Ancient Wine and the Modern Christian [part 2]

Yesterday, I introduced the topic of Christians and wine drinking. Dr. Robert Stein argues that the wine the Bible speaks of was nothing like the wine with which we are familiar today. He cites ancient Greco-Roman sources to show that ancient wine was so watered down that drunkenness was not nearly an issue like it is today (so, we shouldn’t drink today just because it’s ok in the Bible). So I’m examining Stein’s use of his sources to see whether or not he uses them legitimately within the context and intention of the original author.

Wine in Homer’s Odyssey

The first primary source to which Stein comes is the famous Odyssey, by Homer. Remember, the case Stein is attempting to make is that wine was always mixed with water when drunk, and that this mixture reduced the alcoholic content to almost nothing, and thus would be unrecognizable when compared to modern wine. Stein comments that in his epic, Homer “mentions a ratio of 20 to 1, twenty parts water to one part wine.”

The problem is, Stein misrepresents the nature of this mixed wine by his brief mention of the twenty to one ratio. Homer’s account begins by praising the quality and flavor of the wine as exceptional and sweet—even unmixed.[1] The characters in the narrative do then mix the wine into water, but even after this mixture, a wonderfully sweet scent still rises out of the mixing bowl.

The emphasis in these lines seems to be that this Maronean wine gifted to Odysseus was an exceptionally strong drink to be able to handle a mixture of twenty parts water without losing aroma or flavor. In fact, the very point in this passage seems to be the extraordinarily robust nature of this particular wine, since the protagonist then uses this wine to knock out a Cyclops! Just a few pages after the quote from The Odyssey that Stein offers, Odysseus defeats a Cyclops—“a towering brute”[2]—by giving him some of this wine to drink. The Cyclops soon collapses (right in the middle of a threatening speech) in an unconscious heap after drinking three large cups of this especially strong wine, even though it is mixed twenty to one.[3] Clearly, Homer portrays this Maronean wine as an unusually powerful beverage, and explicitly still very alcoholic, in stark contrast to the point Stein tries to make by quoting from this narrative.

Stein also leans on a weak argument by citing a fictitious poem that other Greek writers, specifically Plato and Pliny the Elder, do not even consider a wholly reliable source. Plato, in a section of his Republic (circa 380 bc) in which he speaks of the uselessness and unreliability of poets, speaks of Homer in particular when he says,

…we may infer that Homer and all the poets are only imitators, who do but imitate the appearances of things… the imitator has no knowledge of reality, but only of appearance… Imitation, then, is devoid of knowledge, being only a kind of play or sport, and the tragic and epic poets are imitators in the highest degree.[4]

Pliny, commenting on the very wine discussed by Homer, says that “we need not pursue the legendary or variously reported stories concerning its [that is, the wine’s] origin.”[5]

Stein uses Homer’s account of an extraordinary wine to support his claim that ancient wine was regularly so watered down that drunkenness was not an option. However, a closer examination of the narrative from which Stein draws support for this claim clearly shows that Stein’s use of Homer in this case is not legitimate.

Next time, we’ll look at the context of that quote from Pliny, which is actually an interesting commentary on the very wine discussed by Homer.


[1] Homer. The Odyssey. Page 145.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, 150.

[4] Plato. The Republic. 10.600ff.

[5] Pliny. Natural History. 14.53.

Advertisements

About Tweed Tavern

We exist to exhort passionate followers of Christ to think more deeply about their faith, and to challenge deep thinkers to become more passionate followers of Christ. Throughout history, taverns have provided a venue for theological and political debate. Hoping to honor that tradition, welcome to the Tavern!
This entry was posted in Christianity Today, Theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s