Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Common Wine in the Bible

I’ve heard it said or implied many times. The only drink they had in Bible times was fermented wine. The water was unsafe, so they had to drink intoxicating wine. Since they had no refrigeration they had no way to keep it from fermenting.

But think about it - if that were true, men, women, and children would have been falling down drunk 24 hours a day. Even drinkers today also drink un-intoxicating drinks.

Like today, ancient folks had many different kinds of drinks (Nehemiah 5:18). Those drinks were usually generically called “wine” (yayin, tirosh, oinos). Some wine was fermented, some unfermented, some of a very low alcohol content, all were usually mixed with two to four parts water.

Even their intoxicating drink was no comparison to the much greater alcoholic content of today’s liquor. They did not know the process of distillation used today. Of course they could still get drunk on that lower alcoholic content wine, but they had to work at it to do so. And that was expensive.

Since we don’t know how to preserve unfermented wine (or grape juice) without modern day refrigeration, we assume they didn’t know how either. That is a false assumption. We project our ignorance onto them. However, they knew and used several ways to preserve unfermented wine. They could even keep fresh grapes for months.

Some quick examples:

“Concentrating grape juice down by heating is still used to make the popular shireh of modern Iran and was known to the ancient peoples of Mesopotamia as well as the Greeks and Romans. It enables fruit to be preserved, and, diluted with water, it produces a refreshing, nonalcoholic beverage.” -Ancient Wine: The Search For The Origins Of Viniculture by Patrick E. McGovern, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 2003; p. 54.
This book is very pro fermented wine. But notice it reveals a common way today, and in ancient times, to preserve wine in an unfermented condition.

Common Wine Was Without Alcohol 
“Fermented wine was the least common [drink in Bible times] and the percentage of alcohol was small. New wines were wholly without alcohol and were easily preserved in this condition for several months. There were also wines in which, by boiling or by drugs, the process of fermentation was prevented and alcohol excluded. These were mixed with water and constituted the most common drink of the land.” -Dr. Lyman Abbott (1835-1922), Dictionary of Religious Knowledge, p. 973.  Abbott was a Congregational minister, scholar, editor, and author.

Wine Often Was Simple Fruit Syrup & Water 
“It should never be forgotten that when reading the Bible and the classic pagan writers of ‘Wine,’ we are seldom dealing with the strongly intoxicating and loaded liquids to which that name is alone attached in the English language, but usually with beverages such as above described. They were as harmless and sober as our own Teas, Coffees, and Cocoas. Had they not been so, the ancient populations would have been perpetually in a more or less state of drunkenness…These facts should never be forgotten when we read of ‘Wine’ there, - for it was simple fruit syrup, except where especially stated to be of the intoxicating kinds.” -Ferrar Fenton of England, The Bible and Wine.
By age 28, Fenton had acquired a working knowledge of 25 classical, Oriental, and modern languages. Fenton produced one of the first modern English translations of the Bible.

So don’t just assume that every time the Bible says “wine” it is referring to strong alcoholic wine.

Honor the LORD with your possessions, and with the firstfruits of all your increase; so your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will overflow with new wine. -Proverbs 3:9-10

-David R. Brumbelow, Gulf Coast Pastor, July 21, AD 2009.

Related Articles:
Biblical Principles Condemn Alcohol
Preserving Unfermented Wine in Bible Times
2006 SBC Resolution on Alcohol Use in America
Deuteronomy 14:26 - Does it Commend Alcohol?
Other articles in lower right hand margin under Gulf Coast Pastor Articles (Labels).
Ancient Wine and the Bible by David R. Brumbelow due to be published October 1, 2011. 


  1. I don't even know where to begin. First a few quotes

    "Some people assert that the "wine" referenced in the Bible was nothing more than nonalcoholic grape juice. But, those who take an opposing stance state that there are too many Biblical references warning against excessive use of "wine." If it was just grape juice, or a wine with virtually no alcohol content, there would be no need for precautions."

    "The biblical languages have several words for alcoholic beverages, and though prohibitionists and some abstentionists dissent, there is a broad consensus that the words did ordinarily refer to intoxicating drinks."

    "Although some abstentionists argue that wine in the Bible was almost always cut with water greatly decreasing its potency for inebriation,there is general agreement that, while Old Testament wine was sometimes mixed with various spices to enhance its flavor and stimulating properties, it was not usually diluted with water"

    Most of the quotes are from Wikipedia and are too many to mention. I thought that I would post these since they reflect the majority view of scholars today and are unadressed by you and others that hold your view.

  2. Robert,
    I will address them.

    First, no one is saying they did not have alcoholic wine in the Bible. I did not say that in my post above. What I am saying is that the "commonly drunk wine" in Bible times was either non-alcoholic or of a very low alcoholic content. Most beverages drunk today are non-alcoholic. They obviously knew how to make both in ancient times, just as both kinds are made today. We have a choice, they did as well.

    Second, of course the Bible warns against and condemns strong, intoxicating drink. So obviously they had intoxicating wine available. But just because people got drunk in the Bible, does not mean the only thing they had to drink was intoxicating. That argument would be like someone proving today that all our beverages are intoxicating since people get drunk today. Or like saying since a man got drunk on cider, all cider is alcohlic (some cider is alcoholic, some isn't). Wine in the Bible and in ancient times did not “just mean” strong, intoxicating drink.

    How do you figure out what kind of wine the Bible is talking about? By the immediate context, and the entire context of the Bible. Some of the wine is good, some of it is a mocker, raging, and bites like a serpent. Hence, stay away from the bad, intoxicating kind of wine, don’t even look at it.
    David R. Brumbelow

  3. I never said all the wine in the Bible was alcoholic. Neither do these quotes. You have implied many times that none of it was alcoholic. I simply provided evidence to the contrary.

    I agree wholeheartedly with your last statement about knowing and understanding context of the Bible to determine whether wine was alcoholic or not. When doing this it is impossible to come up with the conclusions you do based on this context and hope to be taken seriously by the educated world.

    "The biblical languages have several words for alcoholic beverages, and though prohibitionists and some abstentionists dissent, there is a BROAD CONSENSUS (my emphasis) that the words did ordinarily refer to intoxicating drinks."

  4. Robert,
    Possibly we agree on more than we think.

    If I have implied that "none" of the wine in the Bible was alcoholic, I did not mean to do so.

    By the way, a great example of non-alcoholic wine in the Bible is the verse quoted above, Proverbs 3:9-10. Maybe I will write more on that later.
    David R. Brumbelow

  5. Robert,
    I was looking at the post today and noticed my heading did imply “all” wine was fruit syrup and water. I did not mean for it to come out that way, but it is my fault.

    I’ve now added the word “often” to change it to, “Wine Often Was Simple Fruit Syrup & Water.” The quote also makes plain that not all, but much of the wine was a mixture of fruit syrup and water. My point is that often (but not always) when you see the word wine in the Bible, it does not mean intoxicating wine. Again, the Proverbs 3:9-10 passage is a good example of this.
    David R. Brumbelow


What do you think?