By Mike Wilson
The general consumption of intoxicating beverages and consequent drunkenness is not met with divine approval in the Bible. God’s attitude toward “strong drink” is expressed in terms of condemnation. “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler; and whosoever erreth thereby is not wise” (Prov. 20:1). “And even these reel with wine, and stagger with strong drink; they are swallowed up of wine, they stagger with strong drink; they err in vision, they stumble in judgment” (Isa. 28:7). “Be not among winebibbers . . .” (Prov. 23:20). “Look not thou upon the wine when it is red, When it sparkleth in the cup, When it goeth down smoothly; At the last it biteth like a serpent, And stingeth like an adder. Thine eyes shall behold strange things, And thy heart shall utter perverse things” (Prov. 23:31-33).
Part of the confusion arises by the translation of “wine” of some words in both the Old and New Testaments which can refer to fresh juice from the vineyard, with no measurable alcoholic content. The common word for “wine” in the New Testament, oinos, can bean either fermented wine or fresh grape juice. The context must determine the meaning.
A second factor involves the potency of the alcoholic content. “Wine was the most intoxicating drink known in ancient times. All the wine was light wine, i.e. not fortified with extra alcohol. Concentrated alcohol was only known in the Middle Ages when the Arabs invented distillation (‘alcohol’ is an Arabic word) so what is now called liquor or strong drink (i.e., whiskey, gin, etc.) and the twenty percent fortified wines were unknown in Bible times. Beer was brewed by various methods, but its alcoholic content was light. The strength of natural wines is limited by two factors. The percentage of alcohol will be half the sugar in the juice. And if the alcoholic content is much above 10 or 11 percent, the yeast cells are killed and fermentation ceases. Probably ancient wines were 7-10 percent” (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Vol. I, p. 376). The same Wordbook defines “strong drink” thus: “strong drink, beer. Most likely not ‘liquor’ for there is no evidence of distilled liquor in ancient times. It denotes not just barley beer but any alcoholic beverage prepared from either grain or fruit” (Vol. II, p. 927).
When we read the word “wine” in the Bible, we should not immediately equate it with the beverages sold in the modern bars, supermarkets, and liquor stores. Whiskey, gin, brandy, vodka, and even fortified wines are all more potent than the “strong drink” which the Bible condemns.
A third factor which must be considered when comparing modern beverages to ancient ones is the manner in which wine was used as a common table drink. Notice the following quotes from Everett Ferguson, “Wine as a Table-Drink int eh Ancient World,” Restoration Quarterly (Vol. 13):
– The ordinary table beverage of the Mediterranean world in Roman time was wine mixed with water (p. 141).
– At Greek formal banquets the guests elected a president who determined the proportions of water and wine (p. 141).
– The ratio of wine to wine varied considerably. One of the earliest references gives the most diluted mixtures – twenty parts water to one part wine (was the wine really that strong?). Other references tend to stay within less extreme proportions, but nearly always the quantity of water predominated” (p. 142).
– Plutarch himself says, “We call a mixture ‘wine’, although the larger of the components is water” (p. 144).
– But to drink wine unmixed was regarded by the Greeks of the classical age as a Barbarian (Scythian) custom. It is to be noted how in ordinary usage, even as “wine” meant “wine mixed with water,” so if one wanted to say straight or neat wine, it was necessary to add the adjective “unmixed” (p. 145).
– One might even call the ancients “water drinkers” in view of the preponderance of water in the drink. In most cases, however, it was safer and more hygienic to drink wine. Somehow the ancients had discovered that mixing wine with water had a purifying effect on the water so that it became safe to drink (p. 146).
Writing on the same theme, professor Robert Stein of Bethel College says, “To consume the amount of alcohol that is in two martinis by drinking wine containing three parts water to one part wine, one would have to drink over twenty-two glasses. In other words, it is possible to become intoxicated from wine mixed with three parts of water, but one’s drinking would probably affect the bladder long before it affected the mind.”
Even still, the ideal for early Christians was abstinence. In relation to intoxicating beverages, excessive drinking and drunkenness are not the only vices the New Testament condemns. “Carousings” (or, “drinking parties,” from potos) in 1 Peter 4:3 is a general word for “drinking.” R.C. Trench, in Synonyms of the New Testament, says the term is “not of necessity excessive,” But is related to words of excess in that it gives “opportunity for excess” (p[. 211). Elders (1 Tim. 3:2), women of influence (1 Tim. 3:11), and older men (Tit. 3:2) are commanded to be “temperate” (nephalios), a word implying freedom from all wine (see Thayer, p. 425). “This word shows strongly that the New Testament ideal is total abstinence” (Joseph Free, Archeology And Bible History, p. 355).
Considering God’s attitude toward intoxication and strong drink, the comparative potency of ancient wine to modern liquor, the ideal of abstinence from the weaker beverages of the time practiced by early Christians, and the danger of ungodly influence in a world full of alcoholism, can there be any justification of modern “drinking”? We think not. After denouncing the partying sins of reveling and drunkenness, the apostle Paul commands, “But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof” (Rom. 13:14).
Guardian of Truth XXIX: 5, pp. 145, 148
March 7, 1985