by Jeffrey W. Hamilton
One of the greatest difficulties in studying God's stance on drinking is the bias translators have brought to the meaning of words used in the Bible in regards to drinking. The most common Greek word, which is translated "wine" is oinos which is directly equivalent to the Hebrew word yayin. (See "Old Testament Beverages" for full details on this and other Hebrew words.) Both the Hebrew and Greek words refer to all products of grape juice. Only the context can determine whether the drink was alcoholic. In many cases, we just do not know the alcoholic content of the beverage being discussed as the context is insufficient to make a determination. There are a few other Greek words which are also translated as "wine". For example, the word sikera is equivalent to the Hebrew word shekar which refers to strong drinks made from juice or grains. It would be equivalent to our modern-day beers and non-fortified wines. It appears only in Luke 1:15 where John's parents are instructed to keep John way from wine and strong drinks. Another word is gleukos, equivalent to the Hebrew word tirosh. It literally means sweet or new, as in grape juice. It is only used in Acts 2:13 when the apostles are accused of getting drunk on grape juice (in other words, the crowd was mocking their behavior). The phrase "fruit of the vine" also refers to unfermented grape juice as can be seen by this quote from Josephus:
"God bestows the fruit of the vine upon men for good; which wine is poured out to him, and is the pledge of fidelity and mutual confidence among men, and puts an end to their quarrels, takes away passion and grief out of the minds of them that use it, and makes them cheerful. 'Thou sayest that thou didst squeeze this wine from three clusters of grapes with shine hands and that the king received it: know, therefore, that this vision is for thy good, and foretells a release from thy present distress within the same number of days as the branches had whence thou gatherest thy grapes in thy sleep'" [Josephus, Antiquities II:V:2].
Note that this quotation makes it clear that "wine" did not always refer to fermented grape juice.
Was drinking implied in the New Testament?
Sometimes you will find people who claim drinking alcohol is implied in various New Testament passages. One such passage is I Corinthians 11:20-22. The argument is that the Corinthians were abusing the Lord's Supper by turning it into a common meal that wasn't being shared. Some were overeating and getting drunk, which was unacceptable behavior for Christians in a worship service, so Paul tells them to take their meals and drinking home. The implication is that Paul is saying "If you want to overindulge, do it at home." They conclude that Paul is permitting them to drink in the privacy of their own homes.
The key word is the word translated as "drunk." It comes from the Greek word methuo, which literally means "filled to the full." It can mean someone who has had their fill of an alcoholic drink, but it can also mean someone who has their fill of any drink and no longer desires more. For example, in John 2:10, the governor is not saying everyone is in a drunken stupor, but that they had enough to drink before the good drink was brought out. In the Septuagint version, this Greek word is used in Psalms 23:5 to translate "My cup overflows" and in Psalms 65:10 to translate "You water its ridges abundantly."
In defining methuo, we find:
"1. To be drunken or inebriated; 2. Pass. to drink freely and to cheerfulness though not drunkenness, (Jn. 2:10) 3. to be filled, plentifully fed, (I Cor. 11:21)" [J. A. Bass, Greek-English Lexicon To The New Testament, p.138].
"1. of things to be drenched, steeped in any liquid" and its cognate: "to be filled with food" [Liddell and Scott, Greek-English Lexicon, p. 1092 and 1091].
"Hesychius understands methuei in I Cor. 11:21 as peplerotai in view of the contrast with peina: for this use of the verb cf. Hos. 14:7." [Moulton and Milligan, The Vocabulary of The Greek Testament, p.394]. Peplerotai means to fill or to fill up. Peina is the word for hungry. In the Septuagint translation, methuei is used in Hosea 14:7 to speak of being revived or sated with grain.
Notice that methuo in I Corinthians 11:21 is contrasted to the word "hungry" (peina). What is the opposite of being hungry? Why, being full. This then should have been the correct translation. Leon C. Field said, "Methuei, in this case, is plainly contrasted with peina which is correctly rendered as 'hungry.' The antithesis, therefore, requires the former to be understood in the generic sense of 'surfeited,' not in the narrow sense of 'drunken.' The overfilled man is compared to the underfilled man. This is the interpretation adopted by the great body of expositors, ancient and modern." Adam Clarke said, "The people came together, and it appears brought their provisions with them; some had much, others had less; some ate to excess, others had scarcely enough to suffice nature. 'One was hungry, and the other was drunken, methuei, was filled to the full;' this is the sense of the word in many places of Scriptures."
Besides, why would Paul condemn drunkenness in I Corinthians 5:11 and 6:10 (which is the same Greek word by the way) and then in I Corinthians 11:22 tell them to do their drinking at home. The only sensible thing is to realize that the word is being used in two different senses.
Finally, the admonition to eat at home in I Corinthians 11:33-34 without mentioning drinking shows that the problem Paul was addressing was overindulgence and not drunkenness.
Another commonly cited verse is Ephesians 5:18. Here the argument is that Paul condemns the misuse of wine, but not the moderate use of alcohol. Markus Barth said, "The condemnation of the misuse of wine does not preclude a proper use of alcoholic beverage." Basically, the claim is that if Paul was condemning all drinking, he would have said, "Do not drink at all."
Two states are being contrasted in Ephesians 5:18, being filled with wine and being filled with the Spirit. The point of the contrast is that you cannot have both at once -- they are mutually exclusive. You cannot be partially filled with spirits and partially filled with the Spirit. Similar exclusions appear in Luke 1:15 and Acts 2:4, 15. In other words, the indwelling of the Spirit is connected with the abstinence of liquor.
The clause that literally reads "in which is debauchery" refers to wine in Ephesians 5:18. Some translations change it to "that is debauchery" meaning getting drunk is debauchery, but this is not what the original text states. The original text states that there is debauchery in wine, as in Proverbs 23:31. In a letter to Laeta, a lady who wrote asking how to bring up her infant daughter, Jerome advised, "Let her learn even now not to drink wine 'wherein is excess.'" This quote of Ephesians 5:18 shows that Jerome believed the excess referred to the wine and not that drunkenness held excess. Albert Barnes stated, "Let Christians when about to indulge in a glass of wine, think of this admonition [Ephesians 5:18]. Let them remember that their bodies should be the temple of the Holy Ghost rather than a receptacle for intoxicating drinks. Was any man ever made a better Christian by the use of wine? Was any minister ever better fitted to counsel an anxious sinner, or to pray, or to preach the gospel, by the use of intoxicating drinks? Let the history of wine-drinking and intemperate clergymen answer."
There is a reason why Paul did not say "Do not drink any wine." Wine had some proper uses, such as its medicinal properties (I Timothy 5:23). Forbidding all use of wine would eliminate its use in medicine. Since the Greek word oinis includes all grape juice products, a statement saying drink no oinis at all would eliminate grape juice from the Christian's diet, making partaking of the Lord's Supper impossible.
What the New Testament says about abstinence
The Greek words we are interested in are the adjective nephalios and the verb nepho. They are a compound word consisting of ne, which means "not", and piein, which means "drink." Of these words, the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament states, "The concept which underlies the verb nepho 'to be sober' and the whole word group is formally negative. It is the opposite of intoxication both in the literal sense of intoxication with wine and in the figurative sense of states of intoxication attributable to other causes." The Jewish philosopher Philo illustrates this definition when he stated, "So too soberness [nephein] and drunkenness are opposites." Liddel and Scott define these words as "to be sober, to drink no wine." Clement of Alexandria once said, "I therefore admire those who have adopted an austere [nephalion] life, and who are fond of water, the medicine of temperance, and flee as far as possible from wine, shunning it as they would the danger of fire."
Now that we understand the meaning of these words, let us see how they are used. "But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day would overtake you like a thief; for you are all sons of light and sons of day. We are not of night nor of darkness; so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober. For those who sleep do their sleeping at night, and those who get drunk get drunk at night. But since we are of the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, the hope of salvation." (I Thessalonians 5:4-8). Nephomen is translated as sober in both verse 6 and 8. Notice the contrasts: light - darkness, awake - sleeping, and sober - drunk. It is apparent that Paul desires the Thessalonians to be "alert," mentally watchful, and "sober," physically abstinent. In fact, we find that alertness is often connected with abstinence from intoxicating beverages (Luke 12:45). We understand that it is physical abstinence that is being considered since it is being contrasted with being drunk.
Another passage is I Peter 1:13, "Therefore, prepare your minds for action, keep sober [in spirit], fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ." Once again, mental vigilance is correlated with physical abstinence. You can see the translator's bias in the NASB when they added "in spirit" to this verse even though the word means the opposite of drunkenness. What is interesting in this verse is that just after nepho is the word teleios which is an adverb meaning "fully." Grammatically it can modify the "sober" before it or the "fix your hope" that comes after it. Most translators attach it to the "fix your hope" because they believe the Bible teaches moderation instead of total abstinence. Older translations, such as the Latin Vulgate, attach the word "completely" to the word "sober," causing it to read "perfectly sober" or "being wholly abstinent."
Another verse that compares physical abstinence with mental vigilance is I Peter 5:8, "Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour." The wording in this verse is very similar to that found in I Thessalonians 5:6. What is really interesting is the word devour at the end of the verse is katapino which literally means "drink down." "Not drink" at the beginning of the verse is contrasted to being "drunk down" at the end of the verse. Adam Clarke said, "It is not everyone that he can swallow down. Those who are sober and vigilant are proof against him; these he may not swallow down. There is a beauty in this verse, and striking apposition between the first and last words, which I think have not been noticed; -- Be sober, nepsate, from ne not, and piein, to drink -- do not swallow down -- and the word katapien, from kata, down and piein, to drink. If you swallow strong drink down, the devil will swallow you down. Hear this, ye drunkards, topers, tipplers, or by whatsoever name ye are known in society, or among your fellow-sinners, strong drink is not only your way to the devil, but the devil's way into you. Ye are such as the devil particularly may swallow down."
What the New Testament says about sobriety
The Greek word sophron is used fifteen times in the New Testament. It literally means "safe mind". It refers to someone who is rational, in the sense of being intellectually sound. It is commonly connected with the idea of physical abstinence, as in the proverb "a sound mind in a sound body." In classical Greek writings, Aristotle wrote, "By abstaining from pleasures we become sober [sophrones]." He also stated, "He who abstains from physical pleasure, and in this very thing takes delight, is sober [sophron]." The Jewish philosopher Philo defined the opposite of sophrosune, as aphrosune -- a person who "inflamed by wine drowns his whole life in ceaseless and unending drunkenness."
Let us apply these definitions to the Scriptures. In I Timothy 3:2 and in Titus 2:2 the terms "temperate" [nephalion] and "prudent" or "sensible" [sophrona] are joined together. Of these verses, Adam Clarke said, "He must be vigilant, nephaleos, from ne, not, and pino, to drink. Watchful; for as one who drinks is apt to sleep, so he who abstains from it is more likely to keep awake, and attend to his work and charge." Albert Barnes stated, "This word (nephalios) occurs only here and in verse 11; Titus 2:2. It means, properly, sober, temperate, abstinent, especially in respect to wine; then, sober-minded, watchful, circumspect."
Another passage is I Peter 4:3, 7, "For the time already past is sufficient for you to have carried out the desire of the Gentiles, having pursued a course of sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousing, drinking parties and abominable idolatries. ... The end of all things is near; therefore, be of sound judgment and sober spirit for the purpose of prayer." Sensuality or lasciviousness is a desire for sin so strong that you don't care what other people (or God) think about your sin. Lust is a desire for what is forbidden. Drunkenness is literally translated "excess of wine." In other words, a down-and-out drunk or an alcoholic. This word was used to describe Alexander the Great's drinking bout that eventually lead to his death. Reveling or carousals are people who are intoxicated, but not dead drunk. It refers to partying with heavy drinking accompanying it -- as typically associated with fraternity parties or the Mardi Gras. Drinking parties or banqueting are social gatherings where light drinking takes place. It is a cocktail party, or "having a few drinks with the boys," or what we commonly call social drinking. Notice that all levels of drinking alcohol are condemned! Peter ends with an admonition to be sound in mind and abstinent in body so we may be able to pray. Similar warnings are also found in Galatians 5:19-21 and Romans 13:12-14.
On not being addicted to wine
Some object to a literal translation of nephalios as abstinent because they see it contradicting Paul's later enjoinder for a bishop not to be a drunkard in I Timothy 3:3 and Titus 1:7. They assume that by saying "not a drunkard," Paul is allowing the moderate use of wine, so long as it is not in excess. Actually, the literal translation of "not a drunkard" is "not near wine." Lees and Burns state, "The ancient paroinos was a man accustomed to attend drinking parties, and, as a consequence, to become intimately associated with strong drink." This definition fits well with I Corinthians 5:11, "But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler -- not even to eat with such a one." Albert Barnes stated, "The Greek word (paroinos) occurs in the New Testament only here [I Timothy 3:3] and in Titus 1:7. It means, properly, by wine; that is spoken of what takes place by or over wine, as revelry, drinking-songs, etc. Then it denotes, as it does here, one who sits by wine; that is, who is in the habit of drinking it ... It means that one who is in the habit of drinking wine, or who is accustomed to sit with those who indulge in it, should not be admitted to the ministry. The way in which the apostle mentions the subject here would lead us fairly to suppose that he did not mean to commend its use in any sense; that he regarded it as dangerous and that he would wish the ministers of religion to avoid it all together."
In the qualifications for deacons in I Timothy 3:8, the phrase is "not given to much wine" in the New King James Version. In Greek, it is me oino pollo prosechontas. "Given" is too mild of a translation for prosechontas. The word means: paying attention, giving heed to, guarding, watching, devoting oneself to, or attached to. Being addicted to much wine, as it is translated in the New American Standard Bible, or indulging in much wine, as translated in the New International Version, better captures the meaning. A deacon is not to be a man whom alcohol plays a dominant role in his life.
Obviously, the case for drinking cannot be made from the New Testament. Instead of supporting light, social drinking, the Scriptures give clear warning against the casual use of intoxicants. The words eliminate the use of alcohol for casual drinks and they are broad enough to warn Christians against any drug that inhibits our mental capabilities.