Vol. 22 New Series April, 1960 No. 2
This verse says that at the time of the Crucifixion "they filled a sponge with vinegar, and put (it) upon hyssop, and put (it) to his mouth." There has always been some mystery in connection with this word. Matt. 27:48 and Mark 15:36 do not mention this term, but use a word which means a reed (kalamO).

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,

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."

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:

All that Prof. Godet could say in the matter was: 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.

A.T. Last updated 9.11.2007