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Jesus And Wine?
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In the two preceding installments we established that the Biblical terms for wine (yayin in Hebrew and oinos in Greek) are used in Scripture to refer to the juice of the grape, whether fermented or unfermented. This significant finding discredits the popular claim that the Bible knows only fermented wine, which it approves when used moderately. The truth of the matter is that the Bible knows both fermented wine, which it disapproves, and unfermented grape juice, which it approves.

Some of the reasons Scripture condemns the use of alcoholic beverages are that they distort the perception of reality (Is 28:7; Prov 23:33); they impair the capacity to make moral, responsible decisions (Lev 10:9-11); they weaken moral sensitivities and inhibitions (Gen 9:21; 19:32; Hab 2:15; Is 5:11-12); they cause physical sickness (Prov 23:20-21; Hos 7:5; Is 19:14; Ps 60:3); and they disqualify for both civil and religious service (Prov 31:4-5; Lev 10:9-11; Ezek 44:23; 1 Tim 3:2-3; Titus 1:7-8 ).

Contrary to popular opinion, in the ancient world the preservation of grape juice unfermented was a relatively simple process. It was accomplished by boiling down the juice to a syrup, or by separating the fermentable pulp from the juice of the grape by means of filtration, or by placing the grape juice in sealed jars which were immersed in a pool of cold water, or by fumigating the wine jars with sulphur before sealing them. The use of such techniques clearly indicates that the means of preserving grape juice without fermentation were known and used in the ancient world. This conclusion is indirectly supported by the teachings and example of Jesus which we want to examine in this newsletter.

The example and teachings of Christ are normative for Christian belief and practice. If, as many well-meaning Christians believe, Christ made fermented wine at the wedding of Cana, commended it in the parables of the new wine skins and the old wine, admitted to have used it in His description of His lifestyle ("eating and drinking") and commanded it to be used until the end of time at the institution of the Lord's Supper, then there can hardly be anything intrinsically wrong with a moderate drinking of alcoholic beverages. Simply stated, "If alcoholic wine was good enough for Jesus, it is good enough for me!"

In view of the fundamental importance and far-reaching consequences of the teachings of Christ and the apostles on drinking, in this newsletter we shall briefly examine some of the wine-related stories or sayings of Jesus. In the next and final installment we will consider the teaching of the Apostolic Church regarding the use of alcoholic beverages. A fuller treatment of this important subject is found my book WINE IN THE BIBLE. Feel free to contact me, if you do not own a copy. We will be glad to mail you a copy immediately. The new edition came off the press few days ago.


Many well-meaning Christians believe that the "good wine" Jesus made at Cana (John 2:10) was "good" because of its high alcoholic content. This belief rests on three major assumptions. First, it is assumed that the Jews did not know how to prevent the fermentation of grape juice; and since the season of the wedding was just before Spring Passover (cf. John 2:13), that is, six months after the grape harvest, the wine used at Cana had ample time to ferment.

Second, it is assumed that the description given by the master of the banquet to the wine provided by Christ as "the good wine" means a high-quality alcoholic wine. Third, it is assumed that the expression "well drunk" (John 2:10) used by the master of the banquet indicates that the guests were intoxicated because they had been drinking fermented wine. Consequently, the wine Jesus made must also have been fermented. In view of the importance these assumptions play in determining the nature of the wine provided by Christ, we shall briefly examine each of them.

The first assumption is discredited by numerous testimonies from the Roman world of New Testament times describing various methods for preserving grape juice. We have seen in the previous chapter that the preservation of grape juice unfermented was in some ways a simpler process than the preservation of fermented wine. Thus, the possibility existed of supplying unfermented grape juice at the wedding of Cana near the Passover season, since such a beverage could be kept unfermented throughout the year.

"The Good Wine." The second assumption that the wine Jesus provided was pronounced "the good wine" (John 2:10) by the master of the banquet because it was high in alcoholic content, is based on the taste of twentieth-century drinkers who define the goodness of wine in proportion to its alcoholic strength. But this was not necessarily true in the Roman world of New Testament times where the best wines were those whose alcoholic potency had been removed by boiling or filtration. Pliny, for example, says that "wines are most beneficial (utilissimum) when all their potency has been removed by the strainer."1 Similarly, Plutarch points out that wine is "much more pleasant to drink" when it "neither inflames the brain nor infests the mind or passions"2 because its strength has been removed through frequent filtering.

The Talmud indicates that drinking to the accompaniment of musical instruments on festive occasions such as a wedding was forbidden.3 The latter is confirmed by later testimonies of rabbis. For example, Rabbi S. M. Isaac, an eminent nineteenth-century rabbi and editor of The Jewish Messenger, says: "The Jews do not, in their feasts for sacred purposes, including the marriage feast, ever use any kind of fermented drinks. In their oblations and libations, both private and public, they employ the fruit of the vine-that is, fresh grapes-unfermented grape-juice, and raisins, as the symbol of benediction. Fermentation is to them always a symbol of corruption."4 Though Rabbi Isaac's statement is not quite accurate, since Jewish sources are not unanimous on the kind of wine to be used at sacred festivals, it still does indicate that some Jews used unfermented wine at wedding feasts.

"Well Drunk." The third assumption that the expression "well drunk" (John 2:10) indicates that the wedding guest were intoxicated and thus "the good wine" provided by Christ must also have been intoxicating, misinterprets and misapplies the comment of the master of the banquet, and overlooks the broader usage of the verb. The comment in question was not made in reference to that particular wedding party, but to the general practice among those who hold feasts: "Every man serves the good wine first; and when men have drunk freely, then the poor wine . . ." (John 2:10, RSV). This remark forms part of the stock in trade of a hired banquet master, rather than an actual description of the state of intoxication at a particular party.

Another important consideration is the fact that the Greek verb methusko, translated by some "well drunk," can also mean "to drink freely," as rendered by the RSV, without any implication of intoxication. In his article on this verb in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Herbert Preisker observes that "Methuskomai is used with no ethical or religious judgment in John 2:10 in connection with the rule that the poorer wine is served only when the guests have drunk well."5

Moral Implications. The verb methusko in John 2:10 is used in the sense of satiation. It refers simply to the large quantity of wine generally consumed at a feast, without any reference to intoxicating effects. Those who wish to insist that the wine used at the feast was alcoholic and that Jesus also provided alcoholic wine, though of a better quality, are driven to the conclusion that Jesus provided a large additional quantity of intoxicating wine so that the wedding party could continue its reckless indulgence. Such a conclusion destroys the moral integrity of Christ's character.

Moral consistency demands that Christ could not have miraculously produced between 120 and 180 gallons of intoxicating wine for the use of men, women and children gathered at the Cana's wedding feast, without becoming morally responsible for their intoxication. Scriptural and moral consistency requires that "the good wine" produced by Christ was fresh, unfermented grape juice. This is supported by the very adjective used to describe it, namely kalos, which denotes that which is morally excellent, instead of agathos, which means simply good.6


Christ's statement that "new wine must be put into fresh wineskins" (Luke 5:38; Matt 9:17; Mark 2:22), is seen by moderationists as an indication that Jesus commended the moderate use of alcoholic wine. This view rests on the assumption that the phrase "new wine" denotes wine freshly pressed, but already in a state of active fermentation. Such wine, it is said, could only be placed in new wineskins because old skins would burst under pressure.

Fermenting New Wine? This popular interpretation is very imaginative but not factual. Anyone familiar with the pressure caused by gas-producing fermentation knows that no bottle, whether of skin or glass, can withstand the pressure of fermenting new wine. As Alexander B. Bruce points out, "Jesus was not thinking at all of fermented, intoxicating wine, but of 'must,' a non-intoxicating beverage, which could be kept safely in new leather bottles, but not in old skins which had previously contained ordinary wine, because particles of albuminoid matter adhering to the skin would set up fermentation and develop gas with an enormous pressure."7

The only "new wine" which could be stored safely in new wineskins was unfermented must, after it had been filtered or boiled. Columella, the renowned Roman agriculturist who was a contemporary of the apostles, attests that a "new wine-jar" was used to preserve fresh must unfermented: "That must may remain always sweet as though it were fresh, do as follows. Before the grape-skins are put under the press, take from the vat some of the freshest possible must and put it in a new wine-jar [amphoram novam], then daub it over and cover it carefully with pitch, that thus no water may be able to get in."8

Symbolic Meaning. This interpretation is further confirmed by the symbolic meaning of Christ's saying. The imagery of new wine in new wineskins is an object lesson in regeneration. As aptly explained by Ernest Gordon, "The old wineskins, with their alcoholic lees, represented the Pharisees' corrupt nature. The new wine of the Gospel could not be put into them. They would ferment it. 'I came not to call the self-righteous but repentant sinners.' The latter by their conversion become new vessels, able to retain the new wine without spoiling it (Mark 2:15-17, 22). So, by comparing intoxicating wine with degenerate Pharisaism, Christ clearly intimated what his opinion of intoxicating wine was."9

"It is well to notice," Ernest Gordon continues, "how in this casual illustration, he [Christ] identifies wine altogether with unfermented wine. Fermented wine is given no recognition. It could be put into any kind of wineskin, however sorry and corrupt. But new wine is like new cloth which is too good to be used in patching rags. It is a thing clean and wholesome, demanding a clean container. The natural way in which this illustration is used suggests at least a general, matter-of-fact understanding among his Jewish hearers that the real fruit of the vine, the good wine, was unfermented."10


In Luke Christ's saying about new wine in fresh wineskins is followed by a similar and yet different statement: "And no one after drinking old wine desires new; for he says, 'The old is good'" (Luke 5:39). Though this statement is not found in the other Gospels, it forms an integral part of the narrative. Moderationists attach fundamental importance to this statement because it contains, in their view, Christ's outspoken commendation of alcoholic wine. Kenneth L. Gentry, for example, speaks of "the well-nigh universal prevalence of men to prefer old (fermented) wine over new (pre- or unfermented) wine. The Lord himself makes reference to this assessment among men in Luke 5:39: 'And no one, after drinking old wine, wishes for new; for he says, The old is good enough.'"11

Meaning of "New Wine." The meaning of "new wine" in this passage cannot be determined by its general usage in Scripture because in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), the phrase oinos neos--"new wine" is used to translate both fermented wine as in Job 32:19 and unfermented grape juice as in Isaiah 49:26. In the latter it translates the Hebrew asis which designates unfermented grape juice.

In the passage under consideration it is legitimate to infer that "new wine" has the same meaning in the whole passage, because it is used consecutively without any intimation of change of meaning. The metaphors in both sayings are used without confusion or contradiction. This means that if the "new wine" of verse 38 is, as shown earlier, unfermented grape juice, the same must be true of the "new wine" of verse 39.

Meaning of "Old Wine." Before discussing whether or not Christ expressed a judgment on the superior quality of "old wine" over "new wine," it is important to determine whether the "old wine" spoken of is fermented or unfermented. From the viewpoint of quality, age "improves" the flavor not only of fermented wine but also of unfermented grape juice. Though no chemical change occurs, grape juice acquires a finer flavor by being kept, as its fine and subtle particles separate from the albuminous matter and other sedimentations. Thus, the "old wine" esteemed good could refer to grape juice preserved and improved by age.

The context, however, favors the meaning of fermented wine, since Christ uses the metaphor of the "old wine" to represent the old forms of religion and the "new wine" the new form of religious life He taught and inaugurated. In this context, fermented old wine better represents the corrupted forms of the old Pharisaic religion.

Is "Old Wine" Better? In the light of this conclusion, it remains to be determined if Christ by this saying is expressing a value judgment on the superiority of "old [fermented] wine" over "new wine." A careful reading of the text indicates that the one who says "The old is good" is not Christ but anyone who has been drinking "old wine." In other words, Christ is not uttering His own opinion, but the opinion of those who have acquired a taste for the old wine. He says simply that anyone who has acquired a taste for old wine does not care for new. We know this to be the case. Drinking alcoholic beverages begets an appetite for stimulants and not for alcohol-free juices.

Christ's saying does not represent His judgment regarding the superiority of old, fermented wine. Several commentators emphasize this point. In his Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, Norval Geldenhuys says: "The point at issue here has nothing to do with the comparative merits of old and new wine, but refers to the predilection for old wine in the case of those who are accustomed to drink it."12 R. C. H. Lenski states the same truth most concisely: "It is not Jesus who calls the old wine 'good enough,' but he that drank it. A lot of old wine is decidedly bad because it has not been prepared properly; age is one thing, excellence with age quite another."13

The Context of the "Old Wine." The view that old, fermented wine is better than new wine, would be false even if everyone on earth believed it! And in the passage we are considering it is contradicted by the context in which it occurs and by the whole purpose of the illustration. In the immediate context Jesus uses the same word (palaios) of old garments, which He obviously did not esteem as better than new ones. The statement about "old wine" seems to contradict the preceding one about "old garment," but the contradiction disappears when one understands the purpose of the illustration.

The purpose of the illustration is not to praise the superiority of old wine but to warn against an over-estimation of the old forms of religiosity promoted by the Pharisees. Such religiosity consisted, as verse 33 indicates, in the fulfillment of such external ascetic practices as frequent fasting and public prayer. To justify the fact that His disciples did not adhere to such external forms of religiosity, Christ used four illustrations: wedding guests do not fast in the presence of the bridegroom (vv. 34-35); new cloth is not used to patch an old garment (v. 36); new wine is not placed in old wineskins (vv. 37-38); new wine is not liked by those accustomed to drink the old (v. 39). The common purpose of all the four illustrations is to help people accustomed to the old forms of religion, and unacquainted with the new form of religious life taught by Christ, to recognize that the old seems good only so long as one is not accustomed to the new, which in and of itself is better. In this context, the old fermented wine seems good only to those who do not know the better new wine.


More than nineteen centuries ago Jesus was accused of being "a glutton and a drunkard" because He came "eating and drinking" (Luke 7:33-34: Matt 11:19). Moderationists find in Jesus' description of His own lifestyle as "eating and drinking" (Matt 11:19; Luke 7:34) an unmistakable proof that He openly admitted having used alcoholic wine. Moreover, it is argued, Jesus must have drunk alcoholic wine for His critics to accuse Him of being a "drunkard."

Social Lifestyle. This interpretation ignores several important considerations. The phrase "eating and drinking" is used idiomatically to describe the difference between the social lifestyle of Jesus and that of John the Baptist. John came "eating no bread and drinking no wine" (Luke 7:33), that is to say, he lived a lifestyle of full social isolation, while Christ came "eating and drinking," that is to say, He lived a lifestyle of free social association.

No Mention of "Wine." A significant point often overlooked is that Jesus did not mention "wine" in describing His own lifestyle. While of John the Baptist Jesus said that he came "eating no bread and drinking no wine," of Himself He simply said: "The Son of Man has come eating and drinking." If Jesus had wanted it to be known that, contrary to John the Baptist He was a wine-drinker, then He could have repeated the word "wine" for the sake of emphasis and clarity.

By refusing to specify what kinds of food or drink He consumed, Christ may well have wished to deprive His critics of any basis for their charge of gluttony and drunkenness. The omission of "bread" and "wine" in the second statement (Matthew omits them in both statements) could well have been intended to expose the senselessness of the charge. In other words, Jesus appears to have said, "My critics accuse me of being a glutton and drunkard, just because I do not take meals alone but eat often in the presence of other people. I eat socially. But my critics actually do not know what I eat."

Even assuming that His critics actually saw Jesus drinking something, they would have readily accused Him of being a drunkard, even if they saw Him drinking grape juice, or water, for that matter. On the day of Pentecost critics charged the apostles with being drunk on grape-juice (gleukos-Acts 2:13). This goes to show that no matter what Jesus drank, His unscrupulous critics would have maligned Him as a drunkard.

Critics' Accusation Unsafe. To infer that Jesus must have drunk wine because His critics accused Him of being a "drunkard" means to accept as truth the word of Christ's enemies. On two other occasions his critics accused Jesus, saying: "You have a demon" (John 7:20; 8:48). If we believe that Christ must have drunk some alcoholic wine because His critics accused Him of being a drunkard, then we must also believe that He had an evil spirit because His critics accused Him of having a demon. The absurdity of such reasoning shows that using critics' accusations is not safe grounds for defining Biblical teachings.

Jesus answered the baseless charge of His critics, saying: "Yet wisdom is justified by all her children" (Luke 7:35). Textual evidence is divided between "children" and "works," but the meaning of this cryptic statement remains the same, namely, that wisdom is to be judged by its results. The wisdom of God is vindicated by the works of goodness to which it gives birth. Thus, to infer on the basis of the aspersions of His critics that Jesus drank wine shows a complete lack of wisdom. The results of His life of self-denial speak for themselves.


Fundamental importance is attached to the "wine" of the Last Supper because Christ not only used it, but even commanded it to be used until the end of time as a memorial of His redeeming blood (Matt 26:28-29; Mark 14:24-25). It is widely believed that the wine of the Last Supper was alcoholic for two main reasons: (1) the phrase "fruit of the vine" is a figurative expression which was used as the functional equivalent of fermented wine, and (2) the Jews supposedly used only fermented wine at the Passover. This belief is discredited by several important considerations.

"The Fruit of the Vine." The language of the Last Supper is significant. In all the synoptic gospels Jesus calls the contents of the cup "the fruit of the vine"(Matt 26:29; Mark 14:25; Luke 22:18). The noun "fruit" (gennema) denotes that which is produced in a natural state, just as it is gathered. Fermented wine is not the natural "fruit of the vine" but the unnatural fruit of fermentation and decay. The Jewish historian Josephus, who was a contemporary of the apostles, explicitly calls the three clusters of grapes freshly squeezed in a cup by Pharaoh's cupbearer as "the fruit of the vine."14 This establishes unequivocally that the phrase was used to designate the sweet, unfermented juice of the grape.

"All" to Drink the Cup. If the contents of the cup were alcoholic wine, Christ could hardly have said: "Drink of it, all of you" (Matt 26:27; cf. Mark 14:23; Luke 22:17), especially in view of the fact that a typical Passover cup of wine contained not just a sip of wine, but about three-quarters of a pint.15 Christ could hardly have commanded "all" of His followers to drink the cup, if its content were alcoholic wine. There are some to whom alcohol in any form is very harmful. Young children who participate at the Lord's table should certainly not touch wine. There are those to whom the simple taste or smell of alcohol awakens in them a dormant or conquered craving for alcohol. Could Christ, who taught us to pray "Lead us not into temptation," have made His memorial table a place of irresistible temptation for some and of danger for all? The wine of the Lord's Supper can never be taken freely and festally as long as it is alcoholic and intoxicating.

The Law of Fermentation. Further support for the unfermented nature of the Communion wine is provided by the Mosaic law which required the exclusion of all fermented articles during the Passover feast (Ex 12:15; 13:6, 7). Jesus understood the meaning of the letter and spirit of the Mosaic law regarding "unfermented things," as indicated by His warning against "the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees" (Matt 16:6). "Leaven" for Christ represented corrupt nature and teachings, as the disciples later understood (Matt 16:12). The consistency and beauty of the blood symbolism cannot be fittingly represented by fermented wine, which stands in the Scripture for human depravity and divine indignation.

We cannot conceive of Christ bending over to bless in grateful prayer a cup containing alcoholic wine which the Scripture warns us not to look at (Prov 23:31). A cup that intoxicates is a cup of cursing and not "the cup of blessing" (1 Cor 10:16); it is "the cup of demons" and not "the cup of the Lord" (1 Cor 10:21); it is a cup that cannot fittingly symbolize the incorruptible and "precious blood of Christ" (1 Peter 1:18-19). This gives us reason to believe that the cup He "blessed" and gave to His disciples did not contain any "fermented thing" prohibited by Scripture.

Historical Testimonies. Jewish and Christian historical testimonies support the use of unfermented wine at Passover/Lord's Supper. Louis Ginzberg (1873-1941), a distinguished Talmudic scholar who for almost forty years was chairman of the Department of Talmudic and Rabbinic Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, provides what is perhaps the most exhaustive analysis of the Talmudic references regarding the use of wine in Jewish religious ceremonies. He concludes his investigation by saying: "We have thus proven on the basis of the main passages both of the Babylonian Talmud and that of Jerusalem that unfermented wine may be used lekatehillah [optionally] for Kiddush [the consecration of a festival by means of a cup of wine] and other religious ceremonies outside the temple."16

Ginzberg's conclusion is confirmed by The Jewish Encyclopedia. Commenting on the time of the Last Supper, it says: "According to the synoptic Gospels, it would appear that on the Thursday evening of the last week of his life Jesus with his disciples entered Jerusalem in order to eat the Passover meal with them in the sacred city; if so, the wafer and the wine of the mass or the communion service then instituted by him as a memorial would be the unleavened bread and the unfermented wine of the Seder service."17

The custom of using unfermented wine at Passover has survived through the centuries not only among some Jews, but also among certain Christian groups and churches. For example, in the apocryphal Acts and Martyrdom of St. Matthew the Apostle, which circulated in the third century, a heavenly voice instructs the local Bishop Plato, saying: "Read the Gospel and bring as an offering the holy bread; and having pressed three clusters from the vine into a cup, communicate with me, as the Lord Jesus showed us how to offer up when He rose from the dead on the third day."18 This is a clear testimony of the use of freshly pressed grape juice in the celebration of the Lord's Supper.

The practice of pressing preserved grapes directly into the communion cup is attested by councils, popes and theologians, including Thomas Aquinas (A. D.1225-1274).19 The use of unfermented wine is well-documented especially among such Eastern Churches as the Abyssinian Church, the Nestorian Church of Western Asia, the Christians of St. Thomas in India, the Coptic monasteries in Egypt, and the Christians of St. John in Persia, all of which celebrated the Lord's Supper with unfermented wine made either with fresh or dried grapes.20


In the light of the foregoing considerations we conclude that the "the fruit of the vine" that Jesus commanded to be used as a memorial of His redeeming blood was not fermented, which in the Scripture represents human corruption and divine indignation, but unfermented and pure grape juice, a fitting emblem of Christ's untainted blood shed for the remission of our sins.

The claim that Christ used and sanctioned the use of alcoholic beverages rest on unfounded assumptions, devoid of textual, contextual and historical support. The evidence we have submitted indicates that Jesus abstained from all intoxicating substances and gave no sanction to His followers to use them.


1. Pliny, Natural History 23, 24, trans. W. H. S. Jones, The Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1961).
2. Plutarch, Symposiac 8, 7.
3. See Sotah 48a; also Mishna Sotah 9, 11.
4. Cited in William Patton, Bible Wines. Laws of Fermentation (Oklahoma City, n. d.), p. 83. Emphasis supplied.
5. Herbert Preisker, "Methe, Methuo, Methuskomai," Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel (Grand Rapids, 1967), vol. 4, p. 547, emphasis supplied.
6. "It must be observed," notes Leon C. Field, "that the adjective used to describe the wine made by Christ is not agathos, good, simply, but kalos, that which is morally excellent or befitting. The term is suggestive of Theophrastus' characterization of unintoxicating wine as moral (ethikos) wine" (Oinos: A Discussion of the Bible Wine Question [New York, 1883], p. 57).
7. Alexander Balman Bruce, The Synoptic Gospels in The Expositor's Greek Testament (Grand Rapids, 1956), p. 500.
8. Columella, On Agriculture 12, 29.
9. Ernest Gordon, Christ, the Apostles and Wine. An Exegetical Study (Philadelphia, 1947), p. 20.
10. Ibid., p. 21.
11. Kenneth L. Gentry, The Christian and Alcoholic Beverages (Grand Rapids, 1986), p. 54.
12. Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, 1983), p. 198.
13. R. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Luke's Gospel (Columbus, Ohio, 1953), p. 320.
14. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 2, 5, 2.
15. According to J. B. Lightfoot, each of the four Passover cups contained "not less that the fourth part of a quarter of a hin, besides what water was mingled with it" (The Temple-Service and the Prospect of the Temple [London, 1833], p. 151). A hin contained twelve English pints, so that the four cups would amount to three-quarters of a pint each.
16. Louis Ginzberg, "A Response to the Question Whether Unfermented Wine May Be Used in Jewish Ceremonies," American Jewish Year Book 1923, p. 414.
17. The Jewish Encyclopedia, 1904 edition, s. v. "Jesus," vol. 5, p. 165.
18. Acts and Martyrdom of St. Matthew the Apostle, eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids, 1978), vol. 8, pp. 532-533.
19. For references and discussion, see Wine in the Bible, pp. 168-169.
20. Information about these churches is provided by *. W. Samson, The Divine Law as to Wines (New York, 1880), pp, 205-217. See also Leon C. Field, Oinos: A Discussion of the Bible Wine Question (New York, 1883), pp. 91-94; Frederic R. Lees and Dawson Burns, The Temperance Bible-Commentary (London, 1894), pp. 280-282. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------


Here is the answer to the question of Paul and more so the Apostolic Church


-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- "DRINKING IN THE APOSTOLIC CHURCH"

The importance of the Apostolic Church as a model for Christian beliefs and practices extends to her teachings on the use of alcoholic beverages. The way the apostles understood, preached and practiced the teachings of Jesus and of the Old Testament regarding alcoholic beverages is fundamental to determine whether we as Christians today should take our stand on the side of moderation or on the side of abstinence.

The specific New Testament references to "wine"(oinos) outside the four Gospels are thirteen,1 eight of which occur in the book of Revelation, where "wine" is used mostly symbolically to represent either human depravity or divine retribution. In addition to the texts mentioning "wine" specifically, there are in the New Testament over twenty passages admonishing Christians to be "sober" or "temperate." In most cases, as we shall see, these admonitions are directly related to drinking practices. We shall briefly examine first some of the wine-texts and then some of the admonitions to abstinence.


The apostles had scarcely begun their messianic proclamation when they were accused of drunkenness. On the day of Pentecost the first company of believers received the gift of tongues, enabling them to preach the Gospel in the languages of the people gathered for the feast at Jerusalem. While thousands believed in Christ as a result of the miracle, others began mocking the disciples, saying: "They are filled with new wine" (Acts 2:13).

Some assume that the mockers would not have accused Christians of being drunk unless they had seen some Christians drinking alcoholic wine on previous occasions. The weakness of this reasoning is that it assumes that the accusation of the mockers was based on factual observation of Christian drinking. Mockers, however, do not necessarily base their slander on factual observation. Moreover, if the mockers really wished to charge the disciples with drunkenness, they would have accused them of being filled with "wine" (oinos) and not with "grape-juice" (gleukos).

The Irony of the Charge. In view of the established meaning of gleukos as unintoxicating grape juice, the irony of the charge is self-evident. What the mockers meant is "These men, too abstemious to touch anything fermented, have made themselves drunk on grape juice." Or as Ernest Gordon puts it in modern speech, "These drys are drunk on soft drink."2

One can hardly fail to see in the irony of the charge that the apostles were drunk on grape juice (their usual beverage) an indirect but very important proof of their abstinent lifestyle and inferentially of the abstemious life-style of their Teacher.

Historical confirmation of this practice is provided by the testimony of Hegesippus, who lived immediately after the apostles. Writing regarding "James, the brother of the Lord, [who] succeeded to the government of the Church in conjunction with the apostles," Hegesippus says: "He was holy from his mother's womb; and he drank no wine nor strong drink, nor did he eat flesh."3 We can assume that the strict abstinent life-style of James, who for a time served as the presiding officer of the Jerusalem Church, served as an example for Apostolic Christians to follow.4


A powerful Biblical indictment against intoxicating wine is found in Ephesians 5:18, where Paul admonishes the Ephesians, saying: "And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit" (Eph 5:18). The passage consists of two major statements placed in contrast (antithesis) to each other: "drunk with wine" versus "filled with the Spirit."

The antithesis suggests that the contrast is not between moderation and excess, but between fullness of wine and fullness of the Spirit. The two statements point to an inherent incompatibility of nature and operation between the sources of such fullness, namely, inebriating wine and the Holy Spirit. Such a mutual incompatibility precludes the sanction for a moderate use of intoxicating wine.

What is Debauchery? Paul's admonition "Do not get drunk with wine" is followed by a warning which in the RSV is rendered "for that is debauchery." A literal translation of the Greek text would read: "And do not get drunk with wine, in which [en ho] is debauchery [asotia - literally, 'unsavableness']." The RSV rendering of "en ho - in which" with "for that" makes the condition of being drunk with wine, rather than wine itself, the subject of "debauchery." This construction of the sentence is based not on any exegetical necessity of the text, but on the assumption that the moderate use of fermented wine was allowed in New Testament times.

Historically, numerous translators and commentators have seen "wine" rather than the state of drunkenness as the cause of debauchery. The reason is the position of oino ("with wine"), which in Greek comes immediately before the relative "in which." Support for this is provided also by the fact that the words "do not get drunk with wine," as The Interpreter's Bible commentary points out, "are cited from Prov. 23:31 (the LXX according to Codex A),"5 where the text condemns the use of intoxicating wine ("Do not look at wine when it is red"), rather than its abuse.

Among the ancient translations which render Ephesians 5:18 as a condemnation of intoxicating wine itself, mention can be made of the famous Latin Vulgate (about A. D. 400), which reads: "et nolite inebriari vino, in quo est luxuria" ("And be not inebriated with wine, in which is voluptouosness"). The connection between vino "wine" and quo "which" is unmistakable in this Latin translation, because the relative quo has the same neuter gender of vino, upon which it depends.

Modern Translations. Numerous modern translations follow the Vulgate in its faithful literalness. For example, the French Synodal Version reads: "Ne vous enivrez pas de vin: car le vin porte la dissolution" ("Do not inebriate yourselves with wine, for wine leads to dissoluteness"). To remove any possibility for misunderstanding, the translators have repeated the word "wine" in the relative clause. The same clear connection is found in the French translation of David Martin, in the French Version d'Ostervald, in the margin of the New American Standard Bible, in the Robert Young translation, in the Good News German Bible ("Die Gute Nachricht"), in the Italian Protestant version Riveduta by Giovanni Luzzi, as well as in the Italian Catholic Version produced by the Pontifical Biblical Institute.

In the light of the numerous ancient and modern translations which have rendered the relative clause of Ephesians 5:18 as a condemnation not of drunkenness but of wine itself, it would appear that on account of their predilection for wine some English translators have chosen, as Ernest Gordon puts it, to "save the face of wine while condemning drunkenness."6


When the subject of wine in the Bible is brought up, the first text which seems to come to mind to most people is 1 Timothy 5:23, where Paul counsels Timothy saying: "No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments" This text has been used during the past nineteen centuries by countless people to justify their drinking alcoholic beverages. Thus, it is important for us to establish the nature of Paul's counsel and its application for us today.

The Nature of Paul's Advice. Paul's advice to Timothy must be regarded first of all as an expression of paternal concern and not as a mandatory injunction. The apostle is not ordering his beloved son in the Gospel to drink wine freely; rather he advises him to use a little wine "for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments."

The prudent caution of the apostle's language is most significant. He does not say, "No longer drink water," but rather, "No longer drink only water." He does not say, "Drink wine," but rather "use a little wine with water." He does not say, "for the physical pleasure of your belly," but rather, "for the medical need of your stomach." Even if the "wine" were fermented, this text does not support its regular use in any way. He did not say to Timothy, "Drink . . ." but "Take . . ." The verb "take" is used by a doctor when prescribing the dosage of a medication to a patient. Similarly the adjective "little" implies a very moderate use of wine. This sounds more like a doctor's prescription to a patient than a general principle for all people.

Timothy Had Been an Abstainer. Another fact often ignored is that the advice "No longer drink only water" implies that Timothy, like the priests and Nazirites, had abstained until that time from both fermented and unfermented wines, presumably in accordance with the instructions and example of Paul. Earlier in the same epistle Paul tells him to require of a Christian bishop to be not only abstinent (nephalion), but also a non-participant at drinking places and parties (me paroinon - 1 Tim 3:2-3). It is reasonable to assume that the apostle would not have instructed Timothy to require abstinence of church leaders without first teaching him such a principle. The fact that Timothy had been drinking only water implies then that he had been following his master's counsel very scrupulously.

The abstinence of a Christian minister was presumably based on the Old Testament legislation prohibiting priests to use intoxicating drinks (Lev 10:9-10). The natural feeling would be that a Christian minister should be no less holy than a Jewish priest, especially since the reason for the Mosaic law remained the same: "You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean; and you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes which the Lord has spoken to them by Moses" (Lev 10:10-11). The principle of abstinence was not violated by Paul's recommendation, because the use of a little wine was recommended not for the pleasure of the belly but for the medical need of the stomach.

The Kind of Wine. It is generally assumed that the wine Paul recommended to Timothy was alcoholic. But this is by no means certain, for two reasons. First, because the term oinos ("wine"), as we have shown, was used in a generic way to denote either fermented or unfermented wine. Second, because there are historical testimonies attesting the use of unfermented wine for medical purposes.

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) recommends the use of a sweet grape juice, called glukus in Greek, because, he says, "though called wine [oinos], it has not the effect of wine . . . and does not intoxicate like ordinary wine."7 Athenaeus, the Grammarian (A.D. 280), specifically counsels the use of unfermented "sweet wine" (glukon oinon) for stomach disorders. He writes: "Let him take sweet wine, either mixed with water or warmed, especially that kind called protropos, the sweet Lesbian glukus, as being good for the stomach; for sweet wine [oinos] does not make the head heavy."8 Here we have advice which sounds strikingly similar to that of Paul, with the difference that Athenaeus qualifies the kind of wine recommended, namely, the sweet wine, called "lesbian" because its alcoholic potency had been removed.

A similar advice regarding the medical use of wine is given by Pliny (A. D. 79), a contemporary of Paul and author of the celebrated Natural History. He recommends using a boiled, unfermented wine called adynamon for sick persons "for whom it is feared that wine may be harmful."9 He also recommends to avoid the side effects of alcohol by using wines whose alcohol content had been removed through filtration: "Wines are most beneficial when all their potency has been overcome by the strainer."10

In light of these testimonies, it is reasonable to assume that the wine recommended by Paul to Timothy may well have been unfermented...


The apostolic admonitions to abstinence are expressed through the Greek verb nepho and the adjective nephalios (1 Thess 5:6-8; 1 Pet 1:13; 4:7; 5:8; 2 Tim 4:5; 1 Tim 3:2, 11; Titus 2:2). There is noteworthy unanimity among Greek lexicons on the primary meaning of the verb nepho as "to abstain from wine" and of the adjective nephalios as "abstinent, without wine."12

This meaning is attested in the writing of Josephus and Philo, who were contemporaries of Paul and Peter. In his Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus writes of the priests: "Those who wear the sacerdotal garments are without spot and eminent for their purity and sobriety [nephalioi], not being permitted to drink wine as long as they wear those garments."13 Similarly, Philo explains in his Special Laws that the priest must officiate as nephalios, that is, totally abstinent from wine, because he has to carry out the directions of the law and must be in a position to act as the final earthly court.14

If Josephus, Philo and a host of other writers used nepho/nephalios with the primary meaning of "abstaining from wine," we have reasons to believe that Paul and Peter also used these terms with the same meaning. This conclusion is supported, as we shall see, by the context in which these terms are used. Yet these words have been usually translated figuratively in the sense of being "temperate, sober, steady." Such inaccurate translation has misled many sincere Christians into believing that the Bible teaches moderation in the use of alcoholic beverages, rather than abstinence from them. Let us examine some of the apostolic admonitions to abstinence.

1 Thessalonians 5:6-8. In his letter to the Thessalonians Paul admonishes the believers to "be sober" in view of Christ's sudden and unexpected coming, saying: "So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober [nephomen]. For those who sleep sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night. But, since we belong to the day, let us be sober [nephomen], and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation" (1 Thess 5:6-8).

This passage consists of a number of contrasting parallels: light and darkness, day and night, waking and sleeping, to be sober and to be drunk. In light of the contrasts between the sons of the day who are sober and those of the night who are drunk, it is evident that the exhortation to "be sober" means not merely to be mentally vigilant but primarily to be physically abstinent.

This conclusion is supported by the connection between sobriety and wakefulness: "Let us keep awake and be sober" (v. 6). The first verb, gregoromen, refers to mental watchfulness and the second, nephomen, to physical abstinence. Otherwise it would be a needless repetition (tautology): "Let us keep awake and be awake." It is evident that Paul connects mental watchfulness with physical abstinence, because the two go together. Mental vigilance in the New Testament is often connected, as we shall see, with physical abstinence. This will become clearer as we consider the other passages in question.

1 Peter 1:13. The admonition to physical abstinence, expressed through the verb nepho, occurs again three times in the first epistle of Peter (1:13; 4:7; 5:8). It is noteworthy that in all the three texts, Peter's exhortation to abstinence is given in the context of readiness for the imminent return of Christ. This implies that Peter, like Paul, grounds his call to a life of abstinence and holiness in the certainty and imminence of Christ's return.

The first usage of nepho by Peter occurs in 1 Peter 1:13: "Therefore gird up your minds, be sober [nephontes], set your hope fully upon the grace that is coming to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ." Here Peter, like Paul, correlates mental vigilance ("gird up your minds") with physical abstinence ("be sober").

The admonition to "be abstinent" assumes a radical form in 1 Peter 1:13 because it is followed immediately by the adverb "teleios," which means "perfectly" or "completely." Thus, the correct translation is, "be completely or perfectly abstinent." Most translators, presumably because of their predilection for drinking, have chosen to make teleios a modifier of the following verb elpisate ("set your hope"), thus, rendering it "set your hope fully" (RSV) or "hope to the end" (KJV). But the idiom used elsewhere in the New Testament for "to the end" is not teleios per se, but a compound such as mechri telous or heos telous (Heb 3:6, 14; 1 Cor 1:8; 2 Cor 1:13).

It is noteworthy that the Vulgate, Jerome's famous Latin translation which has served as the official Catholic Bible throughout the centuries, translates teleios as a modifier of nephontes, thus, "sobrii perfecte" ("perfectly sober"). In my view Jerome's translation reflects accurately the intent of Peter, who repeats his call to abstinence twice again in his epistle. Thus, the correct translation should be: "Therefore gird up your minds, being wholly abstinent, set your hope upon the grace that is coming to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ."

1 Peter 4:7. The second usage of nepho occurs in 1 Peter 4:7: "The end of all things is at hand; therefore keep sane [sophronesate] and sober [nepsate] for your prayers." Here again Peter exhorts Christians to keep mentally vigilant and physically abstinent. The meaning of nepho as abstinence from wine is suggested also by the context, where Peter contrasts the past lifestyle of "licentiousness, passions, drunkenness, revels, carousing and lawless idolatry" (1 Pet 4:3) with the new lifestyle of temperance and abstinence. The passage may be paraphrased as follows: "The end of all things is at hand; therefore be sober in mind and abstemious in life in order that you might be able to maintain a healthy devotional life at this critical time."

1 Peter 5:8. The third usage of nepho occurs in 1 Peter 5:8: "Be sober [nepsate], be watchful [gregoresate]. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour." Just as in the previous two instances, here also Peter associates mental vigilance with physical abstinence, because the two are mutually dependent. Intoxicating drinks diminish the power of conscience and reason, thus weakening inhibitions to evil-doing. The ultimate result is that the Devil is better able "to devour," literally, "drink down" (katapino) such persons.

The contrast between nepsate (from ne piein, "not to drink") and katapiein (from kata piein "to drink down") has been recognized by Adam Clarke, who comments: "It is not every one that he can swallow down. Those who are sober and vigilant are proof against him; these he may not swallow down. Those who are drunk with the cares of this world, and are unwatchful, these he may swallow down. There is a beauty in this verse, and striking apposition between the first and last words, which I think have not been noticed; - Be sober, nepsate, from ne not, and piein, to drink - do not swallow down - and the word katapien, from kata, down, and piein, to drink. If you swallow strong drink down, the devil will swallow you down. Hear this, ye drunkards, topers, tipplers, or by whatsoever name ye are known in society, or among your fellow-sinners, strong drink is not only your way to the devil, but the devil's way into you. Ye are such as the devil particularly may swallow down."15

Summing up, the five usages of nepho, two by Paul (1 Thess 5:6, 8) and three by Peter (1 Peter 1:13; 4:7; 5:8), all show an amazing consistency in urging both mental vigilance and physical abstinence. It is also significant that all five admonitions to abstinence are given in the context of the preparation for the imminent return of Christ.

Nephalios as Physical Abstinence. The adjective nephalios is used three times by Paul in his description of the qualifications desired of bishops, women and older men. The first two instances occur in 1 Timothy 3:2, 11: "Now a bishop must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate [nephalion], sensible [sophrona], dignified, hospitable, an apt teacher, no drunkard [me paroinon]. .. The women likewise must be serious, no slanderers, but temperate [nephalious], faithful in all things." The third instance is found in Titus 2:2, "Bid the older men be temperate [nephalious], serious, sensible [sophronas], sound in faith, in love and in steadfastness."

Earlier we noticed that the adjective nephalios is used by contemporary authors such as Philo and Josephus to denote abstinence from wine. This literal interpretation is supported by the fact that in 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 2:2 the adjective nephalios occurs together with sophron, the first to denote physical abstinence and the second mental vigilance. The connection between the two requires a literal interpretation of nephalios, as abstinence from wine.

"No Drunkard." Some argue that the literal interpretation of nephalios as abstinent is contradicted by me paroinos, rendered "no drunkard" by the RSV. Their reasoning is that Paul could not have enjoined a bishop first to be abstinent and then "no drunkard," that is, moderate in the use of wine. This apparent contradiction is resolved by recognizing that the meaning of paroinos goes beyond "addicted to wine, drunken"16 to the complementary idea of being para "near" oinos "wine," that is, near a place where wine is consumed. "The ancient paroinos," as Lees and Burns explain, "was a man accustomed to attend drinking parties, and, as a consequence, to become intimately associated with strong drink."17

Albert Barnes, a respected New Testament commentator, explains the meaning of paroinos, saying: "The Greek word (paroinos) . . . means, properly, by wine; that is, spoken of what takes place by or over wine, as revelry, drinking-songs, etc. Then it denotes, as it does here, one who sits by wine; that is, who is in the habit of drinking it. . . . It means that one who is in the habit of drinking wine, or who is accustomed to sit with those who indulge in it, should not be admitted to the ministry. The way in which the apostle mentions the subject here would lead us fairly to suppose that he did not mean to commend its use in any sense; that he regarded it as dangerous and that he would wish the ministers of religion to avoid it altogether."18

The meaning of paroinos as "near wine," that is, near a drinking place, is supported by ancient and modern Greek lexicons. The Lexicon Graeci Testamenti Alphabeticum, published in 1660, defines paroinos in Greek and Latin as "para to oino, apud vinum," which may be translated "near or in the presence of wine."19 Liddell and Scott define the related word paroinios as "befitting a drinking party."20

Understood in this sense, me paroinos does not weaken nephalios. On the contrary, it strengthens it. What Paul is saying is that a bishop must be not only abstinent, but he must also withhold his presence and sanction from places and associations which could tempt his abstinence or that of others. This fits well with Paul's admonition in 1 Corinthians 5:11, "I wrote to you not to associate with any one who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber - not even to eat with such a one."21

The fundamental reason given by Paul for living abstinent and godly lives is eschatological: "For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men, training us to renounce irreligion and worldly passions, and to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world, awaiting our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all iniquity and to purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds" (Titus 2:11-14). Healthful and holy living is commended in the Scripture not merely for the sake of personal health and goodness, but primarily for the sake of God's desire to dwell within us in this present life (1 Cor 3:16-17; 6:13) and to fellowship with us in the life to come.

It is this hope of being ready to receive Christ, and to be received by Him on the day of His glorious appearing, that should motivate every Christian to "purify himself as he is pure" (1 John 3:3). It is to this hope that Peter appeals when he urges mental vigilance and physical abstinence in those three texts examined earlier. His admonition to "gird up your minds, be completely abstinent" is followed immediately by the exhortation "set your hope upon the grace that is coming to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (1 Pet 1:13).

For Christians who believe in the certainty and imminence of Christ's Return, the apostolic admonitions to abstain from intoxicating beverages assumes added significance: they represent a tangible response to God's invitation to make concrete preparation for the second coming of Christ.


The Biblical teachings regarding the use of alcoholic beverages can be summarized in one sentence: the Scripture is consistent in teaching moderation in the use of wholesome, unfermented beverages and abstinence from the use of intoxicating fermented beverages. The practical implication of this conclusion can also be stated in one sentence: when we accept the Biblical teaching that drinking alcoholic beverages is not only physically harmful but also morally wrong, we will feel compelled not only to abstain ourselves from intoxicating substances, but also to help others to do likewise.


1. Rom 14:21; Eph 5:18; 1 Tim 3:8; 5:23; Titus 2:3; Rev 6:6; 14:8; 14:10; 16:19; 17:2; 18:3, 13; 19:15.
2. Ernest Gordon, Christ, the Apostles and Wine. An Exegetical Study (Philadelphia, 1947), p. 20.
3. As quoted by Eusebius, Church History 2, 23, 4, eds. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids, 1971), vol. 1, p. 125.
4. An investigation into the lifestyle of such Jewish Christian sects as the Ebionites, the Nazarenes, the Elkesiates and the Encratites, might provide considerable support for abstinence from fermented wine in the Apostolic Church. Some information in this regard is provided by *. W. Samson, The Divine Law as to Wines (New York, 1880), pp. 197-210. The value of his research, however, is diminished by the lack of accurate references.
5. The Interpreter's Bible (New York, 1970), vol. 11, p. 714.
6. Ernest Gordon (n. 2), p. 31.
7. Aristotle, Meteorologica 387.b. 9-13.
8. Athenaeus, Banquet 2, 24.
9. Pliny, Natural History 14,18.
10. Ibid., 23, 24.
11. ..
12. See, for example, *. W. Lampe, A Patristic Greek Lexicon (Oxford, 1961), s. v. "Nepho"; James Donnegan, A New Greek and English Lexicon, 1847 edition, s. v. "Nepho"; Thomas S. Green, A Greek-English Lexicon to the New Testament, 1892 edition, s. v. "Nepho"; E. Robinson, A Greek and English Lexicon of the New Testament (New York, 1850), s. v. "Nepho"; *. Abbott-Smith, A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, 1937 edition, s. v. "Nepho"; Hesychius of Alexandria, Hesychii Alexandri Lexicon, 1858 edition, s. v. "Nephalios"; Demetrios C. S. Byzantios, Lexicon Epitomou tes Ellenikes Glosses, 1939 edition, s. v. "Nephalios."
13. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 3, 12, 2, trans. William Whiston, Josephus Complete Works (Grand Rapids, 1974), p. 81.
14. Philo, De Specialibus Legibus 4, 183.
15. Adam Clarke, The New Testament of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ (New York, 1938), vol. 2, p. 869.
16. Henry *. Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, 1968 edition, s. v. "paroinos."
17. Frederick R. Lees and Dawson Burns, The Temperance Bible-Commentary (London, 1894), p. 367.
18. Albert Barnes, Notes, Explanatory and Practical on the Epistles of Paul to the Thessalonians, to Timothy, to Titus and to Philemon (New York, 1873), p. 140.
19. Lexicon Graeci Testamenti Alphabeticum, 1660 edition, s. v. "Par-oinos."
20. Henry *. Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, 1968 edition, s. v. "Paroinios." The same meaning is given in the modern Greek-English Lexicon by *. Giannakopoulou and E. Siapenou, Ariston Ellenoaggaikon Lexicon, 1971 edition, s. v. "Paroinos."
21. Emphasis supplied.

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