Proponents of social drinking astoundingly defy biblical, medical and historical criticism of that for which they and their fellows long (i.e., the pleasurable consumption of alcohol). Historical Considerations prove that non-alcoholic wine was widely used and preferred under both testamental periods in Canaan. Therefore, the evidence contained herein complements the Biblical Considerations. The Hebrew, Greek and English words used for "wine" refer to either alcoholic wine or non-alcoholic wine, depending on the contexts in which they occur. Contexts favorable to the use of "wine," then refer to non-alcoholic wine -- grape juice; contexts unfavorable to the use of "wine," then refer to alcoholic wine. Please weigh with objectivity the following evidence.
Typically, defenders of social drinking, even some Christians, summarily dismiss historical testimony as in their favor -- without carefully examining the evidence. Anyone who dares to suggest that often "wine" in the Bible refers to unfermented grape juice is accused of distorting the norm of biblical Palestine regarding the subject. In reality, these accusers are guilty of visualizing the biblical world through contemporary spectacles and impressing our norms on ancient civilizations, far removed from us in time, culturally and geographically.
Some reference works to which proponents of social drinking may appeal appear to substantiate the claim that every mention of "wine" in the Bible refers to an alcoholic beverage. For instance, M'Clintock-Strong Cyclopedia of Biblical Knowledge, concerning "wine," affirms that alcoholic wine is meant in the Old Testament. It is suggested that the original language words translated "wine" literally refer to an intoxicating drink, and that clear references to the produce of the vine are merely figurative references to the end result of use of the product, alcoholic wine. Citations from Jewish writing from after the Babylonian captivity are noted, also in support of biblical wine being alcoholic. The conclusion drawn, over several pages during which "wine" is discussed, is that negative statements and prohibitions regarding wine and drunkenness merely refer to excesses. Otherwise, we are told, alcoholic wine was permissible, yea even a blessing from God, and something in which God's children were to rejoice.
Just when it would seem that the entry on "wine" were an unrestricted endorsement on drinking alcoholic wine (except for excesses resulting in drunkenness), the article closes with a reason for which Christians should not drink wine today. The alcoholic wine in biblical times derived its alcoholic content through natural fermentation, yielding a small concentration of alcohol compared to the much greater alcohol content in modern, distilled wines and other beverages. It seems, then, that the conclusion is that one cannot drink the modern alcoholic beverages without deriving the same result of excessive consumption of the less alcoholic wine in biblical times. (John M'Clintock and James Strong, "Wine," Cyclopaedia of Biblical Knowledge, Vol. 10, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, 1970, pp. 1010-1017.)
So, the proponents of alcohol are defeated before they begin, because there is little similarity between even alcoholic wine in antiquity and modern wines. If it were the case, as some historians allege, that "wine" in the Bible always refers to alcoholic wine, approval of alcoholic wine that was available then would not justify the alcoholic potency of wine on our shelves today. One drink of what passes for wine now often equals several drinks of alcoholic wine of antiquity. Therefore, if it were the case: (1) "wine" in the Bible always refers to alcoholic wine, (2) biblically, alcoholic wine was permitted in moderation, then, a single drink of modern wine would exceed the supposed biblical moderation.
Commercially available wine, beer and liquors would be prohibited biblically, even if the Bible and historical evidence permitted the consumption of alcoholic wine in Bible times (which they do not). "Natural fermentation produces 11% to 14% alcohol, whereas modern distillation produces an alcoholic content of 40% to 50%." (Gail Gleason Milgram, Ed.D., Professor and Director of the Education and Training Division at the Rutgers University Center of Alcohol Studies, "FACTS ON: The Effects of Alcohol," 1996, internet article.) Alcoholic wine employed in biblical times was as little as 4% alcohol versus contemporary beverages possessing more than 12 times that much alcohol. That means that a quart of wine then consumed on an empty stomach would be required to cause the effect of just a little alcohol today. (Jeffcoat, p. 140.)
Though M'Clintock-Strong grant that "wine" in the Bible refers to alcoholic wine through natural fermentation, they conclude that due to the greatly increased alcoholic potency of wine today, Christians cannot consume today's wine and alcoholic drinks with biblical approval. The historical record for Palestine does not concur with their observation that all "wine" was alcoholic, but their conclusion based on the modern beverage, if alcoholic wine were biblically sanctioned, is reasonable. What this means is that if the argument of proponents of social drinking were correct about biblically sanctioned alcoholic wine in the Bible, they would still fail miserably to prove biblical sanction for the pleasurable consumption of contemporary alcoholic beverages.
Obviously, modern alcoholic beverages are not the same item mentioned in the Bible, even when referring to alcoholic drinks. Contemporary alcoholic drinks are much more potent. The distillation process whereby extra alcoholic potency is artificially applied to modern wines was not discovered until between the ninth to the eleventh centuries A.D. long after the biblical periods closed. Alcoholic wine of the potency of modern wines was not available in biblical times!
Further, historical evidence affirms that even the lower alcoholic content wine of biblical times was not widely available or preferred in Palestine. Summarized, historical evidence (including archaeological discoveries) verifies that both fermented and unfermented wines were known by ancient peoples. Further, unfermented wine (grape juice) was preferred and more popular. Jeffcoat confirms through his research that preventing grape juice from fermenting in antiquity was not only possible (by any of several means), it was frequently desirable. (Ibid., pp. 33-35.)
Primarily two factors contributed to the widespread use of unfermented wine or grape juice. First, the grapes grown in Palestine, etc. are especially sweet, owing to a high sugar content. Due to the high sugar content, grape juice from these grapes does not ferment well naturally. Second, in order for fermentation to occur naturally, the temperature must range from 45 degrees to 75 degrees. However, when grapes are harvested in Palestine the temperature exceeds 75 degrees and rises to 100 degrees or more for months. Therefore, grape juice could not under those circumstances ferment naturally. "Scientists have discovered that fruit or vegetable juices which contain sugar, or starch which changes to sugar when exposed to the air at a temperature of from forty-five degrees to seventy-five degrees fahrenheit, practically always results in alcoholic fermentation." (Ibid., pp. 6-7.)
By putting grape juice into a container at the right temperature, yeast will turn the sugar in the juice into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The grape juice will have fermented. . . . As yeast works, it causes grape juice ("must") to get hot. But if there's too much heat, the yeast won't work. One modern way to deal with this is to put the juice into large stainless steel containers that have refrigeration systems built around the sides. The winemaker can regulate temperature precisely. (Anonymous, "Turning Grape Juice Into Alcohol," How Wine Is Made, http://sbwines.silcom.com/usenet_winefaq/juiceintoalcohol.html [2 Oct 1998])
Fermentation is possible only between about 40º and 80º F (4º and 27º Celsius). Below the former point fermentation is inoperative and above the latter point the acetous supplants the vinous process. (Bacchiocchi)
However, the excessive heat did cause grape juice to sour quickly. Besides knowledge of how to preserve grape juice from spoiling, ancient peoples also learned how to preserve fruit and vegetables whole and fresh for years. To preserve the grape juice in its unfermented state prior to it spoiling, primarily four methods of preservation were practiced. The most common remedy to the problem was to boil the grape juice, after which it would neither spoil nor ferment. If boiled for four to five hours, the liquid reduced to a syrup (or must) which was reconstituted with water when desired to drink. Another method of preservation of unfermented grape juice was allowing it to sit either under 45 degrees (submerged in a cool cistern, pond or spring) for 40 days or more, during which the yeast settled to the bottom, after which the juice was taken from the top. With the yeast removed, the remaining grape juice would not sour or ferment.
Another method of preservation of the unfermented grape juice was filtration. In this process the grape juice was passed through straining material several times, during which the yeast was removed. Then the grape juice would not sour or ferment. Also, the ancients discovered that if they added sulfur or a mixture that contained sulfur that the yeast would be neutralized so that the grape juice would neither sour nor ferment.
The least effective but possible way to prevent grape juice from souring in their climate was to seal the fresh grape juice in an air-tight container. Without oxidation, the grape juice could neither sour nor ferment. Whenever the container was opened to drink some grape juice, any remaining grape juice had to be poured into a smaller or smaller containers that were air-tight, to prevent souring or fermentation. (Fermentation would not occur naturally in their climate as stated above, but the grape juice would sour.)
Further, the ancients are known from their writings to have preferred sweet drinks as opposed to alcoholic drinks owing to the hot climate in which they lived. Alcoholic drinks historically have been preferred by people native to cooler climates. (The preceding information, except as otherwise noted, is a summary of material found in a book by William Patton, Bible Wines, Ft. Worth, TX, Star Bible and Tract Corp., 1976. He quotes from writers from the first century forward regarding the types of wines used in antiquity in what we call the Middle East. Additionally, Patton quoted from scientists regarding the circumstances under which grape juice sours, ferments or will not naturally ferment.)
The following quotation corroborates the immediately foregoing. Samuele Bacchiocchi provides a somewhat more detailed explanation below of the primary ways in which ancient peoples preserved grape juice.
The Preservation of Grape Juice by Boiling Moisture and Heat. The fermentation of grape juice can be prevented by reducing sufficiently its moisture content or by heating the juice at high temperature. The reason for this is that the growth of the yeast germs, which are the fermenting agents, slows or stops entirely when the moisture content of the grape juice is heated at 150º to 180º F. At such a temperature most of the ferments are destroyed. Both of these results are achieved by boiling the grape juice.
By boiling, the water of the grape juice evaporates, yeasts and molds are destroyed, and the sugar content increases, thus inhibiting yeast growth. This method of preserving grape juice unfermented by carefully boiling it down to a syrup was commonly and successfully used in the ancient world. When desired, the syrup would be drunk diluted with water. Several sources confirm this practice. . . .
The Preservation of Grape Juice through Filtration Separation of Albumen. Another method by which the fermentation of grape juice can be prevented is by separating the albumen, which is located in the lining of the skin and in the envelope of the seeds of the grape, from the other elements. The albumen, as noted earlier, contains the fermenting agents, known as ferments or yeast. By careful procedures the juice of the grapes can be separated from the fermenting pulp. The ancients understood this principle and applied it in two ways: (1) gentle pressing, (2) filtration.
Gentle Pressing. The grapes were brought in from the vineyard and placed in wine vats. The first juice that flowed before the treading began, according to Pliny, was called protropum. "The name," he explains, "was given by some people to must that flows down of its own accord before the grapes are trodden." This juice, that flowed spontaneously from the grapes, was composed almost entirely of the sugar portion of the grapes. The high sugar content of the juice, combined with its relative freedom from yeast, would make its preservation in an air tight container relatively easy. . . .
Filtration. When the fermentable pulp was pressed out together with the saccharin juice, a separation of the former was still possible by means of filtration. It is evident that the ancient means of filtration were far less sophisticated and efficient than those used by the wine industry today. Their basic method consisted of using a bag, called sacco, in which the grapes were placed. A vase was placed below the bag to receive the falling juice. Several Latin writers refer to the use of such strainers or filters in the preparation of wines. . . .
The Preservation of Grape Juice Through Cold Storage Below 40º Fahrenheit. The fermentation of grape juice can be prevented also by keeping it below 40º F (4º Celsius). Nearly all processes of fermentation cease at about 40º F. Fermentation is possible only between about 40º and 80º F (4º and 27º Celsius). Below the former point fermentation is inoperative and above the latter point the acetous supplants the vinous process. By lowering the temperature to about 40º F., the albumen settles at the bottom and the juice does not ferment.
Ancient Method. The ancients were familiar with this method of preservation. When they desired to preserve grape juice in its sweet, unfermented state, they would take an amphora and coat it with pitch within and without. Then they would fill it with mustum lixivium, the must that flowed before the grapes would be pressed with a heavy beam and they would seal it carefully with pitch. It was then immersed in a pool of cool water or a cistern and allowed to remain undisturbed for six weeks or two months. After this process the grape juice could remain unfermented and hence it was called semper mustum, that is, permanent must. . . .
The Preservation of Grape Juice Through Sulphur Fumigation. The fermentation of grape juice can also be prevented by the fumes of sulphur dioxide. The method consists in filling the jars nearly full with fresh unfermented grape juice, then burning sulphur dioxide in the empty portion, and while the sulphur fumes are present, the jars are tightly closed. Another possibility is to pour the must into jars or bottles which have been strongly treated with sulphur fumes. The sulphur absorbs the oxygen of the air and inhibits the formation of yeast germs. Sulphur dioxide is widely used today in the wine industry to deal with some of the infection to which wine is subject. (Samuele Bacchiocchi, "The Preservation of Grape Juice," Wine in the Bible: A Biblical Study on the Use of Alcoholic Beverages, http://www2.andrews.edu/~samuele/books/wine_in_the_bible/3.html [21 Sep 1998])
Summarized, both fermented and unfermented wines are referred to in the Bible. Word studies indicate that the Hebrew and Greek words are often used interchangeably for either alcoholic or non-alcoholic wine. Contextually, then, the words can be discerned as to how they are being used, hence, approval or disapproval.
The combination of information regarding biblical considerations, medication considerations and historical considerations argues persuasively against biblical authorization for the pleasurable consumption of alcoholic beverages today. Further acknowledgment of the role of alcohol in the following, tragic examples likewise resolutely testifies against its innocence: ruined lives, ravaged families, tens of thousands of fatal accidents annually, even more unnecessary injuries, greatly contributing to escalating medical costs borne by all, lost work time and economic loss to employers and families, diversion of tax money to counteract the impact of alcohol on various aspects of society and a myriad of health problems. The most tragic effect of alcohol is its reproach on one's soul.
I can hear someone now, again, saying, "All of those bad things you mentioned result from alcohol abuse, not from social drinking." My question is: "Why would a Christian want to drink alcohol, just knowing that it has the potential to unmercifully grasp social drinkers and convert them to the worst alcoholics or otherwise ruin their lives and the lives of others?" At best, the most persuasive rationalization favoring alcohol still leaves every social drinker liable, by his or her example, for leading other souls to destruction through alcohol.