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.
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.