Drug Abuse in Scripture and Other extra-Biblical Writings
Γολγοθά / גלגלתא / Calvaria
- The Place of the Skull -
Drugs at a Roman Crucifixion - The Last Temptation
- For All Men Jesus said NO to Drugs-
Saint Matthew’s Gospel 27:34 - Saint Mark 15:23
Courtesy Terry Taylor & eBibleTeacher.com All Rights Reserved
Photo: The Rock or Hill of Golgotha, so-called from its skull-like appearance. Situated ‘without the Gate’ Hebrews 13:12 (i.e. beyond the city wall’ Cf. John 19:20) a possible site of the Crucifixion. Scholars are still much divided as to the exact location of Golgotha. See e.g Wikipedia with http://www.golgotha.eu/ for further possibilities including the traditional Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
“He hath encompassed me with gall (ראש Ro’sh) high poison and travail"
(LXX εκυκλωσε κεφαλλήν ‘encompassed my head’)
At the time of the Ministry in Palestine, although Pilate found "No fault in Him" (John 18:38 Cf. 19:4) Christ was executed as a common criminal. There was in Jerusalem at this time, in response to the merciful injunction of Proverbs 31:6, a society of the ‘upper class’ or women of charity who took it upon themselves to provide, as a service of kindness, a dispensary of potent anodynes, distributed probably through the Militia, (Mark 15:23 Cf. 16-25) for those who must suffer the cruel executions of Roman Law. (Hor. Heb. xi 366).
Quoted also Hastings’ Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels vol 1, p398 and p.634 with Hastings’ Bible Dictionary vol. 2, p.33 שכר Shekãr. and the Complete Bible Library Commentary (Mark 15:23)
It was this anodyne or anaesthetic, called by the Romans the Sopor ‘sleep’ (Greek ΰπνος hypnos) that Christ ‘when He had tasted’ refused on Golgotha, the place of the skull - (Matthew 27:34) - not because He was anti-anaesthesia, or anti-medicinal, but because here He would face death for every man, in all its cruel form and anathema at a time when He, in our place, became cursed. Confer Galatians 3:13.
The anodyne injunction was drawn from Proverbs 31:6 which reads:
‘Give strong drink (שכר shekãr, LXX μεθην metheen) unto him that is ready to perish, (Heb אבד abad, lit. ‘to one lost’ ‘condemned’) and wine יין yayin unto those that be of heavy heart’.
Proverbs 31:6 KJV / LXX / Heb
In the Greek New Testament the anodyne mixture is termed the έσμυρνισμένον ‘wine drugged with myrrh’ in Saint Mark’s Gospel 15:23, a phrase which in New Testament times stood for any medicated wine in general. (Hastings’ DCG vol. i p.634 Art. ‘Gall’). In Saint Matthew’s Gospel 27:34 the phrase is οίνον μετά χολής μεμιγμένον ‘wine mixed with gall’ (χολή cholé). If these two phrases in Greek are compared with the corresponding phrases in the Old Testament
which prophesied the Death of Christ, it may be found that the ‘gall’ (χολή cholé literally ‘bitterness’) of Saint Matthew’s recension corresponds exactly with the ‘gall’ of the prophetic Psalm 69:21 in the LXX, ‘[T]hey gave me also gall’ LXX χολή cholé, = Heb ראש Ro’sh, for my food, and...vinegar όξος óxos for my thirst’. (Psalm 69:21 Heb. / LXX ).
Photo: 100g Myrrh resin Public domain.
In the prophetic Lamentations 3:5 the English translators of the King James Version, following the LXX at Psalm 69:21, chose ‘gall’ as the equivalent phrase of the Hebrew ראש Ro’sh ‘high poison’, a word still
retained in KJV margin at Deuteronomy 29:18 ‘poisonful herb’, that is, according to the distinguished lexicographer Gesenius ‘opium’, where again it is known from other ancient Jewish literature (partic. Baba Mezia 83b) that narcotics were used to abate pain and, according to the Apocryphal Gospel of Saint Peter, could sometimes be lethal. The New Bible Commentary p.838 (1953) also cites ‘mingled with myrrh’ as a probable opiate at Mark 15:23.
Photo: The Opium Poppy Papaver somniferum Public domain
For ‘Gall’ Heb ראש Ro’sh = Opium in the Bible Plants list visit
Dr. Swete (Hastings’ Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels vol. i p.634) has supposed, where ראש Ro’sh in later Hebrew came to signify any poison in general, that the Golgotha potion was composed of wine and a variety of drugs including frankincense, laudanum, (liquid opium) myrrh resin, saffron and mastic. Sarah K. Yeomans, writing for the Biblical Archaeological Society Medicine in the Ancient World (11 July 2012) also maintains that Greek medicine, when later studied in depth, was seen to include herbs such as henbane and Indian hemp (related to marijuana) as analgesic drugs. It is not unreasonable to suppose therfore that the refused Sopor or anaesthetic anodyne of Golgotha may have included a hemp species or even the lethal ergot.
Myrrh, as an anesthetic, did not apparently appear on the Mishna medicines and poisons list of the Jews though ‘mixed with gall’ does not apparently contradict St. Mark as a generic term. The anodyne/poison of St. Matthew 27:34 / St. Mark 15:23 must not however be confused with the Posca or thirst quenching ‘vinegar wine’ (Heb. חטץ hõmeç = Gk. όξος óxos) which Christ did not refuse at St. John 19:29-30. Posca, as an extremely weak ferment was not classed as alcoholic by the Romans where it formed part of the daily ration of a Roman soldier and the working poor. Julian law had in fact strictly forbidden alcohol to soldiers on active service. Christ Himself had vowed abstinence at the Last Supper. St. Matthew 26:29. The virtually non-alcoholic posca or ‘óxos vinegar’ of the Crucifixion narrative was also said by the ancient physicians to have medicinal properties. (Pliny HN. 23) (Gibbon xxiv). See also St. John 19:29
The refused οίνον μετά χολής μεμιγμένον ‘wine mixed with gall’ of St. Matthew 27:34, (or ‘myrrh’ at St. Mark 15:23) equates in Scripture with the Hebrew שכר shekãr or ‘strong drink’ of the Old Testament admonition of Proverbs 31:6-7 as sometimes 'an old strong wine, undiluted', though more generally 'an intoxicating drink or draught of any sort’. The derivation is apparently ‘an intoxicant not from the vine’ (ISBE vol 5 p.3086) and hence again inclusive of the Roman Sopor of the Cruciarii as a probable opiate or other admixture. See also eBook chapter The Mixed and Mingled Wines of Scripture.
The Roman historian Pliny (79 AD) also records an opiate anodyne as directly ‘poppy-juice’ e nigro papavere sopor, gigniture scapo inciso, ‘cut from the stem’ (L&S 28, 18, 76). There is a similar phrase in Horace perpetus sopor ‘the hypnos (sleep) of death’. (Cl. 24, 5.) The ‘Hemlock’ of Socrates fell into this category as a sopor synonym. It is clear also from the Apocryphal Gospel of Saint Peter p.8, that many these Sopor draughts could be lethal whatever technically they may or may not have contained.
In conclusion it must be noted that where the merciful precepts of Scripture do not preclude the prescription of medicinal painkilling drugs, this ancient injunction cannot be seen - at least from the Christian ethic - as a ‘green light’ for assisted suicide, euthanasia or other medicinal abuses. Medicine is to heal, euthanasia is to kill. In Christ’s own example the precept is made clear, for inasmuch as Christ faced death for all and every man, in all its cruel form, an anathema of Divine restraint was placed on Calvary’s Cross.
Biblical Source Index
(i) Hastings Bible Dictionary vol. 2 p.33 (ii) Hastings’ Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels vol. i p.634 (iii) Hastings’ Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels vol 1, p398 (iv) Gospel of Saint Peter (Apoc.) p.8 (v) International Standard Bible Encyclopedia vol. 5 p.3086
For a more detailed account of the Sopor and Posca sequence of Golgotha and further exegesis of the Sopor draught from the Jewish Mishna poisons list and the Apocryphal Gospel of Saint Peter
FREE eBOOK Drug Abuse in Scripture.
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