Here in the midst of “Holy Week” it seemed fitting to once again turn our minds to the cross-resurrection event of Jesus. In the past I have answered quite a number of Easter questions from a medical report of the victims of crucifixion to the eternal fate of Judas for betraying Jesus. This year we look at a question from Rich that I’ve never seen asked, let alone addressed: “Why did the Roman soldier stab Jesus with a spear when scripture clearly states he was aware that Jesus was already dead?”
The account of Jesus’ being stabbed on the cross by a Roman Soldier is found only in the Gospel of John 19.31-34: “Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jews did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.”
Why stab a dead man?
The fact is, this account in John’s gospel may well have been written to answer those of the first century who were contesting the death of Jesus—those who held to the coma theory. The coma theory suggested that Jesus hadn’t really died and that he was revived after resting in the tomb. The coma theory has many holes in it, and few scholars and skeptics use this theory to discredit the Easter resurrection. However, John’s report of Jesus being stabbed on the cross is apparently the earliest attempt to verify Jesus’ death.
In all the gospel accounts we read of surprise by the Romans that Jesus died so quickly on the cross. According to medical historians, the typical death of one being crucified lasted about 36 hours. Some died of exposure, some of asphyxiation, others of dehydration. Many contracted tetanus in the hours affixed to the cross and the convulsions that accompany that disease hastened the death along. In any event, the death could be hastened along by breaking the victim’s legs which initiated death by asphyxiation, since the victim wouldn’t be able to use his legs to push himself up to get a breath of air. But Jesus’ death took less than six hours, and that without breaking his legs. A rare phenomenon of the day, as seen by the Romans’ reactions. And such an exception gave rise to those who doubted the veracity of Jesus’ death.
So, John had a vested interest in demonstrating that Jesus had actually died and the stabbing served to show this.
Let us remember that Roman soldiers were not medical staff. If they pronounced someone dead, they had to be sure the victim had died—in the case of executions, their own lives depended on it. When the soldier who heard Jesus “breathe his last” (Mark 15.37; Luke 23.46) reported it to his superiors who were about to break Jesus’ legs, the spear thrust was probably executed simply to verify that the report was accurate. Or perhaps the soldier who was breaking the legs of the executed prisoners was simply vindictive and wanted to inflict an insult on the prematurely dead Jesus; though, that would be quite out of character of the highly disciplined Roman military. In any event, when “blood and water” flowed out and as the bleeding stopped, it was clear the death sentence had been carried out.
When John wrote this account to prove Jesus’ death to the skeptics, he was simply trying to show conclusively that Jesus had died. What John did not realize is that he not only proved Jesus’ death, but he revealed the “why” of Jesus’ premature death.
It took nearly 1,800 years before we would know why Jesus died in six hours, when the norm was 36. In 1805 Dr. Gruner wrote in A Commentary on the Death of Jesus that Jesus had died of a ruptured heart muscle. The initial account by Gruner was rebuffed by evangelists of his day. However, in 1847 Dr. Stroud of London corroborated Gruner’s assertions when he released his own report based on numerous post mortem examinations that claimed Jesus had not died directly from the crucifixion, but from a “laceration or rupture of the heart.”
Since then, many physiologists have verified the many details of the crucifixion that all seem to support the notion that Jesus died of a lacerated heart. Indeed, some would say that this is the only real evidence of Jesus’ premature death on the cross.
That a Roman soldier stabbed Jesus with a spear, whether to verify or to vilify, it became clear that Jesus had died. And somehow, as I ready myself for Easter, it seems fitting to know that Jesus died not because he was weakened, but because his heart was broken.