There is a very helpful biblical resource called a “harmony of the gospels.” The idea is that the accounts given by the different gospels can be “harmonized.” It is clear, in fact, that the gospel accounts are not always harmonious. That has caused a great deal of ingenuity to be expended showing how well they can be made to fit together. The idea I pursue in this essay is that all that ingenuity would be put to better use by attending to the symbols each writer of a gospel uses to make his own account richer and more powerful even though they are not the same symbols another writer uses.
But I have another problem to address today. It is a much softer, kinder problem: what if the various accounts could be harmonized without doing violence to them? Would we be better off if we did that?
I’m going to argue that we would not be better off. I have an example in mind that will help us explore the question. Here are the accounts of the four gospels on whether Jesus was offered wine during his crucifixion and if so, how.
- Mark: So someone ran and soaked a sponge in some sour wine. Then he put it on a stick and offered Jesus[ab] a drink, saying, “Wait! Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down!”
- Matthew: When some of the people standing there heard this, they said, “He’s calling for Elijah.”[ai] 48 So one of the men ran off at once, took a sponge, and soaked it in some sour wine. Then he put it on a stick and offered Jesus[aj] a drink.
- Luke: The soldiers also made fun of Jesus[t] by coming up and offering him sour wine, 37 saying, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself!”
- John: A jar of sour wine was standing there, so they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth.
So Mark and Matthew say there was a stick handy. They put a sponge on the stick and lifted it up to where Jesus could reach it. John says they put the sponge on “a branch of hyssop.” Hyssop doesn’t actually lend itself to a job like that: it is a fern-like plant, as you see.
What to do? One thing to do is to approach this the way a journalist might. You might note that neither Mark nor Matthew says what kind of stick it was, so there is no reason it couldn’t have been a stick made from a “branch” of a hyssop plant.
That’s not outrageous from a journalistic point of view. I’ve never seen a picture of a hyssop plant that looked like the branches were long enough to be of use in that way, but there certainly could be one. And then, you would either have to cut the fronds off the end so you could attach a sponge to it or you could try to hold it by the end with the fronds and use the thicker base of the branch to hold the sponge.
I think that if my principal concern were to harmonize the various accounts, that is what I would do. I might make a study of where in Jerusalem hyssop plants grew. I might ask for measurements of their length and their circumference at the base of each stem. I might check to be sure that there would be some growing in the area around the time of Passover.
I don’t think I would want to do that. What I would want to know is why John introduces the reference to hyssop at all. At this point, I might stop and remember that this is not the first reference to hyssop I have heard. I might remember that the blood of the slain lamb was to be applied to the lintel and the doorposts so that the Angel of Death would spare the homes of Hebrews whose houses were marked that way. The bushy fronds of hyssop would make a really good brush for applying the blood. (Exodus 12:22).
Hyssop is used to sprinkle blood on a person who has had a skin disease to show that he is now well (Leviticus 14:4). It is used to sprinkle water on a tent and its contents if a person has died in the tent. (Numbers 19: 17—19). The palmist prays, “Purge me with (I think “with” means “by using”) hyssop and I will be clean.” (Psalm 51:7)
It is not hard to see the hyssop + blood + purity elements in these passages. And John hasmade that connection before. In Chapter 1, verse 29, John the Baptist calls attention to Jesus by saying, “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” That brings us to the question of whether it is that perspective, those associations, that made John decide to specify hyssop as the means by which wine was offered to Jesus. Does John want us to say, as I am saying, “Hyssop. Now that sounds familiar. Why hyssop?”
And if I find, in looking at the plant that hyssop is not really a natural choice for the job (not, as I noted above, an impossible choice), then my mind moves toward what John wants to tell us about the death of Jesus—not about how it happened, but about what it means. I think John would like that. The resonance of the Passover in Egypt and the rituals of purification make the imagery of the “Lamb of God” much more vivid.
Or, if you want to attribute some aggressiveness to John, we could have him saying, “That (the Passover) is not really a lamb; it is Jesus who is the lamb.” It would be entirely like John to do that. He did is about the water that was poured over the alter by having Jesus say, “You call that water? I am the living water.” And about the bread, “Your ancestors ate bread in the wilderness and they died. I am the true bread and whoever eats this bread will never die.” And about the lights at the festival, “You call those lights? I am the Light of the World.” So if we want to consider that John wants to exalt Jesus as THE Lamb, the association with hyssop is a very good symbolism.
Now we come to the best question of all. Is that really why John introduced the hyssop? Honestly, I don’t know. It seems plausible to me but “plausible” takes you only so far. What I am really sure of is that if the time that is spent harmonizing the gospel traditions is time taken away from the thought you would otherwise have given to the hyssop and the Blood of the Lamb, then it is time wasted.
John doesn’t care. Matthew, Mark, and Luke don’t care. Each of them spends time building up a context of imagery within which to place the meaning of the lif and death of Jesus of Nazareth. That’s what they care about.
And I think that’s what we should care about as well.