By Loren Seibold
There’s a myth that I’m tired of hearing. It’s time to quash it.
The wine referred to in the Bible was not fresh grape juice. It was fermented wine, with alcohol in it.
The myth that the Greek word oinos refers to fresh grape juice has led to some preposterous theories to explain how people in ancient times, without refrigerators or canning jars, were able to keep their grape juice sweet and virginal, like you just popped open a Welch’s juice box.
For example, there’s the raisin paste theory: that what they called wine was just crushed raisins mixed with water.
Maybe someone, somewhere, did that once. Probably not again, after they’d tasted it the first time.
New Testament wine
Furthermore, that would have defeated one of the purposes, which was to have beverages that killed at least a few of the germs in the water from the livestock poop and human waste and dead critters and bugs that washed into streams or fell into open wells.
Water is a very healthy beverage. But for tens of thousands of years it was safer to drink something with a bit of alcohol in it than to drink contaminated water.
Wine is, in one way, totally natural. The sugar is naturally in the grape. The yeast is naturally on the skin of the grape. You crush that and put the resulting liquid into a freshly-removed goat skin (not an especially appealing container, that) and hang it from your rafters and voila! In a few weeks the mix creates alcohol and swells with carbon dioxide gas, which stretches the skin so much that if you try to reuse, it ruptures, per Jesus.
Why did Jesus’ guests at the Cana wedding ask why he’d kept the best wine for last, contrary to custom? Because, the text says, people appreciate good wine most when they’re sober and hungry, so go ahead and pour them your vinegary swill later when they’re satiated!
So does that mean we should all start boozing it up? It’s more complicated than that. Read on.
The rest of the story
Not everyone in Bible times drank alcohol moderately—as they still don’t today. It’s pretty hard to argue with the proposition that “Wine is a mocker and beer a brawler; whoever is led astray by them is not wise” (Proverbs 20:1).
I believe that the Bible never disapproves of wine as a substance in itself, or Jesus himself would be condemned. (The same argument can be made for eating lamb and fish, by the way.) But it does strongly disapprove of the effects of too much wine—of being “led astray” in drunkenness.
Inebriated people are capable of really dumb things, like driving their cars into other cars, beating their wives and children, having sex with ugly strangers they meet in bars, or getting misspelled tattoos.
But if you were going to get intoxicated back then, you had to work at it. Ordinary people in Bible times didn’t have alcohol like we have now, distilled into strong drink. Even their wine wasn’t very strong: a bit of research will show you that feral yeasts, the kind that occur naturally on grape skins, died at 3-6% alcohol.
Nowadays winemakers select yeasts that will survive alcohol up to 14% or more. But back then, to get drunk you had to have a lot of wine and drink a lot of it. Not easy for your average subsistence farmer or shepherd.
So it turns out that in the ancient world there was a fine line between not enough alcohol to kill the germs, and so much booze that it left you crapulent. And in that it respect it is not unlike nearly everything in life, from food to sex to sleep to video games. A moderate amount of something can be good for you, or at least not hurt you, while getting carried away wrecks your life and health.
Which is why the original word for handling alcohol properly was temperance, which means using something moderately, with discipline and self-control.
Probably the biggest influence on alcohol among Adventists comes from our history. Temperance movements blossomed around 1820, around the time of the early Millerites. The reasons given are varied, but historians mention these:
- Increased availability of commercially distilled hard liquors, and the proliferation of urban saloons to drink it in.
- Recognizable health damage in an age of more scientifically-based health research.
- Breakdown of family and social structures in the crowded cities of the industrial revolution.
- Prejudice against immigrants from drinking countries such as Germany, Ireland and Italy (American nativism, again).
- New brands of Protestantism that were serious, family-oriented, and behavior-conscious.
At first it was mostly about shunning distilled drinks. As mentioned above, wine was more or less “natural,” and more or less biblical. There also existed a (false) belief that undistilled drinks like wine or beer couldn’t lead to problem drinking.
By the time the temperance movement built up to full steam decades later, though, it was essentially an abstinence movement. The infamous temperance pledges were not promises to drink temperately, but not to drink at all.
And that’s about when we Adventists came on the scene. Many of the Millerites were in the temperance movement, the most well-known being retired ship captain Joseph Bates, he who introduced the Sabbath to us.
James and Ellen
Ellen and James White took up with the temperance movement too—though, like shunning swine’s flesh (1 Testimonies 206), they didn’t go overboard at first. As late as 1869 Ellen told a man who was overcontrolling his wife’s diet that “a little domestic wine would have done her no injury.” (2 Testimonies 383,384)
The White Estate continues to insist that she meant grape juice, though early church leaders admitted they didn’t know how to keep grape juice fresh, even for communion. At one point James White writes, “This objecting to a few drops of domestic wine with which to only wet the lips at the Lord’s Supper, is carrying total abstinence principles to great length.” Review and Herald, April 16, 1867.
Ellen later appears to have embraced the notion that all references to wine in the New Testament meant grape juice. Like some Adventists today, she may have equated alcohol with drunkenness. Inebriation seemed, understandably, incompatible with the ministry of Jesus. Among her many references:
Be assured that He did not make intoxicating wine on the occasion of His first miracle. He gave to those present a drink which it is safe to give to all humanity,—the pure juice of the grape. Christ never placed a glass of fermented liquor to His lips or to the lips of His disciples. Drunkenness was rare in Palestine, but Christ looked down the ages, and saw in every generation what the use of wine would do for the users, therefore at this feast He set a right example. (Signs of the Times, September 6, 1899)
While she’s undoubtedly right that drunkenness then was rarer then than it is today, the many passages she wrote about wine being fresh grape juice have nothing to back them up except her belief that Jesus was a teetotaler.
In the end she led the church into full-throated advocacy of prohibitionism, which seems odd for a group that stood against governments making laws about their personal freedoms.
Having explored the historical background of our abstentionism (let us drop the word temperance from now on as an erroneous descriptor), let us be clear that there are good reasons why people choose to be teetotalers.
Notably this: we live in an alcohol-obsessed society. Drinking seems to go with every activity and every mood. Alcoholic beverages are cheap and abundant. We now understand well both the health dangers of alcohol use and the dangers of alcoholism.
There are a lot of people who can drink moderately—but a few can’t. We know that some people appear predisposed to alcohol abuse (estimates range between 5-15%), but we can’t know ahead of time who of our friends and children are susceptible. Not being introduced to alcohol (or tobacco) as young people has probably saved some of us who grew up in Adventist homes from addiction problems.
While it’s true that some people are intemperate with food, our human bodies require some food—but they require no alcohol. I know there are those who say that wine, in particular, is healthy for the heart—but there are good reasons to question those “J-curve” studies.
Besides, even if alcohol is good for you in some way, so is walking every day and abstaining from potato chips, and most of us aren’t especially disciplined in those areas.
In short, experts say no one should start drinking wine because it’s going to make or keep them healthy—and those who cross the line into drinking too much would be far better off to stop.
I thank my friend John Landgraf, a Baptist minister and counselor, for clarifying the following point for me. He, like me, grew up among people who prohibited alcohol. He once explained why exaggeration isn’t a good strategy: “If you tell young people that the first drink is going to make you an alcoholic,” he said, “they’re going to quickly find out that’s not true, and suspect that you are either stupid, or that there are other things you’re lying to them about.”
In my childhood, Listen magazine would regularly feature articles on caffeine interspersed with others about liquor, cocaine and heroin. Because of how they jumbled these warnings together, all these substances seemed equally dangerous. So convinced was I, that when my public school friend Tom gave me a sip of his Coca-Cola, I knew I had wandered on to the devil’s playground: I pleaded for God’s forgiveness, and hoped that this “gateway drug” wouldn’t land me in the gutter.
Later, I remember my father politely tasting a neighbor’s homemade wine, and my fear that he had become, with that minuscule sip, a drunk. My wife has a similar memory of her mother tasting a relative’s wine, and feeling similarly alarmed.
This to say that we were schooled, with the best of intentions, in exaggerations that were in effect lies. (That they also told us that roasted banana peels would make us high makes me suspect that at least some of our elders were as sincerely gullible and frightened as we were.)
There is no need to drink wine just because Jesus did. In this respect our world is an improvement on the Bible one: we have plenty of nice, fresh water available, in many countries straight out of the tap.
Yet let us remember that there are many dedicated Christians who use alcohol moderately. They are not drunks because they have a glass of wine at the dinner table. It is not just ignorant but unkind to assume that your neighbor who has the occasional glass of wine can’t love Jesus or be a godly person.
We Adventists have always had a hard time with nuances, such as distinguishing between drinking and drunkenness. We like to see things in black and white. So while there is no compelling reason to use alcohol, let’s remember that in pretty much all the things we enjoy in life—food, sex, entertainment and a hundred others—wisdom lies in knowing the line between not enough and too much. I’ve seen a 400-pound Adventist condemn meat-eaters to hell, and a man who destroyed the lives of his family with religious judgments and cruelty condemn to destruction happier, healthier Christians for moderate alcohol use. But holistic mental, physical and relational health has way more to it than such simplistic answers.
One more thing: do you think that because alcoholic drinks are proscribed by Adventists, that no one in your congregation has an alcohol abuse problem? Think again. Our blanket condemnation makes it so that people who have alcohol problems can’t seek help among us.
In this, as in many other things, black-and-whiteism is counterproductive. And as with many things Adventist, some nuance and critical thinking would save us many uncomfortable and incomprehensible explanations—such as the silly notion that back in Bible times grape juice didn’t ferment.
- The J-curve (a quick Google search will give you hundreds of hits) suggested that light drinking, especially of wine, was slightly healthier than not drinking at all. Other researchers have questioned this, suggesting that probably the effect was exaggerated, and that if you take into account those who don’t drink because they can’t (such as ex-alcoholics or those with life-threatening conditions already) the effect disappears. It isn’t unlikely that other reasons having to do with income, education, and access to better medical care account for the slightly lower mortality among the light drinkers. It should be added that with increased drinking the right arm of the “J” shoots up rapidly, indicating a rapid increase in, as one study describes it, “all-cause, cardiovascular, and cancer-related mortality.”
Loren Seibold is the executive editor of Adventist Today.