Every Sunday, Christians assemble to worship God (cf. 1 Cor. 16.1-2). As part of that weekly gathering, we participate in a communal meal, described in the New Testament as: “the bread…[and] cup of the Lord” (1 Cor. 11.27) and the “communion” (1 Cor. 10.16-17).
The Lord himself left instructions for his disciples to partake of this ceremonial supper on a recurring basis to remind ourselves of his sacrificial death until he returns (1 Cor. 11.24-29; cf. Mt. 26.26-29; Mk. 14.17-25; Lk. 22.7-22).
Let’s reflect upon this wonderful ritual. In this installment particularly, we examine the contents of the communion.
The Lord’s Supper is a ceremonial meal involving two elements:
(1) “bread” (Mt. 26.26; Mk. 14.22; Lk. 22.19; 1 Cor. 10.16-17; 11.23, 26-28);
(2) “fruit of the vine” (Mt. 26.29; Mk. 14.25; Lk. 22.18).
Though the term, "bread" (artos), may involve a leavening agent, like yeast (cf. Mt. 16.11), the bread of the Lord’s Supper was “unleavened" (azumos) (Mt. 26.17, 26; Mk. 14.1, 12; Lk. 22.1, 7). Since unleavened bread does not undergo the process of fermentation, it carries the added dimension of representing holiness and sincerity (cf. 1 Cor. 5.7-8).
The Fruit of the Vine
The second element is called, the fruit of the vine. In modern parlance, the fruit of the vine may allude to any number of fruits, including: tomatoes, cucumbers, berries, melons, etc. Technically, each of these fruits grow on a vine.
However, the Biblical usage of the term, vine (ampelos), consistently refers to a grapevine (cf. Rev. 14.18-20; Jms. 3.12, NKJV). Hence, Christ specifically instructs his disciples to drink the juice from the grape in contemplation of his death. For a more extended discussion, see “What Is The Fruit of the Vine?” by Kyle Butt.
Fermented Or Not?
Perhaps more controversially, should this grape-juice be unfermented or alcoholic “wine”?
There is a common word in Greek (oinos), which is translated into English as “wine,” that can mean either:
(1) freshly pressed grape-juice (Jer. 48.33, LXX);
(2) vinegar (Mt. 27.34; cf. Ps. 69.21 [68.22 LXX]; Lk. 23.36);
or (3) intoxicating “wine” (Eph. 5.18; Prov. 23.31, LXX).
It is a general term, therefore, and only context can determine its precise character.
Interestingly, however, in reference to the passages pertaining to the communion, that word is never used. Jesus, in other words, never directly instructed his disciples to drink “wine” for the communion.
That said, the phrase, “fruit of the vine,” may in fact allude to the juice from the grape at any one of these stages of development. Indeed, alcoholic “wine” stems from the “fruit of the vine” just as much as unfermented grape-juice. Hence, nothing definitive regarding the fermentation-level of the grape-juice can be made of the phrase by itself.
The Availability of Unfermented Grape-Juice At Passover
Some allege that Jesus and his disciples must have consumed some form of fermented wine, since the Passover meal, during which Jesus instituted the Christian communion, occurred several months after harvest time (when fresh grape-juice was, ostensibly, no longer available).
But it is worth noting that, contrary to common misconception, the people of the ancient world, obviously without the aid of modern refrigeration technology, were nonetheless able to preserve both grapes and unfermented grape-juice for remarkably extended periods of time.
In fact, Josephus mentions one exceptional case involving grapes and other fruits that had been stored up for nearly 100 years, which were “in no way inferior to such fruits newly laid in” (Wars 7.8.4).
Pliny, Cato, Plutarch, and other writers from antiquity likewise corroborate the fact that, through various methods of filtering and storing, the people of the ancient world were more than capable of preserving unfermented grape-juice all year round.
Indubitably, then, Jesus and his disciples could have had access to unfermented grape-juice when he instituted the communion, even though it took place months after harvest-time.
Evidence For A Fermented Communion
Be that as it may, several Jewish sources indicate that the Jews customarily consume no less than four separate cups (totaling about 12-20 ounces) of an unfortified (but fermented) “wine” during the Passover meal (cf. Jeremias, 46). This tradition stemmed from the oral laws of the Rabbis rather than from the Mosaic law itself, which did not require the consumption of the “fruit of the vine” for Passover (cf. Ex. 12.1-28; Deut. 16.1-8).
While multiple explanations for keeping the tradition have been offered, perhaps the most popular is that the four cups represent the four “expressions of redemption” found in Exodus 6.6-7 (i.e., take you out of bondage; save you; redeem you; make you a nation). Thus, the cups of “fruit of the vine” (or, wine) were drunk, with intervening recitations of the Haggadah, to rejoice over this freedom.
These sources further suggest that while grape-juice is acceptable (Nefesh Harav 4.185), alcoholic “wine” is preferred, since inebriation promotes this feeling of merriment and rejoicing (Mikra’ei Kodesh 2:35). However, they also insist on ensuring that a Jew does not drink to the point of becoming drowsy or unrestrained, since rejoicing as a free people requires maintaining one’s composure. Besides, one must actually be able to recite the Haggadah during the feast (Shulchan Arch 473:3)!
Still, it should be noted that these sources are commentaries of commentaries composed several centuries after New Testament times (ranging from the third century to today), and may, in fact, represent a departure from earlier Jewish practices.
It is certainly clear, however, that Jesus and his disciples followed at least part of this tradition, for Luke indicates that they partook of multiple cups at the Seder (Passover feast), though he only mentions two (Lk. 22.17-20). Incidentally, the third in the series was called, the ‘cup of blessing,’ (cf. 1 Cor. 10.16).
Yet, when did this tradition congeal among the Jews, and would Jesus have observed it as written centuries later? And, more importantly, what was the nature of the “fruit of the vine” they consumed? Here are some facts to keep in mind.
(1) The Pesachim (10.1; “Passover festivals”) from the Mishnah (a set of commentaries recording Jewish oral law), written during the third century A.D., is the first written source identifying the minimum number of cups (4) typically consumed at the Seder on Passover, without identifying the nature of the “wine” itself (fermented or not).
Significantly, in descriptions of the Passover rituals from Jewish documents written in the 5th century B.C., 2nd century B.C., and two from the 1st century A.D. (by Philo and Josephus), the drinking of four cups of “wine” is never mentioned. Is it possible that the tradition had developed (with modifications) between the 1st century and the 3rd — perhaps after the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. (see more below)?
The chapter (10.2) does, at least, give the impression that the tradition had been in place since the times of Rabbis Shammai and Hillel (notable 1st century Jewish sages), though it is unclear whether the Rabbis themselves observed it, or whether it was simply developed by their respective “houses” (i.e., their pedagogical descendants). What is clear is that the tradition had not yet taken on a uniform template, for there was still some variation in the practice between the two camps even in the third century.
(2) The Berakhot (6.1), also from the Mishnah of the third century, specifically describes the “wine” as “the fruit of the vine.” No argument, therefore, can be made to suggest that since Jesus employed the phrase, “fruit of the vine,” instead of “wine,” that it must allude to unfermented grape-juice, for they are both used interchangeably.
Still, the Hebrew term for “wine” (yayin), employed in these two sources, is simply a generic term for the juice from the grape, whether in its fermented state or not. Thus, Nehemiah describes “wine” (yayin) of “all kinds” (Neh. 5.18). Accordingly, neither of these third century Jewish sources can provide us with a definitive answer as to its fermented status.
(3) The first description of the nature of the fruit of the vine at the Seder materializes in the Talmudic Pesachim (108b) from the 5th century A.D. It indicates that the wine of the Seder was made from a combination of one part raw, fermented grape-juice (reduced to a syrup-like substance) and diluted and mixed with three parts water to make it both potable and palatable (see Jackson, 2018, for further insight). It further cites an erstwhile Rabbi as insisting that
“it must have the taste and appearance of wine.”
Interestingly, however, the commentary proffers an objection to this provision:
“What is the reason for the opinion of Rabbi Yehuda? As it is written: ‘Look not upon wine when it is red’ (Proverbs 23.31).”
The commentary deflects the objection, and, in the next tractate (109a), argues that since the law instructed the people to “rejoice in your feast” (Deut. 16.14), and since red wine facilitates rejoicing and gives men pleasure, red wine should be imbibed at the Passover feast.
Hence, even if we could accept the notion that Jesus would have endorsed this type of specious reasoning, this text at least demonstrates that the debate over the consumption of red wine was still somewhat unresolved centuries after the time of Jesus.
(4) But this tracate (109a) is even more telling. It may provide a clue as to when the consumption of red wine for the Seder began. It reads:
“It was taught in a baraita that Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira says: When the Temple is standing, rejoicing is only through the eating of sacrificial meat, as it is stated: ‘And you shall sacrifice peace-offerings and you shall eat there and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God’ (Deuteronomy 27.7). And now that the Temple is not standing and one cannot eat sacrificial meat, he can fulfill the mitzvah (commandment) of rejoicing on a Festival only by drinking wine, as it is stated: ‘And wine that gladdens the heart of man’ (Psalm 104.15).”
Again, this reasoning is spurious, and would hardly have been embraced by the Lord (see below). Nonetheless, it appears to indicate that it was only after the destruction of the temple (in 70 A.D., 40 years after Jesus’ death) that they began relying on the consumption of red wine to rejoice at the Seder.
At the very least, we are in no way compelled to assume that the fruit of the vine described centuries later in the Mishnah and Talmud, which was alcoholic in nature, was of the same character during Jesus’ lifetime, for when the Lord instituted the communion, the Temple was still standing. Perhaps red wine was not yet part of the custom among the Jews.
Consequently, though it is possible that Jesus’ contemporaries imbibed intoxicating wine at the Passover, there is no unequivocal evidence to corroborate this.
Evidence Against A Fermented Communion
Even if many of Jesus’ contemporaries did in fact consume a type of fermented “light wine” on Passover, there is no evidence to indicate that Jesus himself did so. Indeed, there is much to suggest that he would not have observed such a custom.
First, Mosaic law, which our Lord stringently kept to the smallest “jot and tittle” (cf. Mt. 5.17-18; Lk. 24.44; 1 Jn. 3.4-5), repeatedly counsels against recreational inebriation. Consider:
(1) “Wine is a mocker, Strong drink is a brawler, And whoever is led astray by it is not wise” (Proverbs 20.1).
(2) “Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has contentions? Who has complaining? Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of eyes? Those who linger long over wine, Those who go to taste mixed wine. Do not look on the wine when it is red, When it sparkles in the cup, When it goes down smoothly; At the last it bites like a serpent and stings like a viper. Your eyes will see strange things and your mind will utter perverse things” (Proverbs 23.29-33).
(3) “But they also have erred through wine, and through intoxicating drink are out of the way; the priest and the prophet have erred through intoxicating drink; they are swallowed up by wine, they are out of the way through intoxicating drink; they err in vision, they stumble in judgment” (Isaiah 28.7).
(4) Priests in particular were forbidden from consuming intoxicants, especially while discharging their sacerdotal duties (Lev. 10.9). In that light, the notion that Christ, our High-priest, may have been intoxicated (however slightly) while offering himself as our sacrifice just hours later is wholly incongruous with the duties of priesthood.
Certainly, there are passages in the Old Testament which appear to sanction intoxication, but these must be analyzed in context. Nevertheless, a study of such passages would be better served in another article.
Second, it should be noted that even though the alcoholic wine described by these later sources was light, unfortified, and diluted, it was still potent enough to inebriate. Some estimate the alcohol content may have been somewhere in the 5-10% range (modern alcoholic wine contains about 12%).
Hence, had the Lord and his disciples consumed 20 ounces (or more), their judgment most certainly would have been impaired at the very least, as their blood-alcohol content (BAC) would have been somewhere between .05% and .07% minimum, depending upon their weight. In a modern context, driving a vehicle with a .05% BAC is considered drunk-driving in more than 100 countries around the world. In the U.S., hundreds of fatalities involving people who drive a vehicle with a BAC of .05% to .07% occur every year.
Yet, the actions of Christ that night and the following day are not indicative of a man whose judgment was impaired, even in the slightest degree (see  note below).
Third, the argument employed centuries later to justify the consumption of alcohol at Passover, stemming from Psalm 104.15, constitutes a misuse of scripture, and is inconsistent with the character of Jesus, who chided others for similar abuses (cf. Mt. 22.29; 4.6-7). Even if the tradition (and its justification) to consume alcohol at the Seder existed in the time of Jesus, the Lord himself would not have embraced it.
(1) The argument asserts that since Jews must rejoice at Passover, and since alcohol promotes rejoicing, the consumption of alcohol is acceptable at the feast (indeed, it has virtually become a necessity in modern Judaism). Here is the flaw in this line of reasoning:
There are many things in this world that give men pleasure and joy. For example, when the Babylonians, by divine providence (cf. Jer. 25.8ff), plundered God’s people, they “were glad” and “rejoiced” (Jer. 50.11; cf. Hab. 1.15-17). Would it be reasonable to argue that since the Jews must rejoice at the Passover feast, and since plundering our neighbors can promote rejoicing, that the Jews were permitted to plunder their neighbors at the Passover feast? Obviously, this reasoning is fallacious.
In truth, sin itself gives men pleasure (Heb. 11.25). But there is no justification in arguing that since God desires our happiness, and since sin promotes happiness, that we may therefore commit sin for the sake of our happiness. The end does not justify the means (cf. 1 Pt. 3.10-12; Ps. 34.12-16; Rm. 3.8; 6.1-2 — note: these passages promote a holy happiness, not happiness by whatever means).
(2) There is no indication that the Psalmist was referring to alcoholic “wine” as that which “gladdens the heart of man” (104.15). Only context can define the fermentation level of the “wine” (Heb., yayin), and there is no contextual information in this passage compelling us to conclude that fermented wine was in view.
To the contrary, the remote context deals with things that God created in their natural state to provide joy for mankind (i.e., earth, waters, springs, trees, grass, vegetation). The immediate context (vv. 14-15) addresses vegetation in particular which man cultivates for his use, i.e., grapes (wine), wheat (bread), olives (oil). Hence, it is more likely that the Psalmist refers to grape-juice in general (regardless of its fermentation status), bread in general (leavened or not), and oil in general, as things which are pleasant and wholesome blessings from God.
(3) Unfermented grape-juice, according to other passages, together with bread and oil, each stem from produce which God created to give men gladness and cheer (cf. Judges 9.13; Ecc. 10.19; 9.7). Hence, a Jew does not need alcohol to rejoice at the Seder, for nonalcoholic grape-juice gives humanity gladness and pleasure too. For that matter, the telling of the Exodus story itself was a sufficient cause for merriment (cf. Psalms 113-118).
Accordingly, if grape-juice “gladdens the hearts of men,” why are we compelled to assume that the Psalmist had alcoholic “wine” in mind when he wrote these words, entirely dismissing the wholesome interpretation, unless we harbor a carnal desire to justify our appetites for worldliness?
It is apparent that the Jewish sages who created this argument were eager to grasp for some scriptural grounds to justify festive inebriation, no doubt to correspond with their Gentile counterparts. Indeed, a convincing case can be made that the Seder customs described after the destruction of the temple were adapted to model the Greek symposium, which also involved liquor, food, discussion, and merriment, as a replacement for the Paschal sacrifice (see Golinken).
In short, the reasoning employed by these later Jewish commentators to justify the consumption of red wine at Passover is both fallacious and contingent upon twisting Scripture. Hence, even if the Rabbis of Jesus’ day embraced the same arguments, it is not likely that Jesus himself — who resisted arguments of similar dubiousness — did so.
Fourth, during Passover week, the Jewish people were instructed not to consume “anything leavened” (Ex. 12.15, NASB). All leavening products (e.g., yeast) were to be removed from their houses, and “nothing leavened” could be consumed, lest they be “cut off from the congregation of Israel” (Ex. 12.19-20). This reminded them of the fact that when God delivered them from Egyptian bondage, they “could not wait” for the lengthy fermentation process to complete, for they fled “in haste” (Ex. 12.33, 39).
While the term, leavened, is customarily associated with bread, the Hebrew terms (chametz and seor) denote anything that ferments, or, literally, sours. Hence, even the meat from the Paschal sacrifice which each family consumed on the first day of the festival was not permitted to “remain overnight,” but was to be totally discarded (cf. Ex. 12.10-11; Num. 9.11-12), so as to avoid the fermentation process (cf. Deut. 16.3-4).
How, then, in that light, could fermented wine be permissible during this festival? And would not freshly-pressed grape-juice be more in keeping with the “in haste” provision than aged wine?
Modern Judaism, propounding on the teaching of the Talmud, stipulates that chametz only applies to five types of grains: wheat, barley, oat, spelt, or rye. In this way, they do not interdict against yeast as a leavening agent in wine during Passover.
However, Drs. Lees and Burns, 19th century temperance advocates, noted that rabbinical teaching, in earlier centuries, argued for this distinction on the grounds of a false assumption — that fruit-juices do not ferment (see Lees, 277ff; esp. 280)! Hence, intoxicating wine is permitted at Passover, since, allegedly, grape juices do not ferment. Obviously, our Lord, the creator of the grape, would have known otherwise!
Finally, the spiritual greatness of Christ leads one to conclude that Jesus did not drink four cups of alcoholic wine when he instituted the communion. Consider:
In Luke 1.15, the angel of the Lord told Zacharias, the father of John the immerser, that John "will be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink." Here, the term, oinos, is employed — undoubtedly referring to fermented (alcoholic) wine.
"Strong drink" has to do with any other kind of fermented liquor (i.e., alcohol that does not come from a fermented grape). Thus, John drank neither alcoholic wine, nor any other type of alcoholic beverage. It is because John practiced an abstemious lifestyle that the angel called him "great in the sight of the Lord."
If exercising abstinence where alcohol is concerned made John "great," and if Jesus is truly greater than John (cf. Mt. 3.11), then it stands to reason that Jesus likewise abstained from any beverage that was alcoholic in nature. And if Jesus practiced alcoholic abstinence, then he did so during Passover too.
Consequently, the drink they consumed on that occasion, if these facts are valid, must have been non-alcoholic (i.e., neither "wine" nor "strong drink”).
Unleavened bread and the “fruit of the vine” constitute the elements of this sacred meal. In subsequent articles, more will be said regarding the significance of these two elements, the participants in the meal, and the timing of observing it.
 “At .05% BAC, your behavior will become exaggerated. You may speak louder and gesture more. You may also begin to lose control of small muscles, like the ability to focus your eyes, so vision will become blurry. Your judgment is impaired, and coordination is reduced. Tracking objects visually becomes more difficult, and your ability to respond to emergencies, like an object in your path, will be reduced. Your inhibitions will be lowered, although you will feel good and may still choose to engage in risky behaviors like driving. Some states in the US are lowering their legal BAC to 0.05% because problems with concentration and coordination begin at this level, so it can be a dangerous level of intoxication.” — https://www.alcohol.org/effects/blood-alcohol-concentration/
This is a 4-part Series:
The Communion (1): The Contents
Butt, Kyle. “What is the Fruit of the Vine?” ApologeticsPress.org. Access date: October 7, 2018. http://www.apologeticspress.org/APContent.aspx?category=11&article=1262 Golinken, David. “The Origins of the Seder.” Schechter.edu. Access date: October 16, 2018. http://www.schechter.edu/the-origins-of-the-seder/ Jackson, Wayne. "Was the Fruit of the Vine Fermented?" ChristianCourier.com. Access date: October 6, 2018. https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/224-was-the-fruit-of-the-vine-fermented Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Peabody, MA: Christianbook Distributors, 2016. Lees, Frederich R. and Dawson Burns. The Temperance Bible Commentary. London: S. W. Partridge, 1868. Lewis, Jack P. The Gospel According to Matthew: Vol. 2. Austin, TX: Sweet Publishing Company, 1976.