Wine and alcoholic beverages in the ancient world (1 Peter 4)

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Wine, the most widely used fermented drink in the ancient world, was present at religious rituals, in festive celebrations and in everyday life in Mediterranean culture. It was, in fact, celebrated in pagan culture. Libations of wine were commonly poured out to gods, and deities such as Dionysus (the god of wine) had many followers. Even in Israel, however, wine was used in religious rituals (Numbers 15:7), and viticulture (the cultivation of grapes for wine making) continues to be a significant agricultural industry for the modern nation of Israel.

Then as now, there were many varieties of wine, including red, white and mixed wines. The Old Testament employs a number of words for different kinds of wine. Precise translations for the Hebrew words are elusive since we do not know exactly how they differ from each other, but translators regularly use terms such as “wine”, “new wine”, “spiced wine” and “sweet wine”. Passages such as Hosea 4:11 make clear that these wines were alcoholic and intoxicating; there is no basis for suggesting that either the Greek or the Hebrew terms for wine refer to unfermented grape juice.

The production of wine, of course, required vineyards. Watchtowers were constructed to protect the vines (Isaiah 5:1-2, Mark 12:1); of particular concern were foxes, who were prone to eat the grapes (Song of Solomon 2:15). In the Greek world boys would hunt foxes to keep them from the vineyards. After the grapes had been harvested, the must (grape juice for fermenting) would be produced by treading out the grapes in a vat. The must would be strained and the fermentation process begun. The mixed wines were created by combining the fermented juice of the grape with other elements, including other wines, spices, honey or strong drink created from other fruits or grains. Wine diluted with water was obviously considered to be of inferior quality (Isaiah 1:22), although the Greeks, considering the drinking of pure wine to be an excess, routinely diluted their wine. Mixed wines served in a number of applications: Wine mixed with barley made good vinegar and, when blended with myrrh, served as an anesthetic. This last type was offered to Jesus on the cross (Mark 15:23).

Priests were not to drink wine while ministering at the sanctuary (Leviticus 10:9), and ordinary people were to avoid wine and grape products in any form while under the restrictions of a Nazirite vow (Numbers 6:4). Other than these few exceptions, however, Biblical references make it clear that wine was a common, everyday part of a regular diet (Genesis 14:18, 1 Samuel 16:20). Scripture, however, repeatedly emphasizes moderation and the dangers of excess (Proverbs 20:1, 23:20, Isaiah 5:11). See also Food and agriculture under Ruth 2.


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