In the interest of complete disclosure, I ought to say that I was raised within Methodism, a Christian tradition that tends to support total abstinence.
I am acutely aware of the devastating effects of alcoholism: a relative came close to destroying both himself and his family because of his addiction to drink. (He was enabled to give up alcohol completely – apart from a couple of temporary lapses – after he exercised saving faith in Jesus Christ.)
As a former nurse, I have found the incidence of alcohol-related injury and disease (to say nothing of other forms of alcohol-related misery, including crime) to be alarming. The cost, both to individuals and to society, of alcohol abuse, is truly immense.
But, despite my personal inclination to distrust alcohol and its effects, I think that moderation, rather than abstinence, is mandated by Scripture.
In the interest, then, of seeking not to go further than Scripture on this issue, let me consider, and respond to, some of the claims that might be made by advocates of total abstinence.
‘The principle Hebrew and Greek words for “wine” usually refer to unfermented grape juice’
At the heart of the ‘prohibitionist’ interpretation is the notion that Scripture speaks about two kinds of wine – fermented and unfermented. The use of the former (it is claimed) is uniformly condemned in the Bible, and it is only the use of the latter which is permitted.
Among the texts which are thought to refer to ‘wine’ as unfermented grape juice are:
Gen 49:11; Deut 32:14; 2 Chron 31:5; Isa 27:2; 65:8; and Jer 40:10, 12.
The principle words used for wine are yayin (Hebrew) and oinos (Greek). We can agree with the 19th-century scholar Ferrar Fenton when he denies that ‘the Greek oinos, always meant fermented and intoxicating liquor’. It is one thing, however, to assert that these terms were ‘not confined’ to intoxicating liquids, but quite another to accept, without convincing evidence, that they ‘more frequently referred to a thick, non-intoxicating syrup, conserve, or jam, produced by boiling, to make them storable as articles of food, exactly as we do at the present day’.
Fenton’s reference to ‘present day’ practice may have some affinity with the ‘vin cuit’ which is still produced in the Provence region of France. Of this wine, it is written:
‘The juice is cooked for about ten days, during which time the liquid is constantly stirred with a long tree branch and carefully monitored so that it does not boil. Heat from the fire causes the natural water in the grape juice to evaporate, reducing the liquid (by as much as half) and leaving a high concentration of sugar in the juice. The juice is then allowed to ferment but, with its high concentration of sugar, not all of it converts to alcohol so the end product is sweet (and high in alcohol at about 14%).’ (My emphasis)
Belknap offers a list of thirty contextless quotations, ranging from the 4th century BC to the 19th century AD, which he claims ‘proves’ that ‘the word ‘wine’ ‘often referred to non-alcoholic drinks’. The kindest thing that we can say about this list is that at most it indicates that the word ‘wine’ was sometimes (i.e., not ‘usually’, or even ‘often’) understood as referring to non-alcoholic drinks.
On the one hand, I can see no reason to agree with D.F. Watson (Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 1st edition) when he writes that ‘all wine mentioned in the Bible is fermented grape juice with an alcohol content. No non-fermented drink was called wine.’ But, on the other hand, the assertion that the terms translated ‘wine’ more often than not referred to non-intoxicating products is not supported by any recent scholar that I have consulted. To take one example: according to the Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, edited by William D. Mounce:
‘For the most part, yayin is fermented juice that comes from grapes. But there are some occasions in which this term refers to unfermented grape juice. When Isaiah says that “no one treads out wine at the presses” (Isa. 16:10), the yayin here must refer to grape juice before it has become fermented (cf. also Jer. 48:33).’
‘But for the most part, yayin is something that can make a person drunk. Noah became drunk on yayin (Gen. 9:21, 24), and after Aaron’s sons had offered strange fire on the altar of the Lord, God commanded, “You and your sons are not to drink wine or other fermented drink whenever you go into the Tent of Meeting” (Lev. 10:9). It is perhaps for this reason that the Recabites refused all wine (Jer. 35:5–8, 14). Hosea writes that yayin takes away understanding from God’s people (Hos. 4:11), and Isaiah writes about those stay up late and get inflamed with wine (Isa. 5:11–12).’
‘Nevertheless, the Bible does not endorse teetotalism. God in his goodness has provided “wine that gladdens the heart of man, oil to make his face shine” (Ps. 104:15; cf. Isa. 55:1; Zech. 10:7). Wine is one of the elements on Lady Wisdom’s table (Prov. 9:2, 5). Wine appears to have been a common drink in Israelite society (1 Sam. 10:3; 16:20; 1 Chr. 9:29; 12:40; 27:27), and only drunkenness was condemned (Prov. 23:29–35).’
The Hebrew word tîrôš is usually translated ‘new wine’ (see Gen 27:28, Num 18:12, Deut 7:13, Prov 3:10). According to B.L. Bandstra (ISBE, 2nd ed., art. ‘Wine’), ‘both yayin and tîrôš are fermented grape juice with alcoholic content; hence both are able to cause intoxication (cf. Hos. 4:11; Acts 2:13) and are to be distinguished from “must” or unfermented grape juice.’
Turning to the New Testament, it might be supposed that ‘new wine’ was unfermented and therefore non-intoxicating. But ‘in fact the process of fermentation sets in very rapidly, and unfermented wine could not be available many months after the harvest (Acts 2:13). It represents rather wine made from the first drippings of the juice before the winepress was trodden. As such it would be particularly potent and would come immediately to mind as a probable explanation of what seemed to be a drunken state.’ (F.S. Fitzsimmonds, New Bible Dictionary).
”The “new wine” (Gk. gleúkos) of the Pentecost account (Acts 2:13) was the vintage of the recent harvest; the thrust of the taunt requires that it refer to wine that can cause intoxication.’ (B.L. Bandstra, ISBE)
Biblical references to ‘wine’, therefore, usually refer to fermented grape juice. With reference to the practice of our Lord himself, the references to wine should be understood as referring to an alcoholic beverage. The accusation that he was ‘a glutton and a drunkard’ (Mt 11:19; Lk 7:34) was, of course, false. Nevertheless, this very accusation tends to confirm that, unlike John the Baptist, our Lord did partake of wine (he ‘came eating and drinking’).
At the Wedding in Cana (Jn 2:1-11), Jesus miraculously turned a large quantity of water into wine. If non-fermented wine were prevalent in New Testament times, then it would be reasonable to suppose that this wine might have been mere grape juice. But scholarly opinion is decidedly in favour of the opposite view: most wine was fermented. The burden of proof lies with those who adopt a teetotalitarian view of the text. Accordingly we must assume that this wine was fermented, in the absence of any hard evidence to the contrary. It is, by the way, no argument to say that because the wine had at that very moment been created (miraculously) it must have been unfermented grape juice. It is gratuitous to suppose that our Lord would turn water into (unfermented) grape juice but would not (or could not?) turn water into (fermented) wine.
At his crucifixion, Jesus refused wine mixed with myrrh (Mk 15:23) or gall (Mt 27:34). It is possible that he refused to drink this because he did not wish to cloud his consciousness. More plausibly, however, it was because the wine had been rendered undrinkable by the additive: the offer would then have been callous, rather than kindly, intended to increase rather than to decrease his suffering (so A. J. Köstenberger and others). Later, he did accept some sour wine (Jn 19:29f); this was cheap wine, of the kind used by soldiers.
Prov 31:6, in the AV, reads: ‘Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, And wine unto those that be of heavy hearts.’ An assumption made by some is that this verse makes a clear distinction between ‘strong drink’ and ‘wine’, with the former being more intoxicating than the latter. A further assumption is then made: that the former drink was offered to (and refused by) Jesus (Mt 27:34), whereas he accepted the latter because he was on the point of dying (Jn 19:29). This, however, is is flawed reasoning, and not supported by the biblical text itself. For one thing, there is no reason to suppose that the two types of drink offered to our Lord correspond to the two types of drink mentioned in Prov 31:6. For another thing, the synonymous parallelism of verse 6 does not imply a distinction, but rather a similarity, between the two types of drink mentioned.
It is often claimed that in ancient times wine was frequently diluted with water. This is perfectly true. A ratio of 1 part wine to 2 or 3 parts water would have been usual. This would bring the alcohol content of the drink down from around 12% to about 4%. The resulting drink would, accordingly still have the alcoholic content, and therefore the intoxicating properties, of a modern beer. The suggestion, often made, that wine was diluted down to a ratio of 20:1 is based on a passage in Homer’s Odyssey. But this is a work of fiction, and not to be relied upon in such matters. For example, just two paragraphs later Cyclops (a one-eyed, man-eating ‘huge monster’) ‘rolled a huge stone to the mouth of the cave—so huge that two and twenty strong four-wheeled waggons would not be enough to draw it from its place against the doorway.’ Clearly, we are in the realms of fantasy!
‘Methods for preserving non-alcoholic grape juice were readily available’
It is sometimes argued that various methods for preserving non-alcoholic grape juice were available, and that the wine referred to in Scripture would often have been produced by one of these methods. (The methods mentioned are: filtration, fumigation, cold storage, and boiling). This argument is unconvincing. In the first place, the evidence suggests that any preservation that took place would be of fermented, rather than unfermented, wine. In the second place, there is scant evidence in the Bible that any of these methods were used.
Isa 25:6 refers (in the AV) to ‘wine on the lees’. Some claim that this expression describes a wine that has been preserved with a view to avoiding fermentation. (The argument is then extended to apply to the wine used at the Last Supper, which may (it is suggested) have been preserved by this or another method). However, far from being unfermented (and therefore non-alcoholic), the wine described in this verse would actually have been stronger than usual:
‘This [description] refers to wines that were kept long in kegs and had the dregs mixed with them, and were therefore old and strong. They were refined or filtered by being strained through a cloth sieve, thus separating the liquor from the lees. Most of their old wine was turbid and required straining before it was fit to drink. The NIV renders this passage as: “a banquet of aged wine—the best of meats and the finest of wines.” This rendering presents the thought that the wine was not simply old but deliberately aged until it reached its peak of flavor.’ (New Manners and Customs of the Bible)
Contrary to the claims of some, ‘there seems to have been no attempts to preserve wine in an unfermented state; it may have been a near impossible task. A careful examination of all the Hebrew words (as well as their Semitic cognates) and the Greek words for wine demonstrates that the ancients knew little, if anything, about unfermented wine.’ (Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, art. Wine’)
It is to be noted that Scripture never explicitly distinguished between fermented and unfermented grape juice. The implication must be yayin and oinos usually (if not always) refer to fermented grape juice. Jesus’ parable (Mt 9:17) clearly refers to fermenting wine. If some at Corinth were becoming drunk at the Lord’s table, then the wine must have been alcoholic (1 Cor 11:21). The Ephesians are urged not to be drunk with wine (Eph 5:18), and the reference here is obviously to the fermented product.
‘Fermented products were forbidden in the Hebrew sacrificial system’
To be sure, the Passover bread was to be unfermented (Ex 12:15). But this was a limited requirement, only lasting for seven days. The stated reason for the prohibition was to commemorate the Israelites’ hurried departure from Egypt (Ex 12:34,39). It is the case that the use of leaven was prohibited some other kinds of offerings and sacrifices (cf. Ex. 23:18; 34:25; Lev. 2:11; 6:17; etc.). But it was allowed in in offerings that subsequently consumed by humans (cf. Lev. 7:13; 23:17).’ (see R.K. Harrison, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, art. ‘Leaven’).
More generally in Scripture, references to leaven are not directly linked to any fermentation process, but rather to its pervasive effects (as in 1 Cor. 5:6–8; Gal. 5:9). These are sometimes referred to positively, as in Mt. 13:33; Lk. 13:21, and at other times negatively (Mt 16:6, 11f.; Lk. 12:1; cf. Mk. 8:15).
In any case, the biblical teaching on fermented/unfermented bread is not directly relevant to questions relating to fermented/unfermented wine. They are separate issues, dealt with separately within the pages of Scripture.
‘The drink used at the Last Supper was not wine, but “the fruit of the vine”‘
In the Gospel records of the Last Supper, the contents of the cup are described, not as ‘wine’, but as ‘the fruit of the vine’, Matthew 26:29; Mark 14:25; Luke 22:18 (see also 1 Cor 11:27, ‘the cup of the Lord’). Does this imply that unfermented grape juice was used?
It is argued that unfermented wine must have been used, by analogy with the requirement for unleavened bread to be used during the Passover period. But this analogy is nowhere made in Scripture. It is reading into the text something which is not there. Given the prevalence of fermented wine in biblical times, it would be entirely reasonable to expect an explicit command prohibiting its use during that period; but no such command can be found.
It is further argued that, even if unfermented wine was not freely available for use at the Last Supper, then Jesus could have miraculously made some. Perhaps (it might be thought) our Lord turned the water in the pitcher (Lk 22:9-13) into such wine, just as he had done at the Wedding in Cana (Jn 2). But, once again, this would be to read into the text of Scripture that which simply is not there.
In fact, scholars are pretty much unanimous in saying that ‘the fruit of the vine’ is synonymous with ‘wine’:
It is ‘an alternate, Semitic way of referring to wine.’ (Donald Hagner, Word Biblical Commentary on Mt 26:29)
‘“The fruit of the vine” is a Semitic expression meaning “wine.”’ (Larry Hurtado, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series on Mk 14:25)
The expression ‘clearly means “wine”’ (Leon Morris, Pillar New Testament Commentary on Mt 26:29)
‘By speaking of “the fruit of the vine” Jesus undoubtedly refers to wine…At this time of the year (April), and under conditions then prevailing in Judea, it is hard to think of anything but fermented grape juice, that is, wine, the kind of wine used at Passover; hence, diluted or paschal wine.’ (William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary on Mk 14:25)
‘“Fruit of the vine” (v. 29) was a stock phrase used in thanksgiving prayers for the wine (m. Ber. 6:1) and therefore does not refer to unfermented beverage, “though it was customary to cut the wine with a double or triple quantity of water.” (Craig Blomberg, quoting D.A. Carson)
‘Wine in the NT was a fermented beverage that was mixed with various amounts of water…Evidence strongly suggests that the wine used at the Lord’s Supper was a mixture of water and wine, probably three to one in agreement with the dictates of the Mishna. The phrase “fruit of the vine” (Mt 26:27–29) is often interpreted to mean fresh grape juice. However, fresh grape juice would be all but impossible to find.’ (Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible)
Why, then, is the cup is referred to as ‘the fruit of the vine’ and not as ‘wine’ in the New Testament texts about the Lord’s Supper? The reason becomes clear in the Mishnah (the collection of ancient Jewish teachings): “What Benediction do they say over fruits? Over the fruit of trees a man says, ‘[Blessed art thou … ] who createst the fruit of the tree,’ except over wine, for over wine a man says ‘… who createst the fruit of the vine’” (Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, art. ‘Wine, Fruit of the Vine’). Note that in this quotation ‘wine’ and ‘the fruit of the vine’ are synonymous.
A note on biblical exegesis
In addition to the more general considerations discussed above, I have to say that I have found the standard of exegesis of specific biblical texts often to be of a poor standard. I take some examples from Ben Sinclair’s Should Christians Drink Wine and Alcohol?
Sinclair cites Deut 32:33, stating that this verse shows that ‘the Bible compares alcoholic wine to “poison” and “venom”‘.
But take a closer look at the passage (I quote from the Authorised Version):
22b Their grapes are grapes of gall,
Their clusters are bitter:
33 Their wine is the poison of dragons,
And the cruel venom of asps.
There are two things to notice here. Firstly, that it is their wine which is figuratively described as ‘poison’ and ‘venom’: not wine in general, but the wine of the enemies of Israel and her God. Secondly, if this text were dismissing all wine as ‘poison’ and ‘venom’, then (glancing back at verse 22b), it would also be dismissing all grapes as unfit to eat (and therefore all grapejuice unfit to drink!). The argument is self-defeating.
Sinclair also discusses Proverbs 20:1. ‘Some,’ he writes, ‘have tried to argue that Proverbs 20:1 is only a caution against drunkenness. However, this is not an accurate interpretation. In fact, the verse says nothing about drunkenness. The Bible does not say that wine mocks people who get drunk. It does not say that only people who get drunk are deceived. It says that wine is a mocker. Alcoholic wine is intrinsically a mocker. Alcoholic wine is raging in its very essence. Anyone who argues against these characteristics of alcohol is deceived and unwise.’ The over-literal nature of this interpretation is apparent when we consider that wine in this verse is mentioned in the same breath as ‘strong drink’, which certainly is alcoholic. Moreover, the interpretation overlooks the overtly poetic nature of the proverb (in which wine and strong drink are both given ‘personal’ characteristics – one is a ‘mocker’ and the other is a ‘brawler’).
One of the most tendentious of Sinclair’s arguments relates to his attempt to link texts from Leviticus, Proverbs, and Revelation. He notes that ‘the immediate context of Proverbs 31 forbids kings and their children from drinking “wine” or “strong drink.” Priests were also forbidden from drinking “wine” and “strong drink” when serving the Lord (Leviticus 10:9). In the New Testament, the children of God are made kings and priests when Jesus washes them with His blood (Revelation 1:6). Therefore, all New Testament saints are kings and priests in God’s eyes. I believe that New Testament Christian kings and priests should not drink alcoholic wine for the same reasons offered in Proverbs 31 and Leviticus 10.’ We think that such a gratuitous interpretation could only come from a mind already made up in favour of teetotalism. To be specific: the Leviticus text only prohibits the drinking of wine whenever Aaron and his sons went into the Tent of Meeting. In Prov 31:1 ‘the absolute prohibition not to drink wine in verse 4 is qualified in verse 5 to mean drinking to the point of inebriation (cf. Prov 23:29–35).’ (Waltke). And in Revelation 1:6 the glorious truth that God’s people are kings and priests (NIV: ‘a kingdom and priests’) by no means indicates that all of the Old Testament injunctions relating to kings and priests have been brought forward into the New Testament era. If that were the case, then Christians would all have to go around with covered heads (Lev 10:6)!
There is no doubt that excess and abuse of alcohol are forbidden in Scripture. Indeed, the Bible warns of the dangers of over-indulgence over 70 times (see, for example, Prov 20:1; 31:4; Isa 5:11; 28:7; Rom 13:13; 1 Cor 11:21; Gal 5:19-21; 1 Tim 3:3; Tit 2:3; 1 Pet 4:3.)
Nonetheless, the consistent teaching of both Old and New Testaments is that alcohol intake is permissible in moderation. See, for example, Gen 14:18; Psa 104:15f; Prov 9:5; Eccle 9:7; Isa 55:1; 62:8f; Jn 2:3-11; 1 Tim 3:8; 5:23.
But does not the New Testament advocate sobriety, and does that term not imply total abstinence? ‘Yes’ in answer to the first part of the question, and ‘No’ in response to the second. The word nēphō is used some six times in the New Testament. Some argue for total abstinence from alcohol from 1 Pet 5:8 and similar texts, on the ground that nēphō means ‘sober’. But this is to neglect the fact that this word has a figurative, as well as a literal, meaning (just like the word ‘sober’ in older English). There is nothing in the context to suggest that Peter is using the word in the literal sense. In fact, ‘the verb Gk. né̄phō especially refers to watchfulness in regard to one’s responsibility to God and to self-control (1 Pet. 1:13; 4:7; 5:8)…In the NT this word-group focuses not on the sobriety achieved by not drinking wine, but rather it refers figuratively to the clarity of mind and self-control for Christian service.’ (L.D. McDonald, ISBE, art. ‘Sober’)
There were indeed some who abstained totally from wine and strong drink, as in Num 6:3; Lk 1:15; 7:33. But such instances are notable precisely because they are exceptions.
Moreover, abstinence may be freely chosen out of consideration for one’s own scruples, or those of others. Let each person follow his or her own conscience in this matter (Rom 14:15-21; 1 Cor 9:19-23; 10:23f). But let us be careful lest we impose on Holy Scripture either too narrow or too broad a view of this issue.
Gary T. Meadors (Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, art. ‘Abstinence’) concludes:
‘Believers in any given time period or geographical location may choose total abstinence from alcoholic beverages for numerous reasons. One may use certain passages of Scripture to warn against abuse just like ancient Israel did. The abuse of strong drink has plagued all cultures and reasons to abstain abound. Careful biblical interpretation, however, requires that the choice to abstain be made for reasons other than the demand of the biblical pattern.’
In addition to the works mentioned above, I have also consulted:
Bible Wines, William Patton (1874)
Wine-drinking in New Testament Times, R. Stein. Christianity Today, June 20, 1975.
Should Christians Drink Wine and Alcohol? Ben Sinclair.
What kind of wine did Jesus drink? Scott Shifferd