Those who oppose the Christian use of alcohol often argue that the alcohol content of wine in Bible plays an essential role in determining whether the use of alcohol is permissible for Christians.
Two Kinds of Wine in the Bible?
The Scriptures mention “wine” over two hundred times, both in positive and negative contexts. Some Christians have used this positive/negative distinction to argue that the Bible is speaking of two different kinds of wine.
When the Bible speaks positively of wine, then this is referring to “wine” as non-alcoholic grape juice. When the Bible speaks negatively of wine, then this is referring to “wine” as alcoholic wine.
This argument was very popular among prohibitionists, particularly those that led the Temperance Movement. The advantage of this position is that it seems as though one is able to account for all of the Scriptures.
However, the alleged distinction between alcoholic wine and non-alcoholic grape juice does not exist in the Bible. The Bible uses the same word for wine in both positive and negative aspects.
The positive/negative distinction has to do with the use/abuse of alcohol. When the Bible speaks positively of wine, this is referring to the moderate use of alcohol. When the Bible speaks negatively of wine, this is referring to the abuse of alcohol, or drunkenness.
Was Wine Heavily Diluted?
Some Christians maintain that the wine in the Bible was almost non-alcoholic. It is argued that all wine in ancient times was filtered and dried into a paste, which was then mixed with water. Thus, small amounts of alcohol were present in wine, but the wine was so diluted as to minimize the intoxicating effects. The alcohol that was used was strictly for preservation purposes.
According to this view, the Bible does not prohibit the use of wine, provided we understand wine to be heavily diluted so that it was basically grape juice with only enough alcohol to preserve the grape juice from spoiling.
In our day, we have purified water, pasteurized grape juice, and refrigeration. There is no need to rely upon alcohol as a preservative. Thus, Christians should abstain from beverages that have a significant alcohol content, which would include all of our modern beers, wines, and liquors. This is the argument of many abstentionists.
This particular abstentionist argument demands that all wine was heavily diluted. While dilution was certainly used in some circumstances, this was far from the universal practice. The Biblical admonitions against drunkenness should suffice to prove that not everyone was diluting. Obviously, at least some people were getting a hold of the real thing and becoming drunk. If all “wine” was so low in alcohol content, then one would have to consume gallons and gallons to get drunk.
Moreover, this low-alcohol content argument has no support in historical scholarship. Virtually every scholar agrees that the alcohol content of wine during Biblical times was usually between 5-20%, which is enough to intoxicate.
Ironically, one popular abstentionist argues that the burden of proof should fall on those who claim that Biblical wine contained alcohol. This bold claim is precisely the opposite of reality. The burden of proof always falls on those who are against the consensus of historical scholarship. Such abstentionists have failed to prove that dilution was the universal practice.
Furthermore, many Biblical texts become silly or meaningless if they refer to non-alcoholic grape juice. Would the Shulamite have said to Solomon, “Your love is better than grape juice” (Song of Songs 1:2)?
If wine was super-diluted, why did the good Samaritan pour grape juice on the wounds of the man going to Jericho (Luke 10:34)? Why did Paul counsel Timothy to drink a little grape juice for his stomach (1 Timothy 5:23)?
If wine was basically grape juice, then the weaker brother argument is pointless (Romans 14; 1 Corinthians 8). Why would anyone object to the consumption of grape juice? No one’s faith is threatened by grace juice.
The wine of the Bible had to have been alcoholic. Alcohol can intoxicate, clean wounds, and heal stomach troubles. Grape juice does none of these things.
Is Alcohol Sinful?
Those who argue that some or all of the wine in the Bible was non-alcoholic or low-alcoholic are operating from a presupposition: alcohol is sinful. Both prohibitionists and abstentionists read the Scriptures through this presupposition.
However, material things are not sinful. Sin does not reside in objects, but in the human heart. Sin comes from the misuse of God’s gifts, not the godly use of God’s gifts. As we will see in the next chapter, alcohol is a gift from God. There is a godly and moderate use of alcohol.