In the Bible does “wine” mean grape juice?

Bring up alcohol in the Bible among some Christians and an angry debate is certain to erupt. The issue is contentious for reasons of society- alcohol abuse in America is rampant. The issue is contentious for reasons of language. None can deny that the Bible gives strong warning against drunkenness and “strong drink”. (Proverbs 23:29-35) None can deny that the Bible permits at least some drinking. (1 Timothy 5:23) Does the Bible forbid or permit all recreational drinking? The answer to that question first must answer the question, what is “wine” in the Bible.

In American English “wine” has a very definite meaning. It is an alcoholic drink made from fermented fruits, usually grapes. Any American reading the Bible would naturally assume the word wine is referring to the alcoholic grape based beverage usually served with nice dinners or enjoyed just before bed.

Unfortunately, the Biblical words do not necessarily refer to the same thing we think of today. The differences of culture and language mean the American reading of a word cannot define what the Bible is speaking about. The Bible was written to Ancient Hebrews living in a variety of cultures. Their understanding of what the words meant must become the dictionary by which we define the Biblical meaning of the English translation of those words today.

Obvious technological differences tells us that no one in the Bible ever popped the cork out of a glass bottle and pour themselves a nice glass of vintage Chardonnay. Likewise, any grape juice in Biblical times would not be the same as modern store bought plastic bottles of pasteurized grape juice.

A lengthy discussion of the Hebrew and Greek terminology is not possible. Entire books have been written on the subject. The Bible uses multiple words that are translated into the English word “wine”. The Hebrew word most commonly used in the Old Testament clearly describes alcoholic wine and fresh grape juice. For example, Isaiah 16:10 says, “And gladness is taken away, and joy out of the plentiful field; and in the vineyards there shall be no singing, neither shall there be shouting: the treaders shall tread out no wine in their presses; I have made their vintage shouting to cease.” Obviously fermented wine does not flow out of the winepresses. At times in the Old Testament the fresh pressed juice of the grape is called “wine”.

The Greek word most commonly used in the New Testament is also used to describe various types of drinks from the juice of grapes. In Luke 5:38 Jesus says, “And no man putteth new wine into old bottles; else the new wine will burst the bottles, and be spilled, and the bottles shall perish.” The new wine was the freshly pressed grape juice before it had the chance to ferment. In the process of fermentation gases build up. An old wineskin would break because it could not expand under the pressure. The adjective new is applied to the word wine but the usage is clear. The word wine could be used to describe fermented and unfermented grape juice.

Wine can never be translated as Welch’s grape juice. But, the original Hebrew and Greek words that are translated “wine” in the Bible can mean unfermented grape juice or various kinds of fermented grape juices.