If you ask most Christians why they drink alcohol many will answer that the Bible does not prohibit the use of alcoholic drinks so long as it does not lead to drunkenness. In their view moderate use of alcohol is acceptable. But science tells us that the amount of alcohol in just one glass causes impaired performance of mind and body. How many glasses of alcohol can these Christians drink before they consider themselves drunk?
If we look at the Bible texts that Christians use to defend drinking alcohol, it becomes quickly evident that there is a real problem in translation, interpretation, and understanding of those Bible texts. The writing below is by no means exhaustive but will highlight for the reader the major issues.
There are many texts in the Bible disapproving the use of alcohol (Leviticus 10:8-11; Judges 13:3, 4; Proverbs 31:4, 5; 23:31-33; 20:1; 1 Timothy 3:2, 3). At the same time there are texts that show wine as a blessing from God to be enjoyed (Genesis 27:28; 49:10-12; Psalm 104:14, 15; Isaiah 55:1; Amos 9:13; John 2:10-11). How can the Bible both condemn and approve something? If we believe that all scripture was inspired by the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16) there should be no contradiction in the teaching of scripture. How can we account for this apparent discrepancy? The answer lies in a misunderstanding of biblical terms and their translation.
In modern English, for example, the word 'wine' always refers to fermented fruit juice. Most modern dictionaries will reflect only this modern translation. But older English dictionaries show that at one time the word 'wine' in English could mean either fermented wine or unfermented grape juice. This was true in the English language when the famous King James Version of the Bible was translated in the 17th century. Therefore when the Bible text refers to unfermented grape juice or fermented wine, the translators would have simply used the word 'wine' to translate it into English. However, the meaning of the word changed over time. Thus, modern readers of the King James Version of the Bible, with the modern definition of 'wine' in their mind, can naturally think that the Bible is always talking about fermented wine. This is a mistake.
This situation was present in the Biblical languages of Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament). The prophets who wrote in Hebrew could have used the word tirosh to refer to unfermented grape juice. They could have also used yayin, which refers to both fermented wine or unfermented grape juice. How can a reader understand which is the correct interpretation? Only by the context.
The same situation exists in ancient Greek. A writer could have chosen to use the word gleukos for unfermented grape juice or they could have used the word oinos, which refers to both fermented wine or unfermented grape juice. How can the reader understand which is which? Again, we understand this by context.
This can be quite difficult for the modern reader because in many modern languages there are precise terms for both grape juice and fermented wine. They don't use one word for both. However, anyone who has studied ancient Arabic knows that ancient words often had many meanings, which they understood from the context in which it was written.
Even many leading Bible scholars and Bible dictionaries take the position that there is only one kind of wine mentioned in the Bible: fermented wine. So it is quite understandable that the average reader of the Bible could be confused on the issue. If the reader wishes to examine research demonstrating that the Bible words yayin (Hebrew) and oinos (Greek) had the meaning of both unfermented grape juice and fermented wine, we refer him/her to the PhD dissertation by Robert Teachout from Dallas Theological Seminary and the book by Samuel Bacchiocchi that cover these subjects.
The confusion about this issue is also found in the Turkish translation where yayin and oinos are uniformly translated as 'wine' (şarap). We believe that the Bible considers the consumption of alcohol as a beverage morally wrong. Texts that speak favorably about wine are referring to unfermented grape juice. Texts that speak negatively about wine are referring to fermented wine. Thus, the Bible doesn't contradict itself and holds believers to a high standard of moral conduct.
Below we will add comments on a few commonly disputed passages, but these will be very brief.
John 2:1-11 The Wedding at Cana
As the first of many miracles, Jesus turned water into "wine" at a wedding feast in Cana . Many assume that the guests at the wedding were drinking fermented wine because the ancients didn't know how to preserve grape juice. This is far from correct. They knew how to do this. Who do you think we got grape molasses from? Some also think that grape juice naturally turns into wine. But this is also not true. When grape juice isn’t cared for under very precise conditions, it becomes rancid and undrinkable. It took as much or more effort for the ancients to preserve fermented wine in a drinkable form than it was for them to preserve grape juice in a useable form. The ancients knew how to preserve grape juice in a useable form for up to a year and sometimes even longer!
If the guests at the wedding had already drunk a lot of fermented wine, as some claim, and Jesus miraculously produced between 450 and 600 liters more of an even better wine, what would it say about Jesus’ moral character? Jesus was pure in His life, committed no sin, and taught others to reverence the scriptures. Is it conceivable that He would condone drunkenness by giving presumably drunk people even more wine to drink? It is incongruent. The proper explanation is that the word oinos here refers to unfermented grape juice.
Matthew 26:20-29; Mark 14:17-25; Luke 22:14-20: The Lord's Supper
The expression 'wine' does not occur in these passages but instead the phrase 'fruit of the vine' appears. A first century historian named Josephus uses this exact phrase to mean unfermented grape juice.
Furthermore, Jesus established the Lord's Supper during the Passover meal in which no leaven was permitted. The juice at the Passover Supper could not have been fermented wine because it would not have been an appropriate symbol of the pure and spotless blood of Christ!
Acts 2:13: The Day of Pentecost
Fifty days after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the disciples of Jesus received the power of the Holy Spirit which Jesus had promised them. It was during Pentecost and Jerusalem was filled with pilgrims from around the world. All of a sudden, the disciples began speaking languages they didn’t know, proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection from the grave. It was astonishing for the travelers to hear simple Galileans speaking foreign languages! But some of them did not recognize this as a miracle from God and mocked the disciples.
Others mocking said, "They are full of new wine." Acts 2:13.
Peter challenged the mockers by declaring:
"For these are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. Acts 2:15.
Some Christians today wanting to defend the use of wine say that these texts indicate that the early Christian church was drinking fermented wine. They claim that the mockers would not have challenged the disciples unless they had seen them drinking fermented wine on other occasions. They assume that the 'new wine' mentioned here is fermented wine. Furthermore, they claim that Peter did not respond by saying that the disciples abstained from alcohol, but only that the hour was too early to be drinking.
Mockers don't need a basis of fact to make accusation. So the idea that the mockers had seen the disciples drinking on other occasions is just an unsustainable assumption. The word translated as 'new wine' is gleukos, which means grape juice. Peter's response, that it was too early for drinking, was simply something the mockers could easily understand. If Peter said, "We don't drink, so it is impossible that we are drunk" the mockers could just have easily responded, "You drink secretly." Another possibility is that because the mockers used the word gleukos, Peter was unable to say, "We don't drink." If he had, it would have meant that the disciples didn't drink grape juice, which of course would not be true.
Why did the mockers use the word gleukos instead of oinos if they had wanted to accuse the disciples of being drunk on fermented wine? Probably the disciples were known to be abstemious and the mockers were essentially saying, "Look, these guys who won't even touch alcohol are drunk on grape juice!"
1 Corinthians 11:21: At the Lord's Supper in Corinth.
First and Second Corinthians were letters written by the Apostle Paul to the believers in Corinth, Greece. It is apparent from the letters, that the believers were having some difficulties and wanted advice from the apostle Paul. One of the issues occurred during the celebration of the Lord's Supper. This is when the believers eat unleavened bread and drink grape juice together in commemoration of Jesus’ sacrificial death. In Corinth, the Lord's Supper was celebrated in the context of a meal, for which everyone brought food to share with everyone else. At least that was what was supposed to happen.
Apparently some people refused to share their food with others and as a result the rich had plenty and the poor had very little. The lack of sharing was contrary to the purpose and spirit of the meal. In this context Paul wrote that:
For in eating, each one takes his own supper ahead of others; and one is hungry and another is drunk. 1 Corinthians 11:21.
This passage of scripture says that some people were drunk. Some Christians believe that alcoholic drinks were common at these meals and that this was normal. Is that true? First of all, the Corinthians were in error and Paul was correcting them. So even if the Corinthians were drinking alcohol, it does not mean that alcohol consumption is good and normal for believers. Paul is condemning the Corinthian's behavior. But there is a better explanation of the passage.
The Greek verbs methuo and methusko can mean to get drunk. But they also mean to be satisfied. Here the word methuo is used in contrast with the word hungry. The translation would read, "Each one takes his own supper ahead of another and one is hungry and another is completely full." The translators of the NKJV chose to translate methuso as 'drunk.' If the translators simply referred to Greek dictionaries it is easy to see why they would do this.
If you look in some Greek dictionaries you will see that these two words methuo and methusko are only defined as getting drunk. Unfortunately, those dictionaries are incomplete because the words clearly have another meaning. Let’s look at some examples. In the Septuagint, the 3rd century BC Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, Psalm 23:5 is translated as follows:
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup runs over. Psalm 23:5.
The expression, 'my cup runs over' is the Greek word methusko. No one translates this as, 'getting drunk.' Another example is Psalm 65:10 where the verb 'you water,' in the expression 'You water its ridges abundantly,' is the word methusko. In Jeremiah 31:14 we read:
I will satiate the soul of the priests with abundance, and My people shall be satisfied with My goodness, says the LORD." Jeremiah 31:14.
The verb 'I will satiate' is methuso. In this context, it does not mean drunkenness.
While in many English translations of John 2:10 it seems as if the people were drunk, the Turkish Bible translated the word methusko correctly. 'Drank a lot' (çok içildikten sonra) is correct.
Therefore, the word methuo, in 1 Corinthians 11:21, should be translated as 'full' or 'satiated.' The rich people in Corinth were eating until they were full, whereas the poor were remaining hungry.
Ephesians 5:18: Do not get drunk with wine.
And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, Ephesians 5:18.
Some people use this passage to justify moderate consumption of alcohol. They argue that Paul didn’t want to prohibit alcohol consumption or he would have said, "Do not use wine." But since the word oinos meant both wine and grape juice, if he had said that he would have prohibited grape juice as well. Another thing we observe is that Paul is contrasting being drunk with wine and being filled with the Spirit. He doesn't suggest a moderate filling of the Spirit or just a little bit. In the same way he doesn't sanction a little wine. That is not the point of his statement. It is the source of the action that is being considered. He is contrasting wine with the Spirit. What does the expression "in which is dissipation" refer to? Does it refer to wine itself or the act of being drunk? It could be either one grammatically. But Paul may be saying here that it is wine itself that contains dissipation. Consistency with the rest of the teaching of the Bible shows clearly that Paul is not sanctioning a moderate use of wine.
1 Timothy 5:23: No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for your stomach's sake...
Defenders of alcohol consumption often refer to the apostle Paul's admonition to Timothy, a young minister, as permission for its use.
No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for your stomach's sake and your frequent infirmities. 1 Timothy 5:23.
People suggest that there is nothing wrong in wine itself or Paul would not have counseled Timothy in this way.
First of all, Paul is not recommending believers in general to drink freely of wine for pleasure, but that Timothy himself should use a 'little' wine as a medicine. The Greek word is 'use', not 'drink.' We find this translation in the Kutsal İncil translation of the New Testament. The word 'use' emphasizes that this is medicinal use of "wine" and not as a beverage. The practice of mixing one part of grape juice to two, three, five or more parts of water was common in the ancient world. Especially when we remember that grape juice was preserved in those days by boiling it into a thick syrup (molasses). When they wanted to drink juice they would simply add water. Now let’s see if the "wine" mentioned was alcoholic or non-alcoholic.
It is generally assumed by readers that the "wine" in this verse was alcoholic. As we have seen earlier, oinos can be either wine or grape juice. Which was it? First, if we want to maintain a consistency with other parts of scripture (e.g., Proverbs 20:1) it makes sense that Paul would be referring to grape juice. Timothy was a young minister and Paul advised Timothy on the subject of appointing church leaders:
This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work. 2 A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; 3 not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; 4 one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence 5 (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?); 1 Timothy 3:1-5.
A minster who drinks wine would be acting contrary to Paul's counsel and setting a wrong example for others. Of course, there are other reasons to understand that Paul was referring to grape juice and not wine.
There are written records from ancient times that show grape juice mixed with water as a remedy for stomach disorders. Bacchiocchi cited the author Athenaeus as saying in 280 AD, "Let him take sweet wine (glukon oinon), either mixed with water or warmed, especially that kind called protropos, the sweet Lesbian glukus, as being good for the stomach; for sweet wine does not make the head heavy." The word protropos was a Latin name for unfermented grape juice. The word 'lesbian' is translated from the word effoeminatum, which is a sweet, unfermented grape juice.
Why did Paul use the expression, 'no longer drink water only'? Perhaps Timothy, like priests and Nazarites had done in the Old Testament, had abstained from both fermented and unfermented grape juice. Paul may have even suggested this for him. Should a church leader be less pure than the priests of old? Timothy probably only drank water. But right here in 1 Timothy 5:22 and 23, while still counseling Timothy to remain pure, Paul Told Timothy that he should not limit himself to only drinking water for the sake of his stomach ailments. In other words, a mixture of grape juice and water would help his stomach.
Do not lay hands on anyone hastily, nor share in other people's sins; keep yourself pure. 23No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for your stomach's sake and your frequent infirmities. 1 Timothy 5:22-23.
We conclude that Paul was not going contrary to the testimony of scripture and condoning alcohol as a beverage for believers. He was counseling a very conscientious young minister who was perhaps only drinking water as a beverage to maintain high purity in everything, just like the priests of old. But Paul suggested that that if he drank a little grape juice with his water, it would be a good medicine for an illness.
1 Timothy 3:8: Likewise deacons must be reverent, ... not given to much wine.
Some Christians refer to this verse saying it is okay to drink wine occasionally. They argue that if Paul had meant to say that deacons must not drink wine he would have simply said, 'not given to wine' instead of 'much wine.' They argue that it is the quantity of wine drunk that is the problem and not drinking wine itself. Is there any validity to this?
What does the Bible say about wine itself?
Do not look on the wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it swirls around smoothly; 32 at the last it bites like a serpent, and stings like a viper. 33 Your eyes will see strange things, and your heart will utter perverse things. Proverbs 23:31-33.
When the Bible tells believers to not even look at wine, why would it turn around and say you can drink a little bit? This passage in Proverbs indicates that there is something wrong with fermented wine itself and not the quantity consumed.
1 Timothy 3:8 is part of a pericope that addresses qualifications for the leaders of the church and their wives, as well as deacons and their wives. If we examine the wider context of the passage and the terms used we can understand its full meaning.
In 1 Timothy 3:2, the Bible says that a church leader must be 'temperate.' Let's ask, "What does the original Greek word mean?"
The Greek word is the adjective nephalios from the root verb nepho. Some etymologists believe that the verb comes from the prefix ne 'not' and the word pino 'drink' thus literally ‘not to drink.’ Others think the origin of the word is from ne 'not' and poinos (for oinos 'wine') thus literally 'without wine.' In the New King James Version cited in this article, the word is translated four times in a literal sense as 'be sober' (1Thessalonians 5:6, 8; 1 Peter 1;13; 5:8) and twice in a figurative sense as 'be serious' (1 Peter 4:7) and 'be watchful' (2 Timothy 4:5). So the primary meaning of the verb is ‘to not drink’ or ‘be without wine.’ What does the adjective nephalios mean?
In classical Greek literature there are numerous instances of the words nephalios as meaning ‘abstention from wine.’ In Hellenistic times (the time of the New Testament) was the word used that way? Josephus, who was a contemporary of Peter and Paul who wrote the above listed verses, wrote a document called the Antiquity of the Jews. He writes, "Those who wear the sacerdotal garments are without spot and eminent for their purity and sobriety [nephalioi], not being permitted to drink wine as long as they wear those garments." Josephus clearly used the word to mean 'not to drink wine' at all.
Philo was also a contemporary writer of Peter and Paul. He wrote that the priest must serve as nephalios (i.e., totally abstinent from wine.) The word nephalios was often used to describe an offering made without wine.
The primary meaning of the word nephalios is ‘to be abstinent from wine.’ It can have a secondary figurative meaning of ‘mental sobriety.’ But in the latter cases it would not eliminate the requirement for physical sobriety because abstinence is a prerequisite for mental sobriety.
In the texts cited above where Peter and Paul use the verb nepho, we see that those who are preparing for the Lord's second coming should be sober, (i.e., not drinking alcohol.) This is the natural and literal sense. So it is no wonder that we see such a requirement for the leaders of the churches. The admonition is also used in 1 Timothy 3:11 for the wives of the deacons, who must also be nephalios. Wouldn't it be strange that the Bible would instruct the leaders of the church and the wives of the deacons to be abstinent, but that the deacons could be 'moderate' in their use of wine? Most certainly!
It is wrong to assume that when a Bible writer forbids something in excess (e.g., not given to much wine) that we can do it in moderation. In 1 Peter 4:4 it is written:
In regard to these, they think it strange that you do not run with them in the same flood of dissipation, speaking evil of you. 1 Peter 4:4.
Is Peter saying it is permissible for you to run with them in dissipation so long as there is not a flood of it? Is a little dissipation tolerable for God?
Why do some Greek dictionaries define nephalios as a moderate use of wine? That is a good question when the evidence suggests that the word should be understood as abstinence. Why is there so much effort being made by the churches to defend the drinking of alcohol with all of its accompanying evils? Shouldn't believers waiting for the soon coming of Jesus do what John said?
Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. 3 And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure. 1 John 3:2-3.
The Bible is consistent in its attitude toward alcohol. It teaches that we should not partake of it. Are you waiting expectantly for Jesus' second coming? Do you want to be pure? What should you do then?
Could it be in 1 Timothy 3:2 that Paul is meaning the figurative use of nephalios (i.e., 'be watchful, steady, serious.') It is possible, but not likely. When we see that the next word in the list is sophron meaning self-controlled and sensible, it lends support to a literal interpretation of nephalios as abstinent. This is because abstinence from alcohol is the physical precursor to being sensible.
Some argue that if Paul had intended nephalios to mean 'abstinent' in 1 Timothy 3:2 that he would not have added the words 'not given to wine' in verse 3. There could be a very simple explanation for that.
The Greek expression me paroinos means literally 'not near wine' that is a place where wine is consumed. The admonition may be translated like this: Not one who attends bars or drinking parties.
We conclude that the admonition for deacons to be 'not given to much wine' is hyperbole and does not indicate that they can be 'given to a little wine.'
Deuteronomy 14:26: Wine and strong drink.
In the Old Testament, God instructed Israel to remember God's graciousness at harvest season by bringing a tithe of their harvest to the sanctuary. While there, they were to eat and drink of its goodness together with the other believers. This tithe was a second tithe in addition to the tithe used to support the Levites.
"You shall truly tithe all the increase of your grain that the field produces year by year. 23 "And you shall eat before the LORD your God, in the place where He chooses to make His name abide, the tithe of your grain and your new wine [tirosh = grape juice] and your oil, of the firstborn of your herds and your flocks, that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. Deuteronomy 14:22-23.
Because it was harder for them to bring their tithes, there was a provision made for those who lived far away from the tabernacle. They were allowed to sell their tithe, bring the money to Jerusalem, and buy things to eat and drink to celebrate.
"But if the journey is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, or if the place where the LORD your God chooses to put His name is too far from you, when the LORD your God has blessed you, 25 "then you shall exchange it for money, take the money in your hand, and go to the place which the LORD your God chooses. 26 "And you shall spend that money for whatever your heart desires: for oxen or sheep, for wine [yayin] or similar drink [shekar], for whatever your heart desires; you shall eat there before the LORD your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your household. Deuteronomy 14:24-26.
In many English translations and in the Turkish KK we see the word shekar translated as strong drink. Some believe that God was permitting alcohol to be drunk as part of a celebration of God's goodness. This doesn't seem to be correct for several reasons.
First, it contradicts everything we have seen about God's attitude toward alcohol. Why would He permit it in a holy celebration? Secondly, it seems odd that God would force the people living near the tabernacle to drink grape juice (tirosh) but would allow those who came from afar to purchase alcohol! If the Bible is to be consistent, how can we resolve the apparent discrepancy?
It is true that the word shekar in Hebrew is most often used in scripture to mean alcohol. But is that the only meaning? No. Shekar could also be a sweet drink made from dates or honey. The words in Aramaic, Syriac, and Arabic denoting palm or date wine are cognates of this word shekar. Was this date wine alcoholic? Possibly, but context would indicate which is being referred to. It makes sense that the word shekar in this context refers to a sweet, non-alcoholic drink. The English words sugar and cider can be traced to this Hebrew word. Şeker in Turkish of course means sugar or sweet not bitter like alcohol.
This same translation problem exists in Isaiah 24:9.
The new wine fails, the vine languishes, all the merry-hearted sigh. 8 The mirth of the tambourine ceases, the noise of the jubilant ends, the joy of the harp ceases. 9 They shall not drink wine with a song; strong drink [shekar] is bitter to those who drink it. Isaiah 24:7-9.
Strong drink is already bitter. Why would the prophet say this? But if we consider the word shekar here to be a sweet drink then the lamentation makes sense. Because of anguish, the people will not drink grape juice with a song. In the same context, even the sweet drink [shekar] is bitter to those who drink it.
Proverbs 31:6: Give strong drink...
The passage reads:
Give strong drink to him who is perishing, and wine to those who are bitter of heart. 7 Let him drink and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more. Proverbs 31:6-7.
Is the Bible going against itself here and recommending alcohol to those who are sorrowful? The context of the passage is just the opposite. The two verses just before are the following:
It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, nor for princes intoxicating drink; 5 Lest they drink and forget the law, and pervert the justice of all the afflicted. Proverbs 31:4-5.
The texts are drawing a contrast. It is not appropriate for those who are decision makers to drink alcohol. Are believers in Jesus decision-makers?
But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; 1 Peter 2:9.
Who is alcohol appropriate for? The Bible text may be showing an ironic contrast. If it is good for anyone it is for those who are dying. It also may indicate that alcohol could be used to relieve the pain of someone who is in excruciating pain because of dying. We don't disparage the medical use of alcohol especially when nothing else is available. But it is interesting to note that Jesus was offered wine when He was being crucified and yet He refused it (Mark 15:23). However, he did accept vinegar (John 19:29, 30).
Thus, we see no recommendation for alcohol use as a beverage in Proverbs 31:6.
The Bible is consistent. It shows alcohol to be unfit for believers. It is astonishing to see the tenacity with which the Christian community has sought to defend its use. We see this extending even to the scholars and translators. Those who are seeking purity and to be ready for Christ's second coming will abandon its use as a social beverage. They will seek to be an example of holiness in all things.
 Robert P. Teachout, "The Use of 'Wine' in the Old Testament" (PhD dissertation, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1979). Samuel Bacchiocchi, Wine in the Bible (Berrien Springs, 2004).
 See Bacchiocchi p. 125.
 Kutsal İncil Lütuf Yayıncılık İstanbul.
 Samuele Bacchiochi, Wine in the Bible, Berrien Springs 2006, p. 244. He cites Athenaeus, Banquet 2, 24.
 Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 3, 12, 2, translation William Whiston, Josephus Complete Works (Grand Rapids, 1974), p. 81.