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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Drunkenness (2)

DRUNKENNESS.—Only one explicit utterance of our Lord relating to drunkenness is recorded (Luke 21:34). Elsewhere He warns against it indirectly, as in the parables where He holds up drunken servants to reprobation (Matthew 24:49 = Luke 12:45). But His references to the vice are surprisingly meagre. That must not be regarded as a measure of the contemporary extent of the evil, nor as indicating any lack of concern on His part. Our Lord’s attitude to the matter must be estimated in view of the sentiments and practices of His times.

The habit of drinking to excess was widespread. Hebrew literature provides ample proof of familiarity with its unvarying moral and social consequences. The scandals associated with the early Christian love-feasts (1 Corinthians 11:21, Judges 1:12) were doubtless partly a recrudescence of pre-Christian practices. While excess was unsparingly condemned by moralists, moderation was uniformly commended. Occasional maxims hint at the expediency of abstinence in the interests of moral integrity and personal security. But where that is actually practised, it is invariably the outcome of purely religious impulse. It would seem that the Nazirites, the Rechabites, and other ascetics realized that indulgence in wine was inimical to spiritual life (cf. Luke 1:15), or inexpedient in situations demanding the highest possible personal purity, or inappropriate to persons of singular and abnormal holiness (cf. John the Baptist, with whom some seem to have compared Jesus unfavourably, Luke 7:34). To the ordinary Jew, however, habitual indulgence was a matter of course. Abstinence required strong reasons to justify it. The Babylonian Gemara would even seem to suggest that abstinence might be a positive sin. ‘The Nazirite has sinned by denying himself wine.’ It bases this opinion on an arbitrary and erroneous interpretation of Numbers 6:20 (see Jewish Encyc. art. ‘Drunkenness’).

Jesus seems to have adopted the prevailing popular attitude. He instituted no campaign against the use of strong drink. He made it no part of His mission to denounce indulgence. He Himself followed the ordinary practices of His day, both using wine and giving His countenance to festivities in which wine played an important part (cf. John 2:10). His various references to the beverage indicate that He regarded it as a source of innocent enjoyment (cf. Luke 5:30; Luke 5:38-39; Luke 7:34; Luke 17:8). Nevertheless, that He did not overlook the fact that excess was common, and that He had an open eye for the obtrusive evils of over-indulgence, is abundantly evident from other references, as in the parables. That He did not feel called upon to command or commend abstinence in spite of this is partly to be explained, perhaps, by the fact that drunkenness was the vice chiefly of the wealthy. That seems to be implicitly recognized in Luke 21:34, where it is bracketed with surfeiting and subjection to the cares of this life, faults peculiarly associated with the rich or well-to-do. In the parable of the Householder (Matthew 24:45-51 = Luke 12:42-46), the drunken characters whom He holds up to contempt are servants of one in high position, forming the ménage of a luxurious household in which creature comforts would be plentiful. In the circles in which Jesus Himself principally moved, and to which He chiefly appealed, excess does not seem to have been so common as to call for urgent protest or the starting of a crusade against the use of alcoholic liquors.

Christ’s attitude to the whole matter was determined by the fundamental purpose of His mission. Drunkenness in general He regards as the accompaniment and symptom of a carnal unregenerate state of heart, the outcome of wickedness that defies restraint. He implicitly recognizes it also as strongly contributory to spiritual demoralization, as inducing such blunting of the spiritual sensibilities and disabling of spiritual faculty as incapacitate the soul for the proper exercises of the devout life, and endanger its future by reducing it to a state of unpreparedness for the last Divine catastrophe (Luke 21:34 ff.).

A. M. Hunter.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Drunkenness (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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