An argument could be made that no one in history has promoted the consumption of wine more thoroughly than Jesus. Of course, those are small doses consumed in his name at Holy Communion, and sometimes even that is unfermented grape juice, but there you have it.

The Bible is awash in references to wine and vineyards, starting with Noah's return to dry land to plant the first vineyard (Genesis 9:11) and culminating with Jesus' first miracle, turning water into wine at a wedding in Cana (John 2: 1-11) and his still-resonating ritual at the Last Supper (all four gospels, First Corinthians 11).

The Old Testament, a chronicling of the period now known as B.C., has more frequent references to vineyards and wine for several reasons, according to Michael Holmes, chair of the Biblical and Theological Studies Department at Bethel University.

"The Old Testament is a much larger collection of writings," Holmes said. "[It] largely reflects an agricultural setting, where wine is produced, whereas large sections of the New Testament reflect an urban setting, and large portions of the Old Testament are narratives that deal with daily activities, whereas significant parts of the New Testament are instructional letters dealing with more theological topics."

Wine was very important in the Palestinian region, said Calvin Roetzel, Sundet Chair of New Testament Studies at the University of Minnesota, noting that evidence of vineyard terraces from before 1000 B.C. has been uncovered.

It was not only a part of everyday life but "in the right setting and context, it could also be put to sacramental use," said Holmes.

Wine "was certainly used on festive occasions, in certain rituals and in thanksgiving rites," said Roetzel. "It's regularly mentioned in Jewish tradition as part of Passover meals, and obviously was used by Jesus in his Passover meals."

Some references to wine in the Bible are not literal, Holmes noted. "When the prophets sometimes speak of the mountains 'dripping with sweet wine' in the day of God's restoration of Israel, the term is used in a metaphorical sense for God's blessing."

And of course, there are some references to the pitfalls of overindulgence, beginning when Noah "became drunk, and he uncovered himself within the tent" (Genesis 9:12), and continuing with frequent Old Testament decrees such as "Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise." (Proverbs 20:1).

Wine for all times

But those who claim that the Bible on the whole advocated abstinence have a shaky case, Roetzel said.

"Certainly, excessive use of wine is discouraged. Inebriation is frowned on and it's culturally not acceptable," said Roetzel with a chuckle. "But that doesn't mean that wine is repudiated. It is important to see that lifting of the cup and the drinking at the Passover meal in all the gospels; that's real wine they're talking about. That tells you something."

Many have opted for grape juice

In the early Christian era, wine was a major part of celebrations, Roetzel added, and of course it has been a facet of communions for centuries. But in the United States, many Christian churches have opted for unfermented grape juice. "There may have been a tendency to say we don't know what was in the cup in First Corinthians 11," said Roetzel. "But all biblical references to the cup refer to fermented wine.

"What is really interesting is in the six-volume Anchor Bible Dictionary, there are references to the vine, but there's no entry on wine. But that was written for an American audience. In other countries like Germany, the church seems to be less worried about using fermented wine than churches in the United States."

The differing interpretations and approaches might best be chalked up to freedom of religion.

"The Bible calls believers to a life of moderation with respect to a wide range of activities and things, including food and wine," Holmes said. "In living out this biblical command to moderation, particularly in view of the many negative effects of alcohol in modern culture, many have found abstention from wine [or any other form of alcohol] to be a more circumspect choice of conduct."

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643