For many professing Christians, the cause of Jesus Christ’s death is an enigma. Like Pontius Pilate, many inquirers are left questioning how He could have died so soon (Mark 15:44). Examine the centuries of art attempting to depict Christ’s death, and we typically see no more than a small trickle of blood from a flesh wound, reinforcing the impression that Christ died of a broken heart. To others, the expression that Jesus simply “gave up the ghost” conveys the mistaken impression of a voluntary death, rather than realizing that the expression is a metaphor for death itself (Mark 15:37; John 19:30; Acts 5:5, 12:23, KJV).
In the Church of God, we have long understood, quite correctly, that most texts of Matthew’s Gospel now omit a key line depicting a soldier spearing the crucified Christ and thus killing Him violently. One may read more about this in the Personal Correspondence Department’s L147 on this topic (see page 13). Yet, even what is present in the rest of the Gospel accounts may in fact reveal more than we might at first notice. Could some of the answer be lost in translation?
The Gospel of John provides us with a useful insight into this matter. After providing details about how the robbers crucified with Jesus Christ had their legs broken, John was inspired to quote a prophecy from Zechariah 12:10 about Jesus (John 19:34). Traditionally, most consider that John refers to the pinprick of a wound represented in most art relating to Christ’s death. The Hebrew term used by Zechariah denies this idea. The nail holes in Christ’s hands and feet are clearly not an appropriate fulfillment of that prophecy. The prophecy demands something greater. The Hebrew term daqar, translated as “pierced” in most English translations of Zechariah, is used to describe a fatal wounding of a subject. Two examples help appreciate the gravity of the prophecy. The same Hebrew term is used when Phinehas thrust his spear through an Israelite man and Moabite woman, impaling them. (Numbers 25:6–8). Likewise, when King Saul was injured by archers and facing defeat at the hands of the Philistines, he asked his armor bearer to take his sword and “to thrust me through with it” so that he was not taken alive (1 Samuel 31:4). This same term, used by Zechariah to describe the piercing of the Messiah, was used to describe the taking of lives in both those examples.
For Zechariah, as with the Apostle John, the wound from the spear thrust was intended to be obvious for all to see. John himself is aware of this need. The wound was large enough for the resurrected Jesus to invite Thomas to put his hand into it (John 20:25–28). It was not a pinprick of a wound—it was large enough for Thomas to put his hand into! As the one who was inspired to write the book of Revelation, John once again invokes the prophecy of Zechariah, enlarging the mourning from members of the tribe of Judah to all nations of the earth (Revelation 1:7).
So why should something that happened to Jesus Christ’s body be a feature of His returning glory? If it was not part of His suffering, and only occurred to a dead body, why the need for this prophecy that John refers to?
Consider then the importance of the prophecy. Why would such a major prophecy relate to the dead body of Jesus Christ? Isaiah also was inspired to write of the death of Jesus Christ in terms of His sacrifice: “Because He poured out His soul unto death” (Isaiah 53:12). The term “poured” is used metaphorically of a person giving rather than taking all. This would fit with the imagery John is seeking to convey in the later part of John 19. The prophecies about Jesus Christ relate to His life, death and resurrection. We know that He was to make His grave with the wicked (Isaiah 53:9), and that He would be resurrected before corruption and decay of His body set in (Psalm 16:8–11; Acts 2:27, 31). The prophecies do not relate to events surrounding Jesus’ dead body.
Consider also that Jesus stated that He was to be killed—apokteinō (Matthew 16:21; 17:23; Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22). The Greek term involves the taking of someone else’s life. It is not used of suicide or self-destruction.
The verb denotes the violent termination of life by human beings. The preposition ἀπό strengthens the negative meaning of the verb: “hyper-characterizing, picture-painting” (Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, 1:134).
The apostles appreciated this. When speaking to the Sanhedrin, they accused them of murder (Acts 5:30). Hence we must accept that someone or something must have taken His life. No concept of a voluntary action on Jesus Christ’s part can be involved. We have two options from the Gospel accounts: death by crucifixion itself, or from some other violent action taken to kill Christ prematurely.
Crucifixion was a form of prolonged torture, with death resulting from one of several consequences of being hanged on a tree or a stake, including but not limited to strangulation, hypothermia or dismemberment by wild animals, so that death may come after several days of suffering. In other words, an autopsy would not necessarily list crucifixion as the cause of death; crucifixion would be the act that brought on some other immediate cause of death.
The goal of crucifixion was torture, to inflict as much pain as possible on the victim while allowing suffering to continue for as long as possible. It was to convey a powerful, intimidating message to all who saw the victim. Accordingly, crucifixion was usually performed in a highly trafficked public place so that those nearby would see and fear. Roman legions each had a specialized squad whose duty was crucifixion. Well-trained, and without feeling for human suffering, they inflicted their skills on subject peoples.
This allows us to make sense of Pilate’s question about what would have been a very premature death for Jesus in terms of crucifixion and why it was necessary to break the legs of the others to hasten their deaths because of the impending Holy Day. Without any support from their legs, the crucified men would be unable to breathe, which, coupled with the intensified pain, would bring death to them rapidly.
Jesus Christ, like others who were crucified with Him and those before and after Him, did not die of crucifixion alone. Hence the only other option the Gospels provide is the violent action of a soldier with a spear.
When did the soldier strike?
The English translation of John 19:34 begins with the conjunction “But”—seeming to indicate that its actions occurred at the same time the other men’s legs were broken. Upon closer inspection, however, we find that the Greek requires more care in translation. One commentary states, “The adversative [contrast] particle ἀλλά is etymologically derived from ἄλλος (cf. Ger. sondern, which is both a verb, ‘separate,’ and a conjunction, ‘but, rather’) (EDNT 1:61).”
What follows after the conjunction, then, is not a continuation of what went before—in this case, breaking the criminals’ legs—rather, it can reflect on a separate (and in this case, previous) event.
John 19:34 is a case where ἀλλά is used to contrast the state of Jesus with that of those crucified on either side. Hence the action of the soldier with the spear is not to be read as contemporaneous with the breaking of legs, but could have happened previously. The verse could be translated as: “One of the soldiers had” or, “Because one of the soldiers had”—thus providing the necessary time lapse between this event and breaking the other victims’ legs.
Remember, if Christ was not killed as a consequence of the spear thrust, we are left with a situation where it is easy to assume that Jesus Christ died at His own behest. That idea creates two problems. We would have to question whether He was truly sacrificed as the Lamb of God. It also comes very close to Docetism, a Gnostic philosophical error that John was seeking to refute! The nature of the death of Jesus Christ had not been a problem for the previous Gospel writers who recorded Christ’s words of being murdered. Eyewitness accounts also added detail to that given in the record by the three Synoptic writers. John, writing a few years later when eyewitnesses were few and far between, was seeking to refute the conclusions that some philosophers were creating about the personage of Jesus Christ.
Do the Other Gospels Support This Idea?
The other three Gospels tell us that Jesus died crying out in a loud voice (Matthew 27:50; Mark 15:37; Luke 23:46). The cry to His Father quoting Psalm 22 had been earlier than this cry. This loud cry is presented by all three Gospels as immediately preceding His death. Death of a heart attack, stroke or such form of death is normally associated with disorientation and not major pain or screaming. Because He was still able to pray to His Father and cry out with a loud voice, strangulation or some form of asphyxiation was clearly not the problem. Normally, screaming would be associated with pain, and makes sense for someone being violently stabbed through the abdomen and rib cage with a spear. This would fit the scenario given by Matthew, Mark and Luke.
Consider, too that the situation at the place of crucifixion was also highly charged, with the religious leaders taunting Christ to exercise power and show He was the Son of God by coming down from the stake (Matthew 27:42, 49). Was the soldier motivated to avoid a major spectacle of someone getting down from the stake?
Of course, by using his spear, this anonymous figure brought about the death of our Savior at the exact time the Father intended. Little did the soldier understand that Jesus Christ, after being placed in the tomb, would be resurrected three days and three nights later!