The blood that Jesus is believed to have shed on the cross has inspired hymns (William Cowper, "There is a Fountain filled with Blood" 1772), has been made the subject of movie films (Mel Gibson, "The Passion of the Christ" 2004—garishly bloody), and if memory serves, evoked many (forgettable) sermons. It is striking, however, that the death of Jesus in the synoptic gospels is described as a bloodless event.1 Jesus is struck, beaten, scourged, and crucified, but blood is not mentioned. John (20:20, 25) and the Gospel of Peter (6:1) allude, after the event, to his hands being nailed in the act of crucifying him. But the only actual mention of blood during the crucifixion comes in the Gospel of John when "one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water" (19:34), prompted no doubt by the early Christian belief in prophecy (John 19:36-37; Zech 12:10)—so blood had to be spilled because it was prophesied. That the crucifixion was a bloody affair seems due to later Christian imagination, but not to the imagination of the evangelists who described the crucifixion.
How, then, did the idea that one "is saved by the blood of Jesus" enter into Christianity? It was not the only interpretation of the death of Jesus available to the earliest followers of Jesus. For example Phil 2:5-11, a pre-Pauline hymn, understands Jesus' death on the cross as an exaltation of Jesus with no reference to blood or even to the resurrection of Jesus. Acts 2:22-24, 32-33 interprets the significance of the death of Jesus as resurrection and exaltation; no blood is mentioned. The centurion present at the death of Jesus in Luke (23:47) described his death as the death of a righteous (dikaios) man, but the centurion in Mark (15:39) proclaimed his death as that of a divine man (theos anēr).
In the earliest Pauline letter Paul describes Jesus' death as a "killing" (cf. Acts 2:23) rather than a crucifixion (1 Thess 2:14-16). He adds later, almost as an afterthought, that his death was "for us" (1 Thess 5:10); no blood is mentioned.2 In the later Pauline letters, however, the "killing" of Jesus becomes the crucifixion of Jesus (1 Cor 1:23, 2:2, 8) and Jesus' blood, shed in our behalf, becomes essential in describing the salvation event (Rom 3:24-25, 5:9; 1 Cor 10:16, 11:24-27).
Those writers of the New Testament who came later than Paul were also insistent that the blood of Jesus was essential for the salvation of human beings. The blood of Jesus appears in the deutero-Pauline essays as a standard feature in describing the salvation event (Eph 1:7, 2:13; Col 1:20; blood was added to Col 1:14 by a later scribe). The author of Hebrews is, perhaps, rather dogmatic about the necessity of Jesus' blood being shed when he writes, "without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins" (Heb 9:22; cf. 9:7, 9:12, 9:14, 10:19, 13:11-12).3 The necessity that the blood of Jesus be shed is well documented in the Apostolic Fathers (1 Clement 7:4; 12:7, 49:6; Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans 1:1; 6:1; To the Ephesians 1:1; To the Philadelphians Intro.; Barnabas 5:1).
The earliest mention of the blood of Jesus appears in the liturgical tradition of the church. Paul inherited the blood idea through the liturgy being passed on to him in what he called the Lord's Supper celebration (1 Cor 11:23-26; see also Mark 14:24; Matt 26:27-28; Luke 22:20; John 6:53-56; Ignatius to the Philadelphians 4:1). The author of Hebrews (9:1-28) makes clear that the necessity of Jesus' blood being spilled came into the Christian tradition through the church's use of the Hebrew Bible as the Word of God (2 Tim 3:15-17). The ancient Hebrews believed that the life of any creature was in its blood. Yahweh had said to Moses:
For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it for you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement, by reason of the life (Lev 17:11; cf. 17:14).
It is understandable that a primitive would come to the conclusion that the life of every creature is in its blood by observing that when exsanguination occurs the creature dies. Today, however, we know that life systems are more complicated. For example, one could argue from knowledge of the human circulatory system that the life of a human being resides in the heart, for the heart pumps the blood. One dies when the heart fails without one drop of blood being spilled. Or one might argue on the basis of the human respiratory system that life resides in the lungs, for the lungs oxygenate the blood that circulates oxygen throughout our bodies. In other words, the life systems of mammals are more complicated and the life of the organism is dependent on much more than its blood.
One passage that confuses the issue is Rom 5:9-11, where Paul says that "we are now justified by his (Jesus) blood" and "now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life." So what saves the Christian, Jesus' blood or his life (resurrection)?
This has been a strange essay since to judge from the Bible God expects people to forgive one another without spilling anyone's blood (Col 3:13; Eph 4:32; Luke 17:3-4). Go figure! Apparently God (if God there be) expects us to do without spilling blood what s/he thought could only be done by spilling blood.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
1I understand Matt 27:24-25 as being metaphorical, meaning that Pilate was not responsible for Jesus' death rather than as a description of the crucifixion that followed. This incident is not found in the other gospels.
2See Hedrick, "Paul's Cross Gospel and 1 Thessalonians," pgs. 113-15 in Unmasking Biblical Faiths. The Marginal Relevance of the Bible for Contemporary Religious Faith (Cascade, 2019).
3See also 1 Pet 1:2, 1:18-19; 1 John 1:7; Rev 1:5, 5:9, 12:11.