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Wine in the Ancient World

April 8th, 2005

I have been in discussion with some guys online who are arguing that any consumption of alcohol is prohibited by the New Testament. They use the same old arguments I have heard before: the wine in the bible was not alcoholic, was diluted with water, etc. What was the position of Christians in the early church?
- (John, Raleigh)

John,

The use of alcohol is an issue which finds a good amount of disagreement in the Church. Some denominations use wine in the celebration (eucharist) of Holy Communion, while others will only use unfermented grape juice. Some hold strongly to total abstinence, while others see nothing wrong with a moderate use of alcohol. While I do have an opinion on this issue, my first intention is not to engage in this dispute here. However, I do have “an axe to grind.” My concern as an historian is to approach and present the evidence of antiquity with accuracy; this article is a response to some presentations which have failed to do this. It is an unfortunate fact that incorrect information regarding wine in the ancient world continues to be repeated. The data which is incorrectly presented, and which I want to address here, comes from non-Christian ancient writers including Pliny the Elder and Columella. I am going to leave the academic references out of this reply, but my formal paper, Wine in the Ancient World (with footnotes) can be downloaded for easy printing/reading.


You can download Wine in the Ancient World, Part 1 and Part 2.

The first major issue which always comes up is that all wine (oinos in Greek) was not fermented, or alcoholic. Typically, discussion is offered on the meaning of certain Hebrew and Greek words. On this point there can be little argument; it is certain that people in the ancient world drank grape juice, and oinos was sometimes used to refer to fresh, non-alcoholic wine. At the same time, Paul uses oinos when he says, “Do not be drunk with wine” (Eph.5:18). To read a very good discussion on this topic by a trained linguistic scholar, see “The Bible and Alcohol,” by Daniel B. Wallace, Ph.D.

Most articles I have found on this topic refer to Columella and Pliny the Elder, and unfortunately, most of these references misrepresent these ancient writers. The Full Life Study Bible, edited by Charles Stamp (Zondervan 1996) contains three separate articles on wine in the Bible. Each of these articles misrepresent ancient authors, both secular and Christian.
[Note: I had several e-mail exchanges with Dr. Stamp and a lengthy telephone conversation regarding these issues. Per my recommendations, Dr. Stamp made some changes to these articles in the 10th anniversary edition and improved them greatly by deleting most references to ancient writers. I only reference these articles now because I continue to find them used as a resource. I do not want it to seem like I am attacking Dr. Stamp. He was a fine man and is now present with the Lord - I doubt these issues take up his time now!]
Another frequently cited article appeared in Christianity Today back in 1975: “Wine-Drinking in New Testament Times,” by Robert Stein. This Stein article is cited by many of the web pages I have seen lately. Finding the actual article is not that easy without good library access - I found a poor PDF scan of the actual article - you can download it on my Resource page.

In the first Full Life Study Bible article on “Wine in the New Testament” Columella and Pliny are cited describing how to store wine by trying to keep it from the air, and thus from fermentation, by sinking wine casks under water. This section of the FLSB article opens,
“Finally, ancient Roman writers have explained in detail various processes used in dealing with freshly squeezed grape juice, especially ways to preserve it from fermenting.”

Both of these ancient writers do spend a good deal of time describing how to keep and store wine, but not to keep it from fermenting. Columella devotes Book 12 of On Agriculture to the preservation of various food items against spoilage: vines, vineyards and wine production are covered in several chapters. It is important to understand why these writers spend so much time explaining the processes used for drying fruits, storing grain, and how to store wine – the goal was to make sure there was food and drink until the next harvest. Columella writes extensively about the storage of wine, but nothing is said to indicate that the purpose is to keep the wine from fermenting. A close reading reveals that Columella’s real concern, reflecting a common concern in the ancient world, was to keep the wine from too much fermentation — becoming vinegar. This is borne out by his comments in 12.20.1, “Furthermore, boiled-down must, though carefully made, is, like wine, apt to go sour.” Again, 12.20.8, “This, though it does not make the flavour of the wine last forever, yet at any rate generally preserves it until another vintage.”

There are numerous places where both Columella and Pliny indicate that their discussion concerns fermented wine (to see these texts, download the PDF article). All of these texts indicate the presence of alcohol and fermentation, but the two from Pliny are particularly interesting: he describes the warming sensation one feels when alcohol is consumed and then describes the cooling, evaporative nature of using wine on the skin as a rub — both point to alcohol. Then the lower freezing point of alcohol which causes Pliny to marvel at how wine could ever freeze. Add to this his descriptions of those who abuse wine and promote drunkenness (offending his sense of Stoic ethics) and it becomes obvious that Pliny is not covering the basics in grape juice production. He is not concerned about trying to keep grape juice from becoming alcoholic. His concern was to keep wine from spoiling into vinegar and becoming useless as a beverage.

To summarize this first point: there was simple grape juice in the ancient world. Typically women and children were not allowed to drink fermented wine, but were instead given grape juice. There was also an “after-wine” that was served to day laborers (see notations in article). The norm, however, was fermented wine.

Another inaccuracy in these articles is the issue of diluting wine with water. There can be no argument about whether the ancients diluted their wine; there are innumerable examples from ancient writers to verify this fact. The problem is one of emphasis and implication.

The second FLSB article begins,
“WINE: MIXED OR FULL STRENGTH? Historical data concerning the making and use of wine by the Jews and other nations in the Biblical world indicate that it was (a) often unfermented and (b) normally mixed with water.”

We are only given two options, neither of which is to drink alcoholic wine in any appreciable way. Stein does the same in his 1975 article,
“In other words, it is possible to become intoxicated from wine mixed with three parts water, but one’s drinking would probably affect the bladder long before it affected the mind….there is a striking difference between the drinking of alcoholic beverages today and the drinking of wine in New Testament times.”

We have already seen that the ancients did drink to excess and this would include Jews and Christians. A plethora of examples (including Paul’s injunction in Ephesians 5:18) could be gathered from ancient writers to show that intoxication was a concern and was not unusual in the ancient world. Many ancient writers deplored the banality of excessive drinking — it went against the decorum which Graeco-Roman philosophers valued.

Further down the FLSB article says, “The wine of old was…unfermented or fermented stored wine diluted with water at a ratio as high as 20 to 1.” Again, Stein uses the same citation from Homer’s Odyssey. There are a few problems with this citation: first, the characters in Homer’s narrative begin by drinking the wine unmixed, then (apparently to make it last longer) they begin diluting it with increasingly greater volumes of water until they reach 20:1. Homer’s point in this narrative was that Maronean wine was so robust that it never lost it’s flavor! It could also be that by the time they were drinking at 20:1 they were so drunk that they could not taste/notice the dilution (cf. John 2:10). But, there is a second problem: this citation from Homer is like using The RugRats as a research tool for understanding toddlers. Homer was the Star Trek of the ancient world! Both Pliny and Plato refer to the “legendary” aspects of Homer’s wine. Listen to Plato on Homer,
“We may assume, then, that all the poets from Homer downwards have no grasp of reality but merely give us superficial representation of any subject they treat.”
Pliny does say that this Maronean wine is famous for “its strength and unconquerable body,” and can be diluted 8:1 without losing its “bouquet, and [it] improves with age.” It must, however, be remembered that Pliny is discussing an exceptional wine. He is amazed that it can withstand this kind of dilution. To speak of its “strength,” “body,” “bouquet,” and to say that it “improves with age” makes it seem like this is fortified (and rather sweet) wine, perhaps with an enhanced alcoholic content.

Stamps, Teachout and Stein are correct when they offer data to show that wine was diluted with water, but to suggest Homer’s 20:1 is ridiculous and to put forth Pliny’s 8:1 as normal would also be wrong. A 2:1 or 3:1 ratio was not unusual. But it must be remembered that the juice of grapes, under natural circumstances, will have an alcoholic content of 10-17%, thus even a 3:1 ratio would yield a drink of 3-5%, which is similar to an average American beer. The wine in the ancient world was most likely stronger (in flavor, if not alcoholic content) than modern wines to withstand such a dilution. No modern wine could withstand dilution with three parts water. It would taste, well, watered down. Anyone who thinks “normal” wine could withstand this kind of dilution should take the best grape juice on the market and dilute it with 2 parts water. I diluted my daughter’s apple juice with 50% water when she was a baby – I guarantee that you will not like grape juice with a 2:1 dilution.

So what does it mean about the wine of the ancient world that it can be diluted to such an extent and still be “good?” I have a possible explanation, but that will have to wait for “Wine in the Ancient World, Part II.”

The idea that the water was typically unsafe for drinking is another argument for diluting wine with water. Stein comments on this,
“In ancient times there were not many beverages that were safe to drink. The danger of drinking water alone raises another point. There were several ways in which the ancients could make water safe to drink. One method was boiling…The safest and easiest method of making the water safe to drink, however, was to mix it with wine.”
I have read this kind of statement many times, but have never seen an historical reference. The only reference offered by Stein is his personal experience in Greece.

I recently spent a week in Ecuador on a mission trip where the Americans were told repeatedly, “Do not drink the water,” yet the locals drink it and do not get sick. People around the world drink dirty water everyday – they do not die – they just live with parasites. In all my reading of ancient writers I cannot remember a single reference to this issue (while I obviously have not read all ancient documents, I have read a good many documents of first and second century writers). There are indications of water that was poor, but many more examples of good drinking water. Well water was common, the collection of rain water for drinking was common – the Bible has numerous examples of people drinking water. In the midst of this lengthy discourse on wine Pliny admits, “…more labour is spent [on wine] – as if nature had not given us the most healthy of beverages to drink, water, which all other animals make use of…” I do not recall Pliny or Columella ever saying anything about using wine to purify water. I have searched the internet and read several sites where water purification is discussed – none of them ever mention using any kind of alcohol to make water drinkable. Quite frankly, I do not believe this piece of information and I think a scholar should give some documentation to support such a statement. Most people know that chlorine bleach can be used to help purify water, but I do not think using wine to purify water is commonly thought of as a solution.

Miles Stair is a survivalist living in Oregon [www.endtimesreport.com]. You might not agree with his views, but he knows more than I will ever know about how to stay alive during a natural disaster – this includes how to get drinkable water, how to purify water, and how to safely store water for later consumption. In an exchange of e-mails he confirmed what I had thought all along:

“I can find no official source for sterilizing water with wine - no reference at all that would even hint at the efficacy of such a combination.” Miles

The closest thing I can find to this idea that wine can make bacteria-laden water safe to drink are studies clearly indicating that the alcohol and the acid in wine does kill bacteria:
www.cnn.com/HEALTH/9605/07/wine.digestion (1996)
www.decanter.com/news/46268.html (2002)
www.sciencedaily.com/videos/2005-12-04/ (2005)
These articles, however, indicate that drinking undiluted wine with a meal can kill some harmful bacteria in the stomach, but do not at all support the idea that diluted wine would have the same effect.

The most recent links above are about the work of Mark Daeschel. Dr. Daeschel is a professor of food microbiology at Oregon State University. I have e-mailed Dr. Daeschel asking for some expert explanation on this topic. I will report his response in “Wine in the Ancient World, Part II.”

What’s the Point?
So, what is my point in this Part I article?
1. All the citations I have found of ancients writers to prove that the wine in the ancient world was not alcoholic have been faulty. You just cannot use Pliny the Elder or Columella for this evidence - quite the opposite. The writings of these two men with regards to wine were intended to document how their contemporaries stored wine and safeguarded it from turning sour, becoming vinegar.

2. The evidence found in most articles to support the idea that the ancient world used wine to make water safe to drink are seriously flawed. Wine was indeed diluted with water, but the purpose was not to make the water safe. People in the ancient world drank water consistently. There were methods for providing clean water (wells and catching rain), but people also drank dirty water and lived with parasites as many do in the 21st century.


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