“They Offered Him Wine-Vinegar”: Reexamining the Gospel Accounts of Jesus’ Last Drink.

By Pat Lowinger

While the crucifixion of Jesus is not a historical surety, the anti-Roman biases which were pervasive in most early Christian literature are unquestionable.  But if we examine the culture and norms of Roman society, particularly those of the Roman military, is there another explanation for at least one of these depictions?  Perhaps one which is far less sinister?  

The Gospel Accounts:I Thirst, The Vinegar Given to Jesus

Each of the four canonical gospels contain moderately similar accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion and the ‘offering of sour wine’ to Jesus by one or more Roman soldiers.  In order to fully evaluate the actions of these particular soldiers, it is necessary to briefly examine the accounts relayed in the Gospels.  Both Matthew and Mark indicate that Jesus was offered two different drinks involving wine.  The first, mixed with myrrh, the second plain wine vinegar as we can see below.

They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means “the place of the skull”).  Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. – Mark 15: 22-23 NIV,

[Just before his death] Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said.  With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. – Mark 15: 36-37 NIV

The accounts attributed to Luke and John only reference the offering of wine once, just prior to Jesus’ death. [1] It is this second offer of wine or vinegar that will be the focus of this article.

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.  When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. – John 19: 29-30 NIV

The ‘they’ in each of these accounts were the Roman soldiers charged with carrying out Jesus’s execution via crucifixion.  The ‘someone’ in Mark’s second mentioning of wine is not known, but could have been nearly anyone who was present at the crucifixion.

Several Christian denominations offer a rather negative view of these offerings of wine during Jesus’ crucifixion.  For example, noted author and theologian, William Lane wrote, “…the offer of a sip of wine [vinegar] was intended to keep Jesus conscious for as long as possible.”[2] This often repeated trope demonstrates a continued anti-Roman bias in New Testament studies, many of which are rooted in dogmatic approaches to scholarship.  Rev. Carl Haak  presents the soldiers as detached and expert executioners, completely removed from the grim task they had been charged with undertaking. [3]

Posca

PoscaBottleMosaic

Roman mosaic depicting a wine container and cup. Bardo Museum, Tunisia.

The most common translations for the variety of wine offered to Jesus are vinegar, wine-vinegar and sour-wine.  None of which are the modern equivalents of the mass-produced, low-grade wine actually drunk by Roman soldiers at the time of Jesus’ alleged crucifixion.  Posca, a kind of low-cost, sour-wine was in common use throughout the Roman Empire.  In fact, wine of this type was typically issued to soldiers as part of their daily rations.  Posca was an important part of a soldier’s dietary regime.[4]  Not because it tasted good.  Not because of its intoxicating effect(s).  Posca had two very important functions.

The first was to serve as a cutting agent for water, which in antiquity was generally of dubious quality and often had smells, odors and/or tastes that were unpleasant.  Posca served as a cure-all for these issues.  When combined with poor-quality water, posca’s naturally strong flavor was subdued, but served as an excellent masking agent for otherwise unpotable water.  What was the ratio of posca to water?  The simple answer is that historians really don’t know.  In all likelihood a soldier’s personal tastes was probably the deciding factor, but would be adjusted as needed to mask flavor/odor of the most offensive tasting rations of water.

The second was posca’s acidity.  Posca naturally contained two important acids- namely ascetic acid and ascorbic acid (Vitamin C).  Acetic acid is the byproduct of fermentation and has very useful antimicrobial properties, in particular against some of the better known bacterial pathogens such as Streptococcus and Enterococcus.  The later of which is commonly associated with the contamination of water with human and/or animal feces.  Vitamin C is a well-known dietary requirement.  This would be even more important to soldiers who were unable to have steady supplies of foods high in Vitamin C, such as fruit.  Scurvy, a chronically low-level of Vitamin C was a perilous condition in the ancient world and could result in agonizing death.

Reevaluating The Gospel Accounts

Analysis of the Gospels as historical sources are rife with concerns for most modern historians.  Without unduly belaboring the issue, the historicity, authenticity and authorship are constant points of academic debate among scholars, many of whose expertise on these issues far exceed my own.  A second area of concern is the sacrosanct manner in which many religions view the examination of sacred texts, particularly their own.  The later, when combined with social and/or professional pressure not to appear offensive, has in some cases stiffed academic debate.  Lastly, some historians, particular those with a personal attachment to a particular religious tradition(s) may interject personal biases into their analysis, often rising to the level of apologetics.

The Drink Before Death

So what do we know?  All four of the Gospel accounts mention Jesus’s last drink.  Historians have long known about the relatively common use of posca as a dietary staple of the Roman military before, during and after the period in which Jesus’ crucifixion may have occurred.  Historians are also very aware of the practical uses of posca as a cutting agent for water, which was its intended use.  The drinking of posca was likely an acquired taste, but was cheap and widely available.

The Gospel of John reports that toward the end of his life, Jesus stated, “I thirst.” [5] This is an obvious plea by Jesus for relief.  Interestingly, none of the other Gospels mention Jesus’ plea.  Is John’s account in error?

What we don’t know.  We will never know the motivations or thoughts of the soldiers who purportedly presided over Jesus’ execution.  Did they hate him?  Possibly.  A better question might be did they even know who he was? Was Jesus seen as a petty criminal? A seditionist? A charlatan?  So why would a Roman soldier bother himself with giving posca-water to a condemned man?  Particularly a man condemned to die by exposure and/or positional asphyxiation.[6]  If John’s account is accurate, Jesus plea for water was answered.  Again, why would a soldier, whether on his own or at the direction of his immediate superior (centurion) take a portion of his own limited ration and give it away?  Was this extra posca, set aside specifically to be given Jesus as he languished on the cross?  If so, this derails the assertion of the Roman’s desire to cause Jesus as much suffering and humiliation as possible.  John’s account also begs the question to be asked, why would any plea from a condemned criminal be met with anything other than utter disdain and non-compliance?

Based on how the Romans typically conducted crucifixions,  the offering of posca-water would have been antithetical to the desired outcome, namely death.  It would also be a notable exception to the numerous other examples of crucifixions conducted by the Romans.  Was the offering of posca-water merely a literary device?  Was it inserted to support some prevailing scriptural expectation (prophecy) of early Christians?  If the Romans did in fact offer Jesus a final drink of posca-water there are three important observations which must be made: 1) the nature (taste) of the drink itself was not insulting or uncommon, 2) the Roman(s) giving/allowing Jesus water to drink would have been a rare exception to standard crucifixion practices, 3) If this exception was made in the case of Jesus (possibly after his plea), the assertion of historians/theologians such as Haak, that the Romans were always unsympathetic killing machines starts to unravel.

Conclusion

The certitude of many scholars regarding the motivations of ancient peoples is often striking.  Superficial analysis of the Gospel accounts often perpetuate the anti-Roman biases contained within them.  For historians, particularly those focusing on the culture and societal norms of the Romans, the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion often create more questions than they answer. The question(s) asked in this particular article represent a very narrow sliver within a larger body of inquiry that historians need to address given the known laws, practices and customs of the Romans- as they relate to Jesus’ crucifixion.   This analysis needs to be undertaken in an unbiased and nonprejudicial manner, irregardless of religious traditions and/or presuppositions.

Sources

[1] John 19: 29-30 NIV & Luke 23:36 NIV.
[2] Lane, William. The Gospel According to Mark, 2nd ed.  Eerdmans Publishing. 1974. 571-574.

[3] Haak, Carl.  The Reformed Witness Hour: The Cup Jesus Refused to Drink. Transcript 1999. http://www.reformedwitnesshour.org/1999/1999mar14.html

[4] Cardano, Girolamo(translator), Nero.  An Exemplary Life.  Inkstone Books. 2012. 184-186.

[5] John 19: 28 NIV.

[6] Edwards, William (and others).  On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ.  Journal of the American Medical Association, May 1986.  Digital archive.

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About Patrick Lowinger

Patrick Lowinger holds a M.A. in Ancient and Classical History from American Military University (AMU) and B.S. in Microbiology (1993) from California State University, Long Beach.
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