There is a significant detail difference in John’s account of the Passion narrative, viagra as compared to the Synoptics. Where Matthew and Mark say that the sponge is lifted up on a stick (??????) (Matt 27:48; Mark 15:36), generic John says that the sponge was lifted up on a hyssop branch (??????) (John 19:29).
A hyssop branch was probably not strong enough to hold a sponge on the end, and it could be that the term “is being used loosely (as plant names often were in the ancient world) to refer to a taller plant with a real stalk.” But John’s deliberate departure from the Synoptics suggests that he has theological and symbolic reasons behind his choice of terms, especially given that Jesus, having proclaimed that he is the source of living water (John 7:37-39) is now, ironically, expressing thirst.
A hyssop branch was used in the original Passover account to apply the blood of the Paschal sacrifice across the doorways of the Jewish homes, thereby protecting them from the angel of death (Exod 12:22). The blood covering the doorways did not have magical properties, but was a “sign of divine promise: God commits himself to pass over the blood-marked houses.”
By covering their doors with the blood of the Paschal sacrifice, the Israelites were accepting and trusting God’s promise that He would save those that have placed their faith in him.
The motif of the hyssop branch in John 19 is even more poignant when read in light of Jesus’ declaration that he is the Door by which the sheep will be saved (John 10:7; 9). The hyssop branch with the sponge is raised to the Door, just as the hyssop dipped in blood was lifted to the doors of the Israelites, thus ensuring their salvation from the impending judgment in Egypt.
It is possible that John’s inclusion of the hyssop branch in his narrative is not a Passover motif. Besides being used in the Passover account, hyssop branches were also used in two Jewish Temple purification rituals: the ritual for cleansing a leper, and the ritual of the red heifer. In both cases, the hyssop branch served as a way to mediate between the clean and the unclean.
The hyssop was “a ‘lightning conductor’ which, partially at least, protected the officiant from the danger of contact with the sacred/unholy.” Thus, it could be that John is making a statement as to the purity or holiness of Jesus. Those that offered him a drink by way of the hyssop were unable to touch the sacred lamb of God as he was lifted up and exalted.
Craig Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003), 1130.
Darrell Bock, Jesus According to Scripture: Restoring the Portrait from the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002), 535.
D. Moody Smith, The Theology of the Gospel of John (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 120.
J. Ramsey Michaels, John, Good News Commentary (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1984), 320.
Terence Fretheim, Exodus, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991), 138.
Douglas Stuart, Exodus, New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 2006), 278.
Edwyn Hoskyns, The Fourth Gospel (London: Faber and Faber, 1947), 531.
J.B. Segal, The Hebrew Passover: From the Earliest Times to A.D. 70 (London: Oxford University Press, 1963), 159.
Donald Senior, The Passion of Jesus in the Gospel of John (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1991), 147-148.
The above is adapted from a paper I wrote last summer for my “Gospels” class. I don’t know why I’ve been meditating on the hyssop in John’s Gospel, but it’s been floating around in my head for the last week or so. So I decided to pull out this section from my paper and post it on the blog for further reflection.