Category Archives: David Friedrich Strauss


2013-07-26

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

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)

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