HOUSMAIL HM#120 - HOW DID JESUS DIE?                                                                               21 December 2004

Recently a friend drew my attention to an article which claimed that there are a few early Greek manuscripts in which some extra words are inserted at the end of Matthew 27:49:

"And another took a spear and pierced his side, and out came water and blood."

The article further claimed that this meant that Jesus was still alive when He was speared and that this was the cause of the loud cry described in V50, and His death.

Research over the last couple of weeks, indicates that arguments about the authenticity of these words date back to the early centuries of Christianity. They are NOT found in the KJV because the extra words are not in the Greek "Textus Receptus" used to translate the KJV.

I was not able to find exact numbers, but research suggests that the number of ancient Greek manuscripts which do contain the extra words is very small, compared with the several thousand which don‘t. Greek manuscripts which do have these extra words, include the "Codex Vaticanus", and "Codex Sinaiticus", which are two of the oldest manuscripts discovered. They are said to be found in some Old Latin translations which predate Jerome‘s 5th century "Latin Vulgate". I have read that they also appear in earlier versions of the Vulgate. However they are not in the Latin text of the Vulgate version which I have on my computer in the "Online Bible". They are also said to be included in some ancient translations into the Syriac, Armenian, Ethiopian, and Gothic languages.

The extra words are noted by compilers of more recent Greek texts, but seem to have been largely rejected by translators of modern versions as of doubtful authenticity. They are found in only a very few English translations. The RSV, NASB, NRSV, and Emphatic Diaglott have them as footnotes. Moffatt, Weymouth, and Fenton, include them in the main text without comment. There may be a few other lesser known versions which also include them.

There are some who make the dubious claim that because Vaticanus and Sinaiticus are the oldest manuscripts we have, they MUST be more accurate -- and that therefore the extra words in Matt 27:49, MUST be authentic.

Of course this sort of argument is wishful thinking at best! How can mere age guarantee better accuracy? As a matter of fact, we can‘t even claim that those two older versions are identical. They are not! While they do both contain these words, there are many significant variations between the two. Not only that, experts tell us that Vaticanus has been overwritten, corrected, and amended in many places, by a later hand.

Compilers of the latest Greek texts seem to place a great deal of dependence on these two manuscripts. However, as we noted above, only a very few modern translations include these extra words in their English text. Many respected scholars regard them as probably introduced from John 19:34 by an over zealous scribe, trying to "harmonise" the two gospels, but getting it wrong.

The pros and cons of authenticity, and reliability, would seem to be a topic far beyond the ability of the average layman. When the experts differ, how does the layman presume to decide which of them is right? Even for experts, at this great distance in time, there is simply no way to prove it beyond doubt, one way or the other.

The REAL question we must ask is this -- Does it matter? If this is so important, why has God permitted it to be left out of the vast majority of Greek manuscripts, and English translations?

In fact we shall find that it does matter a great deal. If the reading is retained, it introduces a major contradiction with John 19:34, which says quite clearly that Jesus was already dead, BEFORE the soldier pierced His side.

To get around that problem of possible conflict with John 19:34, the article claimed that the Greek verb used by John, ("ENUZEN" - translated "pierced") is in what is called the "Greek Aorist tense", and that this means that the word has been translated incorrectly. They say that it should be translated "had pierced". (Which would allow them to say that John meant that Jesus was still alive when He was speared)

Is their "revised" translation correct? Or have they "stretched" the grammar? Are we wrong to depend on the many English translations of John 19:34, which say that Jesus was already dead BEFORE He was speared? How does a layman answer that?

Alas, we can‘t do that without getting into a bit of simple Greek Grammar. Don‘t give up! It isn‘t impossible. If you have access to a simple "Beginners Greek Grammar" and can read the Greek alphabet, you can easily check it out for yourself. Here is what you will find:

Bagster‘s Analytical Greek Lexicon, will confirm that the verb "pierced" is in the Greek Aorist tense. But what does THAT mean? William Mounce‘s "Basics of Biblical Greek", and Eric Jay‘s "New Testament Greek Introductory Grammar", both say that the Greek Aorist Tense, should USUALLY be translated as a simple English past tense. i.e. "pierced".

Can the Greek word ever be translated as "had pierced" instead of simply "pierced"?

The grammars do say that the Aorist can SOMETIMES be translated this way. But note that the grammars quoted above also say that this is NOT the USUAL way. And in John 19:34, it does not seem to fit the context at all. It is certainly impossible to claim dogmatically that it MUST mean "had pierced". Taking into account the natural flow of the context, it is more than reasonable to accept that the translators are correct to use the simple past tense! To put it even more bluntly, "pierced" is OK! And "had pierced" is not!

And that goes a long way to solving our problem about the usefulness of the extra words. We don‘t need to be experts on the validity of text variations in ancient Greek texts. All we need to know is that if the words are used to contradict John‘s Gospel, they are being used incorrectly.

That isn‘t a difficult question! Jesus had been flogged and abused by the Romans in a procedure designed to weaken the victim, prior to crucifixion. It wasn‘t unusual for victims to die of the flogging before they could be crucified. I have read that blood loss from the flogging could be as much as 1 1/2 litres -- more than a quarter of the blood in an adult body. It wasn‘t only the flogging. Jesus had also been terribly beaten and abused by the soldiers who placed that crown of thorns on His head. Although not specifically mentioned in the Gospels, Isaiah prophesied that handfuls of His beard would be torn from His face. (Isaiah 50:6) This would have caused terrible injuries to His face. According to Isaiah, it was all so vicious that "His appearance was marred beyond human semblance". (Isaiah 52:14 RSV) There can be little doubt that the result of all this vicious torture would have been severe Haemorrhagic Shock. (which would explain why He was too weak to carry the cross) It isn‘t surprising at all, that six hours on the cross was more than enough to cause His death. (especially as he wasn‘t fighting to stay alive) Most victims of crucifixion died of exhaustion and suffocation. Hanging from the nails in their wrists caused constriction on their chest which made it impossible to breathe. To get a breath they had to stand up briefly, relieving the pressure on their chest, but putting agonising weight on the wounds in their feet. Then they would slump down again to temporarily shift the pain back from their feet to their wrists. This terrible cycle of torture was repeated over and over, until they simply grew so weak that they couldn‘t lift themselves any more to snatch another breath. If the executioners thought the victims had suffered enough, and were feeling "merciful" they broke the victim‘s legs to prevent them "standing" to breathe, thus precipitating a quick death.

In the case of Jesus, it seems clear that after six hours, He had exhausted His reserves beyond the point of no return, and died. We don‘t really need to know the precise medical diagnosis. However much we feel inclined to speculate, it simply isn‘t recorded in the Bible.

How is this possible? Where did the "water" come from? Of course we can only speculate about the answer, but there is information available which might help us to understand that what is written has a reasonable basis in known fact.

The first clue is in what John meant by saying that Jesus was speared in the SIDE. (Greek=pleura, from which quite a few English words are derived) According to Thayer‘s Greek Lexicon it appears 5 times in the NT and is translated "side" every time. However it also appears in the LXX in Gen 2:21-22, where it is used to translate the Hebrew word for RIB. This lets us know that we are talking about the rib cage area of the side, and leads to a reasonable speculation about the nature of what John has described as water and blood.

I am not a medical expert. However I have read plausible articles which claim that the manner of the death described above would cause a large accumulation of "pericardialfluid". Apparently in extreme cases it can be as much as half a litre. I flew this past a doctor friend, who confirmed that it was possible. He also added another possible source of the fluid. It seems that "right heart failure" can also cause the production of a clear fluid known by the medical profession as "ascites fluid".

When Jesus was speared in the rib area of his side, just after His death, some blood and one or other of these fluids would have come out. It is not surprising that John‘s best description of the clear fluid he saw is "water". (Remember he was a fisherman -- not a Coronial Medical Examiner!)

The same friend who sparked this research, also pointed out the remarkable "type and antitype" parallel between the story of the creation of Eve and the death of Jesus on the Cross.

Genesis 2:21-22 tells how God caused Adam to fall into a DEEP SLEEP, before opening His chest to take one of his ribs to make Eve. That wound, received by Adam while "asleep", was the means by which God created Adam‘s bride.

For now, we will be brief about this aspect. However it isn‘t difficult to make a spiritual comparison between what happened to Adam, and the events of the crucifixion. The "deep sleep" of death, the wound in the rib cage area, and the shedding of some of Jesus‘ blood, all seem to have spiritual meanings which can be derived from prophesies about Jesus, and His own teaching in the Gospels.

What did Jesus mean? What was "finished"?

Put yourself there with Jesus for a moment. This was no "ordinary" crucifixion. He was not a criminal. He was there for a very unique special purpose. He was there to rescue US from the judgement we would otherwise face for OUR sins. And now, at the point of death, He KNEW, with absolute certainty, that He had done it! The unspeakable suffering of that day, was coming to its end. The ransom price for our pardon from our sins, was paid in full! "He bore our sins in His body on the tree". (1 Pet 2:24) "By His wounds we have been healed". What a moment that must have been! Exultation? Triumph? Jubilation? Ecstasy? There are not enough big words to describe it!

Can you begin to feel just a little of the overwhelming victor‘s triumph which must have resulted from that? It was in that almost indescribable awesome sense of exultation that, with His last dying breath, He let out that great triumphant shout of VICTORY! "It is finished"! (John 19:30) Then as Luke reports, He still had had just enough breath left to say "Father into thy hands I commit my spirit". (Luke 23:46) And then, Mark says, "He breathed His last" (Mark 15:37, 39 RSV)

By His selfless sacrifice of Himself, the way was opened for us to become Children of God and heirs of the Gospel promises. And if we are now already children, there is the thrilling promise of something even more wonderful. "When He appears we shall be like Him". (1 John 3:1-3)