For Stomach Sake

Many people like to use 1 Timothy 5:23 as justification to drink alcohol. After all, Timothy is being told to drink wine by the Apostle Paul. To those who use this line of thought, it makes no difference how much wine is being drank or the reason for its use; all that matters is the sanction being given to Timothy to drink an intoxicating beverage.

First of all, we should point out again that the word wine as used in the English versions of the Bible does not necessitate the assumption that it is alcoholic. In fact, Paul recognizes that Timothy doesn’t even consume wine. Paul tells Timothy, “No longer drink only water…” (NKJV). Timothy apparently was abstinent in regard to wine. The same was true concerning John the Baptist (Lk. 1:15). Also, the apostle James “drank neither wine nor fermented liquors.”[i]

Timothy, like all Disciples of Christ, believed in keeping oneself pure in body and spirit (1 Tim. 5:22; Rom. 8:10-13; 1 Cor. 6:19-20; 1 Thes. 5:23). Timothy, as a protégé of Paul, would have been sensitive to the conscience of other brethren. Paul instructed the Romans in this regard by saying, “It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak.” (Rom. 14:21).   Further, if Timothy has any aspirations to become an Elder one day he is well aware of the restriction placed upon those who serve in that office (1 Tim. 3:2-3; Tit. 1:7).  Timothy didn’t drink wine!

It also makes little sense for Paul to instruct Timothy to violate his abstinence from fermented wine. Those of us who ardently restrain ourselves from alcohol would be highly offended at the suggestion to drink a glass of wine for some medical benefit. Paul knows Timothy well enough not to make such a blunder in his advice. Rather, Paul advices Timothy to “use a little wine for stomach sake…”  (1 Tim. 5:23). Paul doesn’t say “drink” wine but to “use” or “take” a little wine. That sounds very much like a doctor’s prescription. Paul is not sanctioning the drinking of an alcoholic beverage even if it was fermented. He says to take a little wine!

It happens to be recorded in ancient history that unfermented wine was used for medicinal purposes. Pliny, a Roman historian (A.D. 24-79), in his book Natural History, reports, “Ten quarts of white must and half that quantity of water are kept boiling till a considerable amount of water is boiled away… This drink is given to invalids [from aegris meaning the sick] for whom it is feared that wine may be harmful.” Later in his book he states that fermented wine was also used for medical purposes but makes this observation, “Wines are most beneficial when all their potency has been overcome by the strainer.”  Athenaeus (A.D. 280) specifically recommends the use of unfermented wine for the stomach. “Let him take sweet wine, either mixed with water or warmed, especially that kind called protropos, the sweet Lesbian glukus, as being good for the stomach; for sweet wine does not make the head heavy” (Athenaeus, Banquet, pp. 24).

Given these statements, it becomes painfully obvious that Paul was not and would not recommend an alcoholic beverage to Timothy for his frequent infirmities. Rather, Paul was recommending a little bit of unfermented wine (boiled must that is most likely mixed with water) for his stomach problems. Such a remedy for soothing heart burn or indigestion would be consistent with such a recommendation from Paul.

[i] Eusebius quoting Hegesippus, Ecclesiastical History, II, 23, 5.

“Not Given to Much Wine”

A favorite passage that is used to support the moderate use of alcoholic beverages is 1 Timothy 3:8. One of the qualifications for the office of a Deacon is “not given to much wine.” It appears the wine is not condemned but the quantity of wine consumed. However, abstinence from alcoholic beverages is required of the Eldership (1 Tim. 3:2-3; Tit. 1:7). Is this a sanction of intoxicating wine for Deacons as long as they never become Elders?

It certainly makes no sense to permit drinking of some alcohol for an office where deacons should be aspiring to become Elders. Under the Old Law, priests were not even permitted to be present in the tabernacle if they have drunk an intoxicating drink. If they were inebriated in the temple the penalty was death (Lev. 10:9). The purpose for that statute was to provide the people with the ability to distinguish between the holy and the unholy (Lev. 10:10). Using the same reasoning, it seems strange to think that someone in the position of a Deacon would have to be considered unholy if the consumption of alcohol is permitted at all. Given that all Christians are priests under the New Law, the distinction between the holy and the unholy should still be recognized by one’s use of alcohol.

It could also be easily argued that Paul is setting up a double standard if this phrase is an endorsement for the consumption of alcohol. Yet, Paul begins the qualification for Deacons with the acknowledgment that the qualifications between the two offices are similar. He says, Likewise deacons must be…” (1 Tim. 3:8). Since the Bible would never contradict itself, the phrase under consideration obviously does not sanction the use of alcohol.

Samuele Bacchiocchi, in his book entitled, Wine in the Bible, illustrates the absurdity of assuming this phrase condones the drinking of alcohol as follows. “If you are a bishop, you must abstain (nephalios) from wine and not even be near wine (me paroinon – 1 Tim. 3:2-3). If you are a deacon, you may drink wine moderately (me oino pollo – vs. 8). If you are a woman, presumably a deaconess, you must abstain (nephalious – vs. 11) from wine. If you are an aged man, you must abstain (nephalious – Titus 2:2) from wine. If you are an aged woman, you must drink moderately (me oino pollo – Titus 2:3). Now what would happen if a woman happened to be both aged and a deaconess? Would she be abstinent one day and moderate the next?” (Samuele Bacchiocchi, Wine in the Bible, p. 250)

The absurdity can also be illustrated by evaluating other similar phrases found elsewhere in the Bible. The most striking passage is Ecclesiastes 7:17. It reads, “Do not be overly wicked…” (NKJV). Does that mean it is all right to be moderately wicked? When Paul said, “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body…” (Rom. 6:12), does he imply that sin is acceptable as long as it doesn’t control us? When Paul wrote, “And do not be conformed to this world…” (Rom. 12:2), does that mean a little worldliness is acceptable provided conformance hasn’t been reached? Surely, Peter wasn’t implying that the Christians were riotous when he wrote, “Wherein, they think it strange that ye run not with them to the same excess of riot…” (1 Pet. 4:4; KJV).

The literal translation of the phrase directly from Greek is “not wine to much being addicted” (Marshall, The Interlinear Greek – English New Testament, p.825). The New American Standard Version of the Bible translates it as “not addicted to much wine.” Obviously any amount of addiction is too much. Therefore, we can tell that the phrase in question is using a loose form of speech. The phrase should not be understood as permission to drink but as a prohibition against being intoxicated with any amount of wine.

By Steve A. Hamilton


Water into Wine

Many well-meaning people will point to the miracle where Jesus turns water into wine as their justification to drink alcoholic beverages (Jn. 2:1-11).   They correctly conclude that Christ would not have made wine if He did not approve of its consumption.  However, they err by assuming the wine which Jesus made was fermented.

The generic Greek word for wine (oinos) does not imply either a fermented nor unfermented beverage.  We have already covered this point in many passages in others articles on wine.  We have also emphasized the necessity to determine the meaning of the word wine by considering the context in which the word is found.  The key to determining the inebriating effects of the wine Jesus made from water is found in this manner.

The master of the wedding feast makes an observation that the wine made by Jesus was “good” as compared to the wine being drank which he describes as inferior (Jn. 2:10).  In order to appreciate his statement, we need to know what people in the first century consider good wine versus inferior wine.  Albert Barnes in his New Testament commentary has an excellent discourse on the nature of the good wine.

“We should not be deceived by the phrase “good wine.” We often use the phrase to denote that it is good in proportion to its strength and its power to intoxicate; but no such sense is to be attached to the word here.  Pliny, Plutarch, and Horace describe wine as good, or mention that as the best wine, which was harmless or innocent–poculo vini innocentis. The most useful wine — utilissimum vinum— was that which had little strength; and the most wholesome wine– saluberrimum vinum— was that which had not been adulterated by “the addition of anything to the must or juice.” Pliny expressly says that a “good wine” was one that was destitute of spirit (lib. iv. c. 13). It should not be assumed, therefore, that the “good wine” was stronger than the other: it is rather to be presumed that it was milder. The wine referred to here was doubtless such as was commonly drunk in Palestine. That was the pure juice of the grape. It was not brandied wine, nor drugged wine, nor wine compounded of various substances, such as we drink in this land. The common wine drunk in Palestine was that which was the simple juice of the grape. We use the word wine now to denote the kind of liquid which passes under that name in this country–always containing a considerable portion of alcohol –not only the alcohol produced by fermentation, but alcohol added to keep it or make it stronger. But we have no right to take that sense of the word, and go with it to the interpretation of the Scriptures. We should endeavor to place ourselves in the exact circumstances of those times, ascertain precisely what idea the word would convey to those who used it then, and apply that sense to the word in the interpretation of the Bible; and there is not the slightest evidence that the word so used would have conveyed any idea but that of the pure juice of the grape, nor the slightest circumstance mentioned in this account that would not be fully met by such a supposition.”[i]

The wine that Jesus made was good because it did not ferment.  The fermentation process converts the sugar in the grape juice into alcohol.  If there is no sugar, the flavor is not good.  It is believed that this wedding feast took place months after the vintage.  Fresh grape juice would not be available during this season.  It appears the inferior wine was likely grape juice that was reconstituted with water from must.  However, the wine Jesus provides must have been fresh grape juice.

The Greek word that was used to describe the goodness of the wine that Jesus made is quite revealing.  The common Greek word for good is agathos.  However, the word used by the master of the feast was kalosKalos carries the idea of moral goodness.  The master of the feast was not only talking about the good flavor of the wine; he was also stating the moral goodness of the beverage.  He is implying the wine is non-intoxicating.

Further, it is ludicrous to think that Jesus would in any way encourage or facilitate the means by which people could sin.  Jesus was well aware of the condemnation given to the drinking of intoxicating wine in the Old Law (Prov. 20:1; 23:29-35).  He would tempt no one with sin (Jas. 1:13; Matt. 6:13).  However, He made enough wine to get the whole wedding party drunk if it were fermented.  Nor should we overlook the fact that wedding parties had many small children that also drank from the same wine.

[i] Albert Barnes’ Commentary on the Bible.
By Steve A. Hamilton

Accuracy in Translation

If a person were to study the subject of wine from most any English translation of the Bible, that person might come away with an idea that the Bible condones a moderate use of alcohol.  The Bible clearly condemns drunkenness (Lk. 21:34; Rom. 13:13; Gal. 5:21; 1 Pet. 4:3).  Yet, certain passages sound like they approve of the consumption of intoxicating beverages (Deut. 14:26; Prov. 31:6; Hos. 4:11; Lk. 5:37-39; 7:33-35; Jn. 2:1-11; 1 Cor. 11:21-22; Eph. 5:18; 1 Tim. 3:8; 5:23) while other passages condemn the very use of intoxicating wine (Lev. 10:8-11; Judg. 13:3-4; Prov. 31:4-5; 23:31; 20:1; 1 Tim. 3:2-3).  It appears that the use of alcoholic beverages are not clearly condemned or clearly condoned consistently throughout the Bible.

This problem can be traced back to the earliest English translations of the Bible.  Accuracy in translation was often sacrificed for more palatable words.  The King James translators; in particular, were more interested in producing a version that everyone would accept than producing a version that was consistent.  They purposely published a version that would not appear biased toward any particular doctrine.

The most blatant example of this is the creation of the English word “baptism.”   The Greek word means immersion.  However, the earliest English translation of the New Testament was produced by a Catholic priest named John Wycliffe.  Wycliffe along with the Catholic Church practiced sprinkling rather than immersion.  The transliterated Greek word for “baptisma” became a new English word that had no definition except what was consequently created.  Hence, the English word baptism includes in its definition dipping, sprinkling, pouring or washing.

The English word “wine” serves as another example of inconsistent translation.  There are at least 13 different Hebrew and Greek words that have been translated into the single English word “wine.”  Surely, the English language is not so limited that the translators couldn’t differentiate 13 different words.  This discrepancy is not acceptable especially when we consider how the King James Version of the Bible avoided uniformity in the translation.

Concerning the translation of the King James Version of the Bible: “They said they did not think it right to honor some words by giving them a place forever in the Bible, while they virtually said to other equally good words: Get ye hence and be banished forever.  They quote a “certain great philosopher” who said that those logs were happy which became images and were worshipped, while, other logs as good as they were laid behind the fire to be burned.  So they sought to use as many English words, familiar in speech and commonly understood, as they might, lest they should impoverish the language, and so lose out of use good words.” (McAfee, “The Making of the King James Version; Its Characteristics,”

A lack of consistency in favor of diversity in word choice suggests an ill intent when we find, in fact, a lack of diversity in word choice in favor of inconsistency when it comes to the word “wine.”  The intentional inconsistencies in translation of our English Bibles have produced versions that are not truly accurate.  We must be wise to the misleading way many words were used because the translators were purposely trying to prevent disagreements and controversies. In essence, they willingly used “politically correct” terms when the subject matter was in question.

Great care must be taken to insure a proper understanding of the words that were chosen to represent the original text.  For example, the English word “sober” is used to represent two different Greek words in the Bible.  We understand “sober” has three definitions when it is applied to the subject of intoxicating beverages.  It could mean not intoxicated, someone less than drunk or someone who is thinking clearly.  However, only one definition was actually in the mind of the author when he wrote it.  Could the word “sober” ever be defined as less than drunk in any passage of the Bible (Rom. 12:3; 2 Cor. 5:13; 1 Thes.  5:6, 8; 1 Tim. 3:11; Tit. 2:2, 12; 1 Pet. 1:13; 5:8)?

Christians are commanded to be sober (1 Thes. 5:6, 8; 1 Pet. 1:13; 4:7; 5:8).  Sobriety occurs in both mind and body.  Someone who is sober in body (not intoxicated) is also sober in mind.  Impaired thinking would not be considered sober even if the impairment did not reach the civil definition of drunk. Obviously, any amount of alcohol impairs a person’s sobriety.

It should also be noted that King James was a heavy drinker, the head of the Church of England and the one who commissioned the King James Version of the Bible.  Was there any motivation to treat the subject of wine delicately by the translators?

By Steve A. Hamilton

Strong Drink

Most English versions of the Bible consistently translate the Hebrew word “shekar” as “strong drink.”  “Shekar” literally means “drink.”  It is used 23 times in the Old Testament.  The vast majority of the times when it is used in the Old Testament are in contexts where its use is condemned (ex. Lev. 10:9-11; Num. 6:2-4; Judg. 13:3-5; Prov. 20:1; Isa. 5:11).  Incidentally, our English word “sugar” is derived from it.

Shekar is a sweet beverage produced primarily from palm or dates. It may include beverages made from grains, fruits or honeycombs.  It is an unfermented beverage while it remains sweet.  As the sugar in “shekar” breaks down into alcohol, it becomes bitter.  It is the bitter “shekar” that is an intoxicating beverage.  Perhaps this is the reason Isaiah alludes to the wicked as those “Who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter” (Isa.5:20).

Isaiah gives us another passage that defines this word.  In Isaiah 24:9, it simply states, “Strong drink is bitter to those who drink it.”  As translated into English, this statement sounds rhetorical.  In Old Testament times, intoxicating beverages were all bitter.  However, “shekar” which is translated into the words “strong drink” is not always bitter.  In fact, it is quite the opposite.  “Shekar” is known as a sweet beverage unless it is allowed to spoil and become fermented.  Leon Fields in his book, Oinos: A Discussion of the Bible-Wine Question (1883),  “correctly observes that “the contrast between ‘sweet’ and ‘bitter’ in Isaiah 24:9 (literally, ‘bitter shall be the sweet drink – shekar – to them that drink it,’) shows that shekar was valued on account of its sweetness, a quality which decreases in proportion to the amount of alcohol present.  The fact that it was commanded to be consumed ‘before the Lord’ (Deut. 24:26), and to be offered in sacrifice (Num. 28:7), indicates that it included unfermented forms of fruit juice.”[i]

“Shekar” does not inherently mean strong or intoxicating.  The word “strong” is an added word imposed by the translators.  It can only be assumed that the original English translators must have incorrectly thought that since “shekar” is so frequently found in a context where it is condemned, that it must always be intoxicating and therefore “strong.”  In some of the more recent versions of the Bible the word “strong” has been replaced with the word “similar.”  The New King James Version of the Bible is one such translation to make this correction.

Those who defend the moderate use of alcohol like to point out Deuteronomy 14:26 as a divine sanction for the use of alcohol.  In this passage, a special ordinance for the use of “strong drink” (KJV) is allowed when the journey to the annual harvest feast is logistically preventative. The spurious position relies upon the premise that no error was made in translation.  If this premise be true, then the ordinance would allow a distant traveler to the feast to drink alcoholic beverages from the Lord’s tithe.  Yet, those in close proximity to the feast must drink new wine (Deut. 14:23).

A proper understanding of the harvest feast would prevent such an erroneous understanding of the ordinance.  The context of Deuteronomy 14:3-21 calls for God’s people to abstain from anything unclean.  Those instructions are immediately followed by the instructions for the harvest feast.  Sacrifices such as those prepared and consumed during the harvest feast could not contain leaven (Lev. 2:11; Deut. 12:5-7).  Fermented wine was leavened and considered unclean (Lev. 10:9-10).   In order to allow the distant traveler to drink alcohol at the feast, it would have to be an exception to God’s laws. Yet, no exception is necessary when we understand new wine (tirosh) or similar drink (shekar) is being specified.

Another passage that is called into question is Proverbs 31:6-7.  It states, “Give strong drink to him who is perishing, and wine to those who are bitter of heart. Let him drink and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more.”   This passage sounds like approval to drink alcohol for the purpose of burying one’s problems.

In context, this advice is given to a young king that is being admonished by his mother not to drink intoxicating beverages because it impairs thinking and results in injustice (Prov. 31:1-5; Isa. 5:22-23).  The mother affirms that alcohol is not for responsible people.  In contrast, the mother asserts that alcohol is for the irresponsible.  It is for people who find the remedy to their problems at the bottom of a bottle rather than seeking justice.  Sarcastically, she is saying alcohol is only fit for those who relish in their misery.  This is not a passage that condones alcohol but one that condemns it.

By Steve A. Hamilton

[i] Samuele Bacchiocchi, Wine in the Bible, (Michigan, 2004) p. 229.