The Piercing of Christ on the Cross

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The academic consensus is that Christ was killed due to the processes of crucifixion (1). But we also learn from the Gospel of John that once Christ had died on the cross “one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out” (19:34).

Many readers would probably overlook this simple detail in the context of the wider narrative of the crucifixion and subsequent burial. However, the careful reader would find John 19:34 striking given a perspective informed by modern medical knowledge that would not likely have been known to John’s author in his day.

According to modern medical science the combination of shock, a rapid heart rate, and heart failure result in a collection of clear, watery fluid around the heart and lungs (2). According to Edwards, Gabel, and Hosmer, in an article authored for the Journal of the American Medical Association under the title ‘On the Physical Death of Jesus,’

“Jesus’ death was ensured by the thrust of a soldier’s spear into his side. Modern medical interpretation of the historical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead when taken down from the cross” (3).

As such, an incision through the lung and heart would release that fluid as well as blood,

“The water probably represented serous pleural and pericardial fluid, and would have preceded the flow of blood and been smaller in volume than the blood. Perhaps in the setting of hypovolemia and impending acute heart failure, pleural and pericardial effusions may have developed and would have added to the volume of apparent water. The blood, in contrast, may have originated from the right atrium or the right ventricle or perhaps from a hemopericardium.” (4).

It is likely that this is what John’s witness would have seen and it is what the Gospel of John narrates. This is also consistent with historical knowledge of Roman crucifixion,

“By custom, one of the Roman guards would pierce the body with a sword or lance. Traditionally, this had been considered a spear wound to the heart through the right side of the chest—a fatal wound probably taught to most Roman soldiers” (5).

Although it is maintained that we can take this as a historical fact, this detail of the piercing of Christ’s side is only mentioned in the Gospel of John so it cannot be said to be independently attested in multiple sources. It is therefore not as widely attested as some other details from the ministry of Christ, such as the crucifixion and burial. Equally attestation to an event in a single source is not, nor should be viewed as, as immediately suspicious, false, or unhistorical. Events attested in one source can be genuinely historical, they just cannot be held as confidently in the mind of the historian as an event attested in two or more independent materials. This highlights the importance of this small detail confirmed by what we know from medical source and it would seem difficult to explain John 19:34 away as a fabrication on the grounds that it is difficult to fabricate accurately something that one does not know or has limited knowledge about.

 References:

1. Ehrman, Bart. Why Was Jesus Killed?; Ludemann, Gerd. 2004. The Resurrection of Christ. p. 50; John Dominic Crossan in Stewart, R. & Habermas, Gary. in Memories of Jesus. p. 282; The Jesus Seminar – Robert Funk, Jesus Seminar videotape.

2. Edwards, William, Gabel, Wesley, and Hosmer, Floyd. 1986. “On the Physical Death of Jesus.” Journal of the American Medical Association. 255:1455-1463. p. 1463.

3. Edwards, William, Gabel, Wesley, and Hosmer, Floyd. 1986. Ibid. p. 1455.

4. Edwards, William, Gabel, Wesley, and Hosmer, Floyd. 1986. Ibid. p. 1463.

5. Edwards, William, Gabel, Wesley, and Hosmer, Floyd. 1986. Ibid. p. 1460.

 

 

 

 

9 comments

  1. Why would this not have been known at the time of writing? Crucifixions were plentiful, so it seems that it would have been well known that, if you run a spear through someone who was already dead, blood and water would come out.

    While this may prove that the author was vaguely familiar with crucifixions, does it really tells us anything about whether or not Jesus, died or was even crucified?

    • Simple answer: piercing the side with a spear was an unusual procedure required only when they weren’t sure the subject was dead. Here, because sundown was approaching and the Sabbath was at hand, the soldiers broke the legs of the other two victims. But Jesus was no longer moving and was already apparently dead — and they needed to make sure.

      If piercing the side with a spear were so common, we would expect to hear something about it in the records of crucifixions, which are very numerous. So far as I know, we do not. Please inform me if you have evidence for what you say.

      • Why would they not break Jesus’ legs also to be sure? Without John’s account of the spear, which surprisingly is missed in the other Gospels if it did happen, the possibility of Jesus’ survival is significant. That combined with evidence that the Gospel of John was written after the other Gospels suggests that it could very well have been added in, just as John’s Gospel adds in Jesus outright and clearly proclaiming his Godliness, which is rather absent from the other Gospels as well.

        Plenty of evidence for you there of this possibility.

      • I will grant that this would have been an uncommon finale to a crucifixion; however, this would have hardly been the only means by which a person would succumb to the combination of shock, a rapid heart rate, and heart failure. I still contend that it would have been fairly common knowledge: if you beat and torture someone (by crucifixion or otherwise), this is what happens when you run a spear through their side.

        Also, the rush to get him off the cross would seem to raise more questions than it answers. Why the concern about the Sabbath, given that the execution was carried out by Romans and not Jews? Why execute him with a method that is designed to prolong death if they knew they would have to take him down within a few hours? You can cite a fear of uprising as your explanation, but of course these same questions would apply to the two thieves–and no one was concerned about public response to their deaths.

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