Wine or Grape Juice? What Does History Teach Us About Wine in the Bible?
What do we really know about wine in the Bible? For good reason, this question causes a LOT of controversy within the church, and how you answer it often plays a major role in your view of sin and alcohol. Many have their opinions, and there are numerous teachings within the church today that contradict one another. Even in seminary, my knowledgeable professors had differing thoughts and opinions.
So while I attempt to tackle this topic from an unbiased standpoint, I do not pretend to have all the answers. I can simply share with you what I know from history and the Bible, and let you decide for yourself where you stand. Because in the end, this is one of those topics that will probably always stir up controversy. And I ask that as brothers and sisters in Christ, we reflect God’s love in all things… including the comment section of this article.
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Two common views of alcohol in church today…
While there is a wide range of views regarding alcohol in the Bible, two seem to dominate the scene in today’s church. The first is that any time the Bible speaks of alcohol in a positive way, it is referring to grape juice rather than alcoholic drink. And any time it is painted in a negative light, it’s referring to alcohol. This stems from the fact that the Greek word used for “wine” is a word that can also mean grape juice. In other words… that word could be used interchangeably. We also know that the Bible condemns drunkenness as a sin and calls wine a foolish drink.
This was the view I was taught growing up. It was also the viewpoint of many of my seminary professors. One even taught that the wine Jesus made during His famous first miracle was in fact grape juice, which (according to my professor) is what what made it taste so good.
The other main viewpoint today is that while drunkenness is a sin, drinking occasionally or in moderation is not. This view hinges itself on the idea that the wine in the Bible was indeed alcoholic. (This is why the debate over whether or not the wine of the Bible was alcoholic is so controversial!) Wine can be good, but it can also be bad. This viewpoint often compares drunkenness to gluttony. While gluttony is a sin, no one would abstain from eating. So there is no reason to abstain from drinking simply because drunkenness is a sin. They claim that Jesus drank wine, therefore it must not be a sin.
Was the wine of Jesus’ day alcoholic?
When I wrote my first article about alcohol in the Bible, I wasn’t sure what kind of response I would get. Needless to say, I had many comments… many of which shared the view that the common wine of Jesus’ day was actually grape juice. Now first of all, let me begin by saying that this is a valid viewpoint. There are many Bible scholars who believe this to be true and a lot of pastors teach this view for a reason. Unfortunately, however, there are some problems that need to be addressed…
1) While many Bible teachers and pastors believe the wine to actually be grape juice, many historians and well-educated scholars disagree (including Jewish historians.)
Because the Bible isn’t clear as to whether or not it is referring to wine or grape juice, we would be smart to look at historical records as well as what we know about ancient Jewish culture. We have a great number of reliable resources at this time in Roman history when Jesus lived. According to historians, the common wine during this time in history was indeed alcoholic, even after it was mixed with water. (To be fair, this doesn’t “prove” the wine of the Bible was alcoholic, but it is certainly something to think about.)
2) Wine mixed with water is still fermented.
This may seem obvious, but I have heard many arguments claiming that “the wine of Jesus’ day was not alcoholic because it was mixed with water.” This simply doesn’t make sense. That’s like saying a shot of vodka is no longer alcoholic because I mixed it with orange juice. Now, mixing wine with water certainly dilutes the wine. You would have to consume far more to become intoxicated, but it doesn’t make the wine suddenly non-alcoholic to mix it with water. It would still be possible to get drunk if you drank too much. (And there are many examples in the Bible of drunkenness, so we know it was possible to get drunk!)
3) Wine is historically seen as a necessary (and healthy) part of the Israelite diet.
Wine has antimicrobial properties. This is why we see the Good Samaritan using “wine” to clean the man’s wounds in Jesus’ famous parable. While the Israelites did drink some water, wine would have helped to prevent illnesses associated with drinking water exclusively (as we see in Paul’s words of wisdom below). Also, even though we know based on today’s science that alcohol isn’t all that great for the body, at this time in history wine was seen as far more nutritious than water. It was a practical drink that was a part of everyday culture.
No longer drink water exclusively, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments. – 1 Timothy 5:23
4) Grape juice was difficult to preserve.
We have to remember that the water wasn’t all that safe to drink, which made wine necessary for survival… alcoholic or not. In my research, I have come across a few websites that explain a preservation process for grape juice that would have been possible in the first century. However, I have also come across others that say this process was not common and would not have worked well enough to preserve long-term.
We have to acknowledge the fact that just because a preservation technique was possible for a non-alcoholic grape juice, that doesn’t mean it was commonly used by everyone. Judaism did not see drinking as a sin the way many of our Christian denominations do today. In fact, alcoholic drink was a big part of Jewish customs and religious ceremonies. (And we will see biblical examples of this in next week’s post). It was drunkenness that was the sin.
(*It is worth noting that while I have found several Christian sites discussing this preservation technique, I have yet to find a Jewish one or an unbiased historical one that suggests it was commonly done in first century Jewish culture. So if you find one… please let me know in the comment section below!)
Here’s the bottom line when it comes to this issue… we can’t work backwards.
We can’t start with a conclusion and try to find evidence to support it. We have to look at the evidence to find our conclusion. Most of the websites (and textbooks) I have read on the topic attempt to prove a specific theology. Those who want to prove drinking in any capacity to be a sin claim that Jesus never drank a drop of alcohol and that all positive mentions of it in the Bible are actually grape juice. Those who want to say that drinking isn’t a sin, claim the opposite to be true. “Jesus drank wine, which makes it okay… right?” So which is it?
What we know so far…
If we’re being honest with the evidence, history tells us that it’s more likely that the wine of the Bible was in fact alcoholic. This doesn’t necessarily prove that the Bible is always speaking of alcohol, but it’s definitely something we can’t ignore. Wine drinking was common in this region of the world. Even a quick internet search reveals that the Jewish people were known for their wine drinking. In fact, alcoholic wine was part of their holidays and religious ceremonies, and many claim that alcoholic wine was a part of everyday life for the Jewish people. In other words, they most likely drank it every day with their meals… diluted, of course, so they wouldn’t get drunk.
Now that we know what history has to say, we will look at what the Bible has to say. Is there biblical evidence that Jesus drank wine?
Comment Policy: I would love to know your thoughts! I ask that we be polite in this comment section as this topic can be a source of controversy and even pain for some. I love research, and I am fully open to additional research if you have it. (And I fully intend to update this post as more research comes to the surface.) So please feel free to include links to credible sources regarding this issue. I have done my best to compile my research, but I know there’s always more to learn! Thank you for your willingness to have an open discussion in love.
*Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations taken from the NASB.
**Photo by Roberta Sorge on Unsplash