In John 19:29 we read: "... they put a sponge full of the vinegar on hyssop and held it to his mouth" (RSV). The meaning of "put ... on hyssop" (ὑσσώπῳ περιθέντες) is so problematic that a popular conjecture exists, namely to read ὑσσῷ περιθέντες ("put ... on a spear"). Before presenting the conjecture itself, let me first elaborate the exegetical issue somewhat. It is twofold here.
In the first place, there is a notable difference with Mark 15:36 (and Matthew 27:48), where ‘hyssop’ is not mentioned, but a ‘reed’ (κάλαμος). Perhaps this is not much of a problem, for we can simply assume, as in many other cases, that John, being familiar with the synoptic traditions, changed a detail in order to put his own ‘spin’ on the story.
In the second place, however, comes a more serious problem. Doesn’t the presence of ‘hyssop’ render an essential detail of the scene unimaginable and inconceivable? Hyssop, after all, is a rather small plant, completely unsuited for the function described by John. Please note that I am not interested in "what really happened" and the like, but simply ask whether John's contemporaries would have accepted this part as coherent story-telling.
This second issue is addressed by the conjecture mentioned in the Nestle apparatus, according to which Camerarius proposed υσσω instead of υσσωπω. Let me quote from the source, Joachim Camerarius the Elder’s notes published in 1572. In my provisional translation:
‘Hyssop’ is the name of a herb. What mentioning it here may mean, others have inferred elsewhere through guessing; Matthew mentions a reed. It is perhaps permitted to suspect that to this reed that herb as well had been attached; Nonnus asserts that the vinegar presented to Jesus was mixed with hyssop, for he calls it ὑσσώπῳ κεκερασμένον [mixed with hyssop]. But if there is room left for conjectures, what if it would be permitted to suspect that the archetype had ὑσσῷ προπεριθέντες, so that on top of a spear a sponge, put around there, was presented to Jesus? For the spear of the Roman army, in particular the (throwing) javelin was called ὑσσός by the Greek. From which Matthew perhaps used the common name of spears, ‘reed’. Although also someone else could have taken a reed, drench a sponge with vinegar, and bring it mockingly to Jesus’ mouth. But that I leave undecided, and in my view it cannot be known thus far, notwithstanding the inquiry into the essential truth.1
1. Camerarius is not very explicit on the problem; perhaps the lack of agreement with Matthew (and Mark) is just as important to him.
2. Camerarius' conjecture differs from what is found in the Nestle apparatus, for he lets -ΠΩ of ὑσσώπῳ be the visible trace of ΠΡΟ in προπεριθέντες (instead of περιθέντες). It transpires that the omission of this element is due to Beza, who simply mentions only the first part of the conjecture in his NT editions of 1582 and later. Beza’s form may actually be better than the original proposal by Camerarius, as one can imagine dittography (ΥΣΣΩΠΕΡΙ becoming ΥΣΣΩΠΩΠΕΡΙ), or perhaps even a scribe who nilly-willy introduced hyssop into the text.
3. Some Old Latin manuscripts (to wit b ff2 n v) read ‘perticae’, which means a ‘pole’ or ‘long staff’ (Lewis & Short).2 This reading is alluded to in NA27, where the conjecture comes with the comment ‘cf it’. In my view, however, the origin of this reading is translational; it does not reflect a lost reading in Greek, and ‘pertica’ does not stand for κάλαμος or another word, let alone ὑσσός.
4. Some late minuscules (476* and 1242) have ὑσσῷ. If a scholarly conjecture is found in such a late manuscript, I would not state that the conjecture has ceased to be a conjecture. In this case, the coincidence cannot even be called a confirmation. One would of course have to study the manuscripts themselves, but Metzger’s idea that the reading (in 476*) "seems to have arisen accidentally through haplography" is attractive.3 In short, the agreement between the conjecture and these manuscripts is probably accidental itself.
5. The conjecture has an impressive reception history, more so than almost any other conjecture on the text of the New Testament. A few examples out of an admittedly very complex history: ὑσσῷ was printed by Baljon and Lagrange, and accepted in Moffatt’s translation and the NEB; David Parker supports it (at least, he did so in 1997).4 Many other conjectures on the same problem have been proposed and forgotten, but this one (in Beza’s version) still stands out as a good test case for the viability of the application of conjectural emendation on the NT text. Rest assured, however, that this post merely scratches the surface of the issue of John 19:29.
[6. Update 29 July 2010: Camerarius’ book can be consulted online. The link takes you directy to p. 297.]
1. "Notae herbae nomen est hyssopus. Cuius quid hoc loco mentio sibi velit, alii aliter divinando coniecerunt, Matthaeus arundinis facit mentionem, cui et applicatam herbam illam fuisse fortasse liceat suspicari Nonnus fecit, acetum illud oblatum Iesu mistum fuisse hyssopo, vocat enim ὑσσώπῳ κεκερασμένον. Quod si coniecturis locus relinquitur, quid si liceat suspicari? in archetypo fuisse: ὑσσῷ προπεριθέντες, ut sit supra pilum spongiam ibi circumdatam Iesu fuisse oblatam. Nam pilum Romanae militiae peculiare telum Graeci appellarunt ὑσσόν. De quo fortasse Matthaeus arundinis nomine usus est telorum generali. Cum alius quoque arreptam arundinem madefactamque aceto spongiam, per ludibrium admovere ori Iesu potuerit. Sed haec in medio relinqui, atque adeo, illabefactata veritatis necessariae cognitione, ignorari posse existimo." Cited from Joachim Camerarius (1500-1574), Notatio Figurarum Sermonis in Libris Quatuor Evangeliorum, Leipzig, Vögelin, 1572, pp. 297-298. Camerarius' notes are also printed as part of the 1642 Cambridge edition of Beza's NT. The reference to Nonnus concerns his paraphrase of John's gospel; see e.g. Nonni Panopolitani Paraphrasis S. Evangelii Ioannei (ed. Scheindler), Leipzig, Teubner, 1881, p. 206 l. 154 (ὤρεγεν ὑσσώπῳ κεκερασμένον ὄξος ὀλέθρου).
2. See the ITSEE edition; there two-digit numbers are used, in this case 04 08 16 25.
3. Metzger, Textual Commentary, 21994, p. 217.
4. D.C. Parker, The Living Text of the Gospels, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1997, pp. 176-177. Parker writes: "Here is a conjecture which would have been accepted in such a narrative in any other kind of text. It should be accepted here."