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Wine of the Bible – fermented or no?

As a general rule, I don’t opine on issues that we cover. As editor, part of my job is to pen editorials on issues that impact our community, but our newspaper has a long-standing policy against political endorsements, which rules out editorials on candidates or positions during election campaigns.

Nevertheless, the argument over whether the Bible condones or condemns alcoholic drink is an intriguing one to me. This isn’t an endorsement of the upcoming liquor referendums in two Scott County towns; certainly there are more at stake on the issue than what biblical texts say about drinking. But, anyway . . .

The evangelical opposition to liquor sales is primarily based on multiple scriptures taken from the Bible — New Testament and Old Testament alike — that appear to condemn alcohol. I was raised in Baptist churches and still attend a Baptist church and  the endorsed position of Baptists — like most protestant denominations — is total abstinence from alcoholic beverages; consumption of alcohol is sinful even in moderation. And from Proverbs — “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler . . .” — to Ephesians and many spots in between, there are verses of scripture that can be used to back up that argument.

But there are also a number of verses from the Bible where drinking wine is not frowned upon — after all, Jesus’ first miracle was turning the water into wine at the marriage supper — and those texts could even be argued as an endorsement for wine.

Traditionally, the way to explain away these conflicting scriptures is to take the position that there were two types of wine in New Testament times: fermented and unfermented.

The problem with that argument is that there is little to back it up. It seems to be little more than an assumption . . . a staunchly-argued assumption, but an assumption nonetheless.

On the other hand, there is evidence that there was no such thing as “unfermented” wine in the Bible, though it hardly paints a conclusive picture.

Perhaps the best way to begin an examination of Christian opposition to even moderate consumption of alcohol is an examination of cultures. Opposition to alcohol in America began as largely a political effort. Trace the roots of Southern Baptists and other southern protestant denominations, in particular, and you’ll find that prohibition of alcohol as a belief of the church is a relatively new idea. Prior to the Temperance movement, Christians routinely drank alcohol. It was a minister who developed the recipe for Bourbon whiskey. Parishioners tithed moonshine from their stills. And, in a time when pastors were often paid with vegetables from the garden or meat from the smokehouse, that payment also included whiskey at times.

That didn’t change until the Temperance movement. In 1896, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution denouncing alcohol and encouraging member churches to excommunicate members who drank alcohol.

Today, the immorality of alcoholic beverages isn’t even an issue among European Christians, which further suggests the Temperance movement is largely responsible for protestant opposition to alcohol today.

In a nutshell, a study of the history of the church suggests that Christian leaders decided in the late 19th Century that alcohol was immoral and turned to biblical texts to back up that position.

But the inconvenient truth for this argument is an examination of the biblical mentions of alcohol: Wine, or strong drink, is mentioned 240 times in the Old and New Testaments. The majority of those mentions are actually favorable towards wine. The remainder mostly scorn the abuse of alcohol, or drunkenness. Out of the 240 verses mentioning wine or strong drink, only a handful are selected to back up the argument for total abstinence from alcohol.

It is still argued in some religious circles that all the wine from biblical times was unfermented. This supposition is easily debunked by the fact that the Bible so heavily condemns drunkenness. Why condemn something that didn’t exist? And if wine was only unfermented, obviously no one would be drunk. Further, two key Old Testament figures — Noah and Lot — clearly were intoxicated. Suffice it to say that they probably didn’t get drunk on grape juice.

The more common argument, of course, is that Christ and Christians used unfermented wine; that the wine Jesus created at the marriage supper was unfermented. There are often references made of “new wine,” suggesting that this is freshly-squeezed grape juice. But there’s a larger debate over what exactly “new wine” means. There’s a misconception that wine improves with age, therefore “new” wine must mean grape juice. However, any wine connoisseur will tell you that most wines are actually better when they’re new, and the quality deteriorates with age.

I said at the top that there is more biblical evidence that the wine used by Christ and His followers was fermented than there is that it wasn’t fermented. By that I mean simply this: Theologians tell us that the Passover took place in the spring. Obviously, grapes ripen in the late summer and early fall. And since they didn’t exactly have refrigerators in those days, there was no way to preserve fresh grape juice. Unless Jesus recreated his marriage supper miracle and created the wine for the Passover — which is certainly possible, but there’s no biblical texts to suggest it — the wine served at the Passover must have been fermented wine. There is simply no other explanation.

Additionally, the Apostle Paul told Timothy to “take a little wine” for his stomach. To my knowledge, there are no medical studies to suggest that pure grape juice has any short-term health benefits. If anything, the acidity (grapes aren’t as acidic as oranges, but do contain some citric acid) would further irritate an upset stomach. On the other hand, there have been medical studies in recent years that have suggested that wine does, in fact, have health benefits.

Besides, why would Paul have told Timothy to have “a little wine” if it were only grape juice? I don’t know about you, but in my mind the only thing better than a big glass of grape juice is two glasses of grape juice. (And, incidentally, theologians tell us that the same Greek and Hebrew words used to condemn abuse of wine in other verses were used for the term wine in Paul’s instruction to Timothy, which further suggests that Paul was telling Timothy to have himself some fermented wine.)

In Isaiah, it is written that God prepares a banquet for His people with “fine well-aged wines.” Obviously, well-aged grape juice in the Bible would be fermented.

Finally, critics even went so far as to call Jesus a “drunkard,” a claim that would have been hard to make if He were drinking only unfermented wine.

One thing that those on both sides of the debate can agree on is that the Bible clearly condemns drunkenness. Abuse of alcohol is a sin. That isn’t out of line with many other things that are good in moderation but sinful in excess. For example, a condemnation from biblical texts that is much more scarcely talked about in church is gluttony, which would suggest that over-eating is sinful. I don’t know of a single Southern Baptist who doesn’t enjoy a good dinner of pan-fried chicken after Sunday morning preaching. If sitting down to 2nd and 3rd helpings of momma’s fried chicken on a Sunday afternoon causes you to complain of having eaten until you’re about to pop, isn’t that just as wrong as getting tipsy on too much wine? The Bible takes it a step further to declare our body a temple and decry causing damage to that temple, which should be more than enough to throw all the Baptist deacons smoking cigarettes in front of the church before the start of the service under the bus. There is now ample evidence, after all, that even a single cigarette can have negative health consequences.

Of course, my point isn’t to condemn over-eating or smoking or Baptists. It’s simply that this argument that moderate consumption of alcohol is wrong — well-intended though it is — is taking the Bible out of context.

I do not drink beer (cannot stand the taste or smell) and have never been drunk . . . nor do I ever plan to be. But I do enjoy a good red wine and some other alcoholic beverages in moderation just as much as I enjoy a good glass of sweet tea. Folks have to make up their own mind on whether to support or oppose the sale of liquor. Certainly there are positives and negatives alike and each should be weighed accordingly. But when I hear Christians telling others that they’re “enemies of God” for supporting such a measure, it makes me shake my head . . . because, when we arrive at that point, we — as Christians — are doing more harm than good.

3 Comments

  1. Stuart

    Eph 5:18 And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit;

    The Greek word used for wine here, is OINOS, the same word used of the wine that Jesus miraculously turned from water. If it were unfermented grape juice, Paul would never have warned the Church at Ephesus to not be drunk with it, or drink in excess.

    I agree with your entry, Ben. Tradition and doctrine have altered and hidden th true meaning intended within th Gospel. Most people don’t read the Bible for themselves, and solely depend on what they hear from behind the pulpit, or what mom and daddy told them.

    Having said that, I couldn’t care less one way or another if either of these 2 votes pass, that is for the citizens of Winfield and Huntsville to decide.

  2. Twice Guessing

    I agree it isn’t important to me which way the vote goes.

    The conversation in the community surrounding the campaign is revealing though.

    You have to just shake your head when you see the blindness of some people supporting grandpa’s and grandma’s tradition. Good people with good intentions sometimes amaze. And I think by twisting the words of scripture into meaning something it clearly doesn’t in an effort to support those traditions lowers the effectiveness and believability of those same people when it comes to much more important declarations of gospel truth. If they can’t be honest about scripture on one point how can they be trusted on other points?

    I have no problem with a stance against behavior brought on by the abuse of alcohol. Public drunkenness, DUI , whatever. All of this behavior is wrong and has no place in a christian’s life. For me to call myself a follower of Christ and get my pleasure in drunken parties is a great contradiction and I can’t understand anyone who does that. Scripture plainly condemns drunkenness and the irresponsible use of alcohol. Public drunkenness is listed in scripture right with all the other “great” sins. How can we say we “walk in the spirit of God” and then get pleasure and excitement in getting drunk right along with the world in their foolish parties and revelries?

    But like someone said, the spoon doesn’t make us fat – it is what we use the spoon to do or how we overuse the spoon that might make us fat. I feel the same way about this issue. A thoughtful, honest study of scripture will result in a much different viewpoint than held by many on this issue.

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