Complete abstinence from alcohol has been a very important part of the Adventist lifestyle. Until recently this standard has enjoyed the overwhelming support of church members. It is fair to say that in the past few decades commitment has been waning among some church members. Still greater numbers of church members maintain the standard but are not sure about the biblical support for total abstinence. Others speak as if the Bible has a clear “thou shall never drink alcohol” verse. Unfortunately such a verse remains elusive.
There are three views on the subject: the moderation view says that drinking alcohol is fine, good even, just as long as you don’t get drunk (it’s all about quantity). The prohibition view says once the Bible data is properly understood alcohol is clearly condemned (it’s all about the kind of wine). The abstinence view says that while there is no clear blanket “thou shall not” verse forbidding alcohol, correctly applying biblical and other principles will lead us to abstain from drinking it (it’s all about principles). Adventists have taken either a prohibitionist or abstinence position.
Despite this, modern attitudes to alcohol are so entrenched that people today simply cannot imagine the ancients saw things differently.
Why the increase in the moderation position among Adventists? To be frank I think it strikes people as simply implausible to believe that ancient Israelites mainly drank grape juice or that they had fermented wine but never touched or used it. I agree that this does sound implausible. Unfortunately some Adventist explanations give that impression. But I want to say that the moderation position has its own problems with implausibility. It tends to project a lot of unwarranted modern ideas onto ancient texts and cultures. Moderationists see ancient people as modern social drinkers who just wanted to sit down to a nice glass or two of wine with a meal. In contrast to all of this I want to suggest that both a simplistic prohibitionist stance and the moderationist view arise from an ignorance of the ancient world. The Bible displays a certain ambiguity about wine; at times approving it and at times condemning it. This is because wine and wine drinking in the ancient world was different to today and rather complex. Within that complexity it’s possible to make arguments for each of the three positions.
This complexity is seen in what actually counted as “wine”. Wine could, of course, refer to straight wine (alcoholic). It could refer to straight wine diluted with substantial amounts of water, so much so that on modern terms we would class this “wine”, depending on the dilution, as either sub-alcoholic (1-2 per cent) or even non-alcoholic. In a similar way wine sometimes had large amounts of honey added to it, which required substantial dilution with water (again it would end up sub-alcoholic or non-alcoholic). Sometimes dried grapes were boiled with water and drunk either soon after (non-alcoholic) or when it had fermented (alcoholic). Wine that had been boiled down into almost a syrup was very common. It was reconstituted with water and was non-alcoholic due to the boiling and dilution. There was grape juice (yes it was possible). There was wine that had gone the next stage of fermentation and turned into wine vinegar (either by accident or design). This non-alcoholic vinegar was called wine and added to water as a drink. A version of this (called posca in Latin) formed part of the daily rations that were given to every Roman soldier. It helped bad local water taste better (crucial for an army). This wine was offered to Jesus on the cross and He drank it (John 19:28-30). The earlier offer of wine mixed with gall Jesus refused (Matthew 27:34). These were the main types of “wine” although there were others beyond this. But tell me, would modern people call all of these drinks wine? Not at all! Our definition of wine, shaped by modern attitudes and advances in wine making, is very narrow, precise and technical. Nowadays, wine is specifically about alcohol content. The ancients viewed wine as the product of the grapevine. Its intoxicating power was not the absolute defining feature. Wine could be intoxicating but it could also be, and very often was, non-intoxicating.
This highlights what I think is the most common misunderstanding that people have today. They automatically assume that ancient people drank wine straight. In reality, wine mixed and diluted with water was in many places and periods the normal means of drinking wine. There were many potential reasons for this: concern about the dangerous effects of wine being a major one, and the desire to make a valuable product go further. But another major reason was how bad a lot of water tasted, and wine was a major way of making water potable (funnily enough sometimes it was the wine that tasted bad and diluting it with water made the wine bearable!). Luckily for ancient people even very small amounts of alcohol would kill some pathogens, although they didn’t seem to fully understand this fortuitous fact.
It shocks modern people to realise that Greeks and Romans always diluted their wine. The standard dilution rate was 1 part wine to 3 parts water but often the rate was higher at 4-6 parts water (Pliny mentions a wine that was diluted 1-8). Wine was stored in large vessels called amphorae. From this it was poured into another bowl called a krater and mixed with water, and then from this it was poured into a drinking cup (usually a kylix). All wine drinking in the New Testament must be understood with this background and not modern assumptions about wine drinking. The wine that was drunk was, by modern standards, predominately water. Plutarch wrote, “We call a mixture ‘wine,’ although the larger of the component parts is water” (Symposiacs III, ix). The Jewish Talmud mentions wine as a mixture of wine and water (usually 1-3 but up to 1-6). In 2 Maccabees 15:39, it states: “It is harmful to drink wine alone, or again, to drink water alone, while wine mixed with water is sweet and delicious . . .” This was written about 60 BC. The early Christians stated that their wine was largely water. Justin Martyr (150 AD) spoke of the Lord’s Supper in this way: “Bread was brought, and wine and water, and the president sends up prayers and thanksgiving” (Apology I, 67, 5). Clement of Alexandria specifies that “It is best for the wine to be mixed with as much water as possible . . . For both are works of God, and the mixing of the two, both the water and wine produces health . . .” (Instructor 2:2). Only barbarians were considered to drink straight wine. Despite this, modern attitudes to alcohol are so entrenched that people today simply cannot imagine the ancients saw things differently. They are appalled at the idea of diluting their wine and yet that was the majority practice in the Mediterranean. Our culture despises boiled down wine and sees grape juice as inferior, yet these were highly valued drinks long ago.
So where does this bring us? A complete ban by Scripture on all wine, even alcoholic wine, would not make sense in the ancient world. Fermentation helped to preserve an important product over time. In a nutritionally vulnerable world, wine provided that vital little bit of extra nutrition. In even small amounts fermented wine could render horrid tasting or dangerous water safer and drinkable. Even if there was, for argument’s sake, no non-alcoholic wines (i.e. grape juice or boiled down wine), fermented wine usually ended up sub-alcoholic and even sometimes non-alcoholic.
There are many other issues and implications that this short article can’t cover but I hope it helps people to reconsider any unthinking cultural accommodation to drinking alcohol and renews a commitment to the practice of abstinence. The biblical condemnations of types of wine, and not simply drunkenness, along with the numerous biblical narratives that present wine as a danger, as well as alcohol’s impact on spirituality, the health of mind and body, society, family, law and order, make it eminently possible to build a substantial case for abstinence and even a careful, tempered prohibitionist position. Importantly, the moderation position no longer looks like the default position but more like a lazy modern projection back onto the past.
So next time an Adventist moderationist orders a wine, I trust they will have their krater with them ready to dilute it with plenty of water! And I hope they are ready to endure the expressions of horror from modern onlookers! Somehow I don’t think I will see that—I wonder why?
Anthony MacPherson is pastor of Plenty Valley church, Victoria.