight of the deity from the condemned sanctuary. In that discussion I also mentioned the correlation with Josephus’s War VI:299 for God’s leaving of the Temple: Then again, at the feast called Pentecost, when the priests had entered the inner courts of the Temple by night to perform their usual ministrations, they declared that they were aware, first, of a violent commotion and din, then of a voice of a host crying, “We are departing hence.” The Pentecost mentioned is the Pentecost of 70 CE, less than two months before the actual destruction of the Temple.
Additional research has uncovered quite a similar text connecting Jesus’ crucifixion with the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. It is to be found in the Testament of Benjamin, part of the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, a Jewish pseudepigraphical writing with Christian interpolations. One of the most explicit Christian interpolations can be found in verses 3-5 of chapter 9 which reads as follows: He shall enter the first temple, and there the Lord will be abused and will be raised up on wood. And the temple curtain shall be torn, and the spirit of God will move on to all nations as a fire is poured out. And he shall ascend from Hades and shall pass on from earth to heaven. I understand how humble he will be on the earth, and how splendid in heaven.1
The first two sentences of this fragment combine different interesting pieces of information: Jesus’ crucifixion, the tearing of the Temple veil, the moving of the spirit of God to all nations and a fire that is poured out. The tearing of the veil has an obvious connection with the destruction of the Temple (see below for evidence in other ancient sources). The ‘moving of God’s spirit’ conveys the same meaning as God’s fleeing the Temple as described in the gospel of Philip and as God’s departure from it as told by Josephus. The pouring out of fire calls to mind the destruction of the Temple by fire. The fragment continues with Jesus’ rising and ascension, so the Temple information is enclosed by Jesus’ experiences. In summary the sequence is as follows:
Jesus – wood (cross)
Temple – tearing of the veil
Temple – departure of God’s spirit
Temple – destruction by fire
Jesus – resurrection
Jesus – ascension.
To support my contention that there can be no discussion about the relation between the tearing of the veil and the events of 70 CE, I quote two more ancient fragments. The first, Testament of Levi 10:3-4, reads as follows: And you shall act lawlessly in Israel, with the result that Jerusalem cannot bear the presence of your wickedness, but the curtain of the Temple will be torn, so that it will no longer conceal your shameful behavior. You shall be scattered as captives among the nations, where you will be a disgrace and a curse. Here we see no direct connection between the tearing of the veil and the destruction of the temple, the tearing of the veil is connected instead to the thousands of Jews who were led into captivity, one of the effects of the events of 70 CE.
The Lives of the Prophets – Habakkuk verse 11-13a more explicitly connects the tearing of the veil with the destruction of the Temple: Concerning the end of the temple, he foretold that it would be brought to pass by a western nation. Then, he said, the veil of the inner sanctuary will be torn to pieces, and the capitals of the two pillars will be taken away, and no one will know where they are.2
The gospel of Matthew 27:51 also chronologically connects the tearing of the veil of the Temple with Jesus’ crucifixion. This information placing Jesus’ execution at the end of the war against the Romans is thus available not only in more or less obscure ancient writings, but also in one of the canonical gospels.
1. Charlesworth, James C. (ed.), The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, volume I, p. 827. Translated by H.C. Kee.
The footnote accompanying this interpolation goes as follows: “Perhaps the most explicit of all Christian interpolations. The tearing of the Temple veil is mentioned in TLevi 10:3 and may be a “prediction” after the event of Jerusalem’s fall in A.D. 70, or it could be an authentic predictive note that was exploited by Christians and expanded into the present extended interpolation.”
2. Translated by Charles Cutler Torrey.