This entry is part [part not set] of 5 in the series Alcohol

In two previous posts (click here or here), I’ve discussed several issues related to Christians and alcohol. If you’re joining us late, it may be better to read those two posts, since they cover some of the more basic issues.Today, I want to look at one particular assumption that pops up from time to time in this discussion.

Assumption: “Wine” in the Bible was nothing more than grape juice, and therefore neither Jesus nor the Biblical writers advocated drinking alcohol.

There’s probably a lot of you who have heard this argument. Perhaps you’ve even heard lots of historical evidence for this view. A milder version says that wine was diluted so much that it hardly contained any alcohol. Therefore, according to one writer, you’d have to drink such a vast quantity of wine that it “would probably affect the bladder long before the mind” (Stein, “Wine-Drinking,” 11).

But neither of these views can be substantiated from the Bible, and here’s why.

First, if wine (and beer) didn’t contain alcohol, or such a small percentage that inebriation was unlikely, this would render the Bible’s prohibitions against drunkenness nonsensical. Did Paul warn the Ephesians: “And do not get drunk with grape juice, which is debauchery, but be filled by the Spirit?” This just doesn’t make sense. Whatever the alcohol content of wine, it was high enough, or people were capable of drinking enough of it, to elicit Paul’s warning to not get drunk (See also Prov 20:1; Isa 5:11).

Second, when Jesus turned the water into wine at Cana, he didn’t make grape juice. Neither did he make Two Buck Chuck. He made the good stuff; “You have kept the good wine until now,” said the steward (John 2:10). And the text clearly says that this “good wine” contained alcohol because the attendants were expected to get smashed at the wedding. Though it’s not translated accurately by most English translations, John 2:10 says: “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have become drunk, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Good wine must contain enough alcohol to get people drunk. But most of your translations do not say “drunk” in John 2:10. They say “drunk freely” (ESV, NASB, HCSB), “have well drunk” (KJV, NKJV), or “had their fill” (The Message), but the Greek word methusko is used only three other times in the NT and in each case it means “to be intoxicated” (see Luke 12:45; Eph. 5:18; 1 Thess. 5:7; see Carson, John, 169). Now, if you look closely at John 2:10, it doesn’t say that Jesus got people drunk, nor does it say that people were drunk at the party (though it’s probable that some were). The steward simply says that people usually get drunk at weddings off of good wine. I’ve got some other thoughts about John 2:10, but lets move on.

Third, it has sometimes been argued that while “wine” may have contained small amounts of alcohol, “new wine” was nothing more than grape juice. In some of the passages I checked out, this may be the case. At least, it’s not clear that “new wine” contained alcohol in some passages. But in other passages, it clearly does. In Acts 2 when the Pentecost visitors spoke in tongues, some onlookers mocked them saying, “They are filled with new wine” (Acts 2:13) to which Peter replied, “these people are not drunk, as you suppose” (2:15). In this case, “new wine” was not mere grape juice. It had to contain enough alcohol to intoxicate, otherwise Peter’s reply wouldn’t make sense. Likewise, Hosea 4:11 references “Whoredom, wine, and new wine, which take away the understanding.” There seems to be a difference between wine and new wine here, but both seem to “take away the understanding,” which means that both contained alcohol.

I don’t see any biblical grounds, therefore, to say that wine was nothing more than grape juice, or that it was so diluted that it couldn’t intoxicate.

But even if wine didn’t contain alcohol, clearly “strong drink” did and the Bible does not prohibit drinking “strong drink” in moderation. The Hebrew word for “strong drink” is shakar and it probably refers to fermented barley, which is why some translations go with “beer” for shakar. From the studies I read, shakar had an ABV of around 6-12%, similar to a Belgium strong ale. Like all alcoholic beverages, the Bible prohibits being drunk on beer and warns against its abuses (Isa 5:11; 28:7; Prov 20:1; 31:4). But in moderation, consumption of beer was encouraged (Deut 14:26; Prov 31:6), a truth that is made obvious when ancient Hebrews were commanded to offer up two liters of beer to God six days a week and even more on the Sabbath (see Numb 28:7-10). This is why the absence of beer (and wine) was an outcome of God’s judgment on the nation.

So while wine may have contained less alcohol by today’s standard, it contained enough to get people drunk. And yet the Bible doesn’t forbid the drinking of alcohol in most cases.

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  1. I don’t know any legitimate scholar who would say that wine wasn’t alcoholic; the ones that say that it contained hardly any alcohol work for schools or denominations that have strict “no alcohol” policies. It seems that there are certain motivating factors driving exegesis.

  2. It seems to me that the Numbers reference is taken a bit out of context, or at the very least, is a bit misleading. The Israelites were not commanded to *drink* 2 liters of beer, but to pour it out as a drink offering.

    To me, this would be comparable to 2 Samuel 23, where the Mighty Men brought water to David. It was too precious, and David refused to drink, but rather “Poured it out to the Lord(ESV).” As I read it this is the same language as is used in Numbers.

    I bring this point up because I think it is important to point out that drinking 2 liters of beer would probably take you well past the point of “moderation” and making quite a bit of progress toward “intoxication.”

    • Thanks Donald. Just to be clear, I never said that Numb. 28 commands Israelites to drink two liters of beer. The offering was indeed poured out to the Lord. I’m sorry if this was confusing.

      Interestingly, however, the symbolizing of “pouring out to the LORD” should still be taken into account. It represents giving it to God; the Israelites were commanded to give God their best, a portion of their bounty, which in this case was 2 liters of beer (more on the Sabbath).