Friday, November 3, 2017

Wine and Alcohol: The Argument from History

[The following was written in ~2004 by Steve Crawford for my and Steve's joint writing project which we called the "Fundamantalism Help File." The FHF never amounted to anything, but we did do some interesting research and write some interesting articles. Steve wrote the following not to encourage drinking. He himself abstained from all use of alcohol because he thought that it a wise principle. However, he vigorously objected to those who try to make the Word of God say something it does not say. And so he wrote the following. BTW, Steve passed away in 2008. He was one of my closest friends, and I still miss him dearly. We will talk again in the New Heaven and Earth.]
One of the methods that teetotalers use in arguing for the absolute abstention from alcohol is an appeal to history.  This appears to be their only recourse when confronted with Scripture texts which unmistakably place wine in a positive light, such as Ecclesiastes 9:7, “Go then, eat your bread in happiness and drink your wine with a cheerful heart, for God has already accepted your works.”

The wine in verses such as the above, teetotalers tell us, is not the same wine that we know today.  Rather, the term “wine” was used in antiquity to refer to a wide variety of drinks.  Some of them were undeniably high in alcohol content, but other “wines” were greatly diluted so that their alcohol levels were low enough that it was virtually impossible for them to be intoxicating.  Indeed, some “wine” was not wine at all but rather unfermented grape juice.

And so we see how the teetotal logic comes full circle: whenever the Scriptures speak of wine negatively, it “must” be a reference to the kind of wine having a high alcohol level.  Likewise, whenever we find texts in the Bible that refer to wine positively, it “must” be the case that such wine is of the non-intoxicating variety.  This is the essence of the teetotaler’s appeal to history.

Well, it turns out that the teetotaler is only telling half the story.  There are sufficient indications from history that the wine of antiquity, while it did come in many forms and varieties, was not all that different in its alcohol content than what we have today.  We present some of the evidence for this conclusion.  We first examine lines of evidence from the Ancient Near East, and then take a look at the customs and practices of the Greeks and Romans.
Evidence from the Ancient Near East
It is highly doubtful that any of the wine in the Ancient Near East didn’t have some significant level of alcohol in it.  This was due primarily to the way wine was made:
Those grapes which reached the baskets were taken off to the wine-press near by.  Here the excitement was even greater.  The centre of the scene was the group of men and women who jostled and splashed each other in the press-vat, as they trod the fruit with their bare feet.  The treaders gave voice to a special vintage shout which is thought to have originated in some ritual cry, but whatever religious significance it retained must have been drowned by the drinking songs which rang out in endless succession.  Whenever possible, the press was hewn out of the solid limestone rock, otherwise pits were dug in the earth and lined with stones and mortar.  The juice ran from the press-vat through a channel into another trough, which was dug deeper at a lower level.  In the hot September sun, fermentation began almost immediately and continued for about six weeks.  In smaller vineyards, the fermenting liquid was allowed to stand for this period in the wine-vat, but where the press had to be used for a considerable quantity of grapes, it was drawn off into big earthenware jars. [1]
The reason for allowing this “new wine” to sit was quite simple.  Since the ancients didn’t possess the filtration technology we have today, they had to the let wine settle while gravity naturally drew its suspended material to the bottom of the container:
The new wine was not ready for drinking for at least forty days, by which time the stalks and skins swimming in it settled down into a muddy deposit.  This sediment was known as the “lees” and an interesting passage in the book of Jeremiah suggests that the wine was separated from the lees by being poured from one jar to another: “Moab has been at ease from his youth, and he has settled on his lees, and has not been emptied from vessel to vessel … therefore his taste remains in him, and his bouquet is not changed” (48:11).  The last comment implies a warning that wine needs to be kept relatively undisturbed and that too much pouring will set up reactions and turn it into vinegar.  When the wine was sufficiently strained, it was stored either in large earthenware jars, of which the lids were sealed with pitch or wax, or in well-tied wineskins. [2]
Thus, wine in the Old Testament was allowed to ferment for a period of about six weeks.  Due to the obvious lack of temperature controls, there is every reason to suppose that during this time all (or nearly all) of the wine’s sugar was metabolized by yeast into carbon dioxide and ethyl alcohol.  Consequently, fermented wine in the Ancient Near East would’ve naturally contained the same alcohol levels seen today: approximately 12 to 14 percent by volume.

This would seem to settle the whole argument, yet there remains the question of dilution.  Evidence does indicate that, in certain Near Eastern cultures at least, wine was often diluted instead of being drunk straight from its storage container.  Here is a general overview of Assyrian and Babylonian wines where Mesopotamian habits of wine dilution are summarized: 
There were numerous varieties of wine, but it was not until the first millennium that these were given names, sometimes taken from their vineyard.  Most often, wine (karanu) is mentioned without any qualification.  When it is determined, it is chiefly “red” wine.  There are few mentions of “white” wine, but this may be because of our ignorance of the precise meaning of certain adjectives.  There is “first quality” wine and “ordinary” or “second choice” wine.  There is “light” wine, that is, “white” or “rose” or perhaps “young.”  The same adjective describes wine used for ritual offerings: in this instance it is translated as “pure,” which signifies that it is suitable for liturgical use or, quite simply, that it has not been diluted with water.
There is “new” wine and “old” wine; these latter would have been a wine allowed to age to develop its qualities -- which was also done for some beers.  There is “sweet” wine and “sweetened” wine, naturally or by the addition of honey or fruit extracts.  There is “bitter” or “sharp” wine, probably made so by the incorporation of the juice of certain plants.  There is “strong” wine, probably with a high alcohol content.  And there is “good” wine, like that destined for Mari by the king of Carchemish, or the one which, a thousand years later, Sargon's soldiers would draw by bucketsful from the reserves of the palace of Ulhu.  Are we to understand by this a wine of superior quality reserved for the royal tables or, less probably, a wine “sweetened” perhaps with honey?
The dispatches of wine from the north to the palace of Mari were often accompanied by jars of honey; but what accompanies is not necessarily complementary.  In fact, the wine was “treated” by incorporating various ingredients intended to alter its taste or density -- water, honey, or some sugary exudation, essences of aromatic types of wood.  As well as being diluted, it was also decanted, doubtless to eliminate sediment, and blended.  [3]
It was mainly on the occasion of festivals and banquets that strong drinks were taken.  The guests drank straight from the jar, with the aid of a hollow stalk.  Many monuments evoke drinking with a straw, and some representations associate it with erotic scenes; where these show the coupling of a man and woman, some people believe they can recognize the annual rite of the heiros gamos.  This “sacred marriage” between the king and a priestess taking the place of fertility goddess is well-attested in literature; it was thought to ensure general prosperity for a year.  Partaking of strong drink prepared them for lovemaking or boosted weakened energies.  Others see nothing “religious” in these representations; they are merely an image of happiness in a civilization where even the most deviant sexual act was subject to no taboo. [4]
But even though the Mesopotamians did dilute their wine, it is also clear that this did not occur in all cases.  Rather, they had a wide spectrum of drinks.  Here is how one scholar summarizes the ancient evidence after having reviewed the categories of “Drink, Beer, and Palm-wine,” “Wine,” and “Strong Drink”:
In point of fact, what with their drinks made from barley and palm-tree wine, as well as real wine, the Mesopotamians possessed a range of drink hardly less potent in its effects than those of today, though not their equal in quality. [5]
So we do have indications that other cultures did at times dilute their wines.  But this is relevant only if we can answer two questions:  (i) Did the Hebrews dilute their wines?, and if so, (ii) was the dilution to such a point that the wines were no longer realistically capable of causing intoxication?

As for the first question, some scholars do not believe there is any evidence that the Hebrews diluted their wine:
The drinking of wine was universal.  Taking it with water or luxuriously iced with snow from the mountains were later customs and even then the latter can hardly have been a part of everyday life.  The ordinary Israelite in our period [the time of the Old Testament] took his wine in its natural state or (like the Assyrians) mingled with spices and drugs to increase its “headiness.”  It is not surprising that the Old Testament contains so many warnings about drinking to excess.  The men of Israel also drank pomegranate wine and (possibly) wine made from dates.  They do not appear, however, to have been great beer-drinkers.  In this respect, they differed from their neighbors, the Philistines, whose beer-mugs with strainer spouts have been found by the hundred. [6]
But what about the “mixed wine” mentioned in the Old Testament (e.g. Proverbs 9:1-6, Proverbs 23:30, Psalm 75:8)?  Isn’t this a clear reference to wine mixed with water?  Well, in response, we have already seen how that the Mesopotamians would blend their wines together.  The same thing was happening in ancient Egypt:
Under the New Empire [the time after the Hyksos regime], as in Greek and Roman times, it was a favorite custom to mix several sorts of wine together.  The following picture shows us how they filled a large vessel by siphons with three sorts of wine; the festive decoration of the vessels indicates that this mixing is taking place at the time of a feast.” [And there follows a hieroglyphic from a Theban tomb.] [7]
Therefore, it is unwarranted to automatically assume that the “mixed wine” of the Old Testament is wine diluted with water.  It could just as well be wine mixed with other types of wine.  That it is mentioned in the context of drunkenness (Proverbs 23:30), is used to depict the potency of divine wrath (Psalm 75:8), and is the preferred beverage at an elegant feast (Proverbs 9:1-6) would seem to indicate that the best interpretation of the Bible’s “mixed wine” is that it is several wines blended together.  Even if it were water mixed with wine, it would still have to be quite capable of inducing alcoholic effects or else these verses become nonsensical.

With regards to the second question of how diluted the wines would’ve been, there is no evidence to suppose that the ancient peoples diluted their wines to the point where potential alcoholic effects disappeared.  Rather, it was precisely the alcoholic content of their wines that appealed to the people of antiquity:
A number of favorable factors made wine important to ancient peoples.  It was actually less likely to be contaminated than water, particularly in cities where public sanitation was difficult and water-borne diseases were common.  The pleasant effects of wine were early noted, and seem to be an important basis for the use of wine as a beverage.  Furthermore, the effects of wine were somewhat quicker and greater than those from beer, a beverage of lower alcohol content.  This must have been a very important factor in the pre-Christian period, since life was not pleasant for either the rich or the poor.  Winter was difficult, even in the southern regions, and the vicissitudes of life, with wars and slavery, made wine a welcome beverage, enabling people to forget their problems and ease their aches.  This is, of course, basically an effect of alcohol. [8]
More will be said on this point later, but suffice it to say that Ancient Near Eastern wine definitely had a significant alcohol content, enough for the Old Testament to repeatedly warn against drunkenness.  It is more of an assumption rather than an inference based on the available data when teetotalers claim that ancient wine was so diluted as to make it “more like water than wine.” [9]  Evidence for this is lacking, and attempts to circumvent a more natural conclusion are unsuccessful.
Evidence from the Greeks and Romans
When we turn our attention to the practices and customs of the Greeks and Romans, the picture is even clearer.  Indeed, it is puzzling to see teetotalers point to these habits as support for their modern interpretation of the Scriptures.  This is because the Greeks and Romans epitomized social and casual drinking – something which teetotalers are very much against.  So why do teetotalers appeal to Greek and Roman rituals?  As we will see, it again goes back to the fact that these ancients tended to dilute their wine.

Let us first turn our attention to the Greeks.  The customs in question come from the “symposium,” an event that would follow on the heels of a dinner or feast.  After coming together and eating their meal, the Greeks would immediately initiate the symposium where the following would occur:
The servants in attendance removed the larger tables which had been used at dinner, and brought in instead other smaller tables, which were also three-legged, but had round tops.  On these they arranged the drinking cups, bowls, and cooling vessels, plates with all kinds of dessert, and little dainties that would induce thirst.  Then wreaths were given to the guests to adorn their heads, and sometimes to put round their necks, and sweet-scented ointments were handed round.  While the guests were occupied in adorning themselves, the servants brought in the wine in large mixing bowls, generally three at the beginning of the feast, and later more, as occasion required.  The customary drink at these feasts was a mixture of wine and water.  Even at the present day southern nations seldom drink strong wine unmixed with water, and in ancient times unmixed wine was only drunk in very small quantities; at the symposium, when it was customary to drink deep and long, they had only mixed wine, sometimes taking equal parts of wine and water, and sometimes, which was even commoner, three parts of water to two parts of wine.  Generally, at the beginning of every symposium, a president, or “Symposiarch,” was appointed by lot or dice to take command for the rest of the evening, and it was his duty to determine the strength of the mixture, for this might be of various kinds, as weak as even two parts of wine to five of water, or one to three, or even one part of wine to five of water, which last was certainly a somewhat tasteless drink, and was contemptuously called “frog’s wine.”  In early times it was usual to put the water first into the mixing bowl and pour the wine upon it; afterwards the reverse proceeding took place. [10]
This researcher goes on to say that:
Every guest had to submit to the ordinances of the symposiarch; he exercised unlimited authority in the matter of drinking, unless, indeed, the arrangement had been made from the first that everyone should drink little or much, as he pleased, during that evening.  Those who disobeyed the commands of the president had to submit to some punishment, which consisted either in drinking a certain quantity, or else was directed at some personal infirmity; thus, for instance, a bald man was told to comb his hair, a stammerer to sing, a lame man to hop, etc.  This compulsion of submitting to the ordinances of the president naturally led to very deep drinking, and even the mixture of the water with the wine was insufficient defense against this practice.  It was very common to drink to one another, and propose the health of friends or popular girls.  It was customary for the drinking to circulate to the right, and this practice was also kept up for all other performances which were expected from every guest, such as the singing of songs, guessing of riddles, etc.  Though the main object of the symposium was, undoubtedly, the drinking, yet we must not compare the Greek symposia with the wild drinking bouts customary in Germany during the middle ages, which continued till the 17th century.  In consequence of the weakness of the mixture, it must have taken some time for the intoxicating effects to make themselves apparent.  Moreover, there were various kinds of amusement which caused the drinking to fall somewhat into the background, but these naturally varied a good deal according to the degree of culture and character of the guests. [11]
Thus, there is no reasonable doubt as to the nature of the wine that the Greeks drank.  Yes, it was watered-down but contrary to teetotal claims it was not diluted so much as to make it “more like water than wine.” This kind of concoction was derisively named “frog’s wine,” a not-so-subtle reference to its overly high water content.

Rather, the Greeks mixed their wine with water so as to prolong the duration of their symposia, which would last for hours.  During which time, they drank voluminously and often ended up drunk as a result.  We find other reasons as well for why the Greeks mixed water into their wine:
Greek wine, as we have said, was a rich, syrup-like fluid, and was almost invariably diluted with water.  Only the semi-civilized inhabitants of Macedon in the north took their drink neat.  Wines varied in quality, the best hailing from the islands of Lesbos, Chios, and Rhodes.  In some brands, as in modern Greece, resin was added, giving a tart flavor.  The drinking was organized according to regular rules.  A “master of the feast” was chosen by lot, and he dictated the proportion in which water and wine should be mixed -- most usually in the ratio of two to one.  The mixing was done by the slaves in a large earthenware bowl.  From this the drink was ladled into the cups -- broad shallow saucers raised on a delicate base, often of exquisite design and picked out with beautiful painted pictures.  The carouse would often last well into the night.  But the wine was, for a while at least, more apt to stimulate than to befuddle the brain; and witty talk was the rule.  [12]
So, apparently, water was also added to give the wine a smoother texture, for who would ever want to drink a syrupy concentrate?

Thus, we discover in the ancient Greek customs clear evidence against a teetotal position.  Yes, the wine was diluted but it was still quite capable of inducing alcoholic effects.  It is unwarranted to assume that the mere mention of wine dilution made it virtually impossible to get drunk from such a mixture.  The evidence is clearly against this sort of “frog’s wine.”

Besides, no teetotaler today would say that it’s acceptable to purchase and drink a modern wine if we first diluted it to the same proportions as the wines drunk in the ancient symposia.  After all, as we have noted before, there is no reason to suppose that prior to its dilution Greek wine wasn’t just as alcoholic as modern wine.  So, if we were to use the typical dilution of two parts water with one part wine, this would yield a mixture with 4% to 5% alcohol by volume – which is about as alcoholic as one of today's beers.    Teetotalers would never stand for the consumption of even this kind of drink.  Rather, we are told, people “must” remain completely abstinent.  Therefore, it is a great contradiction in one’s methods of argumentation when we appeal to, but then ultimately reject, the ancient Greek practices of mixing water with wine.

Turning to the period of the Romans, we find that little has changed with regard to their own habits of wine drinking.  They drank their wine “before, after, and between meals, as well as during; it was their coffee and tea and spirits.” [13]  And it is no surprise that the Romans copied the same customs found in the Greek symposium:
Wine blent with resin and pine pitch was preserved in amphorae [large earthenware bottles] whose necks were sealed with stoppers of cork or clay and provided with a label (pittacium) stating the vintage.  The amphorae were uncorked at the feast, and the contents poured through  a funnel strainer into the mixing-bowl (cratera) from which the drinking-bowls were filled.  Anyone who drank these heavy wines neat was considered to be abnormal and vicious, a mark for contumely.  It was in the cratera that the wine was mixed with water and either cooled with snow or in certain circumstances warmed.  The proportion of water was rarely less than a third and might be as high as four-fifths.  The commissatio that followed dinner was a sort of ceremonial drinking match in which the cups were emptied at one draught.  It was the exclusive right of the master of ceremonies to prescribe the number of cups, imposed equally on all, and the number of cyathi that should be poured into each, which might vary from one to eleven.  He also determined the style in which the ceremony should be performed: whether a round should be drunk beginning with the most distinguished person present (a summo), whether each in turn should empty his cup and pass it to his neighbor with wishes for good luck, or whether each should drink to the health of a selected guest in a number of cups corresponding to the number of letters in his tria nomina of Roman citizen.  We may well wonder how the sturdiest stomachs could stand such orgies of eating, how the steadiest heads could weather the abuses of the commissationes!  [14]
Thus, little comment needs to be made regarding Roman practices for they were clearly very similar to that of the Greeks.  What was said before could also be said here.  Needless to say, there is little support that teetotalers can find among Roman customs.

Here's a final quote from Xenophon concerning ancient perceptions of wine drinking.  Note that Xenophon ascribes the following to Socrates.  Whether Socrates actually said it or not is irrelevant.  The quote still illuminates ancient attitudes toward their own drinking:
At that Socrates broke in: “My vote, too, is given for a drink.  Truly does wine moisten the soul, lulling pain to sleep, even as mandragora drugs our senses, and waking merriment, as oil kindles fire.  Men's bodies, methinks, are in the same case as growing plants.  When God drenches these latter too abundantly, they cannot lift their heads nor catch the breeze.  But if they drink in only such moisture as they like, they grow up straight and bring forth abundance of rich fruit.  And it is the same with us.  If we fill the cup too abundantly, our limbs and our wits will both begin soon to reel, and we shall scarce be able to breathe, much less to talk sense.  But if we are bedewed with a gentle shower -- to use a Georgian metaphor -- from small glasses, we shall not be constrained to drunkenness by our wine and shall be gently led to the goal of merriment.” [15]
We find here an example of how ancient peoples commonly made the distinction between wine making us drunk and wine making us merry.  This is something that teetotalers seem to hardly ever talk about, and for good reason: the same distinction is quite often found throughout the Scriptures.  The Old Testament is replete with condemnations of drunkenness, but it also has numerous instances of offering praises for wine's merriment:
When Boaz had eaten and drunk and his heart was merry, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain.  (Ruth 3:7)
So both of them sat down and ate and drank together, and the girl’s father said to the man, “Please be willing to spend the night, and let your heart be merry.” (Judges 19:6)
He causes the grass to grow for the cattle and vegetation for the labor of man, so that he may bring forth food from the earth, and wine which makes man’s heart glad, so that he may make his face glisten with oil, and food which sustains man's heart.  (Psalm 104:14-15)
Go, then, eat your bread in happiness and drink your wine with a cheerful heart, for God has already accepted your works.  (Ecclesiastes 9:7)
Men prepare a meal for enjoyment, and wine makes life merry, and money is the answer to everything.  (Ecclesiastes 10:19)
But even this evidence concerning the euphoric, yet non-intoxicating, effects of wine doesn’t seem to affect the absolutism of teetotalers.  For instance, one could always say something to the effect that wine's merriment has nothing to do with its alcohol and that we can derive the same sensation from, say, drinking a Pepsi.

Well, it is possible to argue this way but the problem is that we have now reached the point where our conclusion is clearly driving our interpretation, rather than vice-versa.  Taking this kind of route would mean that, rather than accepting God’s revelation in its plain and normal sense, we are stretching the various texts so that they take on an unintended (and unbelievable) meaning.

Indeed, this is the basic difficulty with the whole teetotal approach to wine and its historical backdrop.  In spite of biblical indications otherwise, teetotalers believe they have found an absolute command from God to keep away from all beverages with any alcoholic content.  This produces such a strong perception of right and wrong in their minds that they are willing to overlook, or even revise, historical evidence that contradicts their desired conclusion.  After all, as the thinking goes, it is virtually true by definition that there can be no such thing as evidence against an absolute standard of holiness and righteousness.  Consequently, teetotalers freely cite anything from history that appears to support their ideas but summarily dismiss that which doesn’t.  Such a tactic, as the thinking goes, cannot possibly be questionable when we already “know” our conclusion is absolutely correct.

In this fashion, we can see how teetotalism flows from certain presuppositions which are then forced onto the evidence.  One simply does not become a teetotaler because of clear historical precedents.  Rather, historical “precedents
are discovered because one is already convinced of teetotalism.

In summary, it is extremely artificial and arbitrary to assert that biblical praises of wine are only meant for a kind of beverage which doesn’t intoxicate.  The historical and cultural backdrop to the Scriptures just doesn’t support this.  It is a much more simple and natural interpretation that, whenever the Scriptures praise wine, it is a case of wine not being drunk to excess but being consumed enough to cause merriment.  And, whenever the Scriptures condemn wine, it is a case of wine being ingested to the point where drunkenness is the inevitable result.  The latter is not sanctioned by the Word of God but the former is, as history helps us to verify.
(1) E. W. Heaton, Everyday Life in the Old Testament (NY: Charles Scribers’ Sons, 1956), 105-106.
(2) Ibid., 106.
(3) Andre Finet, "An Ancient Vintage," Everyday Life in Ancient Mesopotamia, ed. Jean Bottero, trans. Antonia Nevill (Baltimore: John Hopkins Univ. Press, 2001), 85-86.
(4) Ibid., 88.
(5) Georges Contenau, Everyday Life in Babylon and Assyria (London: Edward Arnold, 1954), 79.
(6) Heaton, 86-87.
(7) Adolf Erman, Life in Ancient Egypt, trans. H. M. Tirard (NY: Benjamin Blom, 1894), 198-199.
(8) Maynard A. Amerine & Vernon L. Singleton, Wine: An Introduction, 2nd edition (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1977), 14.
(9) Quotation from sermon preached by a teetotal seminary professor with which we’ve had personal contact.
(10) H. Blumer, The Home Life of Ancient Greece, trans. Alice Zimmern (NY: Cooper Square Publishers, 1966), 209-210.
(11) Ibid., 213-214.
(12) C. E. Robinson, Everyday Life in Ancient Greece (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1933), 77-78.
(13) Lionel Casson, Everyday Life in Ancient Rome (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975), 25.
(14) Jerome Carcopino, Daily Life in Ancient Rome, trans. E. O. Lorimer (New Haven: Yale University Press), 269.
(15) Xenophon, “The Symposium,” Greek Social Life, ed. F. A. Wright (NY: E. P. Dutton, 1925), 114.

Content last updated on Thursday, January 15, 2004 08:44 PM

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