[An excerpt: Living in the Spirit Ephesians 5:18-20 by John MacArthur]
"The Biblical Words for Wine
The most common word in the New Testament for wine is the Greek word oinos. It is a general word that simply refers to the fermented juice of the grape. The Old Testament equivalent to the Greek word oinos is yayin, the root of which means to "bubble up" or "boil up." The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia (vol. 12, p. 533) states that yayin, at least in the rabbinic period, was diluted with water.
The Greek word gleukos--from which we get the English word glucose, means "new wine." It is used in Acts 2:13 to refer to the apostles on the day of Pentecost. It says they were "full of new wine." Although it was comparatively fresh and not yet fully aged, it was potentially intoxicating. The mockers in in Acts 2:13 were accusing the apostles of being drunk.
The Old Testament word for new wine is tirosh. Hosea 4:11 says "wine [yayin] and new wine [tirosh] take away the heart." Drunkenness is the result of drinking this new wine.
The Old Testament word for strong drink is shakar, a term that eventually became restricted to intoxicants other than wine. According to the 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia, it refers to unmixed wine. The New Testament equivalent is the Greek word sikera.
The Historical Data Regarding Wine
Because of refrigeration problems in ancient times, wine was often boiled until the liquid evaporated, leaving behind a thick, unintoxicating paste that stored well. It was somewhat similar to modern grape jelly. The people would spread it on bread like a jam, and some still do today in the Middle East.
Pliny the Elder--This Roman historian in his Natural Histories said such wine could last as long as ten years. He wrote of wine that had the consistency of honey.
Horace--This Latin poet wrote in his Odes of unintoxicating wine, that he recommended quaffing under the shade (I:18).
Plutarch--This Greek essayist wrote in his Moralia that filtered wine neither inflames the brain nor infects the mind and the passions, and is much more pleasant to drink. He liked the kind of wine with no alcoholic content.
Aristotle--This Greek philosopher spoke of wine that was so thick, it was necessary to scrape it from the skins it was stored in and to dissolve the scrapings in water."
Virgil--This Latin writer spoke of the necessity of boiling down wine.
Homer--The celebrated bard, in the ninth book of The Odyssey tells of Ulysses, who took with him in his visit to the Cyclops a goatskin of sweet, black wine that needed to be diluted with twenty parts of water before being consumed as a beverage.
Columella--This Latin agronomist, a contemporary of the apostles, wrote that it was common in Italy and Greece to boil wine. That would not have been done if they had wanted to preserve the alcoholic content.
Archbishop Potter--Archbishop Potter, born in 1674, wrote in his Grecian Antiquities wrote to boil down their wines and then drink them four years later (Edinburg, 1813, vol. 2, p. 360). He also refers to Democritus, a celebrated philosopher, and Palladius, a Greek physician, as making similar statements concerning wine at that time. These ancient authorities referred to the boiled juice of the grape as wine.
Professor Donovan--Donovan in his Bible Commentary said, "In order to preserve their wines ... the Romans concentrated the must or grape juice, of which they were made, by evaporation, either spontaneous in the air or over a fire, so as to render them thick and syrupy" (p. 295).
The Talmud--The Talmud, the codification of Jewish law, mentions repeatedly that the Jews were in the habit of using boiled wine (e.g., 'Erabin 29a).
W. G. Brown--Brown, who traveled extensively in Africa, Egypt, and Asia from 1792 to 1798 said that the wines of Syria are mostly prepared by boiling immediately after they are pressed from the grape until they are considerably reduced in quantity, when they are then put into bottles and preserved for use.
Caspar Neumann--Dr. Neumann, Professor of Chemistry in Berlin, 1795, said, "It is observable that when sweet juices are boiled down to a thick consistency, they not only do not ferment in that state, but are not easily brought into fermentation when diluted with as much water as they had lost in the evaporation, or even with the very individual water that exhaled from them" (Nott, London edition, p. 81). The wine evidently lost much of its intoxicating properties after being reconstituted.
Dr. A. Russell--Russell, in his Natural History of Aleppo (London: G.G. and J. Robinson, 1794), said that the concentrated wine juice, called "dibbs," was brought to the city in skins and sold in the public markets. He said it had the appearance of a coarse honey.
The wine that was consumed in biblical times was not what we know as wine today. It was more of a concentrated grape juice with its intoxicating properties basically removed. You cannot defend wine-drinking today on the basis of wine-drinking in Bible times because the two are totally different.
Wine stored as a liquid, however, would ferment. Professor Robert Stein, in his "Wine-drinking in New Testament Times" (Christianity Today, 20 June 1975: 9-11), tells us liquid wine was stored in large jugs called amphorae. The pure, unmixed wine would be drawn out of these jugs and poured into large bowls called kraters, where it was mixed with water. From these kraters, it would then be poured into kylix, or cups. Wine would never be served directly from the amphora without first being mixed. And according to other historical data on this period, the mixture could be as high as a 20:1 ratio or lower than 1:1.
Drinking unmixed wine was looked upon by Greek culture as barbaric. Stein quotes Mnesitheus of Athens as saying, "The gods have revealed wine to mortals, to be the greatest blessing for those who use it aright, but for those who use it without measure, the reverse. For it gives food to them that take it and strength in mind and body. In medicine it is most beneficial; it can be mixed with liquid and drugs and it brings aid to the wounded. In daily intercourse, to those who mix and drink it moderately, it gives good cheer; but if you overstep the bounds, it brings violence. Mix it half and half, and you get madness; unmixed, bodily collapse."
As a beverage, wine was always thought of as a mixed drink in Greek culture. The ratio of water might have varied but only barbarians drank it unmixed. Stein cites patristic writings that show the early church served mixed wine.
Beer has approximately 4% alcohol, wine 9-11%, brandy 15- 20%, and hard liquor 40-50% (80-100 proof). So, unmixed wine in biblical times measured at approximately 9-11%. Mixed wine, at a 3:1 ratio, would therefore be between 2.25- to-2.75%. By today's standards, a drink has to exceed 3.2% to be considered an alcoholic beverage. The wine they consumed was either completely non-alcoholic or sub- alcoholic by today's standards. To become drunk with wine in those days you would have to drink all day. That is why the Bible commands elders in the church not to be addicted to much wine (1 Tim. 3:3). With such a low alcoholic content, you would have to purpose to become drunk.
So, is drinking wine today the same as in Bible times? No..." Full text: Living in the Spirit: Ephesians 5:18-20 by John MacArthur