Besides, it seems an odd thing to put a sponge full of vinegar upon hyssop of all things. Various plants, such as mint, marjoram, caper, have been proposed as being hyssop, but they are all of creeping or climbing habits. Tristram, in his Natural History of the Bible, says that the caper-plant "is always pendent on the rocks, or trailing on the ground." Elsewhere the caper has been defined as "the pickled flower bud of a low-growing deciduous shrub." One could talk about a "bunch of hyssop," but how could one attach a sponge full of vinegar to a bunch of hyssop? Some expositors, in extremity, have imagined that the "hyssop" was a bunch of that plant, fastened to the end of a reed (which, however, John does not mention), on which the sponge was placed.
Smith's Dictionary of the Bible (1861) says that if the Greek word for a reed is the equivalent of the word rendered as hyssop, the latter must be a plant capable of producing a stick three or four feet in length. But that cannot be proved.
Frederick Field, one of the revisers of 1881, helps to clear up the mystery in his book, Notes on the Translation of the New Testament (1899). He shews how a German, Joachim Camerarius (1500-1574) hit upon a solution about four hundred years ago. The two Greek words for "put (it) upon hyssop" are 'ussOpO perithentes, literally meaning to-hyssop about-placing. What we have to observe here closely is that if we run these two words together, as words were run together in the earliest MSS, we find that the two letters, Op would occur together twice. Might it not have been that the ancient scribe wrote these two letters twice by mistake? That was what Camerarius thought, and that was also what the famous English textual critic Richard Bentley (1662-1742) thought. His correction of the text is 'ussO perithentes, thus dropping out the two letters. And he gives the explanation of the word 'ussos as the pilum of the Roman Legions, that is, a dart, pike, or javelin.
Cunnington gives the same explanation in his two versions,
"By an ingenious conjecture some scholars give 'upon a
Undoubtedly the conjecture is very ingenious, and it has been
adopted by Goodspeed (on a pike); Moffatt (on a spear);
while others, puzzled by the bare statement about hyssop, have taken
the liberty to translate as "on the end of a hyssop-stalk," or "on a
stalk of hyssop," or "upon a hyssop-stem." Even Scarlett, in 1798, has
"on (a stalk) of hyssop." Wakefield, in 1795, reads, "putting a branch
of hyssop about it." Young has, "having put (it) around a hyssop
stalk," and Rotherham (1872) has, "having been put about hyssop." Darby
goes the length of saying, "putting hyssop round it," with a Note: "or,
probably, 'binding it to hyssop.'" The Emphatic Diaglott goes even
further: "having been attached to a hyssop-stalk."
javelin,' reading in the Greek 'husso' for 'hussopo' (the next
Greek word beginning with 'p,' the syllable 'op' might by
error have been written twice, there being in oldest MSS. no
spaces between words)."
The Reformation translations of Tyndale, Geneva, and
Coverdale, have a different idea, "and wounde it about with ysope," or
"on hyssope (stalke)" as the Geneva reads. The Rheims has, "putting a
sponge ful of vinegre about hyssope." Wiclif's quaint rendering I might
as well give also:
And a vessel was sette ful of venegre, & thei leiden (laid) in
All that Prof. Godet could say in the matter was:
Isope aboute the spounge ful of venegre and putten to his
"Hyssop is a plant not more than a foot and a half in height.
A fine argument if it could only be proved that there was a
stalk of hyssop. There were Roman soldiers about, and each
of them carried two pikes or javelins, so that such an instrument was there on the spot to raise up the sponge to the lips
of the Lord. The pike or javelin was very like a reed. Besides,
John was a witness of the tragedy, while Matthew and Mark
were not. John therefore could give a closer description of
the "reed." There are therefore very strong grounds for
dropping the word hyssop and reading the shorter word. Some
kind of spear would suit the situation admirably.
Since a stalk of this length sufficed to reach the lips of the
victim, it follows that the cross was not so high as is usually
A.T. Last updated 9.11.2007