A while back, my Bible study was going through the book of Hosea, and Hosea 4:10-11 (“They will eat but not have enough; they will engage in prostitution but not increase, because they have deserted the Lord to give themselves to prostitution, to old wine and new, which take away understanding”) prompted one of the other members to ask about the difference between old wine and new wine. The subsequent studies that I have made into this area have been both stimulating and aggravating. On one hand, most of what I find about wine in the Bible has an obvious agenda of promoting either total abstinence or moderate enjoyment, and the information presented is often contradictory. On the other hand, I have found winemaking itself to be quite fascinating (despite having no interest in alcohol and having found wine too bitter for my liking the one time I tried it). So far, I have learned the following facts which I feel pretty confident in accepting:
- Contrary to popular belief, most wine (or at least, most produced today) is not improved by long periods of aging (about 90% of modern wines are best consumed within a year of bottling).
- Wines that do age well tend to be high in acids, sugars, and tannins, which act as preservatives. Grapes that have thick skins and/or are grown in dry areas without irrigation tend to be high in these compounds, and so are more likely to produce wine that ages well.
- Tannins, which are most abundant in red wine, give the wine an astringent, bitter taste that decreases over time as the tannins polymerize and become less detectable.
- Not all wine in the ancient world was fermented; through various means (boiling the juice, keeping the temperature low, etc.), grape juice could be kept from fermenting for extended periods to produce a sweet, non-intoxicating wine (though based on the numerous references to drunkenness in the Bible, it seems clear that much, if not most of the wine produced by the Israelites, was fermented).
- The grape harvest in Israel takes place late in the summer at the height of the dry season (~late July through early September), suggesting that the wines produced in ancient times would have been high in sugars and tannins and likely would have aged well.
- The grapes could be pressed in multiple stages, with the first drippings producing the best wine and subsequent treadings producing lower-quality wines.
- Winemaking in Israel basically ceased after the Muslim conquests, with wine grapes being largely displaced by table varieties; therefore, modern winemaking in Israel is mostly accomplished with irrigation and French grape cultivars, not the varieties known in ancient times.
- The fermentation process occurs in two stages: The first stage takes three to seven days under aerobic conditions and is responsible for about 70% of the alcohol produced, while the second, anaerobic stage takes one to two weeks and forces the yeast to convert the remaining sugars into alcohol.
- In ancient times, wine was stored either in skin bottles or amphora (large, two-handled clay jars holding about 5-10 gallons). Barrels came into widespread use during the time of the Romans (who adopted them from the Gauls for easier transport), and glass bottles were not introduced until the seventeenth century.
- Once a container of wine is opened and the wine is exposed to oxygen, acetobacter species begin converting the alcohol to acetic acid (vinegar). Thus, the typical pattern would be a new container being opened for the rich, then anything left after the wine had begun to sour would be sold cheap to the common people. This problem is solved today by bottling wine in glass bottles that can be consumed in a single setting.
- Both the Hebrew and the Greek have multiple words that can be translated as “wine.” Rather than painstakingly copy the terms and their definitions, I will borrow some tables from Wikipedia:
Yesterday, though, I came across a page (https://bible-christian.org/i-believe-the-unfermented-wine-theory-unravels-with-the-pull-of-a-thread-that-thread-is-found-when-jesus-speaks-a-parable-of-wineskins/) in which the author argues against Christians drinking fermented wine. There’s quite a lot to the argument, but the main points of interest are as follows:
- The “new wine” referred to in Luke 5:37-39 must be unfermented and stay unfermented, since no wineskin could with withstand the pressure of the full fermentation process; if it had gone through the first stage of fermentation, then an old wineskin should have been able to vent the gases that form and work fine; therefore, the issue is if fresh grape juice is exposed to the residues from the old wine, which would start the fermentation process and burst the skins; the imagery must therefore be one of preventing contamination by the Pharisaic tradition.
- Jesus, by associating the new wine with the new covenant, implies that nonalcoholic wine is superior, while the idea that “the old is better” is merely a quotation of others, not Jesus’ own belief.
- Priests were forbidden to consume wine when in the temple; since Paul described our bodies as “temples of the Holy Spirit,” we are called to total abstinence from alcohol.
While I find these arguments interesting, I’m not sold on them. My counter-arguments would be as follows:
- Secondary fermentation produces ~30% of the alcohol, so there should still be a substantial amount of gas produced, which would explain why the new, flexible skins are needed. Then too, even if the wine is non-alcoholic, that doesn’t mean that Jesus is saying that unfermented wine is better; after all, He describes the Pharisees as “yeast,” but we don’t interpret that to mean that unleavened bread is better.
- Old wine being described as “better” likely has nothing to do with the alcoholic content. As noted above, the tannins in wine give it a sharp, bitter aftertaste that decreases as the wine ages. The Greek actually supports this interpretation, since the word usually translated as “better” or “good enough” (chrēstós) can also mean “milder,” as opposed to sharp and bitter. Therefore, Jesus is comparing the new covenant, which even today can seem radical, to the old Jewish covenant that had become culturally ingrained, hedged in by tradition, and comfortable to those familiar with it.
- Paul clearly did not believe that Christians were all called to temperance. Aside from his advice to Timothy to drink some wine to help with his stomach illnesses (I Timothy 5:23), he clearly states in Romans 14 his belief that no food or drink (including wine) is intrinsically unclean, but becomes unclean only if partaking of it would violate one’s conscience. Therefore, the one without objections should be considerate of the consciences of others, while the one who objects should refrain from judging his brother for what he accepts as a gift from God.
- Jesus’ first miracle in John 2 was the production of 120-180 gallons of wine for a wedding banquet. We can be sure that this wine was alcoholic based on the Greek, since Jesus’ wine is described as “choice” (we have already established that others consider aged wine better), the word used to describe the lesser wine (elássōn) refers both to quality and age, and the word used to describe people who have had the choice wine are described as having become drunken (methýō). Clearly, Jesus was enabling people to get drunk (in the context of a special celebration, not as a habit), which He would not likely have done if He endorsed total abstinence from alcohol.
I know this has been a long post, but I’ve found the topic interesting and multi-faceted, and I suspect most people know little about it. As it stands currently, I would probably answer my friend’s question about Hosea 4 the way I did originally: New wine is most likely recently fermented but not aged, enjoyed for its abundance, and symbolizes blessing because it is associated with the bounty of harvest and the prospect of new vintages; old wine, on the other hand, is aged wine that has lost the astringent qualities common to new wine, and thus is considered to be of higher quality. Like I said before, I don’t drink wine or have any intention of starting, but I would not condemn anybody for doing so if they are self-controlled and in little danger of forming a habit of overindulgence. Still, I’m curious to hear what others have to say on the topic, particularly if anyone can provide additional historical or archaeological information.