Does Approval of the Use of New Testament Wine Justify Use of Modern Alcoholic Beverages?

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By Dr. Charles L. Quarles

In a previous article, we examined the ancient practice of winemaking. We saw evidence that the wine ordinarily consumed by Jews in the New Testament era was natural wine diluted with three parts water reducing the alcoholic content to 2.75 – 3 percent. Since diluted wine was ordinarily consumed by Jews and even by pagans in the New Testament era, the term “wine” (οἶνος) in the New Testament should be assumed to refer to this weak diluted mixture. When the ancients referred to undiluted wine, they specified this by adding the adjective “unmixed” (ἄκρατος) which indicated that the wine had not been poured into the krater, the large mixing bowl where the wine and water were combined (Rev 14:10; Jer 32:15 LXX; Ps 74:9 LXX; Ps. Sol 8:14). The New Testament never uses this adjective to describe the wine consumed by Jesus and the disciples or to describe the wine approved for use in moderation by Christians. New Testament wine is typically heavily diluted wine.

The Table below compares the alcoholic content in New Testament wine to modern alcoholic beverages.

BeverageAlcoholic ContentComparison to New Testament Wine
Whiskey (80 proof)40%13.3x more potent
Marsala wine18%6x more potent
Colt 456%2x more potent
Budweiser5%66% more potent
Light beers4.2%40% more potent
Eighty proof whiskey has an alcohol content that is 1330 percent more potent than biblical wine.

Eighty proof whiskey has an alcohol content that is 1330 percent more potent than biblical wine. To argue that approval of drinking New Testament wine in moderation implies approval of drinking whiskey in similar quantities is like arguing that if a physician prescribes 2 Extra Strength Tylenol caplets every 6 hours for a headache, then it is OK to take 26 caplets (2 times 13) instead. Most of us know better than that. Consuming thirteen times the approved amount of the medication could prove to be fatal.

Ancient rabbis clearly prohibited consumption of undiluted wine as a beverage. Some rabbis prohibited reciting the normal blessing over wine at mealtime “until one puts water into it so that it may be drunk” (m. Ber. 7:4–5). The rabbis of the Talmud taught that undiluted wine was useful only for the preparation of medicines (b. Ber. 50b; cf. b. Nid 67b; 69b). Some Jewish rabbis said a son was liable for drunkenness (and thus prosecution as a rebellious son per Deut 21:20) if he “drinks undiluted wine.” Some rabbis taught that a man was liable for the charge of drunkenness even if he drank wine that was diluted with insufficient portions of water (b. San. 70a). This likely included any dilution rate that was more potent than the normal dilution rate of three parts water to one part wine.

Of course, one might argue that the ancient Jews drank New Testament wine by the gallon and that we must consider volume and not merely strength when defining biblical “moderation.” However, ancient Jewish literature gives clear indication of the volume of wine approved by Jewish teachers too. B. Pesahim 108b states that the four cups of wine enjoyed as a part of the celebration of Passover must contain a “generous portion.” The rabbis debated the amount of wine that constituted this liberal serving. They agreed that the generous helping consisted of a quarter log, the volume of one and a half eggs. More liberal rabbis argued that each of the four individual Passover cups contained a quarter-log serving. More conservative rabbis argued that all four cups combined held the equivalent of a quarter log serving. The following chart shows the quantity of modern alcoholic beverages that would equal the alcohol content of ancient wine based on both the more conservative and more liberal rabbinic views of a “generous portion.”

Conservative ViewLiberal View
Wine in the NT4.23 oz.17 oz.
Colt .45.06 liters (.25 cups).25 liters (1 cup or 8 oz.)
Marsala Wine.02 liters (1.35 tbs).08 liters (.34 cups)
Whiskey.009 liters (1.82 teaspoons).038 liters (2.57 tbs)

Consequently, the common appeal to the New Testament approval of ancient wine in moderation to justify consumption of alcoholic beverages today is not nearly as compelling as most people assume. Since modern drinkers are consuming beverages with a much higher alcohol content, surprisingly small amounts of modern beverages are truly equivalent to the amount of alcohol in a generous portion of New Testament wine. Early Christian writers better understood the practices of the ancient world and wisely instructed believers to drink wine only in moderation and “to mix the wine with as much water as possible” (Clement of Alexandria, “On Drinking,” Instructor II, ii). The cautions of the New Testament and early Christian literature reasonably translate to a call for abstinence from the more powerful alcoholic beverages consumed today.

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Charles L. Quarles

Charles L. Quarles is Research Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology and Charles Page Chair of Biblical Theology at SEBTS. He has served at SEBTS since 2013. His current research focuses on the Gospel of Matthew, New Testament textual criticism, and the biblical theology of the work of Christ.

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