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John 19:29, "A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop (ὑσσώπῳ) and held it to his mouth."

From what I can tell, hyssop is a bush with fairly short and flimsy stalks. I'm trying to understand what the picture is here. I had, in the past, envisioned Jesus's head about 10 feet off the ground because of the size of the cross and for the spectacle. So I am imagining some sort of extended branch or something that might be able to reach, but a sponge and hyssop are not of this shape.

Is there any indication of how people were allowed to interact with the accused? Would the people at the cross be allowed to come up to him with a short ladder of some kind or climb up the cross to him? Or were the crosses fairly close to the ground so that one might stand on a little stool or ledge and reach up to the mouth of the one who was crucified?

I'm imagining a handfull of hyssop stems (which serve purification rituals in the Torah), and a spongy material dipped in water and then brought to Jesus' lips somehow. Was the disciple there right next to Jesus' face when he died? The proximity of the disciple seems important because the next verse has Jesus "hand over the spirit."

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Two questions: hyssop and cross.

Hyssop:

You are correct about the hyssop being a flimsy plant and therefore ill-suited for attaching a sponge. F. G. Beetham notes in A Note of John 19:29 [The Journal of Theological Studies, April 1993] that the reference to "round a spear" is a later addition and not found in the early manuscripts.

Beetham goes on to note a section of the Jewish Mishna that deals with hyssop:

"The section called 'Mishnah Parah' is concerned with the sacrifice of a red heifer for purification...and reads: 'Hyssop which is too short - one makes it suffice with a thread and with a spindle and immerses it and brings it up and holds on to the hyssop itself and sprinkles (translation Neusner)."

Beetham suggests that John and his audience would have understood by simply using the word for hyssop that it would require additional work to stiffen.

That hyssop was involved seems to indicate more about the ritual use of hyssop from the Old Testament and the Temple (Ex. 12:22; Lev. 14; Num. 19; Ps. 50:9; Heb. 9:19). Early Church fathers associated hyssop with ritual cleansing: 1 Clement 18 written around 96 AD.

Cross

This may be a case of Christian Artwork informing real life and the way we envision what is happening in the text.

Initially, the Romans used whatever was available for their execution - city walls, trees, etc. Over time - like anything - a more formalized process emerged.

In the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire, they would use something which looked more like a capital "T." The crossbar is called a Patibulum. This is what the criminal would carry.

The one to be executed would carry the crossbar out to the execution location - usually just outside the city walls where everyone coming and going would see what would happen if you challenged Rome - where the upright stake would be fixed in the ground. The upright stake is called "stipes."

The crossbar - or Patibulum - would be lifted onto the stipes.

The cross would not as tall as we tend to think. The people passing by must be able to read the titulus crucis - the sign stating the crime for which the criminal is being executed.

Additionally, being at eye level would add more shock value for those passing by - which was the point.

It is likely that Jesus was much closer to the ground than we envision.

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  • Thanks! Do you have any favorite references for the history of first century roman crucifixion procedures? – Gus L. Aug 2 at 22:17
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    @GusL. - most of the info came from a class I took in Jerusalem (Jerusalem University College) years ago. Here is one site that has similar info sites.google.com/site/bergerononcrucifixion – S. Broberg 2 days ago
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Darby Bible Translation

Matthew 27:48 And immediately one of them running and getting a sponge, having filled [it] with vinegar and fixed [it] on a reed [κάλαμος], gave him to drink.

Mark 15:36 And one, running and filling a sponge with vinegar, fixed it on a reed [κάλαμος], and gave him to drink, saying, Let alone, let us see if Elias comes to take him down.

Both Matthew and Mark mention a reed which give length and tensile strength to reach higher than a short and flexible stalk of hyssop.

John 19:29 There was a vessel therefore there full of vinegar, and having filled a sponge with vinegar, and putting [περιθέντες] hyssop [ὕσσωπος] round it, they put it up to his mouth.

Darby Bible Translation does not say a branch of hyssop but hyssop round it, implying some sort of stick that the hyssop goes [περιθέντες] around it.

I imagine that the crosses were not that low.

Mark 15:27 They crucified two rebels with him, one on his right and one on his left. [28] a 29Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, 30 come down from the cross and save yourself!”

come down
καταβὰς (katabas)
Verb - Aorist Participle Active - Nominative Masculine Singular
Strong's Greek 2597: To go down, come down, either from the sky or from higher land, descend. From kata and the base of basis; to descend.

John 3:13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

Two gospels mention reed and the 3rd one could imply a reed. The action verb καταβὰς means to come down, to descend. The Son of Man must be lifted up. The evidence suggests there is some height to the Cross. My guess is no more than 3 meters.

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