The June 2005 issue of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society has an interesting article entitled "Something Awry in the Temple? The Rending of the Temple Veil and Early Jewish Sources that Report Unusual Phenomena in the Temple around AD 30" by Robert L. Plummer, Assistant Professor of New Testament Interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I have not yet been able to find the article available on-line, but older articels from the publication apparently are published on the Internet at find articles.
In the article, Dr. Plummer discusses the Gospel of Matthew's mention of the rending of the temple veil in both Luke 32:45 (". . . and the veil of the temple was torn in two") and Matthew 27:51 ("And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom . . . ."). While many people tend to identify this rending of the veil as symbolic of the fact that there is no longer a barrier between man and God as a result of the atoning death of Jesus Christ, Dr. Plummer suggests that the Jewish literature of the time suggests that other changes occurred at the Temple at the time of Jesus' death which gives further historical credence to the reports of Matthew and Luke that the Temple curtain separating the Holy of Holies from the remainer of the Temple was torn in two.
In particular, Dr. Plummer cites six separate Jewish writings that mention several supernatural-type events at the time of Jesus' death that are akin to the message to be drawn from the rending of the Temple curtain. The most interesting one, in my opinion, is his citation of Tractate Yoma 6:3 of the Jerusalem Talmud which reads:
It has been taught: Forty years before the destruction of the Temple the western light went out, the crimson thread remained crimson, and the lot for the Lord always came up in the left hand. They would close the gates of the Temple by night and get up in the morning and find them wide open. Said [to the Temple] Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, "O Temple, why do you frighten us? We know that you will end up destroyed. For it has been said, Open your doors, O Lebanon, that the fire may devour your cedars!"' (Zech 11:1).17
The first thing to note is that the time of the events described in the Tractate Yoma passage occurred "forty years before the destruction of the Temple". Since the temple was destroyed in 70 A.D., then that means the events described would have occurred either beginning at or around 30 A.D. -- roughly the time that most everyone ackowledges Jesus would have been crucified. So, we have a relatively close proximity of time between the commencement of the events described and the death and resurrection of Jesus.
But what do these things mean? What does it mean that the western light went out or the crimson thread remained crimson? Dr. Plummer explains each of these, and shows that the extinguishing of the western light, the unchanging color of the crimson thread, and the lot in the left hand all indicated signs that God had either withdrawn from the Temple or removed his blessing upon it.
First, the extinguishing of the western light (note: I have omitted the footnotes from all of the following quotes for ease of reading):
The "western light" went out on its own in an uncanny manner. According to the Talmud, this "western light" or "western lamp" . . . was the center lamp of the Menorah (or candelabrum). Although the designation of "western light" for a center lamp may seem a bit odd to us, the lamp was described as "western" because of its position to the west of the lamp branches on the east side. According to rabbinic tradition, this "western lamp" remained lit beyond the normally expected time—miraculously indicating God’s blessing and/or presence. Accordingly, the regular self-extinguishing of the main lamp in the temple we find described in the Jerusalem Talmud above would seem to indicate a departure of God’s presence or lack of blessing.
The crimson thread also indicated a withdrawing of either God from the temple or a removal of his blessing.
A thread which supernaturally changed from a crimson color to white on the Day of Atonement (as recorded in post-OT Jewish tradition) ceased to do so. The thread's miraculous change in color was thought to display symbolically God's fulfillment of his promise in Isa 1:18, "Though your sins are as scarlet, they will be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they will be like wool." The cessation of this miraculous event seems to imply that the rituals on the Day of Atonement were not effectively dealing with people's sins.
So, the fact that the crimon thread remained crimson and the western light failed to remain lit strongly suggests that the atonement which the Jewish people sought from God was no longer being accepted. Why not? Perhaps because this way of approaching God for forgiveness of sin was no longer the proper way following the death of Jesus.
Dr. Plummer explains further that the lot in the left hand related to whether God was continuing to favor the Jewish people.
On the Day of Atonement, when lots were cast (one lot for the Lord and one for the scapegoat-see Lev 16:8), the lot for the Lord always came up in the left hand. Over a number of years, this consistently inauspicious result was recognized as a disturbing variance from the normal statistical expectation. Significantly, rabbinic tradition also reports that at an earlier time, the lot for the Lord always came up in the right hand as a sign of God's favor.
It appears that the first three references in the Tractate Yoma are to events that show that as of approximately the date of Jesus' death and resurrection, the Jewish people working through the temple for Atonement were not longer being held in God's favor. What is interestesting is that the first two events represent a stopping of the supernatural event of the turning of the crimson thread white and the keeping of the western light burning, while the third is a supernatural event that defies statistical probabilities (apparently) where the lot always occurs in the left hand (much like flipping a coin repeatedly and always having it turn up heads).
What about the gates?
The gates of the temple opened at night on their own in an inexplicable manner. This unusual pattern seems to demonstrate either a departure of God's presence, an invitation to invaders, or both. The Talmudic tradition clearly presents the event as a portent of coming destruction, as the following passage indicates, where we read that Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai addresses the temple with these words: "O Temple, why do you frighten us? We know that you will end up destroyed. For it has been said, Open your doors, O Lebanon, that the fire may devour your cedars!'" (Zech 11:1). Although no curtain is mentioned here in the Talmud, the tradition of gates being opened apart from any human intervention is possibly conceptually the closest to the supernatural opening of a temple veil.
It does seem as if the opening of the temple gates plays the same role as the rending of the veil which separated the Holy of Holies from the remainder of the Temple. All of these supernatural signs, taken together, seem to suggest that God was indicating that the Temple was no longer the place to come to Him for atonement because something had changed.
The article continues and cites other passages from the Talmud including Tractate Yoma 4:1 of the Babylonian Talmud; Midrash Rabbah Leviticus 21:12; Tosefta Sotah 13:6-8; Wars of the Jews by the Jewish historian Josephus, book six, chapter five; and The Lives of the Prophets 12. I would discuss them all, but I want to encourage people to buy the original article if you find this discussion to be of interest (plus, I don't want to violate the "fair use" provisions of the U.S. Copyright laws).
What is Dr. Plummer's conclusion?
Our conclusions must remain tentative about the historical reality of the events reported in the non-biblical Jewish sources. We must be circumspect as well in attempts to correlate them with historical accounts in the Gospels. Yet, even with these caveats, it appears to me that there is enough relevant data to warrant considering this information in historical assessments of the Gospel narratives. It is standard in commentaries on the Gospels to include Talmudic references to reports that Jesus was a sorcerer or illegitimate child. It seems to me that some of the references we have examined in this paper would at least warrant similar consideration for possible historical confirmation of unusual phenomena in the temple at the time of Jesus' death.