For some reason, this year I’ve heard a lot of people meditating on the Passion who thought that offering Jesus “sour wine,” or “vinegar,” was a cruel mockery.
Actually, in the old days, and to this day, vinegar was seen as something that revived and strengthened you. The smell of vinegar-soaked cloths was how you would wake up someone fainting. Here in Ohio, farmers drank “sprouse,” which elsewhere is called “shrub”* or “switchel,” vinegar mixed with sweet juice, as something to drink in the heat of the day. In the Middle East, it’s popular to drink “sekanjabin,” vinegar mixed with sugar syrup in various flavors (and closely related to the ancient Greek “oxymel”).
And Roman soldiers, being tough and cheap, drank sour wine, or the sour wine with health additives against scurvy that was called “posca.” It was seen as bad for discipline to let men on duty drink real wine, or worse, good wine! The Greek health drink called “oxymel” was honey wine, and thus no good for soldiers. But honeyed sour wine was okay, and became standard camp fare. Mixing vinegar with doubtful water supplies made it reasonably safe to drink, and vinegar and sugar both have a tendency to kill microorganisms (although I’m sure a lot of camp cooks spent a lot of time boiling water).
Now it’s possible that the reviving vinegar was offered to an obviously dying man as a joke. But sour wine was nothing worse or different than what the soldiers were drinking themselves; they probably offered it out of their own supplies for the long, hot duty day. Sour wine with hyssop mixed in it, or worse, with gall mixed in it, would not be my flavor choices. But they were pretty normal for Roman soldiers. They also liked mixing it with lots of coriander seeds (that’d be the seed form of cilantro, for those of you playing the home game).
Also, you could drink a fair amount of a sugar or vinegar-based drink without getting sick from it, whereas cold water with no additives has to be drunk slowly in summer to avoid making yourself sick. Vinegar-based drinks were essentially the sports drinks of yesteryear.
Also, most forms of vinegar were kosher for Passover, so there’s that.
* “Shrub” comes from the same Arabic word as “sherbet.” It’s just the root word for “drink”: sh r b.
An interesting reminiscence about a lady sitting around a table with her Iranian family, using sekanjabin as a dip for lettuce! Also includes some nice sekanjabin drink recipes, and a bit in the comments about Pakistani sikanjabeen with salt and pepper!