Was New Testament Wine Alcoholic?

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By Dr. Charles L. Quarles

Unfortunately, many Christians know little about the ancient Mediterranean world. When they read the New Testament, they naturally imagine that things there and then must have been very much like they are here and now. Famous Christian art provides many examples of such anachronisms. Artists of previous centuries often depicted biblical figures wearing the fashions and using the technology of the artist’s own time rather than those of the actual biblical world (see Gerbrand van den Eeckhout’s painting, “Vision of Cornelius the Centurion” or Rembrandt’s “The Prodigal Son in the Brothel”). We may unknowingly commit similar anachronisms when we read the New Testament.

One such anachronism relates to modern Christian views of alcohol. The New Testament clearly prohibits drunkenness (Eph. 5:18) and even insists that drunkenness is inconsistent with an authentic Christian lifestyle (1 Cor. 6:9-11). However, other texts show that the New Testament authors approved the use of wine in moderation (1 Tim. 3:3, 8; 5:23; Titus 2:3). Today’s readers reasonably conclude that the Bible approves of the use of all modern alcoholic beverages in moderation today. The unstated assumption of this argument is that modern alcoholic beverages are very similar to biblical wine. It turns out that the assumption is really a presumption. New Testament wine (by which I mean the wine ordinarily consumed in the New Testament world) was significantly different from many modern alcoholic beverages. How was this wine different?

First, ancient beverages did not contain distilled alcohol like modern alcoholic beverages often do. Distillation was invented by Arab alchemists in the 8th century long after the New Testament era. The strongest alcoholic beverage that was accessible to the New Testament authors and their original readers was natural wine that had an alcoholic content of 11-12 percent (before dilution).

Second, ancient wine was normally diluted. Even ancient pagans considered drinking wine full strength to be a barbaric practice. They typically diluted wine with large amounts of water before the wine was consumed. Ancient wine was stored undiluted in large jars called amphorae. Before it was consumed, it was poured into large bowls called kraters where it was mixed with snow or water before being poured into cups (called kylix). The ratio of wine to water varied. However, the ancients were virtually unanimous that a dilution rate of at least two parts water to one part wine was necessary. Anacreon called unmixed wine “a Scythian draught.” Scythians ranked with primitive cannibals as the most barbaric of peoples. Archippus said those who drank wine half and half were “wretches.” Mnesitheus of Athens wrote that to those “who mix [wine] and 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.” 

One of the most helpful discussions of dilution rates appears in a work by Athenaus of Naucratis called Deipnosophistae (Banquet of the Learned; c. AD 228). Athenaus mentions several different dilution rates that he culled from ancient works.

Ancient WriterWater:Wine
Aristophanes2 or 3:1
The alcohol content was negligible by modern standards.

The Old Testament Apocrypha also documents the practice of diluting wine with water. 2 Maccabees 15:39 states, “It is harmful to drink wine alone, or again, to drink water alone, while wine mixed with water is sweet and delicious and enhances one’s enjoyment.”

A careful study of the Mishnah and Talmuds shows that the normal dilution rate among the Jews was 3 parts water to 1 part wine. B. Shabbath 77a says that wine that does not mix well with three parts water is not true wine. B. Pesahim 108b states that the wine consumed during Passover was 3:1 wine. This was very likely the commonly accepted dilution rate among Jews of the NT era as well. This dilution rate reduces the alcohol content of New Testament wine to 2.75 to 3.0 percent.

Although Federal law in the US classifies a beverage with 0.5 percent or more alcohol by volume as an alcoholic beverage, state laws may differ. In some states, a beverage with the weak alcohol content of New Testament wine is not even considered an alcoholic beverage. According to Title 67 of the Mississippi Code, “wine containing five percent (5%) or less of alcohol by weight” shall not be considered an alcoholic beverage. To answer the question we posed earlier, was New Testament wine alcoholic? Certainly, it was fermented and had a modest alcohol content. But the alcohol content was negligible by modern standards.

Editor’s Note: In a future article, we will compare New Testament wine to modern alcoholic beverages. We will seek to determine if the approval of New Testament wine in moderation provides ethical justification for the consumption of significantly stronger alcoholic beverages 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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