Ancient Wine Production and the Bible
By David R. Brumbelow, Highlands, Texas.
David Brumbelow is a pastor, and a graduate of East Texas Baptist Uuniversity and Southwestern Seminary. He is author of “Ancient Wine and the Bible: The Case for Abstinence,” (freechurchpress.com); foreword by Paige Patterson. He blogs at gulfcoastpastor.blogspot.com.
Misperceptions abound about the Bible and wine. Many believe the wine of the Bible was the same as today and always alcoholic. But the biblical and ancient words for wine were generic; they referred to both alcoholic and nonalcoholic wine. For example, Jesus referred to unfermented wine as “wine” (Greek word, oinos; Matthew 9:17). The Old Testament referred to just pressed grapes as “wine” (Proverbs 3:10; Isaiah 16:10; Joel 2:24).Just pressed grapes produce nonalcoholic wine or grape juice. It refers to grapes on the vine as “wine’ (Isaiah 65:8). Scripture even speaks of infants crying for wine (Lamentations 2:11-12); parents do not give alcoholic, but nonalcoholic wine to infants.
Ancient writers did not have a word for alcohol, but Aristotle, Plutarch, Pliny, Hippocrates, Colum Ella, Athenaeums and others recognized some wine would intoxicate and some would not. Aristotle said sweet wine (which had not fermented, thereby taking away it’s sweetness) would not inebriate. Plutarch gave a confused discussion of why sweet wine would not intoxicate, and other wine would.
Nonalcoholic wine was common and when the Bible refers to wine, it must be determined by the context whether it is referring to alcoholic or nonalcoholic wine. Some wine was dangerous (Proverbs 20:1; Isaiah 28:7), some was not (Judges 9:13; Psalm 104:15; Zechariah 9:17). Scripture says Jesus turned water to wine (oinos); it does not say the sinless Christ turned water to beverage alcohol. Remember Jesus Himself called nonalcoholic wine “oinos.”
Another misperception is that all ancient wine was fermented and alcoholic, except for a brief period between pressing the grapes and when fermentation set in. They contend fermentation could not be prevented until the 1860s discovery of pasteurization. Some authorities have said Passover wine had to be fermented since Passover was in the Spring, months after the grape harvest. History, ancient knowledge, and science disprove this assumption.
Unfermented wine was easier for ancients to produce and preserve than alcoholic wine. Methods included boiling down fresh wine to a thick consistency that would not spoil or ferment. When ready to drink, they simply added water. This thick, strong wine (grape molasses, pekmez, vincotto) was also used for cooking. * The grape harvest lasted six months and certain type grapes would keep fresh for months. These grapes could be pressed into wine at any time of the year (Genesis 40:11). Dried grapes or raisins were re-hydrated and pressed into fresh un-intoxicating wine, a practice used by many Jews right up to modern times. Ancient warriors were given cakes of dried grapes to make their own wine as needed. Nonalcoholic wine was also preserved with salt and lactic fermentation.
These and other methods were commonly used by ancients to produce and preserve nonalcoholic wine. Just because we do not know these ancient methods, in no way means they did not know. This unfermented wine was widespread and held in high esteem. In contrast, drinkable alcoholic wine did not just magically happen; it was difficult to produce and preserve.
While most Baptists oppose alcohol, they still debate whether the Bible directly condemns it. I believe it does. Proverbs 20:1 directly calls wine a mocker. Proverbs 23:29-35 describes the effects of alcoholic wine and says not to even look at that kind of wine (23:31). 1 Thessalonians5:6-8 and 1 Peter 5:8 command us to be sober. Sober (Greek, nepho) literally means “wineless.” In addition a number of biblical principles teach against using alcohol (or any other drug) for pleasure or recreation.
For these and many other reasons, for well over 100 years Southern Baptists and the Church Covenant have wisely advised to abstain from the manufacture, sale, and use of beverage alcohol.
* I have some of this thick wine (grape molasses); made in Lebanon. While it says to refrigerate after opening, I opened it, then kept it at room temperature. It has kept in perfect condition, without spoiling or fermenting, for over two years.