Question:

I have been studying about wine in the Bible. I am convinced that we should not be using fermented wine. However, I was asked some questions for which I don't have a good answer.

  1. Why would the translators of the different versions of the Bible make a mistake when translating oinos with the word "wine," such as in John 2:11? One assumes that these translators were experts in Greek. Should they not have said "unfermented wine" instead of "fermented wine?"

    I have the same question also with the word methuo in Paul's reference to drunkenness.

  2. I was told that we are trying to justify with Greek words that we do not drink alcoholic wine. Since their versions of the Bible were written by experts in Greek, they argue that we should understand and interpret it without knowing the Greek words.

Answer:

To answer whether it is useful to know the original words behind our translations, I will direct your attention to "It's Greek to Me" and "Greek, How Should a Knowledge of It be Viewed?"

The problem when translating a word from one language to another is that frequently there isn't just one word in a language which will cover the range of meanings possible with one word in another language. That is the problem we have with oinos. This single Greek word covers all products made from the fruit of grapes, from the juice inside a grape, to fresh squeezed grape juice, to concentrated grape syrup, to fermented wine. English doesn't have a single word that brings to the readers mind this range of meaning.

But in the translation process, there is a general desire to be consistent in the words used to translate from one language to the next. Not always -- the King James Version, for instance, to be free with its selection of words -- but generally we find this to be true.

We also have to admit that translators are people. They make mistakes. They let their biases show in their work. They are not inspired writers! Every translation has its problems. I'm not saying I or any other preacher could do a better job. But we ought to be aware of where problem areas lie and why they are there.

Finally, there is also a matter of tradition. Writers of newer translations want people to buy their translations, so they tend to stick with the familiar so people will accept their work. A good example of this is with the word "baptize." It is actually a transliteration of the Greek word. There is a perfectly good English word that is equivalent to this word: "immerse." So why was the transliteration used instead of the English word? Because by the time an English translation was done the majority of Christian denominations had stopped immersing people. Rather than rock the boat and have their translation rejected, they used "baptize" as was commonly expected.

For a variety of reasons oinos is translated as "wine" even when the context is clear that it was an unfermented drink. But there are also numerous cases where the context is not crystal clear. For example, while I can make a good case that in John 2:11 Jesus turned water into an unfermented grape drink, people who support drinking will argue that it was fermented. The case is made by reason and not by the actual contextual words in the passage. Thus, translators prefer to stick with the traditional translation of "wine" since oinos does include wine products as a possible translation. It is by knowing the Greek that we realize that this word selection isn't as restrictive as it might first appear and allows us to consider whether it was actually fermented or not.

The Greek word methuo does have an equivalent work in the English. It means "filled to the full" and typically refers to someone who has had too much fermented wine to drink. But it also can be used to say that someone's thirst has been sated and alcohol does not necessarily have to be involved. The English word "drunk" matches this definition well. We typically use drunk to refer to someone who has had too much alcohol to drink, but it can also be the past tense of drink and means someone had enough to satisfy them. Which meaning has to come from the context and it is clear that Paul is not telling the Corinthians that if they want to get drunk they need to do it at home since drunkenness is a sin no matter where it is done. Even grammatically, being contrasted with hunger, it is clear that Paul is saying some are finishing the Lord's Supper before others have arrived. If someone is that hungry they should eat at home because the Lord's Supper is not intended to be a meal.

Your friends have demonstrated that they have their minds made up. They don't want to be confused with facts; they rather remain ignorant. It is sad, but there are plenty of other people who will listen to the truth. Besides, they haven't addressed the command to Christians to be sober.