Did Jesus turn water into intoxicating wine? Did He serve alcoholic wine at the last supper? What does the evidence tell us? The Bible speaks plainly on this subject. Historical records regarding the preparation, preservation and use of wine are also clear.
Consider this report (1820) by William Patton. The term “alcoholic” is not used. He uses the Bible term, “drunkard.” The Bible does not recognize drunkenness as a sickness, but as sin. The drunkard is listed in scripture with thieves, liars, extortioners, murderers, etc., as being in danger of God’s judgment in hell unless he repents. Gal. 5:19-21; 1 Cor. 6:9-10. God will never consign a person to hell for being sick. Therefore the matter of drunkenness, and that which leads to drunkenness, becomes a very serious matter. Here is his report:
I found that all Bible passages where wine or drinking is mentioned, fall under three headings: a) where wine is merely mentioned, b) where it is spoken of as a cause of misery and the emblem of eternal wrath, c) where it is a blessing along with grain.
I began to wonder if the Bible makes reference to two kinds of wine. Such is indeed the case. I shared my findings with Professor Seixas, an eminent Hebrew teacher. He took my manuscript, and a few days later returned it with the statement, “Your discriminations are just. They denote that there indeed are two kinds of wine.” I have since learned much from others who have come to the same conclusion. I ran into much opposition from those who believe that all mention of wine in the Bible is to intoxicating wine, but here are a few counter-statements:
Dr. Ure, in his Dictionary of Arts, says: “Juice when newly pressed from grapes, and before it has begun to ferment is called must, and in common language new wine.”
Rees’ Cyclopedia: “Sweet wine is that which has not yet worked or fermented.”
Noah Webster: “Wine, the fermented juice of grapes…Must, wine, pressed from the grape, but not fermented.”
Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible “The wine was sometimes preserved in its unfermented state and drunk as must…Very likely new wine was preserved in the state of must by placing it in jars or bottles, and then burying it in the earth.”
These authorities make it clear that there were, indeed, among the ancients, two kinds of wine, the fermented and the unfermented.
The laws of fermentation are fixed laws, always operating in the same way, and always and everywhere requiring the same conditions. Lardner’s Cyclopedia says:
“1. There must be saccharine (sugar) matter and gluten (yeast).
“2. The temperature should not be below 50 degrees nor above 70 or 75 degrees.
“3. The juice must be of a certain consistency. Thick syrup will not undergo vinous fermentation. Too much sugar is not favorable for the process, and on the other hand too little sugar, or, which is the same thing, too much water, will be deficient in the necessary quantity of saccharine matter to produce a liquor that will keep, and for want of more spirit the vinous fermentation will almost surely turn to vinegar.
“4. The quantity of yeast or ferment must also be well regulated. Too much or too little will impede and prevent fermentation.”
Others confirm these statements. The indispensable conditions for vinous fermentation are the right proportions of sugar, of yeast, and of water, with the temperature of the air ranging between 50 and 75 degrees.
We see therefore that the process of fermentation is not a natural one. Chaptal, the eminent French chemist, says, “Nature never forms spirituous liquors; she rots the grape upon the branch; but it is art which converts the juice into (alcoholic) wine.”
[Before there was refrigeration]
As grapes and other fruits were such an important part of the food of the ancients, they would, by necessity, invent methods for preserving them fresh. Josephus, the first century historian, in his Jewish Wars, book VII, ch. VIII, s. 4, makes mention of Herod’s fortress in Israel, called Masada, “For here was laid up grain in large quantities, enough to enable an army to survive for a long time: here was also wine and oil in abundance, with all kinds of herbs, vegetables and dates heaped up together. These products were also fresh and full ripe, and in no way inferior to such fruits newly laid in, although they had been there almost 100 years.”
In a footnote William Whiston, the translator, says: “Pliny (AD 27-79) and others confirm this strange paradox, that provisions laid up against sieges will continue good for 104 years, as Spanheim also notes upon this place.” Such facts regarding long preservation of fruit and other food are confirmed by many other historians.
Swinburn says, “In Spain they also have the secret for preserving grapes sound and juicy from one season to another.”
E. C. Delevon states that when he was in Florence, Italy, “Signor Pippine, one of the largest wine manufacturers, told me that he at that time had in his lofts, for the use of his own table, until the next harvest, a quantity of grapes sufficient to make 100 gallons of wine; that grapes could always be had, at any time of the year, to make any desirable quantity; and that there was nothing in the way of obtaining the fruit of the vine free from fermentation in wine countries at any period. A large basket of grapes was sent to my lodgings, which were as delicious, and looked as fresh, as if recently taken from the vines, though they had been picked for months.”
Professor Donovan, in his writing on domestic economy, mentions three methods by which all fermentation can be prevented:
“1. Grape juice will not ferment when the air is completely excluded from it.
“2. The juice may be boiled, thereby evaporating the water. The substance thus becomes a syrup, which if very thick will not ferment.
“3. If the juice is filtered and deprived of its gluten; or yeast, the production of alcohol will be impossible.” —Anti-Bacchus, p. 162.
Also, if the juice is kept below 45 degrees (in water or underground) it will not ferment.
Four methods were used by the ancients to keep their new wine from fermenting:
Boiling and Thickening
By this process the water is evaporated, thus leaving so large a portion of sugar that fermentation is prevented. “By boiling, the juice of the richest grape loses all of its aptitude for fermentation, and may afterwards be preserved for years without undergoing any further change.” —Elements of Chemistry, Herman Boerhave.
Liebig says, “The natural law causing organic substances to pass into a state of decay is annihilated in all cases by heating to the boiling point.” The grape juice boils at 212 degrees; but alcohol evaporates at 170 degrees, which is 42 degrees below the boiling point. So then, if any possible portion of alcohol was in the juice, this process would expel it. All yeast, which would cause fermentation, is also destroyed by boiling. The obvious object of boiling the juice was to preserve it sweet and fit for use during the year. The boiling continued for several hours until ¼ to ½ of the water had boiled away. Water was later added to the syrup when the host desired to serve new wine.
Some of the celebrated Opimian wine, mentioned by Pliny had, two centuries after its production, the consistency of honey. Professor Donovan says, “In order to preserve their wines to these ages, the Romans concentrated the must or grape juice, of which they were made, by evaporation, either spontaneous in the air or over a fire, and so much so as to render them thick and syrupy.”
Horace, born 65 BC, says, “There is no wine sweeter to drink than Lesopian. It is like nectar, and resembles ambrosia more than wine. It is perfectly harmless, and will not produce intoxication.” —Anti-Bacchus p. 220.
“The Mishna states that the Jews were in the habit of using boiled wine.” —Kitto, Volume II, p. 477.
W. C. Brown, who traveled extensively in Africa, Egypt, and Syria from AD 1792 to 1798, states, “Most of the wines of Syria are prepared by boiling immediately after they are pressed from the grape, until they are considerably reduced in quantity, when they are put into jars or large bottles and preserved for use.” He adds, “There is reason to believe that this mode of boiling was a general practice among the ancients.”
“It is observable that when sweet juices are boiled down to a thick consistency, they not only do not ferment in that state, but are not easily brought into fermentation even when diluted with as much water as they had lost in the evaporation.” —Caspar Neuman, MD, professor of chemistry.
By filtration, the gluten or yeast is separated from the juice of the grape. While the juice will pass through the filtering implements, the gluten will not, and, being thus separated, the necessary conditions of fermentation are destroyed. The ancient writers, when speaking of the removal of the vim, vi, vires, that is, the potency or fermentable power of the wine, use the following strong words: eunuchrum, castratum, effaeminatum–thus expressing the thoroughness of the process by which all fermentation was destroyed. Plutarch, born AD 60, in his Symposium, says: “Wine is rendered old or feeble in strength when it is frequently filtered. The strength or spirit being thus excluded, the wine neither inflames the brain nor infests the mind and the passions, and is much more pleasant to drink.”
Again, Pliny said, “Wines were rendered old and castrated or deprived of all their vigor by filtering.”
Captain Treat, in 1845, wrote, “When on the south coast of Italy, I inquired particularly about the wines in common use, and found that those esteemed the best were sweet and unintoxicating. The boiled juice of the grape is in common use in Sicily. The Calabrians keep their intoxicating and unintoxicating wines in separate compartments. From inquiries, I found that unfermented wines were esteemed the most. These wines were drunk mixed with water. Great pains were taken in the vintage season to have a good stock of them laid by. The grape juice was filtered two or three times, and then bottled, and some put in casks and buried in the earth–some kept in water (to prevent fermentation).” Dr. Lees’ Works, Vol. II, p. 144.
[Meaning, to sink or fall to the bottom; settle]
The gluten may be so effectually separated from the juice by subsidence as to prevent fermentation. The gluten, being heavier than the juice, will settle to the bottom by its own weight if the must can be kept from fermentation for a limited period. If the juice is kept at a temperature below 45 degrees, it will not ferment. The juice being kept cool, the gluten will settle to the bottom, and the juice when siphoned off, and thus deprived of the gluten, cannot ferment.
“They plunge the casks, immediately after they are filled from the vat, into water, until winter has passed away and the wine has acquired the habit of being cold.” Kitto, II, 955; A.-B. 217; Smith’s Antiquities. Being kept below 45 degrees, the gluten settled to the bottom, and thus fermentation was prevented.
Columella gives a recipe: “That your must may always be as sweet as when it is new, proceed in this way: Before you apply the press to the fruit, take the must that has already flowed from the grapes, put into a new amphora [jar], bung it up, and cover it very carefully with pitch, lest any water should enter; then immerse it in a cistern or pond of pure cold water, and allow no part of the amphora to remain above the surface. After 40 days, take it out, and it will remain sweet for a year.” He no doubt inferred that the pure wine was to be poured off from the gluten that had settled to the bottom. This wine would again be sealed airtight and kept cool in the ground or water until used. These ancients had underground cellars where their wines and other foods were preserved.
Dr. Ure states that fermentation may be stopped by the application or admixture of substances containing sulphur. Adams, in his Roman Antiquities, on the authority of Pliny and others, says, “The Romans fumigated their wines with the fumes of sulphur; they also mixed with the mustum (the newly pressed juice) yokes of eggs and other articles containing sulphur.”
In all these extracts, the writers call the grape juice wine, whether boiled, filtered, subsided or fumigated.
Wine With Water
There is abundance of evidence that the ancients mixed their wines with water. Not because they were so strong with alcohol as to require dilution, but because, being rich syrups, they needed water to prepare them for drinking.
According to Lightfoot, the Passover was celebrated with nonalcoholic wine mixed with water. Each person, man, woman and child drank four cups. After celebrating the Passover with His disciples, Christ took the bread and wine that remained and instituted the Lord’s supper. The wine was, we believe, the rich syrup diluted with water. This kind of wine met all the requirements of the law concerning leaven. The true rendering of matsah, according to Dr. F.R. Lees, means unfermented things. It therefore refers not only to bread.
Classification Of Wines
The careful reader of the Bible will notice that in a number of cases wine is simply mentioned without anything in the context to determine its character. He will notice another class, which unmistakably denotes the bad character of the beverage. There is also a third class, whose character is clearly designated as good.
This class of texts refers to wine:
1. As the cause of intoxication. This is not disputed.
2. As the cause of violence and woe. Prov. 4:17; 23:29-30.
3. As the cause of self-security and irreligion. Isa. 28:7; 56:12; Hab. 2:5.
4. As poisonous and destructive. Prov. 23:31.
5. As condemning those who are devoted to drink. Isa. 5:22; 1 Cor. 6:10.
6. As the emblem of punishment and of eternal ruin. Psa. 60:3; 75:8; Is 51:17; Jer. 25:15; Rev. 14:10; 16:19.
I turn now to another class of texts which speak with approval of a wine whose character is good, and which is commended as a blessing.
1. To be presented at the altar as an offering to God. Num. 18:12; Neh. 10:37, 39; 13:5, 12.
2. Is classed among the blessings, the comforts, the necessities of life. Gen. 27:28; Deut. 7:13; 11:14; Isa. 65:8; Joel 3:18.
3. Is the emblem of spiritual blessings. Isa. 55:1; Psa. 104:15.
4. Is the emblem of the blood of the atonement, by which we receive forgiveness of sins and eternal blessedness. Matt. 26:26-28; 1 Cor. 10:16.
In all the passages where good wine is named, there is no indication of warning, nor intimation of danger, no hint of disapproval, but always of decided approval.
How bold and strong is the contrast: The one the cause of intoxication, of violence, and of woes. The other the occasion of comfort and peace. The one the cause of irreligion and of self-destruction. The other the devout offering of piety on the altar of God. The one the symbol of the divine wrath. The other the symbol of spiritual blessings. The one the emblem of eternal damnation. The other the emblem of eternal salvation.
“The distinction in quality between the good and the bad wine is as clear as between good and bad men, or good and bad spirits; for one is the constant subject of warning, designated poison, both literally and figuratively, while the other is commended as refreshing and innocent, which no alcoholic wine is.” Lees’ Appendix, p. 232.
Can it be that these blessings and curses refer to the same beverage, and that an intoxicating liquor? Dr. Nott says: “Can the same thing, in the same state, be both good and bad; a symbol of wrath, and a symbol of mercy; a thing to be sought after, and a thing to be avoided? Certainly not. And is the Bible, then, inconsistent with itself? Again, certainly not!”
Professor M. Stuart says: “My final conclusion is this: Whenever the scriptures speak of wine as a comfort, a blessing, or a libation to God, and rank it with such articles as grain and oil, they mean, and they can only mean the wines that contained no alcohol that could have a harmful effect; that wherever they denounce it, and connect it with drunkenness and revelling, they can mean only alcoholic or intoxicating wine.”