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A Christian View of Recreational Alcohol & Narcotics – Part 1

Why “recreational alcohol”? Simply because the Bible recognises other uses for alcohol or narcotics.

It had medicinal uses (1 Timothy 5:23). It is described as an antiseptic (Luke 10:34). It was used not only to disinfect wounds, but to sterilise water.  It was used as an opiate for the terminally ill (Prov 31:6). The matter under dispute is whether alcohol or drugs should be used merely for pleasure, as  recreational drinks or substances.

The Bible has a great deal to say about alcohol, the most common and most abused drug. Some Christians tend to either regard drinking as normal, and are surprised that some Christians do not drink at all; others they abstain completely and are shocked that there are Christians who drink.

Scriptural Principles

  1. Christians are not to be drunk with wine (Eph. 5:18).
  2. Drunkenness is a sin (Deut 21:20-21; Amos 6:1; 1 Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-20).
  3. At least three groups in Israel were forbidden from, or advised against drinking alcohol:priests (Lev 10:9-10), kings (Prov 31:4-5), Nazarites (Nu 6:2-3).
  4. The Bible also warns of the many dangers of drinking alcohol (Prov 20:1; Isaiah 5:11; Hab 2:15-16). Perhaps the most vivid biblical description of inebriation is found in Proverbs 23:29-35. The writer depicts the drunk as experiencing woe, sorrow, wounds and bloodshot eyes. Drunken people “behold strange women” and “utter perverse things.” Although the experience is like being sick or physically beaten, alcohol has such a hold on the drunkard that he seeks to indulge again as soon as he wakes from his stupor. A wise person will avoid wine because at the end it “bites like a serpent and stings like an adder.” Solomon advises his readers not to spend time among poverty-stricken, raggedy “winebibbers.” Perhaps the most well known warning about alcohol abuse asserts that “wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise.” (Prov 20:1). The Bible conclusively condemns the abuse of alcohol.

What about the word “wine” in the Bible? 

The word “wine” occurs about 230 times in the Bible. The word can refer to fermented wine or to fresh grape juice containing little or no alcohol. The alcoholic content must be determined by the context in which one finds the word. The fact that wine is often used in a context of getting drunk (or making merry) indicates that in general the word “wine” refers to an alcoholic beverage. Even “new” or “sweet” wine had the power to cause intoxication (Hos 4:11; Acts 2:13).

Was Bible wine fermented?

Since the process of distillation was not discovered until the ninth century AD, any alcoholic beverage mentioned in Scripture would be so by natural fermentation. Ancient people were able to prevent fermentation through various processes, but most people did not bother. Freshly squeezed grape juice (called must or mustum) was often available and was a popular drink in Bible times. But generally speaking, wine was fermented.

In Bible times wine was usually served mixed with water. Common mixture of wine with water was in ratios of 20:1 down to 3:1, which reduced the alcohol to less than 2%. There are references to this mixing of water with wine in several historical sources (2 Maccabees 15:39, Homer 20:1, Pliny 8:1, Clement (Instructor 2.2), Cyprian Epist 62.2.11). While the goal in the ancient world was to reduce the alcoholic content of beverages, the modern world has sought ways to increase it. Standard table wines have as much as 14% alcohol due to the addition of extra yeast and the control of the heat generated by the fermentation process.

They mixed wine with water because pure wine was almost like syrup after being stored and fermented for very long. Also, water was scarce and often impure. One easy way to purify water was to mix it with wine because the alcohol in the wine killed the germs in the water. It was considered barbaric to drink wine unmixed with water. It often took a great deal of drinking to get drunk because the alcohol content of wine was so low (around 22 glasses would have been needed).

Alcohol is the result of sugar decomposing (i.e., fermenting). Refrigeration was not available in biblical times, making the preservation of fresh juice a difficult project.  Jesus himself was accused of being a “glutton and a drunkard,” literally “one given to wine(Luke 7:34). It’s clear that the Corinthians were using fermented wine when they celebrated (inappropriately) the Lord’s Supper because they were getting drunk (1 Cor 11:21). Thus, biblical wine, for the most part, was fermented and was capable of causing intoxication.

 

 

  – David De Bruyn, Professor of Church History, Shepherds’ Seminary Africa

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