Did Jesus drink wine?

This article appeared originally in the Oldie magazine.

Did Jesus drink wine? You’d think the answer would be a resounding hell yes! Just think of the Wedding at Cana or the Last Supper. Then there’s Holy Communion; wine plays a sacred role in most Christian churches. But a couple of years ago I discovered that not all Christians agree.

My wife comes from a family of Southern Baptists who live in Iowa. Her grandparents were missionaries. They do not drink because they believe that the Bible expressly forbids it. I asked my mother-in-law about this and she explained the logic to me: Jesus didn’t turn water into wine in the miracle at the wedding at Cana, he turned it into grape juice.

If I’d been a bit quicker on the draw I would have quoted Psalm 104:15 ‘wine maketh glad the heart of man’ and we could have had a proper Bible quote-off but my Biblical knowledge is a little lacking. So I decided to do some research. It turns out there is a whole branch of writing arguing that the Bible is explicitly anti-alcohol. Pastor John Hamel, an Evangelical preacher from Nashville, writes:  “the fermentation of wine. . .  is a process of decay, which is rooted in death. Satan is the author of death, not Jesus or His Father.” It’s a rather circular argument. And this proscription against fermentation would preclude eating sourdough bread, sauerkraut, salami and cheese which no Christians as far as I know have a problem with.

Far more convincing is the Reverend William Patton’s 1871 work, Bible Wines, which has become the bible of non-alcoholic Christianity. I think this is the origin of my mother-in-law’s point about the Wedding at Cana. According to Patton, the Greek word, Oinos, used in the Gospel of John meant ‘new wine’ which could also mean grape juice. Except that it doesn’t. I spoke with Canon Dr. Anthony Phillips, an expert on Biblical Greek, who told me that it always means wine and that “there is a Greek word for grape juice which is trux but as far as I know it does not appear in the New Testament.” He went on to say “to argue this (grape juice) is what Jesus ordered is specious. Is it seriously suggested that at the Last Supper, Jesus produced grape juice?”

In a climate such as Palestine it would have been nearly impossible to preserve grape juice without fermentation.  Yet William Patton’s book is a picture of a parallel world where rather than make wine, the ancients would have preserved grapes by boiling the juice or pickling whole grapes. But of course they wouldn’t because they would have just turned it into wine.

Wine was ubiquitous in the ancient world. According to wine historian Hugh Johnson the only book of the Old Testament that doesn’t mention wine is Jonah. The usual Hebrew word in the Bible for wine is Yayin. Rabbi Rebecca Qassim Birk confirmed to me that it never means grape juice. Naomi Alderman, a novelist with a good knowledge of Hebrew both ancient and modern, told me “abstaining from alcohol isn’t considered positive in Judaism, in fact there are festivals where you’re actively supposed to drink. No evidence ancient Hebrews drank grape juice, plenty of wine-jar evidence they drank wine!” In present day Armenia they have found remnants of winemaking from 6,000 years ago. Even under Islam, Jewish and Christian communities made and indeed still make wine.

The only reference I could find to total abstinence comes from Numbers: “He shall separate himself from wine and strong drink. . . ” This is the Nazarite vow, a holy order who also vowed not to cut their hair. This is not the mainstream Jewish view of alcohol. John the Baptist was a Nazarite and in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is explicitly contrasted with him: “For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine; and ye say, He hath a devil. The Son of man is come eating and drinking; and ye say, Behold a gluttonous man, and a winebibber (oinopotes in Greek literally wine drinker), a friend of publicans and sinners!”  

Unlike with many other things, the message from the Bible on alcohol is clear: drink good, drunkenness bad. For most of Protestant history, this crucial difference was understood. John Milton, the poet laureate of Commonwealth, wrote a paean to the joys of ”spicy Nut-brown Ale” in L’ allegro. Methodists now shun alcohol but the founder of the movement, John Wesley drank wine and was a beer connoisseur. The stereotype of the tight-lipped unsmiling Calvinist is an enduring one yet John Calvin himself wrote “we are nowhere forbidden to laugh, or to be satisfied with food. . . . or to be delighted with music, or to drink wine.’

American Protestantism used to be similarly relaxed about drink. The first crisis of the Pilgrim Fathers when they arrived in America was that they didn’t have any beer to drink. But following independence, the country developed a serious drink problem. In his book The Alcoholic Republic the historian WJ Rorabaugh estimates that the average American in the early 19th century put away a pint of spirits per day. The understandable reaction to such excess was the Temperance movement which flourished on both sides of the Atlantic. Initially this just meant temperance, moderation, but it soon moved to prohibit alcohol entirely. Much of the energy from Temperance came from Evangelical Abolitionists. They’d freed the black man from slavery, now they turned their attention to the working class at home who they saw as enslaved by alcohol. William Patton, author of Bible Wines, was just such a man. The techniques of the anti-slavery movement were used to demonise alcohol: mass petitions, articles placed in the press and striking prints depicting the misery of alcohol, and religiously-infused public meetings.

The roots of Protestant abstinence lie not in the Bible, but in an entirely understandable attempt to stamp out drunkenness. This mass movement later led to Prohibition with all the crime and unhappiness that went with that. One of the problems with this absolutist attitude to alcohol is that it makes drinking something illicit. When eating with my in-laws rather than the bottle of wine at the table I would sneak off for a surreptitious dram of whisky in my room.

From learning a bit about Biblical abstinence,  I am struck by the unyielding certainty of its proponents. They know better than scholars of the ancient world, people with a knowledge of ancient Greek and Hebrew. And yet ordinary Baptists aren’t always so closed off. Earlier this year I had lunch with Spanish winemaker. His wife’s family also didn’t drink for religious reasons. Rather than write an article in the Oldie, he politely discussed it with them. He pointed out that Jesus did indeed drink and showed them the evidence. Rather than falling out with them as I would have if I tried this, they were persuaded and, having been abstinent all their lives, now go on wine tasting holidays with their daughter and son-in-law.  People changing long-held beliefs in the face of evidence? Surely a miracle to rival turning water into wine.

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About Henry

Henry Jeffreys was born in London. He has worked in the wine trade, publishing and is now a freelance journalist. He specialises in drink and his work has appeared in the Spectator, the Guardian, the Economist, the Financial Times, the Oldie and Food & Wine magazine. He was a contributor to the Breakfast Bible (Bloomsbury 2013) and his book Empire of Booze: British History through the Bottom of a Glass was published in November 2016.
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13 Responses to Did Jesus drink wine?

  1. Pingback: Empire of Booze Nooze | Henry Jeffreys

  2. julie mckeever says:

    So did Jesus drink wine?

  3. Michael Martin says:

    After being awaken from a dream this question came to mind so I was curious about peoples answer . You gave me several passages to look at by different writers, I didn’t think that if Jesus drank wine it would’ve made him unpure because he was God in the flesh .The bible says that even on the cross he refused the bitter hops so I wandered why it became so popular to drink wine.

    • Sam Sackey says:

      on the cross bitter hops which contain alcohol would have dehydrated him more.
      There is nowhere in the bible that one should never drink alcohol.

      • Larry Usher says:

        Pro 20:1  Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise. 

  4. Danny Burks says:

    The Bible flat states Jesus drank wine, read the Bible

  5. jonathan says:

    Wine is a mocker.. if you abuse it! but a gift from God to those who acknowledge this and drink it carefully with all thanksgiving. I pray every time with thanksgiving before i take this gift from God. I drink it alone before my God. To the pure evreything is pure.

  6. So its ok to give New borns children and teenagers moderation drink?

  7. Bobby says:

    Well written. I am very religious, and come from a group of the most sober people on earth; Mormons. For those of you who dont know, mormons are very christian. Thats why its called the church of Jesus Christ of latter day saints. Mormons dont dronk because of the “word of wisdom”; a code of health prohibiting all alcohol. I think that Jesus did indeed drink wine, seeing as juice was uncommon, and somewhat useless. Wine helps fight off bacteria in contaminated food, and seems quite necessary to the day in which Jesus lived.
    My argument in favor of wine:
    1. Wine has health benefits. Including weight control, and cancer fighting properties in red wines, along with helping memory retention.
    2. Wine is hard to get drunk on. I think any religion prohibiting wine does so because it contains alcohol. Alcohol makes people drunk which leads to abuse, accidents, and general lack of accountability. I agree with that. Drunk is bad for many reasons, and good for almost none. Wine takes a lot of drink to get drunk, and anyone wishing to get drunk could save a lot of time and money by purchasing a vodka, tequila, or 6 pack. Wine is meant to be enjoyed and savored. A glass or two won’t get you woosey, and gives you all it’s benefits without sacrificing your accountability.
    3. Wine improves sex drive and intimacy in marriage. Personal experience.
    4. It’s a natural stress reliever and anti depressant.
    5. It brings better quality sleep.

    In moderation, I think that wine can be a blessing. But a line still needs to be drawn to protect ourselves and our children from the perils of drunkenness, and drugs, which can rapidly destroy our lives. I don’t know how to do that, and I will be keeping my moderated wine consumption to myself until I figure out how to be a good example to my children.

    To my Mormon friends out there; try a glass before you slam the door on it. By their fruits ye shall know them. I don’t know if I’m right about this, but it has been a good experience for me. Knowing that Jesus also had wine comforts me, and hopefully will be enough to get me through the gates. If I find out otherwise before then; I’ll toss it away.

  8. art colgain says:

    I am a practicing christian and believe that it is a choice to drink alcohol. Now the argument has always been in the very ambiguous direction, drunk. Ok what is drunk? “conservative” believers….say if you take a drink you are drunk and then quote Pro 20:1 . I drink wine by the cup and just one personally, so I’m drunk??? If you look at Paul dealing with meat sacrificed to idols and the CONSCIENCE, he tries to help those new to the faith. He then states in 1 Cor. 10:29… read for yourself. So my point, ah yes. It’s just fine to drop opiates ‘cause a doctor said so, BUT you can’t drink alcohol….well cept if it’s cough syrup then it’s ok….I also distain the view that the water of the day was….poo poo. REALLY, we read where man was given KNOWLEDGE back then,(1 Cor. 13:8-11) ya know to build the pyramids without really trick cranes…so I believe God, gave us clean water… so the argument about nasty water is weak and lame. Ok bottom line: you can use major addicting opiates, mood altering cancer causing meds but no no no to drinking some wine/alcohol. Oh wait Paul was coo coo when to told Timothy to drink a little wine for his stomach and that a Deacon can’t be addicted to much wine…..ahhhh so should I go to the first recorded miracle….oh do do that was grape juice. Ahh my conscience can sleep tonight.

  9. Jay Vann says:

    Listen, the bottom line question should be, how does my drinking benefit Gods kingdom? If one can have a drink and remain sober then God bless you but our lives are not about ourselves. We as believers at some point must draw a line in the sand and make a definitive choice that we don’t have to something (as in drink, smoke etc). The world should see a difference when they look at us without being confused. We don’t want to lead a person into a bad decision because our desire will not allow us to make a stand for Christ! Context is everything as we bear witness to Christ! Please consider these thoughts and yes, question things in a manner that challenges ones self as it pertains to your walk. Lastly, there are numerous scriptures that talk about drinking and wine but as I stated before our lives are not about ourselves. Please check out Romans 14:15-21, take it to heart and pray on it. God bless!!!

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