Should Christians Drink Intoxicating Beverages? Compare the Production


Read the series.

Christians need to understand the differences in the production and consumption of intoxicating beverages in Bible times compared to modern times. This difference is a significant concern that needs to be addressed as we ponder Christians and social drinking.

Christians need to understand the differences in the production and consumption of intoxicating beverages in Bible times compared to modern times. This difference is a significant concern that needs to be addressed as we ponder Christians and social drinking.

Before we get into this, let’s do a quick recap of the first two articles in the series. Drunkenness is not an option for a follower of Jesus. This is quite plain in Scripture (see Part 1). This being understood, the question remains as to whether drinking with moderation is acceptable for a Christian. Arguments in favor of social drinking have already been discussed (see Part 2). It would be most helpful to read these two articles before continuing here.

Now we need to consider the differences in the production and consumption of intoxicating beverages in ancient times compared to today. It seems that not many Christians are aware of these differences. If they are true, these distinctions effect the discussion significantly.

Drinking Wine in Biblical Times

Wine in the Bible was alcoholic; it was fermented grape juice. Those that drank wine in Bible times could get drunk from the wine (and examples in Scripture are easy to find). However, there is a significant difference between the wine that used then and what is made in factories and distilleries today.

In ancient Bible times, water was scarce. Water that was available was often contaminated and unclean. Fermented wine was used to purify and keep the water for extended periods of time. People did not have many beverage choices like we do today.

What it took to get drunk

People did not have an abundance of fruit juices, soda, bottled water, fresh milk, or other options available all around them like we do today. Wine that was produced in ancient times was mixed with a lot of water.

When they drank the wine, the alcoholic content was not strong enough for them to become easily drunk by it. To get drunk, a person would have to drink many glasses of it. That is why in Proverbs 23 we are told that drunkards are those that linger over wine:

Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Who has complaining? Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of eyes? Those who tarry long over wine; those who go to try mixed wine. (Prov 23:29-30)

Because of this difference in alcoholic content, Paul could encourage Timothy to drink a little wine as medicine for his stomach without concern for his becoming drunk. However, it’s worth noting that Timothy did not want to drink any wine at all until Paul persuaded him to do so for his health.

No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments. (1 Tim 5:23)

Now we will look at the differences in how alcoholic beverages were made in ancient times versus the present.1

How alcoholic beverages were made in ancient times

In ancient times, there was not yet the technology to distill wine to increase its alcoholic content like there is today. However, they made wine by pressing the grapes with their feet in a stone vat. They collected the grape juice into cisterns, large jars, or leather bottles where the juice fermented on its own over time. In this way the taste also improved as it fermented.

The grape harvest occurred once per year, so they needed to make wine in order to keep the grape juice good over the course of at least a year, until the next harvest. If they did not do this, the grape juice would go bad and the crop would be wasted, as the juice turned to sour vinegar, which is undrinkable.

Furthermore, it was impossible to seal up unfermented fruit juice because it began to ferment starting the very first day it was pressed in the vat. They did not yet have the technology to keep fruit juice from going sour. If they made wine, however, the juice would not be lost, because the alcohol in the wine would preserve the juice, even for many years.

How alcoholic beverages are made in modern times

In modern times many people no longer consider drunkenness a vice or even shameful. Over the course of hundreds of years, the methods and technology for increasing alcoholic content in alcoholic beverages has led to many becoming dependent upon alcohol for happiness. Drunkenness has become a normal part of life.

Today, wine makers are able to alter and select seeds, engineering grapes that have a much higher sugar content than was originally true. The extra sugar results in a much higher alcohol content in the wine because it breaks down, turning into alcohol. Sometimes wine makers even add sugar to the process to encourage higher alcohol content.

Modern, high-tech chemical machines heat and pressurize the beverage, resulting in a much higher alcohol content than would be possible through natural processes. Ethanol is also added to some kinds of alcoholic beverages, and other added gases cause the alcohol to enter the blood stream faster than normal, resulting in quicker inebriation. Modern factories are able to make an enormous volume of alcoholic beverages very quickly, lowering the price of the intoxicating drinks in the market and making the alcohol inexpensive so that buyers can drink to their heart’s content.

Contrasting the beverages of the times

The alcohol we see for sale today is very different from the wine made in ancient times. Those who produce and distribute intoxicating beverages know that intoxicating beverages will sell well and make an easy profit. They know that customers want alcoholic drinks for receptions and parties—people want them for every event. Very few people can drink these beverages in today’s world and not get drunk, at least sometimes.

With these differences in mind, It is no surprise that frequent alcohol abuse has become a huge problem in many societies. For example, as of 2021 in the United States, 29.5 million people ages 12 and older (10.6% in this age group) had “alcohol use disorder” in the previous year. The research also says that approximately 10.5% (7.5 million) of U.S. children ages 17 and younger live with a parent who has alcohol use disorder (See: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism).

When we, as believers in Jesus Christ, read His Word and come across the word “wine,” let us not equate it mentally with modern alcoholic beverages – beer, wine, whiskey, or other liquor. The substances are not the same. Jesus did not turn the water in those pitchers into the kinds of intoxicating beverages that we are so familiar with at the world’s parties in our time. The apostle Paul did not insist that Timothy drink beer, hard liquor, or anything else that you see sold at stores and markets around the world today.

For an accessible and yet well-documented explanation of these differences in production, see Dr. Randy Jaeggli’s book, Christians and Alcohol.2

These differences should give pause

As believers take all of this in, they have to reckon with the reality that what people are drinking in their homes, restaurants, sporting events, backyard barbeques, and bars in today’s world is quite different from what is being described to us in the Scriptures. Jesus, David, Peter, and Jacob were not drinking the same thing. This should give us pause.

If the differences in alcoholic beverages then and now really are significant, it should cause Christians to give greater attention to other arguments from those urging abstinence. In the next article, we will look at other biblical arguments that favor abstinence.


1 Credit goes to Michael Carlyle for his help in concisely laying out this explanation here.

2 This book dives deep into all related Biblical texts, the original languages, and ANE (Ancient Near Eastern) cultural studies that come to bear on this topic in Scripture. He also gives helpful illustrations throughout. Many research sources are cited as well.

Forrest McPhail Bio

Forrest has served as a missionary in Buddhist Cambodia in Southeast Asia since 2000. He presently serves as the Asia/Australia/Oceania regional director for Gospel Fellowship Association missions. He enjoys writing and teaching on missions and the Buddhist worldview. He and his wife, Jennifer, have 4 children.


I've heard this probaby hundreds of times:

Fermented wine was used to purify and keep the water for extended periods of time.

What is the evidence that this was indeed the practice?


What is the evidence that adding fermented wine to water cleanses it?

There are certainly hybrid grapes out there, but it's worth noting that the main classifications of wine--Pinot Noir, Malbec, Blaufraenkisch, etc..--are based on grape varieties that are more or less "landraces", varieties of grapes identified with a particular region, and today's wine industry is tremendously conservative in promoting "old vines" and such. The main innovation in the past two centuries is the use of American rootstock, which does not host an aphid that nearly destroyed the European wine industry in the 1800s. We are not talking about any revolution like we've seen for wheat, rice, or corn in the past century.

To draw a picture, the symptoms described in Proverbs 23 occur at .15-.2% BAC or higher, which for a man my size (210 lbs) means about nine alcoholic drinks or more. In terms of beer, that's close to a gallon, and in terms of wine, that's about two bottles, or about 1.5 quarts. Now if you assume that the wine of the past was far weaker, you'd be assuming that the drinkers somehow had...shall we say....much larger and more capable bladders than men of today.

So the evidence we have suggests that ancient wines were....pretty similar in strength to those of today. Yeast has always died at about 16.5% alcohol, which limits any non-distilled spirit, and vitis vinifera has been a wonderful sugar-producing fruit for millenia. Even if it were weaker, you've got raisin wines like those of Shiraz in Iran (no kidding), that for millenia have gotten quite strong.

So in terms of making alcohol more prevalent and dangerous today, what you've got is differences in the overall amount of food that can be converted to alcohol (and a serious analogy to gluttony, ahem), as well as the process of distillation.

Really, if you want to strike a blow against drunkenness, you can get a bonus strike against gluttony if you eliminate grain subsidies. Most of the really hazardous drinks out there, as well as most cheap beer, is made from our country's huge surplus of corn.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

To draw a picture, the symptoms described in Proverbs 23 occur at .15-.2% BAC or higher, which for a man my size (210 lbs) means about nine alcoholic drinks or more. In terms of beer, that's close to a gallon, and in terms of wine, that's about two bottles, or about 1.5 quarts.

I think these are off. I’ll try to check these, but these amounts of wine are way too much.

Here's a link that includes the chart I'm referring to. Typical glass of wine is a bit more than 5 ounces, so .17 = ~ 9 drinks ~45 ounces, typical bottle of wine is .75l ~25.4 ounces, 1.8 bottles ~ 1.5 quarts. And here's a link that describes the effects vs. BAC. For distilled spirits, getting to the Proverbs 23 level still requires 13-14 ounces, or over half a fifth. For the legal limit to drive, divide those numbers in two. Still a hefty amount of liquor, and what it means to me is that even a small person can have a drink without risking getting drunk.

Long and short of it is that by and large, drunkenness does not "sneak up" on a person, but rather the sheer volumes required make it a choice. Another point of reference; to get that drunk (.17% or so) also requires about half your daily calories, which is why Dostoevsky noted "the drunk does not eat" in one of his short stories.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

I’ve never read a camping book or hunting book that said bring along a bottle of wine so you can purify the water. Also never read it in ancient literature. If anyone knows of such documentation, I’d love to know it.

They knew the basics about clean water in ancient times and it was available. Imagine if you drank alcoholic wine 24 hours a day because there was nothing else for you to drink. There likely would have been constant drunkenness.

For more:

Clean Drinking Water & Wine in Bible Times

And, they had multiple ways of making non-alcoholic wine available throughout the year.

David R. Brumbelow

Here's an article on how alcohol can kill bacteria. More or less, it dissolves the cell membranes in the same way rum emulsifies butter in hot buttered rum. This is also why hand sanitizers use alcohol.

Probably three effects here. First, as wine/beer is drunk, its contact with pathogens in the mouth/digestive tract disables or kills them, and second, the brewing process for beer is at 170F, well above the temperature at which almost all bacteria are destroyed--the one exception I can think of is some bacteria that live in Yellowstone's geysers, and those are not pathogens. Finally, the alcohol in the barrel/cask prevents bacteria from colonizing it.

Regarding "I've never seen a camping book that told me to take alcohol along", it's worth noting that settlers on the Oregon Trail typically brought along a few gallons of whiskey for exactly this purpose, and the presence of Greek style amphorae is almost a better indication of Greek influence than temples. Really, until the 20th century, armies the world around traveled with a fair amount of liquor as not only a comfort, but a disinfectant.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

There is ancient writing on watering down wine, for a whole slew of reasons. But that should not be stretched to the point that all wine was always watered down, because that was clearly not the case in ancient writing. I think the author is stretching to try to develop a point that he holds to. I do not advocate drinking, but that is a personal choice. I hate seeing silly arguments created for it. When I was younger we were taught ancient wine was not fermented. That has obviously been shown not to be the case. The latest trend is to try the watered down argument. But again, it is weak. Alcohol was abused in ancient times and it is abused today. Alcohol was consumed in moderation in ancient times and there are plent of Christian and non-Christians who consumer alcohol in moderation today. If it was all about the % or technique, the Bible would discuss that. It is about how to treat alcohol, period. Just like anything else, it should not consume, control and fill you.

"the watered down argument ... is weak"

For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, that flow out of valleys and hills. -Deuteronomy 8:7 NKJV

Many modern writers say ancients used wine to purify bad water. But it seems the ancients never said that.

Look up, “Does wine purify bad water.” It seems you would have to have a higher alcohol content than what the ancients possessed (they had not discovered distilling alcohol). And it would apparently defeat the purpose of hydrating your body, since alcohol is a diuretic.

They mixed wine with water for a number of reasons (but not to fix bad water):

They could then drink more; to rehydrate thick wine; it was easier / lighter to transport if it was concentrated, you just added water when ready to drink it; etc.

Aristotle spoke of a wine so thick you had to scrape it from the wineskin.

Ancients also added salt and/or seawater to wine. One ancient writer said almost all wine of Italy had salt in it. Check out lactic fermentation, a way to preserve food and drink with little or no alcohol.

See “Food in the Ancient World From A to Z" by Andrew Dalby. Author is a historian and linguist.

A pro-drinking secular authority said, “Concentrating grape juice down by heating is still used to make the popular shireh of modern Iran and was known to the ancient peoples of Mesopotamia as well as the Greeks and Romans. It enables fruit to be preserved, and, diluted with water, it produces a refreshing, nonalcoholic beverage.” -Ancient Wine: The Search For The Origins of Viniculture, Princeton University Press.

Also, you can buy Pekmez today, a concentrated, non-alcoholic wine / grape juice. Also called grape molasses.

David R. Brumbelow

The only Biblical reference I'm aware of that clearly references watered down wine is Isaiah 1:22, which speaks of it as if it were a disgrace and a curse. You have other cases where the wine is being mixed, like Isaiah 5:22-3 and John 2 (the master of the feast is likely getting ready to mix the wine because he believes it'll be inferior),but it's not clear what it's being mixed with.

I suspect that a good portion of what is going on is that previous commentators, wed to the prohibitionist mindset in the mid to late 1800s, could not quite bring themselves to ignore all those vineyards being planted and tended (and used as a picture of God's care of His Church no less!), so the compromise was to assume that the wine was watered down.

More or less, the exegetical techniques known to the world as "wishful thinking" and "well, they must have been like us, no?".

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

The impression I got from them was that as an ordinary daily beverage, wine was diluted in polite society. From my recollection, this was always the case. Of course, some would drink it undiluted, especially if they wanted to get drunk. That doesn't impeach the notion that the general expectation was to drink it diluted.

My impression of the dilution was not so much to purify the water but to extend the supply (and minimize the risk of negative effects). Wine (or other beverages) were limited by the quantity of grapes you could grow and so on. Diluting it stretched your supply. I suppose there might be other reasons for this as well, but it was one reason.

In any case, rather than repeating talking points, if Christians really want to get an understanding of the topic, I recommend going to your local library and getting some of the books on the history of alcohol production and consumption. I recommend secular authors because they have on axe to grind, they are usually pro alcohol, so they aren't going to make arguments that are so slanted towards abstinence that they distort the facts. Unfortunately, some Christian writers, though well-intended, have at least distorted the facts by overstating some things and making leaps of logic, etc, to establish their views.

I am for total abstinence for a variety of reasons, to be clear (in case someone reading doesn't know my views). I do think that we can make a case for abstinence without distorting or misunderstanding the history.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

For me, the limit about one glass. And I usually drink about 1/3rd of a glass of wine when I do. If I feel the effects, then I'm done.

According to the chart from Forbes, for a 240lb male like me, three drinks (5oz x 3 = 15oz = 444ml = 60% of one bottle) would put me into the "DRIVING SKILLS SIGNIFICANTLY AFFECTED" range, though still under the legal limit. So according to that, my personal standard is quite a bit below.

Still, and this was my point, SharperIron moderate drinkers are going to be drawing a line at or before "DRIVING SKILLS SIGNIFICANTLY AFFECTED" (.04) not "LEGALLY INTOXICATED" (above 0.8). And what it takes to get 0.4 is 2-3 glasses of wine, depending on sex, weight, etc.

I recently got a Coravin which is great. With that, I can drink a bottle slowly over 3 weeks.

Regarding secular sources on watering down wine, the best I've found is a suggestion that rabbis in Israel generally eschewed that, but later on, hellenized Jewish rabbis in the diaspora (affected by Greek culture) started to argue that it was more cultured (i.e. more "Greek") to water it down. So my take is that when we're talking about the Gospels, we're definitely talking straight wine, and when we're talking about the epistles, it may be mixed, depending on whether Jews or Gentiles are the primary recipients of the epistles.

Dan's got a great point regarding dosage, because one does start to "feel" the alcohol long before one gets to the legal limit of 0.08, let alone the typical level people are at when arrested for DUI of 0.17--yes, interesting to me that it's about what Proverbs 23 is writing about.

It's also worth noting that since alcohol is absorbed very quickly into the bloodstream, the only way it can "sneak up" on you is if you're guzzling it. Which is a dumb behavior even if you're drinking soft drinks, really--just look at the calories in a Super Big Gulp of Mountain Dew.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Alan D. Butcher, Ale & Beer: A Curious History (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1989).

Alan D. Butcher, (1989). “Even the Romans added unlikely things to their wine, perhaps for variety, or to give a different flavour as we do with spirits in cocktails, or to dilute its strength; some classical wines could be cut as much as twenty to one with water and still be drinkable, a commentary on the harshness of Greek and Roman wines.” p. 28

Hugh Johnson, Vintage: The Story of Wine (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989).

Hugh Johnson, (1989). “The Greeks did mix their wines - and in fact they rarely drink them straight. It was normal to add at least water (usually seawater), and the more formal the occasion and elaborate the food, the more spices and aromatics were added to the wine.” p. 44

Hugh Johnson, (1989). “The Greeks loved their wine and rhapsodized over it, but reading them does not leave the impression that they were hard drinkers. Water in the wine had two obvious purposes: it stretched the supply of a commodity which may have been too expensive for some citizens, and it meant you could go on drinking longer. Their word ‘symposium’ means nothing more or less than ‘drinking together’.” p. 44

Hugh Johnson, (1989). “The taste of the Augustan age (Augustus reigned from 27BC to AD14) was for wine that was sweet and strong, and very often cooked in much the same way as madeira is today. Usually it was drunk diluted with warm water - even with seawater. Madeira and water, whether cold, warm or sea, is not exactly to your taste or mine. And yet there is no doubting the Romans’ discrimination between one kind and another, or the technical refinement they put into making their best wines.” p. 62

Hugh Johnson, (1989). “The ‘plebs’, the lower classes, and the army often had to make do with less than wine; either with posca, which was vinegar mixed with water, or lorca, the thin and feeble brew made by soaking the pressed skins and stalks in water and fermenting the result. French peasants had to make do with the same until the last century - ‘piquette’ they called it. The soldiers who crucified Christ gave him a sponge full of their vinegar ration.” p. 71

Hugh Johnson, (1989). “The first account of the actual Christian practice after St Paul was written by St Justin to the far-from-sympathetic Emperor Marcus Aurelius in about 150 ... ‘at the end [of the gathering]’, he wrote, ‘prayers being finished, bread, wine and water are brought; the person presiding prays and gives thanks as well as he is able.’ The water and wine were mixed by deacons in a way that recalled certain Jewish rituals.” p. 80

Jancis Robinson, ed., The Oxford Companion to Wine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).

Jancis Robinson, ed., (1994). “The simplest and most obvious form of adulterating wine is to add water. This is not necessarily fraudulent. In Ancient Greece, for example, no civilized man would dream of drinking undiluted wine.” p. 5

Jancis Robinson, ed., (1994). “Traditionally societies have wanted to drink wine because it tastes good, with or without food, and is sometimes used to cook food. It was popular not least because of the dangers associated with drinking unclean water.” p. 324

Jancis Robinson, ed., (1994). “The real issues [in Roman culture] were how and when you drank. First and foremost mixing wine with water was an essential mark of civilized behaviour. Only barbarians, Scythians, and Germans drank wine neat. Unmixed wine was supposed to have a deleterious effect on both physical and mental health. Even a half and half mix of wine and water was considered a heady brew.” p. 347

Jancis Robinson, ed., (1994). “Wine was almost always drunk diluted with water: the ratio varied, normally ranging between 2:3 and 1:3, which would give a range in alcoholic strength of about three to eight per cent (roughly the same as British draft beer). Weaker mixtures are disparaged in comedy (and even 1:3 called for a good wine), but 1:1 was considered by some dangerous to the health, and the regular drinking of unmixed wine, a habit confined to barbarians, was believed by some Spartans to have caused the insanity and death of their King Cleomenes.” p. 467

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Actually, Don, I'd argue you agree--the Greeks and Romans diluted their wine, which your sources prove, and some of mine suggest that the Hebrews did not. There were probably some Jews in Israel who would do things the "Greek" way, but keep in mind that the Jews of Israel had fought the brutal Maccabean wars not that long ago precisely because of Greek customs being brought into Judea. I therefore believe that not that many would follow them, just out of association.

It's also worth noting that the Greeks and Romans watered things down in order to drink immense quantities of liquor, so to argue that somehow it makes drunkenness less likely is to ignore this reality. We can even see this today, because the "sweet spot" for drinks to get one drunk quick--alcopops and mixed drinks--is about 5-15% alcohol, heavily sugared, etc.. A really scary thing I saw recently was an "alcopop" with 12% alcohol in a 12 ounce can--the can suggesting to most Americans "I should drink this in one sitting." Irritating to Dan or I, possibly dangerous to women half our weight.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.