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Meditation 265
On Grape Juice and Wine

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I encountered once again[1] the argument that one should not drink alcohol[2] because Jesus did not do so. The wine referred to in the New Testament is rationalized away as a translation issue: the Aramaic[3] word translated as wine supposedly also refers to grape juice. As Jesus did not drink alcohol, the translation[4] in most versions of the bible is wrong.

The argument is circular, and provably false.

Let's start with a fact most people will find astonishing. Grape juice, as we know it, did not exist in biblical times. Grape juice is a 19th century invention.

You might well ask "If it wasn't grape juice, what was the fluid extracted from grapes in biblical times?"

Obviously it was the juice of the grape, but it already had an alcohol content.

The normal practice to maximize volume of juice produced together with the best flavour and high sugar content, was to let grapes fully ripen. By the time the overall crop was ripe, natural airborne yeast would have already initiated the fermentation process.[5]

When the grapes were crushed to extract the juice, significant alcohol would be already present in the fluid. And without refrigeration and preservatives, fermentation proceeded to completion.

The production of grape juice without alcohol content was nearly impossible, and even if it happened through crushing underripe grapes, fermentation would still start within a few days from natural yeast spores in the air, or from those present on the skin of the grape.

Non-alcoholic grape juice was not available until 1869 when it was invented by Dr. Thomas Welch. (It's called Welch's Grape Juice for a reason.) Welch was a teetotaller who objected to taking communion with wine and who wanted a non-alcoholic alternative. So after experimentation he succeeded in developing what he called "unfermented wine." Even then it was called wine, not grape juice, that name coming into use when his son took over marketing in 1875.

And the idea that biblical wine should be interpreted as grape juice, well, that is an even newer innovation. That had to wait until people forgot what a recent invention grape juice really was.

If there really was a historical Jesus Christ, then the wine he drank contained alcohol.

 

Footnotes:

  1. For the earlier briefer discussion, see Footnote 1 to Reflection 7
  2. There are a lot of good reasons why an individual might make a personal choice not to drink alcoholic beverages. It is not necessary to invent a false biblical excuse.
  3. This is a highly suspect argument, as all evidence suggests the the books of the New Testament were originally written in Greek.
  4. And i.a.w. the preceding footnote, all current translations are ultimately based on texts written in Greek.
  5. This is a process anyone with a fruit-bearing tree, bush or vine in their back yard is probably quite familiar with even today. And many of us have seen inebriated animals who have stuffed themselves with ripe fruit.