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Monday, 20 February 2006

What is wine?

I got my first taste of wine as a teenager.
No, it wasn't some furtive assertion of adolescent independence. Actually, it was all a mistake. I was on a transoceanic flight and somehow got bumped up to first class, where the menu choices were awkward enough without my trying to figure out how to forgo the small bottle of complimentary wine. I poured the little shot glass full, but couldn't manage to drink it down. The stuff simply tasted awful.

I came closest to developing taste for wine while a sailor in the US Navy.
No, it wasn't at the Enlisted Club. Or in some seedy seaside dive while on liberty.
It was at an ecumenical Communion Service on board the USS J___, where the chaplain dipped each wafer in a cup of wine before administering it to the communicant. It was my first time to partake of alcohol liturgically, but it was not to be the last.
In 1991, the Central Command hosted a theater-wide Passover Seder service for all branches of the military. In preparation for participating in it, I attended Sabbath services at a neighboring ship the week before.

It was a rather odd service. There was myself, a gentile of the evangelical persuasion. My host, who up until that moment had successfully shielded his Jewish identity from me and everyone else on board the J___. A Black Jew with a taste for fine cappuccino, but totally at home with the ritual. A White Jew even more devoid of pigmentation then I, who showed only a casual familiarity with the proceedings. The chaplain's gentile guest, who was obviously just there for the cross-cultural experience. And the chaplain himself, who was a rather enigmatic character. At the beginning of the service, he produced the obligatory bottle of wine, commenting, "Oh good, we still have some of the Megen David left. I guess that means we won't have to break out the Blue Nun." It was my second liturgical taste of wine, this time without the accompanying cracker. I decided I could handle doing this at least once a year.

The following week I attended both nights of Seder with my newly-disclosed Jewish friend. We were the only ones there from the J___. At our table were three other men and a woman. One was a legal officer who normally worked at the White House but had been called up from the reserves. The others were all Army enlisted, just in from "the sandbox". One of these was very much looking forward to the portion of the ceremony that involved drinking one cup of wine after another. He made some comment that since this was Kosher wine, it was OK.

I wondered about that. There was even a notation on the Seder program that during the Passover season, only Kosher wine could be consumed, as all other was Chametz for Passover. What was it about a wine, I wondered, which could possibly render Kosher for Passover something that was obviously fermented? I didn't get an answer, but I determined then and there that if I was ever going to drink wine, it would be Kosher. But I still wondered what it was about Kosher wine that made it OK. Especially when the officer, who evidently was somewhat of a wine connoisseur, decided to imbibe from a different bottle on the table than that which he had been using, and just about choked on it. "That tasted like five miles of bad road! he gasped. I checked the label. Nothing about roads, but it did bear the seal of the Rabbinical Union. I tasted it. Like everything else I had been drinking that evening, it tasted basically like watered-down grape juice spiked with unflavored cough syrup. I was able to get it down all right, but I just couldn't get used to the stuff. It made me appreciate the nonalcoholic policy of the churches at which I partook of communion.

Well, what about communion wine--should it--or could it--contain alcohol? There were people who argued either way. Some arguments seemed rather specious, as those that allowed leaven in the bread but no alcohol in the cup. These made no more sense then those that forbade leaven in the bread but allowed it in the cup. It seemed to me that the symbolism required that both be equally free of corruption.

About five years ago I came across the idea that every positive mention of "wine" in the Bible refers to grape juice, while every negative mention is of an alcoholic beverage. That seemed a rather specious argument too, until I read Wine in the Bible by Samuel Bacchiocchi. In thoroughly scientific study of the Greek word oinos, Bacchiocchi minutely examines and gently demolishes "the arguments that are commonly used to prove that our Savior made, commended, used and commanded the use of alcoholic wine until the end of time. We have found these claims to rest on unfounded assumptions, devoid of textual, contextual and historical support."

While the reader may not agree with Dr. Bacchiocchi's conclusion that the Bible commands, Jesus practiced, and the apostles taught total abstinence, he will probably have to admit that Dr. Bacchiocchi presents a consistent hermeneutic of the five Biblical accounts (contained in nine passages) commonly cited to prove otherwise.

Interestingly enough, virtually all of these accounts (as is the case with the doctrine of prayer and fasting) are replete with textual problems. Just look at the variants for one passage in Luke--in an average of one place in each verse, the Westcott-Hort and/or Nestle-Aland text differs from the text found in an overwhelming majority of all Greek manuscripts. In all but one of these variants, it changes or diminishes the text.

Luke 5:33. Omit "Why do" after "said unto him" and render as a statement.
Luke 5:34. Add "Jesus" and render 'Jesus said'.
Luke 5:36. Read "No man rendeth a piece from a new garment and putteth it upon an old garment; else he will rend the new, and also the piece from the new will not agree with the old".
Luke 5:38. Omit "and both are preserved" at end of verse.
Luke 5:39. Omit "also" after "No man".
Luke 5:39. Omit "straightway" before "desireth new".
Luke 5:39. Read "The old is good" instead of "The old is better".

And look at all the changes in just a single verse of the parallel passage in Mark:

Mark 2:22. Omit "new" before "wine doth burst".
Mark 2:22. Read "will burst" instead of "doth burst".
Mark 2:22. Read "the wine perisheth, and [also] the bottles" instead of "the wine is spilled, and the bottles will be marred".
Mark 2:22. Omit "but new wine must be put into new bottles" at end of verse. [margin]
Mark 2:22. Omit "must be put" before "into new bottles".

As with The Effectiveness of Prayer & Fasting, it is impossible to develop a doctrine of Alcohol in the New Testament without making reference to any textually disputed passage. Take them all away, and you have no context for your doctrine.

Dr. Bacchiocchi also addresses most of the Old Testament passages that refer to wine, showing that in no case is an alcoholic beverage specified, except when its consumption is expressly discouraged. His otherwise excellent case is severely flawed by omitting any mention of Deuteronomy 14:26. Now if only he could do a scientific study of the Hebraism word shakar, he could complete his doctrine of Alcohol in the Bible.

Aside from the lack of a tidy wrap to his study, Dr. Bacchiocchi does provide the Bible Translator with some very useful information, without which any translation is going to be deficient. Just looking at a few of the modern versions of the English Bible, I see that they use "wine" and "(strong) drink" so interchangeably as to eliminate any possible linguistic distinction between alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. To its credit, the 1977 NASB is slightly more consistent even than the KJV in translating sakar as 'strong drink' in Numbers 28:7--another verse that Dr. Bacchiocchi really needs to find room for in his doctrine. But those who are translating only the New Testament could, following his lead, legitimately translate all positive references to oinos with the meaning of 'grape juice' and virtually all negative ones with that of 'alcoholic beverage.'

The only exception is in Acts 2:13, where 'sweet wine' is specifically mentioned. This verse had served to really puzzle me until I read Dr. Bacchiocchi's explanation.
He says that it shows that the disciples had a reputation as tetotallers, drinking only wine that was freshly squeezed from the vine and thus had no chance of causing intoxication. Their unusual behavior caused adversaries to scoff that these disciples were crazy enough to even appear drunk on nothing but fresh grape juice.
I think that explanation is at least as plausible as any other I've seen, and fits well into his overall theory.

I see that although I'm done, I haven't really answered the question posed by the title. For that I refer you to relevant chapters of the book, which can be read at
his website.

1 comment:

  1. The link to the book is bad. Try


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