Portents at Jesus’ Death

According to the synoptic gospels the death of Jesus was accompanied by a group of physical portents which must be understood as miracles. John does not mention any of these miraculous events.

Mark, Matthew, and Luke tell of darkness all over the earth for three hours before Jesus’ death, from the sixth hour to the ninth hourthat is, from noon to the middle of the afternoon. All three mention the splitting of the curtain which closed the entrance to the Holy of Holies and separated it from the rest of the most holy part of the Temple, at the moment of Jesus’ death. But Matthew, after mentioning the splitting of the curtain, adds other portents not found in the other gospels:

And behold, the curtain of the Temple was rent from top to bottom into two, and the earth was shaken, and stones were split, and tombs were opened and many bodies of sleeping saints were awakened.

The reason for this editorial addition of Matthew will be explained below.

The portents at Jesus’ death have created nothing but embarrassment for modern interpreters. Church fathers found themselves compelled to claim that the universal darkness had been observed by pagans, too. Tertullian, trying to counter pagan criticism, dismisses the contention of some that it may have been the case of an eclipse and asserts:

and yet you [pagans] have available this world occur­rence in your secret records.[1]

If a record had existed it would have been care­fully quoted by Christian writers; if this record had existed Tertullian would not have appealed to the authority of secrets (arcana) to which his pagan readers had no access.

Modern Roman Catholic interpreters usually grant that the portents attending Jesus’ death are pious legends. Protestant interpreters, even when of liberal inclination, for the most part shrink from offering such a forthright solution of the problem. But, even if it is granted that the portents are the expression of the intense feelings of the early followers of Jesus, there remains the difficulty that they do not correspond to Jewish traditions and Jewish conceptions.

The list of portents that took place at Jesus’ death closely resembles that which Seneca employed in his Hercules on Oeta to mark the death of Hercules, and was a stan­dard one in classical literature. Vergil in his Georgics (I 466-488) lists the portents that accompanied Caesar’s murder: first is the darkening of the sun, plun­ging the world into night; next, sea and land are in turmoil, with Mt. Etna erupting and the Alps shaking;

rivers halt and chasms form in the earth

specters appear; and finally,

in temples the ivory weeps in sorrow and bronzes sweat.

The list had to begin with the darkening of the sun and had to include some portent occurring in the temples.

According to what people trained in Greek and Latin literature were expecting, something had to happen in the Temple at the death of Jesus. Seneca had indicated that at the moment of the death of Hercules the doors of the temples of Juno had swung wide open (pateant). But why should the miraculous opening of the Holy of Holies of the Temple consist of the splitting in two from top to bottom of the curtain that closed it?

The explanation of this choice is to be found in Seneca’s theory of the cause of earth­qua­kes. We must not forget that Seneca was not only a poet, a philosopher, and a statesman, but also a natural scientist. He dedicated to the causes of earth­qua­kes the entire sixth book of his Natural Questions in which he seriously cham­pioned against others the theory, first proposed by Epicurus, that earthquakes are caused by underground accumulations of air. According to him air has the power to penetrate the depth of the earth and to amass itself forcibly in underground cavi­ties; the air so accumulated has more violent energy than any other element of nature, earth, water, or fire. In order to prove that air has the power to amass itself in hollows and then burst out, Seneca dedicates an entire chapter (30) to the argu­ment that one has often seen bronze statues split unaccountably into two; this hap­pened because these statues were hollow, and air had accumulated inside them. This explanation is so evident to Seneca that he answers objections by asking rhetorical questions:

Why then should one remain stupefied at the fact that the bronze of a single statue, which is not even solid but hollow and flimsy, is broken?...Why should anyone consider worthy of notice that a statue has been split evenly from bottom to top into two parts?

The last words used by Seneca in this chapter closely resemble those we read in Matthew (27:51)

was split from top to bottom into two.

Seneca must have understood that the Holy of Holies of the Temple was a typical exam­ple of a place filled with air. The rigor with which the Jews guarded from human contact the innermost sanctuary of the Temple intrigued the Greeks and Romans, who were inclined to be skepti­cal about the assertion that it did not contain any­thing. Many of them suspected that it contained some sacred, magical, or even dis­grace­­­ful object. Josephus relates that Titus, the future Emperor, after his capture of Jerusalem, made a special point of visiting the inside of the temple before it was com­pletely destroyed by the fire started by his soldiers.[2] Apparently, even before this inspection by a non-Jew, Seneca had accepted that the Holy of Holies con­tained nothing but air. If behind the curtain of the Holy of Holies there was air, in an earth­quake this air, because of the same phenomenon that caused the earth­quake, would burst out and split the curtain in two. To those who may smile at this con­ten­tion of Seneca, it may be countered that it is at least con­sis­tent with his general theory: He argues that the air in under­ground cavities may develop such pressure as to move mountains or create new ones. A sudden flow of air at extremely high pressure would tear a curtain. Given the kind of portents that were understood to mark the death of a hero, in a pagan temple one could have expected the splitting of the statue of the divinity into two, but in the Temple of Jerusalem the only thing that could split in two was the curtain of the Holy of Holies.

The rending of the veil of the Temple has created the greatest difficul­ty for interpreters. If the veil of the Temple was split at the moment of Jesus’ death, one would expect this occurrence to have a specific symbolic meaning. But in spite of the intense concern of the Talmud with the innermost structures of the Temple and with their religious significance, and in spite of Josephus’ many references to the same topics, nobody has been able to explain the meaning of the rending of the veil according to Jewish lore. The episode of the earthquake and of the splitting of the veil is not Jewish or Christian in spirit. Actually the main source for Seneca’s book on earthquakes was that archenemy of religion, Epicurus.

According to Matthew the rending of the veil was associated with an earthquake; he uses the same verb (schizo) for the splitting of the veil and for the splitting of stones. Traditional interpretations have seen the tearing of the veil as a result of the earth­quake, but ever since the beginning of the nineteenth century, when the gospels began to be interpreted with a minimum of critical spirit, scholars have been asking how a curtain of flexible material hanging loose could be damaged by an earth­quake. Heinrich Paulus suggested that the veil was fastened all around; Carl Theodor Kuinoel suggested that the veil was very old so that it could be torn by the slightest tremor.[3]

The general view is that Matthew editorialized, expanding through his imagina­tion what had been reported by Mark. But more recently interpreters have considered Mark’s gospel as an attempt to reconcile the two divergent traditions represented by the gospels of Matthew and Luke.[4] In this case there is reason to believe that Mark and Luke abbreviated the list of portents to two, whereas Matthew followed more closely the list given by Seneca. The portents given by Matthew are similar to those that accompany the death of Hercules in Hercules on Oeta. In this tragedy Hercules prays:

Let loose the night, may this day die for the world...[5]

breaking the frame of the world, both poles must go to pieces.

Finally he prays that the gates of Hades be opened and the Giants be allowed to rise. At the moment of Hercules’ death, the chorus bursts out in a song addressed to the Sun, which begins:

O glory of the world, ray-girt Sun, put on a pall of clouds that will move with you, gaze on the grieving earth with pallid face, and let disfiguring clouds roam over your head.

At the end of the song the chorus wonders about the portents that are occurring:

My, what is this? The universe resounds... Is it that Atlas has staggered in carrying the weight of the world? Or is it rather that the ominous spirits of the dead have shaken?

In this song the chorus asks that, while the temples of all gods close down, those of Juno be wide open (pateant), because only this goddess may rejoice at Hercules’ death. Interpreters of the gospels have long debated what was the symbolic meaning of the tearing apart of the curtain that closed the Holy of Holies in the Temple; on the basis of the parallel with Hercules on Oeta it can be inferred that by mentioning the opening up of the Holy of Holies Seneca meant to indicate that the Temple or the priests of the Temple were the enemies of Jesus and had brought about his doom.

The three synoptic gospels report that the sky was darkened from the sixth hour (noon) to the ninth hour (middle of the afternoon). According to our way of thinking, it would be reasonable to assume that the sky became darkened at the moment of the crucifixion and remained dark up to the moment of death. But Greek and Roman accounts of the darkening of the sky in the case of atrocious events let the darkening take place at noontime because this makes the phenomenon more extraordinary; the timing of the darkening is not necessarily related to the timing of the causal event. For instance Servius, in his commentary on the mentioned passage of Vergil’s Georgics, explains that at the death of Caesar the sun disappeared from the sixth hour to the night, despite the fact that Caesar had been assassinated rather early in the morning. It is not necessary to consider the examples provided by Greek tragedies, because one can refer to Seneca’s own tragedy Thyestes. In this play it is emphasized that the sun faded out when it was in the middle of the sky, even though at that moment Atreus had not yet perpetrated the final and most repulsive part of his crime. The choral ode that concludes Act Four of this play contains the lines:

Why do you extinguish daylight at high noon?

Why so hasty, Phoebus, in hiding our sight of you?


In his Nazarenus Seneca must have put the occultation of the sun at noon. He also indicated that the death of Jesus and hence the earthquake that caused the ripping of the veil took place in mid-afternoon. Such timing was necessary in order that the burial could take place before the coming of the night.

According to the style of ancient tragedy, it is most probable that at the moment of Jesus’ death the stage was shaken by the usual sound effects that were understood to indicate an earthquake. At this point the chorus must have mentioned the splitting of the veil of the temple. It is most likely that it was in this context that the chorus related that at noon, in the preceding quarter of the day, darkness had descended on the world, and described some of the other frightening portents. As was customary in Seneca’s tragedies, they may have voiced their fear that the final cataclysm was at hand. The chorus in Seneca’s Thyestes sings:

Are we alone of mankind deemed worthy

of being overwhelmed by an unhinged universe?

Is it upon us the last day has come?

As in the Thyestes, this song of the chorus was one of the longer choral interludes that indicated the conclusion of an act. Following the exit of the messenger who had reported the last words of Jesus, only the mourning women remained on the stage, indicating that a new act of the play was about to begin.

[1] Apologia XXI, 19.

[2] The Jewish War VI, 5, 7.

[3]  Heinrich Paulus, Das Leben Jesu als Grundlage einer reinen Geschichte des Urchristentums (1828).

[4]  This view, first put out by J. J. Griesbach in 1776, has found support in recent decades in the writings of William R. Farmer and others. Cf. Farmer’s Jesus and the Gospel (Fortress Press: Philadelphia, 1982).

[5] Just as there have been Christians who have tried to rationalize the darkness at the time of the crucifixion by assuming that an eclipse of the sun happened to take place at that moment, a similar rationalist effort had been applied to the darkening of the sky at the moment of Hercules’ death. Hercules has been called an astrologer, because he threw himself into the flames on the day in which an obscuration of the sun was going to take place. (Festus, De verborum significatu Book VIII, s.v. Hercules).