by Mike Harding
This is the second in a continuing series of articles on the issue of alcohol. Today we begin to offer a Christian rationale for abstaining from alcohol.
Bible-believing Christians have widely been known for abstaining from beverage alcohol. These attitudes are now under pressure from within the Christian community. There are a number of good reasons why Christians should continue to hold to an abstinence position. Today we consider the first of them:
1. Wine in the NT era and wine today are not identical.
Wine in Biblical times differed from modern wine in its general potency and in the way in which it was consumed.
The term ‘wine’ usually refers to wine in some state of fermentation beginning with fresh, sweet juice available immediately after grape harvest (Isa 16:10; Jer 48:33) that quickly starts the fermentation process in the absence of refrigeration or pressurized bottling. Fermentation is a natural process that takes place when the grape juice comes into contact with the yeast released from broken grape skins during the treading of grapes.
“New wine” in Hebrew and Greek respectively (tirosh / gleukos) may refer to the juice of the grape that was fresh or in the first year of fermentation. Mixed Wine in the OT was wine flavored with herbs and quite intoxicating (Prov 23:30). Undiluted wine in the NT era was approximately 7%-10% alcohol and usually not taken as a beverage without proper dilution. On account of extra yeast and controlled heating conditions, some standard table wines today by comparison are as much as 14% alcohol.
Fermented wine in the Greek and NT eras was regularly diluted with water.
The Talmud (200 B.C. — A.D. 200) records the Jewish practice of regularly reducing the effects of wine by a 3/1 or 2/1 ratio of water to wine. In the rabbinic period “Yayin is to be distinguished from Shekar [strong drink]: the former is diluted with water; the latter is undiluted.” The Jewish Mishnah said, “They do not say the Benediction over the wine until water has been added to it.” The normal mixture for the Jews was three parts water to one part wine. In the Passover ritual during NT times the four cups every Jew was to drink during the ceremony had to be mixed three parts water to one part wine. This practice is reflected as common during the inter-testament period in 2 Maccabees 15:39: “It is harmful to drink wine alone, or again to drink water alone [bacteria issues], while wine mixed with water is sweet and delicious and enhances one’s enjoyment.”
This dilution process reduced the alcoholic content of the wine down to approximately 2.25–2.75%. In contrast to the ancient world, the modern world does not dilute the effects of alcohol. Beer is 3.5% to 4.5% and typically served in 12-16 ounce containers; table wines are as much as 14%; fortified wines are 18-24%; hard liquor is 40% (80 proof).
A diluted wine would reduce the risks of drunkenness from that of an undiluted wine. Peter argued that the Christians at Pentecost were not drunk since it was only the third hour (9:00 AM). Normally, one had to linger with the wine or be “beside wine” (1 Timothy 3:3) in order to be intoxicated.
The Greeks practiced dilution and the practice eventuallyspread throughout the Roman world including Palestine. Pliny’s work entitled “Natural History” mentions an 8 to 1 ratio of water to wine. Other Classical Greek writers mention similar ratios: Hesiod–3 to 1, Alexis–4 to 1, Diocles — 2 to 1. Mnesitheus of Athens said: “The gods have revealed wine to mortals, to be the greatest blessing for those who use it aright, but for those who use it without measure, the reverse. For it gives food to them that take it and strength in mind and body. In medicine it is most beneficial … In daily intercourse, to those who mix and drink it moderately, it gives good cheer; but if you overstep the bounds, it brings violence. Mix it half and half and you get madness; unmixed, bodily collapse” (Stein, “Wine Drinking,” p. 9).
According to Stein, dilution was practiced in the early centuries of the church. Justin Martyr (150 A.D.) described the Lord’s Supper as “Bread is brought, wine and water, and the elder sends up prayers and thanksgiving” (Apology, I, 67, 5). Cyprian (250 A.D.) said, “Thus, therefore, in considering the cup of the Lord, water alone cannot be offered, even as wine alone cannot be offered. For if anyone offers wine only, the blood of Christ is dissociated from us; but if the water be alone, the people are dissociated from Christ. …. Thus the cup of the Lord is not indeed water alone nor wine alone, unless each be mingled with the other” (Epistle, LXII, 2, 11 and 13). Clement of Alexandria (late 2nd century) said, “It is best for the wine to be mixed with as much water as possible. … For both are works of God and the mixing of the two, both of water and wine produce health. …To the necessary element, the water, which is in the greatest quantity, there is to be mixed in some of the useful element.”
It appears that Paul sets the standard for the early church in Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3 of “not beside wine,” not “much wine,” and not drinking water exclusively but using a little wine for one’s stomach. “Strong drink” (sikera) seems to be completely off limits in the NT; it is only mentioned once in the NT in reference to the abstention of John the Baptist. John was a Nazirite, a term which comes from a Hebrew verb which means to “separate” or “abstain.” Amos chastised Israel for their treatment of the Nazirites in forcing them to drink wine (Amos 2:12). On the other hand, God commended the Rechabites for their abstinence and held this tribe in high regard for their faithfulness (Jer 35:1-19).
To conclude today’s installment, we note that wine-making and wine-drinking during Biblical times was quite different from today. Modern wines and the practice of drinking wine undiluted should give the Christian pause. Even if an attempt is made to justify wine-drinking based on statements of the Bible, can it be said that wine-drinking today is the same as wine-drinking then? We think not. This difference makes comparison difficult, but even more, it makes justification of modern practices even more difficult. We advocate abstention from drinking today for this and a number of other reasons which will follow in due course.
Mike Harding is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Troy, Michigan and a member of the FBFI Executive Board.
This article is excerpted from a single, longer piece by pastor Harding. Proclaim & Defend will make the original article available in pdf format when our serialization is complete.
Additional quotes supporting the ancient practice of dilution:
“In NT times the practice of dilution seems to have been usual.” ((A. R. S. Kennedy, “Wine and Strong Drink,” Dictionary of the Bible, rev. ed. [New York: Scribner’s, 1963] pp. 1038-39.))
“The wine of classical antiquity was very different from modern wine. They . . . always diluted it with water before consumption . . . . Only barbarians drank undiluted wine.”
“In all these countries [Syria, Palestine, Egypt], wine was always diluted with water, a long-standing custom in Mediterranean regions, where pure potable water is not very common”
“At a latter period, however, the Greek use of diluted wines had attained such sway that the writer of 2 Maccabees speaks (15:39) of undiluted wine as ‘distasteful.’ This dilution is so normal in the following centuries that the Mishcan take it for granted and, indeed, Rabbi Eliezer even forbade saying the table-blessing over undiluted wine. The proportion of water was large, only one-third or one-fourth of the total mixture being wine. Note— The wine of the Last Supper, accordingly, may be described in modern terms as a sweet, red, fermented wine, rather highly diluted [emphasis mine].” The reference in Isaiah 1:22 to diluted wine as bad should not be taken as a proof that Jews did not dilute wine, but as a metaphor of spiritual adulteration (cf. Isa 1:21).
“The use of wine at the paschal feast . . . had become an established custom at all events in the post-Babylonian period. The wine was mixed with warm water on these occasions . . . . Hence in the early Christian Church it was usual to mix the sacramental wine with water.”
“He, too, will drink of the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength [“akratou” from “akratos” meaning “undiluted”] into the cup of his wrath” (Rev 14:10a)
- “Wine Drinking in New Testament Times” by Robert H. Stein, Christianity Today, June 20, 1975, pp. 9-11 [↩]
- Jewish Encyclopedia, 1901, vol. 12, p. 533. [↩]
- The Mishnah, Berakhot 7.5 ed, by Herbert Danby [Oxford Press, 1893] [↩]
- Shabbath 77a [↩]
- Pesahim 108b [↩]
- See “Wine” in The New Encyclopedia of Judaism, ed. Geoffrey Wigoder [New York: New York University Press, 2002], pp. 798ff. [↩]
- Instructor, in James Donaldson, ed., AnteNicence Fathers [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans] vol. 2, 2.2. [↩]
- See John MacArthur’s excellent treatment of wine and strong drink in his NT Ephesianscommentary [5:18a], pp. 229-244. [↩]
- Maynard A. Amerine, Collier’s Encyclopedia, 1994, vol. 23, p. 518. [↩]
- R. J .Forbes, Professor of the History of Pure and Applied Sciences in Antiquity, University of Amsterdam, in Encyclopedia American, 1989, 29:44-45. [↩]
- Burton S. Easton, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 1984, vol. 5, p. 3087. [↩]
- Merrill Unger, “Wine,” Unger’s Bible Dictionary, V ed., [Chicago: Moody Press,1981], p.1169. [↩]