(Of course this article is not only applicable to wine but to all sorts of intoxicating, alcoholic beverages.)
Wine in New Testament Times
‘Jn 2:11 “This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed at Cana in Galilee.
He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.”
WINE IN THE ANCIENT WORLD. The production of grapes, both for eating and for squeezing into juice, was a very important part of the agriculture of the ancient Mediterranean world. Vineyards, fresh grapes, raisins and wine are frequently mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments.
For 21st century Bible-believing Christians, the subject of wine in the NT raises several questions about wine then and wine today. Those questions often include the following:
(1) When the NT mentions “wine” (Gk oinos), was it always alcoholic as in modern times?
(2) How does the alcoholic content in ancient fermented wine compare with that of various wines today?
(3) When jesus turned water into wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, was the wine alcoholic or unfermented?
(4) Did Jesus use fermented (i.e. alcoholic) wine? (Fermentation is the biochemical process by which yeast acts on sugars, breaking them down into alcohol, causing a beverage to become potentially intoxicating).
Certainly, it is unreasonable and inaccurate to claim that wine mentioned in the Bible was never alcoholic since the Bible contains many warnings and restrictions regarding intoxicating wine (e.g., Pr 20:1; 23:31, Eph 5:18; Tit 2:3; 1 Pe 4:3). However, it would be equally indefensible to assert that all wine mentioned in the Bible was alcoholic. The assumption behind this argument is that since refrigeration was unavailable in ancient times, there was no way to preserve wine and keep it from frementing in the warm Mediterranean climate. This view ignores substantial evidence from ancient writeres such as Pliny (Natural History 14.11.83) and Columella (De re rustica [On Agriculture] 12.29) who explain in detail the production of non-alcoholic wine known as aigloukos (“always sweet”).
(1) Pliny, Columella and others describe putting fresh squeezed juice into sealed containers and storing them under cold water until outside temperatures were low enough to keep the substance cool. This method, which could keep the juice sweet and fresh for about a year, would have worked well in the land of Israel (see Dt 8:7; 11:11-12; Ps 65:9-13). People in the ancient world often preferred “sweet wines” since they were few beverage options compared with the vast array today. Because fermentation chemically reduces the natural sugars in grape juice, alcoholic wines were not as sweet as unfermented juice. For this reason, different processes were used to enhance or preserve the sweetness of grape beverages and keep freshly squeezed juice from fermenting
(2) The most common method of preserving wine in a non-alcoholic state for long periods was to boil the fresh grape juice down to about a third of its original volume, then store it in large clay jars or containers made of sheep or goat skin. The resulting condensed juice was very sweet, and because of its high sugar content, it resisted spoilage and did not ferment (Columella, 12.19.1-6 and 20.1-8; Pliny, 14.11.80). Later, water could be added back to produce a reconstituted juice. At other times, water was added in order to dilute fermented wine, perhaps to reduce the percentage of alcohol or simply to make the drink go further.
(3) Greek and Roman authors gave various ratios or proportions that were used in mixing grape beverages. Homer (Odyssey IX.208ff) mentions a ratio of twenty parts water to one part wine. Pliny (14.6.54) mentions a ratio of eight parts water to one part wine. In general, about three parts water to one part wine seems to have been typical. A three-to-one ratio is explicitly mentioned in both Hesiod (Works and Days, 596) and the Jewish Talmud (Shabbath 77a; b. Pesachim 108b).
(4) Among Jewish people in Bible times, social and religious customs often required wine to be mixed, or diluted, especially if it was fermented. The Talmud (a Jewish work that describes the traditions of Judaism and Jewish religious law from about 200 B.C. to A.D. 200) discusses this topic several times. Some Jewish rabbis insisted that unless fermented (i.e. potentially intoxicating) wine was mixed with at least three parts of water, it could not be blessed and would defile, or spiritually corrupt, the one who drank it.
(5) An interesting passage in the book of Revelation refers to “the wine of God’s fury,” by declaring that it will be “full strength” (Rev 14:10; see Jer 25:15, note). It was stated in that way because the original readers normally would expect grape beverages to be mixed with water (see Jn 2:3, notes).
WINE FERMENTED OR UNFERMENTED? The most common Biblical word for “wine” is the Greek word oinos (e.g., Lk 7:33). Oinos can refer to two distinctly different typees of juice from grapes:
(1) Unfermented juice
(2) fermenter, or intoxicating wine.
This is supported by the following data.
(1) The Greeek word oinos was often used by secular (i.e., non-religious, worldly) and religious authors in pre-Christian and early church times to refer to fresh grape juice (Aristotle, Metereologica, 387.b.9-13).
(a) Anacreaon (c. 500 B.C.) writes, “Squeeze the grape, let out the wine [oinos]” (Ode 5).
(b) Nicander (second century B.C.) writes about squeezing grapesand refers to the juice as oinos (Georgica, fragment 86).
(c) Athenaeus (A.D. 200) writes about a man gathering grapes who “went about, and took wine [oinos] from the field” (Athenaeus, Banquet, 1.54).
(2) The Jewish scolars who translated the OT into Greek about 200 B.C. used oinos to translate several Hebrew words for wine. In other words, the NT writers undoubtedly knew that oinos could be be either fermenter or unfermented juice from grapes.
(3) An examination of NT Bible passages also reveals that oinos may mean either fermented or unfermented wine. In Eph 5:18 the command, “do not get drunk on wine [oinos],” obviously refers to alcoholic wine. On the other hand, in Rev 19:15 Christ is pictured in a winepress (a flat, lowered floor where grapes would be crushed by foot to produce juice). The Greek text reads: “He treads the winepress of the wine [oinos]”; the oinos that comes from the winepress would be fresh grape juice (see Isa 16:10, note; Jer 48:32-33, note). In Rev 6:6 oinos refers to grapes still on the vine. These passages indicate that people in NT times understood that “wine” (oinos) was a general word that could be used for two distinctly different grape beverages – sweet, unfermented juice or fermented, ptentially intoxicating wine.
JESUS’ GLORY REVEALED THROUGH WINE. In this second chapter, John records that Jesus made “wine” out of water at a wedding at Cana. The wine miracle was one of Jesus’ seven miraculous “signs” (Gk semeia) in John’s Gospel that pointed to Jesus as being Israel’s Messiah (i.e. Savior, Christ) and God’s Son, “full of grace and truth” (cf. 1:14, 17). This miracle is also part of the “newness” theme that John emphasizes in the opening chapters (“new wine,” 2:1-11; “new temple,” 2:14:22; “new birth,” 3:1-8; “new life,” 4:4-26). In the person and ministry of Jesus Christ, something brand new and unprecedented was emerging in the history of God’s relationship to humankind. However, the old order of Judaism (i.e., religion based on OT law, interpretations of the law and Jewish customs) was resisting, opposing and rejecting the “newness” that Jesus was bringing.
It is within this context of “newness” that we consider the question about the kind of wine Jesus created. Was it alcoholic or was it unfermented? Was it “new wine” or “aged wine”? As we have seen, it could have been fermented or unfermented, full strength or diluted. To find the answer, we must consider both the Biblical context of this passage and the moral probability. This study Bible proposes that most likely Jesus created “new wine” (pure and unfermented) rather than “age wine” (alcoholic) for the following reasons:
(1) “New wine” fits better in the context of John’s Gospel with its emphasis on “newness” of the message Jesus brings (see above comments on 2:1-11; 2:14-22; 3:1-8; 4:4-26; cf. Mt 9:16-17; 2 Co 5:17). In addition, old wineskins and old (aged) wine are associated with Judaism, not the gospel (i.e., the “good news” of Jesus Christ; see Lk 5:37-39). The ultimate goal of redemption (i.e., Christ’s work of spiritual salvation and restoring people’s relationship with God) is to make all things new (Rev 21:5).
(2) The quality of the wine Jesus made is called “choice” [Gk kalon] wine in contrast to “cheaper” wine (Jn 2:10). According to various ancient writers, the “choice” (or “best”) wine was the sweetest wine – one that people coulod drink freely and in large quantities without harm (i.e., wine that had not reduced its sugar to alcohol through fermentation). The “cheaper” wine was usually alcoholic wine that had been diluted with too much water. In ancient times (unlike today), wine was not thought to improve with age because it could sour into vinegar or form undesirable sediment.
(3) The wine miracle, as Jesus’ first miraculous sign, was intended to reveal “his glory” and inspire his disciples to put their faith in him as God’s Son (Jn 2:11; cf. 20:31). It would seem highly unlikely that Christ showed his divinity (i.e., his God-nature) as the One and Only Son of the Father (Jn 1:14) by creating gallons of intoxicating wine for people who may already have been on the verge of drinking too much (note 2:10, which implies that the people had been drinking freely). Such an act could hardly be seen as highly important to his mission as spiritual Savior (cf. Mt 1:21).
(4) Since Jesus regarded the OT as God’s authoritative revelation, he would have supported the Biblical passages condemning intoxicating wine (see Pr 20:1, note) and the words such as those of Hab 2:15, “Woe to him who gives drink to his neighbors, pouring it … till they are drunk” (cf. Lev 10:8-11; Nu 6:1-5; Dt 21:20; Pr 31:4-7; Isa 28:7; Am 2:8,12; 4:1; 6:6; Ro 14:13,21). In addition, Christ’s perfect obedience to his Father (cf. 2 Co 5:21; Heb 4:15; 1 Pe 2:22) makes it unlikely that he would have done anything that could have compromised the strong warnings in God’s Word regarding alcoholic wine and its harmful effects (See Pr 23:29-35, notes). On the other hand, turning water into fresh, sweet, unfermented harvest wine certainly could have revealed to his disciples Jesus’ glory as Lord over nature (Jn 1:3, 14), Creator of all things new – and as “the Christ, the Son of God” (Jn 20:31).
(5) Leading medical experts have found unmistakable evidence that even moderate alcohol consumption can damage reproductive processes in women of childbearing age, in some cases causing miscarriages or birth defects. Authorities on early embryology maintain that women who consume alcohol around the time of conception (about a 48-hour period) risk damaging the chromosomes of an egg preparing to leave the ovary, which could in turn be detrimental to the baby’s development. Since God has always known these facts, it would be difficult to promote the view that Jesus encouraged the use of alcoholic beverages at a wedding that included many women, particularly a young bride, who possibly could have become pregnant right away.
Based on these perspectives, this study Bible supports the conclusion that the wine Christ made at the wedding to reveal his glory was pure, sweet and unfermented.
USE OF WINE IN THE LORD’S SUPPER. Did Jesus use fermented or unfermented grape juice when he instituted the Lord’s supper, i.e., communion (Mt 26:26-29; Mk 14:22-25; Lk 22:17-20; 1 Co 11:23-26)? The following data support the conclusion that Jesus and his disciples likely drank unfermented grape juice on that occasion.
(1) Neither Luke nor any other biblical writer uses the word “wine” (Gk oinos) in referring to the Lord’s Supper (the “last supper” Jesus shared with his disciples before death). The first three Gospel writers use “fruit of the vine” (Mt 26:29; Mk 14:25; Lk 22:18) likely indicating pure, natural and unfermented wine.
(2) The Lord’s Supper (which serves as a reminder of what Jesus did in giving his life for us, Lk 22:19; 1 Co 11:24-25) was instituted when Jesus and his disciples were eating the Passover meal. The Passover law in Ex 12:14-20 prohibited, during Passover week, the oresence and use of seor (Ex 12:15), a word referring to yeast or anything that can cause fermentation. In addition, all hametz (i.e., anything that contained fermentation) was forbidden (Ex 12:19; 13:7; see 13:7, note). God had given these laws because yeast and fermentation often symbolized corruption and sin (cf. Mt 16:6,12; 1 Co 5:6-8). Since Jesus fulfilled the law in every respect (Mt 5:17), it seems that he would have followed this law for the Passover and not used fermented wine.
(3) The value of a symbol is determined by how well or accurately it conveys the spiritual reality it represents. Consider the fact that the bread representing Christ’s pure body had to be unleavened (i.e., flat and unraised, unfermented, “uncorrupted” – made without yeast). It would certainly seem consistent that the blood of Christ would have been best represented by juice that also was unfermented (cf. 1 Pe 1:18-19).
In summary, the Jews in Bible times made and used wine in ways that were substantially different from today’s methods and uses. For this reason, one cannot defend the modern-day practice of drinking alcoholic beverages on the basis of the jews’ use if “wine” in Biblical times. In addition, early Christians were even more cautious than the Jews regarding the use of the various kinds of wines (see Ro 14:21, note; 1 Ti 3:3, note; Tit 2:2, note).
Source: Fire Bible – Student Edition – NIV, p 1449-1451.
The Nazirites and Wine
(taken from: Wine in the Old Testament)
‘The word “Nazirite” (Heb. nazir, from nazar, ‘to set apart”) referred to a person who had made a special vow to be completely dedicated to the Lord and set apart for his purposes. One could make this commitment for a limited period of time or for life (Jdg 13:5; 1Sa 1:11).
(1) Nu 6:1-8 describes the requirements for the Nazarite vow, which included abstinence (i.e., total separation) from all fermented drink. Also, Nazarites did not cut their hair and could not be near a dead body.
(2) The Nazarite lifestyle served as an example of God’s highest standard of holiness and dedication to God’s purposes (cf. Am 2:11-12).
(3) The Nazarite vow was totally voluntary and was designed to teach Israel that total devotion to God must come first from a person’s heart and then be expressed outwardly through self-denial, moral and spiritual discipline and personal purity (Nu 6:3-8).
God gave Nazarites clear instructions about the use of wine.
(1) Nazarites had to abstain from wine and other fermented drink (Nu 6:3; see Dt 14:26, note). In fact, they were not allowed to eat or drink any product made from grapes. Most likely God gave this command as a safeguard against the temptation to use drinks that cause drunkenness and against the possibility of a Nazarite drinking alcoholic wine by mistake (Nu 6:3-4). God did not want a totally devoted person to be exposed to the possibility of intoxication or addiction (cf. Lev 10:8-11; Pr 31:4-5). For this reason, the highest standard put before God’s people with respect to alcoholic beverages was total abstinence (Nu 6:3-4).
(2) Drinking alcohol often leads to various other sins (such as sexual immorality or criminal activity). By requiring them to avoid anything that came from grapes, God taught Nazirites that they must avoid anything that even hints at sin, leads to sin or tempts one to commit sin.
(3) People during the prophet Amos’ time ridiculed and rejected God’s high standards for Nazarites. This prophet stated that ungodly people “made the Nazirites drink wine” (see Am 2:12, note). The prophet Isaiah also declared, “Priests and prophets stagger from beer and are befuddled with wine; they reel from beer, they stagger when seeing visions, they stumble when rendering decisions. All the tables are covered with vomit and there is not a spot without filth” (see Pr 31:4-5, note).
(4) The essence of the Nazirite vow – total devition to God and his highest standards – is a pattern for NT followers of Christ (cf. Rom 12:1; 2 Co 6:17, 7:1). Like the OT Nazirites, they must abstain from anything that might lead to sin or stimulate a desire for harmful activity. Certainly, any substance or behavior that could open the way to drug or alcohol addiction, or cause someone else to defy God and lose faith in him, is off-limits for a committed Christian (see 1 Th 5:6, Tit 2:2, note).’
Source: A mix between Fire Bible – Student Edition – NIV, p 833-834 and Fire Bible – KJV, p 926.
Francis W. Dixon wrote:
“It is for this reason that I believe Christians should have strong convictions concerning the use of alcohol (…). With regard to alcohol, it seems to me that for one reason alone, in these days when so much damage is being caused by drink and those under its influence, Christians should take a firm stand and abstain from touching it. In Romans 14:13, Paul tells us that we are not to judge one another in matters of Christians conduct, but we are to be very careful ‘that no man put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in his brother’s way.’ A glass of wine or spirits may not present you with any temptation, but your brother to whom you offer the glass may have a latent weakness for alcohol and may end up as an alcoholic.”
Source: Francis W. Dixon, Other Preachers’ Bones, 9: Best Thought for the Day, p 72 (I do not recommend this book, I just agree with the above part).
Source: dopepicz (thanks to Illyuel Khokhar for this picture)
Jordan Thornburg send a message to me stating:
‘Very thorough article Tom but God allowed even strong drink for the Israelites in the OT. There’s nothing wrong with alcoholic wine. God expects us to use it rightly if we choose to, just like anything else.
“You may spend the money for whatever your heart desires: for oxen, or sheep, or wine, or strong drink, or whatever your heart desires; and there you shall eat in the presence of the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household.” – Deuteronomy 14:26 (NASB)’
To this the Fire Bible replied:
Source: Fire Bible – Student Edition – NIV, p 252.
Read also “To drink or Not to drink?” for a former pastor’s concern concerning the use of alcoholic beverages.
Read also “75 Scripture Warnings against drinking of Alcohol“.