What are the facts about fermented drinks in the Bible?

It is often supposed that in Bible times, grape juice inevitably fermented if kept for any length of time and that therefore whenever the Bible mentions “wine,” it is referring to the alcoholic beverage commonly called “wine” today. However, ancient civilizations had several ways of preventing fruit and fruit juices from fermentation, and thus were able to have non-alcoholic wine (grape juice) throughout the year.

One method involved boiling the juice and reducing it to a syrup that could later be diluted with water. Another was to boil the juice with minimum evaporation and then immediately seal it with beeswax in airtight jars. Drying the fruit in the sun and then reconstituting it with water, adding sulfur to the fruit juice, or filtering the juice to extract the gluten were also methods that would prevent the juice from fermenting. These means of preservation were known to the ancients, who also practiced boiling fermented juice to eliminate the alcohol. Referring to reconstituting grape syrup to make grape juice, Aristotle, who was born around 384 b.c., wrote “The wine of Arcadia was so thick that it was necessary to scrape it from the skin bottles in which it was contained and to dissolve the scrapings in water” (quoted in Nott’s Lectures on Biblical Temperance, p. 80). The poet Horace, born in 65 b.c., wrote, “There is no wine sweeter to drink than that of Lesbos; it was like nectar . . . and would not produce intoxication.”

“The Mishna [a collection of oral Jewish traditions] states that the Jews were in the habit of drinking boiled wine” (Kitto’s Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature, vol. 2, p. 447). Naturally, this wine would be entirely free of alcohol as a result of the boiling, if not also from the manner of preservation.

In his commentary on the Gospel of John, Albert Barnes wrote, “The wine of Judea was the pure juice of the grape, without any mixture of alcohol. It was the common drink of the people and did not produce intoxication.” And Adam Clarke, commenting on Genesis 40:11, wrote, “From this we find that wine anciently was the mere expressed juice of the grape without fermentation. The saky, or cupbearer, took the bunch [of grapes], pressed the juice into the cup, and instantly delivered it into the hands of his master. This was anciently the yayin [wine] of the Hebrews, the oinos [wine] of the Greeks, and the mustum [wine] of the ancient Latins.” Clarke’s comments agree with the Scripture that declares “As the new wine is found in the cluster, and one says, ‘Do not destroy it, for a blessing is in it’ ” (Isaiah 65:8, NKJV).

Question Categories