Spending Time with Jim McGuiggan

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Let me tell you what no one should or would wish to dispute: “The ancient world drank and often got drunk on intoxicating drinks (as they do to this day).” That, I judge, is beyond dispute and it is spoken about in the OT in particular.

Let me tell you what I think is untrue and what no one should claim without plain proof: “The ancient world drank nothing but intoxicating wine and drinks.”

Let me tell you something else I think is manifestly untrue: “The ancients could not keep grape-juice from fermenting.” They not only could; they did it all the time.

Moving on; it’s alleged that only those biased in favour of a teetotal position would question the claim that Jesus made intoxicating wine in John 2. It’s alleged that it’s beyond debate that he did indeed make something like 120 to 180 gallons of intoxicating wine at the wedding feast in Cana.

The miracle of “water to wine” has numerous rich theological truths imbedded in it. One of them is this: Throughout the book of John we see Jesus exceeding all that was true about Israel’s ancient worthies; the Baptist, Moses, Jacob, Abraham and whoever. The beginning of Moses’ series of miracles was water to blood (Exodus 7:15-21) as he made himself known as Israel’s deliverer and Jesus’ opening miracle as he made himself known as Israel’s saviour was water to wine and so forth (John 2:11).

The theological truths imbedded in this miracle in John 2:1-10 do not depend on whether the wine was intoxicating or non-intoxicating. Jesus turned water into oinos. This we know because the text explicitly says so.

Peter Cotterell thinks the only reason one would dispute that it was intoxicating wine is if he was biased against the booze industry due to a piety that has lost its way. Even though I dispute that claim it might still be true; but what is it in John 2:1-10 that makes it crystal clear and indisputable that the wine was intoxicating wine?

Well, the word “wine”—for starters. The word wine means intoxicating grape-juice. But you don’t need to hate the booze industry to know that today the word “wine” might mean “intoxicating wine” and nothing else but it didn’t always. Click here.

Yes, but the word oinos meant intoxicating wine and nothing other than intoxicating wine, Watson, Ewing and others say. More than three centuries before Jesus Aristotle said the word “oinos” is ambiguous. He goes on to say that one of the “kinds” of wine didn’t intoxicate like ordinary wine so that it isn’t wine in spite of its name.

Many scholars have held and hold that the Hebrew word asis is non-fermented grape-juice and yet it is rendered by oinos in places like Joel 1:5 and Amos 9:11. Eugene Carpenter (NIDOTTE 3.470), for example, thinks Joel 1:5 and 3:18 refer to “juice” (of the grape) though it’s rendered “new wine” (NIV) and “sweet wine” (NRSV). The Greek OT (LXX) has “glukasmon” in 3:18, rendered “sweet wine”. [On the basis of Isaiah 49:26 Carpenter thinks asis could also be intoxicating. There the LXX has “onion neon”—new wine.]

I truly think that the generic nature of the words yayin, oinos and vinum has been downplayed in part because it is true that intoxicating wine and its consumption was universal. Since the above words would have been so often used of what was the preferred drink of the nations the words became the standard description of the fermented state of the grape juice. It appears that the only people who would bother to differentiate the various states of the grape juice (fermented, non-fermented, boiled or whatever) would be people like Pliny, Aristotle, Columella, Athenaeus, Cato who had an interest in agriculture for various reasons. In addition there’d be the Rabbis who would be interested in fermented and non-fermented because of tithing questions and such. The rank and file would only be interested in what was sold by the retailers so if they used the above words they would mean them in the popular usage.

This means that all talk such as: “Look, oinos is intoxicating wine and that’s the end of it” is out of order.

What is there in John 2:1-10 that proves Jesus made “a vast amount” (Seesemann, TDNT 5.165) of intoxicating wine?

It isn’t that people didn’t drink non-intoxicating wine—they did (as tens of thousands do this very day).

It isn’t that the English word wine is used—the word didn’t always mean “intoxicating” wine.

It isn’t that the word oinos is used—the word is ambiguous.

What is it then? Peter Cotterell (NIDOTTE 1.139) points us particularly to 2:10 where the emcee of the feast remarks on the unusual. Here’s what he said (following the NIV): “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.” The NRSV gives, “after the guests have become drunk.” The NRSV’s blunter rendering agrees with the more euphemistic “too much to drink”.

The rest of the versions (NEB, REB, KJV, JB ESV, Moffatt, JB Phillips, TEV, ASV, NAS, Knox, Douay and even the RSV) give us something like: “have drunk freely” or “have well drunk”. The NAS offers, “have become drunk” in the footnote. The Douay is based on the Latin Vulgate of course and translates “inebriati” as “have well drunk.” [The word methusko warrants discussion.]

I’m going to take it that the master of ceremonies at the feast said to the host. “Everyone brings out the best wine first and when the guests have become intoxicated they bring out the inferior stuff.” I’m going to take it that he stating the general rule.

The general rule then is the general rule today! If we invite guests to eat and drink with us we lay out the best dishes and cutlery and the best food and drink we have. It’s only when we have to that we bring out the lesser quality stuff. It’s a matter of courtesy and other things and there’s nothing strange about it.

But none of that settles anything. The idea that the “choice” wine is better than the “inferior” because of alcoholic content is entirely out of touch with the text. The question is the quality of the grapes, the soil in which it was grown, the care in making it, the weather during the growing season, the nature of the vine—and more related issues. To imply that something in the alcoholic content of wine is what makes it better or worse is nonsense—unless you’re assessing “the kick” that is in it. I’ve drunk lots of fermented and non-fermented grape juice and there’s no persuading me that the alcohol level or lack of it is what makes the juice taste better or worse. I don’t know if any wine drinker today would claim that it’s the ethanol that “makes it” for them (ignoring the buzz effect). I don't mean to say the ethanol doesn't affect the tasteit does; but there are so many other elements that "make" the sensory qualities of fermented wine. Winemaking industries compete with each other and wine-tasting “experts” tell us they know which is the better wine and it has nothing to do with varying degrees of alcohol. It takes more than upping the ethanol content to make a “good” and good-tasting wine.

The idea that the emcee at that Cana wedding would know from his first drink if the wine he was now drinking had ethanol in it is sheer guessing. No, what he seems certain of is this: “It’s usual for the hosts to bring out their best wine first and leave the inferior to the last because (following the NIV and NRSV) by that the time the guests are drunk and can’t really tell the difference.” We’re not to assume he is saying, “by that time the guests are drunk and can’t tell whether they’re drinking intoxicating wine or not.” He says by that time they’re drunk and don’t know the difference between good wine and inferior wine.

He states the rule about host courtesy and wisdom. He isn’t saying about his company at this wedding; he isn’t saying that this company is already drunk (though who knows?).

But what has any of that to do with what Jesus did in producing up to 180 gallons of wine? If the only “wine” drunk by 1st century people was alcoholic we’d be surer that Jesus made alcoholic wine. If it was common to drink sweet, new wine that wasn’t fermented (despite the rule) we’d be less sure that he made alcoholic wine. If everyone drank nothing but alcoholic wine and this company had scoffed the lot and were heading for drunkenness maybe Jesus not only reversed the procedure but reversed the kind of wine they drank. [For something on the parables of the patch and the wineskins in Matthew 9:15-17. Click here.]

If you choose to, write me if you think I’m right off the wall here.


Spending Time with Jim McGuiggan