Vinegar to drink.

Even the Romans’ offer of something to drink was a form of torture.

Mark 15.23, 26 • Matthew 27.33-34, 48 • Luke 23.36 • John 19.28-30

Back when David was in deep doo-doo, Ps 69.2 he wrote Psalm 69. More griping about his enemies. But when he talked about his comforters, Ps 69.20 he commented,

Psalm 69.21 KWL
They gave me bitter food, and for my thirst, they made me drink vinegar.

It’s a memorable idea, and one which no doubt the authors of the gospels thought of when Jesus was getting crucified. ’Cause Jesus didn’t wanna drink what they provided.

Our culture might be unaware: Back then, you didn’t drink the water. You never knew where it came from, and rarely was it pure. Fastest way to get dysentery or cholera. So the ancients drank wine, either full-strength or watered-down. (Or beer, if your culture made beer.) The alcohol killed any bacteria. Ignore all those teetotalers who claim “wine” back then was actually grape juice: Grape juice was as potentially harmful as water. It needed to be wine.

The gospels aren’t consistent in how they describe the wine Jesus was offered. Mark called it myrrh-wine and Matthew called it wine with holís/“bile.” For Luke and John, it was really old wine, which both of ’em straight-up called óxos/“vinegar.”

Mark 15.23 KWL
22 They brought Jesus to Gulgálta Place (i.e. Skull Place).
23 They were giving Jesus myrrh-wine, which he didn’t take.
Matthew 27.33-34 KWL
33 Coming to the place called Gulgálta, called Skull Place, 34 they gave Jesus wine to drink—
with bile mixed in, and on tasting it he didn’t want to drink.
Luke 23.36 KWL
They mocked him. The soldiers who’d come were bringing him vinegar…

John states they added hyssop, but the KJV changes John’s account to “[a branch] of hyssop,” Jn 19.29 KJV to sync it up with Mark and Matthew’s account of putting the wine in a sponge, putting the sponge on a reed (or a hyssop stick, I suppose), and offering it to Jesus. But hyssop is also a bitter extract, and may be what Matthew meant by bile. I dunno.

Mark 15.36 KWL
One of the runners, filling a sponge of vinegar, putting it on a reed, gave Jesus a drink,
saying, “Let me do this; we might see if Elijah comes to take him.”
Matthew 27.48 KWL
One runner quickly left them: Taking a sponge full of vinegar, putting it on a reed, he gave Jesus a drink.
John 19.28-30 KWL
28 After this Jesus, knowing everything was now finished,
said to fulfill the scripture, “I thirst.”
29 A full jar of vinegar was sitting there.
So a sponge full of vinegar, with hyssop put on it, was brought to Jesus’s mouth.
30 When he tasted the vinegar, Jesus said, “It’s finished.”
He bent his head and handed over his spirit.

Yeah, the soldiers and their runners offered Jesus vinegar more than once.

Certain commentators claim the myrrh in the wine was meant to be medicinal. Supposedly the Romans, feeling a little bad for their victims, wanted to numb them just a little to the excruciating pain of crucifixion. Man, is that optimistic of the commentators. Ask your local supplier of essential oils: Myrrh is no painkiller. It wasn’t even a folk-remedy painkiller. The ancients used it as perfume—to keep wounds and medicines from smelling bad. From there, moderns leap to the conclusion it was kind of an antiseptic—it kept wounds from getting infected and gangrenous, right? But it didn’t do that at all: It hid the smell of wounds which were getting septic. It made you worse, not better. Despite your favorite websites, myrrh has no proven purpose in medicine.

So what was it doing in the wine? Myrrh is bitter. (So’s hyssop.) It made the wine taste like bile. And when people taste bile, what do they do? They gag: It tastes like vomit. They’ll frequently even vomit.

Yep, it was the Romans’ sick little joke. The victims got thirsty and begged for wine… so you gave ’em myrrh-wine, and watched ’em freak out. Arguably that was why they put the vinegar in a sponge on a reed: It wasn’t because the crosses were impractically tall. It’s because the soldiers didn’t wanna get puked on.

Wasn’t Jesus thirsty?

Christians sometimes think there’s a serious discrepancy in the gospels’ stories of Jesus’s crucifixion. ’Cause in Mark and Matthew, Jesus refused to drink anything. But in John, he declared “I’m thirsty!” and drank the vinegar. Or wine, depending on the translation—and upon whether the translators could imagine Jesus willingly drinking vinegar.

I’ve heard interpreters claim Jesus refused the wine because he didn’t wanna be numbed. He wanted to really suffer all the pain he was going through, with senses entirely intact. (Or as intact as they could be, considering all the blood loss.) He was dying for our sins here, and he wanted sin to suffer on its way down. So no alcohol, no myrrh, no nothing. Bring on the pain!

There’s a bothersome amount of sadomasochism in this interpretation, which says all sorts of creepy things about the preachers. There’s plenty of suffering involved in public rejection, flogging, and crucifixion. Jesus was going down hard. Bad wine and a mild sedative weren’t gonna make things better.

But again, that wasn’t the Romans’ motive at all. They weren’t trying to be light on their victims. They figured every crucified person was an annoyance or danger to Rome, and deserved what they were getting. They’d just beaten Jesus up for fun. They were still having fun at his expense, gambling for his clothes, mocking the title which Pilatus had fastened to the cross. Myrrh-wine wasn’t a mercy. It was more sick fun.

So you can see why Jesus initially wouldn’t touch the stuff. Of course he was thirsty. But not that thirsty.

That is, till the very end. John said he decided to drink the vinegar to fulfill the scriptures. Jn 19.28 Maybe he meant the Psalms passage, where David’s enemies made him drink vinegar. But maybe it’s also this passage:

Mark 14.24-25 KWL
24 Jesus told them, “This is the blood of my relationship, poured out for many.
25 Amen: I promise you I’ll never drink of the fruit of the vine again—
till that day when I drink it new, in God’s kingdom.”

I admit that’s a stretch though. John never quoted that statement, and you know he totally would have if it were relevant. I have nonetheless heard it preached that Jesus was willing to drink the wine because it was finished: He was dying, God’s kingdom was coming into the world, and all things were being made new. He drank it in victory… though it sure didn’t look like any victory at the time. But meh; I don’t buy it.

Is there an inconsistency between Jesus’s declaration, “I’ll never drink of the fruit of the vine again,” and drinking the vinegar? Maybe. But I expect, and most Christian expect, Jesus was speaking of proper wine. The festal stuff, which you drink at Passovers and holidays. Not the awful swill the Romans were providing.

In any event he probably did have the Psalms passage in mind when he drank the vinegar. Here the Romans were, offering him phony comfort. But it was deliberately made bitter, and was just another form of torment.

So Jesus put it off till the very last minute, did the deed and fulfilled the verse… then gave up the ghost.

Popular Posts