Not Your Modern Liquor Store: A Quick Peek At The Alcohol Of The Ancients

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The consumption of alcohol is a perennial favorite topic among conservative Christians, the issue represented by one of three typical positions.

  1. Consuming any alcohol is a sin.
  2. Consuming alcohol is not a sin, but alcohol is best left alone.
  3. Consuming alcohol is not a sin until you become intoxicated.

I’ve heard any number of sermons and lessons on this topic over the years, generally from the ultra conservative viewpoint represented by number 1 above. However, that position has never worked for me, in so far as the reasons given to support that position were untrue and/or involved a lot of yelling (great as a debate technique, unconvincing to people who like to think). The chief example of this is the citation that the ancient language words translated “wine” in the Bible don’t actually mean “wine”. Instead, they mean “unfermented grape juice” when it would be inconvenient for them to mean “wine”. I won’t dwell on the point here, because I find it sort of silly to have to bother.

The issue of alcohol consumption in the context of my faith has always been more simple. I wish to avoid intoxication for both reasons of practicality and personal conviction, and I’m not overly convinced of my ability to refrain once engaged. I’ve seen enough drunken people in my life to have no interest in achieving that state myself. Nearly every offensive thing that’s ever been said to my face was said by someone who was drunk. I know many other people that have experienced negative consequences in their life because of alcohol abuse. Further, I wish to avoid setting a potentially bad example for my children and anyone else that might consider my behavior as an influence on their own. If my children opt to abuse alcohol as adults, they won’t be able to point at their father and claim that they were just following in my footsteps.

Since it’s plain to me that people in ancient times did indeed consume alcohol (and clearly could become drunk), I’ve wondered what the beverages were actually like. In the modern world, we can distill alcohol to some astonishingly high percentages in the resultant beverage, where consuming such a beverage renders drunkenness a simple matter. We have massive factories that produce alcohol by the steady caseload. But in the ancient world, this was not so. Distillation of alcohol didn’t come about until the 12th century. Plus, there were no massive factories with the benefits of electricity and automation enabling the production of alcohol in mass quantities. Logically, it follows that the alcoholic beverage of ancient times might not have been as strong as what it can be today, and that there might not have been as much of the product as readily available as it is today.

Googling around a bit, I found this interesting essay on the topic of “Wine and Rome”, which mercifully does not appear to have a religious point to make. Despite being a Christian, I find that often it’s simpler to avoid religious authors who are trying to prove a conclusion they’ve already come to as opposed to reading the work of someone who hopefully has no agenda. This essay seems like a simple explanation of facts to me, reasonably well-footnoted. Here are a couple of points I took away from this:

“Distillation was unknown in the ancient world (and would not be discovered until the early middle ages); wine, therefore, was the strongest drink of the Romans. Falernian was full-bodied (firmissima), with an alcohol content as much as fifteen or sixteen percent (at which point the yeast is killed by the alcohol it produces).”

The alcoholic content of ancient wine was very comparable to what we have today, if you take a look at this handy chart. What’s different, though, is the way in which the wine was consumed.

“Wine almost always was mixed with water for drinking; undiluted wine (merum) was considered the habit of provincials and barbarians. The Romans usually mixed one part wine to two parts water (sometimes hot or even salted with sea water to cut some of the sweetness). The Greeks tended to dilute their wine with three or four parts water, which they always mixed by adding the wine.”

Wine was diluted with water in ancient civilized society, bringing the alcohol content down to something like 5% or less. This is more in the realm of modern beer. Here’s the thing…even beer can get you drunk without too much effort on your part. Using this calculator and cross-referencing with the charts found here, I estimate it would take 3-4 12oz beers consumed in an hour to get me drunk, at least in a legal context of a blood alcohol level of > 0.08%.

What’s my point? While I don’t believe that consumption of alcohol is a sin, I believe it’s so easy to get drunk (which is a sin in the Christian worldview) that there’s just no point in going down that road if you are a person that takes the Christian faith seriously. In addition, there’s no upside to alcohol consumption that I can come up with, unless you just happen to enjoy the beverage for its own sake. Any beer that I’ve had over the years has never left me craving for more because of how wonderful I found it. Modern hard liquor drinks are far more potent than anything the ancients consumed. Wine, drunk undiluted today, was usually weakened in ancient society before drinking. Even beer, comparable in alcoholic content to the way a Roman would drink wine (at least based on cursory Googling), can inebriate someone rather capably.

And what prompted me to write this post? It was a validation of a sermon podcast by John MacArthur. As a younger man, I made the mistake of trusting in people who were manipulative liars. So, when ideas come across my eardrums that pique my interest, I research their validity. Without trying too hard, I was able to verify several things I heard in that podcast about the alcoholic beverages of the ancients.

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