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Vitis - the lost detail of Golgotha tragedy


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  Vitis - the lost detail of Golgotha tragedy

This work is an attempt to settle one of the arguments in New Testaments. In synoptic Gospels and in Gospel of John different names given to the tool used by the warden who outstretched the sponge to Jesus Nazarene nailed to the cross. A discriminating reader can easily notice this antinomy in testimonies of canonical testaments. Gospel of Mark:* «...One man ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus to drink. » (Мк. 15:36, New International Version). The author of Gospel of Matthew echoed Mk almost literally: «Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus to drink» (Mt. 27:48). Evangelist Luke preferred not to mention the way the sponge was offered: «The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar» (Lk. 23:36). In Gospel of John, however, the warden gave the sponge with a stalk of the hyssop plant: «A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus' lips» (Jn. 19:29). The point at issue seems to be about a minor detail in the description of Golgotha crucifixion, though even this case requires its explanation.

 

Thus, in two synoptic Gospels the cane is mentioned, while in Jn the hyssop plant is marked. According to Old Testament texts, the hyssop plant was used in ceremonies of ancient Hebrews as a brush or an aspergillum: «Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it into the blood in the basin and put some of the blood on the top and on both sides of the doorframe» (Ex. 12:22); «Then a man who is ceremonially clean is to take some hyssop, dip it in the water and sprinkle the tent and all the furnishings and the people who were there» (Num.19:18). Also the hyssop plant is pointed out as a usual weed growing even in splits and cracks of buildings: «He described plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls» (1 Kings 4:33).**

 

Which plant was called “the hyssop” in the Bible? Hebrew exegetes thought that was the marjoram. Jewish Encyclopedia: «The "ezob" is evidently not common hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis), which is not a native of Palestine. The Talmud (see below) also distinguishes the ezob of the Pentateuch from the Greek and Roman hyssop. Maimonides (on Neg. xiv. 6) interprets "ezob" by the Arabic "ṣa'tar," denoting some species of Satureia, which is cognate to the Origanum and of which the S. Thymbra is found in Palestine; so also the other old Jewish exegetes, as Saadia in his Arabic translation of the Pentateuch; Ḳimhi in his "Ozar ha-Shorashim," s.v.; Abu al-Walid, etc». / http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/7974-hyssop / Origanum is the Latin name of the marjoram which is a herbaceous plant abundant in the Middle East. Doubtless, Origanum maru could be used as a brush or an aspergillum, but it would bend under a minute weight all the more under a watered sponge. It is also hard to imagine the way the heavy sponge can be fixed to the “bunch-like branching” seen in the first photo.

 

The hyssop plant in the Old Testament texts used as a brush and the hyssop in Jn. 19:29 as a cane with the weight are obviously incompatible. Exegetes of the Bible have recognized the contradiction long ago and tried to sort it out. «The common hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) of the Natural Order Labiatae, an aromatic plant with stomatic properties, cannot be the hyssop of the Bible as it is unknown in Palestine, but allied aromatic plants of the same Natural Order have by Maimonides (Neg. xiv.6) and other Jewish writers been identified with it. Probably hyssop is identical with the Arabic zat`ar, a name applied to a group of aromatic plants of the genus marjoram and thyme. They would any of them furnish a bunch suitable for sprinkling, and they have the important recommendation that they grow everywhere, being found even in the desert. Post thinks of all varieties the Origanum maru, a special variety of marjoram which favors terrace walls and rocks, is the most probable.

 

The proposal (Royle, Jour. Royal Asiatic Soc., VII, 193-213) to identify the caper (Capparis spinosa) with hyssop, which has been popularized by the works of Tristram, has not much to recommend it. It is true that the caper is very commonly seen growing out of walls all over Palestine (1 Kings 4:33), but in no other respect is it suitable to the requirements of the Biblical references. The supposed similarity between the Arabic 'acaf ("caper") and the Hebrew 'ezobh is fanciful; the caper with its stiff, prickly stems and smooth, flat leaves would not furnish a bunch for sprinkling as serviceable as many species of zat`ar. It has been specially urged that the hyssop suits the conditions of John 19:29, it being maintained that a stem of caper would make a good object on which to raise the "sponge full of vinegar" to the Saviour's face, the equivalent of the "reed" of Matthew 27:48 Mark 15:36. For such a purpose the flexible, prickly stems of the hyssop would be most unsuitable; indeed, it would be no easy matter to find one of sufficient length». (E. W. G. Masterman). International Standard Bible Encyclopedia http://bibleencyclopedia.com/hyssop.htm

 

But the hyssop is not a mythologic character like the leviathan or refaims. This refers to a wide-spread plant used for the longest time. The details of the ceremony regulations of the Law have been preserved in the Hebrew tradition for hundreds of years, and if the hyssop is determined as the marjoram there, this testimony is reliable. Then why did some biblical scholars find it difficult to define which plant was meant by the authors of the Old Testament texts? It is much like that these exegetes tended to avoid deciding which testimony is not veridical - In or the Old Testament. Nevertheless, it is obvious for majority of researchers that a soft aspergillum cannot serve as a solid cane. Then reference to the hyssop in Jn. 19:29 is to be considered the author’s mistake or mutilation of the original text.

 

Some exegetes of the Bible have come to the conclusion that the antinomy in the hyssop’s description in Old Testament and in Jn. 19:29 is insoluble, with the cause of “hyssop” word foreignness. «As has been proposed by several writers (for references see article "Hyssop," EB), that hussopo is a corruption of husso, "javelin," and that the passage should read "They put a sponge full of vinegar upon a javelin."». /ibid/. This hypothesis was presented in Bible studies some hundreds of years ago. At that time the idea of the sponge fixed to the hyssop was already regarded apparently untrustworthy.

 

But "several writers" supposition about a penman’s mistake, to my mind, is based on a very doubtful foundation. In Chapter 19 of Jn they mention the lance with which the warden speared the body of crucified Jesus. (see Jn. 19:34), though it is called not ϋσσως (Issos), but λόγχῃ (Lonhe). If we accept the assumption about a mistake while copying, it has to be acknowledged that the crucifying soldiers for unknown reason used different kinds of lances, and the evangelist considered it necessary to point out this trifle. “Hyssop” word can be totally accepted to be completely alien for Jn. 19:29, but I think, there is more realistic explanation to the cause of it.

 

Greek word καλαμος, used in Mk. 15:36 and Mt. 27:48, is polysemic. In the extracts discussed it can be translated as “cane” which means a specially produced stick, or as “reed” – a solid stalk of a plant. The latter variant seems to smooth the contradiction between the testaments of evangelists. That was the probable reason of its use in the first translation of the Bible into English by John Wycliffe in XIII century. “And one ran, and filled a sponge with vinegar, and putted about to a reed, and gave him to drink…”. /http://www.biblestudytools.com/wyc/mark/15.html/ The word “reed” is met in many other translation variants as well: Douay-Rheims, The King James Version, Version of Richard Challoner (who prepared several extensive revisions of the Rheims and Douay Bible), Emphatic Diagott, American Standard Version, Revised Standard Version, New American Standard Bible and many others.

 

In this variation of translation the reader could think that Mark wrote “reed” (which was copied in Mt), and author of In specialized which plant the warden used. But as we already demonstrated, the hyssop-marjoram could not be used as a cap for the watered sponge since it is too thin and flexible. If suppose the word “reed” in translation it must be professed that the warden had not the hyssop but some other plant in his hand, and Jn. 19:29 contains a mistake after all.

 

There is one more version of translation of the word καλαμος – a stick. New Revised Standard Version Bible (1989): «And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink...», New International Version (NIV Bible, 1984): «One man ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus to drink...», New Living Translation (NLT, 1996): «One of them ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, holding it up to him on a stick so he could drink...», also The Good News Translation (1992) и God's Word Translation (1995). /http://www.biblestudytools.com/nrs/mark/15.html/. This variant is irreconcilable to Jn 19:29 because a flexible stalk cannot be named a cane. Perhaps, Mark’s Testament should be accepted?

 

According to the ancient exegete practice, the cane was a special execution tool with the sponge with wine vinegar (see Mk. 15:36, Mt. 27:48, Lk. 23:36 and Jn. 19:29). But how to force a man nailed to the cross drink vinegar? Just holding the sponge to his lips and threatening some punishment? It is absurdity. To pour the liquid under protest? Indeed, in classical times and in the Middle Ages one of numerous tortures was pouring vinegar in the mouth or smellers. But Jesus executed on the cross was able to move his head; in this case the executors would have made particular efforts and special instruments to pour vinegar, but nothing of this kind was mentioned in Testaments. Moreover, if Romans had tended to put Nazarene to the rack, they would have done it before the execution since they practiced flagellation before crucifixion. So there left a supposition that vinegar was given under false pretences… But that seems to be a too sophisticated mockery: to bring a jar with vinegar to the crucifixion place hoping the tortured man would take a drink from his executors?

 

It was in XIX century when researchers of New Testament concluded that the warden moistened the sponge in posca ­– a drink of legionaries consisted of water and vinegar added for disinfection and better thirst satisfaction.*** Posca together with bacon and cheese («larido, caseo et posca») was «such camp-fare» of Roman soldiers (Aelius Spartianus. Vita Hadriani, X, 2), but it was not beneath the emperors’ dignity. At Golgotha the wardens spent hours by the crosses and to avoid thirst they had taken the jar with them. The jar was plugged with the sponge which the soldier moistened with posca and offered suffering Nazarene.

 

If they satisfied thirst with posca, there was no any torture, and the act of the Roman soldier was clemency. Its reason is the theme of a separate research; now the most crucial aspect is the cane was not a special torture tool. Then what was it and what was it for? Researchers of New Testament have not found a comprehensive answer to these questions. Readers can only suppose that there was an accidental stick at the crucifixion place which the Roman soldier picked up. Theoretically it could happen though unlikely****. Probably, this very assumption was made by the authors of The Bible in Basic English (1941): “And one of them went quickly and, getting a sponge full of bitter wine, put it on a rod and gave it to him for drink...”, and Common English Bible: “Someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, and put it on a pole”. The words “a rod” and “a pole” allow not to emphasize on the antinomy in its description between Jn and synoptic Gospels. But the antinomy does not disappear …

 

I consider that this antinomy can be solved through an attempt to define who it was likely to be the merciful soldier who satisfied Jesus Christ’s thirst. Execution at Golgotha was performed by a group of soldiers***** under command of a centurion. The centurion acknowledged Jesus as Lord’s Son immediately after His death (см. Mk. 15:36-39, Mt. 27:54), and the attempt to release suffering of Our Savior crucified happened several moments before it (see Mk. 15:36-37, Jn. 19:30). This provides an urgent reason to suppose that it was the centurion who experienced spiritual transformation in the most tragic moments of execution at Golgotha, offered the sponge with posca.

 

Moreover, an attempt to help one of the crucified was considered an outrage which in the Roman army was penalized with death – cutting off the head (that was the end of centurion Longin’s life according to his hagiography). The commanding officer of executors’ group must have immediately suppressed any arbitrary sympathy of his subordinates, and if that was not done, it was he who most likely offered the sponge, and no solder dared to stop him.

 

Understanding that it was the centurion who tried to release Jesus’s pain, we get the clear and uncontroversial answer to the question about the appearance of the cane at Golgotha – it was brought by the centurion. It was vitis – vine-branch each centurion was to keep with him all the time. «The vine-branch is a certain mark of honor among the Romans, and those who obtain it become, they say, centurions» (Eusebius, Historia ecclesiastica, VII, 15, 2). The vine-branch symbolized military rankand the tool of subordinates’ correction. «As it was, they thrust out the tribunes and the camp-prefect; they plundered the baggage of the fugitives, and they killed a centurion, Lucilius, to whom, with soldiers' humour, they had given the name "Bring another," because when he had broken one vine-stick on a man's back, he would call in a loud voice for another and another» (Tacitus. Annales. 1, 23). The way the cane looked like can be seen on the grave-stone of the Roman centurion.

 

Thus hyssop could not be used to hold the sponge out; accidental finding of a stick or a firm branch on the stone execution platform was possible, but not likely; and possession of a special cane by a centurion was obligatory. The centurion acknowledged the Savior even at the execution yard. All this suggests that it was him who was the benevolent guard and for assistance tried to satisfy thirst of Jesus the Nazarene using vitis.

 

Regarding the word “the hyssop” in Jn 19:29, it is obviously the result of the editor’s interference. The Greek word for vine-branch - αμπελος - in the original text version is most probable. We can only guess by what reason the text was corrected. Most likely the unknown editor thought it proper to conceal that it was the centurion who held out the sponge and cane-vitis was indicating his military rank. The reason he did that (as he concealed benevolence of the guard) – is a topic in its own right. The author of the correction did not just cross out the word αμπελος, but tried to replace it with the name of another plant – the hyssop - made holly by the Bible practice and due to it suitable for Messiah in torment.

 

 

Notes:

* Hereafter for short the Testaments names are given in concise form: Mk, Mt, Lk and Jn.

 

** Also see. Ps. 50:9 and Lev. 14:4-9, 49-51, Jude 9:19.

 

*** Why is posca called vinegar in canonical testaments? In my opinion, this was because the first Christians generations used the citation from Old Testament to prove messianic dignity of Jesus. Most often early Christian apologists referred to psalm 68 in which they saw the prophetical description of the Golgotha tragedy. In particular, in the psalm there are the words: «…And gave me vinegar for my thirst» (Ps. 69:21). Posca contained vinegar, and authors of canonical testaments thought it necessary to demonstrate that the prophecy about the thirsty Messiah was fulfilled.

 

**** The name of the execution place – Golgotha, gulgalta in Aramaic, «scull», characterizes its appearance. “There is only one place around Jerusalem which has borne, and still bears, the name ‘Skull Hill. ’ It is just outside the North wall, near the Damascus gate. It is a rock ledge, some 30 feet high, with a striking resemblance to a human skull». / Halley’s Bible Handbook. The Billy Graham Crusade Edition - 1962, p. 386/. In Greek the execution place is also expressive – Λιθόστρωτον «stone platform». (Jn 19:13). A stone hill was the best for the violent action as it was not covered with grass – spectators could watch the execution easily, and there was no hide for possible accomplices. In this case there could not be reed growing on Golgotha.

 

***** Of course, there were not four soldiers as it is supposed based upon the number of those dividing Jesus’s clothes (Jn. 19:23 etc.),but a much more numerous group. No less than four executors were needed to nail the man to the crossbar (they were obviously permitted to lay hands on his things). Some more soldiers guarded the other condemned, some more soldiers were required to protect the fanatic action from probable interference of supporters. The group was commanded by the centurion, in the church tradition he was named Longin.

 

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Autor Alexandr Loginov

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