When the Guests are Drunk?

by Terry Wane Benton

Does John 2:10 say and mean “when the guests are drunk” as the NET so renders, or does the verse have a different connotation? My Interlinear renders this “have well drunk,” which is a far different meaning than “are drunk.” The interlinear rendering means only that they had a lot of this drink, with no implication of their state of inebriation or intoxication. The NET rendering speaks to their condition as being in a state of drunkenness. So, it seems that scholars are not united and in agreement about the meaning of this term in this context. The majority seem to think that the best rendering is “have well drunk” (no implication about the state of drunkenness), but as you can see in the following list, there are those others that favor the idea of being in a state of drunkenness.

John 2:10

  • when the guests have well drunk, NKJV
  • after the guests have had too much to drink; NIV
  • have drunk freely NASU
  • when men have well drunk, KJV
  • when people have drunk freely, AMP
  • when men have drunk freely, NASB
  • after the guests have become drunk. NRSV
  • when people have drunk freely, ESV

While the word itself does not seem to settle the matter of whether the text demands one view over the other, it should be observed that Jesus did not condone drunkenness. Since drunkenness is a work of the flesh, a sin that separates from God (I Corinthians 6:8-9; Galatians 5:19f), and Christians are to have “no fellowship” with the unfruitful works of darkness (Ephesians 5:11,18) it does not seem reasonable that Jesus would be helping drunk people and providing them with more alcohol at a wedding feast. That would surely be the perfect man having fellowship with drunken people and helping the drunk people to have even more to drink while telling His disciples to have no fellowship with such things as drunkenness. That does not seem likely at all. That position would lay sin on Jesus and make Him unfit to be a sin-offering for us. The text and the words employed here do not demand that Jesus helped drunk people get even more drunk. There is no proof that anyone was drunk at all, and there is no proof that Jesus approved of the social drinking of alcohol and even helped drunk people get even more drunk.

The rendering of the NIV, “after the guests have had too much to drink,” seems to imply a state of drunkenness has already been reached, and it seems to imply that the host expects the guests to get inebriated. Is it true that wedding feasts were gatherings where the host expected guests to get drunk? Christians were discouraged from “drinking parties”(I Peter 4:3). If wedding feasts were expected to be drinking parties, then Jesus came expecting to condone and facilitate a “drinking party” and then later send the Holy Spirit to guide the disciples away from drinking parties. That does not seem likely. Thus, the NIV rendering was a very poor choice.

The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) renders the Greek words as “after the guests have become drunk,” and this also suggests that the host expected the guests to get drunk, thus again, this would be a "drinking party” where drunkenness is the expected and encouraged state of those coming to a wedding feast. How can the same Jesus who demands no drunkenness, soberness, and no drinking parties come to this drinking party and provide more for drunken guests to drink? Is this idea demanded by the text and context? Were wedding feasts usually drinking parties that Peter by the Holy Spirit connects to sin? I think we can safely say that Jesus did not facilitate and fellowship drunkenness and the drinking party that is later rejected by the Spirit (I Peter 4:3).

With that in mind, the rendering “when people have drunk freely” (ESV, AMP, NKJV, etc.), seems more likely to be the correct rendering. It does not demand a drinking party that facilitates drunkenness. It does not demand that wedding feasts were expected to be drinking parties that planned for drunkenness. It does not demand that “having well drunk” implies anything regarding lack of sobriety on any level. This rendering simply means that the guests had a large quantity of a beverage that was of an inferior quality to the superior quality Jesus miraculously produced. They had plenty of (had well drunk) the inferior quality wine and were still sober enough to judge the superior quality of what Jesus produced by the miracle of water to wine. So, that alone would place the words in favor of “had well drunk” (had plenty of) rather than were well into an inebriated condition. Wedding feasts were not generally and always, if ever, “drinking parties” that Christians were instructed to have no fellowship with.

W.D. Jeffcoat, in “The Bible and Social Drinking” (in-Depth Research of a Universal Problem), after discussing each term used for “wine” and associated terms in the Bible, came to this conclusion:

“After having examined at length the terms which represent wine in the Bible, it has been proved that the assumption that the term always designates that which is alcoholic in nature is false.” (p. 40).

So, the terms used in John 2 do not demand alcohol was served at this wedding feast, nor demand that Jesus made a better quality of alcohol for the already drunken guests. In fact, when we consider the custom of freshly pressed grapes as the wine of choice, it tends to suggest that Jesus was not serving up more alcohol, but the preferred sweet and unfermented wine we call “grape juice” today.

The host at the Cana wedding feast observed that the best wine, which was usually nonalcoholic sweet grape juice, was usually served first, and then afterward a lower quality would be served, but that as he tasted Jesus’ miraculous wine, he thought it was even better than the first served nonalcoholic sweet grape juice. We conclude that no alcohol was served at any point. Good quality wine was served and “well drunk” (drank in plentiful proportion) and all were fully sober enough to rightly judge the superior quality of Jesus’ miraculous wine. “Well drunk” cannot mean they got very drunk, but that they had drunk plentifully from this non-intoxicating beverage and retained their full senses to determine that the high quality of delicious wine they had well drunk was surprisingly still yet inferior to this wine that Jesus provided. Jeffcoat further concluded:

“It has been established beyond fair contradiction that it was a very common thing to preserve wine in an unfermented state in antiquity, and that when thus preserved, it was regarded as of a higher and better quality than any other….. Pliny, Plutarch, and Horace, each mention the best wine was that which was harmless or innocent. Pliny indicated that good wine was that which was destitute of spirit. The phrase, therefore, does not mean that it was stronger.” …. In fact, according to various Roman Classical writers, their best wines were not fermented.”(p. 55-56).

Jesus did not attend a drinking party where the guests were drunk and then helped them further with more alcoholic wine. We can put that notion to rest!

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