Bible Wine

by Rick Shrader

The subject of whether or not a Christian should drink alcoholic beverages may be today’s most controversial Christian subject, especially among younger believers.  John MacArthur just posted an article on his website titled, “Beer, Bohemianism, and True Christian Liberty,” which begins, “If everything you know about Christian living came from blogs and websites in the young-and-restless district of the Reformed community, you might have the impression that beer is the principal symbol of Christian liberty.  For some who self-identify as ‘Young, Restless, and Reformed,’ it seems beer is a more popular topic for study and discussion than the doctrine of predestination.”  Then, after listing a number of other once-tabooed subjects, he adds, “Cast a disapproving eye at any of those activities, and you are likely to be swarmed by restless reformers denouncing legalism and wanting to debate whether it’s a ‘sin’ to drink wine or smoke a cigar.”1

Although I’m not in the Reformed camp, I’m afraid the same could be said of many fundamental Baptists.  Subjects that, not many years ago, were almost universally agreed to be sinful, are now defended with all the vigor of a Clarence Darrow during the Scopes trial.  My youth group from the 1960s (in one of the fastest growing churches in the country) would seem terribly prudish by today’s standards.  No wonder many such churches have either had to change or shrink.

It would be an uphill battle merely to advocate moderation in drinking as many conservatives do, but to come to a conclusion that total abstinence is a Biblical mandate, would place one immediately in the backwater of Christian social fellowships.  But that is just the conclusion I’ve come to, not just because I find it the overwhelming norm of Christian history, or because the statistics on drinking grow increasingly alarming, but because I’ve become convinced that this is the only consistent biblical teaching.

Subjects like Bible wine are always approached with a certain bias.  We think we know what we believe and can give quick answers when asked.  But we seldom take the time to refresh our understanding of such subjects and make sure our answers square with the biblical facts.  This should be done again and again with the questionable issues of our day.  Though we may not change our view (and sometimes we may), we owe it to those behind us to give our best answers.

There are two general views of what Bible wine was.  The first is the “one wine” view.  This view says that all wine was fermented but to various degrees, and, therefore, everyone drank fermented wine of some kind.  One may hold to this view and apply it different ways.  One could still abstain totally on grounds of testimony and prudence.  Another may drink in moderation (the most common position) but be careful not to over indulge.  Another may place no limits on his/her “Christian liberty.”  The other view is the “two wine” view which says that the word “wine” in the Bible sometimes refers to fermented wine and sometimes refers to unfermented grape juice.  In this view, total abstinence is practiced toward fermented wine (and other intoxicating drinks) but freedom, even blessing, is placed upon drinking the fresh juice of the grape.

The view one takes makes all the difference when approaching Biblical texts that mention wine, especially in the narratives such as Jesus turning water into wine.  Was the “good wine” newly fermented alcohol and brought out at the last when most were drunken anyway?  Or was the “good wine” really fresh, sweet juice that tasted wonderful even late in the supper?

My own re-study of this subject has brought me to the “two wine” position.  I believe this best fits with the available information and with the Biblical passages that mention wine either as warning or blessing.  In this short space I’ll mention four reasons for my conclusion and then apply the “two wine” view to some popular passages.

The definition of the word “wine”

Our English dictionaries carry a foregone conclusion that has evolved over time, placing fermented wine first in their list of definitions.  Any English reader first thinks of fermented wine.  But this wasn’t always so (or hardly ever so).  Bacchiocchi traces dictionaries from the present day back to the 1700s showing this digression.2 From about the 1900s back, the first definition was grape juice.  Robert Teachout says, “The problem is that people have taken the very usual meaning of the word (whether in Hebrew, Greek, Latin or English)—as an intoxicating beverage—and have made it the only definition of the word.  That is incorrect scholarship!  It is inaccurate both biblically and secularly, and it is inaccurate in the English language historically.”3

This means that we as English readers of the Bible have a built-in bias toward wine being fermented due to our popular, current usage.  English readers of past years did not carry this bias as we do today.

Ancient authors concur over the ancient languages

It is also easily shown that the words vinum (Latin), oinos (Greek), and yayin (Hebrew) are all used sometimes of fermented and sometimes of unfermented wine in both ancient literature and (with Greek and Hebrew) in the Scriptures.  William Patton’s work, Bible Wines, first printed in 1871, quotes Pliny, Plutarch, Josephus, and many others showing this very thing.4 Bacchiocchi, Teachout, and others do the same.  For example, Papias, from the first century describes the millennium saying, “Vines will grow each with . . . Ten thousand clusters on each twig, and ten thousand grapes in each cluster, and each grape, when crushed, will yield twenty-five jars of wine [oinos].”5 Teachout quotes from a papyrus from the second century which says, “They paid to the one who had earned his wages pure, fresh wine [oinos] from the vat.”6

It would be easy to quote ancient authors and Scriptures that use these original words as fermented wine as all moderationists do.  But if, as these (and other) men have done, it can also be shown clearly that these words were commonly used of unfermented grape juice, then only the two wine theory explains all the historic evidence.

Misunderstanding of the fermentation process

The crux of the wine argument either way revolves around the nature of fermentation in Biblical times.  One wine theorists must suppose that all fruit of the vine was in the process of being fermented.  But this is incorrect.  Fermentation was a process, but a process that was difficult and had to be monitored carefully if fermented (alcoholic) wine was produced.  Likewise, keeping grape juice fresh (called “sweet” or “new” wine) was a process as well, though actually not as difficult as the fermentation process.  Grape juice left to itself did what all fruit does, it spoiled and was good for little other than a vinegar.

The nineteenth century French chemist, Jean-Antoine Chaptal wrote, “Nature never forms spirituous liquors; she rots the grape upon the branch; but it is art which converts the juice into (alcoholic) wine.”7 This process for fermentation was well known in Bible times.  “Fermentation is the process whereby yeast germs eat the sugar in the fresh juice and throw off alcohol and carbon dioxide.”8 This is a controlled process in which the juice must be at just the right temperature, air, and yeast or leaven.  Without these specific parameters, the juice will either remain juice or spoil.

Similarly, the preservation of grape juice must do the opposite, that is, keep the juice fresh and sweet and avoiding any contact with yeast.  This was done primarily by boiling the juice and sealing it from the air.  In this manner juice could be kept for a long time in its fresh state.9 The thick, boiled juice (actually like jam) could be easily mixed with water to make a juice drink.  The common mixture for drinking was 20:1 and the mixture for the Passover was 3:110 (“fruit of the vine” Luke 22:18).  The point is, “wine” in the Bible can be either fermented or unfermented depending on the user’s desire in making it.

The obvious dichotomy of blessing and curse among the Biblical usages

Nothing could be more clear than that the Bible often calls wine a blessing and often calls it a curse.  How are we to account for this dichotomy?  Wine is called God’s blessing by Jacob, “Therefore God give thee of the dew of heaven, and the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine” (Gen. 27:28).  Wine was brought as an offering to God (Num. 18:12); was often a sign of coming millennial blessings (Isa. 55:1; Amos 9:13); was also a symbol of the Lord’s blood (Matt. 26:26).

At the same time the Bible is full of prohibitions to wine.  Solomon clearly describes wine as a mocker that brings woe, sorrow, drunkenness and addiction (Prov. 23:29-35), its effects are like a serpent’s bite and an adder’s sting (32).  He adds that anyone who is deceived by it (wine) is not wise (Prov. 20:1).  Habakkuk calls wine a transgression and pronounces a woe to one who gives it to his neighbor (Hab. 2:5, 15).  Paul commands us not to be drunk with wine because in it (en ho estin, “in which is”) is excess (asotia, wantonness, debauchery).  Not in the drunkenness but in the wine itself.

The best explanation of this dichotomy is the two wine view.  The Biblical words yayin and oinos, and the English word wine can mean either fermented or unfermented.  God has given us the fruit of the vine (as He did with all fruit) in its created state as a blessing and a refreshment.  Man has taken God’s gift and by his own artistic ability (as he has with many of God’s raw materials) and made a poison which God has warned against.  The sins of Noah and Lot are examples enough of alcohol’s destructive nature.

A better explanation of Scripture

Did Jesus come to a party where hundreds were drunk with alcohol and give them 120 gallons more?  Would He violate the very Scripture He Himself wrote?  No.  The wine was “good” because it was fresh.  Jesus, the Creator of all fruit and juice, created the same thing He always creates with water and vines only much faster.

New wine must be put in new wine skins so that both wine and bottle will not be destroyed (Matt. 9:17).  The usual explanation is that the violent fermentation process will cause the skin to expand and burst if it is not a new skin.  But “it is impossible that the must [juice] could ever have been put into skins to undergo the whole process of fermentation, as is usually stated, the action of the gas given off in the earlier stages of the process being much too violent for any skins to withstand.”11 As Bacchiocchi says, “new wine was placed into fresh wineskins to insure the absence of any fermentation-causing substance.”12 The mention of new wine skins assures the presence of freshly preserved grape juice, kept from contamination of air and leaven so that fermentation could NOT take place and burst the bottle.

Was Timothy supposed to take a little fermented wine for a stomach that was already ailing (1 Tim. 5:23)? No.  Only fresh grape juice would be good for such a stomach.  The ancient Pliny said, “For all the sick, wine is most useful when its forces have been broken by the strainer.”13 Straining the wine was one common way to keep it fresh from contaminates.

Were the apostles accused of being drunk on “new wine” (Acts 2:13) that was alcoholic?  This is the only place where the Greek word gleukos is used in the New Testament.  It is translated “new wine,” meaning sweet wine, as our word glucose means.  The mockers knew that the apostles only drank sweet wine (grape juice) and thus the heightened mocking of being so stupid as to be drunk on new wine.

Did Jesus use a fermented, leavened product to symbolize His own sinless body and blood?  Not in either case.  The juice was as unleavened as was the bread (and perfectly acceptable in the Jewish feast).

As I stated, we all come to this discussion with a bias.  My bias must be toward the total abstinence of alcoholic beverage for the believer.  This two wine view answers the questions much better.  It preserves the integrity of the Scripture and our sensibilities.