by Tim Widowfield
A shock to the system
33 But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs.
34 Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out.
John 19:33-34, NRSV
Today in this short post I return to a recurring theme here on Vridar. The anxiety of historicity (or authenticity) has played such a dominant role in both mainstream and apologetic Jesus studies (if it’s possible to separate them), that we often lose sight of original intent. In other words, scholars and clergymen over the past two centuries have spilled gallons of ink explaining how certain events are plausible, while giving short shrift to the questions concerning the evangelist’s purpose for a story or how that story functioned in the setting of the early church.
The events surrounding the crucifixion are no exception. In fact, a curious blend of wannabe medical experts and earnest confessional scholars have contributed to a vast library of works “explaining” the plausibility of every last detail of the Passion narrative. In the case of the spear piercing Jesus’ side, for example, these experts — who seem to have more interest in forensic science and human anatomy than in the religious meaning of the text — have dominated the conversation.
Above all else, they must impress upon us that “this really did happen,” not in some mythological story, but in the real, material world. Consider the following paragraph:
Prior to death, the sustained rapid heartbeat caused by hypovolemic shock also causes fluid to gather in the sack around the heart and around the lungs. This gathering of fluid in the membrane around the heart is called pericardial effusion, and the fluid gathering around the lungs is called pleural effusion. This explains why, after Jesus died and a Roman soldier thrust a spear through Jesus’ side (probably His right side, piercing both the lungs and the heart), blood and water came from His side just as John recorded in his Gospel (John 19:34).
(Note: I was going to credit a certain apologetic web site (gotquestions.org) with the above paragraph, but I’ve found that if you Google the first sentence, you’ll get so many copypasta hits that it’s difficult to tell exactly where the hell it originated.)
Sciencey, ergo plausible, ergo true
Naturally, I don’t expect apologists really understand hypovolemic shock any more than they do the Second Law of Thermodynamics. And that, of course, is why they copy the text word for word. But the point is it sounds sciencey and very sophisticated. It sounds true.
I can remember listening to visiting lecturers in the church I grew up in who would explain “what Jesus actually endured” during the scourging and the crucifixion. I would suppose that Mel Gibson’s Texas Chainsaw Jesus movie spawned even more such discussions. Suffice it to say that at the time, in my early teens, I thought I had a pretty good understanding of why blood and water flowed from Jesus’ wound.
Recently, however, while reading David Friedrich Strauss’s The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, I was struck by his unusual perspective. Why did John tell the story of the spear and the flowing blood and water?
This event is ordinarily regarded as the chief voucher for the reality of the death of Jesus, and in relation to it the proof to be drawn from the synoptists is held inadequate. (p. 697)
Very seriously dead
In the other three gospels, Jesus is reported to be dead. But in John’s gospel, Jesus is demonstrated to be dead. And that’s certainly the most obvious function of the story: to prove, as the coroner from Oz put it, that Jesus was “most sincerely dead.”
Indeed, like the coroner, the author of the gospel has certified that the eyewitness to the piercing is telling the truth. You can trust him to tell the truth because “he knows that he is telling the truth.” That’s ironclad logic.
But it does seem rather sudden. Just how long had Jesus been hanging on the cross?
[I]f we presuppose in John the ordinary Jewish mode of reckoning the hours, and attribute to him the same opinion as to the period of the death of Jesus, it follows, since he makes Pilate pronounce judgment on him only about the sixth hour, that Jesus must have died after hanging on the cross not much more than two hours. But crucifixion does not in other cases kill thus speedily. (p. 697, emphasis mine)
That’s an event that required an explanation. And while you might at first think that the spear thrust itself might have killed him — or at least dealt the final blow — that isn’t the function of the story. It was instead to prove he was already dead. Strauss notes that the soldier could just as easily have broken his legs, as he had done with the two thieves. But he doesn’t.
[I]f the object of the soldier had been to kill Jesus . . . he would doubtless have pierced Jesus in the most fatal place, and as deeply as possible, or rather, have broken his legs, as was done to the two thieves: but since he treated Jesus otherwise than his fellow sufferers, it is evident that in relation to him he had a different object, namely, in the first place to ascertain by this stroke of the spear, whether death had really taken place—a conclusion which he believed might securely be drawn from the flowing of blood and water out of the wound. (p. 698, emphasis mine)
Here’s something I never thought about on those sweltering nights at camp meetings – squirming on that hard, wooden folding chair, fanning my face in futility, and swatting at the occasional fly – Dead men don’t bleed. When your heart stops pumping you have no blood pressure.
But this result of the wound is in fact the subject on which there is the least unanimity. The fathers of the Church, on the ground that blood no longer flows from corpses, regarded the blood and water, αἷμα καὶ ὕδωρ, which flowed from the corpse of Jesus as a miracle, a sign of his superhuman nature. [ref. Contra Celsum, II 36] More modern theologians, founding on the same experience, have interpreted the expression as a hendiadys, implying that the blood still flowed, and that this was a sign that death had not yet, or not until now taken place [ref. Schuster, in Eichhorn's Bibl. 9, s. 1036 ff.]. (p. 698, emphasis mine)
In other words, some “modern theologians” of Strauss’s time held that the blood from the wound flowed like water. But for Strauss that argument doesn’t hold water.
As, however, blood is itself a fluid, the water ὕδωρ added to the blood αἷμα cannot signify merely the fluid state of the latter, but must denote a peculiar admixture which the blood flowing from the side of Jesus contained. To explain this to themselves, and at the same time obtain the most infallible proof of death, others have fallen on the idea that the water mixed with the blood came out of the pericardium, which had been pierced by the spear, and in which, especially in such as die under severe anguish, a quantity of fluid is said to be accumulated. (p. 698, emphasis mine)
So the apologetic idea of the pericardial sac filling up with fluid is an old one. However, Strauss isn’t buying it.
But—besides that the piercing of the pericardium is a mere supposition—on the one hand, the quantity of such fluid, where no dropsy exists, is so trifling, that its emission would not be perceptible; and on the other hand, it is only a single small spot in front of the breast where the pericardium can be so struck that an emission outward is possible: in all other cases, whatever was emitted would be poured into the cavity of the thorax. (p. 698, emphasis mine)
You gotta keep ‘em separated
Strauss is displaying an enormous amount of patience here. He knows he has to scrape away the accumulated crud of rationalization and apologia to get to the meaning and the myth of John’s story. Now we can finally state the main point. What was in John’s mind when he described the out-flowing of blood and water?
Without doubt the idea which was present in the Evangelist’s mind was rather the fact, which may be observed in every instance of blood-letting, that the blood, so soon as it has ceased to take part in the vital process, begins to divide itself into placenta and serum; and he intended by representing this separation as having already taken place in the blood of Jesus, to adduce a proof of his real death. (p. 699, emphasis mine)
Today not many of us have had the opportunity to observe what happens to blood after it sits in a bowl for any length of time. More to the point, I’ve read many works on the Passion in John’s gospel and not once did I ever read about Strauss’s explanation. Have you?
And there’s more.
A distinguished anatomist has explained the state of the fact to me in the following manner: Ordinarily, within an hour after death the blood begins to coagulate in the vessels, and consequently no longer to flow on incisions; only by way of exception in certain species of death, as nervous fevers, or suffocation, does the blood retain its fluidity in the corpse. Now if it be chosen to place the death on the cross under the category of suffocation . . . then, if the spear struck one of the larger blood vessels, blood would have flowed, but without water; if, however, Jesus had already been dead about an hour, and his corpse was in the ordinary state: nothing at all would have flowed. (p. 699, emphasis mine)
People who take the historical plausibility of this story seriously might point out that death could have occurred because of the earlier trauma. That is, rather than the normal suffocation that would ensue after perhaps days of anguish, Jesus could have suffered cardiac arrest after the tachycardia brought on by hypovolemic shock. Fine, then no blood.
Thus either blood or nothing: in no case blood and water, because the serum and placenta are not separated in the vessels of the corpse as in the basin after blood-letting. Hardly then had the author of this trait in the fourth gospel himself seen the αἷμα καὶ ὕδωρ flowing out of the side of Jesus, as a sign that his death had taken place; rather, because after blood-letting he had seen the above separation take place in the blood as it lost its vitality, and because he was desirous to show a certain proof of the death of Jesus, he represented those separate ingredients as flowing out of his wounded corpse. (p. 699, emphasis mine)
Strauss correctly saw the act in John 19:34 as a following the trend — already initiated by Mark — of “the adduction of proofs not only of the resurrection of Jesus, but also of his death.” While Mark merely has Pilate remark with astonishment that Jesus is already dead, John graphically proves it. But proves it to whom? To the believers who take it on faith that Jesus died, was resurrected, and ascended into heaven?
When this Evangelist, in narrating Joseph’s entreaty for the body of Jesus, says: “And Pilate marvelled if he were already dead” (v. 44): this suggests the idea that he lent to Pilate an astonishment which he must have heard expressed by many of his contemporaries concerning the rapidity with which the death of Jesus had ensued; and when he proceeds to state that the procurator obtained from the centurion certain information that Jesus had been some time dead, πάλαι ἀπέθανεν: it appears as if he wished, in silencing the doubt of Pilate, to silence that of his contemporaries also; but in that case he can have known nothing of a wound with a spear, and its consequences, otherwise he would not have left unnoticed this securest warrant of death having really taken place: so that the representation in John has the appearance of being a fuller development of a tendency of the legend already visible in Mark. (p. 700, emphasis mine)
You say “skeptical” like it’s bad thing
In closing I would note that John Dominic Crossan is one scholar who comes close to Strauss on matters of the legendary nature of the Passion, arguing persuasively that the myths surrounding Jesus’ death and resurrection are “prophecy historicized.” Of course, among conservative scholars such ideas are extreme and radical.
I think Crossan is on the right track, but I think Strauss goes to the heart of the matter, searching for the functional roots for stories in the gospels. Sadly, most of today’s scholars appear to know Strauss only by what they skimmed over in Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus. If they think Crossan is a radical, just think how they’d react if they ever sat down and read Strauss!