The major argument raised by moderationists (Christians who approve moderation in drinking) is that the Bible seems to approve of drinking. The texts they cite in defense of their view fall in five categories.
Old Testament Texts Recommending Wine
In Scripture predating the time of Christ, we find several texts that clearly speak of wine as a divine blessing.
14 He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man: that he may bring forth food out of the earth;
15 And wine that maketh glad the heart of man, and oil to make his face to shine, and bread which strengtheneth man's heart.
Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works.
The question here is what these texts mean by the term "wine" (yayin).
Moderationists, resting on modern lexical authorities, assert that yayin always refers to the fermented juice of grapes. But unless founded on evidence, the opinion of a so-called lexical authority carries no more weight than anyone else's opinion. What in fact is the evidence that yayin refers only to alcoholic wine? It must be admitted that alcoholic wine is the meaning of yayin in some texts. Surely the yayin which humbled Noah was fermented. It must also be admitted that in no occurrence must yayin be understood as unfermented juice. Yet from these facts we may not leap to the conclusion that yayin is a term for alcoholic wine only. It is also possible that yayin is simply a generic term for any drink derived from grapes. In Genesis 49:11, yayin is used in parallel with the expression "blood of grapes." The Ugaritic cognate to yayin is used in parallel with much the same expression (1). The care taken by the author of Proverbs 23:31-32 to identify the dangerous kind of wine suggests that the term yayin in itself was insufficient to denote alcoholic wine.
We of the modern world make a sharp distinction between grape juice and wine because we recognize that the intoxicating agency in wine is wholly missing from grape juice. But the ancients understood neither that the intoxicating agency is a single substance, alcohol, nor that grape juice is free of this agency. Plutarch records an interesting discussion among guests at a dinner party as to why new sweet wine is less intoxicating than old wine. One guest suggested that the cloying sweetness of the new wine prevents anyone from drinking enough to be intoxicated (2).
In protest against the assertion that yayin can be used of either fermented or unfermented wine, moderationists make uninformed claims like the following: "Unfermented grape juice is a very difficult thing to keep without the aid of modern antiseptic precautions, and its preservation in the warm and not overcleanly conditions of ancient Palestine was impossible" (3). In fact, it takes no more ingenuity to prevent fermentation of grape juice than to prevent vinegarization of fermented wine. The ancients knew at least five methods of making nonalcoholic wine.
- Vinous fermentation (fermentation yielding alcoholic wine) proceeds only if the concentration of grape sugar within the must (the unfermented juice) falls within a certain range. Fermentation can be prevented by boiling the must until the sugar concentration exceeds the maximum permitting fermentation. That this method of preserving grape juice was known to the ancients is attested by Pliny (4), Columella (5), Virgil (6), and others (7). Must reduced to a fraction (perhaps a half or a third) of its original volume was commonly known as defrutum (8).
- Grape juice with enough sweetness to remain unfermented can be made just by pressing dried grapes. Pliny refers to a wine, called raisin-wine, that was made from grapes dried to half their weight (9). Polybius states that passum, a raisin-wine, was the staple drink of Roman women, who, at least in the early days of the Republic, were forbidden to drink ordinary wine (10).
- Vinous fermentation occurs only within a certain temperature range, the lower limit being about 45°F. The ancients knew that if a cooled wine was allowed to sit undisturbed, the clear juice poured off from the sediment would remain unfermented for about a year. The benefit of keeping the wine still was that the yeast bodies responsible for fermentation settled to the bottom. This third method of making nonalcoholic wine is described by no less than three Latin writers—Cato (11), Columella (12), and Pliny (13).
- Salt retards fermentation. According to Columella, "Some people—and indeed almost all the Greeks—preserve must with salt or sea-water" (14).
- The boiling point of alcohol is lower than the boiling point of water. Therefore, by bringing fermented wine to the boiling point of water, the alcohol is driven off. According to Pliny, the ancients made a drink called adynamon (weak wine) by adding water to wine and boiling the mixture until the quantity was considerably reduced. This drink was a favorite preparation for the sick and invalid (15).
The moderationist position takes advantage of our pride in being modern, a pride that leads us to underestimate the technological skill of the ancients. Furthermore, as we have seen and will see again, it takes advantage of the decline in classical learning.
Yet, to all the evidence that the ancients were well aware of ways to preserve grape juice, the moderationist might retort, "Yes, but reference to these methods by Latin authors does not mean that these methods were widely known and employed in ancient Palestine." Of course not, but several lines of evidence establish the probability that unfermented wine was a common article among the people of Israel.
- The Mishnah itself indicates that the Jews were familiar with boiled (inspissated) wines (16).
- During the last several centuries, foreign travelers and residents in the Middle East have reported that boiling down fresh grape juice to the consistency of molasses is a common practice among the native peoples (17). The syrupy juice so produced, called dibbs, lasts unfermented for a period of years. Dibbs is highly prized as a drink both in concentrated form and when mixed with water. The peoples of the Middle East also make fermented wine, but traditionally have used only a small portion of their grapes for this purpose. Henry Homes, American missionary to Constantinople, wrote in 1848 that of the sixteen different products of grape farming in Asia Minor, fermented wine is the least important (18). Before Western influences began to refashion the culture of the Middle East, the Palestinian Arabs and other Middle Eastern peoples clung tenaciously to the ways of their forefathers. Change was barely distinguishable even over a period of centuries. The culture in existence during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is therefore a window to the distant past. It is likely that just as boiled wines were common among Palestinians of the pre-modern era, so they were common among the Jews of antiquity. We need not maintain that such wines were predominant. It is enough to maintain that the ancient Jews knew how to make them.
We are now ready to consider the texts that put wine (yayin) in a favorable light. I submit that all these texts use yayin in a generic sense, embracing both the fermented and unfermented juice of the grape. Neither the gladdened heart of Psalm 104:15 nor the merry heart of Ecclesiastes 9:7 alludes to intoxication. In the latter text, drinking wine with a merry heart is parallel to eating bread with joy. The idea is that God intends us to enjoy the nourishment He provides. In the former text, the effect of wine upon the heart is conceived as a real benefit, comparable to the inner strength derived from bread. Therefore, what the text means by gladness cannot be the unwholesome giddiness and detachment caused by an intoxicant, but the soul refreshment afforded by a cool, sweet beverage. It is a sign of our roots in a corrupt culture that we should, in our interpretation of this text, imagine that gladdening of the heart is a specific benefit of alcoholic wine. Alcoholic wine is an acquired taste, relished only by those who learn to discount the tartness and to tolerate the alcohol. The taste of grape juice brings gladness and pleasure to every drinker.
Yet we must acknowledge that in these texts, the Lord is speaking not only of unfermented juice, but of alcoholic wine as well, for even alcoholic wine has food value. He wanted the people of Israel to look upon all food, including the fermented juice of the grape, as a blessing from His hand. In the early centuries of Israel's existence, when the people were still poor farmers and villagers, He did not forbid them to drink fermented wine for all the reasons stated in lesson 1.