Wine & Strong Drink in the Bible, Part 1

Section One: A Lot Can Change in Four Thousand Years

In this first section we hope to demonstrate the following:

➢ The term for wine is not the same today as it was in ancient times.

➢ The use of wine is not the same today as it was in ancient times.

➢ That wine is not drunk today in the same way it was in ancient times.

Terms translated “wine” in the Bible

There are many terms translated by the English word “wine” in the Bible, each with its own unique shade of meaning. Most of these distinctions are not observable when reading in the English Bible. In some passages the usage of the term is completely foreign to the modern reader. Consider the following list of Hebrew and Greek words for wine. (Some readers may want to quickly skim over this rather lengthy list of foreign terms. It doesn’t make for the most interesting reading – but it is important to “see” for yourselves that these various terms do exist in the Scriptures.)

The Old Testament (Hebrew terms)

Yayin[i]:. From an unused root meaning to effervesce; 140 occurrences; The King James Version translates it as “wine” 138 times, “banqueting” once, and “winebibbers” once.

  • This is by far the most common term for wine in the Old Testament. It is most often used of fermented grape juice, and intoxicating beverage (Gen.9:21).
  • However, it is on occasion, used of unfermented grape juice (Isa.16:10).

Tirosh[ii]: This term occurs in the KJV 38 times and is always translated as “wine,” sometimes described as new wine (Isa.65:8) or sweet wine (Micah 6:15). The term means “wine, fresh or new wine, must, freshly pressed wine.”

  • Prov.3:10 – Note that in this passage, the word translated new wine is that which comes out of the presses, namely, grape juice.
  • Isa.65:8 – Note that in this passage, the term translated new wine refers to the juice which was still found in the cluster of grapes.
  • Obviously in these two occurrences, the term translated in English as new winewas in fact what we would refer to today as grape juice. When grapes are squeezed in the winepress, juice squirts out, not alcohol. Inside a cluster of grapes on the vine juice is found, certainly not what we would call wine today.

Shekar[iii]: Of the 23 occurrences of this term in the Old Testament, the KJV translates it as “strong drink” 21 times, “strong wine” once, and “drunkard” once. Strong’s defines the term as “strong drink, intoxicating drink, fermented or intoxicating liquor.”  It is translated “strong wine” in Num.28:7.

There are three additional, less frequently used Hebrew terms for wine. They are as follows:

Chemer[iv]: This term appears only twice and is translated as “pure” once and “red wine” once. (Deut.32:14; Isa.27:2)

Awsees[v]: This term occurs five times and is translated as “new wine” twice, “sweet wine” twice, and “juice” once. Strong’s defines the term as “sweet wine, wine, pressed out juice.” (cf. Joel 3:18)

Mamsak[vi]: This term has two occurrences in the Bible and refers to a “mixed drink, mixed wine, or drink-offering.” It is the last word for wine in Prov.23:30, translated, mixed wine.

The New Testament (Greek Terms)

Oinos[vii]:  Oinos is the most common term for wine found in the New Testament. It appears 33 times in the KJV, and is translated as “wine” 32 times, and “winepress” once.  Strong’s defines the term simply as wine.

  • This term most often refers to fermented grape juice, an intoxicating beverage (Eph.5:18).
  • Sometimes it refers to grape juice not yet fermented (Rev.19:15).

Gluekos[viii]: denotes sweetness; new wine; must;

  • This term is used only in Acts 2:13. The term refers to fresh grape juice that has recently begun to ferment.
  • This term would not be used of a strong, completely fermented wine.

Sikera[ix]: – This Greek word is a transliteration from the Hebrew term shekar (strong drink). It is to be distinguished from oinos in that this is a wine made not only from grapes, but includes a strong drink made from grains and other fruits. This term is always used of a strong drink, an intoxicating beverage. It occurs only in Luke 1:15.

Oxos:  This term means sharp wine or vinegar. In each of its seven occurances, it is translated “vinegar”  (John 19:29,30).

We have included this list of terms because some have claimed that there is only one kind of wine in the Bible. Hence, they would say that the term wine always means wine. When the term is used in the Bible it always has the same meaning, and it is always refers to an intoxicating beverage. If wine meant an intoxicating beverage in one passage (example: Noah drank wine and got drunk), then it means an intoxicating beverage in every other passages where the English word “wine” is mentioned. They would further argue that since Jesus made wine and drank it, so it is OK for us to drink it too.

It sure sounds like a powerful argument to say “wine means wine.” Who could argue with that logic? To many, that is the end of the debate. When the position is stated in those terms, it might even seem foolish to attempt to contend otherwise. Pardon my folly, but I am going to challenge that claim. There is NOT only one kind of wine in the Bible. As we have just seen, there are many terms in the Scriptures which are translated “wine” in our English Bible, and each has a slightly different shade of meaning. I would argue that it is inaccurate and quite misleading to say, “wine means wine.” In fact, “wine (the word found in our English Bibles as a translation from over 10 different Greek & Hebrew terms) does NOT always mean wine, according to our modern understanding of the term. It CAN mean wine, but it can also mean other things. It can refer to unfermented grape juice. It can be used of a juice that is just beginning the process of fermentation. It can also mean a mixture of water and wine. And of course, it can refer to a completely fermented wine, a strong drink. It would not be fair or honest for a Christian to base his practices on a superficial, bumper sticker slogan, (“wine always means wine”) without taking the time to dig a bit deeper into God’s Word. Upon further investigation, one discovers that in the Bible the terms translated wine are not exact parallels to our modern usage of the term.

With ten different terms translated “wine” in our English Bible, it is incumbent upon the reader to consider these various terms and their various shades of meaning. Time spent in a good Bible concordance would be time well spent, and could be greatly used of the Lord in cementing conviction in the hearts of God’s people concerning God’s mind on this matter.

Consider the various ways the terms wine and must were used on the English language in the past five centuries[x].  The following references indicate how the term wine was understood by the translators of our English Bible.

Dictionary of Arts: “Juice when newly expressed, and before it has begun to ferment, is called “must”, and in common language, “new wine.”

Littleton’s Latin Dictionary (1678):  “Gleukos is new wine. Must is new wine; close shut up and not permitted to work. (“Work” is an old word for ferment)

Chambers Cyclopedia (1750) “Sweet wine is that which has not yet fermented.”

Rees’ Cyclodpeia: “Sweet wine is that which has not yet worked or fermented.”

Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities: “The sweet unfermented juice of the grape was termed gleukos.”

These OLD dictionaries indicate to us how the translators of the King James Version used the word “wine” in their day. Today, we think of wine as always being fermented, and of having a high alcoholic content. But the original Greek and Hebrew terms, as well as the English usage in the 1600’s when the KJV was translated, did not always have that connotation.

There were DIFFERENT words for wine, which indicated various types of beverages. In Old English, as in the ancient Hebrew and Greek, wine did NOT always refer to a fermented, alcoholic beverage. The term COULD refer to either unfermented, sweet grape juice OR fermented grape juice. In AD 60 Plutarch wrote, “Filtered wine neither inflames the brain nor infects the mind and the passions, and is much more pleasant to drink.”[xi] Note that Plutarch used the word wine to describe a non-intoxicating juice (sometimes called wine) that was greatly valued.

Thus, when we read the word “wine” in our English Bible, we should NOT assume that it must refer to the same kind of alcoholic beverage that we call wine today. Strong drink always refers to alcoholic content. The other terms do not necessarily imply an intoxicating beverage. Thus, it is incumbent upon the interpreter to consider the following:

➢ Determine which Greek or Hebrew term stands behind the English translation.

➢ Consider the context.

➢ Consider the customs of the day.

Reading 20th century habits into the culture and customs that existed from two to four thousand years ago is a serious historical, cultural, and interpretational blunder – and can be quite misleading.

For example, the Greek term oinos could be used for EITHER alcoholic or non alcoholic beverage. Don’t assume anything without considering the context. In Ephesians 5:18, the wine (oinos) is obviously an intoxicating beverage. On the other hand, in Matthew 9:17, we see the term used for both a non-intoxicating beverage AND an intoxicating beverage in the same verse. Jesus said not to put new wine (oinos) in old wineskins. Wineskins were used to carry beverages and were made from the skins of animals. Old leather skins became brittle and fragile.  If the process of fermentation began inside an old, brittle skin, the leather would split and the wine would run out. In this passage Jesus used the word oinos for BOTH the new wine (not yet fermented) which was poured in, and the wine that ran out after it fermented and broke the wineskin. Both the grape juice and the fermented wine were called “oinos” in this passage and translated  “wine” in our English Bible.

Some have argued that the term wine in the Bible does NOT refer to grape juice. One man argues as follows: “One can’t have it both ways. You can’t say that wine is always grape juice, for then the negative statements in scripture make no sense; those who say that it is only grape juice tend to focus just on the neutral and positive passages, conveniently allowing them to condemn the drinking of real wine at all times.”[xii]  But note carefully his strawman argument. Of course one could find fault with those who claim that wine in the Bible ALWAYS means grape juice. It would be quite foolish to make such a claim – because it is so easily refuted. We would not argue that the term wine ALWAYS means grape juice, but rather that it SOMETIMES refers to grape juice. In some passages it refers to a partially fermented grape juice or sweet wine. And of course, it OFTEN refers to an intoxicating beverage. To claim that the English word “wine” always refers to grape juice would be foolish (and dishonest), as this author correctly implies. However, it is equally foolish to assume that EVERY occurrence of the term “wine” in the Bible must refer to a strong, intoxicating drink.

We are not arguing that wine always means grape juice, nor are we arguing that that “new wine” NEVER had an alcoholic content. Often it had no alcoholic content, but sometimes it obviously did. The “new wine” mentioned in Acts 2:13, is the Greek word gleukos, which refers to anything that comes from the fruit. It normally referred to a sweet juice, but also includes the early stages of fermentation, similar to apple cider as it begins to ferment. In this context, men were accused of being full of new wine because of their unusual behavior. Clearly the onlookers thought that the men were affected by the new wine… in fact, drunk! Note how Peter answers this accusation in verse 15. Peter responds by stating that these men were not drunk because it was only the third hour of the day. They didn’t have TIME to get drunk from new wine (a juice that had just begun the process of fermentation with a very low alcoholic content). You would have to drink a LOT and for a long time to get drunk on gleukos. In other words, it was possible to get drunk on new wine, but you would have to imbibe a colossal amount to do so and it would take a long time. Peter simply states that these men did not have TIME to get drunk on a wine that has just begun the process of fermentation! On the other hand, it does not take much time to get drunk on completely fermented wine.

Some have not only argued that wine in the Old Testament was always an intoxicating beverage, but have gone so far as to claim that the Bible actually speaks positively about the “high” that the intoxicating beverage produces! Without question, the Bible DOES say that wine “cheers” the hearts of men (Cf. Zech. 9:17; Judge 9:13; Ps. 104:15; etc.). The modern mind almost automatically associates the “cheer” wine produces with the euphoric feeling alcohol produces. But once again, it is fair and wise for us to question what the Holy Spirit MEANT by this term “cheer” in Zech.9:17. Is it really equal to the “buzz” obtained from a few glasses of alcohol?

Consider Zechariah 9:17. “For how great is his goodness, and how great is his beauty! Corn shall make the young men cheerful, and new wine the maids.” The verse states that new wine “cheers” the maids. HOW does it cheer them? Obviously, it cheers them in the same way that corn (grains such as wheat or barley) cheer the young men. The prophet is not speaking of an alcoholic high. Rather, he is speaking of the utter JOY experienced by the young men and women when God blessed their hard labors in the field and prospered their harvest of crops. Those living in an agrarian society worked long and hard in the fields and orchards, and when harvest time came, their hearts were cheered and full of joy and thanksgiving to God for blessing their labors. Gathering in the many bales of wheat and other grains meant food for their families for many months. Gathering in the clusters of grapes to be squeezed into sweet juice provided a delicious drink. This abundant harvest brought a cheer to hearts that we don’t experience because we purchase our grains and juices in a supermarket with hardly a thought about the toil that went into the working the soil, sowing, weeding, and harvesting.

In fact, the term translated “cheerful” in Zech. 9:17 is used four times in the King James Version, and (according to Strong’s Concordance[xiii]) is translated as “bring forth” twice, “increase” once, and “make cheerful” once. It means to bear fruit, or in a figurative sense, to make to flourish. This could hardly be stretched to be the equivalent of a “buzz” from alcohol. In Zechariah 9:17 the term has the meaning of flourish. After gathering in a flourishing harvest of grains and large clusters of grapes, the young men and women who worked the fields experienced a “flourishing” of their hearts too. In other words, their hearts would be vibrant, joyous, fulfilled. Psalm 104:15 speaks of wine that “maketh glad the heart of man.” The psalmist knew the joy of harvest. When the corn and grapes are gathered in, the hearts of the laborers are glad. This speaks of a sense of delight and accomplishment that perhaps only a farm worker (whose life and livelihood depended upon it) could understand completely.

This gladness of heart and “cheer” were expressed communally in the annual feast of Tabernacles or the Feast of Ingathering. “Thou shalt observe the feast of tabernacles seven days, after that thou hast gathered in thy corn and thy wine: And thou shalt rejoice in thy feast, thou, and thy son, and thy daughter, and thy manservant, and thy maidservant, and the Levite, the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, that are within thy gates” (Deut. 16:13-14). The Rabbis used to say, “He who has not seen Jerusalem during the Feast of Tabernacles does not know what rejoicing means.” [xiv]

The thought of a liquor “high” cannot possibly be found in the passages which speak of wine “cheering” hearts. Perhaps if we lived in a hot, arid, desert-like region, a cup of cool, freshly squeezed grape juice would “cheer” our hearts too! It was considered a real treat. In fact, kings delighted in the luxury of freshly squeezed grape juice. In Genesis 40:11, the Pharaoh’s cupbearer squeezed grapes directly into the king’s cup. In a hot, arid climate, freshly squeezed grape juice was a royal treat that cheered the heart.

As the Bible term “wine” is seen in various contexts, it is clear that it can but does not always refer to an intoxicating beverage. In modern English, we would not think of using the term “wine” to refer to grape juice. The Modern English usage is not the same as the term was used in Bible times, or even its usage in the 1600’s when the King James Version was translated. There is not an exact parallel between the one Modern English term wine and the various terms in Old English or ancient Greek or Hebrew. Hence, (as illogical as it may appear on the surface) “wine is not always wine!”  In order to understand what the Bible is saying on this issue, it is essential to consult a good Bible dictionary or lexicon to discover the terms which underlie the English translation “wine” and to note the various shades of meaning in its context. One need not be a Bible scholar to engage in such a study either. With a few easy-to-use Bible study tools[xv] anyone can dig into the Word for him/her self. Nothing is more rewarding than seeing truth for oneself in the Scriptures. Nothing will more firmly deepen one’s convictions than forming those convictions by personal Bible study (Acts 17:11).

[i] Enhanced Strongs Lexicon,  Hebrew # 3196

[ii] Ibid, Hebrew #  8492

[iii] Ibid. Hebrew # 7941

[iv] Ibid., Hebrew # 2561

[v] Ibid. Hebrew # 6071

[vi] Ibid., Hebrew # 4469

[vii] Ibid., Greek  #3631

[viii] Ibid, Greek  # 1098

[ix] Ibid., Greek # 4608

[x] William Patton, Bible Wines, Sane Press, Oklahoma City, 1871, pp.14-15.

[xi] John MacArthur Jr.,  Living in the Spirit , Word of Grace Communications, 1981, p.12.

[xii] Daniel B. Wallace Ph.D, The Bible And Alcohol, Biblical Studies Foundation.

[xiii] Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon, Hebrew # 5107

[xiv] Victor Buksbazen, The Feasts of Israel; Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, Inc.,Bellmawr, 1987, pg. 46.

[xv] Such tools would include the easy-to-use Strong’s Concordance, Vines Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, etc.


“What the Bible Says about Wine and Strong Drink” Index