2014 May Update: More than 3 million people died from consuming alcohol in 2012, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), who are calling on governments around the world to do more to reduce harmful drinking. Drinking kills more men than women and raises the risk of developing more than 200 diseases.

The Christian and Alcohol
by Santo Calarco

Even some Christians maintain that “drinking in moderation”is not harmful, and that abstinence is not a Biblical principle.

Alcohol claims more lives each year in Australia than natural deaths. Authorities claim that one in every 10 persons in Australia is a potential alcoholic. In other words, 10 per cent of Australians, due partly to their genetic make-up, can become alcoholics merely by taking the first drink.

Nevertheless, some Christians maintain that “drinking in moderation” is not harmful, and that abstinence is not a Biblical principle. Is this really so?

In Old and New Testament times, natural fermentation never exceeded 14 per cent alcohol content. But with the introduction of distilleries, alcoholic content increased dramatically, with the result that modern cocktails can contain up to 60 per cent pure alcohol.

This shows that Biblical and modern definitions of “wine” are not necessarily the same.1 Most modern alcoholic drinks would fit into the category the Bible calls “strong drink,” consumption of which is condemned in Scripture.

Nevertheless, confusion arises among Christians--perhaps because throughout the Bible references to wine are in terms of both appreciation and condemnation (Psalm 104:14, 15; Proverbs 20:1).

The King James Version translates 13 Greek and Hebrew words into the English word “wine.” This can be misleading, for the differing words have various shades of meaning in the original languages.

The word for wine that occurs most frequently in Scripture is the Hebrew word yayin. It occurs 141 times in the Old Testament. As the English word “fruit” is an umbrella term combining all the different kinds of fruit available, so yayin denotes all the different kinds of wines, both intoxicating and non-intoxicating. Context is the only way to tell which meaning the word has.

In Proverbs 23:31 Solomon uses the word yayin. The remainder of the next two verses make it obvious that the term refers to intoxicating wine, because they describe a “hangover.” And note that Solomon’s advice is, “Do not look on the wine” (verse 31).2 However, yayin can also denote non-intoxicating drinks. Jeremiah 40:10, 12 (NIV) states: “And they harvested an abundance of wine and summer fruit.” The obvious meaning of yayin here is grapes, for grapes, not drink, are harvested. So yayin can denote the grape and its juice in many states--either intoxicating or non-intoxicating.

So there is no single Greek or Hebrew word that denotes intoxicating drink only. However, when yayin occurs with the Hebrew word shekar, it nearly always refers to intoxicating drink and is condemned. In Leviticus 10:9 the LORD says, “Do not drink wine [yayin] or intoxicating drink [shekar], you, nor your sons with you.” (See also Proverbs 20:1.)

Although the passage applies to the Old Testament priesthood, the New Testament states that every believer is now part of the priesthood of God (1 Peter 2:9; Revelation 1:6).

Although there isn’t a single Hebrew word that denotes intoxicating drink, the Hebrew word tirosh occurs 37 times and is consistently positive.3 The King James Version has generally translated this word “wine,” but more modern translations have rendered it as “new wine” (compare Genesis 27:28 in the KJV and NIV).

An example of tirosh is found in Isaiah 65:8: “Thus says the LORD, ‘As the new wine [Tirosh] is found in the cluster [emphasis supplied], and one says, “Do not destroy it, for a blessing is in it. ...” ’ ”

Notice here that tirosh is found in the cluster, that is, in grapes. Also note that tirosh is called a blessing. (See also Genesis 40:10, 11.)

The Old Testament employs different words for wine because the wines were not all the same, and differing methods were used to make the various wines. There were at least five methods, but the three more popular methods of making the wines were:

  1. After the grapes had been pressed, the juice was placed in jars or skins and sealed, while hot, with oil and pitch. By bringing the grape juice to boiling point, the alcohol content would evaporate, for alcohol is removed at 78.3°C.
  2. Grape juice was simmered beside a fire until it turned into a treacle-like substance. This thick syrup was used as our modern-day sugars. This method also removed any alcoholic content, and the concentrate was returned to drinking consistency by adding water--or on special occasions, milk (see Song of Solomon 5:1; Isaiah 55:1).
  3. After the grape juice had reached its treacle-like consistency, it could be dried further by leaving it near the fire until it reached the consistency of cheese.4 This, too, was dissolved in hot water for drinking, and was non-intoxicating.

Of the approximately 250 references to wine and strong drink in Scripture, 200 of these references are negative. The Bible nowhere condones the use of intoxicating drinks. Where passages mention “wine,” the key to whether it is alcoholic or non-alcoholic is to ascertain the original word used and the context of the passage.

Nevertheless, there are a number of passages that some have employed in attempting to justify consumption of alcohol. In all fairness, we turn our attention to the most popular of these and examine them according to context.

An oft-quoted verse is Mark 2:22. The claim is that Jesus condoned the use of alcoholic drink by use of His parable. The usual explanation of this verse is that new skins were needed to withold the pressure that would be exerted by the fermentation of the grape juice into alcoholic wine. Old wineskins would not have withstood the pressure and would have exploded.

The argument seems attractive--at first glance. But it doesn’t fit the scientific facts. Fermenting wine exerts a pressure of 500 pounds per square inch. No skin could take such pressure, not even new ones!

In Jesus’ day the skins were not used to hold in the pressure of fermentation, but to prevent fermentation and alcoholisation by preventing contact between the wine and the air. If old skins had been used, it was probable that sediment would have been left behind by the old wine, causing fermentation and the resultant explosion. Hence, new skins were required for new wine.

Another oft-cited example is the Last Supper. The argument is that the Passover took place six months after the grapes had been harvested. Therefore the wine must have been fermented and intoxicating.

This argument assumes that there was no knowledge of fermentation prevention. As we have seen, this is not the case. But there are also many other serious flaws in this argument.

First, the words “wine” or “strong drink” do not occur in Matthew, Mark or Luke, when referring to the Last Supper. In fact, the term “fruit of the vine” occurs, which authorities state is the equivalent of the Old Testament tirosh, grape juice (Matthew 26:29; Mark 14:25; Luke 22:18).

Second, the Passover was one of the most sacred Jewish feast days. It began with the Feast of Unleavened Bread. And, as commanded by God, the feast began by the burning of all leaven (including fermented goods) in one’s possession. This symbolised the purging of oneself from sin, for leaven represented sin (see Exodus 12:15; 1 Corinthians 5:6, 7). This argument alone excludes any presence of fermented wines in Jewish homes at Passover time.

Many assume that the wine Jesus created was intoxicating. No real proof is given, however. In fact, the context would indicate the opposite.

The Greek word used for “wine” in the passage is oinos, which is the Septuagint (Greek version of the Hebrew Old Testament) rendition of yayin and tirosh. Hence, it can mean either intoxicating or non-intoxicating wine. So context must be the determining factor.

First, Pliny, a Roman doctor of the first century and an expert on first-century wines, wrote that there were 185 kinds of wine for drinking, and that only falernian could be kindled by a flame--indicating that little or no alcohol was present in the remaining 184 varieties.5 If this is the case, then it was only one chance in 185 that the wine Christ created was intoxicating.

In the first century a special kind of wine was used for the sole purpose of those who suffered from stomach illnesses.

Second, the master of ceremonies of the wedding said that this wine was the “best” wine (John 2:10, NIV). Again, according to Pliny, the “best” wine was that which had the least trace of ferment or mould, and thus would be non-intoxicating.

Third, Jewish weddings, like the Passover, were considered sacred. Thus all leavened and fermented goods were removed from the premises. This, too, excluded the possibility of the wine being alcoholic.

Of course, the most-cited text favouring wine consumption is 1 Timothy 5:23, where Paul exhorts Timothy to “use a little wine for your stomach’s sake and your frequent infirmities” (or illnesses, NKJV margin). Some maintain that this is the clearest evidence that Scripture supports drinking in moderation.

The word oinos is used again, and thus can refer to either classification of wine. Note that Paul said that this wine was for healing illnesses related to the stomach. So it was obviously for medicinal purposes.

Again, Pliny tells us that in the first century a special kind of wine was used for the sole purpose of those who suffered from stomach illnesses (dyspeptics). The recipe was as follows: The juice was strained from the gluten, boiled, and then put into containers, sealed, and kept in a well to prevent any trace of fermentation! So this one, too, was non-intoxicating.

Much more could be said about other arguments in favour of drinking alcohol. But there is something greater at stake than Hebrew and Greek words.

The Bible says that the Holy Spirit dwells in us, and that we are responsible for the way we treat our bodies, His temple (1 Corinthians 6:19, 20; 10:31).

It is a scientific fact that alcohol consumption, even in small quantities, kills brain cells that are never replaced. Alcohol hinders white blood cells in their fight against disease, and causes cirrhosis of the liver.

The New Testament makes it clear that no drunkard will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:10). Inasmuch as one in 10 persons is a potential alcoholic and drunkard, and therefore likely to forfeit eternal life, Christians cannot condone the use of alcohol, even in moderation. We are our “brother’s keeper,” and we are responsible to God for our actions, our teaching and our example.

If only for the sake of the one in 10--but one for whom Jesus died--we must agree with Paul: “Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. ... It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother stumbles.” Romans 14:20, 21.

  1. Collier’s Encyclopedia, “Wine.”
  2. All quotations are from the New King James Version unless otherwise stated.
  3. Hastings Dictionary of the Bible, “Wine.”
  4. Temperance Bible Commentary, pages 436-440.
  5. “Historia Naturalis,” Book 14, by Pliny, cited in Temperance Bible Commentary.

The Christian and Alcohol by Santo Calarco; from Record, Vol 93, No 25, July 2, 1988, pp. 4, 5 (with some minor adjustments).

Companion pages:
The Bible and Booze An Old Testament scholar looks at what the Bible says about drinking alcohol.

We have received a very interesting response to this article from a Jewish brother.

There were quite a few things mentioned.

Firstly, he pointed out that the argument excluding the presence of fermented wine from Jewish homes at passover time is actually wrong as Jewish people do drink alcoholic wine for Passover every Passover. But they do however use a different fermenting agent. He also gave a site link so this could be investigated further.

Secondly, the point about the 'best' wine according to Pliny is not valid as Pliny was a roman and his view of what constituted 'best' was different from the Jewish view.

Thirdly, the view of all leavening and fermented goods being removed from the premises of a Jewish wedding is also wrong. At the end of a Jewish wedding the Bride and Groom actually drink alcoholic wine and break their glasses, saying Mazel tov.

Then followed a long section showing the importance of [alcoholic] wine in the Jewish faith: with respect to marriage, showing the stages of life--first as pure grapejuice, then through the sour stages of fermentation, and finally emerging as a pure and delightful blessing. Alcoholic wine is considered to be of such importance that it is included in the Jewish marriage ceremony.

In fact, alcoholic wine is considered so important to everyday Jewish life that it is even introduced to young children. It is traditional for special cups for alcoholic wine to be given as gifts at weddings and at bar mitzvahs. And they are even given as gifts to babies.

Well this is quite a bit of information and it is just about impossible not to give some response to it.

There are some pretty serious problems brought out in all of this. If this is the general Jewish position on alcohol we can definitely say something about this.

First the academic charge of some inaccuracies in the article with respect to the Jewish faith and traditions.

1. I didn't write the article. The general view on alcohol and the Bible presented is however, I believe not completely unreasonable. Admittedly there are some verses in Scripture that are not clear on total abstinence. And I will add to this below.

2. Our Jewish brother could most likely be correct as he is speaking from a Jewish background. But again this is the Jewish view. And I will say some more on this below.

Now we look at the Bible.
It is very difficult to show from the Bible that no alcohol should be taken in drinks. The following verse is an example:

Then the woman came and told her husband, "A man of God came to me, and his appearance was like that of an angel of God, most awe-inspiring; I did not ask him where he came from, and he did not tell me his name;
but he said to me, 'You shall conceive and bear a son. So then drink no wine or strong drink, and eat nothing unclean, for the boy shall be a nazirite to God from birth to the day of his death.'"
Judges 13:6,7.

This was the advice given to Samson's parents. Because of his special upbringing and because of the responsible position the Lord wanted him to take, his mother was not to have any wine or strong drink. Of course the awkward conclusion to draw from this is that this admonition was not general. That is, other Israelites living in this time most probably did drink wine and it would have been alcoholic. However we need to consider some important points about this.

Can there be any serious consequences to drinking alcoholic drinks?

Now Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his censer, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered unholy fire before the LORD, such as he had not commanded them.
And fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD.
And the LORD spoke to Aaron:
Drink no wine or strong drink, neither you nor your sons, when you enter the tent of meeting, that you may not die; it is a statute forever throughout your generations.
You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean;
and you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the LORD has spoken to them through Moses.
Leviticus 10:1,2,8-11.

Obviously it made a big difference to Nadab and Abihu. They were not able to think clearly and they suffered a very serious consequence. It cost them their lives and maybe even their eternal lives!

And there is also a very strong condemnation on giving your neighbour alcoholic drink!

Woe unto him that giveth his neighbour drink, that puttest thy bottle to him, and makest him drunken also, that thou mayest look on their nakedness!
Habakkuk 2:15 KJV.
Alas for you who make your neighbors drink, pouring out your wrath until they are drunk, in order to gaze on their nakedness!
Habakkuk 2:15.

Clearly this is a bad case taken to drunkenness--but nevertheless from this the safest course of action would be to not give your neighbour any alcoholic drink at all!

Further, though it is clear that some alcohol may have been consumed, the Bible is full of some pretty bad examples of what can happen when this is done!

And Noah began to be a farmer, and he planted a vineyard.
Genesis 9:20 NKJV.
He drank some of the wine and became drunk, and he lay uncovered in his tent.
And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside.
When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him,
he said, "Cursed be Canaan; lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers."
Genesis 9:21,22,24,25.

In this day and age we may smile at this. But maybe not the following...

Now Lot went up out of Zoar and settled in the hills with his two daughters, for he was afraid to stay in Zoar; so he lived in a cave with his two daughters.
And the firstborn said to the younger, "Our father is old, and there is not a man on earth to come in to us after the manner of all the world.
Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, so that we may preserve offspring through our father."
So they made their father drink wine that night; and the firstborn went in, and lay with her father; he did not know when she lay down or when she rose.
Thus both the daughters of Lot became pregnant by their father.
Genesis 19:30-33,36.

And one pretty bad example is Belshazzar's feast:

King Belshazzar made a great festival for a thousand of his lords, and he was drinking wine in the presence of the thousand.
Under the influence of the wine, Belshazzar commanded that they bring in the vessels of gold and silver that his father Nebuchadnezzar had taken out of the temple in Jerusalem, so that the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines might drink from them.
They drank the wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.
Immediately the fingers of a human hand appeared and began writing on the plaster of the wall of the royal palace, next to the lampstand. The king was watching the hand as it wrote.
Then the king's face turned pale, and his thoughts terrified him. His limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together.
This is the interpretation of the matter: MENE, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end;
TEKEL, you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting;
PERES, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians."
That very night Belshazzar, the Chaldean king, was killed.
And Darius the Mede received the kingdom, being about sixty-two years old.
Daniel 5:1,2,4-6,26-28,30,31.

The consumption of alcohol cost him his kingdom, and his life!

But what about the New Testament and the claim that the wine Jesus made from water was alcoholic? This would also be supportive of the view taken in our Jewish brother's response of alcoholic wine being used in Jewish weddings. Was this wine alcoholic? This is a real hot potato and obviously many Christians have some very strong views on this and on both sides of the discussion!

Again, it is hard to show that the wine was not alcoholic from the Bible. But we can consider the words of Jesus Himself:

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
John 10:10,11.

Jesus is the good shepherd. He came that we may have life and have it more abundantly. It has been stated that His first recorded miracle occurred at a wedding to show His blessing of the marriage institution.
But are these thoughts consistent with the following quotations?

28% of all drivers and motorcyclists killed on Victoria's roads over the last year were 0.05 g/100ml or over. ...
You can see that in the span of over twenty years, the numbers of fatalities resulting from drinking and driving have not dropped significantly. ...
The effects of drink driving are devastating for everyone concerned. ...
For example, in Victoria, over 28% of people killed in road fatalities die as a direct result of drinking and driving.

Alcoholism Affects Timing, Survival of Marriages
It goes without saying that alcoholism can have an effect on the divorce rate. There are many studies that show the link between alcohol dependence and marriage break-ups.

More than 3 million people died from consuming alcohol in 2012, the World Health Organisation says.
More than 3 million people died from consuming alcohol in 2012, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), who are calling on governments around the world to do more to reduce harmful drinking.
Drinking kills more men than women and raises the risk of developing more than 200 diseases.
2014 May 13

It is virtually impossible to reconcile these quotations with the thought that Jesus is the good shepherd and that He came to give us life more abundantly if His first recorded miracle was the creation of alcoholic wine!

Where is the abundant life for all of these people killed from alcohol related road accidents? Where are the blessings in the marriages that have been broken by alcohol?

More than 3 million people died from consuming alcohol in 2012, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), who are calling on governments around the world to do more to reduce harmful drinking. 
Drinking kills more men than women and raises the risk of developing more than 200 diseases.
2014 May 13

Yes, many Christians do believe that the wine Jesus made was alcoholic. But I'm sorry, I just can't believe that a loving Saviour would bring something that has caused so much destruction of life and marriage into a wedding. Would Jesus really do this when alcohol has clearly been linked with the break-up of marriages? Or caused so many road deaths?

It is the thief who came to kill and destroy. That's not Jesus!

Our Jewish friends appear to be very comfortable with alcohol. And it sounds like a lot of it. But personally I think they are on very dangerous ground!

And we also need to consider the following words of Jesus:

Then little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them;
but Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs."
If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.
Matthew 19:13,14;18:6.

From what we read before our Jewish friends actually introduce alcohol to little children at an early age: at least vessels which are purely used for alcoholic drinks and nothing else!

We read before about a very clear condemnation from the Old Testament on those who give their neighbour alcoholic drink. But what about your own little children?

There are verses in the Old Testament that seem to be supportive of alcoholic drinks. And it seems to be impossible to avoid the admission of people in the Old Testament indulging in alcoholic drinks of some form, mainly wine.

But when we weigh the cases mentioned of serious problems involving the use of alcohol in the Hebrew Scriptures it just may be that the safest course of action to pursue is the total abstinence of alcohol altogether.

For a people professing to be waiting for the soon appearing of the Messiah it definitely may be the safest course to pursue! When the Messiah does appear the last thing you would want to meet is a clear condemnation of those who have been a stumbling block to little children!

And one last final thought before closing this response...

For those who still want to believe that it is quite safe for Christians to have alcoholic drinks, I challenge you to make a small list of people you can think of who would most likely be still alive if they had never drunk any alcohol. I can think of a few. But I can't think of any who would still be alive if they had drunk.


The article may be slightly inaccurate on Jewish beliefs and traditions.
The Jews consider alcoholic drinks, mainly wine, to be an essential part of Jewish life, from a very early age and on through marriage.

It is difficult to show from the Holy Scriptures total abstinence. It appears that people living in Old Testament times actually did partake of alcoholic drinks. There were also various classes that were forbidden to have strong drink. We did not investigate any New Testament cases in this response section.

However, there are also very clear cases in the Old Testament of people partaking of alcoholic drinks having very serious problems, even to the losing of their lives.

And the Bible is very clear that we should not lead our neighbour in the wrong pathway of alcoholic drinks.

It is difficult or may be impossible to show from the Scriptures that the wine Jesus made at the wedding in Cana was not alcoholic.

However, considering the fact that alcohol has been shown to be dangerous to life and marriage it is extremely unlikely that the wine Jesus made was alcoholic. It would be inconsistent with Jesus being a loving Saviour that he would introduce into a wedding a substance that has shown itself to be destructive of marriage and a destroyer of life.

Though it may be difficult from the Scriptures to show abstinence, given the serious cases of tragedy in the Bible where alcohol has been used, the safest course of action for the Christian to pursue may well be the total abstinance of alcoholic drinks completely.

Unless otherwise stated, all Bible verses in this response section are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Holy Scriptures.

WHO alcohol consumption quote

Companion pages:
The Bible and Booze An Old Testament scholar looks at what the Bible says about drinking alcohol.

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Stephen Buckley
E-mail: stephen@chodesh.info
Last revised: 1 Jun 2014.