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Blood in the Bible

In late Judaism and the New Testament, the phrase "flesh and blood" is used to mean man in his perishable nature,[1] the condition taken up by the Son of God in coming down to earth.[2] But except for this usage, the Bible speaks only of spilled blood (cruor), always connected with the loss or sacrifice of life. Greek thought, by contrast, connected blood (sanguis) with man's generation and his emotional life.

Old Testament

Like all ancient religions, the religion of Israel found blood something sacred, for blood is life,[3] and everything touching life is in close contact with God, the sole Master of life. From this recognition, three consequences proceed: the prohibition of murder, the dietary prohibition of blood, the use of blood in official worship.

Prohibiton of Murder

Man is made in the image of God, and only God has power over his life; if anyone spills a man's blood, God will demand an accounting of it.[4] This is the religious foundation of the decalogue precept "Thou shalt not kill".[5] In the case of murder, the blood of the victim "calls for vengeance" against the murderer.[6] Customary law considers "blood-vengeance"[7] legitimate. It seeks only to avoid the unlimited blood-feud[8] and assigns rules for such feuds.[9] God Himself sometimes makes such vengeance His proper responsibility, bringing the blood of the innocent on the heads of those who spill it.[10] This is why the persecuted faithful appeal to God to avenge the blood of His servants,[11] and He Himself promises that this vengeance will be had when His day comes.[12]

Dietary Prohibitions of Blood

The prohibition against eating blood and meat not ritually drained[13] was in force well before biblical revelation.[14] Whatever the original meaning of the proscription, it received precise motives in the Old Testament: blood, like life, belongs only to God; blood has its proper place in sacrifice;[15] man must not use it except for purposes of expiation.[16] This prohibition remained in force for some time in early Christianity to facilitate the use of a common table by converted Jews and pagans.[17]

Use of Blood in Official Worship

The sacred character of blood calls, finally, for its diverse uses in official worship.

A) The Covenant
The covenant between Yahweh and His people was sealed by a blood-rite: half the blood of the victims was poured on the altar which represented God, half on the people. Moses explained the rite: "this is the blood of the covenant Yahweh has made with you...".[18] Thus an indissoluble bond was established between God and His people.[19]

B) In Sacrifices
In sacrifces blood was likewise an essential element. Whether it was a matter of a holocaust, a communion sacrifice, or consecratory rites, the priest poured blood on the altar and all around.[20] In the paschal rite, the blood of the lamb took on another value: it was put on the lintel and the uprights of the door[21] to preserve the house from the destructive scourges.[22]

C) Liturgy of Atonement
Blood-rites had a place of special importance in the liturgy of atonement, for "blood atones".[23] The blood is poured by sprinkling.[24] On the Day of Atonement in particular, the high priest enters the Holy of Holies with the blood of a victim offered for his sins and those of the people.[25]

D) Consecratory Value
Finally, the blood has a consecratory value. In the rites of consecration for priests[26] and the altar,[27] it marks them out as belonging to God.

New Testament

If the New Testament puts an end to the bloody sacrifice of Jewish worship, and abrogates the legal dispositions relating to blood-vengeance, it is because it recognizes the value and meaning of "innocent blood", of the "precious blood",[28] poured out for the redemption of men.

The Synoptic Gospels

Full in the face of his coming death, Jesus thinks of Jerusalem's responsibility: the prophets had been murdered of old, He Himself will be handed over, His envoys will be killed in their turn. God's judgement on the guilty city must be severe: all the blood poured out here below since the blood of Abel will come on the head of this generation.[29] The passion is drawn in this dramatic perspective: Judas knows he has betrayed innocent blood;[30] Pilate washes his hands of this blood while the mob takes responsibility for it.[31] But there is another side to the action as well. At the last supper, Jesus presents the cup of the Eucharist as "the blood of the covenant, poured out for many in remission of sins".[32] His body offered and His blood shed shall make of his death a doubly significant sacrifice: a sacrifice of the covenant substituting a new covenant for that of Sinai; a sacrifice of atonement according to the prophecy of the Servant of Yahweh. Thus innocent blood unjustly spilled becomes the blood of redemption.

St. Paul

Paul finds ready expression of the meaning of the cross of Christ in speaking of His redemptive blood. Jesus, covered with His own blood, henceforth plays on behalf of mankind the role sketched of old by the propitiatory in the ceremony of expiation.[33] He is the localization of the Divine Presence; He assures the forgiveness of sins. For His blood has the power of salvation: through Him justification comes to us,[34] through Him we are ransomed,[35] and acquired by God;[36] the unity of the Jew and pagan is realized in Him,[37] as is that between man and the celestial powers.[38] Men can share in this blood of the new covenant when they drink of the eucharistic cup.[39] In this way a deep bond with eschatological emphasis is formed between them and the Lord: His death is recalled and His coming announced.[40]

The Epistle to the Hebrews

The epistle to the Hebrews takes the entrance of the high priest into the Holy of Holies with the blood of expition as a prophetic figure of Christ entering Heaven with His own blood to obtain our redemption.[41] This image blends with that of the covenant sacrifice Moses offered on Sinai. The blood of Jesus, the blood of the new covenant, is offered for the forgiveness of men's sins.[42] Through it, sinners obtain access to God;[43] this blood, more eloquent than the blood of Abel,[44] assures their sanctification[45] and their entry into the flock of the Good Shepherd.[46]

St John

The Apocalypse echoes the traditional doctrine when it speaks of the blood of the Lamb: this blood has washed us of our sins[47] and, ransoming us for God, has made us a royal priesthood.[48] In a vision all the more important because of the particular time it was presented, Babylon, the city of evil, gluts herself on the blood of the martyrs.[49] The martyrs have vanquished Satan because of the blood of the Lamb,[50] but their spilled blood nonetheless cries for justice. God will take vengeance in giving spillers of blood blood to drink,[51] awaiting the time when their blood will be spilled in turn to become the triumphal attire of the Word in His zeal for justice.[52]

John the Evangelist presents a completely different meditation on the blood of Jesus. He has seen water and blood run from the side of Christ pierced by the lance,[53] a double witness of the love of God which corroborates the testimony of the Spirit.[54] But this water and blood continue to exercise their life-giving power in the Church. Water is the sign of the spirit who causes regeneration and quenches thirst.[55] The blood is distributed to men in the celebration of the Eucharist. "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has everlasting life...he remains in me and I in him.[56]

See also

Further reading



  1. Ecclesisticus 14:18, 17:31; Matthew 16:17; John 1:13.
  2. Hebrews 2:14.
  3. Leviticus 17:11-14; Deuteronomy 12:23.
  4. Genesis 9:5.
  5. Exodus 20:13.
  6. Genesis 4:10, 2 Samuel 21:1, Ezekiel 24:7, 35:6.
  7. Genesis 9:6.
  8. Genesis 4:15-23.
  9. Deuteronomy 19:6-13; Numbers 35:9-34.
  10. Judges 9:23; 1 Kings 2:32.
  11. Psalms 79:10; 2 Maccabees 8:3; Job 16:18-21.
  12. Isaiah 63:1-6.
  13. Deuteronomy 12:16, 15:23; 1 Samuel 14:32-35.
  14. Genesis 9:4.
  15. Leviticus 3:17.
  16. Leviticus 17:11.
  17. Acts 15:20-29.
  18. Exodus 24:3-8.
  19. Zechariah 9:11; Hebrews 9:16-21.
  20. Leviticus 1:5-11, 9:12, etc.
  21. Exodus 12:7-22.
  22. 12:13-23.
  23. Leviticus 17:11.
  24. 4:6, etc.
  25. 16.
  26. Exodus 29:20; Leviticus 8:23-30.
  27. Ezekiel 43:20.
  28. 1 Peter 1:19.
  29. Matthew 23:29-36.
  30. 27:4.
  31. 27:24.
  32. 26:28.
  33. Romans 3:25.
  34. Romans 5:9.
  35. Ephesians 1:7.
  36. Acts 20:28.
  37. Ephesians 2:13.
  38. Colossians 1:20.
  39. 1 Corinthians 10:16; 11:25-28.
  40. 11:26.
  41. Hebrews 9:1-14.
  42. Hebrews 9:18-28.
  43. 10:19.
  44. 12:24.
  45. 10:29, 13:12
  46. 13:20.
  47. Apocalypse 1:5; 7:14.
  48. 5:9.
  49. 18:24.
  50. 12:11.
  51. 16:3-7.
  52. 19:13; Isaiah 63:3.
  53. John 19:31-37.
  54. 1 John 5:6.
  55. John 3:5; 4:13.
  56. John 6:53-56.

External Links




  • Ceslas Spicq and Pierre Grelot. "Blood". Transl.: Eugene C. Ulrich. In: Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Ed.: Fr. Xavier Léon-Dufour (S.J.). 1st English Edition, translated from the 1962 French editon Vocabulaire de Théologie Biblique, under the direction of Fr. P. Joseph Cahill (S.J.). Palm Publishers: Montreal, 1967. pp.39-41.