I did this brief (very brief) word study for a coworker of Carly’s who had some questions about wine in the Bible. This is by no means anywhere close to exhaustive. It is merely an overview, and I’m posting it here to open up conversation. I’d love to hear your thoughts, however, with such a touchy topic as alcohol, please be gracious by not forcing your personal liberties or legalisms onto other people.
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Wine: Most popular Greek word in the NT is oinos (pronounced “oy-noss”). This is the word used for the wine that Jesus made during his first miracle at the Cana wedding when he turned water into oinos.
There are at least three reasons to believe that oinos is similar to our alcoholic wine today:
- This is the word used in Ephesians 5:18 when Paul says, “Do not be drunk with oinos but be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Being “drunk” and being “filled” are contrasted here. Both imply intoxication and being controlled by a substance outside of oneself. On the one hand, one (i.e. drunkenness) is negative and sinful. The other (i.e. filled with the Holy Spirit) is positive and holy. So Paul does not say that oinos is bad, but that being controlled by it is (compare 1 Tim. 4:1-5, especially verses 4-5).
- This is the word used in Romans 14:21 when Paul says that wine should not be a stumbling block to a brother. If oinos was merely grape juice or some other processed beverage, why would it be considered a possible stumbling block to a Christian? The short answer is that it wouldn’t. No one gets controlled by grape juice (well, maybe in some very bizarre circumstances!). Because of the temptation to be physically controlled by something other than the Spirit, Paul says it would be best for the mature believer to abstain instead of forcing the weaker brother he is friends with to compromise convictions and practices.
- Finally, Vine’s Dictionary of New Testament Words points out that Matt. 9:17, Mark 2:22, and Luke 5:37 imply that this oinos is fermented. In these passages, Jesus is speaking of putting new wine into old skins–he is giving an analogy of bringing the New Covenant to Jews who are still married to the Old Covenant. New grape juice would not cause old animal skins used for a canteen to burst, but a freshly fermented, alcoholic beverage certainly would.
The other uses of the word oinos in the NT give us no reason to believe that this drink is not a processed, fermented, alcoholic drink. It probably was not be as strong as the wine or other drinks we have today, of course. It even took wedding guests awhile to get drunk during the week-long celebration. That’s why at weddings (like in Cana, see John 2:1-11) they used the good wine first and were content to dish out the cheap, boxed Franzia wine toward the end of the week. Whatever the alcoholic content of wine in the Bible, however, we do know for certain they weren’t drinking Welch’s.