Was Jesus a social drinker? Many of us approach a question like this with strong feelings, opinions, and convictions. Some of us have come from families in which we’ve witnessed loved ones lose their jobs, destroy their marriages, and ruin their health because of alcohol abuse.
Moreover, some of us have come from churches that have taken strong positions on this issue. It would be easy to allow our strong feelings, personal convictions or even our church traditions to answer the question. But we must not impose our feelings, convictions, or traditions upon the Bible. We must let the Bible speak for itself. When we ask the question “Was Jesus a social drinker?” our great concern should be, “What does the Word of God teach?”
The Question Answered
So how does the Bible answer this question? Was Jesus a social drinker? Before I attempt to answer this question, let me clarify it.
By “social drinker,” I’m referring to someone who drinks alcoholic beverages in moderation in public or semi-public settings with other people. This definition fits with the one found in the 2006 American Heritage Dictionary, which defines a “social drinker” as “a person who drinks alcoholic beverages in moderation, chiefly when socializing.” With that definition in view, consider the teaching of Luke 7:31-35:
And the Lord said, ‘To what then shall I liken the men of this generation, and what are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another, saying: “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we mourned to you, and you did not weep.” For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, “He has a demon.” The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, “Look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” But wisdom is justified by all her children.’
Commentators agree that the description of Jesus’ practice in verse 34 stands in contrast to the description of John the Baptist’s practice in verse 33. This is confirmed by the illustration used in verses 31 and 32 where a wedding march is contrasted with a funeral dirge. John’s approach to ministry was somewhat “funeral-like.” In contrast, Jesus’ approach to ministry was somewhat “wedding-like.”
So if we can determine what John’s practice was according to verse 33, then we’ll be able to attribute the opposite practice to Jesus in verse 34. According to Jesus, “John came neither eating bread nor drinking wine.” And John’s practice of abstinence finds its rationale in the birth announcement, which the angel Gabriel made to John’s father, Zacharias.
But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb (Luke 1:13-15).
Clearly, the angel describes John’s future ministry as being characterized by the practice of complete abstinence from alcoholic beverages. Some commentators believe the angel is alluding to the Nazirite vow. As a Nazirite, John could not cut his hair, use alcohol, or touch anything dead. Whatever the case, both Gabriel and Jesus describe John as a teetotaler. Now follow the logic: if the “came not drinking” in verse 33 of our passage equals abstaining from wine, then the “came drinking” in verse 34 of our passage must mean the opposite. So if John the Baptist practiced abstinence, Jesus did not. Jesus, unlike John, enjoyed an occasional glass of wine even in public.
The slanderous accusations of verse 34 also assume that Jesus was a social drinker. Jesus’ enemies were saying three negative things about Him. First they call Him “a glutton.” Second, they call Him “a drunkard.” And third, they call Him “a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” By “friend” they mean one who condones and participates in their sinful practices. What did tax collectors and sinners common do in that day? They glutted themselves on food and they got drunk on wine.
It’s important to note that each of these accusations were slanderous exaggerations of Jesus’ practice. When they accuse Jesus of being a glutton, they are referring to the fact that Jesus ate at feasts, and based on that fact, they then exaggerate His practice and falsely accuse Him of gluttony. In the same way, when they accuse Jesus of being “a winebibber,” they’re referring to the fact that Jesus did drink wine. But they slanderously exaggerate what is true and accuse Him of drinking wine in excess.
In other words, the scribes and Pharisees did not create these accusations out of thin air. The very accusations assume the practice! Therefore, according to our text, Jesus was a social drinker. Commentator J. C. Ryle, a friend of the temperance movement, agrees when he notes.
Comparing this verse with the preceding one, and remembering also our Lord’s miracle at the marriage in Cana, and the Institution of the Lord’s Supper, I certainly think there is a strong probability that our Lord did not altogether abstain from the use of wine. I say this with the utmost respect for the friends of temperance. But I do not like to see a good cause injured by its advocates taking up untenable ground.1
I have to address one objection commonly advanced by scholars and by well-known preachers today. Some argue, primarily on the basis of extra-biblical data, that the wine of Jesus’ day was heavily diluted with water in order to minimize its alcoholic content. For example, in an article entitled, “Wine Drinking in New Testament Times,” Robert Stein argues that the wine of NT times was three parts water to one part wine. In fact, Stein believes the main purpose of wine was to purify water. He writes,
In ancient times there were not many beverages that were safe to drink. The danger of drinking water alone raises another point. There were several ways in which the ancient could make water safe to drink. One method was boiling, but this was tedious and costly. Different methods of filtration were tried. The safest and easiest method of making the water safe to drink, however, was to mix it with wine. The drinking of wine … served therefore as a safety measure, since often the water available was not safe.2
Stein concludes his article that arguing that.
To consume the amount of alcohol that is in two martinis by drinking wine containing three parts water to one part wine [i.e., the wine of the NT], one would have to drink over twenty-two glasses. In other words, it is possible to become intoxicated from wine mixed with three parts water, but one’s drinking would probably affect the bladder long before it affected the mind.3
Therefore, Christians and scholars like Stein argue that it’s invalid to compare the wine of Jesus’ day with the wine of our day. Jesus was not drinking a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon but the ancient equivalent of a bottle of modern purified water.
Does this argument force us to revise our conclusion about Jesus and social drinking? I don’t believe so for the following reasons: first, even if the wine Jesus drank had a lower alcohol content than today’s wine, the issue is still moderation not abstinence. The believer may not be able to drink as many glasses of modern wine compared to ancient wine and remain within the bounds of moderation. Instead of drinking 20 glasses of ancient wine, we’d have to limit ourselves to 2 glasses of modern wine.
But still, the issue is moderation, not abstinenc.
Second, though the terminology for “wine” in the Bible may sometimes refer to diluted wine, it can also refer to undiluted wine that has fairly high alcohol content. So it’s begging the question to insist that Jesus drank nothing more than highly diluted wine or purified water. In fact, I think that’s highly unlikely in light of two factors related to our passage: the wine from which John abstained was most likely the kind with higher alcohol content.
Remember that the angel Gabriel placed it in the same category as “strong drink [sikera]” (Luke 1:15), a Greek transliteration of the Aramaic equivalent of the Hebrew noun sekar, which elsewhere refers to an intoxicating beverage, probably beer (Lev. 10:9; Num. 6:3; Deut. 14:26; 29:5; Judg. 13:4; Isa. 28:7; 29:9).
Moreover, the Pharisees’ slanderous accusation would make no sense if the wine of Jesus’ day were merely purified water! What would be morally wrong with drinking plenty of purified water? So I think it’s more likely that the wine that Jesus made at the wedding feast in Cana and that which He drank at festive occasions with tax collectors and sinners was probably more potent than Dr. Stein allows.
Third, Dr. Stein’s conclusion that NT wine would affect a person’s bladder long before it affected one’s mind is, I think, an overstatement. Think for a moment of what Stein’s view of NT wine does to one’s interpretation of passages like Ephesians 5:18: “Do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit.” Traditionally, this text has been interpreted to mean that believers should not drink wine in excess, which results in a lack of self-control and moral restraint; rather, they should be “filled with the Spirit,” that is, they should submit their minds and affections to the Holy Spirit’s controlling influence.
But if we follow Stein’s interpretation of NT wine, then the metaphor takes on a different meaning. Paul is exhorting the believer to avoid filling their physical bladder with wine, which would result in many trips to the bathroom. Rather, they are to allow their “spiritual bladder” to be filled with the Holy Spirit!
And what will be the effect? I’ll leave that to reader’s imagination. According to 1 Timothy 3:3, a qualification for the elder is that he not be “given to wine.” Once again, commentators have traditionally interpreted this as a prohibition against the abuse or overuse of wine, which has the potential of intoxicating the mind and judgment. But if we followed Stein’s reasoning, then we’d have to see this as a prohibition against drinking too much purified water. Perhaps the fear would be that the pastor would have to make too many trips to the bathroom during the sermon or pastoral oversight visit!
What’s the bottom line? According to our passage, Jesus drank wine that had enough alcoholic content to intoxicate a person if used in excess. We know Jesus was sinless; therefore he never drank in excess and was never guilty of drunkenness. Jesus used alcohol in moderation, and he sometimes drank in public. So the unavoidable answer to the question with which we began this study is “Yes, Jesus was a social drinker.”
In our next installment, we’ll consider the practical implications this answer has for the individual Christian and the local church.
Robert Gonzales is Dean of the Reformed Baptist Seminary in Taylors, SC. He blogs regularly at RBS Tabletalk where this article first appeared and it is used with his permission.
[Editor’s note: The original URLs (links) referenced in this article are no longer valid, so the links have been removed.]