The Use of Wine In New Testament Times

Title: The Use of Wine In New Testament Times
Category: History
Subject: Wine; Alcohol


How popular is home wine-making? The question appeared recently in a weekly magazine. The answer was that every month, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms of the U.S. Dept. of the Treasury licenses a new 5,000 heads-of- households. The American Wine Society, a Hobby group, reports (back in 1975) membership as 12,000 with a 30% annual increase.

"Pop" wines, advertised so freely on TV, radio, magazines, and billboards, have contributed to a serious and growing problem among young people. People like to joke about the amount of beer consumed by servicemen but it is no joke to three million American veterans who are now alcoholics.

Alcohol is a major problem, but when one takes a stand against beverage alcohol, some "sleeper" comes up with the same old worn-out protest, "But Jesus drank wine! They drank wine at the Last Supper, didn''t they? The answer is, "yes." Wine was used at the Last Supper. But the answer to the implied question (Is not modern drinking the same as that practiced by the Jews at their feasts and social function?) is no. There is a difference.

An article by R. H. Stein, "Wine Drinking in N. T. Times" which appeared in the June 20, 1975 issue of "Christianity Today" (p. 9) is helpful in understanding the difference in wine drinking in N. T. times and modern social drinking. Stein pointed out that in ancient Greece wine was stored in large jugs called AMPHORAE. When used it was first poured into large bowls called KRATERS and mixed with water. From these kraters cups (KYLIX) were filled. It is important to note that before the wine was consumed it was mixed with water. The cups were filled from the kraters and not the amphorae.

The ratio of water to wine mentioned by ancient writers varied from 1 to 20 parts water to 1 part wine. Common ratios mentioned are: 2-1, 3-1, 4-1, 5-2 (the larger number represents the water). "Sometimes the ratio goes down to 1 to 1 (and even lower), but it should be noted that such a mixture is referred to as ''strong wine.'' Drinking wine unmixed, on the other hand, was looked on as a Scythian or barbarian custom" (Stein).

Wine was not only a common beverage in ancient times. It was used for medical purposes as well as a solvent for medicines. Wine is mentioned often in ancient writings. Plutarch wrote, "We call a mixture ''wine'' although the larger of the component parts is water." Writers simply called the mixture wine without explaining the ratio. But if straight wine or unmixed wine was intended it was called ''strong wine'' or strong drink.

It seems reasonable to assume that the practice among the Jews was similar to that mentioned above. In several places in the O. T. a distinction is made between wine and ''strong drink.'' In Lev. 10:8-9 we find the Lord addressing Aaron, "Drink no wine nor strong drink, you nor your sons with you, when you go into the tent of meeting..."

OTHER REFERENCES: (1) Num. 6:3; (2) Deut. 14:14-26; 29:6; (3) Judges 13:4, 7, 14; (4) I Sam. 1:15; (5) Pro. 20:1; 31:4, 6; (6) Isaiah 5:11, 22.

Both the Talmud and the 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia suggests that a mixture of three parts water to one part wine was customary. Therefore, it may be safe to assume that the wine used at the Last Supper was a mixture of 3 parts water to 1 part wine.

Yes, Jesus drank wine. Yes, the apostles drank wine. But no, the modern use of alcoholic beverages does not parallel the use of wine in N. T. times. "To consume the amount of alcohol that is in two martinis by drinking wine containing three parts water to one part wine, one would have to drink over twenty-two glasses" (Stein). There is a striking differences in modern social drinking and the use of wine in those days.

In ancient times safe drinking water was often very difficult to find. Unfermented fruit juice would soon spoil and milk would sour. The only answer to a very acute problem was real, fermented wine. The wine helped purify the water and the water stretched the wine supply. When one took an extended trip the only safe, reliable drink was this mixture of water and wine. It was not only practical, it was essential.

Today safe water, coffee, tea, refrigerated milk and juices and cold soft drinks are available to most people whether at home or on the road. These drinks are not only safer than wine, beer and liquor, they are usually less expensive. Seldom does a family become destitute because of a father''s addiction to coffee or tea. The same cannot be said of alcoholic beverages.

Lost men generally associate the drinking of alcoholic beverages with worldliness and sin. Many unsaved people can only be reached by one who lives a separated life. Any Christian who drinks beverage alcohol places his testimony in serious jeopardy and to deliberately jeopardize one''s witness is a serious offense against God and the unsaved. Knowing this, the man who drinks is seeking the minimum in service and loyalty, and avoiding the maximum. Those who try to justify their drinking may often be trying to determine just how little they can do for God and still be called a Christian by others. It is easy to tell when someone is rationalizing to try justify compromise.

"If the drinking of unmixed wine or even wine mixed with a ratio of one to one with water was frowned upon in ancient times, certainly the drinking of distilled spirits in which the alcohol content is frequently three to ten times greater would be frowned upon a great deal more" (Stein).

Habakkuk warns in 2:15, "Woe unto him that giveth his neighbor drink, that puttest thy bottle to him, and makest him drunken also..." On cigarette packages there is a warning: "The Surgeon General has determined that cigarette smoking is dangerous to your health." Should there not be an even stronger warning attached to alcoholic beverages?

"At the last it biteth like a serpent and stingeth like an adder." Read Proverbs 23:29-32.