Vinegar at the Crucifixion

Over at Maggie’s Farm, an interesting post about balsamic vinegar:

The good Balsamic Vinegar comes from Modena (home of Ferrari, Maserati, and Lamborghini), where they have been making it for a thousand years.

It’s called “balsamic” because it was thought to be a good balsam, or balm, for pain and disease. Our North American Balsam Fir was thought to be good for diseases too. The Romans viewed vinegar as a balm and a medicine – hence the Roman soldier kindly offering Jesus vinegar on the cross.

They make it from boiled-down Trebbiano grape juice. Balsamic Vinegar is not a wine vinegar.

The first commenter, Rick, wrote:

When I was younger and attending Catholic School, we were always taught that the Roman soldier offered Jesus the vinegar because he was MEAN. In other words, Jesus was thirsty and shouldn’t get water, so give him vinegar (we were also taught that Jesus accepted the vinegar, which showed how forgiving He was).

The detail about the vinegar, which Jesus accepted, is from the Gospel of John. In Matthew we read of a offering of wine mixed with gall, which Jesus refused. I had been taught that Jesus refused the wine with gall because the gall was likely a poison, meant to hasten his death, and thus diminish the voluntary suffering he had undertaken, which would have, in turn, diminished the gift freely given. On the other hand, he accepted the vinegar (as I understood it) because it was a kindness received, and not spurned.

Hey, this is just what I remember, and I haven’t thought of this stuff for years. But now that I’m considering it, it is interesting that Jesus did not accept the wine with gall, if he understood it to be poison. From a pro-life perspective, he did not end his suffering early by assisting in euthanasia. He simply died when he could no longer sustain life.

Something to ponder.

UPDATE: In the comments, cminor writes “…an acidic liquid like vinegar in small amounts would be better received by a severely dehydrated person than would water.” In writing this piece, I was going to add a vague memory of someone telling me that vinegar would soothe Jesus’ extreme dehydration, but it was all so nebulously remembered that I thought I’d leave it out. If this is correct, though, it sort of adds to the pro-life witness at the crucifixion that we’re considering, here. If the wine with gall was a poison Jesus refused, because it would hasten death, and the vinegar was accepted because it would bring a small measure of consolation, but not healing, it’s all of a piece.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • http://minoroutside.blogspot.com cminor

    I recall hearing that an acidic liquid like vinegar in small amounts would be better received by a severely dehydrated person than would water. I can’t find the explanation right now; if I do I’ll post it.

    [You know, I was going to write something about "dehydration" too, but couldn't remember about it, myself. That makes the whole thing even more interesting, though. -admin]

  • CV

    Interesting.

    I went to Catholic schools and don’t recall being “taught” that the Roman soldiers offered Jesus vinegar because they were being extra mean. For as long as I can remember, though, I think I always assumed that was the case. Because who would want to drink ordinary vinegar? I guess I formed that impression long before I (and my palate) grew up and learned about wonderful taste of balsamic vinegar.

  • http://artemisretriever.blogspot.com/ retriever

    I was taught in Classics that the Roman Army had its soldiers drink vinegar, not simply so as not to waste spoiled wine, but because it was good for their health. A tonic. Kept them healthier than those who did not drink it. But perhaps this was just their equivalent of an urban legend back then–like the RAF hiding the secret of radar from the Germans by piling bowls of carrots in the RAF messhalls each evening and attributing the pilots’ kills of Germans to the great eyesight that resulted….

  • http://journeymancarpenter.blogspot.com/ Joe M.

    A couple thoughts:

    1) The Death of Socrates – when you mentioned the possibility that the galled wine was intended to hasten death, it occurred to me that Socrates’ approach to death was markedly different than Jesus. Since the Evangelists were addressing communities that were (to greater and lesser extents) Hellenized, I wonder if Christ’s refusal to drink does not carry a message intended to emphasize how he differed from the Greek philosopher, despite the fact they had much in common.

    2) In Mark, there are two drinks associated with the crucifixion. The first (wine mixed with myrrh according to NAB) was offered (and refused) right before he was crucified. The second, right before he died. Since Mark’s Gospel places its emphasis on the role that sacrifice and suffering must play in truly understanding discipleship, it has occurred to me that since myrrh is frequently associated with royalty, Christ’s refusal of the drink prior to his death is related that theme.

    [Interesting. I know that myrrh is also used in healing. In Chinese medicine it is used to "move the blood" when it is stagnant. I don't think Jesus needed anything to help move his blood! :-) -admin]

  • http://theanchoress Patricia Clark-Varga

    I recall hearing that if Jesus had taken “the wine,” it might have deadened His pain, which He would not want to have done.

  • Myssi

    Interesting post, A. I have always believed that Jesus refused the wine because he told the disciples at the Last Supper that he wouldn’t drink it anymore until he shared it with them in heaven.

  • Julia C.

    “I was taught in Classics that the Roman Army had its soldiers drink vinegar, not simply so as not to waste spoiled wine, but because it was good for their health. A tonic…”

    My grandfather drank a mixture of cider vinegar and honey as a tonic. I thought it odd, but recall later reading something about its heath benefits. For whatever it’s worth, he was in his nineties when he died.

    Very interesting thoughts on Christ’s final hours. Once again you’ve given me something to ponder.

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  • R.C.

    Waitaminute, there.

    I have a recording of Scott Hahn saying something about the wine-with-gall having a narcotic effect, and representing a kindness to someone about to be tortured to death…but that Jesus refused it because it wasn’t yet time to drink another cup of “the fruit of the vine.”

    This, in turn (the fact that it wasn’t yet time to drink the fruit of the vine) was because he was still undergoing the process of transforming the Passover Supper into the Eucharist.

    In the gospels, Jesus is depicted at the Last Supper as singing the Hillel psalms, which came *after* the first three cups of wine which were part of a traditional Passover meal, but then getting up to leave for the garden of Gethsemane *before* finishing the fourth and last cup. This constituted an oddity: As if He forgot the finish the Passover ceremony at its climax.

    But He promised He wouldn’t again drink of the fruit of the vine until everything was accomplished.

    Then, in the garden, He was arrested, tried, abused, sentenced, and crucified.

    And on the cross, He accepted the fourth cup, thus completing the Passover…but now He was the Lamb. And just after that final cup (the vinegar), He said “it is finished”: The transformation of the Passover into the Eucharist was complete, as was the act which would save the world.

    That, at least, is how I recall Hahn explaining it, remembered somewhat roughly. He’s just one professor, of course, and others may take a different view, but it sounds like a plausible interpretation.

    [Fascinating -more please! admin]

  • Gail F

    I was told by guys who participate in Roman Army recreation that the Roman army drank vinegar mixed with water (which they drink at their events when they march for a long time) as a sort of “Gatorade” of the time — vinegar pasta salads, etc., help you rehydrate in the summer heat — hence the sponge soaked in vinegar.

  • Bender

    the wine-with-gall having a narcotic effect

    That’s essentially what I learned, that it had anesthetic qualities, not poisonous, and Jesus refused so as to not diminish the suffering. For it to be poison would rather negate the whole purpose of crucifixion, which was intended to be a v e r y s l o w form of execution. (But then again, crucifixion was intended to be very painful as well, so giving a narcotic/anesthetic would defeat that purpose as well. However, perhaps it was only fairly mild, so as to take away only a little of the pain and, thus, perhaps keep them alive a little longer — decreasing the degree of suffering a bit, but extending the duration. But, then again, that raises the whole question of crucifying only hours before the Sabbath, when we know that there was a rush toward the end to cause death and get them down before sunset.)

    As for vinegar, I don’t remember being taught that there were two separate offerings of something to driink. But assuming that there were two, it is also possible that diluted vinegar was safer to drink than pure water, especially in crowded areas, like cities, where the water might be contaminated. I know that the Romans built all sorts of aquaducts all over the place to provide safe drinking water, but in those places where they did not have fresh and clean water coming down from the mountains, they might have used the acidity in vinegar to make the water safe to drink.

    Certainly, in the Middle Ages through to the 20th century, the history is clear that people drank a lot of beer and wine and rum because it was safer to drink than water.

  • Gary Keith Chesterton

    Trebbiano is the distinctive white wine of the Emilia-Romagna and is good if you can find it here in the US.

  • http://jscafenette.com Jeanette

    Not to get too picky here, but wasn’t the purpose of the life of Jesus His death, burial and resurrection? His shed blood that washes our sins? To have accepted poison would have gone against the will of the Father and the purpose for His life on earth, IMO.

    [Well, yes, J, that's what we're saying. -admin]

  • http://jscafenette.com Jeanette

    There is no way drinking drugged vinegar could have alleviated any of the suffering. Being crucified is having to constantly push oneself up by the feet to be able to breathe. After awhile, the body tires and is unable to push itself up to breathe and between that and the loss of blood death occurs.

    Why would the Romans care if Jesus got clean or dirty water? He was dying and the water wouldn’t have helped or hurt him in that respect.

  • http://minoroutside.blogspot.com cminor

    I looked around and turned up the term “posca” which is a sour wine commonly used by peasants and soldiers in the Roman empire. Wikipedia has some interesting remarks on it:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Posca
    Easton’s Bible Dictionary and some other sites indicate that the drink was a soldiers’ staples, so perhaps the fact that it would have been readily available was primary.

    I can’t find anything on posca as a dehydration treatment, but I think it’s noteworthy that modern recommendations indicate that too much water too fast can bring on vomiting, and that rehydration solutions containing sugar, salt, and some other nutrients seem to be preferred.

  • http://www.erud-awakening.blogspot.com Gina

    There is a drink that farm workers drink in the summertime that is made from cider vinegar, water, sugar and ginger. We called it “ginger swiser,” and hands down it was the most refreshing thing you could drink on a hot day with your mouth full of hay dust.

  • Andrew B

    Vinegar as a thirst-quencher was, until recent times, a commonplace in much of the Western world. Early Americans brought with them from Britain a concoction known as switchel (or “haymakers’ switchel” in some sources), a combination of vinegar, water, molasses and spices (usually ginger). It is, if you consider it, a close substitute for Gatorade.

    Now, to stir the pot, how about this–has anyone ever wondered why the Roman soldiers had a sponge with them? It isn’t pretty…

  • Bill Daugherty

    I have always wondered about the seeming conflict of Mark 14:25 and Luke 22:18 with Jesus’ acceptance of the vinegar. Isn’t vinegar the “fruit of the vine” too?

  • dymphna

    Jeannette, the pushing on the cross theory in order to breathe has been largely discounted. Crucified people died of shock and truama, not from suffication.

  • Maureen

    Plenty of people besides Roman soldiers drink vinegar drinks. Here in the US, a good farmer’s midday drink was “switchel”, made with sugar, vinegar, water, and flavoring. (It shows up in the Little House on the Prairie books as “ginger-water”.)

    In the Middle East, people drink tasty tasty “sekanjabin” (pre-prepare sugar and vinegar syrup with mint or other flavoring — just add a jug of water to a teensy bit of syrup).

  • John O.

    I always thought that vinegar at the crucifixion was referring to Psalm 69:22 “For food they gave me poison;in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.”

  • Bender

    It is possible, but unlikely that the soldiers would bother carrying around undrinkable water or other liquid (water is pretty heavy), so it was probably drinkable.

    Scripture says that one soldier realized that Jesus was the Son of God, and tradition has it that at least soldier converted (the one who speared Him), so at least one of the soldiers might have been compassionate enough to offer Him a real, authentic, clean drink.

    Drinking a diluted vinegar as a thirst quencher is not all that unusual if you consider that lemonade is essentially the same thing, but with the acid from lemons.

    Vinegar is not necessarily made from fermented grapes (wine), but can be made from non-fermented grapes (grape juice), as well as other fruits, etc.

    Maybe — maybe — it was one of those “please don’t squeeze the sponge” type of sponges, but it stands to reason that they would have other, more sanitary sponges and sponge-type material.

    If someone has merely been crucified in the most simplified form — tying the arms up above the head — the cause of death would likely be asphyxiation from being too fatigued to lift the body up to breathe. However, if the person has been scourged, especially if severely scourged, and the person has not had anything to eat or drink for a while, you likely will have shock due to blood loss, reduced blood pressure putting strain on the heart and kidneys, difficulty breathing with fluid build-up in the lungs, and eventually multiple organ failure. The fact that Jesus died as quickly as He did suggests that the scourging itself might have eventually been fatal.

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