Ancient Wine and the Modern Christian [part 6]

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.

Wine as a Purifier

The last of Stein’s arguments that will be examined for the purpose of this critique is his claim that wine was used as a safety measure to counter the dangers of unsafe drinking water. Stein begins this point saying, “In ancient times there were not many beverages that were safe to drink,” and argues that “the safest and easiest method of making the water safe to drink, however, was to mix it with wine.”[1]

The claim that people in ancient times had to mix some wine into their water in order to make it safe to drink, has little to no support in ancient sources, and in fact, Stein offers no citation whatsoever in his article to support his claim.[2] It is true that if one travels oversees today, it is highly advised never to drink the water in another country—Stein actually uses a personal anecdote of this very fact to support his argument. However, this danger of drinking foreign water exists primarily for those not native to the land. Someone who has lived in another country all his life may drink the water with little fear of complications. Does it not then make sense that this would be the case in ancient times as well? People in ancient times had access to drinkable (even if not entirely clean) water in the form of rivers and streams. More importantly they often had access to drinking water in the form of clean springs, wells, and collected rainwater.

Even throughout the Bible, people are seen to both long for and enjoy pure water (1 Kings 17:4-6; 1 Chronicles 11:17-19; Proverbs 25:25; Ezekiel 4:11; Ezekiel 34:18; Daniel 1:12; Amos 4:8; John 4:6-12). The Apostle Paul also exhorts Timothy to “no longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.”[3] Paul is clearly encouraging Timothy to use wine as a medicinal for his ailments here, but this verse shows that Timothy was, up until this point, drinking regular, natural water (with no indication that it was out of the ordinary for him to not have wine mixed into the water).

However, it is clear even from the Greco-Roman sources Stein relies upon in his article, that drinking unmixed water was not seen as extraordinary or hazardous to one’s health. Athanaeus, in Book Two of his Deipnosophists, mentions several notable men he is aware of (referencing several other sources as well) in history such as Theodorus the Larissæan, Glaucon, Lamprus the musician, and Moschion who all abstained from drinking wine, and he calls them “water-drinkers.” Many Spaniards drank water (not mixed with wine), “though they are the richest of all men.” Athanaeus notes that Matris the Athenian ate berries and “abstained from wine and every other kind of drink except water.” He also references Hegesander the Delphian as saying that “Anchimolus and Moschus, sophists who lived in Elis, were water-drinkers all their lives; and that they ate nothing but figs, and for all that, were quite as healthy and vigorous as any one else.”[4]

Pliny the Elder devotes a considerable amount of time overall in his Natural History to the discussion of wine—the production of wine, the mixtures of wine (such as with honey or spices), and history of wine. At one point, however, Pliny pauses to comment on the inordinate amount of time dedicated to wine, “as if nature had not given us the most healthy of beverages to drink—water—which all other animals make use of.”[5]

The biblical, as well as secular, historical sources indicate that water was in fact available to drink, and was not thought of predominantly as an unsafe beverage needing purification. In light of these historical sources, it seems that Stein’s argument that wine was simply a necessity for the sake of purifying water in order to make it drinkable, is a quite unstable argument.

CONCLUSION

To recap — in his article, “Wine-Drinking in New Testament Times,” Robert Stein posits that the wine spoken of in the Bible was largely different from and less alcoholic than the wine of today. He argues for this by citing Greco-Roman sources that illustrate the mixing of wine with water. Stein uses these various sources to argue that the wine was consistently so watered down that drunkenness was hardly an issue, and usually even close to impossible. The implication Stein wishes to draw out from these premises, is that Christians cannot argue that they have the freedom to drink alcoholic beverages today simply because Scripture allows it, because the fact is that the wine spoken of in Scripture is fundamentally different than modern wine.

However, by examining Stein’s use of the Greco-Roman writers he cites—namely, Homer, Pliny, Athanaeus, and Plutarch—it is evident that Stein did not make a legitimate use of these sources within the bounds of the original author’s context and intended meaning. This does not necessarily mean that Christians should consume alcohol today. What this does show however, is simply that the manner in which Dr. Stein supports his argument, drawing on these historical sources, is entirely unfounded.


Footnotes:

[1] Stein, 3.

[2] During research for this paper, no primary historical sources were found to clearly support the claim that wine was mixed in with water to purify the water. In his article, “Wine in the Ancient World,” Dr. Baker also makes the statement that he could find no historical evidence of this as a reason to mix wine into water. However, because of the array of scholars who hold to this view (of wine being used to purify water), and the limited resources available in researching for this particular paper, a definitive statement positing the complete absence of any historical basis for that claim would be brash and overconfident—thus the qualifying statement, “little to no.”

[3] 1 Timothy 5:23, ESV.

[4] Athanaeus. “Book II” In The Deipnosophists. Page 72.

[5] Pliny, 28.137.

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