Hyssop and Vinegar

“After this, Jesus, knowing that now everything had been completed, in order to fulfill the Scripture, said, “I thirst.” There was a jar full of vinegar laying there, so a sponge full of vinegar was put on a hyssop-stalk and held up to his mouth.”

(John 19:28-29)

“At once, someone quickly came from them and took a sponge filled with vinegar and put it on a stick to give him a drink.”

(Matthew 27:48)

“So, someone quickly came and filled a sponge with vinegar to put on a stick for him to drink, saying, ‘Wait! Let us see if Elijah will come to take him down.’”

(Mark 15:36)

“They gave me poison for food and for my thirst, they made me drink vinegar.”

(Psalm 69:21)

As we have seen repeatedly, the events surrounding the death of Jesus are fulfillments of Old Testament prophesy…this one found in Psalm 69:21. In this case, though, the event is not nearly as cruel-minded as we sometimes think. While most people today would not choose to drink vinegar or water mixed with vinegar, it does have medicinal effects. More importantly, in Jesus’ era, it was a common thing to mix vinegar into the water to prevent bacteria from building up that might make one sick. Roman soldiers, for example, regularly mixed vinegar in their water-skins for marches and deployments for this reason and it would not be surprising to see a basin with such a vinegar-water mixture in it near the cross. While fulfilling prophesy, in the mind of the one lifting the sponge, it was likely given as a mercy and not so much as another humiliation.

At this point, John makes it clear that Jesus’ work had been completed. There, on the cross, he had taken the wrath of his Father across a period of three hours time, for the sin of his elect — he who knew no sin becoming sin so that we sinners might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). What a remarkably profound event has taken place.

It should be noted that there is a great deal of discussion about John’s record of this event that the stick was of hyssop. Hyssop is well known in the Bible as being symbolic of purification and was used to sprinkle blood (Exodus 12:22) and water (Numbers 19:18) as part of purification rituals (Psalm 51:7); it’s use most likely prefigures the practice of sprinkling in Christian baptism. The problem is that Hyssop is a small herb-like plant, and not something that produces a branch substantial enough to lift a vinegar-laden sponge up to the mouth of Jesus on the cross.

This has caused a number of people to suggest that ὕσσωπος (hussopos) may be a scribal error. Manuscripts 476 (11th Century) and 1242 (13th Century) both contain the word ὕσσῷ (husso — a light javelin) in place of ὕσσωπος (hussopos) in an attempt to harmonize the text both with the synoptic accounts and with our botanical understanding of hyssop. Yet, as these are later manuscripts, it seems that the better and older reading of ὕσσωπος (hussopos) ought to be preferred. So, how are we to understand this? Lightfoot and Bengel suggest that there are a variety of plants that went under the heading of “hyssop,” some of which grew on stiffer stalks, which could support the weight of a sponge. Calvin argued that a bunch of hyssop had been fastened together to support the sponge. Clarke suggests that the hyssop was used to bind the sponge to the stick mentioned by the Synoptics. It is almost universally rejected that John has opted to use the language of hyssop to connect Jesus to the Passover Lamb as John is normally much more explicit in his allusions.

So, what is the best understanding? When one remembers that to be crucified did not require one to be elevated to great heights, any of these suggestions could be considered viable. Perhaps, Clarke, though is on to something, suggesting that the sponge was tied to a wad of hyssop to hold it in place and then set on a stick or a staff and elevated to Jesus’ mouth. Again, this requires no great heights, but certainly enough stiffness to carry the weight of a wet sponge. The point is that one need not see John in opposition to the Synoptic authors and that where a reasonable answer can be given, the arguments of the skeptics do not carry with them weight.

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