Wine’s Alcohol Content in the Ancient World

This week I came across this article by Dr. Charles L Quarles of SEBTS, titled Was New Testament Wine Alcoholic? It contained this interesting trivia: ancient writers and the water to wine dilution rates mentioned in their works.

The article goes on to argue that the most likely water to wine dilution rate of Jews in the New Testament period was 3:1, which was equivalent to a beverage that is only 3% alcoholic. In other words, equivalent to a modern low-alcohol beer. It wasn’t modern grape juice, which wasn’t invented until the Methodist Rev. Welch came along in the 1800s. But neither was it basically the same thing as a contemporary shiraz.

If this is true, then it’s a finding likely unsatisfactory to both sides of the Christians and alcohol debate. The wine consumed by Jesus was actually alcoholic, but in a pretty mild way. You’d have to drink a lot to get drunk. However, you could indeed get drunk from the common wine of the Jews if you wanted to. And there was certainly other wine around that was stronger, judging from the biblical passages addressing the dangers of drunkenness, as well as the testimony of the ancient writers in this Quarle’s article.

While I find the historical context interesting and helpful – these kinds of details really do matter for good interpretation – I’m not at all sure that it changes the biblical principle. Namely, drunkenness is a sin, and any alcohol consumption should be governed by a Christian accordingly (Eph 5:18). This principle seems sound and stable no matter the alcohol content of a given drink.

Just this past week, *Darius was sharing his testimony. It involved his amazement that during our first time hanging out together, I didn’t drink with him and his friends, breaking their expectations of what an American was supposed to be like. But I was then and am still under a no-alcohol covenant required by my organization. Darius wanted to know why I wasn’t partaking of the alcohol they had on hand and that’s what got us into a gospel conversation. That conversation led to more talks, until Darius came to faith.

I smiled as he recounted this story, because in previous years I had had the exact opposite happen. When I was here previously with a different organization, I had felt unexpectedly led to have a beer with my new Muslim friends. That act of partaking led to good gospel conversations, and *Hama ended up coming to faith.

So which is it? Have a beer for the sake of the gospel or abstain for the sake of the gospel? Both, it seems, according to the place where God sovereignly has you. Both can be done for the sake of love. And both postures can bridge to the heart of the matter – that we need new hearts.

There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” (Mark 7:15 ESV)

Wait, can biblical wisdom really leave the door open to both? Won’t that be harmful or confusing?

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.” (Matt 11:18-19 ESV)

Photo by Amos Bar-Zeev on Unsplash

*Names changed for security

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