Drink a little wine?

My friends and I have been studying the subject of wine in the Bible and are a bit confused. In many passages the Scriptures condemn the consumption of wine because of its harmful effects. Yet Paul advised Timothy to “use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses” (1 Timothy 5:23, NIV). How should we understand this text?

In antiquity some customs–such as polygamy and slave ownership–were tolerated among God’s people, at least for a time. That certainly does not excuse continuing them today. Many passages mentioning wine in the Bible warn against its use.? However, there was also some justification for a restricted use of fermented grape juice in past times.? Ancient peoples did not know the technique for sterile preservation.? The only way they knew to preserve grape juice, other than fermentation, was through syrups, which altered its taste and food value.? Since grapes were one of?the few products that could be grown in the semi-arid regions of Bible lands, there was great need for preserving grape juice.? Fermented wine was a practical solution.

However, wine-making is quite tricky.? The general principle is that grape juice, a sugary liquid, may be fermented through the action of yeasts found naturally on the grape peel.? Up to 12 percent of alcohol, by volume, may be generated in the process.? Any excess sugar remains untransformed, and yields “sweet” wine.? Less sugary must yield “dry” wine, which was avoided in antiquity.? The reason is that alcoholic liquids, such as wine, are liable?to another kind of?fermentation in which alcohol is transformed into acetic acid (vinegar).? While some vinegar could be useful, you don’t want to see the whole crop of grapes going acetic.? Today this is avoided by pasteurizing wine and bottling it carefully, a procedure the ancients did not know. Because of this, Greco-Roman wines were started with an extra-sweet juice, obtained by partially dehydrating grapes in the sun before pressing them. The excess sugar prevented acetic fermentation.? This extra-sweet wine was so thick that one notes references in the classical literature to scraping the wine out of its containers before serving it.

Scraped or not, classical wine was always served at the table after mixing it with water in special punch bowls (crateras). In the Bible,?“mixing” or “mingling” wine (Proverbs 9:2, KJV) means serving it (see Revelation 14:10 in literal translation).??Normal dilution was one part wine in four to six parts of water, making a two to three percent alcohol mixture (non-alcoholic beer today has a tolerance of up to two percent alcohol). A pint at the table would have as much alcohol as half a glass of common wine today.

This background illuminates the passage of 1 Timothy 5:23.? The advice of Paul was not to drink water alone, “but use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.”? Ancient people’s?drinking water was very unsafe. Few had access to spring water.? Most people drank stagnant?rainwater collected from their own roofs in cisterns (Proverbs 5:15) where bacteria easily multiplied.?This produced “frequent ailments” in the “stomach” or belly–dysentery.? However, the addition of a “little wine,” such as thick classical sweet wine, to table water was enough to kill?the bacteria.? The passage presupposes that Timothy had been instructed to avoid wine, and would have been willing to suffer frequent bouts of diarrhea in order to be faithful to such counsel,?were it not for the timely permission given by Paul.? But just as the modern conscience will not tolerate slave ownership or polygamy, the fact that in the past alcohol was used as an antiseptic in order to render table water drinkable can hardly be used to excuse its consumption today. The avoidance of alcohol implied in this passage shows that, if wine is to be consumed by Christians, it has to be the “unfermented juice of the grape” (Ellen G. White, Signs of the Times, September 6, 1899).

Aecio Cairus (Ph.D., Andrews University) is Professor of Theology at the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies in the Philippines. His email address: cairus@aiias.edu.