Alcohol, Wine, and the Bible: A Common Sense View

Introduction

There is much controversy in the modern church about the consumption of alcohol and its moral implications. The subject has been covered many times, and it is hardly a new topic. However, I believe the view I present in this article represents a fresh perspective: a direct appeal to your sense of reason. I will cover common arguments on the matter and present my own, carefully avoiding excessive academic detail. Sources are either listed parenthetically or by hyperlinks from relevant material.

After growing up in a conservative Christian home, attending a highly conservative Christian university, and most recently, reading several pertinent books on the matter, I have encountered three primary views held by those that oppose the consumption of alcohol (not necessarily mutually exclusive, just the three most common views):

  1. Wine in Bible times was dramatically less alcoholic than wine produced today.
  2. The word translated "wine" does not always mean the same thing (frequently called the two-wine theory).
  3. It is irresponsible, and being a poor steward of our bodies, to consume anything that negatively alters our conscious state of mind.

Responses

Wine in Bible times was dramatically less alcoholic than wine produced today.

I have never seen credible evidence presented for this view. There is strong evidence that many cultures in the ancient world drank wine highly fermented and undiluted. We know that the Romans frequently diluted their wine with water, but literary evidence suggests ratios near 50/50, which would bring the alcohol level of a typical table wine down to that of a low-grade beer (5-7%). We also know that in Ancient Greece, "wine was almost always drunk diluted with water: the ratio varied, normally ranging between 2:3 and 1:3, which would give a range in alcoholic strength of about 3-6% and generally at the lower end of this range" (The Oxford Companion to Wine via decanter.com), so it might take a little longer to get drunk in Ancient Greece than in some nearby countries.

Some have claimed without evidence that the practice of adding sugar and yeast to amplify the fermentation process was not yet developed, and the alcohol content of ancient wines could not approach that of modern wines. This has been refuted many times (see the April 1841 Princeton Review, Vol. 13, Issue 2, page 474), and a trip to Palestine (a region famous for its high levels of natural saccharine in grapes) to watch how wine is made should convince you that achieving 10% or even 20% alcohol would not have been challenging in the ancient world. One common reason that American table wines stop at around 13% is the fact that the American government taxes 14% or higher wines as "dessert wines."

One source of confusion about the practice of diluting ancient wines with water is Homer's Odyssey and Pliny's comments on the Odyssey. Unfortunately, many have taken their statements out of context. Homer bragged about Maronean wine as being so strong that it was typically drunk at a ratio of 20:1 (20 parts water to one part wine). This statement, when read in context, clearly exaggerates the strength of the wine of ancient Maronea. Pliny retorts in his Natural History to the effect that no wine could be that strong and that 8:1 was a more likely ratio (see Pliny's Natural History, page 236). These statements provide powerful evidence that ancient cultures were capable of producing extremely strong wines, sapping the argument about ancient technology. For a little more on this topic, see one of my sources, Dr. R. A. Baker's Wine in the Ancient World.

The word translated "wine" does not always mean the same thing (frequently called the two-wine theory).

This view was largely popularized by the William Patton's book Bible Wines: on The Laws of Fermentation and Wines of The Ancients. He published the book in 1874, when much of America, church folk included, drank constantly (Bible Wines, pp. 9-3). It was a compilation of research he had done in response to two infamous (and long since thoroughly refuted) works on ancient wine, Bacchus and Anti-Bacchus. Since I promised to avoid plunging too far into academic arguments, I will leave the study of these papers as an exercise for the reader (that's you). I have two responses to this view:

  1. If you are a fundamentalist, literalist, or just a strict supporter of the preservation and authority of Scripture, it is not logically possible for you to agree with this approach. Even if different Greek or Hebrew words were used, you have to accept that God deemed it OK to translate them all as the same modern word "wine." Otherwise you would be admitting that due to poor translation in our modern versions, study of the original languages is the only way to know the truth of a part of Scripture, and in doing so you just undermined the absolute authority of Scripture as God preserved it through the ages. If you concede that knowledge of Ancient Hebrew is required to decide if alcohol is OK, then you have basically conceded that God failed to effectively preserve His Word to those that can only read in their native tongue. You have to accept the validity of reading the word "wine" at face value, employing a straight-forward hermeneutic.
  2. If you are not as strict of a supporter of the preservation and authority of Scripture, I will refrain from directly arguing the point here, as it would grow excessively academic. The later section, "Appeal to Common Sense," will cover this topic from a new angle.

It is irresponsible, and being a poor steward of our bodies, to consume anything that negatively alters our conscious state of mind.

I will not attempt to argue directly with this view, as I can only come across as a devil by tempting you to do bad things to your body. I can only mention that one cannot easily claim in modern society to successfully and absolutely avoid all mind-altering substances. As Carl Wieland put it, "To be consistent with the notion that anything that alters our mood should be prohibited, one would have to crack down on tea, coffee, cola drinks, etc. containing caffeine, which has definite anti-depressant effects."

A related view, and one that I believe is much more credible, is based on 1 Cor. 6:19-20 (quoted from the KJV):

> What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God's.

It is true that to be a "good steward" (Luke 16 for just one example) of our bodies, we must be careful how we treat it. However, this presumes that alcohol is universally harmful to your health, and the topic involving the health risks and benefits of various types of alcohol is another can of worms, which I will have to avoid in this article.

Another related view that I believe to be quite subjectively valid is that of losing control of your own actions. Should you actually lose control due to alcohol, you would definitely violate several Scriptural principles. Several questions remain:

  • "How much causes you to lose control?" - See the later section, “Appeal to Common Sense.”
  • "If there's any risk at all, isn't it wiser to avoid it altogether?" - I cannot argue with this. If you believe that you should not dabble with alcohol because you may succumb to drunkenness, then please, avoid it. This is the concept of Christian Liberty discussed in Galations 5. According to Paul, if you are weak, do not take such risks, but also do not condemn those that are strong and can handle it.

Appeal to Common Sense

Now that I have provided short, simple responses to the three most popular views held by those that oppose the consumption of alcohol in the modern church, I present my own appeal on the matter, consisting primarily of a few basic mental exercises.

Word Substitution

Let's presume that when the Bible says "wine" in a positive context, it is referring to something closer to grape juice. Now look at the following passages, and afterwards we will substitute the words "grape juice" where you see the word translated "wine" (passages taken from the King James Version, for the sake of offending as few people as possible).

Before

  1. The Nazirite vow (Numbers 6:3) : "He shall separate himself from wine and strong drink, and shall drink no vinegar of wine, or vinegar of strong drink, neither shall he drink any liquor of grapes, nor eat moist grapes, or dried."
  2. Christ rebuking the Pharisees (Luke 7:33-34, credit to Carl Wieland): "For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine; and ye say, He hath a devil. The Son of man is come eating and drinking; and ye say, Behold a gluttonous man, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners! "
  3. Psalmist's praise of God (Psalm 104:14-15): "He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man: that he may bring forth food out of the earth; and wine that maketh glad the heart of man, and oil to make his face to shine, and bread which strengtheneth man's heart."
  4. The Wedding at Cana (John 2:9-10): "When the ruler of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, and knew not whence it was: (but the servants which drew the water knew;) the governor of the feast called the bridegroom, and saith unto him, Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but thou hast kept the good wine until now."
  5. Noah gets drunk (Genesis 9:20-21): "And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard: and he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent."
  6. Filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18): "And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit."

After

  1. The Nazirite vow (Numbers 6:3) : "He shall separate himself from grape juice and strong drink, and shall drink no vinegar of wine, or vinegar of strong drink, neither shall he drink any liquor of grapes, nor eat moist grapes, or dried."

    Doesn't "grape juice" seem a little redundant/peculiar in this context?

  2. Christ rebuking the Pharisees (Luke 7:33-34, credit to Carl Wieland): "For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking grape juice; and ye say, He hath a devil. The Son of man is come eating and drinking; and ye say, Behold a gluttonous man, and a grape juice-bibber, a friend of publicans and sinners! "

    Would someone that drank alot of grape juice (or even highly diluted wine), be called a drunkard or glutton as an insult? Notice that Christ seems to have actually drunk the wine for this insult to make any sense.

  3. Psalmist's praise of God (Psalm 104:14-15): "He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man: that he may bring forth food out of the earth; and grape juice that maketh glad the heart of man, and oil to make his face to shine, and bread which strengtheneth man's heart."

    Would grape juice really be singled out as the fruit juice that makes glad the heart of man? Notice that the bread is lauded for its health benefit, but the wine is lauded for making glad men's hearts, not for quenching thirst.

  4. The Wedding at Cana (John 2:9-10): "When the ruler of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, and knew not whence it was: (but the servants which drew the water knew;) the governor of the feast called the bridegroom, and saith unto him, Every man at the beginning doth set forth good grape juice; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but thou hast kept the good grape juice until now."

    This is the really obvious one. Christ himself made wine, at a party. The party host said that usually hosts serve the good wine first, and the "worse" wine later. There is only one logical reason for this: when you're intoxicated enough, you don't notice the cheaper wine. There simply cannot be a more obvious way to interpret this passage. The same host that stated this declared that Christ's wine was the best. It is very challenging from the perspective of logic to say that this host would call wine that was not measurably intoxicating "the good wine."

  5. Noah gets drunk (Genesis 9:20-21): "And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard: and he drank of the grape juice, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent."

    How do you get "drunken" enough to lay around naked on grape juice? I realize that this one would be covered by the Two-Wine approach, but this helps counter the diluted-wine approach.

  6. Filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18): "And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit."

    Notice that I did not substitute "grape juice" in this verse, as it is very obviously talking about alcoholic wine. I merely wish to point out that using this verse to make ultimatums against the consumption of alcohol is clearly misusing the text of the verse. Paul does not say not to drink wine. Paul says not to get drunk with wine, because it is excessive to do so. That is very explicit: the excessive drunkenness part is what he condemns, not the wine. Had Paul not included the phrase, "wherein is excess," he may have actually been condemning wine.

Summary

It will never be possible to answer every last direct argument against the consumption of alcohol. I urge you to ponder the fact that Christ himself produced, and drank, alcoholic wine. Again, according to the principle of Christian Liberty, if you consider yourself weak to temptation, it is probably best for you to avoid alcohol. However, according to the principle of Christian Liberty, if you are mature in your faith and discipline, enjoy that gift of God that "maketh glad the heart of man"!

Comments

Ask

I as a Muslim man wants to ask whether the Christian religion allow his people to consume alcohol? Obat Susah Buang Air Kecil

PS or something

Oh, by the way I've always thought it was a little weird that Noah being naked in his tent was somehow bad... It's HIS TENT. How about some freakin' privacy? Did they just go rambling around into any old tent back then, heedless of the consequences?

Also, special note: one of the prophets (Ezekiel? Isaiah? Bob the Redundant?) went around naked--at the behest of God Himself, mind you--for a REALLY LONG TIME IN PUBLIC VIEW OF ANYONE WITH WORKING EYES.

I mean, I'm just saying...

Maybe Noah should have said, "Hey, I just SAVED THE WHOLE WORLD by having enough faith to build a HUGE BOAT WITH MY BARE HANDS while everyone said I was a total moron. So I got a little tipsy and lolled around my tent naked for a while... DEAL WITH IT. Maybe, kids, instead of worrying about the fact that I am naked in my own personal tent, you should be worrying a little more about the fact that YOUR KIDS ARE GOING TO MARRY THEIR SIBLINGS. Also, what if you have a ton of boys and only one girl? Troubling times ahead."

Good stuff!

Hey man, I gotta say that that was really good. Very well written, and very thorough. If I ever get into a conversation about this topic with someone conservative, I will point them to this article.

Even though I'm part of the "choir" in this instance, I can still give a heart-felt "Amen" to the preacher.

I'm glad you're out there doing research into stuff like this, because I definitely don't have the patience, lol.

In the past I probably would have tried to come up with logical arguments for anyone who challenged me on this subject, but now I think I would just say something like, "Why do I think it is not wrong to consume alcohol? Because, seriously, DUH." Game, set, match.

And, having truncated such arguments by pointing people to this article, I will get back to doing things that will leave a lasting legacy for myself and my children in this world: like setting my hair on fire.

Q.E.D

Could not have surmised it better in any way.

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