Blood and Water: What Is the Function of John 19:34?

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by Tim Widowfield

c. 1400

Crucifixion with a Dominican friar c. 1400 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 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)

Portrait of David Strauss.

Portrait of David Strauss. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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!

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  • 2013-07-27 06:43:23 UTC - 06:43 | Permalink

    I am of a very different opinion.
    The author strives to give an explanation and a scientific justification for the description of John and he too falls into the error to consider the facts narrated in the Gospels as actually happened.
    John 19:34 is pure allegory and hermeticism.
    I do not know if I have already submitted this brief article which highlight the diverse and considerable overlap between the iconography of the Christian crucifixion and of the Mithraic tauroctony.


    The spear of Longinus plays the same role that makes the sword of Mithras. The water and the blood of Jesus is the semen and the blood of the bull.

    • Tim Widowfield
      2013-07-27 15:48:48 UTC - 15:48 | Permalink

      I’m afraid I have to disagree with the Mithras connection. In the tauroctony the ritual act consists of a dagger or short sword plunging into the bull’s neck or shoulder. I have seen rare cases in which the sword is in the side of the bull, but that’s highly unusual.

      The legend in John has to do with piercing with a spear in the side to prove (not to cause) death. However, there are some connections elsewhere that I would like to explore in a future post. In particular I’m interested in the legends that John added to the gospel story that he found in Mark. What did he add, what did he alter, and why?

      • 2013-07-27 16:11:05 UTC - 16:11 | Permalink

        I do not see how the correspondences can be identical. Jesus is not a bull, he is not killed off, but crucified. The spear is not the cause of death but it is an opportunity to bring out the two liquids that can not be identical to those Mithraic. The allusion water-cum You can read in this bas-relief of the portal of the cathedral of Monza (Italy)

        I am very sorry that you can not see the six points of overlap of the two iconography.

        • Tim Widowfield
          2013-07-27 17:30:47 UTC - 17:30 | Permalink

          Even if there were “overlaps” in the iconography, the imagery in crucifixion art is probably quite a bit later, by comparison than Mithraic imagery. That is to say, most of the allegorical elements in the tauroctony (the dog, the serpent, the scorpion) were core parts of the mystery cult. However, early Christians shied away from depicting the crucifixion. Their early artwork is more likely to show the good shepherd, or scenes from the OT. The gap between the earliest attestation and the first depiction of the crucifixion is quite long.

          Are you arguing that the imagery of Mithraism “leaked into” early Christianity or that Christianity somehow grew out of Mithraism? Given the paucity of evidence, I don’t see how you could determine what was copied or adopted and what is independent. For example, in your article you have the earliest known image of the crucifix in an illuminated manuscript — from 586 CE. It is quite likely that he put the sun and the moon in the image in order to convey the idea of the extended period of darkness in the afternoon of Good Friday.

          • 2013-07-27 18:05:53 UTC - 18:05 | Permalink

            I fully agree with these last statements and to begin a speech to advocate one position or the other is impossible in a few words. I am interested deeply in Mithraism and I think that Christianity is derived from a more popular form of Mithraism. The arguments in favor are several but I can not bring them back here.
            What I wanted to highlight is that the Gospels and especially Mark and John are allegorical narratives of a solar myth, and almost everything that is reported by the evangelists has a hermetic meaning and denotes a mystery religion.

          • 2013-07-28 17:17:18 UTC - 17:17 | Permalink

            “It is quite likely that he put the sun and the moon in the image in order to convey the idea of the extended period of darkness in the afternoon of Good Friday”

            The significance of the presence of the sun and moon in the iconography of the crucifixion is very clear as widely used long before the first century.

            • Tim Widowfield
              2013-07-28 18:50:05 UTC - 18:50 | Permalink

              In your Scribd article, you call attention to the “perfect iconographic match of the sun and moon at the top” of the tauroctony and the crucifixion scene. I offer the following reasons why it is not “perfect.”

              1. In both scenic types, the sun and moon are ancillary items, and may not appear at all. However, they are far more common in the tauroctony. That’s because they are much more important in Mithraism.

              2. When they appear in the tauroctony, they always appear in the same positions: sun on the left; moon on the right. In early Christian art, they may appear in any order. In your own example from the Gospel of Rabbula (your adademia.edu article), for example, the moon appears on the left. Even in iconic art from the East, where the sun and moon are more common (compared to western art), they are more likely not to appear. And if they do, they can appear in either order.


              3. In Christian art, if they appear at all, the moon is often shown as red, and the sun, darkened — for obvious scriptural reasons.

              ….img.posterlounge.de/images/wbig/cypriot-school-icon-depicting-the-crucifixion-174256.jpg [Link inactive, 25th August 2015 — Neil. Try http://www.zazzle.com.au/icon_depicting_the_crucifixion_1520_poster-228219839695216916 ]


              4. Finally, here’s one more difference. In the tauroctony, the sun and moon are more likely to appear as personified deities. In Christian art they are more often depicted as orbs, which may or may not have faces. In your own example on Scribd, the bas relief ivory carving from the Berlin Bode Museum, the celestial spheres are depicted as simple material objects.

              I submit that the reason the sun and moon always appear in the same order in Mithraic art is that they have a specific allegorical, astrological, celestial meaning — and that such meaning has no parallel in Christianity. The two religions depicted them differently (if at all), because they had different meanings. Again, the simplest explanation for the sun and moon in crucifixion scenes also happens to be the most common one — the extended darkness at the crucifixion.

              • 2013-07-28 22:04:50 UTC - 22:04 | Permalink

                If you are really convinced of your observations I can add very little.

                Christian iconography is very late and not all artists were aware of the significance of the moon and the sun, whereas Mithraism was extinguished in just 4 centuries and the iconography was perfectly defined. But the iconography that most caught my attention was born very late and I present it without explanation leaving to you the correct interpretation. We are in the XVI century and has just been rediscovered Hermeticism: http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bramantino, _crocifissione.jpg
                It seems to me that the meaning of Sun-Light-Good and Moon-Darkness-Evil is obvious.
                This is not Mithraism.
                And what else is meant to signify the two thieves, one good and one bad?

      • 2013-07-27 16:21:28 UTC - 16:21 | Permalink

        “In the tauroctony the ritual act consists of a dagger or short sword plunging into the bull’s neck or shoulder”
        Mithraism did not provide any killing ritual, that was the taurobolium.
        No bull has ever been killed in a mitreum since the represented action had only an allegorical meaning.

        • 2013-07-29 13:47:51 UTC - 13:47 | Permalink

          If Christian iconography very late, why should we think it tells us anything about Christian origins?

  • mcduff
    2013-07-27 09:07:29 UTC - 09:07 | Permalink

    My commentary “St John” by John Marsh [Pelican] has the following OT/NT references next to this little story.

    -Exodus 12.46 : [re Passover lamb]
    “In one house shall it be eaten; you shall not carry forth any of the flesh outside the house; and you shall not break a bone of it.

    -Zech 12.10 :
    “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of compassion and supplication, so that, when they look on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a first-born.”

    “you shall not break a bone”
    “they look on him whom they have pierced”

    Somewhere I have read that there is another of those allusions, those disturbing parallels [yikes] that form the backbone of the gospels corpus that refers to the ‘living waters’ of Babylon or some such.
    I’ll look for it.

  • 2013-07-27 20:43:44 UTC - 20:43 | Permalink

    Interesting that tradition has it that it was Longinus who wielded the spear that caused the blood and water to flow from jesus’ side in gJohn 19:34. What’s even more interesting is that in the assasination of Julius Caesar, it was Cassius Longinus who together with Marcus Junius Brutus led the conspiracy to assasinate Julius Caesar, And the unknown participant who wielded the fatal dagger dealt the fatal blow in the chest.


    Of course, Francesco Carotta uses these facts as part of the evidence that in his opinion confirms the “historical Jesus” was none other than Julius Caesar.

  • 2013-07-29 02:27:21 UTC - 02:27 | Permalink

    I think the point of the spear (so to speak) was to prove that Jesus was human, not dead. This was the context of Christian polemics at the time “John” was written. Was Jesus part human, or just spirit.


  • 2013-07-29 14:18:41 UTC - 14:18 | Permalink

    1) Because absolutely nothing speaks to us of the origin of Christianity, only gnosticism and Secret Mark (perhaps), and if we detect non-canonical iconographical message we are entitled to think that it refers to the original message, especially if it fits into a mythical universal pattern.

    2) It’s possible to bring numerous examples of correspondences between Christianity and Mithraism, a new Mithraism more democratic and less initiatic, open to all subjects provided only to the initiatory rite of baptism and open to women, with priestesses said Leene, Lionesses or Jene, the Matres Sacrorum.

    But these are only statements of intent that require considerable space to be shown.

    • 2013-07-29 14:49:11 UTC - 14:49 | Permalink

      We have no evidence contemporaneous with Christianity’s origins. Assuming a first-century origin, though, we do have evidence from the second century. There is considerable disagreement over how it should be interpreted, but if we want to know what the earliest known Christians were thinking about how their religion started, it’s all we have. Even if we have good reason (as I think we do) to believe they were mistaken, their thoughts are the nearest we have to primary evidence.

      It is my understanding that scholars without an agenda for defending orthodoxy are pretty much agreed that gnosticism was a significant influence on formative Christianity. It seems also undisputed, among those scholars, that Christianity adopted or adapted its major ideas from several predecessor religions including Mithraism. But their thinking, so far as I can tell, is based on examination of documents that originated during or close to the first century. It is not clear to me why we should revise those theories to accommodate some artwork that was produced long afterward.

      As for Secret Mark, I find arguments for its being a modern forgery to be persuasive.

      • 2013-07-29 15:21:12 UTC - 15:21 | Permalink

        “It is not clear to me why we should revise those theories to accommodate some artwork that was produced long afterward.”
        It seems to me indisputable that the iconography of the crucifixion was inspired by the Mithraic tauroctony. Before the fifth century this iconography has never been used because they used the Orphic iconography. How, when and why did this change happend I can not say. Certenly it was born after mithraism died.

        I am fully convinced that the letter of Clement discovered by Morton Smith is genuine.

  • 2013-07-29 14:20:15 UTC - 14:20 | Permalink

    Number 5 is in response to Doug Shaver

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