Be Not Drunk With . . . Grape Juice?

I am interrupting the salvation series to have a brief look at another topic of interest to many Christians. Recently someone asked my opinion as to what a Christian perspective toward alcohol might or should be. It’s been a topic I’ve wanted to discuss for a while, so here we go.

Within the Bible, Old and New Testaments, there are people who drink wine. What is to be made of such narratives and the wine they are consuming? I grew up in a fundamentalist environment where not only abstinence was “strongly encouraged,” but biblical interpretation mandated it.

There are numerous positions on this topic which various traditions take regarding the consumption of alcoholic beverage. Most however, I assume, would agree that being controlled and addicted to alcohol is forbidden in Scripture (e.g. Eph 5:18, 1 Tim 3:8). Let me summarize a few of these perspectives:

·        Some drink and have no problem getting a bit tipsy, others are fine with being intoxicated occasionally, but are not addicts (i.e. drunkards).

·        There are those who enjoy the occasional glass of wine or a beer, etc. but do not get intoxicated.

·         There are some who abstain from any form of alcohol due to preference, denominational allegiance, conviction etc., but not because they feel it is mandated by Scripture.

·         Then, there is a minority who believe that everyone biblically is prohibited from consuming any type of alcohol. Often this is linked to an interpretation of what “wine” is in the NT.  

I have personally heard it said, "the early Church didn't drink wine, they drank grape juice." "Ok, it was wine," others have conceded, "but its alcoholic percentage was extremely low, not like the wine today." I suppose this perfectly explains how the Corinthians were getting inebriated when consuming it? Let’s just get this out forth right: 

“All wine mentioned in the Bible is fermented grape juice with an alcohol content. No non-fermented drink was called wine.”[1]

While there are many examples that could be presented, Acts 2:13 is sufficient. When the spirit came upon these followers of Jesus on Pentecost (Shavuot) some strange things were happening. Some mockers proposed, “They are filled with new wine” (Act 2:13 ESV). Peter takes this as an insinuation of being drunk, “These men are not drunk, as you suppose” (Act 2:15 NAU). If this “new” wine contained no alcohol or fermentation and therefore cannot cause intoxication, then why do they imply intoxication and Peter infers it?[2] Perhaps some expositors want the Bible to say what they want it to say.

The popular text for addressing this topic is John 2 and Jesus’ involvement with providing “wine” (Gr. oinos) at a wedding (i.e. Jesus as a bartender). Some, who have taken issue with Jesus’ connection to alcohol, propose this “wine” was watered-down, unfermented or that it was merely grape juice. New wine – wine that was most recently harvested – was capable of intoxication, although it was not as strong as old wine – that from the previous year’s harvest. There is nothing in the culture or the text to lead to the conclusion that this wine failed to possess any amount of alcoholic content.

It may surprise some, but this sign Jesus performed at the outset of John’s narrative is not about wine, prohibition or indulgence. It’s not the point of the story. This story is loaded with nuance for John’s particular audience in Asia Minor and also an 

“implicit contrast between water used for Jewish purificatory rites and the wine given by Jesus; the former is characteristic of the old order, the latter of the new. There can be little doubt that the change of which the miracle is a sign is the coming of the kingdom of God in and through Jesus.”[3]

When serving the wine to guests, it may have been that the wine was watered down for the sake of preventing rapid inebriation, as Keener notes, 

“Sometimes at Greek parties drunkenness was induced through less dilution or the addition of herbal toxins, but Jewish teachers disapproved of such practices; that drunkenness is part of the celebration of Cana is unlikely. Yet one would normally serve the better wine first because, drunk or not, guests’ senses would become more dulled as the seven days of banqueting proceeded.”[4]  

There were those in the Bible that abstained from wine for various reasons. If nothing else, the example of abstinence by some (Nazarites, Rechabites, Daniel and company[5]) should alert us to the fact that they did so for a specific reason. What reason could there be to refrain from drinking merely grape juice, or unfermented wine?

“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.”[6]

Overall, the OT and NT look with favor toward drinking wine when done so in a responsible way.

“The evidence . . . suggests that wine in the OT was not mixed with water and was looked on with favor when taken in moderation.”[7]

Oinos (Gr. Wine) was definitely fermented; not merely grape juice. While they would indeed mix it with differing substances, in multiple ratios, for various times and purposes of drinking, this in and of itself provides no evidence to suggest they did so because of morality or ethical issues against it. Drunkenness was forbidden; excess, not the wine itself.

“Wine was consumed at daily meals (Gen 14:18; Judg 19:19; 1 Sam 16:20; 2 Chron 11:11; Is 55:1; Dan 1:5; Lk 7:33–34). It was customary in Greek, Roman, Jewish and early Christian cultures to mix wine (Jub. 49:6; 2 Macc 15:39; m. Ber. 7:5; 8:2; m. ˓Abod. Zar. 5:5; b. Šabb. 77a; Pesah 108b), usually with water (Is 1:22; cf. Ps 75:8[9]; Prov 9:2, 5; Is 65:11).”[8] 

The OT and NT are not against wine, whether it be old or new. There is no reason to think that Jesus did not drink fermented wine, and the NT makes no such distinction. Actually, according to his own admission he drank wine from which others abstained:

“For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine,[9] and you say, 'He has a demon!' The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, 'Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!'” (Luk 7:33-34 NAU).

The best summary I can offer is that addiction, overindulgence, drunkenness or abuse of wine (or strong drink) is strictly forbidden. It is the conscience of the individual that must be taken into consideration. If you are among those who for various reasons are offended by it, don’t. Basically, love for your brothers and sisters and not wishing to cause them hardship should override your “need” for a drink. But having a conviction to abstain need not mean we twist the text in order to support that conviction.

[1] Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight and I. Howard Marshall, “Wine,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1992) 870.
[2] For a thorough treatment of wine in general, Christian attitude, first-century context and various other thoughts regarding wine, see Craig Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary, vol. 1 (Baker Academic, 2012), 1:853-61.
[3] George R. Beasley-Murray, Word Biblical Commentary: John, vol. 36 (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002), 36. Also see F.F. Bruce, The Gospel of John (Eerdmans, 1983), 70-1.
[4] Craig S. Keener, IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, 268-9.
[5] Daniel and his little band of faithful Hebrews most likely refrained due to not wanting to participate in the king’s god-cult.
[6] Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, “Wine,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1988), 2146.
[7] Ibid., 2147.
[8] Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight and I. Howard Marshall, “Wine,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 871.
[9] It is possible that John had a vow similar to that of a Nazarite (Luke 1:15).

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