Paul Gauguin, The Yellow Christ (1889), oil on canvas, 35.9 x 28.9 in., Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY
In our Baptist churches we often sing, What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus. What can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus. The Baptist Faith and Message asks us to confess, “Salvation involves the redemption of the whole man, and is offered freely to all who accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, who by His own blood obtained eternal redemption for the believer (IV. Salvation, emphasis added). Sacramental traditions encourage Christians to eat Christ’s flesh and drink his blood. Given this sanguinary emphasis, it’s surprising, if not shocking, to recall how little the Bible says about Jesus bleeding on the cross. Caroline Walker Bynum, one of my favorite medieval historians, explains:
Crucifixion is not a bloody death. As inhabitants of the ancient world knew well, the crucified die by suffocation. However painful his execution, it is unlikely that Jesus of Nazareth died from blood loss. The synoptic gospels mention literal bleeding only in connection with Christ’s sweating on the Mount of Olives (Luke 22.43-44), and even this reference to bloody sweat is missing in some early manuscripts. Only the gospel of John mentions the piercing of Jesus’ side with a lance and the subsequent outflow of blood and water; and John makes it clear that the wound came only when Jesus was already dead (John 19:34). (Wonderful Blood, 1)
Drawing on the Old Testament ideas of covenant and temple sacrifice, the writer of Hebrews says, “Without shedding of blood there is no remission [of sins]” (9:22). No doubt Jesus bled from his wounds while he was dying on the cross, but the New Testament doesn’t mention his ante-mortem bleeding. Many preachers delight in dramatizing Jesus’ torture and execution, retelling with gory imagery how a Roman soldier drove the nails into his hands and feet as they pound their fits on the pulpit. But the gospel writers themselves say very little about the physical suffering, so little that it makes you wonder whether they were interested in such details at all.
As heretical as it may sound, the “blood of Jesus” is actually a figure of speech. It’s an example of metonymy in which one thing is called by the name of another because of their close association. For example, “Washington” is often used as a kind of shorthand for the U.S. Government, as in: “Washington will send more troops to Afghanistan.” The statement is true but not literally true. (It’s not the city of Washington that is sending troops but the federal government.) Because atonement in the Old Testament was closely linked with bloody sacrifice, the phrase “blood of Jesus” began to be used for the “death of Jesus,” even though Jesus didn’t die by exsanguination. A failure to understand figurative language has led some biblical literalists to the bizarre conclusion that a vat of Jesus’ actual blood is eternally preserved in heaven, which he uses to cover sins in much the same way that the Israelites painted their doorposts with blood on the first Passover.
It is inconsistent for us to blame our Catholic friends for being overly literal in their understanding of the body and blood of Christ, then turn around and declare that the literal blood of Christ washes away our sin. I believe the death of Christ was essential to atone for my trespasses and secure my forgiveness. Because I understand what that means, I can boldly sing, There is Power in the Blood!