I recently was asked about a reference in a book which refers to the veil of the temple being torn in two (Mt 27:51; Mk 15:38; Lk 23:45), and notes that the veil was four inches thick. Now, I had heard that measurement before, and to my recollection the veil was said to be as thick as a man’s hand. This was “common knowledge” as I recalled, and I assumed that the description of the thickness was a biblical reference.
Herod’s temple, however, does not find detailed description in Scripture; the description of the veil in the tabernacle gives no comment on its thickness; and the brief reference to the veil in Solomon’s temple (2Chr 3:14) does not speak to the matter.
None of the 15-20 commentaries on the synoptics in my library so much as mentioned the thickness of the veil in commenting on its being torn in two, nor does the more focused treatment of Marinus de Jonge, “Matthew 27:51 in Early Christian Exegesis,” Harvard Theological Review 79 (1986): 67-79. In a Ryrie Study Bible, however, I discovered this note at Ex 26:31-35: “Josephus reported that the veil was 4 inches thick, was renewed every year, and that horses tied to each side could not pull it apart. It barred all but the High Priest from the presence of God, but when it was torn in two at the death of Jesus of Nazareth (see Mark 15:38), access to God was made available to all who come through him.” (Even at face value, this is an enigmatic note, in that Exodus 26 describes the Tabernacle, and the veil that was torn in two was part of Herod’s Temple. Ryrie’s representation of “the veil” certainly implies that the veil that Exodus describes is the veil that Josephus describes, which is to be identified with the veil that was torn in two.)
Ryrie’s description sent me to Josephus. Since Ryrie did not give a specific reference in Josephus, I searched in an online version for references to “veil,” but although Josephus does speak of the temple veil, his description does not address its thickness:
before these doors there was a veil of equal largeness with the doors. It was a Babylonian curtain, embroidered with blue, and fine linen, and scarlet, and purple, and of a contexture that was truly wonderful. Nor was this mixture of colors without its mystical interpretation, but was a kind of image of the universe; for by the scarlet there seemed to be enigmatically signified fire, by the fine flax the earth, by the blue the air, and by the purple the sea; two of them having their colors the foundation of this resemblance; but the fine flax and the purple have their own origin for that foundation, the earth producing the one, and the sea the other. This curtain had also embroidered upon it all that was mystical in the heavens, excepting that of the [twelve] signs, representing living creatures. (Wars 5.5.4)
There are other descriptions of the Temple veil in Josephus, but none of them that I examined spoke to the thickness of the veil, a finding confirmed here.
A web search for information led me to Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. In this work, Edersheim states
The Veils before the Most Holy Place were 40 cubits (60 feet) long, and 20 (30 feet) wide, of the thickness of the palm of the hand, and wrought in 72 squares, which were joined together; and these Veils were so heavy, that, in the exaggerated language of the time, it needed 300 priests to manipulate each. If the Veil was at all such as is described in the Talmud, it could not have been rent in twain by a mere earthquake or the fall of the lintel, although its composition in squares fastened together might explain, how the rent might be as described in the Gospel. (online reference)
Edersheim does not specifically document the statement about the veil’s thickness, but in the context refers to Talmudic sources. Continuing searches brought up Maurice Henry Harris, Hebraic Literature: Translations from the Talmud, Midrashim and Kabbala (M. Walter Dunne, 1901). In this work, we find:
Three hundred priests were told off [sic; the idea is that they were designated] to draw the veil (of the Temple) aside; for it is taught that Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel declared in the name of Rabbi Shimon the Sagan (or high priest’s substitute), that the thickness of the veil was a handbreadth. It was woven of seventy-two cords, and each cord consisted of twenty-four strands. It was forty cubits long and twenty wide. Eighty-two myriads of damsels worked at it, and two such veils were made every year. When it became soiled, it took three hundred priests to immerse and cleanse it. Chullin (Harris, pp. 195-96)
This quotation references a passage from the Mishnah, the early codification of Judaism’s “oral law” — explanations of the Torah. Here is the passage from Herbert Danby’s translation of the Mishnah:
Rabban Simeon b. Gamaliel says in the name of R. Simeon son of the Prefect: The veil was one handbreadth thick and was woven on [a loom having] seventy-two rods, and over each rod were twenty-four threads. Its length was forty cubits and its breadth twenty cubits; it was made by eighty-two young girls, and they used to make two in every year; and three hundred priests immersed it. (p. 161, bracketed material is part of the original quote, not my addition.)
I found rabbinic commentary on this passage in Jacob ben Solomon, Agadat En Yaakov, pp. 207-208. Here is recorded rabbinic commentary on the use of hyberbolic language by “the Pentateuch, the Prophets, and the sages.” A quote from the Mishnah is given to demonstrate hyperbolic language in “the sages,” Deut 1:28 is referenced for “the Pentateuch,” and 1 Kings 1:40 is quoted for “the Prophets.” After these examples of hyperbolic language, the text continues with further examples in “the sages,”
R. Isaac said, “In three places did the Rabbis use a hyperbolic language. They are: In connection with the ash-pile [in the altar], in connection with the vine, and in connection with the veil [of the Temple]. As to the ash-pile it was stated above; as to the vine, we find in the following Mishna: There was a golden vine at the entrance of the Temple, trailing on crystals, on which people, who donated fruit or grape clusters would suspend on it. R. Elazar b. Zadok said: “It happened once that three hundred priests were summoned to clear [the vine of such offerings.] The veil refers to the following Mishna: Rabban Simon b. Gamaliel says in the name of R. Simon, the High-priest’s substitute, “The thickness of the veil [of the Temple] was a hand-breadth. It was woven of seventy-two cords, each cord consisting of twenty-four strands. Its length was forty cubits, by twenty in width. It was made by eighty-two myriads of damsels, and two such veils were made every year. It took three hundred priests to immerse and cleanse it [if it becomes unclean].” (p. 208, bracketed material is part of the original quote, not my addition.)
Now, I am no student of rabbinic literature. I believe, however, that the above quotation would be classified as haggadic midrash, a sort of homiletical interpretation. (Wikipedia: ‘Aggadah).
In sum, the statement that the Temple veil was as thick as a man’s hand is found originally in rabbinic literature (the Mishnah), not Scripture. Later rabbinic commentary tags this description as hyperbolic language. Given the context of the original statement, as well as the uncertainty of rabbinic traditions, it is unwise for us to state in an unqualified fashion that the veil was as thick as a man’s hand. It would be more accurate to say something like, “Early Jewish tradition stated that the Temple veil was as thick as a man’s hand, although this might be an exaggeration.”