ANSWERING THE “SHOULD CHRISTIANS DRINK ALCOHOL?” QUESTION


By Akin Ojumu

Let’s get this straight. Your attitude towards, or opinion about, alcohol consumption is not in any way shape or form a measure of your spirituality. The depth of someone’s Christian piety should not be judged by whether or not that person drinks alcohol. As a follower of Christ, your Christian spirituality is what you are; your piety is who you really are.  What you do, on a daily basis as you live your Christian life for the world to see, is only a manifestation of what you are. Everything you do as a Christian – every habit, every behavior – is simply an outflow, i.e., a reflection of what you are on the inside.

Very early in Christianity, the adherents of the new faith confronted the questions swirling around the permissibility of alcohol drinking by Christians. Because many of the Christian converts were heathens who came out of pagan religions where alcohol consumption was not only a social phenomenon but was also intricately woven into their religious practices as an integral component of their pagan worship, the early Christian Fathers understood the critical importance of erasing any confusion in the minds of the young believers about what their attitude should be with respect to alcohol consumption. At various times and in many of their Epistles to the Christian congregations at that time, alcohol drinking was a subject the Apostles took the time out to address vigorously.

In a recent write up about “Love”, I wrote about the inadequacy of the English language compared to the Greek language: “The Greeks are more precise in the words they use to describe all the various and differing expressions of our emotions and feelings. Because of the vastness of their lexicon, the Greeks use many words that correspond to different types of feelings we call love in English. These include words such as Agape, Eros, Erotas, Ludus, Mania, Philia, Philoteknos, Philandros, Philadelphia, Philautia, Pragma, Storge, and Thelos.”

As it is with Love, so it is with the word Wine.

When, in this modern time, we try to interpret Scriptures – which were originally written in Hebrew and Greek but translated into English – we always confront the inadequacy of the English language. While there are many reasons why many preach and believe in erroneous doctrines, an important cause of error in Christianity is because the meaning of the Biblical text in the original language in which it was written often gets lost in translation as a result of insufficiency of the English language.

In a 1975 article titled “Wine Drinking in New Testament Times,” Robert H. Stein proscribed a method of Biblical interpretation that is most effective in limiting erroneous doctrine:

“The Bible was not written to evangelicals living in the twentieth century. The science – or better, the art – of interpreting the biblical text so that the revelation of God written centuries ago is meaningful and correctly understood today is called “hermeneutics.” The basic principle of hermeneutics, to be somewhat simplistic, is that the question “What does it mean for us today?” must be preceded by the question “What did it mean for them yesterday?” If we do not seek first to understand what the text meant when it was written, it will be very difficult to interpret intelligently what it means and demands of us today.”

Before we can answer the question of the permissibility of alcohol drinking today using Scripture, we must first answer the following questions. Is drinking wine today the same as in Bible times? Or put in another way, is the wine today the same as then?

Some might think these are trick questions. Sorry to disappoint you, they aren’t. If you don’t know the answers to those two questions, you are more than likely to misinterpret any Scripture you read about wine and drinking either in condemnation or affirmation of alcohol drinking. This is the reason why a Christian who really wants to understand Scripture will not simply “read” their Bible. Much more than reading is to “study” the Bible. To study, the Christian must use all available resources at their disposal alongside the Bible such as the Strong’s Concordance, Bible Dictionaries, Bible Commentaries, etc., etc. It is the only way to rightly divide the Word of Truth.

In both the Old and the New Testaments, there are several words in Hebrew and Greek, respectively, translated into the English word, “Wine”. The most common word in the New Testament translated into wine is the Greek word OINOS. It appears 33 times in the Bible (Matthew 9:17, Mark 2:22, Luke 5:37, John 2, Ephesians 5:18, etc.). Oinos is the general word for wine in the New Testament and it is used very commonly. It simply refers to the juice of grapes. The equivalent Hebrew word for Oinos in the Old Testament is YAYIN. It is used 141 times in the Old Testament. Yayin refers to wine that is usually mixed with water; it means mixed wine.

The other word translated wine in the New Testament is the Greek word, Gleukos – this is the word from which we get the word glucose. Gleukos means new wine. It is the word that was used in Acts 2:13 to describe the experience of the apostles on the Day of Pentecost when they were said to be “filled with new wine.” In the Old Testament, the equivalent Hebrew word for Gleukos is TIROSH (e.g., Hosea 4:11).

Another word used for wine in the New Testament is SIKERA (used once in Luke 1:15). It is a word that refers to unmixed wine or pure undiluted drink or strong drink or intoxicating beverage. It’s equivalent in the Old Testament is SHAKAR which means strong drink and also means unmixed wine or straight drink (Leviticus 10:9, Numbers 6:3, etc.).

So, for the word wine we have 3 different usages in Greek and Hebrew respectively: Oinos (Yayin) – mixed wine, Gleukos (Tirosh) – new wine, and Sikera (Shakar) – unmixed wine or strong drink. These are the various words that you read as wine in the Bible. And in order for you to correctly interpret Scripture you must understand that these are different and distinct words that mean different things. Which is why the basic principle of hermeneutics is essential and why we must first answer the question “What did this Scripture mean to those to whom it was originally written?” before we can correctly answer “What does it mean for us today?”

So back to the question earlier asked: “Is drinking wine today the same as in Bible times? Is the wine today the same as then? The answer of course is “No.” You don’t have to take my word for it, let’s turn to some of the foremost Bible Scholars of our time.

First, let's go to John MacArthur:

“The wine drunk today is unmixed with water. It is straight wine. That is not true of biblical wine and I’ll show you why. First of all, some of the wine of the Bible times was absolutely unintoxicating. It was just not fermented. It was unintoxicating in any sense. Professor Samuel Lee of Cambridge University says this, he says that yayin, that’s mixed wine, or oinos, in the New Testament word, more often refers to a thick, unintoxicating syrup or jam produced by boiling to make it storable, which indicates that it was very common for them to take the wine that came out of the grape, and then boil it, which would cause the evaporation of all the liquid, the loss of fermentation capacity when the liquid departs, and they would have a storable kind of paste, which they would put in jars. Now, this is no different than women caning things today to preserve them, and they would preserve this thick, syrupy substance."

And he continued:

“There were times and places when they definitely wanted to eliminate any alcoholic or fermentation capability of what they would use. So, it is not simple enough to just say they drank alcoholic beverages because there was no refrigeration. They got around that this way. And the thick syrup similar to grape jelly, by the way, they very frequently squeezed on bread like jam. And when they wanted to drink it, they would squeeze it into something and mix it, according to Pliny, the Roman historian, with up to 20 parts of water. If you had a thick paste, they’d have to put the water back in that went out at evaporation. And they would mix it again and they would drink it so that it would be unfermented and totally unintoxicating. And by the way, that was the preferred kind to drink. That’s why Samuel Lee said that was the most common way of storing and preparing wine.”

Not only did they have their wine stored as paste but they occasionally also had it stored in liquid. Robert H. Stein, in the 1975 Christianity Today article attested to this very fact:

“In ancient times wine was usually stored in large, pointed jugs called amphorae. When wine was to be used it was poured from the amphorae into large bowls called kraters, where it was mixed with water. Last year I had the privilege of visiting the great archaeological museum in Athens, Greece, where I saw dozens of these large kraters. At the time it did not dawn on me what their use signified about the drinking of wine in biblical times. From these kraters, cups or kylix were then filled. What is important for us to note is that before wine was drunk it was mixed with water. The kylix were filled not from the amphorae but from the kraters. The ratio of water to wine varied. Homer (Odyssey IX, 208f.) mentions a ratio of 20 to 1, twenty parts water to one part wine. Pliny (Natural History XIV, vi, 54) mentions a ratio of eight parts water to one part wine.”

And back to John MacArthur:

“Drinking unmixed wine was looked upon, even by unsaved people, as Barbarian.  Athanasius quotes Menestheus of Athens with this statement: “The gods have revealed wine to mortals to be the greatest blessing for those who use it aright, but for those who use it without measure, the reverse. For it gives food to them that take it and strengthen mind and body. In medicine, it is most beneficial. It can be mixed with liquid and drugs, and it brings aid to the wounded. In daily course, it is, to those who mix and drink it moderately, it gives good cheer. If you overstep the bounds, it brings violence. Mix it half and half and you get madness; unmixed, bodily collapse.”

So, what has this got to do with Christian drinking wine? Well, a lot, as John MacArthur explains it:

“If you want to defend the fact that you can drink wine today on the basis of the fact that they drank it in the Bible, then you need to reexamine whether what we drink today is the same as what they drank then. And we find out that what they drank was either totally unintoxicating, such as the syrup base, or was so diluted with water that its intoxication level was very, very minimal. Let me illustrate it to you. Beer has 4 percent alcohol; wine has 9 to 11 percent alcohol; Brandy, which is fortified wine, has 15 to 20 percent alcohol; and Liquor – i.e., Scotch, Rye and all that stuff – has 40 percent or 50 percent. In other words, if it’s 80 proof, it has 40 percent alcohol; if it’s 100 proof, it has 50 percent alcohol.”

He continued;

“Now, anybody who drank anything from 15 to 50 percent alcohol in Bible times would have been considered definitely a barbarian. So, I don’t think we even need to discuss whether a Christian should drink hard drinks, hard liquor. I think that it’s very apparent – in fact, you realize that even to drink it at all and maintain your sanity, you got to take it in little, tiny sips because of the power it has. That’s how much of it is alcohol. And I’m not even taking the time to go into the medical factors involved in what that alcohol does. All you have to do is find somebody in a gutter sometime, take him to a hospital, and watch him die of cirrhosis of the liver and you get a little idea.”

John MacArthur illustrated this further;

“Let’s say wine ferments to a 9 to 11 percent alcohol content. If you took that 9 to 11 percent alcohol fermented wine in that amphorae, you mixed it in a krater with, say, a 3-to-1 water ratio, the alcohol content in the final product mixed with water would be 2.25 to 2.75 percent alcohol. Now, that’s very low. By the way, something has to be 3.2 percent alcohol to be classified as an alcoholic beverage. So, you have a sub-alcoholic beverage, the point being this:  In order for you to get drunk on wine mixed with three parts of water, you’d have to stay there all day drinking that stuff. And that’s exactly why the Bible says of elders in the church, “Do not linger long beside your wine.””

The point of all this inaugural lecture on alcohol and thesis on the chemistry of fermentation is the fact that you can’t use Scripture to support alcohol drinking in the modern era. Unlike what we drink today, the wine, i.e., Oinos, that was generally recommended and approved for drinking in the Bible was not an alcoholic beverage because the alcoholic content was between 2.25 and 2.75 percent which, by today’s standard, does not meet the definition of an alcoholic drink.

Now, some Pastors would tell you that the Bible does not teach that you shouldn’t drink wine. Well, they are actually right. It’s quite true that the Bible does not forbid drinking. But to stop there and interpret that to mean the Bible supports drinking alcohol in the modern era – perhaps, say, in moderation – is a gross misunderstanding and misinterpretation of Scripture. There is nowhere in the Bible where we are told it is okay to drink either the new wine i.e, Gleukos (Tirosh) or the unmixed wine/strong drink i.e., Sikera (Shakar). The Biblical texts where the use of wine is affirmed, what you’d find in all of them is that the word translated wine is Oinos (in Greek) and Yayin (in Hebrew) which both refer to mixed wine which is completely non-alcoholic and unintoxicating.

When Jesus turned water into wine in John 2:1-11, the Greek word translated wine was Oinos – i.e., mixed wine which was not alcoholic. Jesus did not turn water into booze, as one pastor boldly claimed in one of his sermons. The wine in John 2 was Oinos, i.e., juice of grapes, with alcoholic content well below that of beer and would not meet the definition of alcoholic beverage in our modern era.

When Paul wrote to Timothy to, “Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach's sake and thine often infirmities,” in 1 Timothy 5:23, Paul was not giving his apostolic stamp of approval for the use of Gleukos (new wine) or Sikera (strong drink) both of which were alcoholic. The Greek word translated wine in the verse was Oinos (mixed wine) which even at 2.25 and 2.75 percent alcoholic content still retained some of its therapeutic effect. Also, it must be remembered that at the time Paul wrote that letter to Timothy, Oinos was used to purify water. Because the water was not always healthy to drink, the Jews used wine (Oinos) to make it safer for drinking.

The Corinthian Christians (in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34) didn’t get drunk during the Lord’s Supper on the communion wine because they served Gleukos (new wine) or Sikera (strong drink) both of which were alcoholic. As a matter of practice for the early Christian Churches, what was served during the Lord's Supper was Oinos (wine mixed with water which was unintoxicating). The reason some of the Corinthians got drunk even on the Oinos was because these individuals would come to the meeting hours before the others and they’d start drinking immediately they got there, and they ended up drinking gallons upon gallons of the Oinos until they became stuporous. It wasn’t the alcoholic content of the Oinos that got them drunk, it was because they consumed it in large quantities after having been drinking all day long.

Waving the flag of moderation, or the so-called balance, in the consumption of alcohol as an acceptable or alternative lifestyle for a Christian is not what the Scripture teaches. Any consumption of alcohol beverage, either moderately or otherwise, has no Biblical support. Those who twist themselves into pretzels trying to justify the consumption of alcohol are not preaching the true Gospel. They must be reminded that what is moderate for Lagbaja can be considered excess for Tamedun (that is to say, "one man's meat is another man's poison." The question is, where exactly do they draw the line of their moderation?

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