Alcohol: Of Greeks and Barbarians

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There has been enough talk about alcohol on Christians blogs lately to make readers drunk with words. While alcohol is always a favorite topic on Southern Baptist blogs1 one of the well-esteemed pastors of our day, John MacArthur, also felt the need to address the topic2. MacArthur was answered by the accused, Erik Raymond3 and Spencer Nix4 (who happens to be a friend) which resulted in another reply from MacArthur’s ministry5.

In discussions like these two items always seem to come up. Item one, a point which MacArthur makes, is that the wine in biblical times was not like that of what we have today, but it was diluted to the point of making intoxication difficult. This has been called the “two wine theory.” Item two follows the first stating that those who drank undiluted wine in early times were considered Barbarians.

I will point out some resources in addressing these two items. This post is not meant to be exhaustive by any means, but to provide resources for further research and food for thought for those who like to bring up the two items mentioned.

Two Wines

Dating back to at least 121 BC, the Romans made a wine called Falernian that had an alcohol content up to 15% to 16%. 6 This certainly shows that wine before biblical times was as strong as the wine today. It is also stronger than the average beer found grocery stores.

Admittedly, the Greeks and Romans did dilute their wine and consider those who drank undiluted wine to be barbarians. (More on barbarians below.) Drinking diluted wine does not mean almost no alcohol content as noted above. Greeks usually diluted wine by three to four parts water while the Romans would use two parts water.7 The Greeks wanted their wine to be “intoxicated just enough to have the mind released from inhibition and conversation stimulated.8 The Roman on the other hand had a “tendency to get drunk more blatantly.”9

Greater research on the two wine theory can be found at Wine and the Bible  Origin of the “Two Wine Theory”. The author, Wayne, gives some great resources explaining the origin and how this theory was debunked by Presbyterian minister in John Mclean in 1841. In the Princeton Review McLean reviewed two articles promoting the two wine theory, Bacchus and Anti-Bacchus. It is from these two essays that William Patton drew material to write his 1874 book Bible Wines. McLean’s articles are available on the website.

Of course, Patton’s book is also taken to task and Wayne gives one example of how.

Here is just one example of the many contradictions I found between the claims of Patton in “Bible Wines” and all other reference works. Patton claimed that one way the Israelites preserved grape juice unfermented was to store it in cool locations so the lower temperature would prevent fermentation. Compare his claim to this quote:

“Wine had to be produced immediately after harvest because fresh grapes could not be stored. The grapes were treaded on a flat, hard surface, and the juice which ran into a reservoir hewn in the rock or built out of stones and clay was collected into large jars, which were put for fermentation in a cool storage place.”

Freedman, D. N. Agriculture, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary.

Patton says juice was stored in cool locations to avoid fermentation while Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary says it was put in cool locations for the purpose of fermentation.10

Greeks and Barbarians

While it is true that the Greeks considered those who drank undiluted wine as barbarians this says more about the Greek worldview than the biblical worldview. I won’t say much on this other than to give a few quotes to shed light on the Ancient Greek worldview and practices.

Another common form of homosexuality in classical Greece originated in the symposion, an aristocratic male drinking group. Guests reclined on couches in front of low tables laid with light snacks and a mildly alcoholic water-wine mixture.

The wine was poured by young male or female slaves, often chosen for their beauty. There were games, entertainments performed by the slaves, speeches, and conversations. The evening often ended with a drunken riot through the streets.(underlining added)11

Note that even the “civilized” (as opposed to barbaric) diluted wine drinkers got drunk among other things. Whether the wine was diluted or undiluted, this goes back to the Bible warning Christians of abusing alcohol. As to who the Greeks considered to be barbarians the following quote from Plato sheds a little more light on the Ancient Greek worldview.

Homosexuality is regarded as shameful by barbarians and by those who live under despotic governments just as philosophy is regarded as shameful by them, because it is apparently not in the interest of such rulers to have great ideas engendered in their subjects, or powerful friendships or passionate love-all of which homosexuality is particularly apt to produce.

When the charge of being a barbarian comes up in the Christian alcohol debate I read the above and think – Would I rather be known as a Greek or a Barbarian? Hmmm.

Even if the two wine theory were correct it can be shown that both those considered civilized and barbaric got drunk on either diluted or undiluted wine. Regardless of the alcoholic content of a drink the Scriptures warns of drunkenness which should put the two wine theory to bed for Christians anyway.

For what it’s worth…

Mark

  1. Mohler on Alcohol
  2. Beer, Bohemianism, and True Christian Liberty
  3. Memo to the Old, Grumpy and Reformed: You are Swinging and Missing
  4. Brewing Controversy: A Respectful Disagreement
  5. The Brouhaha over the Brew
  6. Wine and Rome
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Wine and the Bible  Origin of the “Two Wine Theory”
  11. Homosexuality and the Ancient Greeks
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The above article was posted on August 16, 2011 by Mark Lamprecht.
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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tom Parker August 16, 2011 at 2:52 pm

Mark:

The endless debating of this issue seems to be one of the dividing issues for some in the SBC. From what little bit I know both sides can make an argument for their position and both sides are very unlikely to change their positions.

The part that troubles me is the abstentionists almost want to make it sound like the moderationists are advocating drunkenness and that is not the case at all.

Just something else for Baptists to argue over.

2 Jason August 16, 2011 at 2:59 pm

I have been on both sides of this fence. At present, I no longer hold to abstinence-only, but recognize alcohol as not inherently evil (quite the opposite) but rather the lack of self-control as aided by the Spirit that causes the problems. While I myself don’t drink (my seminary does not permit it), I no longer disparage Christians who enjoy alcohol in moderation. I pastor a church in a community that recently had to contend with a local proposition to permit the sale of beer and wine and some of the Christian leaders who came to the local meetings were more of the alcohol-and-those-who-drink-it-are-wicked camp. It didn’t pass and the petition failed again this year, so they are happy. I wonder how many modern-day prohibitionists take narcotics when they have severe injuries or post-operative pain….

3 Mark August 16, 2011 at 3:05 pm

Tom,

I agree though I’d say the abstentionists cannot make a solid historical nor biblical argument for non-alcoholic wine. And what troubles me the most is also was troubles you the most on this topic. Well…just as troubling may be when Dr. Mohler stated that though a biblical case for abstinence for all times that is morally binding upon all Christians cannot be substantiated; yet goes onto to state that 99% of all doors of ministry in the Southern Baptist Convention will be closed to those who drink alcohol.

4 Mark August 16, 2011 at 3:08 pm

Jason,

You are asking for consistent standards and a step away from moralism. I’d love to see that.

5 Jason August 16, 2011 at 3:13 pm

Care to clarify? I’m not sure what you mean “a step away from moralism.”

6 Mark August 16, 2011 at 3:17 pm

I mean moralism simply by passing laws without the gospel as the solution. Moralism seems to be inherent when you said, “…some of the Christian leaders who came to the local meetings were more of the alcohol-and-those-who-drink-it-are-wicked camp.

We’re wicked whether we drink alcohol or not and only the gospel can change our ways.

7 Tom Parker August 16, 2011 at 3:24 pm

Mark:

Believe me the abstentionists are shutting or will shut 100% of the doors to the moderationists. So much for these folks feeling so strongly about innerancy.
There position on the Holy Scriptures is the view that must be taken otherwise one is just along for the ride.

8 Jason August 16, 2011 at 3:26 pm

That was their view, not mine. It seemed like your reply was implicating me of an encroaching moralism (which may be true in other areas of my life); if not, then no worries! I certainly don’t believe that laws can bring about change in the desperately wicked human heart. If anything, they prod and encourage the wickedness to show itself. Laws are still necessary, but some things simply cannot be regulated by political or social entities. Hence, one of the many reasons the church needs to be the church in a community, not a moral and ethical SWAT team.

9 Mark August 16, 2011 at 3:28 pm

Jason, I wasn’t implicating you. We’re good! 🙂

Was not! Phew.

10 Dwight Haas March 12, 2014 at 12:18 pm

I have been lookinag at wine, Biblically for about two years and have written a few unpublished articles. I am writing more. I am not Baptist, just Christian, although I attend a conservative church of Christ denomination. They are doctrinally opposed to wine, going back to the same arguments as made by the Temperance writers. I am walking againt the proverbial tide on this and may face withdrawal in the near future. Unfortunately they do not ask much of the Tempernace writers as far as fact checking goes. The two wine theory as it was known in 1800s assumes much without proof, but implication, of poor quotes and information and ignores scriptural definitions. If God had wanted to condemn wine, in any form, he could have and would have just as he specifically condemnded many things. We also have to conclude that things can have a sinfulness, as opposed to man being sinful. The object of wine is sinful, no matter what man does with it. Things aren’t sinful, man is. I have written a very comprehnsive article and would like for someone to critique it if you would like. I have asked my own brethern to critique it, even those I know who are against it, but they would rather tell me I am wrong, then show me how I am wrong.
Thanks,
Dwight

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