Was the Fruit of the Vine Fermented?
In our country, it has been the custom to use wine in the Lord’s supper. A visitor from America suggests that we ought to use only grape juice. What did Jesus use when he instituted the communion at the Passover?
As to the nature of the fruit of the vine, employed during the Passover supper, the New Testament (Matthew 26:26-29, etc.) itself is not explicit in its definition of the expression. Linguistically, it could denote grape juice, or, on the other hand, what we commonly call wine (with some degree of fermentation).
Some contend that it must have been wine since, at the time of the Passover feast in the spring, grapes were not yet ripe; and, as there was no way of preserving fresh juice, the substance used by the Lord must have been fermented.
But that argument is not conclusive, because it is known, from ancient sources, that there were ways of preserving juice, thus preventing fermentation. The ancient Roman statesman, Cato, said:
If you wish to have must [grape juice] all year, put grape juice in an amphora and seal the cork with pitch; sink it in a fishpond. After thirty days take it out. It will be grape juice for a whole year (De Agri Cultura CXX).
On the other hand, there is considerable historical evidence that the common Passover beverage used by the Jews in the first century was wine. Dr. Jack Lewis states:
Wine was ordinarily used at the Passover and is called “fruit of the vine” in Berakoth 6:1 (1976, 147; for an extended discussion, see Lightfoot 1979, 346ff).
This does not prove that Jesus used wine, but it might be considered a presumption in that direction.
It should be noted in passing, however, that the wine of the first century, though containing a degree of fermentation, did not have nearly the potency that modern wines possess. Note the following quote from Professor R. Laird Harris:
All the wine [of Bible times] was light wine, i.e., not fortified with extra alcohol. Concentrated alcohol was only known in the Middle Ages when the Arabs invented distillation (“alcohol” is an Arabic word) so what is now called liquor or strong drink (i.e., whiskey, gin, etc.) and the twenty per cent fortified wines were unknown in Bible times. Beer was brewed by various methods, but its alcoholic content was light. The strength of natural wines is limited by two factors. The percentage of alcohol will be half of the percentage of the sugar in the juice. And if the alcoholic content is much above 10 or 11 percent, the yeast cells are killed and fermentation ceases. Probably ancient wines were 7-10 per cent . . . . To avoid the sin of drunkenness, mingling of wine with water was practiced. This dilution was specified by the Rabbis in NT times for the wine customary at Passover (1980, 376).
Expediency, therefore, might be the prevailing factor in the case posed. If both grape juice and wine are available, grape juice, one would think, would be the wiser choice. It would avoid the appearance of evil, perhaps be less offensive (an occasion of stumbling), and not be an avenue to temptation in some (who might have a weakness for strong drink).
It might be mentioned also that in some regions where grape juice is not readily accessible, wine could be used, but boiled first, so as to destroy any alcoholic content. Alcohol evaporates at 173° Fahrenheit (78.3° Celsius).
In the final analysis, this issue is not one that should be pressed as a matter of doctrine and fellowship.
- Harris, R. Laird. 1980. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Vol. 1. Chicago, IL: Moody.
- Lewis, Jack. 1976. Commentary on Matthew. Vol. 2. Austin, TX: Sweet.
- Lightfoot, John. 1979. A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica. Vol. 2. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.