WINE AND THE BIBLE (Part 2: Understanding Fermentation)

To quickly recap, the Bible mentions wine or drinking under three categories: (1) a teaching illustration or metaphor (Matt. 20:1-8; Luke 20:9-16), (2) a cause of misery and the emblem of eternal wrath (1 Peter 4:3; 5:8; Prov. 20:1), and (3) as a blessing used in celebrations (Judges 9:13; John 2:1-12). Based on these observations, there must be different kinds of wine from the ancient times. The idea that every wine God mentions in the Bible is alcoholic is based on weak assumptions. However, advocates of drinking alcohol will use other arguments besides the word “wine” being used in the context of Jesus or a blessing from God.

People who defend drinking alcohol will commonly make their defense from the perspective of the fermentation process. The advocates will argue those in the first century could not have kept grape juice from turning into alcoholic wine because modern refrigeration did not exist yet; or the grape juice would have fermented over time and the Jews and early Christians may not have known they were drinking alcohol because the proof was such a small percentage. Many seem to think that fermentation will happen, and people cannot control it or stop it. Such advocates imagine grape juice turning into alcohol when it gets old. One weak assumption here is that the ancients knew little about how to keep grape juice from spoiling, and another weak assumption is that grape juice will naturally convert to alcohol if it is allowed to set out in the natural climate too long. Both of these assumptions are false.

The laws of fermentation exist as fixed facts, operating always in the same way, and requiring always and everywhere the same conditions. Professor of Chemistry, Michael Donovan, explains in his book, Domestic Economy, that there are four factors that must be present for vinous fermentation to occur. There must be saccharine (sugar) matter and gluten (yeast). The temperature should not be below 50o nor above 70o or 75o. The juice must be of a certain consistency, not thick like syrup or watery, but rather an exact ratio of sugar and water. Too much water or too little, too much sugar or too little will prevent the process of fermentation to create liquor. Finally, the quantity of gluten or ferment must also be well regulated, too much or too little will impede and prevent vinous fermentation. The idea that natural conditions could create this delicate and exact process is near impossible.

Other chemists and experts agree with Professor Donovan that alcoholic wine doesn’t occur by happenstance. Count Chaptal, the eminent French chemist, says, “Nature never forms spirituous liquors; she rots the grape upon the branch; but it is the art which converts the juice into (alcoholic) wine.” This chemist explains that grape juice can rot and taste acidic or sour after it has gone past its prime, but this is different than making alcoholic wine. Even the Bible makes a distinction between alcohol that has been made from grape juice and old juice that has soured into a vinegar-like substance (Matt. 27:34; Luke 5:37). Professor Turner, in his book, Chemistry, states of alcohol, “It does not exist ready formed in plants, but is a product of vinous fermentation.” Dr. Pereira explains in her work, Elements of Materia Medica, “Grape juice does not ferment in the grape itself.” She elucidates that those foreign elements must be added in order to achieve the preferred ratio of sugar to water. The research shows that grape juice, when left to sit out in the natural climate does not naturally ferment into alcohol, it will turn sour and rot, but it does not ferment into alcohol.

The ancients also knew enough about their climate and the process of vinous fermentation to prevent the process and preserve their “new” wine (grape juice) that it might not spoil. Augustine Calmet, the learned author of the Dictionary of the Bible, born 1672, writes, “The ancients possessed the secret of preserving wines sweet throughout the whole year.” If they were alcoholic, the sweet would turn acidic through fermentation. Preserving the juices sweet throughout the year meant preserving them unfermented.

The ancients employed at least three processes of preserving grape juice. The ancients would boil the juice (inspissation), filter the wine (subsidence), or fumigate the juice in order to keep it sweet. Toward the time of Christ, the Greeks would seal the juice in airtight jars, using wax at the lid, and keeping the containers in places below 50o like underground cellars or under streams or waterfalls. There were numerous processes. The ancients, including Israel, desired the sweet savor of grape juice over the acidic bitterness of alcoholic wine, which is why God would often describe His sacrifices as “sweet savour” (Ex. 29:18; Lev. 1:9). Obviously, non-alcoholic wine in the ancient times was more common than what most people believe today.

Furthermore, the kind of grape juice that Americans buy in the store today differs from the pure juice of the grape in biblical times. Many companies bottle their juices with extra sugar or other juices or preservatives that when sealed and kept in a temperature between 50o to 70o (which is the temperature many households might keep in a pantry) might actually ferment into alcohol. People need not make the mistake of thinking that because their processed grape juices in their pantries ferment outside the frig that all grape juices from all over the world and in all places throughout time will do the same!

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