Strong drink at the time of St John the Baptist

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For those who are familiar with the New Testament, we know the St John the Baptist never drank wine or strong drink.

For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother's womb. - Luke 1:15 (KJV)

My question is as follows: What type of strong drinks existed in Palestine during the time of St John the Baptist (1st century BC)?

Ken Graham

Posted 2017-03-18T15:15:26.603

Reputation: 5 460

1Could strong drink be some type of tea? Not black tea like we know but some herbal concoction – farmersteve – 2017-03-19T00:55:06.733

@SteveS.Perhaps! It is up to interpretation! – Ken Graham – 2017-03-19T00:59:45.153

Answers

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The Quotation

Firstly, I shall examine the passage in the original Greek:

ἔσται γὰρ μέγας ἐνώπιον τοῦ Κυρίου, καὶ οἶνον καὶ σίκερα οὐ μὴ πίῃ, καὶ Πνεύματος Ἁγίου πλησθήσεται ἔτι ἐκ κοιλίας μητρὸς αὐτοῦ.

The two words we are intereted in here are 'οἶνον' ('wine'), and 'σίκερα' ('strong drink'). The second ('σίκερα') is interested in that it is a loan word directly from the Hebrew word 'שכר' (transliterated 'shekar'). This word is rather popular in the Old Testamant (appearing 7941 times), so it is little surprise that 'σίκερα' appears 4608 times in the New Testament. The two (in both languages) are usually used in conjunction with each other, to form the phrase 'wine and strong drink' to encompass the whole variety of intoxicants. [1]

The Wine

Wine was the ubiquitous alcoholic beverage of the ancient world. The process by which the ancient peoples made wine was simple. First, they pressed grapes into grape juice, then left the juice in large earthenware jars to ferment. Fermentation took two weeks to a month. Distillation had not yet been discovered, so Roman wine was of about the same strength as modern wine (around 13%), or possibly a bit stronger.

While 'true' Romans diluted their wine with water (roughly one part wine to two parts water), making it a beverage that could be drunk all day long, without danger of drunkenness, people living in provinces, such as Judea, are not supposed to have done so. That said, it is likely that the Roman officials did dilute their wine, in keeping with the custom back in Rome. Because of this, it is also likely that citizens wishing to curry their favour might also have adopted this custom. The Greeks also diluted their wine (roughly one part wine to four parts water). [2]

Other Alcohols

Other alcohols included beer, which became significantly less popular than wine. In particular, wealthy Romans looked down on the drinking of beer. Tacitus (writing much later, in the 1st Century AD) wrote disparagingly of German beer. Barley wine (a type of strong ale, roughly 6-11%) existed, as well as alcohols made from whatever fruits might be growing in the vicinity. For example, when Caesar arrived in Britain in 55BC, he found the locals drinking an apple cider, a custom he and his men adopted with enthusiasm. [3]

I have not be able to find any evidence for the consumption of distilled spirits or liqueurs.

Abstention

Abstaining from alcohol was not as easy then as it might be now. Since a large proportion of running water was (and still is) undrinkable, ancient peoples turned to alcohol (in particular wine) as a daily staple, giving them the fluid they needed. The water mixed with wine would be (somewhat) sterilised, allowing it to be drunk, and making the wine go further. One assumes that John must have drunk water only, or at least non-alcoholic juices (grape, etc.). There is reference in the bible to non-alcoholic wines, although this is rare.

Socrates

Posted 2017-03-18T15:15:26.603

Reputation: 356

2A very very informative answer, thank you for your research! +1 – Chris Cirefice – 2017-03-19T01:31:15.340

1@ChrisCirefice Thanks. I'm very interested in Classics, so this one was right up my street. I just needed to check a few of the things that I thought I knew. – Socrates – 2017-03-19T12:52:19.543

1+1 for quoting the original Greek. BTW, while I'm not familiar with Biblical Hebrew, the Akkadian cognate šikaru (which could well also be a source of the Greek word, directly or indirectly) is conventionally translated as "beer" (in the general sense of a drink brewed from grain, typically barley), although depending on the context, region and era, it sometimes appears to have been used to refer to other fermented beverages (including wine!) as well. – Ilmari Karonen – 2017-03-19T19:09:52.250

1I am voting this up as it is fascinating reading. – dougal 5.0.0 – 2017-03-21T05:17:05.697

I disagree with the statement "there were no spirits, or liqueurs". As stated in a comment to the answer given by @Steve S., it would really be a stretch to think that people did not know about concentrating alcohol beverages by freeze separation. Anybody whom left a mug of wine outside on a cold night, then removed the ice and drank it, would have been consuming a spirit, no? – Jimmy Fix-it – 2017-03-31T19:16:35.273

@JimmyFix-it I have clarified the statement. – Socrates – 2017-03-31T20:30:33.153

@JimmyFixIt, Since the OP specifically mentioned John the Baptist, we can reasonable assume that he was referring to the Roman province of Judea and except for very extraordinary times, it doesn't get cold enough to use cold distilling. – CharlieHorse – 2017-05-08T15:52:03.773

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There were two types of drinks back in that time. Beer and Wine. Both hardly resembled what they are today. Beer was very weak, under 4% alcohol, while wine was probably in the normal range of 12-14%. Distilling had not been invented by the Muslims until 700 A.D. (anno Domini). If I apply Occam's Razor here, I would say that it's wine and probably a higher end wine because the more expensive wines were more alcoholic. As I mentioned in my other answer, you want to get your hands on some Retsina or that other Israeli wine being made in an ancient manner.

I'm adding the Wikipedia page on there about this exact passage.. Alcohol in the Bible

"strong drink"; "denotes any inebriating drink with about 7–10 percent alcoholic content, not hard liquor, because there is no evidence of distilled liquor in ancient times.... It was made from either fruit and/or barley beer"; the term can include wine, but generally it is used in combination with it ("wine and strong drink") to encompass all varieties of intoxicants

farmersteve

Posted 2017-03-18T15:15:26.603

Reputation: 5 647

1distillation was written about by Greek alchemists in the 1st Century AD. It didn't spread to Europe, though, as a fully-fledged process until the late 700s – warren – 2017-03-24T18:10:50.427

2And I'm sure someone left some wine outside one night and it froze solid, except for the alcohol and they invented freeze distillation way before this process... – farmersteve – 2017-03-24T20:21:58.257

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Surely mead, honey wine, should be considered. Okay, I had to google this one: Wiki says that residual evidence has been found in northern Chinese pottery vessels dating from 6500–7000 BC, and in Europe in the ceramics of the Bell Beaker Culture (c. 2800–1800 BC). Wiki goes on to tell us that, contemporaneous to John the Baptist, Greeks and Romans were imbibing it.

Giorgio

Posted 2017-03-18T15:15:26.603

Reputation: 522

Mead was never a mainstream drink in the Mediterranean area at that time. Wine and Beer were by far the most drunk beverages... – farmersteve – 2017-03-19T00:53:29.267

3@SteveS. Does not have to be "mainstream" to be correct in this question. – Ken Graham – 2017-03-19T01:23:15.103