Blood and Water

When Joseph appeared on the stage for the first time, the audience knew more than he did about the fate of Jesus; but the audience was not a party to whatever transpired inside the praetorium, in front of Pilate. Did Pilate grant Joseph’s request? They had seen a centurion emerge from the side door on the left side, go offstage to the left and come back inside; but what did this mean? They did not have to wait long for an answer. As soon as Joseph appeared on the stage for the second time, emerging out of one of the side doors of Pilate’s praetorium, he addressed the mourning women, Mary and the chorus. We may picture a scene similar to one in Seneca’s Oedipus where the chorus, waiting outside the palace, exclaims:

What is this? A door is opening,

one of the king’s slaves approaches,

hand on his forehead.

Tell us the news!

All that is related in the gospel of John as taking place between the death of Jesus and the appearance of Joseph, material that does not appear in the other gospels, was derived from this speech of Joseph to the mourning women. In order to account for his entering the stage, Joseph related what happened inside Pilate’s praetorium.

Joseph told the women that Pilate had acceded to his request and sent a centurion to complete the executions by breaking the legs of the crucified. Upon his return, the centurion had reported to Pilate that the soldiers had broken the legs of all the criminals, except for Jesus, who was already dead. Here a verse of Mark integrates John's account:

Pilate was surprised that he had already died and, calling a centurion, asked him whether he had been dead a long time.[1]

For the Romans it was a matter of common knowledge that crucified people did not die in a few hours. When Pilate asked for factual proof, the centurion assured Pilate that he had pierced Jesus’ side with a spear and that blood and water gushed out. John preserved these gruesome details, which were spared by the other evangelists, because he gave a theological meaning both to the breaking of the legs and to the flow of blood and water.

It is most revealing of the peculiar method according to which the gospels are interpreted that scores of minds have strained themselves to account for the detail of the flow of blood and water, without ever consulting Greek and Roman literature. Basically, there have been two approaches to the problem: one is theological on the basis of symbolism, and the other materialistic on the basis of modern medical knowledge. But what is pertinent is what Greeks and Romans thought, rightly or wrongly, about the causes and symptoms of death.

According to those Greeks who believed in the theory of humors, death comes when biles flow to the heart; they seem to have been impressed by cases of death by shock. Interpreters who have read the gospels with a scientific frame of mind have recognized that the reference to blood and water coming out of the incision is an indication of death by shockbut shock is a normal concomitant of fatal poisoning.

One might have expected that pious interpreters would have welcomed this scientific confirmation of the accuracy of the gospel account. But, even in our age of dominant science, believers resist this materialistic interpretation and prefer to search for a symbolic meaning. One cannot blame believers for this attitude because such a clear reference to a gruesome item of pathological anatomy would be out of place even in a modern murder mystery.

The explanation of the specific reference to death by shock may be found first of all in Seneca’s interest in science (which accounts, for instance, for the detail of the splitting of the veil in the Temple); but it must also be carried in mind that references to death by shock were not unusual in tragic poetry.

Aeschylus in his tragedies shows a predilection for referring to physiological pheno­mena of shock. In his Agamem­non the chorus, in order to express the idea of what we would call being scared to death, sings (1121-1124):

The flow of blood tinged with yellow has run to our heart,

as it happens when it accompanies a mortal wound

in extin­guishing the light of life, and death comes quickly.

The only detail in these lines that needs an explanation in terms of ancient con­cepts is the mention of yellow bile as flowing towards the heart. This is an antici­pa­tion of the Greek medical theory of the four humorsusually blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. In The Libation-bearers, Aeschylus expresses a similar con­cept (183-184). Electra, in order to convey that she feels like a dying person, re­cites:

Over my heart, too, there surges a wave of bile,

and I have the symptoms of a person pierced through by a lance.

It is remarkable that here Aeschylus uses two terms which we meet later as technical terms in medical writings, and which help in explaining the text of John. Particularly, the word wave, which Aeschy­lus employs, refers in medical writings to an internal accumulation of liquid. Accor­ding to the Hippocratic work The Nature of Man, the four humors must be equally distributed throughout the body, and it is most harmful when one of them iso­lates itself and floods a particular area inside. The gospel of John states that water and blood flowed from the puncture.[2]

For centuries Christians have speculated whether Jesus’ side wound was a light or a serious one. On the basis of the medical literature I have mentioned above, it can be inferred that what Seneca meant was that the cause of Jesus’ death was such that, when a relatively small puncture was made in the area of the heart, a mass of blood and water surged out.

The centurion must have reported to Pilate that one of his own men pierced Jesus’ side with a spear and got the proof of death from the gush of body fluid. Hence, John (19:35) declares:

And the eyewitness testified and his testimony is a true one.

John was following closely the text of Seneca, but gave to it a different meaning from a Christian theological point of view, as he gave a theological meaning to the breaking of the legs and to the piercing of the side.[3] In Seneca’s play, Joseph reported to the mourning women what took place inside the praetorium. Since Pilate could not believe that Jesus’ death had occurred so quickly, the centurion swore that he had witnessed it with his own eyes, adducing the additional proof from the puncture wound. Probably the centurion who gave the assurance to Pilate was the same one who had been in charge of the crucifixion and is mentioned by Mark (15:39) as standing in front of the cross when Jesus expired. When a soldier with the rank of centurion provided the needed assurance that Jesus was really dead, Pilate told the undertaker Joseph that the petition was granted.

Commentators have noted that each of the three gospels that mentions the action of Pilate (Luke does not refer to it except by implication) resorts to a different verb: According to Mark, Pilate made a gift of the body to Joseph; according to Matthew, he ordered that it be handed over; according to John, Pilate conceded. No adequate explanation has been offered for this variety of vocabulary, particularly since the verb of Mark, doreo, to give as a gift, is rather strange. The explanation is that the gospels were quoting verbatim from Seneca, who in turn was echoing the phraseology of the relevant passage in his favorite treatise, On Clemency. There (II,6,2) the philosopher had asserted that the good ruler

will donate (donabit) the son to the tears of his mother and will order (iudebit) that the chains be loosened and will exempt him from the gladiatorial game and will bury his corpse even if he is a dangerous one.

Seneca continues by explaining that it is not clemency, but irrational pity, to let the worst criminals go free (II,5,1).

In the passage that I just referred to Seneca explains that clemency is the result of a rational decision, reached in a detached, objective spirit. It is different from pity, which is an emotion, a fault rather than a virtue. Pity results from weakness of soul, whereas clemency is the result of the strength of a character who knows how to restrain the desire for vengeance. Pity is manifested by the most ordinary persons: there are old women and petty females who are moved by tears. This thought of Seneca explains why he did not present Mary and the chorus of women as asking for the body of Jesus: The women would have asked for the body under any circumstances, regardless of the merits of the case.

Seneca expounds repeatedly that he who exercises clemency does it without emotion. In the specific case of the granting of burial , the clement ruler will do it with an unperturbed mind, with full control of his facial expression. (II,6,2) This prescription of Seneca fits with the gospels’ account of Pilate’s behavior: They do not indicate whether the Roman governor was friendly or unfriendly, but only that he acted objectively, asking for proof that there was not a spark of life left in Jesus’ body.

[1] Some manuscripts of the gospels, instead of whether he had been dead a long time, read whether he had already died. This reading is morely likely to be the original one, since it is a case of requesting confirmation.

[2]   The word of Aeschylus, which I have just translated as lance is belos, which refers to any sharp penetrating object, such as an arrow, a spear, a sword, a roasting spit, a big nail, or even a ponyard. The exact Latin equivalent of the Greek belos is telum. The Roman physician Celsus employs telum as a technical term in the section of his work (De Medicina VII.5) which deals with perforating wounds. When John employs lonchê in referring to the instrument that pierced the side of Jesus, he may have been rendering the Latin telum. The Greek term could refer to a lance as well as to the tip of a javelin. The use of the term lonchê is so unexpected in Greek that Christian tradition built out of it the legend that the soldier who pierced the side of Jesus was named Longinus.

[3] Many interpreters have doubted the authenticity of the first part of verse 19:35 in John because its grammar is most peculiar. Several translators print it in brackets. But in my opinion the grammatical peculiarities of this text can be explained by the circumstance that John quoted directly the words used by Joseph in his speech on the stage. The Greek word for testified, is in the perfect tense, and may be understood as affirming a future event.