The brilliant G.B. Caird opens his book The Language and Imagery of the Bible with this remark: “This is a book by an amateur, written for amateurs. Only an amateur could undertake to write on such a subject, since one life-time is too short for anyone to become expert on more than one of the qualifying disciplines.” He goes on to say that language involves more than linguists; it involves psychologists, anthropologists, theologians, philosophers, historians and such. This is manifestly the case and it’s also the case that the material that language experts are working with is what we, the rank and file, do with a living language.
Why does the word “wine” now relate exclusively to the juice of the grape in its completely fermented and alcoholic state? It wasn’t always so used! It’s perfectly reasonable to say the word “wine” now only means intoxicating wine but to claim that it always only meant and can only now mean intoxicating grape-juice is false to the core.
Three illustrations from many will do. In his essay on Joseph Philo of
Three and a half centuries earlier, Aristotle in his Meteorology, speaking of organized bodies tells us about wines. Here’s what he says:
“Those liquids that go off in vapour are made of water, those that do not are either of the nature of earth, or a mixture either of earth and water, like milk, or of earth and air, like wood, or of water and air, like oil. Those liquids which are thickened by heat are a mixture. (Wine is a liquid which raises a difficulty: for it is both liable to evaporation and it also thickens; for instance new wine does. The reason is that the word 'wine' is ambiguous and different 'wines' behave in different ways. New wine is more earthy than old, and for this reason it is more apt to be thickened by heat and less apt to be congealed by cold. For it contains much heat and a great proportion of earth, as in Arcadia, where it is so dried up in its skins by the smoke that you scrape it to drink. If all wine has some sediment in it then it will belong to earth or to water according to the quantity of the sediment it possesses.) The liquids that are thickened by cold are of the nature of earth; those that are thickened either by heat or by cold consist of more than one element, like oil and honey, and 'sweet wine'.” [The bold face is mine, jmcg.]
[“Must”—usually freshly expressed grape-juice though occasionally the word is used for grape-juice where fermentation has already begun. Here Aristotle speaks of one kind of “wine” and speaks of the common practice of boiling the grape-juice and producing a very thick sweet “wine” that is watered and drunk. jmcg.]
Josephus, a contemporary of Paul, tells the Joseph story in Antiquities Book 2.5.2. The butler says he dreamed there were three ripe clusters of grapes, that he gathered and squeezed them into a cup “and when he had strained the wine [Greek word is gleukos], he gave it to the king to drink.” Joseph then speaks to the butler and says, “Thou sayest that thou did squeeze this wine from three clusters of grapes with thine hands, and that the king received it…” [The “wine” here is called wine though it isn’t intoxicating.]
At some point in the distant past people began to distinguish between “wine” (vinum or oinos or yayin) before it fermented and after it had fermented and the words like “gleukos”, “mustum” and “vinum” and “yayin” and “asis” etc., found their places as distinct words. We would be silly not to expect that.
The idea that the word “wine” was never anything else than intoxicating wine is untrue. “Wine” is the juice of the grape in various states. That the intoxicating state came to dominate is no surprise but to say that is the only meaning of “wine” is false.
“Meat” now means something like “flesh” but it didn’t always. It used to be the generic word for “food” but one particular item in the food range (flesh) came to dominate in the use of the word and it lost all other senses.
“Drunk” is still the past participle of “drink” but it is the common word for inebriated or intoxicated due to imbibing an intoxicating drink. Today we often hear it said of a man, “He’s had a load of drink” and the word drink in that context “means” intoxicating liquid. To say the word “means” intoxicating liquid doesn’t mean it has some “brought-down- from-heaven-unalterable-definition”; it means when the speaker uses it in that setting he means to say it’s intoxicating liquid. Context is everything—well, almost everything.
[In Isaiah 43:24 the NRSV has God saying to
To think that this fluid nature of language wasn’t true in ancient times and in the Hebrew language takes leave of good sense.
Semantic specialists like RC Trench, H.W. Fowler and Ernest Weekley warn us about this. Peter Cottrell, whose area of expertise includes biblical languages, stresses the same thing but translation fashions exist as surely as other fashions do and translations follow other translations. Scholars can’t afford to nor do they have the time to re-invent the wheel so when translating they follow their predecessors in many areas especially if no serious questions are raised and nothing is at stake that’s judged theologically significant. The word “wine” is a good translation of “yayin” or “vinum” or “oinos” but only if we don’t straightjacket the word “wine” with the sense of intoxication. [To be continued, God enabling.]