What Does the Bible Say About Alcohol?

"Look not thou upon the wine when it is red, when it giveth his colour in the cup, when it moveth itself aright. At the last it biteth like a serpent, and stingeth like an adder." PROVERBS 23:31-32

Wine - Making and Use

The word "wine" is mentioned in some parts of the Bible, but it is not always clear whether the intended meaning is an alcoholic drink or not. In very early centuries, people were already accustomed to pressing out the juice of grapes for immediate consumption. We can see this in GENESIS 40:11: "And Pharaoh's cup was in my hand: and I took the grapes, and pressed them into Pharaoh's cup, and I gave the cup into Pharaoh's hand."

There were different methods of preventing the juice from fermenting and becoming alcoholic. One method was to make a thick syrup by boiling, cooling, filtering, and re-heating. Another was to add chemicals such as sulphur, which were known even then, to preserve the juice. To produce an alcoholic drink the grapes were pressed in a well-ventilated area, and the juice was then conducted through different stone vessels. Yeast spores would settle on the juice, starting the fermentation process. Basically wine is still made in the same way today.

Wine is made by the partial or complete fermentation of the sugar content of the fruit juice. Yeast plays the main role in the fermentation process. The microscopic yeast cells are mushroom-like plant organisms which are commonly found in nature. These yeast cells produce an enzyme-system called "zymase" which is capable of breaking down sugar into alcohol and CO2. Yeast spores, being found either in the air or on the fruit itself, will automatically bring about fermentation when they come into contact with the dissolved fruit sugar; one only needs to crush the fruit to enable the yeast spores to make contact with the juice. Commercial wine production obviously cannot rely on the assumption that yeast cells will be present, therefore specially bred yeast species are used to ensure a fast and efficient fermentation. The amount of alcohol in wine normally varies between 6 and 14 percent, and depends on when the process of fermentation is stopped or completed. The amount of fruit-sugar available for fermentation is therefore of great importance. The maximum amount of alcohol produced during wine fermentation may be 20 percent in ideal circumstances. This limit cannot be exceeded as yeast cells will not survive in a higher concentration of alcohol.

Some say that in ancient times the people did not know how to prevent the juice from fermenting. They claim that all wines were therefore alcoholic. In actual fact, there is evidence available from early writers supporting the proposition that non-alcoholic wines were commonly drunk, and that they were sometimes called the best wines. In their carefully authenticated "Temperance Bible Commentary", F.R. Lees (Ph.D.) and Dawson Burns (M.A.) quote from Aristotle, Herodutus, Josephus, Pliny, Columella and other Greek and Roman writers. This book mentions at least 5 methods by which fruit was preserved and the fermentation of fruit juice prevented. As mentioned before, one method was to add preserving chemicals like sulphur. Another was to withdraw all the water and to thicken the fruit juice into a syrup; yeast cells also cannot survive when the sugar concentration is greater than 32 percent and so fermentation is prevented. One needed only to dilute the syrup with water to restore it back to unfermented grape juice.

Pliny, who devoted the whole of the 14th volume of his "Historia Naturalis" (60 A.D.) to the subject of wine, discovered that there are 185 different wines for drinking.

The Place of Alcohol in the Scriptures of the Old Testament

An examination of the Hebrew text reveals that the one English word "wine" is used to translate some dozen Hebrew and Aramaic words of varying meaning. "Wine" may indicate the fruit of the vine such as grapes; raisins or cakes of raisins; liquids - thick, thin or boiled; beverages - alcoholic or non-alcoholic; and wines - sour, sweet or vinegar. We find the Hebrew word for "new wine" (ISAIAH 65:8) is "tirosh", while "strong drink" is "shekar" and "wine" is "yayin" (ISAIAH 5:11). Therefore, no biblical reference to "wine" in the English versions can be interpreted correctly without taking into account the particular Hebrew word used, the context, the people concerned and the period of reference. Even then, a clear cut decision as to the exact meaning and appropriate rendering is not always possible. Moreover, it is important to note that no true comparison can be made between modern alcoholic beverages and those of ancient times, since distillation of alcohol from wine, etc., only began about 1000 A.D. It gradually began to be used as liquor, while fortification of wines with pure spirit to increase the alcoholic content was not practised until the 18th century. As already stated, natural fermentation rarely exceeds 14%, but modern alcoholic beverages may contain up to 50% alcohol.

There is no particular word in the Hebrew which always stands for fermented wine, nor is there any word which can be held to always indicate God's approval, either implicit or explicit. But where it is called a "blessing", nothing occurs in the context to indicate alcoholic quality - indeed quite the reverse. The word "yayin" occurs in the sense of blessing only twice, and is associated with the other produce of the field, corn and olives, while "tirosh" in this sense is used eleven times (e.g. JEREMIAH 31:12), and is associated with food some thirty times.

Drunkenness with all its consequences is always held in abhorrence in the Old Testament. "Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging" (PROVERBS 20:1). Divine displeasure is frequently associated with intoxicating drink and its results, and denounced in no uncertain terms by the prophets. (See also ISAIAH 5:11-12; ISAIAH 22:13; ISAIAH 28:1,7-8; ISAIAH 56:12; JOEL 1:5; AMOS 6:6)

Canaan was an agricultural country having as its chief products corn, olives and grapes, and Israel itself is often taken as a symbol of God's vineyard:

"For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant ..."  ISAIAH 5:7

Hence it is not surprising that we find the symbolism of the vine entwined in many of the most beloved and spiritual passages of both the Old and the New Testaments. "I am the vine, ye are the branches" is a deeply satisfying allegory to those whose lives are "hid in Christ". It is sometimes claimed as a result that wine (alcohol) must then be regarded as one of God's good gifts to men. But, while it is true that God gave the vine and its luscious fruit for the use of men, it was man, not God, who took the health-giving juice of the grapes and made of it a beverage, deficient in nutrients but potent in its effects on both mind and body:

"For the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth ..." GENESIS 8:21

Hebrew Words Which Denote the Products of the Vine

The most frequently occurring words are those already mentioned; "yayin", "shekar" and "tirosh".

"Yayin" is used at least 140 times. It is regarded as a general term for the juice of the grape expressed in various ways. We can only find out which type of "wine" is meant by the scriptural context. The first mention of "yayin" is in connection with the sin of Noah (GENESIS 9:21). It is not included among the offerings of Abel, although he brought offerings from the fruit of the land.

The words "yayin" and "shekar", translated as "wine" and "strong drink" respectively, occur together a number of times, always indicating intoxicating beverages. The Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint (LXX), translates these words as "oinos" and "sikera".

"Shekar" is used 23 times in the Old Testament but only once in the New Testament: "... he shall drink neither wine nor strong drink" (LUKE 1:15).

The Tell-Armana letters, discovered in 1887 and dated about 1380 B.C., indicate that barley, honey or other fruits were used in the production of strong drink. According to the Encyclopaedia Biblica, the etymology (origin of words and their meaning) of "shekar" warrants the inference that it means every type of intoxicating drink, no matter which source it comes from.

The use of wine and strong drink was forbidden to the priest while on sacred duty in the Tabernacle:

"Do not drink wine nor strong drink, thou, nor thy sons with thee, when ye go into the tabernacle of the congregation, lest ye die: it shall be a statute for ever throughout your generations: And that ye may put difference between holy and unholy, and between unclean and clean." LEVITICUS 10:9-10 = EZEKIEL 44:21

The spiritual meaning of the New Testament is as follows: through Christ's death it is now possible for the Spirit of God, who dwelt in the most holy part of the tabernacle and temple in Jerusalem, to dwell within our own bodies (HEBREWS 10:9-10; 1 CORINTHIANS 3:16-17). Therefore we are made the temple of God:

"What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you." 1 CORINTHIANS 6:19

We, who live in the freedom of the New Covenant, believe that Jesus Christ has purchased by His Blood, "... men of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation ..." to serve our God as priests (REVELATION 5:9-10). The priesthood of all believers includes every Christian, in a service not limited to particular times and seasons. It means a complete dedication of the whole life so that there is no time when we may put a difference between the holy and the unholy, the clean and the unclean. The Christian has a full-time assignment; he is always on duty!

The third Hebrew word frequently translated as "wine" is "tirosh". In the Septuagint (LXX) it is translated as "glukos" of which the English form today is glucose, a dextrose or grape-sugar. It is used only once in the New Testament; where in the Greek it is "gleukos" and in the English translations "new wine" (ACTS 2:13). In the Old Testament "tirosh" is used some 37 times.

Another word to be noted in the Hebrew context is "asis". It occurs in ISAIAH 49:26, JOEL 1:5 and AMOS 9:13, the translation in each case being "new wine" or "sweet wine" and the context suggesting the fresh juice of the grape.

Another of the Hebrew words used is "chemer", which denotes a thick, sticky syrup or foaming juice. It may indicate all types of wine.

The Aramaic word "chamar" derives from the Hebrew word "chemer", and its use corresponds to "yayin" which means, it may be used to represent every type of wine.

"Yegev" which occurs sixteen times, was originally a cavity or vat in which the grapes or olives were put for the purpose of being trodden, but later meant the whole apparatus of the wine-press.

Wine in the New Testament

In the New Testament, references to what are clearly intoxicating beverages, occur for the most part in connection with those groups of people who had been brought into the Christian faith in Asia-Minor, Greece and Rome. This was at a time when morals were low and indulgence in alcoholic drinks excessive. In the Gospels there are only two definite allusions to intoxicating beverage. The first is surely significant. It occurs in the opening chapter of the Gospel of Luke, in the announcement made to Zacharias of the forthcoming birth of the herald of the Messiah.

"For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost ..." LUKE 1:15

References in the Epistles to drunkenness are numerous and explicit. Paul was the Apostle to the Gentiles and he was frequently confronted with excessive drinking even within the young Christian congregations where the converts were either Jews living in non-Jewish environments, or Gentiles brought in from paganism with their heathen ways of life.

On a number of occasions Paul had to rebuke his listeners in no uncertain terms: "Let us walk honestly ... not in rioting and drunkenness" (ROMANS 13:13). He warned that among the offences which will exclude men from the Kingdom of God is drunkenness: "Be not deceived ... nor drunkards ... shall inherit the kingdom of God" (1 CORINTHIANS 6:9-10). Again he pointed out the right course to the Ephesians, "And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit ..." (EPHESIANS 5:18). The Galatians, too, needed the warning that those who indulge in "drunkenness, revellings, and such like ... shall not inherit the kingdom of God" (GALATIANS 5:21).

Wine in the Original Text of the New Testament

New Wine and New Skins

There are a number of passages in the Gospels where the nature of the beverage, whether alcoholic or non-alcoholic, is not explicitly stated (MATTHEW 9:17; MARK 2:22; LUKE 5:37-38).

"Neither do men put new wine into old bottles: else the bottles break, and the wine runneth out, and the bottles perish: but they put new wine into new bottles, and both are preserved." MATTHEW 9:17

The normal explanation of this parable, that new skin-bottles were used in order to resist the expansive force of the gas generated by the fermentation, does not agree with the facts of the case. For fermentation to take place, grapes were put in vats open to the air, even as they are today. The expansive force liberated by grape juice is enormous, since the juice of crushed grapes is one-fifth glucose. During the fermentation process, this develops 47 times its volume of carbon dioxide which, if confined, would exert a pressure equivalent to that of 34.3 atmospheres. This is equal to about 500 lbs. to the square inch (34.5kg/cm²). Wine during its first fermentation, if poured into bottles, be they of ox or hog, would burst the skins however new or strong. That was a fact well known over the centuries in Palestine!

"Behold, my belly is as wine which hath no vent; it is ready to burst like new bottles." JOB 32:19

The dried skin-bottles used in the time of our Lord were however admirably suited to the purpose of preventing fermentation. With their seams well pitched with tar to exclude the air and its yeast spores, fermentation could not take place. It was imperative that new, perfectly clean skins be used, as any dregs left clinging to the inside of the old skins would soon set up a ferment sufficient to ruin the "new wine" being poured in, and burst the bottles.

Here, "New wine" is the translation of the Greek words "oinos neon" which is equivalent to the Hebrew "tirosh" and means fresh grape juice. All this was common knowledge to Jesus' listeners, hence it is clear that when He said, "Fresh skins for new wine", He was not primarily concerned with the quality of wine, but with the necessity of keeping His new teaching pure from the corroding ferment of the conservatism and self-righteousness of the Pharisees. A "fresh skin", a new attitude, was required for the "new wine" of the Gospel.

The Miracle at Cana

The first miracle, reported by John only, is the turning of water into wine at the marriage feast in Cana (JOHN 2:1-11). We are not told the nature of the wine, for the Greek word "oinos" that is used here, may indicate either intoxicating or non-intoxicating wine. The Septuagint (LXX) rendered both "yayin" and "tirosh" as "oinos" (wine) and this was followed by the New Testament, written in Greek, and by its English translations.

This general term, "oinos", occurs 33 times in the New Testament and its nature can only be decided, if at all, by reference to the context.

Jesus was not an ascetic; He came that men might have life more abundantly. He was willing to join in and increase the joy of the wedding feast, but it cannot be conceived that He, who came to fulfil all righteousness, would transform water into 470 litres of alcoholic wine, which undoubtedly would have brought about wrecked homes, ruined lives, and endless misery. Perhaps the explanation is that the "best wine" was that which, according to Pliny, had the least trace of ferment or mould.

Our Lord came to fulfil, not to destroy the prophets (MATTHEW 5:17). He would then have contradicted the stern warning of Habakkuk:

"Woe unto him that giveth his neighbour drink, that puttest thy bottle to him, and makest him drunken ..." HABAKKUK 2:15

A Wine Bibber

Matthew and Luke both record that Jesus' enemies accused him of being a "wine-bibber".

"The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a wine-bibber ..." MATTHEW 11:19; LUKE 7:34

But no evidence is put forward, at any time, to substantiate the charge. They also falsely accused Him of blasphemy and of threatening to destroy the temple. John, being a Nazarene, abstained from all produce of the vine (NUMBERS 6:2-3). Jesus was not under that obligation, but the inference that He partook of intoxicating liquors is wholly unsupported. His enemies had criticised the asceticism of John the Baptist and were equally critical of Jesus. In the one recorded case where Jesus was offered intoxicating drink, He refused it (MARK 15:23). It was the custom of wealthy ladies in Jerusalem to provide a soporific draught of wine, mixed with myrrh or some other narcotic, for criminals just before they were nailed to the cross. Although Jesus was tormented with thirst and exhausted with pain, when offered the drugged wine He would not take it. The Redeemer was to drain the cup of suffering and He willed to do it in the full possession of His mental powers, not dulled by the taking of any narcotic drug.

The Lord's Supper

"And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them: and they all drank of it. And he said unto them ... I will drink no more of the fruit of the vine, until that day that I drink it new in the kingdom of God." MARK 14:23-25; MATTHEW 26:27-29; LUKE 22:17-18; 1 CORINTHIANS 11:25

The most controversial use of the word "wine" in the New Testament centres around the elements used by our Lord in His institution of the Last Supper. Paul and the three Evangelists agree in saying, "He took the cup", while the Evangelists add the further words "fruit of the vine".

We have seen that when the "fruit of the vine" is used in the Old Testament the word commonly used is "tirosh" meaning the newly pressed juice of the grapes. In modern language the word "vine" means in the first instance "alcoholic wine", the reason being that the grapes are mainly used to produce alcoholic beverages.

However, hardly anybody would think of apple or pear wine when speaking about the fruit of an apple or pear tree, although it could well be produced by fermentation.

The Passover took place six months after the harvest, from which it has been argued that "the cup" our Lord used must have been fermented and therefore alcoholic: but as cited already, a number of ways to prevent fermentation were known, so that argument is not valid. Moreover, grapes could be preserved for most of the year by hanging them in cellars - and the caves which honeycomb the limestone rocks of Palestine make ideal cooling chambers. That the Arabs still do this is attested by Niebhur in his book "Travels through Arabia". It was therefore easy to obtain freshly kept grapes at Jesus' time.

It is surely significant that the word "wine" (oinos) is not used once by either the Evangelists or by Paul when writing of the communion. Our Lord took the common food of the common people, bread and the fruit of the vine, and sanctified them, using them as symbols of His life and death poured out for all mankind. Jesus says:

"He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him." JOHN 6:56

The Miracle of Pentecost

On the day of Pentecost, the Apostles received the Holy Spirit with the sign of speaking in other tongues, and the people who were gathered there were very stirred (ACTS 2). Some mocked: "These men are full of new wine" (In Greek: gleukos). The Greek word "gleukos" means (translated) "new wine". It is the only time where this word is used in the New Testament. We have already seen that the word "tirosh" in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (Septuagint) means unfermented fresh grape juice and was always translated into the Greek as "gleukos".

The foreign Jews that happened to be in Jerusalem at this time understood the prayers and were stunned. They realised that this was a miracle.

But the others did not realise that it was a miracle as they did not know any of these new languages. To their ears they were incomprehensible sounds. Their reaction was to mock. They mocked because the disciples behaved like drunkards although it was a known fact that they only drank grape juice.

Peter stated clearly that it was a spiritual ecstasy and not brought about by alcohol.

It was well known that if the Jews drank wine, they did so with their supper and not at 9 o'clock in the morning (the third hour). As already stated, the Greek word for "new wine" is "gleukos". The similarity to the word glucose cannot be missed.

A Little Wine for your Stomach's Sake

"Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach's sake and thine often infirmities." 1 TIMOTHY 5:23

The word used here in the original Greek text is "oinos" and can mean fermented or unfermented grape juice.

The pain relieving properties of grape juice were a well known fact in those days in Palestine, and it was also used to relieve stomach problems. For this reason, Paul recommended the use of grape juice to Timothy. Athenaeus (280 A.D.) supplies the information that there was a "wine" for stomach complaints. He gives the recipe - "Let him take gleukos either mixed with water or warmed, especially that called "protropos", as being very good for the stomach." This is also backed up by numerous medical discoveries that alcohol actually prolongs stomach problems. Although alcohol provides calories, it does not contain protein, minerals or vitamins and can cause serious damage to the important tissues of the brain, liver and other organs of the body.

Three Words from Paul

In the first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul writes:

"Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober. For they that sleep sleep in the night; and they that be drunken are drunken in the night. But let us, who are of the day, be sober ..." 1 THESSALONIANS 5:6-8

As the Greek word for sober, "nepho" and its derivatives, occurs repeatedly in the Epistles, its meaning demands consideration. It is used in 1 CORINTHIANS 15:34, "Awake to righteousness, and sin not ..."

In 1 TIMOTHY 3:2-3,8 it is laid down that "A bishop then must be blameless ... sober ... not given to wine" (nephalion, sophrona, me paraoinon). This literally means he must be abstinent, self-controlled, and not near wine. Paul goes on to say the same advice holds for the male and female deacons. In the Epistle to Titus the bishop is again urged to be "... not given to wine", the older men to be abstinent, and the women not to be addicted to wine (In Greek = "total abstinence").

Taking all the assertions of the Bible on "alcohol" into consideration, we realise that God also disapproves of "moderate" drinking, to save His people from destructive influences.

It is interesting to see that the newest medical discoveries are exactly in accordance with the Bible:

"Being stone-drunk permanently destroys up to 7 million cells of an adult's brain."

Prof. Dr. Gustav Schimert, (Cardiology Magazine, 1984)

"Alcohol always destroys brain cells - even when taken in small amounts."

Dr. Med. A. Sequeira, (Med. News Magazine, 1984)

"Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are." 1 CORINTHIANS 3:16-17

Adapted from the book "Alcohol and the Scriptures" by Edith A. Kerr,
Temperance Committee of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria, Melbourne (1966)