Fruit of the Vine: Fermented or Unfermented?

Jerry C. Ray
Irving, Texas

A few years ago a friend of mine contacted me about the above question. In the church where he worshipped a brother was insisting that fermented wine had to be used in the Lord's Supper. There are so few today that would take such a position that the matter becomes academic rather than practical, but perhaps this will explain the matter to some, and save some time spent in research for others.

1. The Bible never refers to the liquid used in the Lord's Supper as "wine." There is a Greek word, "Oinos," uniformly translated "wine,') but it is never used with reference to the Supper. R. C. H. Lenski maintains that the expression, "fruit of the vine," is a Hebrew liturgical formula for wine and he concludes that the liquid must be fermented. But the argument is just as strong to the contrary: Why did Jesus never use the term "wine?" Why did the Apostles or the New Testament writers never use the word "oinos" in connection with the Supper. The Scriptures use the term "fruit of the vine" and leaves the choice of fermented or unfermented in the realm of judgment.

Tangentially I will mention that the term "fruit of the vine" does not give the right to use watermelon or tomato juice on the basis that they are the fruit of the vine. The term "vine" (ampelos) throughout the New Testament, without exception, refers to the grape vine. It is true that a fig tree could be planted in a vineyard, as in Lk. 13:7, but an "ampelos" does not produce figs (James 3: 12).

2. This has long been a mooted question. Indeed, there is no positive proof that Jesus used alcoholic wine in instituting the Lord's Supper.

"As regards the wine, the matter has been in dispute from the beginning (see Kitto's Cyclopaedia on Bib Lit.) The early church always used mixed wine, wine and water, following the Jewish custom. Whether the wine used at the institution of the Lord's Supper was fermented or the Jewish Passover-customs prevailing at that time must, of course determine unfermented wine. The matter is in dispute and is not easily settled" (International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, p. 1925).

Note that it is impossible to prove conclusively that Jesus used fermented wine. It was generally the custom of the Jews, but there were exceptions. No man can prove that every Jew observing the Passover had to use fermented wine or that Jesus used fermented wine or that the New Testament demands fermented wine.

God had not given any command about the use of the fruit of the vine in the Passover observance (Ex. 12:15, 19, 13: 7; Dt. 16:4). The Jews had introduced it: "The use of wine at the paschal feast was not enjoined by the law' but had become an established custom, at all events in the post-Babylonian period." (McClintock & Strong, X, 1015).

"There is no positive proof that the fluid used by our Lord in instituting the sacred communion was alcoholic; it is nowhere expressly called wine, but simply the 'fruit of the vine' (Mt. 26:29). That it was wine, properly so called, however, is a fair presumption from the fact that this was the customary liquor of the Jews in the Passover meal, as learned from the definite prescription of the Talmud" (Ibid., p. 1016).

Note the usage of "presumption," "customary." The man has a shaky position when it is based not on what the Bible says, but upon the probability of secular history.

Do not misunderstand this point. I am not saying Jesus did not use fermented wine. I am saying the conclusion is not inevitable. The man who says we must have fermented wine today because Jesus used such in instituting the Lord's Supper cannot prove this to be so.

3. The church, "almost from the beginning seems" to have generally used fermented wine.

"Modern Jews quite generally use raisin-wine, made by steeping raisins overnight in water and expressing the juice the next day for use at the Passover-meal. The ancient Jews, we are told, used for this purpose a thick boiled wine, mixed with water (Mishna). Whether oinos, the word used in the NT, stands literally as the name indicates, for fermented wine, or figuratively for the mixed drinks, well known to ancient and modern Jews, is a debatable mater. As late as the 16th century the Nestorian Christians celebrated communion with raisin-wine, and the same is said of the Indian Christians ('St. Thomas Christians') . . . In general, however, the Christian church, almost from the beginning, seems to have used fermented red wine, either mixed or pure, in the administration of the Eucharist" (ISBE, p. 1925).

The practice of the church after the apostolic age must be viewed in light of the apostasy then in progress. Especially is this so when dealing with matters not mentioned in the Scriptures, such as the question under discussion. But granting that the practice was not a child of apostasy, this only proves that the church exercised the right of judgment between fermented and unfermented fruit of the vine.

4. The generally used fermented wine of the paschal feast was mixed with water.

"The intoxicating quality of yayin is confirmed by rabbinical testimony. The Mishna, in the treatise on the Passover, informs us that four cups of wine were poured out and blessed, and drunk by each of the company at the eating of the Paschal lamb, and that water was also mixed with the wine, because it was considered too strong to be drunk alone (Pesachim, VII, 13; X, 1). In Hieros. Shabb. (XI, 1) we read, 'it is commanded that this rite be performed with red wine', Bablon. Chabb. (LXXVII, 1), 'Sharon wine is of famous report, with which they mix two parts of water'; Bablon. Berachoth (Fol. L), 'Their wine was very strong, and not fit for drinking without being mixed with water.' The Cemara adds, 'The cup of blessing is not to be blessed until it is mixed with water; "' (McClintock & Strong, X, 1011).

"The wine was mixed with warm water on these occasions, as implied in the notice of the warming kettle (Pesach VII, 13). Hence in the early Christian Church it was usual to mix the sacramental wine with water, a custom as old, at all events, as Justin Martyr's time (Apol. 1, 65)" (Ibid, p. 1015).

Question: Would not consistency demand that the man who says, "fermented wine must be used because Jesus used it" use red wine and mix it with water?

5. The argument is made that due to the time of the year (the Passover is in April, approximately) grape juice could not have been kept without fermentation until the Passover. McClintock and Strong point out that wine could be kept for about a year in an unfermented state (quoting Cato, De Re Rustica, c. 120. McC & S, X, 1014).

6. R. C. Foster in The Final Week, pages 165-166, contends that

"The fact that all leaven had to be removed from the house two days before the Passover began, is positive proof that the wine which they used was unfermented. The bread was unleavened; for precisely the same reasons the fruit of the vine was unleavened."

This is a false argument, I believe, because: (1) it assumes that fermentation is leaven. There is no such testimony in the Old Testament. Grape juice ferments without the adding of leaven. Can the finished product be considered leavened when there was no leaven added? (2) It flies in the face of the testimony of the Mishna and competent scholarship that historically the Jews did use fermented wine in the Passover observance. Whether the prohibition of the Old Law against leaven included fermented wine or not, it is the testimony of history that the Jews did not consider such to be the case. (3) I contacted Sidney Weinschneider, a Dallas rabbi of the conservative wing of the Jewish religion, on April 22, 1963. He denied that the prohibition of leaven forbade fermented wine.

In conclusion: Let's stay wit] what the Bible says. Either grape juice or fermented wine fulfills, or is encompassed in, the scriptural authority of "fruit of the vine."

TRUTH MAGAZINE X: 7, pp. 10-11 April 1966