Did Jesus Turn Water into Liquor?

There are at least two ways in which we can attempt to answer this question:

1. Historical Approach. Try to understand the wedding customs during Jesus’ times and see if people in His times gave fermented wine at weddings. But, a general practice doesn’t need to be a necessary practice in every instance. For instance, just because a few instances tell us that Christians play also secular music during weddings doesn’t prove that they do so in every wedding. Also, every Christian wedding on the same day in the same town may not include non-vegetarian food in dinner.

2. Theological Approach. The logical method in theology would certainly conclude that Jesus could not have made fermented drink to help people get drunk in abundance. That would be a miracle that facilitated drunkenness. Certainly, He made pure unfermented grape juice. Grape juice continues to be served today in hotter regions. 

Some Observations by Jim McGuiggan

Source: Wine: Fermented and Unfermented (Accessed November 29, 2014)

Tirosh is most likely unfermented wine and is not intoxicating, when Psalm 4:7 tells us that harvesting it (along with grain) gladdens people’s hearts we can be sure it isn’t talking about it intoxicating them (see too Judges 9:13). Psalm 4:7 doesn’t even read as if a “drinking” experience is in view—it’s a harvesting experience; here’s the text (NIV and the rest): “You have filled my heart with greater joy than when their grain and new wine abound.”

However, Psalm 104:15 uses yayin and most scholars think the word “means” an intoxicating wine. It’s true that the word is used that way all over the place but there’s no reason to believe that that’s because the word itself “means” an intoxicating wine. The word yayin like the Greek word oinos is almost certainly a generic term and only the context determines whether or not it is intoxicating.

The Greek OT always renders yayin with oinos but it always renders tirosh with oinos. Scholarly consensus says tirosh is unfermented wine and yet the Greek OT translates it with oinos. What does that tell you? It tells you that they thought oinos can speak of unfermented or fermented wine. Since they used oinos to translate unfermented wine and since they used oinos to translate yayin we have every reason to believe that yayin like oinos is a generic term and that the context determines where intoxicating or non-intoxicating wine is in view.

Oinos is the juice of the grape and ancient literature is saturated with illustrations of oinos in various forms (sweet, bitter, new, old, fresh, spoiled, drugged, mixed and so forth).

Jesus speaks of the universal practice of putting “new wine” in new wineskins to avoid the loss of the wine if and when it fermented and the old bags already stretched to the limit would burst (Matthew 9:17). This presumes that what they put in the bags was not fermented or intoxicating. But he calls it neos oinos (new wine). Manifestly, then, oinos can speak of a non-fermented wine. [There’s even more to learn from this “parable”. We often hear silly things said; “The ancients couldn’t keep grape juice from fermenting because they didn’t have modern chemicals.” You hear people say that intoxicating wine is all they ever drank. This is demonstrably false and in addition, even the naturally fermented wine was usually watered as a table drink. It was nothing like the high-octane stuff the booze industry sells so much of.]

Norman Geisler on Drinking Wine

From “To Drink or Not To Drink: A Sober Look at the Question”

It is axiomatic that a Christian should not do what God condemns, and the Bible condemns the use of intoxicating drinks. The Hebrew word for strong drink is shekar. It is used 23 times in the OT and refers to intoxicating drink made from barley, pomegranates, dates, apples, or honey. The more common word is yayin. It is used 141 times, most of which means fermented grape juice. The Hebrew word tirosh,occasionally translated “new wine” means freshly pressed juice. It is used38 times in the OT (e.g. Gen 27: 28; Joel 2:24; Mic 6:15). In the NT the Greek word gleukos (meaning “sweet wine”) is used for new wine (Acts 2:13). The word oinos is more widely used for wine (cf. Eph 5:18). The following passages condemn the use of strong drink (shekar): “Wine is a mocker [yayin], intoxicating drink [shekar] arouses brawling, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise” (Prov 20:1)…..

The NT exhortations about intoxicating drinks follow those in the OT. Paul wrote, “Now I have written unto you not to keep company with anyone named a brother who is a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard—not even to eat with such a person” (1 Cor 5:11). “Do you not know that . . . Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals . . . nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:9–11). “And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation [debauchery]” (Eph 5:18).

From “A Christian Perspective on Wine Drinking”

Stein also observes that “in several instances in the Old Testament a distinction is made between ‘wine’ and ‘strong drink'” (e.g., Lev. 10:8-9). Strong drink is one thing, wine is another thing. The same distinction is made in Deuteronomy 14:26; 29:6; Judges 13:4; and elsewhere. According to the Talmud the “wine” used in the Passover meal was three parts water and one part wine (cf. 2 Macc. 15:39).(9)

It may also be that the wine Jesus miraculously provided at the wedding in Cana (John 2: 1-11) was a similar drink, that is, wine mixed with water. The word oinos (“wine”) refers sometimes to fermented grape juice (e.g., Eph. 5:18) and sometimes to fresh, not fully fermented grape juice (e.g., Rev. 19:15). Furthermore, in ancient times not many beverages were safe to drink. Stein indicates that in the ancient world water could be made safe in one of several ways. It could be boiled, but this was tedious and costly. Or it could be filtered, but this was not a safe method. Or some wine could be put in the water to kill the germs — one part wine with three or four parts water.

Wine today has a much higher level of alcohol than wine in the New Testament. In fact in New Testament times one would need to drink twenty-two glasses of wine in order to consume the large amount of alcohol in two martinis today. Stein humorously notes, “In other words, it is possible to become intoxicated from wine mixed with three parts water, but one’s drinking would probably affect the bladder long before the mind.”

Updated on Dec 5, 2014


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