Did Jesus take wine?


2013 03 22 Ephesians 5.18


Just what was it that the soldiers offered to Jesus while he was on the cross?  Many translations of John 19:30 say “vinegar.”  Others say “sour wine.”  The most daring say “wine.” -a-


Why daring?  Because Luke 22:18 (NRSV) has Jesus say at the Last Supper, “For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” The translation “wine” makes it obvious there is a contradiction.


Well, there is a contradiction if Jesus actually drinks the wine.  Did he?  Most translators don’t let me know, just say he “received” it.


But the GNT says, “Jesus drank the wine.”


The CEV says, “Jesus drank the wine.”


Very daring.


The Google translator (modern Greek) tells me Jesus “took” the “vinegar.”  Grosvenor’s Analysis lets me know that this is sour wine issued to soldiers.  So cheap wine?  But still “fruit of the vine.”  And if Jesus “took” it (CJB, DRA, GW, PHILLIPS, MOUNCE,MSG, NLV, WE, WYC), when a sponge filled with the cheap wine was placed against his “lips” (19:29 (TNIV)), can this be understood in any way other than he drank it?


KNOX has “drank the vinegar.”


NIRV has “Jesus drank.”


VOICE has “When Jesus drank.”


A few translations have “tasted.”  (So he didn’t swallow?)


Did the author of John make a mistake and write something contradicting Luke?  Maybe the author of John should have written that Jesus refused to drink?


Luke doesn’t say what Jesus did when offered sour wine (Luke 23:36 (NRSV)).


Mark has “I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”  Mark doesn’t say what Jesus did when offered sour wine, but he did not take an earlier offering of wine (Mark 14:25, 15:23, 15:36 (NRSV)).


Matthew has the similar, “I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”  But Matthew says Jesus refused to drink the drink at the cross after he tasted it!  (Did he swallow the taste?)  Matthew has a second drink offered to Jesus and does not say how Jesus reacted to that.  (26:29, 27:34, 27:48 (NRSV))


The solution to this quandary may be in an understanding of when the kingdom arrives (it had already arrived and was still coming) and in an understanding of what is meant by sharing in the cross of Jesus (every day we share in the cross and thus share in the promise of resurrection).  So we are present at the cross.  The moment of crucifixion is now.  Jesus drinks with us now.  Very mystical.  And perplexing really.  (Of course, I don’t know.)


Did the historical Jesus ever drink wine?  Perhaps not, if he was a “Nazirite,” and a friend has alerted me to that possibility:  “All their days as nazirites they shall eat nothing that is produced by the grapevine, not even the seeds or the skins.” (Numbers 6:4 (NRSV)).  Also, 1Samuel 1:11 (NRSV): “nazirite . . . . He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants.”


Compare to Matthew 2:23 (NRSV):  “There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean.’”  And be aware that Paul was “a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5 (NRSV) footnote “Nazoreans”).


As a follower of John the Baptist, Jesus may have abstained as did the Baptist:  Luke 1:15 (NRSV) “for he [the Baptist] will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.”


Or maybe Jesus was not like the Baptist:  “For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon;’ the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard.’” (Luke 7:32-34 (NRSV))  But what they say is not necessarily correct.  And drinking what?


In Mark 14:25 (NRSV), “I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine,” the word “again” does imply some previous drinking of wine, but not necessarily in that setting which was the Last Supper.  Maybe Jesus took some wine before he became a follower of John the Baptist.


Or maybe at the Last Supper, Jesus had obtained some dispensation from his Nazirite practice and thus was able to drink wine.  But you know, the texts do not say he drank it then.  Only that he took the cup and told his followers to take and drink – “This is my blood” (Matthew 26:28, also see Mark 14:24, Luke 22:20, 1Corinthians 11:25 (NRSV)).

And John 19:30 does not say Jesus swallowed the wine he “took” on the cross.


I suspect that this business of “taking the wine” has some very distant relationship to the taking of wine, which is not swallowed, in the Jewish ceremony of circumcision.  Rather the wine is spilled out onto the fresh wound by the celebrant.  “And in Hasidic, and other ultra-Orthodox Jewish congregations, the ritual includes metzitzah b’peh, a practice in which the mohel, the Jewish ritual circumciser, uses his mouth in a split-second action to suction the blood from the wound.  The mohel, whose mouth is filled with wine, then spills the wine from his mouth over the wound.”-c-  I will guess, and it is just a guess, that the Jesus-As-Human-Sacrifice idea, the Pagan making of eunuchs, the Jewish circumcision ceremony, and the Christian idea of saving blood all have common roots in some distant, nearly forgotten Pagan past.  As the “celebrant high priest” who offers himself and gives his own blood to appease angry Yahweh, the mystical Jesus may have not swallowed the wine he took on the cross, just spilled it.


That the circumcision ceremony began as a way to thwart an angry god, and restore health, is suggested by Exodus 4:24-26 where Moses’ son becomes a “bridegroom of blood” to his own mother (and yes, the NRSV footnote lets me know this is one possible interpretation).  The son is about to die when his mother performs the blood-letting ceremony of removing his foreskin and thus saves him and she says to him, “You are a bridegroom of blood to me.”  “Bridegroom” in a more ancient tradition can mean the consort (son/lover) of the Goddess and so we can perhaps see this bridegroom-circumcision story as an attempt at reforming the ancient practice of castration, which in turn may have been a reformation of the practice of human sacrifice.  Jesus the mystical “bridegroom” (word used 16 times in the NT) likewise gives saving blood.


Thus you can see I am trying to connect the dots among wine at the cross, wine at circumcisions, circumcision of the “bridegroom” son of Moses, and Jesus also a “bridegroom.”  But it may not be possible to connect the dots.  I don’t think I have proven something here about the wine, but it is interesting to speculate.


As an effective leader and teacher of spirituality, the historical Jesus was not likely to be addicted to intoxicants or condoning their use.  As one in solidarity with the poor, he was not likely to be buying wine which would have been expensive.  If a Nazirite, he would have abstained from wine.


Perhaps the wine at the Last Supper and at the cross in the New Testament is just symbolism.  Interesting that there is no indication Jesus actually took a swallow.


When Jesus says to drink his “blood” at the Last Supper, the reader should not expand that to mean that Jesus condones the drinking of wine.  Wine is permitted in small quantities, as “blood,” and Jesus apparently does not partake.  The symbolism (perhaps Pagan imagery) is a bit awkward if indeed the historical Jesus was well-known to be of the Nazorean sect and an abstainer.


Also, the symbolism of the wine at the cross is a bit awkward:  did the brutal Roman torturers pause in their torture to solicitously give their victim some refreshment because he said “I am thirsty”?  Oh well, stranger things have happened.  The Roman soldiers just happened to have a “hyssop branch” (used in Jewish purification rituals) and a handy sponge??  No crucifixion should be without these.


Those priests offering the Catholic Sacrifice of the Mass who think they represent Jesus should think again – there is no indication that Jesus ate the bread (his own “body”) or drank the wine (his own “blood”) at the Last Supper.  By eating the bread and drinking the wine, the priest represents the people of God, who are like the disciples at the Last Supper who presumably ate the bread and drank the wine.  And let’s assume that is the way it was supposed to be from the time of Jesus and even earlier – the celebrant representing the people and eating the sacred bread and drinking the sacred wine along with the people.  It is not supposed to be a re-enactment of a god-savior consuming himself – for crying out loud!  Wouldn’t it be absurd for the god-savior to consume himself?  I can’t imagine that the mystical Jesus or his predecessors in myth did this.  Instead, the saving blood is for others.


I guess those Catholics still warming the pews and filling collection baskets have not noticed that a qualified woman would be able to be a priest representing the people just as well as a qualified man.  Or they mistakenly believe that the priest has to be male because Jesus was, and that the pastor stands by the altar playing Jesus breaking the bread and bizarrely eating his own “body” and drinking his own “blood”!!  As long as there is music, incense, and the priest wears silk vestments, that’s enough for a lot of people.  But even people who should know better say the priest represents Jesus.  No, the priest represents the people and the service is “in memory” of Jesus.


The Vatican proclaims solemnly that the 12 apostles picked by Jesus were men and so no women can be ordained.  This argument is evidently convincing to most of the 1.2 billion Church members, or unquestioned.  Just very sad – people love to play at follow-the-leader, no matter the leadership.  If Jesus were picking 12 apostles today, would he do it the same way?  Jesus didn’t claim to be infallible as far as I know, thus he would not have to be inflexible.


I have to wonder how any priest can be drinking wine in a religious service when Leviticus 10:9 (NRSV), God’s commandment to the priest Aaron, prohibits it:  “Drink no wine or strong drink, neither you nor your sons, when you enter the tent of meeting, that you may not die; it is a statute forever throughout your generations.”  “Forever”!  Ezekiel 44:21 says, “No priest shall drink wine when he enters the inner court [of the temple].”  Of course, the New Covenant replaces the Old, but it does not seem likely to me that Jesus, if a Nazirite abstainer, would have challenged the Law in order to introduce wine-drinking in worship.  It does not seem likely to me that any reverent Jew would do that, whether Nazirite or not, as the addition of an intoxicant to Jewish worship would hardly be an improvement – so this reflects later Pagan influence?  Jesus did not establish a priesthood (only apostolic “messengers”) and I have to wonder how these practices, ordination of priests and wine-drinking during worship, ended up being “Christian.”


Ehrman1 alerts me that there are two verses in Luke with Jesus “taking the cup” at the Last Supper (22:17, 20), the second instance not found in one of the oldest Greek manuscripts, and convincingly argues it is perhaps an addition to text.  So how many of the all-important “body and blood” verses are original and how many not?


Jesus never turned anyone away and he dined even with Pharisees and tax collectors.  The early Christians were inclusive, communal, and had a living and evolving faith.  Today, their supposed heirs in the Catholic Church have degenerated into elitism (denying communion to this one and that one) and they have dogmatized the faith into a fossil.


So what is the best translation for John 19:30?  Did Jesus “drink” or “receive” or “take” or “taste”??  Was it “wine” or “sour wine” or “vinegar”??  Let me insert here that I don’t know Greek and can only do so much with dictionaries and the Google translator.  When I started this post I didn’t think “receive” could be right but now I think it is the best translation even though “take” would be more literal??  Either word allows the reader to question if Jesus actually swallowed the wine.  “Taste” maybe gives too big a hint.  “Drink” is a leap.  And “sour wine” is best because it lets the reader know it is a type of wine.  Who drinks vinegar?  Nobody!  Whatever translator first wrote “vinegar” may have been overly concerned that some reader might think “wine” would create a contradiction within the sacred texts.  I would prefer that translators translate, and not get overly concerned about what I might learn about the texts if they let me.


Let me decide for myself if Jesus did or didn’t swallow.


The different translations-a- are interesting enough, but some of the differences among the four books of the Gospel strike me as being not errors, not sloppy reporting, not differences in opinion or style, but simply change for the sake of change from one book to another; as if we are supposed to notice these little changes and gain something, like more awareness, from it.


Compare these verses from the NRSV:


Matthew 27:34

They offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it.”

Mark 15:23

And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it.” [Not even to taste as in Matthew?]


Matthew 27:48-49

At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink.  But the others said, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.”  [Here the caring gesture seems to be halted pending Elijah’s arrival.]

Mark 15:36

And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.’”  [Here the caring gesture seems to be only out of fear that Elijah may come and is not halted as in Matthew.]


John 19:28-30

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’  A jar full of sour wine was standing there.  So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth.  When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.’”

Luke 23:36-37

The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.’” [no sponge or stick or receiving]


This deliberate change-making, if indeed that is what it is, seems to be fairly prevalent in the Gospel.


As to what could be the basis for the wine symbolism, I don’t know.  The footnotes in the NRSV reference some verses in Psalms (22:15, 69:21), but that doesn’t fully explain the offering of wine to the Savior.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful, if instead of killing “heretics,” breaking off communication with Jews, and stamping out the Pagan “heathenism” that was possibly the foundation for much of the symbolism in the Gospel, the Church leaders of old had instead preserved learning and fostered scholarship so that we wouldn’t have to guess at meanings!


I can’t recall any paintings or other artwork that show the sponge scene at the cross, or Jesus being offered wine, so I’ll guess the meaning of the symbolism was forgotten a long, long time ago.


I’d sure like to know if Jesus swallowed the wine and what it symbolized.



1 Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, HarperCollins, 2005, p.165-7, regarding verses 17-20 in Luke 22.




  1. care4earth says:

    In John 19 Jesus is quoted as saying, “I thirst.” Somehow this quote is related to some verse in the Old Testament because Jesus says further that “it becomes us to fulfill all righteousness.” Is this fulfillment of Old Testament commands the reason for his rejection of the wine? In the Old Testament this rejection of wine is commanded of the priests. Why should wine be rejected? It is because it muddles your brain. When we see how alcoholic beverages affect the way we drive cars and kill innocent people, or lead people to use guns and kill others, then we can see why wine should be rejected.

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