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.