In John, chapter two, Jesus converts approximately 120 gallons of water into wine during a seven-day wedding feast. By performing this sign, was Jesus condoning the drinking of alcoholic wine? Biblical scholar Andreas Köstenberger tackles the issue of Jesus and alcoholic wine in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible). First, he explains the different kinds of wine that existed in first-century Palestine.
Fermented wine (oinos; e.g., Eph 5: 18; not from the most recent harvest) was usually mixed in the proportion of two or three parts of water to one part of wine (b. Pesahahim 108b). New wine (oinos neos; e.g., Matt 9: 17; Mark 2: 22; Luke 5: 37– 38; cf. Hos 9: 2; Hag 1: 11; Zech 9: 17; 1QS 6: 4– 6; 1QSa 2: 17– 18, 20; 1QH 10: 24) was made from the most recent harvest and was not fermented. Finally, there were wines that were non-alcoholic due to the process of fermentation being stopped by boiling the unfermented grape juice (called ‘must’). Wine was also, though less frequently, made from pomegranates (Song 8: 2) and raisins (b. Baba Batra 97b) along with apples, dates, honey, herbs, and figs.
Did Jesus drink fermented (alcoholic) wine? Köstenberger argues “yes.”
The Gospels clearly portray Jesus as drinking fermented wine (Matt 11: 19; Mark 14: 25). The latter passage also intimates that wine will be drunk in heaven. In stark contrast to the portrayal of John the Baptist, Matthew and Luke indicate that Jesus ‘came eating and drinking’ and was promptly accused of being ‘a glutton and a drunkard’ (Matt 11: 19; Luke 7: 34). This shows that Jesus was known to have drunk fermented wine regularly while associating with his contemporaries.
What about the miraculous sign at the wedding in Cana?
The current passage in John recounts Jesus’ turning a large quantity of water into wine (oinos) at a family wedding in Cana of Galilee. This is Jesus’ first of a series of messianic signs selected by John for inclusion in his Gospel. There is no indication in these verses that Jesus would have turned the water into non-alcoholic wine. Instead, the use of oinos combined with Jesus’ use of fermented wines throughout the Gospels leads to the conclusion that Jesus turned the water into wine containing alcohol. That the chief servant made comment about the tendency of hosts to set out the ‘inferior’ wine last, after the guests have ‘drunk freely,’ confirms this conclusion, for if guests have drunk freely from non-alcoholic wine, they would not be duped by the inferior wine that followed (John 2: 10).
Whether a Christian today should drink alcohol depends on many factors that are outside the scope of this essay, but it seems unwise to argue that Jesus mandated abstinence from drinking alcohol. The evidence for this position, according to Köstenberger, is simply not there.