Blood and Water

BLOOD AND WATER, the tr. of the phrase appearing in John 19:34 concerning the spear thrust by the Rom. soldier into Jesus’ side. The Gr. phrase, “καὶ εξη̂λθεν ευθὺς ἁ̂ιμα καὶ ὕδωρ,” seems to admit no other tr. than “and there flowed at once blood and water.” It is noted in the passion narrative as a most unusual event which is followed by the evangelist’s affirmation of the statement, “He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth—that you also may believe.” Over the centuries, commentators have offered all sorts of explanations for this passage. In the apostolic and post-Nicene church much was made of the fact that it was blood and water which flowed from the Savior’s side. They determined blood as significant of birth and the passion, and water as reflecting baptism. The writers of the time also maintained that the Lord was already dead and did not then die of the fresh wound, as some ancient heretics proposed. In the medieval tradition each aspect of the story was embellished with layers of cause, symbol and effect, in accord with the dominant Aristotelianism of the time. The soldier who delivered the thrust was identified by a popular etymology of the Gr. for “spear” as a certain Longinus, and his tomb was located at the Chapel of St. Mary in Lyons, France, where his epitaph was reported to have stated, Qui salvatoris latus cruce cuspide fixit Longinus hic iacet. “Here lies Longinus, who the Savior’s side on the cross, with a spear pierced.” In the Reformation period many expositors rejected the miraculous view of the narrative and sought to see in it some fulfillment of the Savior’s atonement as though a final sign had been given with the comingled elements. In the 18th cent. when rationalistic tendencies became dominant in the wake of the deists elaborate quasimedical explanations were given for the event. Many medical examiners thought that some extreme emotional or physical strain had caused the condition. In the 19th cent. the romanticists went to the extremity of deducing the cause of death as “a broken heart,” while a few critical philosophers assumed some dialectical antithesis was meant. The most probable interpretation is that, on the basis of the words that follow, this was a miraculous event testifying to the completion of the Messianic atonement, beyond any natural explanation, justification or denial.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

The remarkable passage (Joh 19:34) from which this expression is taken refers to the piercing of the Savior’s side by the soldier. The evangelist notes here what he, as an eyewitness of the crucifixion, had seen as a surprising fact. Whereon this surprise was founded cannot now be more than guessed at. Nor is it necessary here to discuss the reason or reasons why the apostle mentions the fact at all in his report, whether merely for historical accuracy and completeness, or as a possible proof of the actual death of Christ, which at an early date became a subject of doubt among certain Christian sects, or whether by it he wished to refer to the mystical relation of baptismal cleansing ("water") and the atonement ("blood") as signified thereby. Let it suffice to state that a reference often made to 1Jo 5:6,8 is here quite out of place. This passage, though used by certain Fathers of the church as a proof of the last-named doctrine, does not indeed refer to this wonderful incident of the crucifixion story. The argument of 1Jo 5:8 concerns the Messiahship of Jesus, which is proved by a threefold witness, for He is the one whom at the baptism of John ("water") God attested as the Messiah by the heavenly voice, "This is my beloved Son," who at the crucifixion ("blood") had the testimony that the Father had accepted His atoning sacrifice, and whose promise of sending the Comforter fulfilled on Pentecost ("spirit") presented us with the final proof of the completed Messianic task. The same expression in 1Jo 5:6 refers probably to the same argument with the implied meaning that Jesus came not only by the merely ceremonial water of baptism, but also by the more important, because vivifying, blood of atonement.

The physiological aspect of this incident of the crucifixion has been first discussed by Gruner (Commentatio de morte Jesu Christi vera, Halle, 1805), who has shown that the blood released by the spear-thrust of the soldier must have been extravasated before the opening of the side took place, for only so could it have been poured forth in the described manner. While a number of commentators have opposed this view as a fanciful explanation, and have preferred to give the statement of the evangelist a symbolical meaning in the sense of the doctrines of baptism and eucharist (so Baur, Strauss, Reuss and others), some modern physiologists are convinced that in this passage a wonderful phenomenon is reported to us, which, inexplicable to the sacred historian, contains for us an almost certain clue to the real cause of the Savior’s death. Dr. Stroud (On the Physiological Cause of the Death of Christ, London, 1847) basing his remarks on numerous postmortems, pronounced the opinion that here we had a proof of the death of Christ being due not to the effects of crucifixion but to "laceration or rupture of the heart" as a consequence of supreme mental agony and sorrow. It is well attested that usually the suffering on the cross was very prolonged. It often lasted two or three days, when death would supervene from exhaustion. There were no physical reasons why Christ should not have lived very much longer on the cross than He did. On the other hand, death caused by laceration of the heart in consequence of great mental suffering would be almost instantaneous. In such a case the phrase "of a broken heart," becomes literally true. The life blood flowing through the aperture or laceration into the pericardium or caul of the heart, being extravasated, soon coagulates into the red clot (blood) and the limpid serum (water). This accumulation in the heart-sac was released by the spear-thrust of the soldier (which here takes providentially the place of a postmorten without which it would have been impossible to determine the real cause of death), and from the gaping wound there flow the two component parts of blood distinctly visible.

Several distinguished physicians have accepted Dr. Stroud’s argument, and some have strengthened it by the observation of additional symptoms. We may mention Dr. James Begbie, fellow and late president of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, Sir J. Y. Simpson, professor at the University of Edinburgh, and others (see Dr. Hanna, Our Lord’s Life on Earth, Appendix I). The latter refers to the loud cry, mentioned by the Synoptists (Mt 27:50; Mr 15:37; Lu 23:46), which preceded the actual death of Jesus, as a symptom characteristic of cases of "broken heart." He adds that Dr. Walshe, professor of medicine in University College, London, one of the greatest authorities on the diseases of the heart, says that a "piercing shriek" is always uttered in such cases immediately before the end.

While we may never reach a state of absolute certainty on this subject, there is no valid reason to deny the probability of this view of the death of Christ. It certainly gives a more solemn insight into Christ’s spiritual anguish, "the travail of his soul" on our behalf, which weighed upon Him so heavily that long before the usual term of bodily and therefore endurable suffering of crucified persons Christ’s loving heart broke, achieving the great atoning sacrifice for all mankind.