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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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It may be taken for granted that the wine of the Bible was fermented, and therefore, when taken in excess, intoxicating. Unfermented wine is a modern concept. The ancients had not that knowledge of antiseptic precautions which would have enabled them to preserve the juice of the grape in an unfermented state. It was the inebriating property of wine that constituted the sting of the calumny with which the sanctimonious tried to injure our Lord Ἰδοὺ ἄνθρωπος, οἰνοπότης (Matthew 11:19, Luke 7:34). There would have been no scandal in His habitually partaking of a beverage which was never harmful. Christ bade men take heed lest their hearts should be overcharged with surfeiting and drunkenness (κραιπάλῃ καὶ μέθῃ Luke 21:34), but He evidently regarded it as possible to draw the line between the use and the abuse of wine. He was not a Nazirite, Rechabite, or Essene. A Palestinian movement against wine and strong drink might conceivably have been begun by the Baptist (Luke 1:15), but not by Christ. His religion was not in its essence a system of ascetic negations; it was much more than one of the ‘creeds which deny and restrain.’ In His time and country, drunkenness, however pernicious in individual cases, could not be regarded as one of the deadly national sins.

‘Orientals are not inclined to intemperance. The warm climate very quickly makes it a cause of discomfort and disease’ (Mackie, Bible Manners and Customs, 1898, p. 46). Moreover, ‘the wines of Palestine may be assumed on the whole not to have exceeded the strength of an ordinary claret’ (A. R. S. Kennedy, Encyclopaedia Biblica iv. 5319).

It was Gentile rather than Jewish wine-drinking habits that Apostolic Christianity had to combat, and Bacchus (Dionysus) was notoriously one of the most powerful of the gods of Greece and Home. The apostles did not fight against the social customs of pagan nations with a new legalism. It was not the Christian but the Judaizer or the Gnostic who repeated the parrot-cry, ‘Handle not, taste not, touch not.’ Christianity goes to work in a wholly different manner. It relies on the power of great positive truths. It creates a passion for high things which deadens the taste for low things. Its distinction is that it makes every man a legislator to himself. The inordinate use of wine and strong drink becomes morally impossible for a Christian, not because there is an external law which forbids it, but because his own enlightened conscience condemns it. St. Paul does not say to the Roman Christians, ‘Let us walk lawfully, not in revelling and drunkenness,’ but ‘Let us walk becomingly’ (εὐσχημόνως, Romans 13:13). This means that there is a beautiful new σχῆμα, or ideal of conduct, of which every man becomes enamoured when he accepts the Christ in whom it is embodied. Thereafter he feels, with a shuddering repulsion, how ill it would become him to walk in ‘revelling and drunkenness, chambering and wantonness.’ He abjures the thought of being at once spiritual and sensual. Having put on the Lord Jesus Christ, he cannot continue to make provision for the flesh, to fulfil its lusts.

It is true that the moral verdicts of the Christian are not always immediate and sure. ‘Manifest are the works of the flesh,’ wrote St. Paul, naming among them ‘drunkenness’ (μέθαι, Galatians 5:19; Galatians 5:21), but they were far from being so manifest to all his converts. The Christian conscience needed to be educated, the spiritual taste to be cultivated. At Corinth the ἀγάπη, or love-feast, which ended in the Lord’s Supper, all too readily degenerated into something not very unlike the banquets in the idol-temples. ‘One is hungry, and another is drunken’ (μεθύει, 1 Corinthians 11:21). ‘Paul paints the scene in strong colours; but who would be warranted in saying that the reality fell at all short of the description?’ (Meyer, Com. in loc.). It has always been one of the enchantments of Bacchus and Comus to make their devotees glory in their shame, so that they

‘Not once perceive their foul disfigurement,

Bat boast themselves more comely than before’

(Milton, Comus, 74f.).

That this is true of the vulgar and of the educated alike, both in pagan and in Christian times, is attested not only by a thousand drinking-songs but by the orgies of the ‘Symposium’ and the ‘Noctes Ambrosiamae.’ Yet even Omar Khayyam, after all his praise of the Vine, is obliged to confess that he has ‘drowned his glory in a shallow cup’; and, in the light of Christianity, drunkenness stands condemned as a sin against the body which is a ‘member of Christ.’

Christianity is a religion of principles, not of rules, and in Romans 14:21 St. Paul states a principle which justifies any kind and thoughtful man, apart from considerations of personal safety and happiness, in becoming an abstainer. In doing this the Apostle is far from imposing a new yoke of bondage. He does not categorically say to the Christian, ‘Thou shalt not drink wine,’ but he reasons that it is good (καλόν)-it is a beautiful morale-in certain conditions and from certain motives, to abstain. There was evidently a tendency among Christian liberals, who rightly gloried in their free evangelical position, to say, ‘If men will pervert and abuse our example, we cannot help it; the fault is their own, and they must bear the consequences.’ St. Paul, the freest of all, sees a more excellent way, and chooses to walk in it, though he does not exercise his apostolic authority to command others to follow him. What is his own liberty to drink a little wine in comparison with the temporal safety and eternal salvation of thousands who are unable to use the same freedom without stumbling? He cannot-no man can-live merely unto himself, and he would sooner be so far a Nazirite or an Essene than do anything to hurt a brother.

It is noticeable that there was never any organized movement in the Apostolic or post-Apostolic Church against the use of strong drink. Many of the Fathers, following the example of Philo-who wrote a book περὶ μέθης on Genesis 9:21 -dealt with the subject at length. Clement, Cyprian, Chrysostom, Jerome, and Augustine all preached moderation to every one and abstinence to some. But neither the apostles nor the Fathers ever dreamed of seeking legislation for the prohibition or even the restriction of the sale and use of intoxicating liquors. Since their time two things-the discovery or distilled liquors in the 13th cent., and the trend of civilization northward-have greatly altered the conditions of the problem.

‘Extremists now place all alcohol-containing drinks under the same ban, but fermented liquors are still generally held to be comparatively innocuous; nor can any one deny that there is a difference. It is safe to say that if spirits had never been discovered the history of the question would have been entirely different’ (A. Shadwell, Encyclopaedia Britannica 11 xxvi. 578). ‘The evils which it is desired to check are mach greater in some countries than in others.… The inhabitants of south Europe are much less given to alcoholic excess than those of central Europe, who again are more temperate than those of the north’ (ib. xvi. 759).

Just where the temptations to drunkenness are greatest, the Apostle’s principle of self-denial for the sake of others is evidently the highest ethic. No drunkard can ‘inherit the Kingdom of God’ (1 Corinthians 6:10), and the task of Christian churches and governments is ‘to make it easy for men to do good and difficult for them to do evil.’

Since, however, it is notoriously impossible to make men sober merely by legislation, the main factors in the problem must always be moral and religions. The Apostolic Church found the true solution. The Christians who were filled with the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost were mockingly said to be filled with wine (γλεῦκος, Acts 2:13, perhaps ‘sweet wine’; not ‘new wine,’ as Pentecost took place eight months after the vintage). St. Peter tried to convince the multitude that it was not a sensual but a spiritual intoxication, and St. Paul gives to all Christians the remarkable counsel, ‘Be not drunken with wine, wherein is dissoluteness (ἀσωτία; cf. ἀσώτως in Luke 15:13), but be filled with the Spirit’ (Ephesians 5:18). It is presupposed that every man naturally craves some form of exhilaration, loving to have his feelings excited, his imagination fired, his spirit thrilled. And drunkenness is the perversion of a true instinct. It is the fool’s way of drowning care and rising victorious over the ills of life. Intoxication is the tragic parody of inspiration. What every man needs is a spiritual enthusiasm which completely diverts his thoughts from the pursuit of sensuous excitement, on the psychological principle that two conflicting passions cannot dominate the mind at the same time. That enthusiasm is the gift of the Divine Spirit.

The injunction to Timothy to be no longer a water-drinker (μηκέτι ὑδροπότει) but to use a little wine (1 Timothy 5:23) is now generally regarded as post-Pauline. It is ‘evidently, in the context in which it stands, not merely a sanitary but quite as much a moral precept, and thus implies that Timothy had himself begun to abjure wine on grounds of personal sanctity’ (F. J. A. Hort, Judaistic Christianity, 1894, p. 144). The words were probably written about the time of the first appearance of the Encratites (Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics v. 301), who made abstinence from flesh, wine, and marriage the chief part of their religion, seeking salvation not by faith but by asceticism. Water-drinking thus for a time became associated with a dcadly error. This was a situation in which Christians felt it to be their duty to assert their right to use what they regarded as the creature and gift of God (1 Timothy 4:4-5). See, further, article Abstinence.

James Strahan.

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These files are public domain.
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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Drunkenness'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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Tuesday, June 2nd, 2020
the Week of Proper 4 / Ordinary 9
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