Friday, January 09, 2009

When Wine Really Wasn't "Wine"

A current discussion over at Bobby Valentine's blog reveals a common gap in our thinking about wine, the ancient world, and the Bible. The posts and comments rightly criticize the tired, old argument that the wine mentioned in the Bible was unfermented grape juice, the Welch's of the ancient world.

However, what isn't mentioned is the fact that what the ancients called "wine" was actually wine mixed with a large amount of water. Therefore, to say that Jesus in John 2 turned water into wine is not the same thing as saying that Jesus turned water into something like Pinot Grigio. Consider:

"We call a mixture 'wine' although the larger part of the component parts is water"(Plutarch, Advice to Bride and Groom 20 in Moralia 140f).

The literature of the ancient world is filled with specific examples of mixing many parts water with a few parts wine. For example, in the Odyssey, Homer mentions a ratio of 20 parts water to 1 part wine (see 9.208f). Pliny the Elder speaks of an 8 to 1 mixture (Natural History, 14.6.54). Most writers have it a little stronger, but still very diluted. For example, in The Nurse, Athanaeus of Naucratis has the following conversation:

"A: Look, here is wine. Shall I pour a Triton [three parts water to one part wine]?

B. No, it's much better as one and four.

A. Too watery, that! However, drink it up and tell me the news; let's have some conversation while we drink" (see Deipnosophists 10.426c).

Because "wine" really meant "wine mixed with water," if a writer wanted to refer to undiluted wine, he was required to use some such adjective. For example:

"If the headache only came to us before we drink to intoxication, no one would ever indulge himself in wine immoderately. But as it is, foreseeing not that punishment for drunkenness will come, we readily give ourselves over to drinking unmixed cups" (Alexis, The Phrygian, in Deipnosophists, 10.429e, emphasis mine).

As in the previous quote, many writers warned against drinking unmixed wine:

"In daily intercourse, to those who drink it moderately, it gives good cheer; but if you overstep the bounds, it brings violence. Mix it half and half, and you get madness; unmixed, bodily collapse" (Athenaeus quoting Mnesitheus of Athens in Deipnosophists 2. 36a,b).

Quotes like these from the ancient world can be multiplied many times over. I cite these ones only to show that what we call wine and what the ancients called wine are two different things.

No, I'm not prepared to make the argument that the Bible demands total abstinence. What I am saying is that it is a category mistake for modern-day Christians to cite the biblical references to wine and then compare them to the products of Reunite and Beringer. The fact is, the average person in the New Testament era considered the drinking of unmixed wine a barbaric practice. That, I think, should give us caution.

For Further Reading:

Ferguson, Everett. "Wine as a Table-Drink in the Ancient World," in Restoration Quarterly 13 (Third Quarter 1970): pages 141-153. Like all of what Ferguson writes, this is a fine piece of work. The quotations in my post here are taken from this scholarly article.

Stein, Robert H. "Wine-Drinking in New Testament Times," in Christianity Today 19 (June 20, 1975): pages 9-11. Stein is another first-rate scholar. His article is written at the popular level, shorter and easier to get through than the one by Ferguson.


Stoned-Campbell Disciple said...

Frank thanks for the link. I actually have posted more material about the issue but mostly from the Hebrew Bible. Ferguson's material is largely from the Greco-Roman period but still very good.

We are on the same page I believe.

Frank Bellizzi said...

Hi Bobby. Yes, I think we are on the same page.

blogprophet said...

i was thinking about this post during church when I should have been thinking about my sermon, or actually Jesus,

I don't know math or alcohol so here is my question.

i do know that a chianti or cab is around 12-13% alcohol, white wine is lower, vodka is very high percentage alcohol, and I assume whiskey is as well.

now, I don't understand how they reach that figure.

my question is, would 4 parts water and one part wine be 20% alcohol?? if so, that's a lot stronger than a wine...

do we know the alcoholic content of the wine pre-dilution?

we have too many bible Scholars in here, we need some drunks to help us out..

Frank Bellizzi said...

Good questions, Brian. I suppose it's a good thing to not be an alcohol expert. But you're right, it would be nice know what the undiluted levels were.

Right off the bat, it's important to establish that modern distillation techniques were unknown in ancient times. Jim Beam, Jack Daniels and friends were born much later.

I don't know the alcohol content of today's stoutest wines. But I suspect that they're much stronger than the wines of the Bible.

Although they called their beverage "wine" it is much more accurate to say that the ancients drank water that had been purified with a small amount of wine. My guess is that the alcohol percentages of the mixture were quite low.

Royce Ogle said...

In Rev 17:2 wine is connected to getting drunk.

Paul instructed young Timothy to only take "little" wine for his ongoing health problems. (1 Tim 5:32) And he warned the Ephesians "don't get drunk with wine" (Eph 5:18)

These passages make me think the "wine" in question was not water purified with a minute amount of wine.

I doubt that those Corinthian believers who were thrashed by Paul for getting drunk at the fellowship table had consumed a gallon or more to arrive at drunkeness.

Phrases like "a little wine", "not much wine", and "not addicted to wine" make me believe it was stronger than what you discribe.

Anyway, I toast your great blogging as always. Cheers!


Frank Bellizzi said...

Hi Royce. Always good to hear from you. Thanks for your kind (and clever) words.

You're right. Some NT texts that refer to wine regard it as an intoxicant. But it all goes back to the ratio one uses in mixing the wine with water. In one of the texts quoted in the post, half water, half wine was considered awfully stout stuff. It was typically thinner than that.

With that in view, the passage in Ephesians can be regarded as a warning not to mix it too strong or drink too much of a strong mixture.

Re. the passage in 1 Cor., we know that the Corinthian Christians were fully capable of doing immoral things (in the name of Christ!) that shocked the moral sensibilities of their pagan neighbors, as in the case of the guy who was shacked up with his mother-in-law.

The main thing I wanted to say with the post is that what we call "wine" and what the ancients called "wine" are often two different things. It's a comparison of apples and grapes.

IBM Lenovo Laptop Parts said...

I can absolutely understand how the wine that is mentioned in the bible is watered down and not the same as we are drinking today. I recall the Bible saying that we should give strong drink to men with a heavy heart or those who are about to die. I can see wine as more of a social thing so it probably equated to something close to a few beers, and especially at the rate that the Romans and Egyptians drank wine. With the wine we had today, I think the past might have been a little more interesting.