Ancient Wine and the Modern Christian [part 5]

I’ve introduced the topic of Christians and wine-drinking. I’m going through an article by Robert Stein, in which he cites ancient Greco-Roman sources like Homer, Pliny, Athanaeus, and Plutarch, to argue that wine in the ancient world was so watered down that drunkenness was not an issue like it is today — and that because of this, the wine the Bible talks about was fundamentally different than the wine with which we are familiar today (so, we shouldn’t drink today just because it’s ok in the Bible). 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.

Plutarch’s Thoughts on Wine

The next thing to be examined in this critique is the way in which Stein uses the Greek historian, Plutarch (ad 46-119), a late contemporary of the apostles. Stein quotes Plutarch as writing in his Symposiacs (3.9) that “We call a mixture ‘wine,’ although the larger of the component parts is water.” Stein says that “The term ‘wine,’ or oinos in the ancient world, then, did not mean wine as we understand it today but wine mixed with water.”[1]

Some of the issues with this kind of claim have already been brought out in the earlier posts. Another issue with Stein’s citation of Plutarch, though, is that it is simply incorrect. Plutarch does not make this statement in his Symposiacs. Rather, this quote from Plutarch comes from his Moralia![1] Setting aside Stein’s carelessness in his documentation, there are other things to be observed in Plutarch’s Symposiacs that also call into question Stein’s argumentation.

In the actual chapter of Symposiacs that Stein cites in his article, Plutarch discusses various measures of mixing wine with water. He mentions three parts water to two parts wine, two parts water to one part wine, and three parts water to one part wine, which he refers to as “a sober and mild mixture.”[2] Plutarch comments that it is easy to get drunk with a ratio of two to one, but at least this mixture does not “induce the senselessness of pure wine.”[3]

Stein says that only barbarians would drink wine unmixed. While this seems to be generally true (as can be derived from Athanaeus), it is again a matter primarily of moderation (as also with Athanaeus, Plato, and others), not of the essential nature of the wine. In his chapter entitled “Why Old Men Love Pure Wine,” Plutarch says that old men prefer unmixed wine. He speaks of the strengthening, invigorating and warming properties that make unmixed wine more beneficial and desirable to men in their old age than when deluded with water, “for strong and unalloyed qualities make a more pleasing impression on the sense.”[4]

It is evident from these passages in Plutarch that he is dealing with alcoholic wine containing very similar properties as those associated with wine familiar to the modern reader today. Once again, Stein bases his argument on a not entirely legitimate and honest interpretation of his sources.


Footnotes:

[1] Stein, 2.

[2] Plutarch. Symposiacs. 3.9.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Plutarch, 1.7.

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