9 Jan 2009

When Wine is Really "Wine"

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Apocrypha, Bible, Contemporary Ethics, Culture, Exegesis, Hebrew Bible, Hermeneutics, Jesus
Psalm 104.15 & Ecclesiastes 9.10

Psalm 104.15 & Ecclesiastes 9.10

In the comments of my last blog, Dare We Be ‘Godly,’ the issue of “wine” came up. Did Jesus really make alcoholic wine in John 2? Did he ever drink it? Is “wine” really “wine”? in the Scripture. I don’t want to devote a lot of time to this subject because in my view the answer is obvious. But here are a few things I have thought about tonight.

As our discussion has gone on about wine in the comments, I have come to some conclusions. The first conclusion that I have reached is that the position that alcoholic wine was allowed by God to his People is an unassailable position. The Second conclusion that I have come to is that we will resort to some extreme and desperate arguments that in the end simply reinforce the conclusion reached in #1. Third, I am surprised at how easy a long held belief is allowed to unwittingly subvert basic rules of exegesis.

An example of the disregard for the rules of linguistics and exegesis is the disregard for the “basic” meaning of a word. According to both the standard lexicon of the Greek language (Danker-Baur-Arndt-Gingerich) and The Dictionary of New Testament Theology (a standard 4 volume encyclopedia of Greek words) on pages 918-922 of vol 3 the word “oinos” is alcoholic wine. That is the basic meaning of the word … ordinary wine. The word takes on metaphorical meanings as both symbols of judgment AND blessings. For this word to refer to NON-alcoholic drink something out of the ordinary in the context needs to DEMAND such an understanding.

In the Septuagint, written in biblical koine Greek, there is a book called Ecclesiasticus or Sirach. This book contributes to our discussion in several ways. First it shows us what a devout God fearing man was thinking (a man totally immersed in his biblical heritage); Second this book reveals what a God fearing man thought about wine and Third it shows us that the ordinary meaning of oinos was and is without doubt alcoholic wine. Fourth I believe this text represents the biblical attitude on this subject in summary form. I quote the text below from The Parallel Apocrypha which contains the Greek text of the LXX with the NRSV and several other translations. I have quoted the NRSV but have included the Greek words where necessary to show where oinos is in the translation. The term occurs six times and it is in fact alcoholic wine …

Do not try to prove your strength by wine drinking, for wine [oinos] has destroyed many. As the furnace tests the works of the smith, so wine [oinos] tests hearts when the insolent quarrel. Wine [oinos] is very life to human beings if taken in moderation. What is life to one who is without wine [oinos]? It has been created to make people happy. Wine [oinos] drunk at the proper time and in moderation is rejoicing of heart and gladness of soul.

Wine [oinos] drunk to excess leads to bitterness of spirit, to quarrels and stumbling. Drunkenness increases the anger of a fool to his own hurt, reducing his strength and and adding wounds . . .” (Sirach 31. 25-30).

Now because Ben Sira had read passages like Psalm 104 and Ecc 10.17 and 9.7 and a myriad of other passages he could never be biblical and construct some syllogism that denied those verses. And since Ben Sira had also read passage like Proverbs 23.29ff he knew that wine must be used with the care God seeks.

Ben Sira, I think, occupies the biblical ground. He does not invent definitions for words and rewrite Scripture to say as he pleased. He thanked God for the gifts a Wiser Man had declared to be good. He counseled against the seduction of becoming a fool through riotous living.

The stuff Jesus made in John 2 is oinos … real wine.

Bobby Valentine

24 Responses to “When Wine is Really "Wine"”

  1. Tim Archer Says:

    I hate to say it, but our views on wine come more from our culture than from the Bible itself. There’s a pretty interesting history of views toward alcohol in the United States here: http://www2.potsdam.edu/hansondj/Controversies/1091124904.html

    Grace and peace,

  2. Justin Says:

    Thanks for the linguistic information, Bobby. I have held to your position for some time now…but for simple reasons of logical inconsistency in trying to square the “oinos-is-juice” argument with different passages of Scripture–particularly those in the Pastorals relating to how deacons are “not to be given to much wine,” while elders are “not to be given to wine.” (I have yet to find the church that requires its elders to partake of only 1/2 of the Lord’s Supper.)

  3. fraizerbaz Says:

    IMHO, I believe Tim to be correct. Our views on wine (as well as some other things) stem from our culture, and not so much from Scripture.

    What do you think, Bobby?

    (Very interesting article, Tim.)

  4. Mark Says:

    The way I addressed this one time was that I used an orange juice squeezer that we have at home and made some juice about 2 hours before church. I brought a glass of it with me after having let it sit for two hours and showed it during the sermon. It was obviously already doing some weird stuff. Even if he made grape juice, over the course of a wedding party lasting potentially for days, it would have started getting funky pretty quick. This is a good case in point where we decide what the text has to mean, rather than letting it simply mean what it does.

    I don’t think Scripture advocates getting drunk, and I think we have some great benefits with modern refrigeration and Welch’s not to have to worry about people getting drunk when we take communion, but the stuff they drank back then was definitely alcoholic wine.

  5. Frank Bellizzi Says:

    Bobby, you’re right. The old argument that yayin (OT) and oinos (NT) are Welch’s is a bogus argument. But that’s not the whole story.

    In ancient times “wine” typically referred to a mixture that was mostly WATER. Usually the mix was 3 or 4 parts water to 1 part wine. This is widely attested in the literature. Anything stronger was considered barbaric, something only a raging drunkard would consume. Undiluted wine is precisely what the OT refers to as “strong drink.” As I recall, this is what people are supposed to stay away from.

    It is a category mistake to say that Jesus turned water into what we today call wine. No, it wasn’t Welch’s. But it wasn’t Beringer either.

  6. Anonymous Says:

    Agreed, Bobby.

    I once heard this in a class: “Jesus would never have given anyone something that they might use to sin. Therefore, the wine at Cana could not possibly have been alcoholic.”

    Arguing from a previous conclusion, I think, and totally missing the head of the feast’s amazement when he said “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink”. That makes zero sense if we’re talking Welch’s grape juice.

    Total abstinence cannot be Biblically upheld.


  7. gensis5020 Says:


    I am reminded of the following from C.S. Lewis – “Temperance is, unfortunately, one of those words that has changed its meaning. It now usually means teetotalism… [In the past,] temperance referred not specially to drink, but to all pleasures; and it meant not abstaining, but going the right length and no further. It is a mistake to think that Christians ought all to be teetotalers; Mohammedanism, not Christianity, is the teetotal religion.

    “Of course it may be the duty of a particular Christian, or of any Christian, at a particular time, to abstain from strong drink, either because he is the sort of man who cannot drink at all without drinking too much, or because he is with people who are inclined to drunkenness and must not encourage them by drinking himself. But the whole point is that he is abstaining, for a good reason, from something which he does not condemn and which he likes to see other people enjoying. One of the marks of a certain type of bad man is that he cannot give up a thing himself without wanting every one else to give it up. That is not the Christian way. An individual Christian may see fit to give up all sorts of things for special reasons–marriage, or meat, or beer, or the cinema; but the moment he starts saying the things are bad in themselves, or looking down his nose at other people who use them, he has taken the wrong turning.”

    – Mere Christianity

  8. James Says:

    Good article, Bobby. For me, the water/wine/grape juice dam broke when I read Deuteronomy 14:26. In it, God tells Israel it’s perfectly OK to buy wine and other strong drink to celebrate the bringing in of the tithes. There is no reference in the New Testament that says God has changed His attitude toward wine/alcohol, only reiterations that drunkenness is still sinful.

    Of course, I’m one of those crazy Christians that still believes the Old Testament has something to say about character and principles even though we are not under the Law. The ol’ “that’s the OT” line of defense requires an immediate switch to decaf to keep me in line. 🙂

  9. Frank Bellizzi Says:

    Again, the vocabulary in this discussion is a comparison of apples and grapes:

    “We call a mixture ‘wine’, although the larger of the components is water.” –Plutarch

    “A. It’s much safer for you to drink wine well diluted.

    B. No, by Mother Earth! rather three and four. [i.e., three parts water to four parts wine].

    A. Are you going to drink it so strong? Tell me.” –Ephippus

    “Mix it half and half, and you get madness; unmixed, bodily collapse.” –Mnesitheus of Athens

    These sorts of references can be multiplied many times. For more, see Everett Ferguson, “Wine as a Table-Drink in the Ancient World, RESTORATION QUARTERLY 13 (Third Quarter 1970), pp. 141-153.

  10. janjanmom Says:

    I’ve just found your blog and I am loving it. I love it when people don’t shy away from “the hard subjects” of life, but rather search the scriptures and pray for God to reveal Himself.

    I can’t wait to delve through your archives.

    BTW, my friend and I giggled when we read over a scripture in Bible study Wed. night.
    Psalm 104:14-16 (New International Version)

    “14 He makes grass grow for the cattle,
    and plants for man to cultivate—
    bringing forth food from the earth:

    15 wine that gladdens the heart of man,
    oil to make his face shine,
    and bread that sustains his heart.

    16 The trees of the LORD are well watered,
    the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.”

    Welch’s doesn’t “gladden the heart” of any one I know. LOL

  11. Keith Brenton Says:

    “The stuff Jesus made in John 2 is onions” …?

    Oh, sorry. Bad trifocals.

  12. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Frank thanks for your contribution. I am aware that wine was mixed. But it is still wine that was mixed. It was “cut” so to speak for a number of reasons … one of which was that oinos would get you smashed by itself. Even mixed wine though could and will get you drunk.

    Another fine intro to some reading is J. F. Ross’ article in Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible vol 5 (pp. 849-852).

    There is quite a bit more to the vocabulary of “wine” and alcohol in Hebrew (as you know) than yayin … but yayin certainly got Noah toasted!

    Biblical wisdom teaches one to embrace the goodness of God’s creation (wine is part of it), honoring that creation and learning how not to abuse God’s good gifts. This is taught in Proverbs, Ecc and Sirach … and many other sources.

  13. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:


    I do agree with you and Tim. We evangelicals have been shaped and fashioned by Fundamentalist Movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Our attitudes toward wine are cultural and indeed at times very geographically specific. Luther never heard of a Jesus that did not drink wine and he never heard someone say that drinking wine was a sin. This is a modern reaction.

    The Temperance Movement, as pointed out by our anonymous poster, changed “temperance” to mean total abstinence. In my own religious denomination non-denomination’s heritage Carrie Nation (had a Bible in one hand and an Axe in the other) has a long shadow even if most don’t even recall her name. She was one of the national leaders of that movement though.

  14. Frank Bellizzi Says:

    Thanks, Bobby, for writing back.

    Like you, I don’t believe the Bible teaches total abstinence. My point is that, in New Testament times, and for centuries before, wine really wasn’t what we call “wine.” Ancient writers typically referred to their mostly-water-and-a-little-wine mixture “wine.”

    But that’s not what we call wine. I’ve never heard someone ask for wine, “Four parts to one, please.” But that’s exactly what the New Testament means by “wine.”

    Late Jewish and early Christian literature reveals that, among the earliest Christians, the mixing of water and wine at the Passover and in the Lord’s Supper would have been a given. In fact, one passage in Clement of Alexandria speaks against going with all water in Lord’s Supper. He says that it’s heretical and that you have to put at least a little wine in the water for it to count.

    The eucharistic wine wasn’t Christian Brothers. And what first-century believers drank at home wasn’t Mogan David. It was water with a little bit of wine in there to kill the bugs. Otherwise, you wound up like Timothy, the teetotaling anti-example.

  15. Vonnie Says:

    The last two days posts have really brought out the comments. When Tom was diagnosed with glaucoma 28 years ago the doctor told him he should drink a class of wine every day. It was the first time I had ever bought wine and I was very self-conscious that someone from church might see me buying wine. When I finally did run into someone from church – we were living in Vancouver, WA at that time I made sure they knew the doctor ordered it. I was surprised to find out that some “members of the church” actually drank wine. I’m glad we actually can talk about it.

  16. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    janjanmom, delighted to have you hear. The term “gladdens” in Ps 104.15 is the Hebrew “samah.” It occurs around 120x in the Hebrew Bible. What ever yayin is in this psalm it has a physiological effect on the person consuming it. Samah is associated with singing, praising, dancing, clapping the hands, many other expressive acts in the Hebrew Scriptures. According to Ps 104 God gave yayin precisely for that purpose as a gift to humanity.

  17. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Frank. I believe the biblical testimony on wine/alcohol is actually fairly complex. But the bottomline is that drunkenness is a sin and drinking wine is not. I do not accept the premise, however, that just the naked occurrence of oinos or yayin implies mixed wine. There are places where mixed wine is explicitly talked about. Yet in Sirach the writer makes no distinction between the wine that destroys “many” (31.25) and the the apparent misery of life without wine (31.27). Rather Ben Sira suggest that moderation is the way of wisdom with any oinos (31.25).

    But this is exactly the same attitude reflected in wisdom literature accepted in the Protestant canon (Proverbs). Look at 23.20 as an example. Here the sage says:

    “Do not join those who drink too much wine or gorge themselves on meat.”

    This text has a much to say about over eating a steak as drinking wine. Yet we do not have church folks picketing Outback! 🙂 Thank goodness. The scripture is concerned with the abuse of something God gave as a gift, in this case too much wine and too much food. The problem in both is not the meat or alcohol but the lack of discipline or abuse ot it.

    I do believe there are some Hebrew words for drinks like what one would find in a bar today though.

  18. BillyWilson Says:

    hey bobboy -hick – i thought yours artreacle was geart. In fatc i cebrelated it again and agian. cheers, and heers to many more lick ti.

    ps. hopefooly humor is still allouded. Sea yoo on Chewsday. hick!

  19. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Here are some thoughts on the terminology related to alcohol in the Bible. This particular comment is in response to a private communication (I use the phrase “uninspired source” because the private note did):

    So far I have seen pure speculation on the matter of wine being simple grape juice. Indeed when the Spirit did make a judgment he said it was a matter of Christian conscience. But we have not been satisfied with that in Romans 14 by saying wine is really different after all!

    But I ask how? In what way?? Wine is still not brewed, nor was it in the ancient world. In order to preserve simple grape juice you need modern chemicals that they did not have in the ancient world yet we ignore those historical realities. To quote that uninspired but very informed source, ISBE,

    “unfermented grape juice is a very difficult thing to keep without the aid of modern antiseptic precautions, and its preservation in the warm and not overly clean conditions of ancient Pal[estine] was impossible.” (p. 3086).

    In this context “new wine” is being discussed — material “fresh” from the grape. That even this kind of “tirosh” (the Hebrew term) can certainly get one drunk is clearly apparent in several passages in the Hebrew Bible:

    “But the vine answered, ‘Should I give up my wine [tirosh], which cheers both gods and men, to hold sway over the trees” (Judges 9.13)

    ” . . . to old wine and new wine [tirosh], which take away the understanding of my people.” (Hosea 4.10b-11a).

    Certainly this is not mere welches grape juice! But it is “new” wine and it is most clearly alcoholic.

    Even if, per chance, that wine is some how different (which is far from demonstrated — sure our brewing processes are considerably different but that is not wine but beer or whiskey, etc) it was still alcoholic.

    I am convinced that God leaves it up to individuals to make up their own mind about wine. I have read through the various arguments to say it is prohibited and found them lacking.

    Repeatedly in the Hebrew Bible Israelites are told to come before the Lord with “yayin” (wine) as an offering. Jacob blesses Judah “his eyes shall be red with yayin (wine), and his teeth white with milk” (Gen. 49.11b-12) — this is seen as a good thing in the context (vv. 8-12). The Preacher even said, “Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your yayin (wine) with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do” (Ecclesiastes 9.7).

    That “yayin” is real ordinary wine is, I think, evident. Noah got drunk as a skunk on yayin (Gen. 9.20-21), Lot was drunk on “yayin” (Gen 19.32), etc, etc, etc. Isaiah, using a different word (chemer) usually translated as “blood of the grape” or “pure blood” or this was pure undiluted — and quite strong wine. Yet Yahweh, according to Isaiah says, “In that day sing ye unto him, A vineyard of red wine (chemer); I, the Lord, do keep it” (Isa. 27.2-3). Ezra even records that this “chemer” was offered by Cyrus and Artaxerxes “for service of the God of heaven” (Ezra 6.9) and Law allowed this drink to Israelites (Deuteronomy 32.14). Many other passages could be cited for yayin, shekar, chemer as well as a sprinkling of other words.

    Here the challenge is to let the biblical narrative define our faith. And the Emergent Movement has rightly challenged us on this point … do we really believe in sola scriptura?

  20. fraizerbaz Says:

    “Yet we do not have church folks picketing Outback!”

    Just remember to stay away from those Bloomin’ Onions, Bobby – They pack quite a whallop!

  21. nick Says:

    2 funny onion comments on a post about wine! I LOVE it! 🙂

  22. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Yep it is pretty funny

  23. Anonymous Says:

    I have long found the “first miracle” to be also a litmus test. The head servant knew that it was alsohol based wine which takes time to brew and mellow (as I understand).

    The liberals (capital L) do not believ that it was water to start with, but have proposed that a heavy condensate of perhaps jelly consistancy was already within the jars and diluted to become this marvelous potion.

    On the other hand the conservatives (capital C of F — for fundamentalists) believe it was water alright, but they deny that it ever became “real” wine. Cool-aide, however, is no miracle!

    Ron Exum

  24. Anonymous Says:

    I have long found the “first miracle” to be also a litmus test. The head servant knew that it was alcohol based wine which takes time to brew and mellow (as I understand).

    The liberals (capital L) do not believe that it was water to start with, but have proposed that a heavy condensate of perhaps jelly consistancy was already within the jars and diluted to become this marvelous potion.

    On the other hand the conservatives (capital C or F — for fundamentalists) believe it was water alright, but they deny that it ever became “real” wine. Cool-aide, however, is no miracle!

    Ron Exum

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