Alcoholism is the number one drug problem in the U.S. today with over 14 million people suffering from some form of Alcohol Use disorder. Given this fact, it is important that we have a clear understanding of what scripture says on the topic of wine, and specifically alcoholic wine. However first let us define some terms and indulge in a brief history lesson.
In regard to wine and winemaking in the times of the Bible, there is a common misconception that if a person simply takes ripe grapes off a grapevine and crushes them, that the juice that is produced will automatically become alcoholic wine. The belief is that, because of the chemical composition of the grape itself, alcohol is always produced when the grapes are simply crushed, and the juice is extracted. Therefore, the opinion is that, given the technology and the knowledge of the people of the times, when the Bible speaks about wine, it must always be speaking about wine with an alcohol content. The assumption maintains that grape juice will always, naturally, ferment and have an alcoholic content of about 12% to 15%.
Adding to this misconception is the notion that in ancient times water was so polluted that the alcohol in wine was necessary in order to protect people’s health. This is contrary to both the historical documents as well as archeological evidence. The historical record shows the extent and effort civilization went to manage the quality of its water supplies. Consider the great viaducts of Rome, some of which still stand today, which were used to bring fresh water to the city.
Before the fall of the Roman empire, around 450 AD, less than 250 million people lived on the earth (less than 4% of the current world population) with an estimated 80% living an agrarian lifestyle. For that vast majority of people, the primary source of water would be wells, springs or rivers. We know that wells, springs and rivers all provide some form of natural filtration. Therefore except for larger urban centers, (such as Rome) the majority of the people on earth had access to potable water. Even today, people around the world and here in the United Stated have, as their primary source of drinking water, wells, springs and (less common today because of modern industrial pollution) rivers. Such water is used untreated with no ill effects to the people.
History shows, when drinking wine, the Roman tradition was to dilute the wine with water. Typically, the ratio was 3 parts water to one part wine. Drinking wine undiluted was considered barbaric. If the water was polluted, then the resultant concentration of alcohol (approx. 4%) would not make what was being consumed safe.
There was another alcoholic beverage that was in common use in Bible times and consumed by many people. The beverage was beer. If water contamination were ever truly an issue, beer would be a better choice over wine. This is because the process of making alcoholic beer requires boiling which kills the harmful bacteria, unlike alcoholic wine which loses it alcoholic content when boiled.
So, what about wine and wine making in Biblical times? Wine is made from grapes. Grapes are high in sugars. That is why they taste sweet and delicious. One of the sugars in grapes is glucose, which we typically refer to as blood sugar and is necessary for human health.
The grapes are picked and then crushed into a mixture referred to as Must. Making Must is the first step in winemaking. The word Must is used to describe both the fresh juice with the solids (skins, seeds, and stems) which is called pomace, or just the juice itself. The word ‘Must’ derives from the Latin vinum mustum, which means “young wine”. The word is used to describe the juice from the grape which has not fermented. It can be argued that when the Bible speaks of “New Wine’ is it describing Must which has simply had the pomace removed. This can be done by simply passing the Must through a piece of cloth. Since the yeast, which is the agent that causes the fermentation, is on the skins of the grapes, this filtering will remove much of the yeasts and will therefore impact the fermentation process.
Fermentation is the process of converting carbohydrates to alcohol or organic acids using microorganisms such as yeasts, bacteria or molds under anaerobic (without air) conditions. The term fermentation sometimes refers specifically to the chemical conversion of sugars into ethanol, producing alcoholic drinks such as wine, beer or cider. However, similar processes take place in the leavening of bread (CO2 produced by yeast activity), and in the preservation of sour foods with the production of lactic acid such as sauerkraut and yogurt. Other widely consumed fermented foods include vinegar, olives, and cheese.
To produce alcoholic wine from grapes requires the fermentation process where the sugars in the grapes are converted into alcohol (and carbon dioxide). As previously stated, for fermentation to occur an agent, typically a yeast,5must be added. Yeast does not naturally occur in the grape itself. It is a contaminate that exists in the environment and ends up on the skins of the grape along with other microorganisms. Yeast is a living organism, and It digests sugars and execrates alcohol and carbon dioxide. Fermentation does not occur instantaneously. Typically, wine has two stages of fermentation. The first can last from 1 to 2 weeks, and the second longer. Fermentation continues until the sugars are consumed by the yeasts or the level of alcohol is reached where it becomes toxic to the yeast itself and the yeast dies. Because “wild yeasts” that can reside on the skin of the grapes may be of unknown (or unwanted) species and can have a negative impact on the taste and quality of the wine that is being produced, most commercial winemakers today now remove the wild yeast (and other microbes). This process typically involves sterilizing the grapes, and later adding the strain of yeast that is specific to their processes. After sterilizing the grapes, if the winemakers do not add yeast, the wine will not ferment.
Yeasts are not the only microorganism that can ferment the wine. Acetic acid bacteria are ubiquitous in nature, and this is the bacteria that converts alcohol in acetic acid and changes wine into vinegar. There are other microorganisms that exist in the Must. These includes a number of common bacteria, one of which can cause botulism. This is why wine is sterilized (commonly with Sulfites) as part of the modern winemaking process.
There are two factors that limit the amount of alcohol produced by fermentation. The first is the yeast’s tolerance for alcohol. Alcohol is a byproduct of the yeast digestion of sugars and the alcohol is toxic to the yeast. At an alcohol level of around 15%, the yeast literally dies in its own excrement. The second limiting factor is the amount of sugar the yeast has consumed. Once the yeast has consumed the sugars available in the wine, the fermentation simply stops. That is of course unless additional sugars are added thereby allowing the fermentation process to continue further to the point where the limiting factor is the yeast tolerance to the toxicity of alcohol.
Fermenting the sugars in the Must into alcohol has a negative impact on its nutritional value. “The body treats alcohol as fat, converting alcohol sugars into fatty acids. Alcohol use inhibits absorption of nutrients. Not only is alcohol devoid of proteins, minerals, and vitamins, it actually inhibits the absorption and usage of vital nutrients such as thiamin (vitamin B1), vitamin B12, folic acid, and zinc.”
There are a number of things that can impact fermentation of grape juice into wine. Biological agents, such as bacteria, molds and fugus which exist on the skin of the grapes during harvest affect fermentation. Even when and how the wine is exposed to air during fermentation can have drastic impact on the final product. To use the vocabulary of winemaking, a wine may become ‘stuck’ (stops fermenting) or it may ‘fault’. A fault is when other chemical processes or biological agent interact with the wine, causing the wine to ‘go bad’ or to actually become toxic.
Temperature management in winemaking is critical and has long be understood even back to biblical time. Fermentation produces heat which can stop the yeast from fermenting. Similarly, if the temperature drops too low the yeast will go dormant and disrupt the fermentation process. However, it is simple temperature management that can be used to not only allow the Must to stay unfermented, but also to preserve the juice (Must) unfermented. Simply heating the grape juice to around 150°F for a few minutes will not only stop the yeast from fermenting but will kill the other microorganisms that can cause the wine to spoil. Today this process is known as pasteurization
There are some who claim that people did not boil wine. However, Sapa, in Latin, or Siraion, or Hepsema, in Greek, is a grape syrup made from grape juice by boiling it and reducing it to 1/3 of its original volume. Many Greek and Roman authors mention it by name, including Hippocrates in the 5th century BC. But only Pliny the Elder (1st century AD) describes how it was made. It was commonly used by both the Greeks and Romans and is still popular in a number of countries around the Mediterranean Sea. Camelleo, who wrote in the first century about Roman agriculture detailed the process of heating the Must until a tenth had evaporated. Once the Must had cooled, it could be stored and would last for a long period of time unfermented. This process allows one to effectively pasteurize the Must without the use of a thermometer or a clock.
The question of why would someone growing grapes choose to make either fermented or unfermented wine? From a purely financial aspect, there are both benefits and risk associated with making fermented wine. In Bible times and today, fermented wine has a higher financial value over unfermented grape juice. However, there were significant risks associated with making fermented wine. The Acetobacteraceae bacteria, common in the environment may contaminate the wine, which causes the alcohol to be converted into acetic acid. The result is wine vinegar (sour wine). It is from this sour wine that posca (a mixture of vinegar and water) is derived which was the typical beverage of the Roman solider. Sour wine (vinegar) had a much lower financial value (lower than unfermented Must) and therefore was supplied to the Roman armies. Even worse, from a purely financial perspective, the wine may fault, or other biological agents may contaminate the wine causing the wine to become undrinkable. On the other hand, the risk associated with making and storing unfermented Must and having the results go bad is much lower. However, the potential financial gain would obviously be less.
Today, because of modern technology, as well as an understanding of chemical processes and microbiology, the risks in winemaking have been greatly minimized to the point that the vast majority of grapes that are harvested go to the making of fermented wine and distilled spirits.
With an understanding that in Bible times not all grape juice had to be processed into fermented wine, and that grape juices could be safely stored and consumed unfermented, let us look into scripture and see if this gives us a different understanding of a number of verses that people reference when discussing wine and the drinking of alcoholic beverages.
The Account of the Wedding in Cana (John 2)
People like to point to the account in the second chapter of the gospel of John of the wedding feast in Cana where Jesus turned water into wine to prove that Jesus condoned social drinking (John 2:6-10).
We can assume that it was a very short time from when Jesus miraculously changed the water into wine to the moment when the master of the feast samples the wine. The argument that Jesus made the wine alcoholic brings with it a number of issues. First, fermentation is the result of adding leaven which is a foreign agent (essentially a contaminate). Would Jesus make anything that was contaminated or impure? Second, given the amount of wine produced and the danger of possible intoxication, we would have to ask whether or not Jesus would make a substance that could cause someone to stumble. Absolutely not! As has been hown, the making and storing of unfermented grape juice was a well-known practice. The master of the feast would not have been surprised and would have actually been expecting to sample unfermented juice.
The Lord’s Supper
During the Feast of Unleavened Bread, when Jesus instituted the Lord’s supper, it is interesting to note how He referred to the contents of the cup. In all three of the Gospel accounts Jesus uses the expression “fruit of the vine” rather than the more generic term “wine” (Matt. 26:27-29; Mark 14:25; Luke 22:18).
During the feast of unleavened bread, the Jews were not to eat leavened bread nor were they to have any leaven (or leavened products) in the house. Since alcoholic wine is produced by the reaction of leaven (yeast) on grapes and therefore contains residual amounts of leaven, Jesus, in using the more specific term ‘fruit of the vine’, is simply highlighting the fact that the content of the cup is pure and not tainted with a foreign substance. Again, since Jesus and the apostles were about to drink the fruit of the vine which is unfermented Must, the implication is that the process of making and storing nonalcoholic wine (Must) was a known and common practice.
Old and new wine and wineskins
Matthew 9:17 reads: “Nor do they put new wine into old wineskins, or else the wineskins break, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined. But they put new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved” (cf. Mark 2:21-22; Luke 5:36-39).
The old wineskin was previously used and therefore may contain residue from its earlier content. This could include dormant yeast. By adding the new wine, fermentation may start in the wineskin spontaneously. Since fermentation produces the gas carbon dioxide, the gas would expand until it burst the wineskin. However, ‘old wine’ which has become relatively stable can be put into the old wineskin since it is less likely to react to any residue that may be in the old wineskin and therefore less likely to start fermenting and thereby burst the wineskin.
Paul’s Recommendation to Timothy
In 1 Timothy 5:23 Paul tells Timothy “No longer drink only water but use a little wine for your stomach’s sake and your frequent infirmities.” Alcohol, like some other drugs, has medicinal usages. Because of its chemical properties’ alcohol is used in many medicines today. However, in the case of wine, most of the therapeutic properties of wine can found in Must, (unfermented grape juice.) It is possible that Timothy, in his zeal for his brethren, to an extreme, was not drinking anything but water for fear of causing a brother who struggles with drunkenness to stumble since the brother could not tell by sight if Timothy were drinking something that contained alcohol. Therefore, Paul is telling Timothy this is it acceptable to drink Must (the unfermented product of winemaking) since it will aid in Timothy’s overall health and it is the responsibility of the other (according to Romans 14:3) to not prejudge Timothy’s behavior
To be ‘Drunk’ on new wine (Acts 2)
In many translations of the New Testament the phrase “New Wine” is used in Act 2:13 “Others mocking said, “They are full of new wine.”’ From the context, the implication is that the apostles were intoxicated by drinking “New Wine”
However, the word translated “new wine” in this verse is different than the words that are translated “New Wine” throughout the rest of the New Testament. The word here in Acts 2:13 that this translated “New Wine” only occurs in this one time in all of the New Testament. The Greek word here is Gleukous. The word Gleukous means “sweet wine,” and this may cause some confusion. After all, if the process of fermentation converts sugar to alcohol, it would seem logical that a sweet wine would have more sugars and therefore less alcohol as a result of fermentation. As has been mentioned, one of the ways fermentation will stop is when the yeast consumes all the available sugar in the Must. In this case, the alcoholic content could be increased by adding sugars, typically in the form of honey. Since more honey would be added that could be consumed by the yeast, the wine would be brought to the maximum alcoholic concentration (12% to 15%) but leave the alcoholic wine unusually sweet.
In conclusion, the misconception that in Bible times all wine had to contain alcohol, is based on the groundless opinion that the processes of fermentation were not understood at the time and therefore has no merit. Is has been shown, based on the historical evidence, that, in that time period, the production, storage and consumption of nonalcoholic wine was readily practiced.
The Bible speaks about both nonalcoholic and alcoholic wine. Since the word that is translated “wine’ can be a generic term it is our responsibility, as students of God’s Word, to determined what is being addressed by the context of the verses.
The Bible well addresses the dangers of alcohol. Proverbs 20:1 says it all:
“Wine is a mocker, Strong drink is a brawl-er, And whoever is led astray by it is not wise.”