In celebration of Holy Saturday, I will be discussing one of the few events narrated in the Gospels following Jesus’ death, that of the soldier ‘piercing’ Jesus’ side in John 19:34ff. The Gospel of John records two details, each of which is tied to an Old Testament Scripture:
- The soldiers are ordered to break the legs of the crucified victims (in order to hasten death), but when they come to Jesus they see that he is already dead (19:31-33). The Scripture indicated in verse 36 is not absolutely certain; it may be Exodus 12:46 [cf. 12:10 LXX] or Num 9:12 (neither is cited verbatim, cf. also Psalm 34:20). The identification would seem to be with Jesus as the slain Passover Lamb—see the context of Jn 19:14; also Jn 1:29, 36.
- A soldier ‘pierces’ Jesus side (19:34, 37), discussed below.
John 19:34 reads:
a)ll’ ei!$ tw=n stratiwtw=n lo/gxh| au)tou= th\n pleura\n e&nucen kai\ e)ch=lqen eu)qu\$ ai!ma kai\ u%dwr
“but one of the soldiers jabbed his side with a spear-tip and straightway [i.e. right away] came out blood and water”
The verb often translated “pierce” (nu/ssw, nússœ) would be more accurately rendered “jab, stab”, perhaps implying here that the soldier’s action was not intended to produce a wound, but rather to check that Jesus was dead (in spite of verse 33). Christian tradition was quick to fill out some of the details: for example, the soldier’s name was identified as Longinus, after lo/gxh (lónch¢, “spear/lance”, technically the spear head or tip), and the wound was naturally enough specified as on the right side (see the Ethiopic version, and so typically in Christian art). The spear itself became a powerful symbol, especially in Eastern Orthodox tradition, where it was related typologically with the Angel’s sword that barred the way to Paradise (Gen 3:24)—i.e., Christ’s death opened the way for us to Paradise again (a popular theme in the hymns of Ephrem the Syrian, etc). Later, the spear would play a role in the rich Grail traditions of the West (see down below).
Two elements here should be looked at in greater detail: first, the blood and water that came out from Jesus’ side (v. 34b); and second, the Scripture citation from Zechariah 12:10 (v. 37).
The Blood and Water
“…and right away came out blood and water”—there have been many attempts to explain this enigmatic detail; especially popular in modern times have been the various medical theories (treating it as a realistic phyisiological detail) which try to explain what may have occurred (cf. the standard Commentaries). These are interesting, but, I would say, somewhat misplaced. At the historical-traditional level, “blood and water” more than likely simply represent a common popular understanding of human (internal) physiology—the two obvious fluid elements contained in the human body, which for a healthy person, ought to be evenly balanced; see, for example, the Jewish tradition in the Midrash Rabbah (15.2) on Lev 13:2ff. The Synoptic tradition might have more emphasized blood coming out—see Mark 14:24 (and par) “this is my blood of the testament th(at) is poured out over many”. However, in the Gospel of John, the mention of water here alongside blood is especially significant. Apart from this verse, “blood” (ai!ma) is mentioned only two other places: in Jn 1:13 and Jn 6:53-56. The first passage contrasts those who come to be born “out of” (that is, from/by) blood (plural), the will of flesh, or the will of man with those who come to be born out of God (from the Spirit, cf. Jn 3:3-8). The second passage is part of the “Bread of Life” discourse; I have discussed these verses in an earlier post, see also here below.
Water is a more prevalent symbol in the Gospel of John. There are four (or five) principal passages:
- The miracle at Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine (Jn 2:1-11)
- The first portion of the discourse with Nicodemus, regarding being born “from above”, identified with being born “out of [i.e. from/by] the Spirit” (Jn 3:3-8)
- The discourse with the Samaritan Woman, where Jesus contrasts water from the well with the “living water” he gives (Jn 4:7-15ff)
- The saying of Jn 7:37-38, part of the discourse[s] Jesus spoke during the Feast of Booths (ch. 7-8), again emphasizing “living water” for those who believe (drink from) Jesus.
- [One should probably add the foot-washing episode and discourse in Jn 13:1-15ff].
It is possible, I think, to connect the passages involving water and blood according to the theology of the Gospel, and so to glimpse what significance the two motifs together might have in Jn 19:34:
- Identification of water and wine—miracle at Cana (2:7-9ff)
- Identification of wine and blood implied—the Eucharistic nuance of Jn 6:53-58 (cf. Mark 14:24 par). Note also the theme in Jn 6:35ff of coming to (and believing in) Jesus, which is parallel to the eating (his flesh) and drinking (his blood) in vv. 51ff.
- These two passages, taken together, effectively connect, at the symbolic level, water and blood.
- Coming to (and believing in) Jesus is also symbolized by drinking “living water” in Jn 4:7ff and 7:37-38
- Water is identified with the Spirit in Jn 3:3-8.
- Blood is essentially connected with the Spirit as well in Jn 6:60ff (esp. verse 63).
- The passages in John 3 and 6, taken as a whole, demonstrate a Spiritual interpretation and presence for both Baptism (water) and the Eucharist (blood).
- Blood and water also both cleanse the believer—see the foot-washing scene in Jn 13:1-15ff, for this same idea with blood, cf. 1 John 1:7.
The first Epistle of John is generally understood as coming from the same basic school of thought (if not the same author) as the Gospel—it uses much common language and style, and shares many theological concepts. In addition to 1 John 1:7, we should also consult 1 Jn 5:6-8, where we see the same triad—water-blood-Spirit—which can be distilled from the Gospel passages mentioned above. It would perhaps be better to view the equation as: water-blood + Spirit. Verse 6 states that Jesus is “the one who came through water and blood“, which I take to be primarily a reference to the Incarnation, and is presumably meant to emphasize the reality of Jesus’ human nature (against early “docetic” views of Christ). If so, then we should probably view the “blood and water” of Jn 19:34 in the same light; only here it is sacrificial aspect of Jesus’ death that is most prominent (note the order “blood and water” instead of “water and blood”). 1 Jn 5:7 adds the Spirit to blood-water as part of the “witness”, and, I believe, it is appropriate to add the Spirit, by way of interpretation, to Jn 19:34 as well. It should perhaps be understood in relation to the “living water” that flows from Jesus, which the believer receives within by faith (and the power of the Spirit). Jesus’ sacrificial death releases this cleansing and life-giving power to us—when we drink of it (by faith and the Spirit), the same life comes to be in us.
The Citation from Zechariah 12:10
In Jn 19:37, the Gospel writer explains the ‘piercing’ described in v. 34 as a fulfillment of Zechariah 12:10, which is cited thus:
o&yontai ei)$ o^n e)ceke/nthsan
“they will look with (open) eyes unto the (one) whom they pierced”
The Hebrew Masoretic text reads “and they will look unto me the (one) whom they struck through [i.e. pierced]”. The first person pronominal suffix (“me”) would suggest that God is the referent, but this is admittedly difficult in context, and a number of MSS instead read “him”. Verses 10-14 have primarily the theme of mourning, and the association with verses 1-9 (describing a great war and judgment against the nations) may indicate that the people who remain in the land are mourning those who have been killed (i.e., as martyrs), and as a result the people turn and look to God. This is more or less the approach taken by many Jewish commentators; however, in the Babylonian Talmud (Sukkah 52a), we find an example of a messianic interpretation (by R. Dosa)—it is the Messiah (ben Joseph) who is pierced, and the people mourn for him. The most common early Christian interpretation is that it refers to Jesus’ return (parousia)—the people (Jews and Gentiles), especially those who are responsible for his death, will look upon him as he comes in glory. This is certainly the way the verse is used in the Johannine book of Revelation (Rev 1:7); cf. also Justin Martyr’s First Apology §52. However, I suspect that there is a deeper, spiritual meaning here in the Gospel. Consider, for example, the thematic signficance of seeing/looking, especially the way that the verb o)pta/nomai is used—Jn 1:39, 50-51; 3:36; 11:40; 16:16-19. In these passages the emphasis is primarily upon believers seeing/beholding Jesus (and his glory); elsewhere in the Gospel we find the familiar message that those who see Jesus also see the Father—this seeing is parallel with (and corresponds to) knowing, and is salvific. Nowhere is this more clear than in the sayings regarding the Son of Man being “lifted high” (Jn 3:14; 8:28; 12:32). As I discussed in an earlier post, this “lifting high” reflects both Jesus’ sacrificial death and his exaltation/glorification; by looking on this symbol, we also see the Father, and are drawn to Christ; in turn, we are led by him to the Father.
There is perhaps no better image for meditation and contemplation on the eve of Easter than Christ, the one pierced, who has poured out his blood and water (his “soul unto death”, Isa 53:12), lifted high above us, where we can all look upon him with open eyes.
The spear that pierced Jesus’ side took on a surprisingly important role in medieval Grail lore, as part of a complex of images. It was paired with the cup from the Last Supper, which caught the blood which came out after Jesus was pierced. In the Grail romances, pagan religious beliefs and mythology blend together with Christian symbols and sacramental thought. The cup (eventually identified as the “Grail”) and spear both became magical-sacred objects in these tales, housed in the mysterious Grail castle. In the middle Ages, these were not necessarily idle myths—the Grail (and related Arthurian) legends could be used as a powerful expression of Christian spirituality, as we find in the 13th century Quest for the Holy Grail. In later centuries, they continued to exert a strong artistic influence, perhaps best exemplified in Richard Wagner’s ultimate musical opera Parsifal.