Friday, April 26, 2013

A Theology of Wine

My granddaughter bought me a history book for my birthday: The History of the World in 6 Glasses.

Its about the beverages that have shaped civilization: beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and coke.

The book is funny, informative and easy to read. It tells the story of how the world's various civilizations have marked their territory with their favorite beverage and continue to do so today.

I was surprisingly touched by the chapters on wine. They helped me make important spiritual and theological connections between what I was reading in this book and in the Holy Scriptures.

I thought some of my friends might enjoy hearing what I learned.

First, this book tells us something we already know: that the various people who lived around the Mediterranean were (and most still are) members of a wine culture. It is not surprising then that wine is repeatedly mentioned in scripture. However, some of the cultural and social elements that developed around wine in the ancient world may be surprising, especially to people who do not come from cultures in which wine is important.

Here are a few particularly fascinating tidbits.

 * The author, Tom Standage, says that for centuries, only the wealthy could afford wine. Peasants drank beer or mead. (A preference for either beer or wine still tends to be a hint of one's socio-economic origins, or at least the socioeconomic origins of his ancestors.)

 * As time went on, inferior wine became available to the lower classes. Roman soldiers for example, drank posca, a sour wine that was turning to vinegar and which constituted much of their wages.

* At a feast, guests from higher classes got the best wine, those from lower classes were given poorer quality wine.

* Wine was nearly always mixed with equal parts water, or with even more water if it had been fortified for shipment. Since most people drank a lot of wine, the addition of water helped maintain moderation. There was another reason however: Greeks believed that wine was a gift from the gods.  Only a god could drink pure wine without suffering bad effects. For a human to drink pure wine was an act of hubris. Because water was a symbol of humanity, adding it to wine was an act of humility and piety; a recognition that one understood his place in the universe.

These few facts about the role of wine in the ancient Mediterranean world sheds light on the New Testament passages involving wine.

For example, consider the Lord's first miracle: turning water into wine. Could it be a statement about how Jesus viewed social stratification? After all, he offered good wine to everyone. Even the servants at the wedding got the good stuff. This reading on the Lord's miracle would be consistent with the first sentence of the Sermon on the Mount, at least as Luke records it: "blessed are the poor."

Now, think about the Roman soldier who offered the dying Lord the poor wine he had received as wages. The Lord refused the wine, perhaps not with disdain after all, but in the same spirit with which David refused the water his soldiers brought to him. He was grateful  for the offering but also showed his respect for the cost of the offering.

As for the water and blood that flowed from the Lord's side, I offer lyrics from an old Latin hymn:

"Cuius latus perforarum aqua fluxit et sanguine." (From whose side water flows together with blood.")

Think about what the apostle John says about the Lord's wounded side, or, perhaps, about his incarnation, or, even more likely, about both.

"This is He who came by water and blood; not  by water only, but by water and blood"  (1 John 5:6)

Recalling how wine in the New Testament so often symbolizes blood (John 6, for example) and the reference to the Lord's wounded side becomes a hint about how we should view Jesus as both human and divine. Just as wine mixed with water acknowledges humanity's place in the universe, so the incarnation of God reveals that divine life has been offered to us through the flesh of Christ.

There are too many theological implications surrounding the role of wine in the New Testament to explore in a blog. However, consider Paul's rebuke about how communion had gone wrong, in 1 Corinthians 11. He is upset that SOME were getting drunk while others were going away hungry. His rebuke is not so much about people getting drink, although that is certainly condemned here and throughout Scripture, but about why Christians would tolerate a community in which some were getting plenty while others were getting nothing.

The apostle James makes the same point: that churches must not give preferential treatment to the wealthy. This too is a reference to the wine drinking gatherings of Greco-Roman culture, where one's socio economic level determined whether he got the best seat at the table, and the best beverage attached to that seat, or received something inferior. At the Lord's table, everyone was to receive the same quality of treatment -- symbolized by the same wine at communion.

These idea about wine culture derive from what I have learned about how early Christians -- as well as others in the classical age -- invested their written language with many layers of meaning. Origin, in the third century, wrote extensively about this. So he is an important teacher for anyone wanting to understand how the early Christian writers, including the New Testament writers expressed their faith. Early Christians' interpretation of scripture derived from the Jewish form of exegesis, and this habit continued through the first few centuries of Christian history.

We sometimes miss a lot of data by merely acknowledging the obvious and clear meanings of scripture.  Allegory and metaphor has sometimes been misused to make scripture mean whatever a writer wished it to mean.  Nonetheless, early believers read scripture with all other scriptural passages in mind, and with an awareness about how other passages in the Bible suggested meaning for all other passages. This manner of reading was the habit of many if not most early Christians and so offers valuable information to those who study scripture about how past generations read the scriptures.

Of course, this form of exegesis should be use to hint at, rather than to conclusively determine, layers of meaning that a text may contain beyond the obvious.

When we read about the Lord's wounds in the Bible, 'side' means 'side.' However, in the continual self referring language of biblical discourse, 'side' may also bring to mind the fact that Eve was taken from Adam's side. The mixture of blood and water from the Lord's side may also bring to mind how and why ancient people mixed wine and water in the cup. These ideas may also impact one another, as they did for some of the church fathers.

When I read in this book that Greeks and Romans mixed their wine with water, not only as a form of moderation but to acknowledge the difference between the human and divine realms, I lead me to think about how that information might impact the way I read scripture. Given that water and blood came mixed from the Lord's side and, given that in the traditional celebration of Communion a celebrant also mixes the water and wine; given the echoes of the Eden story, in which Eve comes from the side of Adam; it is not a stretch to see why early Christians thought of the church as being birthed from the Lord's side --  through water and blood.

One can read the Bible profitably without understanding any of this.

Still, cultural background matters. Culture influences how scripture was written, how scripture has been translated and how scripture has been, and is, read. If an Evangelical reads a text written in a wine culture through the presuppositions of a movement influenced by the American prohibition, he may distort, or at least obscure, the meaning of what he reads.

Considering any vitally important part of biblical culture -- the role of wine, or of olive oil, or of monarchy, or, most of all, of the self-referring manner in which scripture was thought to echo and answer all other parts of scripture -- can only deepen one's grasp and appreciation for the divine text that has been offered to us through human culture.

The spiritual principle is that 'wine' is mixed with 'water' and then offered to all: in the Cup, in the Book, in the Church, and in the Savior of the world.


1 comment:

Peter Beddow said...

"Now, think about the Roman soldier who offered the dying Lord the poor wine he had received as wages. The Lord refused the wine, perhaps not with disdain after all, but in the same spirit with which David refused the water his soldiers brought to him. He was grateful for the offering but also showed his respect for the cost of the offering."

This gave me goosebumps ("Holy Ghost chills") all over when I read it. I had never thought of the Roman soldier giving Jesus vinegar to drink as anything but an insult. Now I think this interpretation is probably the right one.

I wholeheartedly agree that reading Scripture in the context of the whole text is critical; the challenge lies in that most of us lack both knowledge of history, the times and culture; and a knowledge of the whole Bible.

Please keep sharing these bits and pieces with us. They are like good meat!