Jesus Poisoned

From the point of view of Christian faith the central fact is that Jesus was crucified. But the the four evangelists disagree radically as to the circumstances of his death.

            The only part on which the four gospels agree is that Jesus died suddenly. If we read the gospels without the preconceptions nurtured in us by two millennia of tradition, it is clear that Jesus died not because of the process of crucifixion but because of the effect of some drink offered to him.

            Mark reports (15:22-23):

And they took him to a place called Golgotha (which is interpreted as Place of the Skull). And they offered him wine treated with myrrh, but he did not take it. And when they had crucified him...

After Jesus refused it, he was attached to the cross; the words of the text may be understood as meaning that the soldiers proceeded to the crucifixion because he had refused the alternative of the drink. A drink was proffered to Jesus later when it was understood that he was calling for Elijah to save him. Apparently the possibility that the call to Elijah might be answered was taken seriously, because at that moment

...someone running soaked a sponge in wine and placing it around a cane gave him to drink, saying: Wait, let us see whether Elijah is coming to take him down. Then Jesus, uttering a great shout, let out the spirit.

The text of Matthew echoes that of Mark, using for the most part the very same words, but there is one significant difference. At the place of execution, just before the crucifixion and apparently as an alternative to it, they gave him to drink wine mixed with gall; and having tasted it, he refused to drink it. (27:34f). Later, after it was understood that he was calling for Elijah,

...immediately one of them, running, took a sponge replenished with wine and, having placed it around a cane, gave him to drink. The rest of them said: Wait, let us see whether Elijah is coming to save him. Then Jesus shrieking for the second time with a great scream gave up the spirit.

Matthew differs from Mark only in minor details that are essentially editorial clarifications, but disagrees completely on the nature of the drink. Therefore it is essential to clarify the exact meaning of the words that describe it.

            In the case of the second offering of drink both Mark and Matthew employ the term oxos, which may mean vinegar, but first of all means ordinary wine; many translators render oxos by cheap wine.[1] In Greek the standard word for wine was oinos, but this term was often understood as referring to quality wine.

            In the case of the first offering of wine to Jesus, both Mark and Matthew employ the term oinos but whereas Mark says that it was treated with myrrh, Matthew specifies that it was mixed with gall (cholê). The word cholê means gall but in Greek poetry it is often used in the sense of poison.[2] To the fact that Jesus refused it, Matthew adds the detail that he did so after having tasted it; this indicates that the drink either was disgusting or was undesirable.

            It is evident from the context that what was offered to Jesus was wine mixed with a poison so powerful that it provoked death almost immediately. The problem that requires an explanation is how Mark could speak of wine treated with myrrh.

            It may be supposed that in the text of Seneca’s play there was the phrase medicatum vinum. In Latin medicatum vinum could have the following four different meanings:

      wine sprinkled with the juice of herbs. There are specific references in Latin authors to the custom of flavoring wine with myrrh. Pliny reports: Our elders considered most luxurious those wines that were steeped with the aroma of myrrh.[3]

      Adulterated wine. This second meaning may explain why the gospels waver between the term oinos, which refers to good wine, and oxos, which refers to cheap wine, and also sour wine.

      Medicated wine, that is, treated so as to have healing qualities.

      Poisoned wine. This meaning of medicatum vinum results from the fact that in Latin medicamen and medicamentum could mean both healing medicine and poisonous drug. The ambiguity of these terms would have proved confusing to those who spoke Greek, since in this language there is a special word, pharmakon, for poisonous drug. This meaning of the adjective medicatum was the last to develop and was rather new in the age of Seneca.[4]

            Mark, unable accept Seneca’s version, preferred to understand medicatum vinum as meaning wine treated with myrrh. Matthew, realizing that Mark’s account does not make sense unless it is a matter of poisoned wine, changed the in­ter­pretation of medicatum vinum to the more correct one of wine mixed with gall. In order to make clear that it was not a desirable drink, such as wine with myrrh would be, he added that Jesus refused the drink after having tasted it.

            Seneca’s text must have included the word fel which in ordinary Latin means gall, or bitter substance, but in poetic language is frequently used in the sense of poison. Seneca uses fel as a synonym of venenum poison. The clearest example is his Medea where Medea completes the preparation of the poisoned robe by mixing in the fel of Medusa (line 830); two lines below this the other ingredients of the fateful robe are called venena. Matthew caught the word fel, but missed that it was being used in the sense of poison. I have mentioned that the Greek equivalent of fel, which is cholê, may also carry this sense in poetry. Both Greek and Latin poets use these terms particularly in referring to the poison of serpents. But because the usual meaning of fel  is bitter sub­stance, Matthew understood that Jesus refused the drink after having tasted it.

            The gospel of Luke contains only a brief reference to the episode of the drink. Luke was confronted with the problem of choosing between the report of Mark and that of Matthew. He realized, as Matthew had, that if one follows Mark’s report, it must be inferred that Jesus was offered poisoned wine and died of poison. Hence, Luke cut out the entire episode except for a passing reference. Mark, followed by Matthew, had reported that when Jesus was on the cross the high priests and the scribes had mocked him by asking why he could not save himself from the cross if he was the King of the Jews. Luke reports this incident and adds (27:36):

And the soldiers too, coming forwards in turn, mocked him by offering wine

and saying:

     If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.

In this way the entire issue of the drinking of wine is reduced to a minor incident, part of the mockery by the soldiers. But in reducing the entire matter of the offering of wine to a jest, Luke made it too farcical, because one is left wondering what is the connection between the offering of wine or of bad wine (Luke employs the term oxos) and the weighty quandary about why the King of the Jews cannot extricate himself from the cross.

            The gospel of John (19:28-29) mentions only the second offering of wine to Jesus:

...Jesus said, I am thirsty. There was standing a vessel full of wine (oxos). Hence, putting around a javelin a sponge filled with the wine, they applied it to his mouth. Then, as he had taken the wine, Jesus said: It is finished, and inclining his head he yielded up his spirit.

Contrary to many interpreters, we believe that this account agrees quite closely with that of Mark and Matthew, except that, as it is often the case with John, there is more concern with precision of detail. John does not mention the preceding offering of wine to Jesus, but he may be said to imply it when he reports the fact that the jar of wine was standing there close to Jesus. John did not feel it necessary to mention the previous offering of wine which had no effect.

            Mark and Matthew say that the wine was applied to Jesus’ mouth because he was calling for Elijah’s help, whereas in the gospel of John it is Jesus who causes the wine to be offered to him by saying, I am thirsty. After receiving the wine Jesus, according to John, does not shriek, but more calmly declaims It is finished.

            On one basic point the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and John agree. Jesus dies right after the application of the sponge to his mouth. It cannot be denied that there is a causal relation between the application of the sponge and the death.

            A great many interpreters explain the two episodes of the offering of a drink by assuming that Jesus was offered a stupefying drug as a merciful act. Some com­men­tators refer to a passage of the Talmud that mentions the practice of giving a narcotic to those about to be executed. The result of the pharmacological investi­gations on the subject is summed up by Raymond Brown as follows: Neither in fact nor in what we know of ancient pharmacology does myrrh serve as an anodyne or narcotic. Perhaps the myrrh was only a flavoring and the wine used was thought to numb.[5]

            In Seneca’s tragedy Jesus was offered poisoned wine before the crucifixion and was put on the cross after he refused it. A few hours later the same wine was forced upon his lips with a sponge pressed with a stick with the result that immediate death followed. The writers of the gospels missed this meaning of medicatum vinum or wanted to miss it, because the notion that Jesus had died of poison was repulsive to them. Repulsive it remains for many modern translators, who blur at this point the meaning of the Greek texts. Mark and Matthew tell us that immediately prior to Jesus’ death somebody raised a soaked sponge on a stick and gave him to drink.[6] However, one modern translation renders this as held it up for him to drink,[7] a formulation that leaves open the question whether Jesus drank of the liquid or not, although there is no such ambiguity in the Greek original. The intention of translators to resist the meaning of the Greek texts is made clear by a recent Roman Catholic translation; it reads tried to make him drink it in the case of Matthew and held it up to Jesus’ lips in the case of Mark, although the Greek words are identical.[8] It is significant that this translation, which reflects the freedom of exegesis newly enjoyed by Roman Catholics, should strain itself in order to deny that Jesus actually partook of the drink, even though John (19:30) dispels any possible doubt by stating that Jesus, a moment before his death, took the wine. This effort to deny the meaning of the texts means that the interpreters know in their hearts, or as one says today, subconsciously, that according to the gospels Jesus died of poison.

            The testimony of Mark and Matthew is so clear and so sedulously denied that it has given the opportunity to Hugh J. Schonfield to build an entire book around it. In The Passover Plot this writer reinterprets the story of the mission and death of Jesus starting from the contention that there was no death by crucifixion: Jesus would have been drugged so as to simulate death in order to stage the resur­rec­tion, which he intended to perform not as a miracle, but as a fake. In the event the plot failed because of the mortal wound Jesus received on his side. This book enjoys a very wide circulation in spite of the fact that it presents the most pre­posterous theory among the many strange and farfetched theories about the life and death of Jesus. The publishing success of The Passover Plot has been made possible by the circumstance that all the established and current interpretations blur over the testimony of the gospels on the manner of Jesus’ death.

            The notion that Jesus died of poison was in conflict with what was believed by Christians to have happened and was repulsive to their way of thinking. The evangelists did not live in the world of the Roman ruling class where deaths by poison and rumors of death by poison were a common occurrence.[9]

            It must be asked why did Seneca make Jesus die of poison. Two explanations are readily provided by the necessities of dramatic presentation. First of all, tragedy requires the utmost compression of the events. This is the reason why tragedy presents only the climax of the action, dealing with the antecedents through flashbacks. Greek tragedies compress the action into a few hours; the ideal model, which could not always be followed, was a dramatic time that lasted from sunrise to sunset. Seneca was confronted with the problem that death by crucifixion was deliberately intended to be a slow process; it was an unmerciful death in which suffering was protracted as much as it was possible for the human frame to bear. Execution by crucifixion could last a full day or more; therefore Seneca had to cut short the staying on the cross. Modern interpreters have pro­posed several expla­nations for the premature death of Jesus, such as the effect of previous scourging (but scourging normally preceded all Roman capital punish­ments) or Jesus’ weak constitution. A Roman audience, all too familiar with cruci­fixions, would not have accepted any of these explanations. The Church father Origen, writing some two hundred years after Jesus’ death, when crucifixions were still current, relates how Christians wondered at the swift death of Jesus and explained it as a miracle.

            It cannot be assumed, as it is often done, that the nailing in crucifixion was intended to accelerate death by loss of blood or by gangrene, since the purpose of crucifixion was to protract the agony as much as possible; the supporting peg placed just under the groin had such a purpose. The nailing, when it was practiced, must have had the purpose of preventing escape. For these reasons, Seneca could not anticipate the time of death without introducing an additional factor.

            Furthermore, Greek tragedies did not enact gory scenes on the stage, even when such a scene was the keypoint of the entire action. The reason is that the effect would have been ludicrous and not tragic. In Sophocles’ Oedipus the King even the gouging of Oedipus’ eyes takes place offstage. In the part that precedes the deed the tragedy builds fear, and in the part that follows it arouses pity; either effect would be lost if the deed were to be enacted. It is a fact of psychology that if the experience is too traumatic the emotional response is blocked. In the spirit of the above-mentioned dramatic principle, Seneca could not have related the details of the agony caused by cruci­fixion, since Latin authors are unanimous in describing this agony as excruciating to the onlookers. This point is conveyed by Cicero, who describes death by crucifixion as cruel and horrifying to the extreme.[10] Goguel properly describes crucifixion as the acme in the torturer’s art.[11] Crucifixion was such a cruel form of deatthat it could not be described in a tragedy.

            Seneca made this request for poison dramatically more effective by making it indirect. Jesus said: I am thirsty. Commentators have wondered why John should present Jesus as saying that he was thirsty, and have searched in vain for some theological explanation. John was in fact following quite closely Seneca’s presentation. At first Jesus, offered the choice between poison and the cross, chose the cross; but after three hours on the cross, he broke down and asked for poison. This was the artistic device used by Seneca to convey the atrocity of the pains in crucifixion.

            Seneca was also guided by the parallel that he had established between Jesus and Hercules. In Seneca’s Hercules on Oeta the shirt of Nessus causes such intense pains that Hercules behaves like an ordinary mortal (835-836):

Now he lies limp face down,

Pressing the ground with his mouth,

Now he begs for water.

A few lines later (842) we are told that

his spirit has left the body; night seals his eyes.

But Hercules does not die because of the atrocious effects of Nessus’ shirt; he chooses to escape this death by placing himself on a funeral pyre. He seeks out the fire , and directs the billowing flames toward his face.[12]

            Like Hercules, Jesus chose to hasten his death, which is tantamount to suicide. Although ancient philosophers discussed at length whether suicide was permissible or not, and under what circumstances and in which form it was advisable, their specu­lations were influenced by the general values of their society. It is generally agreed that both Greeks and Romans honored and admired heroic suicide. They had high esteem for the sacrifice of one’s life for another or for the defense of one’s country or one’s principles. Such suicides were not only approved, but en­couraged. These suicides were contrasted with suicides that were not the expression of courage or fortitude.

            For Seneca suicide is certainly important and a matter of continuous thought, writes J. M Rist.[13] The circumstances of his time and his own political situation made it inevitable that it should be so. He further speaks of Seneca’s obsession with the propriety of taking one’s own life. The last statement is probably an exaggeration, but it underlines the fact that Seneca deals at length and repeatedly with the problem of suicide. For our purpose it is not necessary to deal with all of Seneca’s thought on the subject, because in one of his letters to Lucilius (No. 70) he deals specifically with the problem of suicide of the person condemned to death:

The man who must die in three or four days’ time at his enemy’s pleasure is doing someone else a good turn if he is alive then. Hence, it is hardly possible to settle generally the question whether death, when threatened by a force beyond your control, should be anticipated or awaited.

Seneca comes out on the side of the condemned man’s choosing to die of his own volition, rather than waiting for death, and asks: Could anything be more foolish than to despise death and be afraid of poison?

[1]           The ancients put even more emphasis than we do on the place of origin of wine Wine that was sold without particular attention to its packing might be called oxos.

[2]           Particularly relevant is the fact that in the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament cholê is employed to translate the Hebrew word rosh, poison.

[3]           Natural History XIV, 13, 15 par. 92.

[4]           A famous example of the use of medicatum in the sense of poisoned occurs in Suetonius, who calls medicatum boletum the mushroom with which Agrippina, in order to make way for her son Nero, allegedly poisoned the Emperor Claudius (Claud. XLIV).

[5]           Raymond Brown (p. 927) tries to explain Matthew’s reference to gall by quoting the suggestion made by some scholars that this evangelist confused the Aramaic term for myrrh which is mura/mora with the Aramaic term for gall which is mara.

[6]           Mark 15:36 and Matthew 27:48: epotizen auton.

[7]           J. B. Philips.

[8]           American Bible Society, second ed. (1968).

[9]           The Roman imperial court even had an official poisoner. Tacitus reports that Seneca, after his retirement, had to be on guard against attempts by Nero to poison him, and was able to thwart these attempts only by restricting his diet to fruits of the field and water from running brooks.

[10]         Crudelissmum teterrimumque Cicero, In Verrem

[11]         Maurice Goguel, Jésus (Paris, 1950), pp. 445f. Cf. Albert Reville, Jésus de Nazareth, II, pp. 405f.

[12]         Cf. Léon Herrmann, Sénèque et les premiers chrétiens,(Brussels, 1979), p. 78.

[13]         Stoic Philosophy (London, 1969).