Be filled with the spirit

[The Leaven – exploring the relationship between science and religion (cont)]

The words for wine used in the New Testament are oinos, a Greek term for completely fermented wine, and gleukos, used to denote new or sweet wine with less alcohol content. Gleukos as a reference to wine that has been drunk is only mentioned one time in the New Testament [Acts 2.13]. In the context of this passage the apostles were behaving in an unusual way because they were full of the Holy Spirit. Onlooker’s accused them of behaving as if they were drunk on gleukos because of how their behaviour had changed with no alcohol being present.

Biblical society viewed wine in a similar way to how it is currently perceived. They were aware that over indulgence could be harmful  but generally it was socially accepted. The New Testament attempts to rescue individuals from a drunken abyss by suggesting that they should be filled with a different kind of spirit:

Do not get drunk with wine, which will only ruin you; instead, be filled with the Spirit.
[Eph. 5.18]

In a comparatively brutal manner the Old Testament illustrates and blatantly condemns the consequences of intoxication:

The Lord God said to me, “Jeremiah, tell the people of Israel that every wine-jar should be filled with wine. They will answer that they know every wine-jar should be filled with wine. Then tell them that I, the Lord, am going to fill the people in the land with wine until they are drunk: the kings, who are David’s descendants, the priests, the prophets, and all the people of Jerusalem. Then I will smash them like jars against one another, old and young alike. No pity, compassion, or mercy will stop me from killing them.”
[Jer. 13.12-15]

The Roman’s took wine very seriously, to the extent that they even had a deity assigned to it, Bacchus. Even so some social groups were discouraged from drinking alcohol. For instance, women, in the early day of the Republic, were forbidden from drinking ordinary wine but were permitted to drink those with low alcohol content. There were a number of ways that the alcoholic content of wine could be reduced. Fermentation could be inhibited by increasing sugar content. The Romans called this beverage defrutum. Grape juice with enough sweetness to remain unfermented can be made by pressing dried grapes. Pliny refers to a raisin-wine, made from grapes dried to half their weight. Roman women also drank a wine alternative made of raisins called passum. Another method to reduce wine alcoholic content was to prevent the yeast from growing. Vinous fermentation occurs only within a certain temperature range, the lower limit is about 15°C. If cooled wine were allowed to sit undisturbed, the clear juice could be removed from the sediment and would remain unfermented. Another method of making a nonalcoholic wine was by adding salt, a process favoured by the Greeks and described by several classical authors (Cato, Columella and Pliny), this method was also used to preserve the must. Alcohol evaporates at below 100°C, so could be physically removed from the wine by heating. Pliny describes another drink called adynamon, made by adding water to wine and boiling the mixture until the quantity was considerably reduced. This provided a fortifying drink for invalids.

Bacchus, Roman God of Wine. Caravaggio, 1596

It is believed that the Hebrews were also familiar with preserving wine by boiling down grape juice to a thick syrup like molasses. The boiling process would also remove any microbial contaminants from the grapes. The syrup would be diluted with water as a drink or added to wine must.  Some of the Biblical references to honey debash could be referring to a sweet grape syrup. The Hebrew debash is similar to Arabic dibs, a sweet syrup made by boiling down the juice of grapes, raisins or dates.

In moderate use the social impact of yeast is beneficial but alcoholism is becoming a modern scourge of the 21st century replacing the problems caused by microbial diseases. In a recent study conducted by the World Health Organisation, the long-term health burden of alcohol related disease surpasses smoking and malnutrition. The countries that produce the highest quota of alcohol last century were the USA (beer), China (spirits) and France (wine). The leading exporter of alcohol was Great Britain, which exports nearly twice as much as France in second place. The total consumption of alcohol increased in Great Britain between the 1970’s and 1990’s while in France it decreased. However, in the 1990’s the French were still more likely to consume more alcohol per capita than the British, 14% compared to 9%.  In general, the Bible portrays the message that drinking wine is an acceptable part of every day life  but its increased accessibility by modern preservation and production methods seem to have created new social challenges.


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