John's Gospel

The Way It Happened

John 19:28-29, The Hyssop Reed

After this, Jesus knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the scripture might be fulfilled, saith, I thirst. Now there was set a vessel full of vinegar: and they filled a sponge with vinegar, and put it upon hyssop, and put it to his mouth.

//John’s Gospel, the one Gospel claiming an eyewitness account, provides this curious detail. When the soldiers at the cross lifted a drink to the lips of Jesus, they did so on a hyssop reed.

What makes the claim even more curious is that virtually no critical scholar believes this is historical. A hyssop reed is too spindly; it simply can’t hold the weight of a wet sponge.

Is this really eyewitness testimony? Could this be another miracle, that the reed held the weight of the sponge? Did the soldiers perhaps wrap a hyssop reed around a spear, and lift the sponge to Jesus’ lips on the tip of the spear? (You’ve probably heard that explanation.) Or is this merely a literary device of John’s, meant to draw attention to the sacrifice of Jesus?

No first-century Jew would miss the meaning of the hyssop reed. It is what the Israelites were instructed to use on the very first Passover, while they were in Egypt, to paint the blood of a lamb on their doorposts. By this sign, the “killing angel” (who had been dispatched by God to kill all the firstborn in Egypt) would know not to disturb the inhabitants of Israeli homes. Or, perhaps, the angel would be fooled by the blood into thinking the evil deed had already been done in that home.

Jesus, John seems to be reminding us by inserting the hyssop reed, is our Paschal lamb; the one who gave up his blood so that we may live.

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