Difficult Bible Passages: Matthew 27:34

This passage, and its parallels, is not actually all that difficult. It only becomes difficult – or contentious – when it is used to promote various activist groups’ agendas. Specifically, some people in the pro-euthanasia camp, especially misguided or deceptive Christians, are trying to use this text to argue that Jesus made use of, or approved of, euthanasia or assisted suicide.

The passage in question has to do with wine being offered to Jesus while he hung on the cross. Pro-euthanasia campaigners argue that Jesus may have been “helped to die” when he was offered wine to drink. So how does one respond to such charges?

The first thing to say about this is that in the Gospel accounts there are in fact two occasions in which Jesus was offered a drink. Matthew 27 and Mark 15 record both incidents, while Luke 23 and John 19 record just the second. The first instance involves wine mixed with gall (or myrrh as in Mark), while the second involves wine vinegar.

So to begin with we must distinguish between these two different occurrences. Let’s first examine the mention of the wine mixed with gall. This is found in Matt 27:34. The immediate context of this verse is vv. 32-37. It has a clear parallel in Mark 15:23 (and its wider context in vv. 21-26).

We first should note that the Matthew passage says this: “There they offered Jesus wine to drink, mixed with gall; but after tasting it, he refused to drink it.” And the Markan parallel passage says this: “Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it.”

So whatever this drink actually was, Jesus refused it, at least as soon as he discovered what it was. So what exactly is wine mixed with gall, and what was it used for? Gall, or bile, is a bitter tasting product of the gall bladder, with a narcotic effect. We are not told specifically in these two passages why it was offered to Jesus, or why he refused it.

The most plausible understanding is that Jesus insisted on going through his work on the cross on our behalf, and he would drink of the metaphorical cup of suffering to its bitter end (see Matt. 26:39-42). So if this laced wine was intended as a pain killer, Jesus refused it. He would suffer on our behalf to the full.

So there is absolutely nothing here about euthanasia or assisted suicide. There is no indication here about shortening one’s life as a way to deal with suffering. If anything, we might have something about palliative care. But even if this is the case, Jesus refuses the analgesic, and chooses instead to suffer to the full extent.

Indeed, in refusing to accept this mild narcotic, he was making it clear that he intended to be fully in control, fully aware, and fully conscious throughout this whole ugly and horrific ordeal. That had been his intention all along, and he was not now about to take the easy way out.

The second offered drink

So what about the second drink offered to Jesus while hanging on the cross? This is some sort of wine vinegar, which is quite different from the first drink. The passages plus their broader context are Matt. 27:45-50, again closely paralleled by Mark 15:33-37. The other two gospel accounts are a bit more different, both from Matthew and Mark, and from each other. Luke 23:36 (and more widely, 35-38) and John (19:28-30) are the relevant texts.

Only the version in John tells us that Jesus cried out saying that he was thirsty. The messianic Psalms 22 and 69 both speak to this. Psalm 22:15 speaks of his parched tongue and mouth, while Psalm 69:21 mentions both gall and vinegar for the sufferer’s thirst.

The Matthew passage simply says that this drink was offered to Jesus, without telling us if he in fact drank it. The text in Mark provides the same information. The Lukan passage also just says that it was offered to him. Only John tells us that he actually received the drink.

Thus only one of the four Gospel accounts informs us that he in fact drank it. So what was it that he was being offered here? What is this wine vinegar? It seems to have been a cheap, sour wine which the soldiers drank, and one which actually was good at relieving thirst.

Thus if he did drink (and John says he did), then it would have in fact prolonged his life and therefore prolonged his agony and pain. Such a drink would have strengthened him and extended his life somewhat. His suffering, in other words, would have simply been extended, not shortened.

One can also ask why this was offered to him. Was it an act of kindness to simply offer some light relief to his thirst, as John seems to suggest, or was it an act of mockery and cruelty, designed to lengthen his torture and keep him from dying too quickly (as Luke seems to indicate)? Either way, it has nothing to do with hastening death.

So again, there is absolutely no hint of euthanasia here, or of Jesus in any way indicating that shortening one’s life is the way to go. If anything, his example proves the very opposite. In the first drink, as soon as he detected its bitterness and what it therefore was (probably some form of narcotic to diminish the pain and consciousness), he immediately refused it.

The second drink which was offered to him seems to have been just a drink to relieve some of his severe thirst, and as a result, prolong his life. While only John tells us that he in fact drank it, there is nothing whatsoever in such an action to intimate in any way some desire to end his life sooner.

Thus all six passages provide nothing to promote the agenda of the pro-euthanasia crowd. Not only is it wildly anachronistic to seek to read such an agenda into the Gospel accounts, but the whole attempt fails miserably. Jesus does not seek to end his life prematurely, but chooses instead to suffer fully and completely to the very end for the sake of achieving our salvation.

So the pro-death lobby has to look elsewhere to try to dig up some pro-euthanasia propaganda from the biblical text. They certainly will not find it here.

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8 Replies to “Difficult Bible Passages: Matthew 27:34”

  1. Bill

    Did you see the letter from the dying Associate Professor Tonti-Filippini to Premiere Mike Rann?

    “I cannot speak for all people who suffer from illness and disability, but think I can speak more credibly about suffering, illness and disability than those people who advocate for euthanasia presenting an ideological view of suffering and disability. Facing illness and disability takes courage and we do not need those euthanasia advocates to tell us that we are so lacking dignity and have such a poor quality of life that our lives are not worth living.”

    http://blogs.news.com.au/heraldsun/andrewbolt/index.php/heraldsun/comments/a_dying_man_explains_why_ethanasia_is_so_dangerous/

    Damien Spillane

  2. Hello Bill,

    In traditional Chinese medicine, bear gall is mixed with rice wine and used as an extreme pain killer. I have seen it being given before to a person who had a fall and broke his arm. Whether it works or not I have no idea. There are some Jewish traditions that are pretty similar to Chinese customs.

    Eddie Sim

  3. I agree entirely with your explanation of these scriptural passages, Bill. It never even occurred to me that they might be misused as biblical warrants for euthanasia. Some people have very warped imaginations.

    Peter Murnane, Sydney

  4. Bill,

    I checked up on myrrh and a Chinese herbalist just told me its also used as a pain killer. Traditionally, again it is mixed with rice wine and given to relieve pain from wounds. It would appear to me that out of compassion, the Jews were definitely – without any doubt – trying to help Jesus relieve some pain, and not trying to “euthanaise” Him. Those pro-euthanasia madmen need to do a bit of research before they shoot their mouth off and show their stupidity.

    Eddie Sim

  5. This is appalling! Protestantism has in the past stood for grammatical-historical exegesis, i.e. the grammar and vocabulary of the text, the immediate and wider context, any parallel texts, and the historical background, where possible. When applied here we have wine-mixed-with-gall, the latter word being chole, a general word for any substance with a bitter taste. Mark is more precise: he has “wine-mixed-with-myrrh”. Either way, it was a potion of drugged wine intended to mitigate the extreme agony of crucifixion. This was at the behest of a consortium of Jewish women who would, from compassionate motives, offer it to victims as they came to the place of crucifixion.

    The Talmud (Sanhedrin 43a) explains:
    “When one is led out to execution, he is given a goblet of wine containing a grain of frankincense, in order to benumb his senses, for it is written, ‘Give strong drink to him that is ready to perish, and wine unto the bitter in soul’. And it has also been taught: the noble women in Jerusalem used to donate and bring it.” (The text quoted is Prov.31:6). Note that while the Talmud indicates frankincense, myrrh would often be used a an equivalent.

    Two points:
    1. The Jewish Talmud is not a source dedicated to supporting the NT! Hence when it concurs with the NT we are on safe ground in accepting its explanation.
    2. If the drink supplied had been any sort of poison, so as to defeat the purpose of crucifixion, the Roman execution squad would have confiscated it forthwith. Roman execution contingents kept guard over crucified victims, working in shifts, precisely to avert any rescue attempts, and also to stop any attempts to “finish off” the victims and put them out of their misery.

    The accepted view is the correct one, i.e. that the drink was a drug mixture, and as such was permitted by the Roman authorities. The vocabulary, grammar, parallel texts, and the historical background all concur. What we have here is NOT exegesis at all, but the eisegesis of convenience (i.e. reading into the text what he wants to see there).

    Murray R Adamthwaite

  6. I don’t know whether to be annoyed or amused with the Euthanasia crowds’ claim that their pet subject played a part in Jesus Christ’s death on the cross. I will say this, that I’m genuinely fed up with all those with trendy beliefs, attempting to recruit Jesus name, claiming He was one of them. Only yesterday I had my intelligence insulted by someone making the ludicrous claim that “Jesus was a communist”. Then of course the homosexual lobby has been equally ridiculous claiming He was a homosexual.
    If Christ had been tried in a fair and genuine court of being a supporter of all three of those “causes”, Not only would He have been acquitted on the grounds of lack of evidence, He would have been awarded full costs in his favour against his opponents.
    Frank Bellet, Petrie Qld

  7. I believe Bill was responding to an attack. I heard this argument for the first time recently in a comments thread. Thanks for putting this so clearly Bill. Another point made by the same person that made the ‘drink’ argument was that Jesus died too quickly for normal crucifixion.
    Jesus was beaten and flogged, and could have lost a lot more blood prier to execution than your average criminal. He was not strong enough to carry his own cross. Pilate intended to have him flogged then released but instead he was sentenced to death.
    Kylie Anderson

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