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The Reformation Herald Online Edition

Wake Up Already!

Digging Into Doctrine
The Wine for the Holy Communion
Part 1 of 2
G. Melnychuk
The Wine for the Holy Communion
Picture the scene . . .

“When the hour was come, [Jesus] sat down, and the twelve apostles with him. And he said unto them, With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer: for I say unto you, I will not any more eat thereof, until it be fulfilled in the kingdom of God. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, Take this, and divide it among yourselves: for I say unto you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God shall come” (Luke 22:14–18).

What was inside the cup?

Regarding the wine that Jesus drank with His disciples in the upper room, many Christians hold one or the other of two contradictory opinions.

The first category is of those who believe that the drink which Jesus took with His disciples, even though it is called “wine,” is in reality pure, unfermented grape juice.

The second holds the opinion that the word “wine” used in Scripture refers to fermented grape juice (alcoholic wine). Therefore, in desiring to follow Christ’s example, they use alcoholic wine for the Holy Supper.

The truth is that only one of these opinions is right. I also believe that it is important to know exactly what Jesus drank that night in order that we may follow His example. Let us put our opinions and preconceived ideas aside for a moment as we turn to God’s Word and to historical facts to distinguish between divine truth in contrast to human ideas.

One word—two meanings!

What is a homograph? It is a word that reads and spells the same but can actually mean two or more different things—depending on the general idea of a sentence. A few random examples include words such as “speaker” as a person who speaks—or as an electronic component in a sound system; “close” as in not far away—or in making a door or window no longer open; and similarly with other examples such as “issue,” “period,” solution,” or “table.”

The word “wine” also has two different meanings. The first: unfermented grape juice. The second: a fermented, alcoholic beverage made from grapes. The second meaning has become so common in recent times, that many people are unaware of the first one. As a result, many Christians today erroneously assume that “wine” is only a fermented juice.

Therefore let us look at some older dictionaries of the English language:

The General English Dictionary, published in London in 1708, gives the following definition: “Wine, a Liquor made of the Juice of Grapes or other Fruits. Liquor or Liquour, anything that is Liquid; Drink, Juice, etc. Must, Sweet Wine, newly pressed from the Grape.”1

We find a similar definition in the 1760 New Universal Etymological English Dictionary: “Natural WINE, is such as it comes from the grape, without any mixture or sophistication. Adulterated WINE, is that wherein some drug is added to give it strength, fineness, flavour, briskness, or some other qualification.”2

The next evidence of the two different meanings of “wine” can be found in the 1830 American Dictionary of the English Language: “1. The fermented juice of grapes. 2. The juice of certain fruits.” 3

“WINE a Liquor made of the Juice of the Grapes or other Fruits.”4 “Liquor anything that is liquid. Drink, Juice, Water, &c.”5

The 1854 Imperial Dictionary defines “wine” very simply: “The juice of certain fruits”6

In the 1895 American Encyclopedic Dictionary we find a more extensive explanation of the different meanings of the word “wine”: “1. The fermented juice of the grape. The must or expressed juice of the grapes. 2. The juice of certain fruits prepared in imitation of wine obtained from grapes, but distinguished by naming the source from whence obtained; as, gooseberry wine, currant wine, etc. 3. The unfermented juice of certain plants.”7

One more extended explanation of the different meanings of “wine”: “1. The fermented juice of the grape. . . . 2. The juice of certain fruits prepared in imitation of wine obtained from grapes. . . . 3. The unfermented juice.”8

The 1919 Funk & Wagnalls, Desk Standard Dictionary of the English Language defines “wine” as follows: “The fermented juice of the grape; in more extended use, the expressed juice of the grape, fermented or unfermented.”9

In its 1955 edition it reads almost the same: “The fermented juice of the grape: in loose language the juice of the grape whether fermented or not.”10

An exhaustive reference we find in the 1913 Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, which defines “wine” as “the expressed juice of grapes, especially when fermented; a beverage . . . prepared from grapes by squeezing out their juice, and (usually) allowing it to ferment.”11

This definition recognizes that the basic meaning of “wine” is “the expressed juice of grapes” which is usually, but not always, allowed to ferment.

Looking at the definitions of the word “wine” in older dictionaries, the ambiguity in the modern English language becomes even more evident. It is clear that the word English word “wine” can refer to an alcoholic beverage as well as to pure, unfermented grape juice.

The 1997 Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, one of the most popular dictionaries of the English language today, defines “wine” as: “3. The juice, fermented or unfermented, of various other fruits or plants, used as a beverage, sauce, etc.”12

The definitions of “wine” from older English dictionaries lead us to conclude that when the King James Version of the Bible was produced (1604–1611), its translators probably understood “wine” to refer to either fermented or unfermented wine.

“Wine” in the Hebrew language

The 1907 Jewish Encyclopedia gives a very clear evidence of the various liquids that have been translated as “wine”—not only in Jewish society but in religious ceremonies as well: “There were different kinds of wine. ‘Yayin’ was the ordinary matured, fermented wine, ‘tirosh’ was a new wine, and ‘shekar’ was an old, powerful wine [strong drink]. . . .

“Wine is called ‘yayin’ because it brings lamentation and wailing into the world, and ‘tirosh,’ . . . ‘Tirosh’ includes all kinds of sweet juices and must, and does not include fermented wine. ‘Yayin’ is to be distinguished from ‘shekar’; the former is diluted with water (‘mazug’); the latter is undiluted. . . .

“Fresh wine before fermenting was called ‘yayin mi-gat’ (wine of the vat). . . .

“For religious ceremonies wine is preferable to other beverages. Wine ‘cheereth God’ (Judges 9:13); hence no religious ceremony should be performed with other beverages than wine. Over all fruits the benediction used is that for ‘the fruits of the tree,’ but over wine a special benediction for ‘the fruits of the vine’ is pronounced. This latter benediction is, according to R. Eliezer, pronounced only when the wine has been properly mixed with water. Over natural wine the benediction is the same as that used for the ‘fruits of the tree.’ The drinking of natural wine on the night of Passover is not ‘in the manner of free men.’ ‘Kiddush’ and ‘Habdalah’ should be recited over a cup of wine. . . . According to Raba, one may squeeze the juice of a bunch of grapes into a cup and say the ‘Ḳiddush.’ The cup is filled with natural wine during grace, in memory of the Holy Land, where the best wine is produced.”13

(By the way, what do these Hebrew words Kiddush and Habdalah mean? Kiddush—literally: “sanctification”—is a blessing recited over the kosher wine or grape juice to sanctify the Shabbat or Jewish holiday (Passover). The Habdalah or Havdalah is a ceremonial ritual marking the end of the event.)

An almost identical description of the use of Jewish “wine” is found in the more recent Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): “The newly pressed wine, prior to fermentation, was known as yayin mi-gat (‘wine from the vat’), yayin yashan (‘old wine’) was wine from the previous year, and that from earlier vintages, yashan noshan (‘old, very old’).”14

Both of these standard Jewish Encyclopedias explicitly attest that the Jewish “wine” was used to refer to a fermented wine as well as to fresh grape juice such as that squeezed from a cluster into a cup.

“Wine” in the Greek language

A key factor in our consideration is to establish whether or not the Greek word oinos—translated into English as “wine”—refers only to fermented grape juice, because the experience recorded in the New Testament was written in Greek. To help us better understand how the Greek word for “wine” was used in the times of Christ, let us consider the historical Greek understanding:

Aristotle, the renowned Greek scientist and philosopher in his treatise Meteorology makes reference both to sweet, unfermented wine that does not inebriate, and to fermented, intoxicating wine—explaining that the same word is often used to describe two different things—either fermented or unfermented.

“Sweet wine does give off fumes. . . . Really it is not wine at all in spite of its name: for it does not taste like wine and consequently does not inebriate as ordinary wine does.”15

“The reason is that the word ‘wine’ is ambiguous and different ‘wines’ behave in different ways.”16

Athenaeus, the Grammarian (about a.d. 200), explains that sweet, unfermented “wine” is good for the stomach. He recommends that the dyspeptic “take sweet wine, either mixed with water or warmed, especially that which is called protropos, the sweet Lesbian wine, as being very good for the stomach. New sweet wines do not make the head heavy.”17

There are other materials (historical records and biographies, as well as examinations of these materials done as doctoral research) of Greek origin that prove the word “wine” to have two different implications—one being an alcoholic beverage, the other a fresh, not fermented, natural grape juice.

Indeed, historical references and definitions of the word “wine” reveal multiple meanings to be evident in Hebrew, in Greek, and in the English language as well. On what basis, therefore, do many Christians assign to Jesus the use of alcoholic wine?

What was in the cup?

Now that we understand that the word “wine” as used in the Bible can mean more than one thing, we return to the question: Which kind of wine did Jesus use at the Last Supper? Please read carefully in the four Gospels the following verses, which describe the passover supper of Jesus with His disciples in the upper room, the night before His crucifixion:

Matthew 26:17–30.

Mark 14:17–26.

Luke 22:14–39.

• John chapters 13–17.

Did you notice that the word “wine” does not even appear in the passages listed above? None of the four evangelists use the word “wine” in reference to the drink they had that night! Instead, three of them clearly state that in the cup was “the fruit of the vine”:

Jesus declared, “I say unto you, I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matthew 26:29).

“Verily I say unto you, I will drink no more of the fruit of the vine, until that day that I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:25).

“For I say unto you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God shall come” (Luke 22:18).

What is “the fruit of the vine?”

The same Bible verses (Matthew 26:29 and Mark 14:25) give us an answer to this question. Both Matthew and Mark recorded the words of Jesus as “until that day when I drink it new” (see verses above). In other words, Jesus, in referring to the drink which the disciples had just shared, declared that He would have the very same “new” drink again in His “Father’s kingdom.”

The Greek word “new” (kainon) used in Matthew 26:29 and Mark 14:25 means and is translated as followed: a. as respects form: recently made, fresh, recent, unused, unworn; b. as respects substance: of a new kind, unprecedented, novel, uncommon, unheard of.”18

So the word “new” is used on purpose to clarify what kind of “fruit of the vine” was in the cup. The Jewish Encyclopedia states very clear: “There were different kinds of wine. ‘Yayin’ was the ordinary matured, fermented wine, ‘tirosh’ was a new wine . . . one may squeeze the juice of a bunch of grapes into a cup and say the ‘Ḳiddush.’

“The newly pressed wine, prior to fermentation, was known as yayin mi-gat (‘wine from the vat’).”

“By the term ‘new wine,’ [that] must is meant, can hardly admit of a doubt. In Luther’s translation . . . as elsewhere, ‘new wine’ is invariably rendered must. The meaning of must as defined by all the Dictionaries is ‘new wine, wine pressed from the grape, but not fermented’—Imperial Dictionary. The two terms (i.e., new wine and must), are used interchangeably in all the books, and this of itself is conclusive, that wine to be wine need not be fermented.”19

Since “new wine” and “must” are interchangeable words, an important detail is coming into the picture while we look at the definition of “must.” Even the more recent 1997 Webster’s Dictionary, defines “must” as: “wine; the unfermented juice as pressed from the grape or other fruit.”20 This definition once again clearly equates “wine” with grape juice.

So, none of the four evangelists used the word “wine” when referring to the drink used in the upper room. This makes sense because, as mentioned above, this word in Greek has various meanings and could be easily misinterpreted. Instead, to close the door for any possible suppositions, Matthew and Mark, with “the fruit of the wine” use the word “new,” thus making clear that Jesus pronounced a blessing over the “new wine” or “must” which was, in reality, grape juice. Proverbs 28:13.

1 John Kersey, A General English Dictionary, 1708.
2 N. Bailey, The New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, vol. II, 1760.
3 Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language, vol. II, 1830.
4 N. Bailey, An Universal Etymological English Dictionary, 1763.
5 Ibid.
6 John Ogilvie, The Imperial Dictionary, 1854, vol. III, p. 1240.
7 Robert Hunter, The American Encyclopaedic Dictionary, 1895, vol. 4, p. 4522.
8 The American Dictionary and Cyclopedia, 1900, vol. 10, p. 4522.
9 Funk & Wagnalls, The Desk Standard Dictionary of the English Language, 1919, p. 874.
10 Funk & Wagnalls, New Standard Dictionary of the English Language, 1955.
13 The Jewish Encyclopedia, 1907, vol. XII, pp. 533, 534.
16 Ibid., Part 10. [Emphasis supplied.]
17 Athenaeus, The Banquet of the Learned of Athenaeus, vol. 1, p. 54.
18 Joseph Henry Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 1880, p. 317.
19 Abraham Coles, The Light of the World, Being the Second Part of the Life and Teachings of Our Lord, in Verse, 1885, p. 57.
20 Random House, Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, 1997. [Emphasis supplied.]