Alcohol: Biblical and Catholic Teaching

by Dave Armstrong

Thursday, March 15, 2007


Catholics believe alcohol is acceptable in moderation (which we would say is the biblical and traditional Christian view). We regard drunkenness as a sin. The new Catechism of the Catholic Church condemns drunken excess and illegal drugs in #2290-2291:



The virtue of temperance disposes us to avoid every kind of excess: the abuse of food, alcohol, tobacco, or medicine. Those incur grave guilt who, by drunkenness or a love of speed, endanger their own and others' safety on the road, at sea, or in the air.

The use of drugs inflicts very grave damage on human health and life. Their use, except on strictly therapeutic grounds, is a grave offense. Clandestine production of and trafficking in drugs are scandalous practices. They constitute direct co-operation in evil, since they encourage people to practices gravely contrary to the moral law.

In my understanding, the notion held by some Protestants that alcohol is intrinsically evil derives primarily (if not solely) from the temperance and prohibition movements in the mid-1800s and onward. Several denominations, such as the Presbyterians and the Methodists (maybe even the Baptists ?), changed at that time from serving alcohol (following the implied "wine" of the biblical description) in the Lord's Supper / Communion, to grape juice, almost entirely on political grounds: they were caving in to the temperance activists, in my opinion; adapting and compromising the gospel and Christianity to the political / moral and cultural fashions of the moment.

Lutherans and Anglicans have always used wine for Holy Communion. Neither Martin Luther (who was quite fond of wine) nor John Calvin (Institutes, 3:19:7; 4:13:9 - citing St. Augustine) opposed wine-drinking. Calvin casually assumes that wine will be used for Holy Communion (4:17:43), as it had always been used in the Church previous to that time. The third major Protestant Reformer, Zwingli, while rejecting the Real Presence altogether and adopting a purely symbolic view of the Lord's Supper, nevertheless assumed that wine had always been used in the Christian celebration of the Eucharist, and kept on using it.

The weak arguments from the Bible used by fundamentalists to oppose all alcohol use whatsoever collapse upon even cursory examination, in my opinion. They try to assert that the biblical "wine" is merely unfermented grape juice. The term "strong drink, " however, in contrast to "wine," is seen, e.g., in passages such as Lev 10:9, Num 6:3, Deut 14:26, 29:6, Jud 13:4,7,14, 1 Sam 1:15, Prov 31:4, Mic 2:11 (cf. Prov 20:1, 31:6, Is 5:11,22, 24:9, 28:7, 56:12, Luke 1:15). This Hebrew word is shekar, defined by Strong's Concordance (word #7941) as "intoxicant, i.e., intensely alcoholic liquor - strong drink." Gesenius' Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon (1st ed., 1847; reprinted by Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1979) likewise defines it as

strong drink, intoxicating liquor, whether wine, Nu 28:7, or intoxicating drink like wine, made from barley . . ., or distilled from honey or dates. It is often distinguished from wine . . . (p. 823)

Note that God doesn't outright forbid this "strong drink" as immoral in and of itself. It may be avoided (along with wine) by some for fasting or ascetic (voluntary self-denial) purposes (as in Lev 10:9, Num 6:3, and Deut 29:6), but that is not a sweeping prohibition. In fact, in Deut 14:26, Moses (see Deut 1:1) says in so many words that it is perfectly acceptable to drink it. The writer of Proverbs advises giving "strong drink" to the dying, and "wine to those in bitter distress; let them drink and forget their poverty, and remember their misery no more" (31:6-7; NRSV). This is similar to the Apostle Paul's suggestion to "take a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments" (1 Timothy 5:23; NRSV).

In many of these passages, it is implied, however, that excessive drinking of this intoxicant, or drunkenness, is a bad thing, characteristic of the wicked. Thus, the Bible (and the Catholic Church, following it) condemns drunkenness, but not all use of alcohol or wine (e.g., Deut 21:20, Prov 20:1, 21:17, 23:20-21,29-35, 26:9, Is 5:11-12, Rom 13:13, 1 Cor 5:11, 6:10, Gal 5:21, 1 Tim 3:3,8, Titus 1:7, 2:3, 1 Peter 4:3).

Many OT passages praise wine (e.g., Jud 9:13, Ps 104:15). Having "plenty" of wine is a divine blessing (Gen 27:28). Wine was used at the ancient Jewish festivals (Passover, Pentecost, Tabernacles), and on the Sabbath, and was offered as a libation in Jewish rituals (Ex 29:40, 1 Sam 1:24), which may account for its later use in the Passover Seder. The Talmud called for red wine to be used. The Last Supper was a Jewish Passover (see Mt 26:17 ff., Mk 14:12 ff., Lk 22:15 ff., Jn 13:1 ff.); hence Jesus undeniably used wine as the example of what was to become the Christian Eucharist.

Jesus partook of wine and was absurdly accused by His critics of being a drunkard (Matt 11:19, Lk 7:33). He turned water into wine (not grape juice), in His first miracle (Jn 2:1 ff.). Jesus drank wine on the cross:

A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, 'It is finished.' Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

(John 19:29-30; cf. Mt 27:48, Mk 15:36; NRSV)

This word, oxos in Greek, is translated as "vinegar" in the King James Version. Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (4th ed., 1901, rep. by Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1977) defines it (Strong's word #3690) as follows:

. . . used in the NT for Latin 'posca,' i.e., the mixture of sour wine or vinegar and water which the Roman soldiers were accustomed to drink. (p. 449)

In fact, the Roman soldiers offered this drink to Jesus before the crucifixion, and He refused (Mt 27:34, Lk 23:36, Mk 15:23). But the interesting thing is that the best texts of Mt 27:34 have the NT word for "wine," oinos (Strong's #3631), rather than oxos, thus strongly inferring that what Jesus was given on the cross was indeed wine, not vinegar. Likewise, even the KJV manuscripts (older and now outdated) have oinos at Mk 15:23:

And they gave him to drink wine [oinos] mingled with myrhh: but he received it not. (KJV)

Jesus refused this drink because it contained myrhh, which - combined with alcohol - would have had a narcotic effect. But he accepted this same drink without the myrhh on the cross, just before He died (John 19:29-30; cf. Mt 27:48, Mk 15:36). Some might still dispute that it was (or contained wine, with alcohol), but several modern translations render oxos at John 19:29-30, Mt 27:48, and Mk 15:36 as "wine," "sour wine," or similar description:

John 19:29-30: "sour wine" (NASB, Living, Phillips, NEB, NRSV, NKJV, REB, Wuest, Goodspeed, Beck, Williams),
"cheap wine" (TEV),
"wine vinegar" (NIV),
"vinegar (a sour wine)" (Amplified),
"bitter wine" (Barclay),
"common wine" (Confraternity, NAB)
Matthew 27:48: "sour wine" (NASB, Living, NEB, NRSV, NKJV, REB, Wuest, Goodspeed, Beck),
"cheap wine" (TEV, NAB),
"wine vinegar" (NIV),
"vinegar [a sour wine]" (Amplified),
"common wine" (Confraternity)
Mark 15:36: "sour wine" (NASB, Living, NEB, NRSV, NKJV, REB, Wuest, NAB, Beck),
"cheap wine" (TEV),
"wine vinegar" (NIV),
"vinegar [a mixture of sour wine and water]" (Amplified),
"common wine" (Goodspeed, Confraternity)

The conclusion is overwhelming: Jesus drank wine on the cross. It was the last thing He did before He died. Even modern revisions of the KJV and RSV change the "vinegar" to "wine" (e.g., NRSV, NKJV, NASB). Perhaps this was in part due to the sort of cross-referencing just examined.

The NT oinos ["wine"] was a fermented drink, though probably less strong than our current wine. Fermentation is implied, e.g., in the mention of the bursting of the wineskins (Matt 9:17, Mark 2:22, Luke 5:37). Eph 5:18 states that one can theoretically get "drunk with wine" and Paul commands us not to do that (cf. Jn 2:10). Wine is to be avoided if it stumbles a brother (Rom 14:21).

This is the biblical teaching on wine and alcohol. The Catholic Church follows it closely, while the absolute anti-alcohol position of some Protestant fundamentalists cannot possibly be sustained on a biblical basis. There is no biblical evidence whatsoever that unfermented grape juice was ever considered as "wine" (see, e.g., Gen 40:11-12). No amount of wishful thinking or Puritanistic moralizing can change that fact (and the others above).