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John 2 #4: Wine

From the story of Jesus turning water into wine, four different conclusions have been drawn.

#1 #2 #3 #4
Christians can drink, and drink, and drink. Christians can drink "in moderation" (green-light moderation) Christians should approach alcohol very cautiously and drink less, not more (yellow-light moderation). Christians ought not drink any alcohol at all.

Why four different views? Part of the explanation is found in the meaning of the Bible word wine. Confusing Bible-times wine with today's hard liquor, some see an excuse to drink, and drink, and drink in the story of the wedding feast at Cana of Galilee. Recognizing that Bible-times wines contained no or very low levels of alcohol, others take a much more cautious approach.

Bible Wines

Pro-drinkers automatically "hear" today's very strong, high alcohol-content drinks when the Bible mentions wine. The "Bible wine = Jack Daniels" assumption is incorrect. Bible-times people did not have anything like the hard liquor or reinforced wines that are available today. The only wine that was available to Bible-times people was the juice of grapes, from freshly stomped to mildly alcoholic. Their word wine covered everything from very mild to barely wild.

Describing this kind of wine, leading Evangelical John MacArthur* says that "(it) had virtually no potential for making anyone drunk." How could he say that?

Alcohol is produced by fermentation, the process whereby normally-occurring yeast eats the sugars in grape juice and produces alcohol as a by-product. Without using additives that were unavailable in Bible times, the natural process of fermentation has natural limits on the amount of alcohol.

Why? As a toxic waste product, alcohol kills the yeast that produces it. "Yeasts usually die once the alcohol level reaches about 5% due to the toxicity of alcohol on the yeast cells" (wikipedia.org/wiki/Yeast_in_winemaking). Some have stretched this upper limit just to a slightly higher 7-10%

So does the mildly intoxicating wine of the Bible gives to green light to too-much moderation? No so fast. Bible-times wine drinkers rarely drank their wines straight. Mixed with several parts water, Bible wines were also mixed with other fruit juices, resins, and spices, with the more highly flavored wine being considered the best.

"Wine was almost always diluted. The Greeks believed that only barbarians drank unmixed or undiluted wine. They asserted that the dilution of wine was a mark of civilized behavior" (wikipedia.../Ancient_Greece_and_wine). "The best mix...was one part wine to about three our four parts water" (baringthe aegis.../wine-in-ancient-hellas). Other popular rations were 2-5, and 1-6. Homer even mentions a 1-20 ratio of wine to water in his Odyssey. Perhaps the most interesting information comes from Jewish religious traditions from the age of the New Testament - they required a ratio of 1-3.

Jesus' Wine

In order to calculate the potency of Bible-times wines and to be exceedingly fair, we can use 10% (not Wikipedia's 5%) as a starting point. A 1-3 dilution of 10% wine would produce an alcohol content 3.3% and a 1-4 dilution would produce 2.5%. For comparison, today's beers are typically in the 4-6% range. If we use Wikipedia's 5% as the top end of natural fermentation, then a one-to-three dilution would produce an alcohol content of 1.7% and a one-to-four dilution would produce a negligible 1.3% beverage. Bible historian Norman Geisler has wryly observed that drinking the wine that was popular in Bible times would "effect the kidneys far sooner that it would effect the brain."

Thus Jesus "best wine" was unlikely to contain much more than 3% alcohol and likely contained much less. Can we say with certainly that Jesus" water to wine contained no alcohol? No. Was it potentially intoxicating? Yes. But did it have "virtually no potential for making anyone drunk?" This is the most likely conclusion.