This is Part 2 in a series exploring God’s opinions on drugs from scripture. Last week’s post, Christians & Drugs - What the Bible Does Not Say, exposed common quotes falsely attributed to the Bible. This post will begin to examine what the Bible actually does say. While our English translations of the Bible are perfect for our spiritual thriving, the limitations of modern English miss some of the nuances from the original language and cultures in which it was written. This is the case with probably every translated work of history. This does not mean there are errors in the Bible. It means that some language/cultural nuances can be lost in translation. For example, in the Greek New Testament there are several words for “love” each with a different nuance. But, all of them are translated into one word in modern English, “love”. And, like "love," “wine” suffers a similar fate in translation.
The way in which the Bible (written primarily in Hebrew and Greek) was translated over hundreds of years is a lengthy and complex story. Of note, many of those years were characterized by the restriction of translation into Latin (a dead language). By 600 A.D. Latin was the only language allowed for scripture translation. Because of this restriction, the Church effectively blocked the reading and study of the Bible except for clergy. Aside from the travesty that resulted from the lack of individual study, the ultimate goal of communicating original meaning was impacted by the dominance of the Latin language and the cultural biases of those periods. Remember that English has its roots in Latin. As a result, the words used for virtually all forms of grape juice became primarily filtered through the Latin “vinum,” and therefore, ultimately into the word “wine” and wine alone. But, “vinum” also meant grape juice. If this strikes you as hard to believe, read onward.
Have you ever wondered why in every English translation of the Bible, there is virtually never a mention of grape juice (except only twice in the NIV, and once in the NASB and ESV)? Did nobody in the Bible make or consume grape juice? Was grape juice forbidden unless it was fermented? Or are we blinded by ancient translations restricted to a word that means something different today? Even in old English, the word wine meant more than just the fermented form of grape juice. Wine meant all forms of juice from the grape. A perfect analogy of this is the word cider. Even in modern usage, the word “cider” can refer to either fermented or unfermented forms. Likewise, much earlier cultures used the word “wine” as interchangeably as we today use the word cider. Vinum and wine are words that were derived from the broader category of “fruit of the vine”. In fact, “vine” is the central concept that vinum and wine convey. It was not the process of fermentation that these words originally meant to convey. And, the closer you get to the vine, the further you are from fermentation. Only centuries later did we confine the word wine to mean only fermented forms. Therefore, from old English to modern English, the translation seems to have been lazy. It was entirely accurate during the culture of old English to translate grape juice to “wine.” But today, especially in our culture, that word is dangerously misleading in many passages. And, we are paying a dear price for translational laziness.
Of course people in the Bible drank grape juice. In fact they had specific words for it. For example, in the Old Testament, 38 of the references translated as “wine” are actually the Hebrew word tiyrowsh, which we know in Hebrew means freshly-squeezed grape juice (unfermented). In fact, several times, it is translated into the words “new wine.” There is no such thing as aged/fermented wine that anyone would refer to as “new”. New wine means freshly-squeezed from the grape not freshly-fermented. Freshly-fermented is an oxymoron. Some appropriate examples of grape juice referred to as “wine” are Joel 3:18 and Isaiah 65:8, to name a couple. For example, Isaiah 65:8 says, “Thus says the Lord: ‘As the new wine is found in the cluster...’” How is it possible that “new wine” is found inside the grape cluster unless it is unfermented? Fermentation is possible on the vine, but extremely rare, especially in vineyards. The accurate modern translation would be “as grape juice is found in the cluster…” This lack of updated translation of the word in our present culture is unwisely dangerous.
Before we leave Tiyrowsh (unfermented grape juice), it is important to note that this is heralded in the Bible as the best “wine” of all. “Wine” or grape juice in the Bible, was not evaluated as connoisseurs do today. Grape juice in the Bible was primarily evaluated based on its taste and taste alone – and by taste that means sweetness (Nehemiah 8:10, Joel 1:5, Joel 3:18, Amos 9:13, etc.). While fermented wine has always been an acquired taste, grape juice is desired by almost all and upon first taste by even a child. It is the most desired of all juices. And, this has apparently always been the case as wines have never been comparatively critiqued for their alcohol content. Even today, taste is the dominant measure, not the level of fermentation. The fact that fresh-squeezed grape juice was by far considered the best “wine” of all, allows us to much more accurately study and apply many Bible verses today that we currently misapply.
In addition to Tiyrowsh, the other primary Hebrew and Greek words for “wine” used in the Bible included the Hebrew words yayin, shekar, shemer, and the Greek word oinos. While each of these words have different nuances, all of them are used for both fermented and unfermented forms (like cider). But, when you read the modern day word “wine” you will never get that impression because that is not our present cultural usage of the word wine. In fact, the New Testament re-quotes Old Testament passages which used Tiyrowsh (unfermented grape juice) by use of the Greek word oinos 36 times. Like our modern use of the word cider, we need other adjectives or phrases in order to understand if the “wine” being referred to is fermented or not. With that knowledge, wouldn’t it be unwise to assume that every mention of “wine” means fermented? Of course certain mentions we know are fermented – like references to getting drunk. But, if no clarifications are present, we should not always assume a bias in favor of alcohol. We should all agree that to do so with more complete knowledge is unwise.
Therefore, we should not interpret these words and related passages from inside our culture, but from inside their culture. To that end, was the “wine” in the Bible the same as our “wine” today? Wine in the Bible was much more precious because firstly it was very expensive. From the book, “The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah” we learn that 1 pint (2 cups) of wine in Biblical times cost 3.50 denarii. We know from Matthew 20:2 that one day’s wage in their agrarian society was commonly 1.00 denarii. That means that the common man earned approximately 300 denarii per year and spent 200 of that on food for his family. If two cups of wine cost 3.50 denarii, how carefully would they consume it back then? For example, in today’s dollars, two cups of wine would cost us on average $400 - $800 or more. Assuming you have an agrarian family budget, how sparing would you be? Read on before you answer that question.
Is fermented wine all bad? No. In fact, fermented wine in the Bible had fantastic uses and saved many lives. Luke 10:34 refers to fermented wine being used as medicine to cleanse wounds. We also see from 1 Timothy 5:23, that fermented wine was used to sterilize water. They did not have the benefit of refrigerators and stoves. So, they “mixed” fermented wine with almost everything using “mixing bowls”. They even dipped their bread in it (Ruth 2:14). They would store the wine undiluted in “wineskins” and sparingly pour enough into one bowl for mixing with the family's drinking water for that day. Wine was the preserving lifeline for many. In fact, they used wine to mix with daily water as the most common sterilization practice. The typical mixture was between 4:1 (4 parts water to 1 part wine) up to 20:1 (20 parts water to 1 part wine). By the way, even a ratio as liberal as 3:1 would result in a mixture that has an average alcohol content of less than 2.5%. By today’s standards, that would not even be considered by the FDA as an alcoholic beverage. But, they commonly diluted it up to 6 times more than that (0.5% alcohol). Given how important just a small amount of wine was for sterilizing, how do you think a common agrarian family would use 2 cups that cost them almost 2% of their annual food budget? By the way, guess what they called this mixture of water and wine? That’s right, this was referred to as “mixed wine.” For those who find this hard to initially accept, consider what we today call coffee. How many parts water is coffee? But, we don’t call coffee, “coffee-flavored water.” We call it coffee.
Today’s wine contains 9-11% alcohol as compared to theirs which was as low as .5%. Comparing what we know about then with our culture now, is the wine today the same as then? Probably not. Can you get drunk from wine back then? Yes, from undiluted wine (drinking from the "wineskin"), but probably not if you are drinking either fresh-squeezed grape juice or “mixed wine.” It is through the lenses of Biblical languages and cultures that we must read and apply all 230 verses in order for us to truthfully discern God’s undiluted opinion on wine (drugs). Without that background, something will be lost in translation. And, too many times that something is us.
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