How wine was drunk in ancient times
The Ancient Practice of Mixing Water and Wine
Wine was added to water to purify the water. It also sweetened up the water and gave it a bit of flavor. Folks living in Bible times didn’t have two supermarket aisles full of various types of juices and soft drinks from which to choose.
In such a warm climate, their juice would ferment all by itself unless they drank it all right after harvest. They had no canning lids, no freezers, and no powdered drinks. Thus, their choices were limited to a few kinds of fruit juices, warm goats milk, and for the most part, stagnant water from a cistern near their house. Thus, if they could add a little flavor to their water, they did. Wine was mixed with water to sweeten up the water and to purify it.
However, the ancient civilized societies were well aware of the DANGERS of alcohol. They needed the wine as a beverage and as a water purifier, and yet at the same time maintained strict codes of its “use.” A Babylonian King named Hammurabi established a code of law in which he “laid out a variety of restrictions on the consumption and sale of alcohol. Violators of these laws could be executed. Similarly, in China, during the reign of Emperor Chung K’iang, drunkards were executed to show that the government did not approve of excessive drinking.”[i] From the beginning, alcohol posed a problem to the ancient societies. On the one hand, they needed wine, but on the other hand, they also recognized its dangers.
Many writings verify the fact that the ancients dealt with this dilemma by mixing their wine with water to PREVENT intoxication. Consider the following examples. In civilized Greek society, Homer (Odyssey IX, 208f) mentions a ratio of twenty parts water to one part wine. Hippocrates also considered “twenty parts of water to one part of the Thracian wine to be the proper beverage.” [ii] Pliny (Natural History XIV, vi, 54) mentions a ration of eight parts water to one part wine. Athenaeus’s The Learned Banquet, (around A.D. 200) writes in a play that their custom was to mix three parts water to one part wine. [iii]
In Greece it was “considered barbarous to drink wine that was not diluted with water.”[iv] Plutarch wrote (in Sumposiacs III, ix), “We call a mixture wine, though the larger of the component parts is water.” [v] A mixture of equal parts was considered strong drink. The ratio varied from place to place, but the practice of mixing water with wine was common. Athenaeus quoted Mnesitheus of Athens as saying, “in daily intercourse, to those who drink it moderately it gives good cheer; but if you overstep the bounds it brings violence. Mix it half and half and you get madness; unmixed—bodily collapse.”[vi]
In Jewish society wine was also mixed with water, and unmixed wine was considered a strong drink. Several Old Testament passages spoke of the difference between wine and strong drink (Deut. 14:26; 29:6). The priests were to avoid BOTH when they went into the tabernacle (Lev.10:8-9). The Talmud (oral traditions of the Jews from about 200 BC to AD 200) includes instructions concerning wine in several chapters. One section (Shabbath 77a) states that wine which does not carry at least 3 parts of water is not wine. It would be considered a strong drink. [vii]
Rabbis said that food unblessed was unclean. They taught that wine, unless mixed with water, could not be blessed. Some rabbis demanded three parts of water; some demanded ten parts water before they would bless it. While the standards varied somewhat, it does give us some insight into the common practice of mixing wine and water in the days of Christ. (This might help shed light on the miracle at the wedding of Cana.)
A passage from the uninspired apocryphal book of II Macc. 15:39 also sheds light on this practice among the Jews: “For as it is hurtful to drink wine or water alone; and as wine mingled with water is pleasant, and delighteth the taste: even so speech finely framed delighteth the ears of them that read the story. And here shall be an end.” This passage reveals the fact that they understood that drinking water alone (unmixed) was often harmful, and was thus MIXED it with wine. The mixing improved the taste of the (often stagnant) water AND removed the hurtful or harmful effects of unpurified water. This passage indicates to us the common Jewish custom of mixing water and wine and also includes two reasons for doing so.
For the ancients, (especially the ancient Jews) drinking wine unmixed was considered Barbaric. It was a violation of Talmud and the standards of the rabbis. Wine that was not mixed was considered strong drink, and strong drink was considered Barbaric and thus, forbidden.
However, in later years, the Romans were not so restrained in their drinking practices. Excessive drinking of wine became such a problem in Rome that Emperor Domitius Ulpinus came to believe that wine would destroy the empire. “To combat alcoholism spreading throughout the Roman culture, Domitius ordered half the vineyards in the empire to be destroyed and raised the price of wine.”[viii]
When we read of drinking wine in the Bible, it must be understood in light of the customs, standards, and practices of that day. When we readthe word wine we should think “wine mixed with water” unless it specifically says unmixed or strong drink.
[i] The Encyclopedia of Psychological Disorders, Drowning our Sorrows, Chelsea House Publishers, Philadelphia, 2000, p. 20.
[ii] William Patton, Bible Wines, Sane Press, Oklahoma City, 1871, p.50.
[iii] J. Dwight Pentecost, The Words and Works of Jesus Christ, Zondervan Corporation, Grand Rapids, 1981, pp. 115-117.
[iv] The Encyclopedia of Psychological Disorders, Drowning our Sorrows, Chelsea House Publishers, Philadelphia, 2000, p. 20.
[v] J. Dwight Pentecost, The Words and Works of Jesus Christ, Zondervan Corporation, Grand Rapids, 1981, pp. 115-117.
[vi] Norman L. Geisler, A Christian Perspective on Wine-Drinking, Bib.Sac.—V139 #553—Jan 82—51.
[vii] J. Dwight Pentecost, The Words and Works of Jesus Christ, Zondervan Corporation, Grand Rapids, 1981, p.116.
[viii] The Encyclopedia of Psychological Disorders, Drowning our Sorrows, Chelsea House Publishers, Philadelphia, 2000, p. 21-22.