The student house I rented with friends used to be a Methodist manse, and it came with a trust deed that demanded no alcohol on the premises. Methodism was born at a time when alcohol abuse was rife, so the denomination decided to take a stand against it. My fellow students and I thought we would be ok with the restriction until one of us caught the wine-making bug. However, another flatmate was a Methodist so he took the ban very seriously. He taped a note on the fermentation vat: ‘This has been peed in.’ An effective tactic: no one wanted to taste it to find out if it was true.
Is it acceptable for Christians to drink alcohol? After all, it is legal in this country and the Bible says it ‘gladdens human hearts’ (Psalm 104:15). And what about other addictive substances, such as tobacco and heroin? They are not mentioned in the Bible of course. We need to look for principles in the Bible rather than specific prohibitions: but what are they?
AN ALL-OUT BAN?
The simplest rule is followed by Mormons: no non-medical drugs are permissible, including alcohol, tea and coffee. But reaching this conclusion requires creative Bible interpretation. Mormons say that wine was acceptable in Jesus’ day because it had a minimal alcohol content, and was the only safe form of drink. However, wine in Jesus’ day did make people drunk, and clean water was available in Jerusalem and elsewhere from natural springs and rivers.
The Bible is full of references to alcohol, from Noah (who got drunk in Genesis 9) to those who drink wine with the great harlot in Revelation 18. We should notice that these both refer to alcohol in a negative way, and the Bible is full of condemnation of drunkenness. Wine and beer, then as now, was misused, but there is no hint that it was ever banned.
Two groups were possible exceptions for whom alcohol was not permitted: on-duty priests and Nazirites. Jews who took a long-term vow (a Nazirite vow) stopped drinking alcohol and cutting their hair (Numbers 6). Neither of these practices made them holy, but they were constant reminders to them and others about their continued vow to God. And priests who served at the altar were supposed to stay sober because making a mistake was potentially fatal (Leviticus 10:9). This was equivalent to the rule that you don’t drink while operating dangerous equipment.
In Jesus’ day a problem was arising – much like binge drinking in our society. The Romans popularised drunkenness as a social pastime and it was even a compulsory part of one popular religion – the worship of Bacchus. Many (perhaps most) Roman banquets ended with an epikomos – a drinking party when guests were invited to imbibe as much as they could. Even intellectuals felt that they had clearer and cleverer discussions during such parties. Presumably this was simply the delusion of feeling witty and interesting when drunk.
This practice could have spread into the Jewish world, and Jesus is the first Jew on record to have refused to participate. The biggest problem arose at Passover, when Jews celebrated their freedom from slavery by feasting and drinking wine in luxury. On that night they ate while reclining on couches as their Roman overlords did. This is uncomfortable unless you are used to it: leaning on an elbow while manipulating your food and crockery with only one hand requires practice and strong shoulders. Even the abstemious group of Jews called Therapeutae laid blankets across crates to emulate couches, to eat and drink in luxury. Consequently a lot of Jews also wanted to copy the Roman custom of ending their feast with a drinking party.
THE PASSOVER MEAL
Three cups of wine were compulsory at the Passover meal in the first century. Later on, a fourth cup was added and called the Aphikoman ceremony.
"THE BIBLEIS FULL OF REFERENCES TO ALCOHOL"
The origins of this name are lost, but it probably came from epikomos – the Roman drinking party. It seems that the rabbis decided to allow a symbolic drinking party after Passover by limiting it to a single extra cup of wine – a wise move, I think.
But Jesus refused any extra drinks after Passover. At the last supper, he transformed the third cup (the one following the main meal – see 1 Corinthians 11:25) into the cup of Communion. By this time in the traditional Passover meal all the bread should have gone, because the taste of the lamb should be the last thing you remembered, so Jesus must have put some bread aside for this purpose. After adding a new meaning to this bread and wine, he then specifically refused any further drink (Mark 14:25; Matthew 26:29).
THE BIBLE AND DRUGS
What about the bewildering number of other ‘drugs’ on offer today? Unfortunately, most anti-drug campaigns emphasise the dangers of illegal drugs; however, tobacco is more addictive and harmful than heroin, and alcohol kills more people than all the illegal drugs put together. The latest figures available for the UK (2013) are 8,416 deaths from alcohol and 2,955 deaths from all other drugs, including misuse of medical drugs.
Peter and Paul give us better motivations for avoiding drugs: ‘your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit…You are not your own; you were bought at a price’ (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). And ‘you also, like living stones are being built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood’ (1 Peter 2:5). This coheres well with the modern terminology of ‘clearing out’ drugs from your body, and keeping yourself ‘clean’. The Corinthians followed the Stoic philosophy that what you do to your body doesn’t matter because it won’t last. They quoted sayings like: ‘Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both’ (1 Corinthians 6:13), which Paul countered with warnings that their body is the Lord’s and that they shouldn’t ‘be mastered by anything’ (1 Corinthians 6:12-13).
This gives us two biblical principles: we shouldn’t take anything that is harmful to us or anything that ‘masters’ us. A drug that changes our behaviour has become our master. And if we damage the body that Jesus has bought as a temple, we commit both theft and sacrilege.
David Instone-Brewer is senior research fellow in Rabbinics and New Testament at Tyndale House, Cambridge