Sober Saints: Epic Fail!

I must apologise at the outset: I have no intention to cause upset or annoyance, but I feel it is inevitable that this blog will do that to some readers, who may have put their faith in a book; the only book I put my faith in is the Bible, and everything else I read on spiritual matters must fall into line with that, which is the clearest way we have of discerning the mind of God. This is like one of those essays that you had to do at school or university, on a subject you really didn’t like; it was necessary to do it, but there was no real desire in your heart. This is something that needs to be done…

First I shall ‘nail my colours to the mast’: I belong to a church where our pastor is totally abstinent from alcohol and preaches this. He made it church policy that anybody in a ministry must be the same. I myself do not agree with total abstinence, and believe it is a matter of conscience which comes under the auspices of the Apostle Paul’s instructions in Romans 14. That chapter deals with the issue of ‘meat sacrificed to idols’ chiefly, but extending it to drinking alcohol is a common and rightfully valid analogy since Paul mentions it in verse 21 (which leads to a misconception about the ‘weaker brother’ that I only discovered recently myself!). However, for the sake of unity and harmony (Romans 14:19), I, as a deputy coordinator of the worship team, have remained abstinent while at the church since its inception 4 years ago. This is out of my deep respect for a pastor who has a caring heart for all his people, a concern for every believer, and a passion for souls. Harmony is difficult when believers disagree, but we all need to be mature and agreeing to differ is the best way. For me, the “I don’t agree with that so I’m going somewhere else!” mentality is far too prevalent in the modern western church. I have learnt myself that ‘being right isn’t everything’ and though I could very well, in all righteousness, take an attitude of ‘I told you so’, this would not be conducive to harmony, as well as being an expression of pure pride on my part, when pride is so unbecoming of a Christian.

Now this deals with a book entitled ‘Sober Saints’ that was doing the rounds and gaining a lot of attention in the church; it was making a biblical argument, amongst others, that all believers should be totally abstinent. I was exhorted by a fair few people to read it, and I had mixed feelings. First, I had heard things being said about its claims that left me very dubious about its conclusions, but on the other hand, I always believe it is better for one to read something for themselves instead of relying on second-hand relaying, which may have picked something up wrong along the way. Second, I had a natural inclination to not particularly wish to read something that would prove me wrong after many years (who can honestly say that they would wish to face that?), but as a Christian, if I was missing something that I needed to learn from the word of God, I simply had to be humble enough to accept it, and act accordingly. So I bought the book from amazon (after trying to borrow it from a few eager readers, who were all still devouring its contents).

I knew from the outset that I had no interest in reading any of the social arguments since I had gone over these so many, many times over the years – I believe many in the church approach the issue of addiction either skewed in one way, or from a worldly, not biblical, point-of-view; or both (though I am not taking time to go into this here). I also skipped past all the quotes from famous church founders and preachers since they might all be wrong: one could quote from dozens of Roman Catholic scholars over the centuries who extol the veneration of Mary… I was solely looking for a biblical argument that alcohol was to be avoided completely, or prohibited for true believers; that alone would convince me. Now the comments about the book were so good, I was worried that I would have to succumb to this view and admit my folly. It was in this prayerful attitude I began to read it.

However, I had only the first two chapters read when I had already become quite angry, if I am honest. The first surprising thing I had come across was that the Hebrew word yayin could mean both alcoholic and non-alcoholic wine, while tirosh represented the pressed juice fresh from the press; I accepted this as matter-of-factly as any reader would and read on, but then came across glaring errors that any biblical scholar would scream at. For instance, the author stated that the Greek LXX (Septuagint) was “the Bible used by Christ and the early church” – the LXX is a Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures for use by non-Jewish readers: Christ would have attended rabbinical school as all Jewish boys did, and still do to this day, and would have learnt Hebrew, despite its death and the supersession of the similar Semitic language Aramaic. All synagogues, to this very day, contain Hebrew scrolls of the Law and Prophets. He would have had no need whatsoever to read the scriptures in a language foreign to him (it is recorded in Luke 4:16-18 that he did indeed read from the Hebrew scroll), and the Jewish church in Jerusalem would have been the same. The LXX would have been used by the gentile churches, where Greek was the lingua franca of the eastern Roman Empire, but had no place at all with people who could read the original language. I shall not go into other points about linguistic translation principles here; too long-winded even for me. If you are wondering what qualifies me to make these observations, let me assure you that I have a Bible College Diploma obtained after 3 years’ full-time study (where I studied Greek for 3 years and Hebrew for 2), as well as a degree in Linguistic Science, and most recently, a Masters degree in Language & Linguistics; I would not boast about being an expert but I thank the Lord for giving me such ability and knowledge to be able to safely say I know what I’m talking about. Much of what is presented here (and from what I was shown later by an advocate of this view) seems to hinge on the LXX, as if this is a great authority for biblical truth. It is only a translation of the original scriptures into another language centuries later, just as any modern English version, and as such, can be just as flawed, depending on the knowledge and competence of the translators. It has value for proper linguistic (chiefly diachronic or ‘historical’) scholars who seek to compare words for semantic nuances of language of that time, but it has no bearing whatsoever on the meaning of the original language (that all evangelicals accept as inspired). Such clear mistakes caused me to go back and look at the other claims with my scholar’s head firmly in place on my neck. In particular, I was to examine the meaning of yayin for myself. I then sent the author a lengthy email outlining my own findings with the proposal that once this claim of an ambiguous yayin is dispelled, the rest of his consequent biblical arguments fall flat since they are based on an initial error. The man is a busy minister and politely said he was unable to reply to me at present but would get back to me. I understood and hope he is busy with a fruitful ministry and wished him God’s blessings, sincerely. He exhorted me to read the rest of his book, but I have decided not to, which I shall explain later.

Many say it’s just a matter of interpretation; yes, interpreting scripture is often down to personal views on a reading of scripture, but as a linguist, I draw a distinction between such differing viewpoints and incorrect translation of a biblical word. If we can look at theological scholars who differ on interpretation of scripture verses, which occurs on the reading of scripture in one’s own language, let us call this the macro-level. This produces as many different doctrines over any one passage as there may be theologians, which may divide into different denominational camps, like political parties, though within these denominations there may still be dissension on minor issues (that can lead to pathetic splits over nothing!). However, at the linguistic level (the micro-level), where the meanings of words in the original languages are discussed and how they might be translated, there is very little dissension. One has only to look across various current versions of the Bible to see that the different translations are almost always consistent with only fairly minor different synonyms with little diversion in meaning, and usually representative of the time in which each was made, considering that all languages change over time. The few words that may be unclear in meaning are usually outlined in most versions as footnotes. For instance, many of the animals forbidden in the ‘food laws’ are names of animals peculiar to the semitic region that have been lost over time and we cannot be certain which particular species they refer to. Some words are translated with difficulty, true: for instance, ‘love’ in the New Testament in most English versions can refer to both phileos and agape in the Greek, and this is well-known. They have two different meanings in Greek, which are hard to express clearly in single words in English; the KJV uses ‘charity’ for agape but that has changed its meaning so much it is no longer appropriate for distinction.

However, yayin is not one of these difficult words. A source quoted to me stated that it comes from a root meaning ‘to press out’ and so refers to the juice from the winepress initially. My own research came across a claim that its root meaning is ‘to ferment’ so naturally I was eager to quote this to others since it supported my own personal view, but actually, proper academic study reveals that both of these claims are purely hypothetical (I had expressed this in my email to the author before I had the chance to obtain a proper study book and so I must apologise for ‘jumping the gun’ and retract that claim). The root of tirosh is known to be the Semitic wrt, which means to press out, but the root of yayin is really unknown, so we can lay aside any speculation here as only that. I could suggest that across most Indo-European languages there is a similarity with all words containing a -in- root, though again, I am only speculating on that. Unfortunately, it may well be the very translation of these words into English that has caused much of the confusion in the first place, since we come across terms like new wine, sweet wine, strong wine, etc. This has led to speculation again, on what these different words refer to, which is fine and understandable if one wishes to determine the nature of the words. At the micro-level, however, speculation is unacceptable: linguistics is a science, an academic discipline subject to the rigour of scrutiny by many scholars, who usually agree regardless of any denominational bias.

I went through every instance of yayin in the Old testament myself but could not find anything to make me believe that it referred to a non-alcoholic beverage in any example, save maybe for Lamentations 2, where the children do cry for bread and wine. This on its own should not change the meaning of the word since we are applying modern values to an ancient time; we may not give alcoholic drink to minors but to say that people in those times would not have done so may well just be an anachronism, and without witnesses to testify, or other sources to confirm that minors were never given any alcohol, we cannot make that claim. Even if that is granted, I then was looking at only one reference (from a peculiarly poetic piece of prophetic literature, as Lamentations is) out of around 140, that might lend itself to a retranslation. The author seems to suggest that examples of it being used in contexts of ‘the harvest of wine from the winepress’ thus describes the unfermented juice as pressed out; these are clearly simply references to the harvest of the final product, which I can only describe as a ‘temporal incongruity’ – we even use the word ‘winepress’ in English when clearly the product coming out of the press is not yet wine, but juice! The same verses sometimes speak of the harvest of oil (shemen) as if it were brought in from the olive trees, yet clearly olives (zayith) still need to be pressed. I find no argument to retranslate shemen to mean olives because this is not in contention by anyone (see Jer. 40:10 as just one example where harvests of both yayin and shemen are used in this ‘incongruous’ manner) . Linguistically it’s a dead end. And so the only possible verse left is in Lamentations 2. The author points out Hosea 4:11, where there is a single use of tirosh in an apparently intoxicating rôle, saying correctly that this is not enough to change the semantics of tirosh to include alcoholic drink. Similarly, this one verse in Lamentations (which may well be a poetic irony) where yayin appears to be non-alcoholic, is not enough to change the meaning. There is no ambiguity but for an invented one.

Let me suggest where this error may have come from: students of scripture come across all the various verses which refer to wine, where some seem to praise its qualities, while others warn of the dangers of drinking it. This seems contradictory, especially as we can see around us the terrible problems associated with alcoholism (chronic drunkenness) and alcohol abuse (‘binge-drinking’ is the modern term for it!) – a natural question is ‘can the Bible really be extolling alcoholic drink?’ and so explanations are sought. Such debate is welcome and should be looked at properly, in the light of our social problems and the prevalence of alcohol around us, but this is a HUGE debate I have neither the time nor the inclination to go into here. What has angered me is how these speculations have filtered down to the original language of scripture and sought to alter it, reinterpret it, or at least place some doubt on its meaning. This is the word of God, people! Once you try to change it, you enter very dangerous ground. We all know of many heresies that arise from poor translation: for instance, I have debated with Jehovah’s Witnesses, who say that Christ has already returned as their founder predicted, but that it was a spiritual return, unseen by the world – I point out that the word for revelation (Rev. 1:1) is apokalupteo, which literally means ‘uncovering’ or ‘revealing’ – yes, a real revelation! They can’t answer that. While yayin is a much more ‘minor’ issue, I feel that seeking to change the meaning of any original word is in the same vein as such heresies. (N.B. for some it is major, but I argue that biblically it is not, or it would have much clearer commands in the line of “thou shalt not…” – even though that would be dependent on a reading of scripture outside of grace, which is an IMMENSE topic!). So some people have concluded that these ‘positive’ verses could not refer to alcoholic drink, since alcohol is obviously evil. Wrong! Evil cannot reside in an object, it is borne from the wrong, selfish, sinful desires of our heart, which our Lord made clear (Matt.15: 10-20). And so ‘evidence’ is sought to justify this ambiguity in a word that has never been ambiguous! One only has to stop for a moment to think: if we are to argue that there is a word in scripture that has such an ambiguous meaning that we need to reinterpret practically all the translations we have, are we not setting a precedent for others to argue for changes in translation or reinterpretation of other words? What might come next? Are we not undermining the very book we base our faith on? Let us draw back from this brink; quickly!

This desire to reinterpret yayin as something ambiguous, meaning both alcoholic and non-alcoholic would clearly lead to confusion since there is no way to tell which kind each instance refers to. The argument that ‘context disambiguates’ may be used to go back to the hypothesis that where the semantics of the word are positive, it is non-alcoholic, and only alcoholic where it is negative, and this sounds fine, since ‘context disambiguates’ is a linguistic maxim, but that refers to different words which appear the same i.e. in English, we have two words spelt (homograph) and sounded (homophone) the same: ‘duck’ – one is a water bird, the other a verb denoting that one stoops down. In context, one can safely be assured that “the man had to duck and dive behind the wall” does not refer to the bird, clearly! If a golfer ‘hit an eagle’ there may be some ambiguity there IF there were actual eagles on the golf course in the line of fire of his golf balls, but 99.9% of the time, we know that he ‘scored an eagle’. To apply the same rule to one word that has no division or double meaning is a backward argument based upon an academically unfounded hypothesis. Such a proposal presented as a dissertation in any university would receive a FAIL, believe me!

I have decided not to read the rest of this book, for a very good reason. As I said, what I read angered me since I found evidence of attempts to tamper with the original words of scripture, which for me is heinous for any believer to do, regardless of the motive. I hope you can grasp the depth of my feelings from one example: I have heard readers say “you know that word means ‘wineless’” and I wondered which word was referred to. I surmised it was to do with the exhortation Paul gives to ‘overseers’ in both 1Tim.3 and Titus1 – to be ‘not given to much wine’ but that it was maybe an idiom, used figuratively (like ‘spineless’ in English which has nothing to do with actual backbones – this was the sort of error I thought I would encounter in the book, not what I actually found). But then I heard the word was the Greek naypho, which I took to be a verb, not an adjective. Looking it up, I discovered that in all five passages where it occurs it has absolutely nothing to do with alcohol, but talks about being alert so it IS purely figurative BUT that it simply means sober, the opposite of intoxication, and has NOTHING within it that would mean ‘wineless’, even if this WAS referring to alcohol. This is incredulous, spurious, sweetie mice in the head!!

I knew that I had already come close to judging the author of this book in my wrath, and judging another’s motives or heart is something that scripture CLEARLY forbids, unequivocally, unambiguously (Matt. 7:1,2; Luke 6:37;  Rom. 2:1; 1Cor. 4:5; James 4:11; 5:9; and the aforementioned Romans 14!). His motives in addressing alcohol abuse may well be pure and right, but I feel that he has found sources he was too eager to quote without recourse to proper investigation, and I have no intention of reading more of these examples or even seeking out such sources. Not conducive to my own harmony! This is why I have labelled this ‘epic fail’ – the author has clearly made an epic effort to read all he could and analyse it meticulously, but unfortunately with too eager a desire to support his own view, since it was a matter close to his heart. Clearly, the biblical argument is null. I sincerely wish him richest blessings in his work for the kingdom.

I could list the verses here, but I’ve spent enough time, honestly. I exhort you yourself to get a Strong’s concordance and look up ‘wine’ – all those with word reference 3196 refer to yayin – look them up yourself and knowing that there is NO EVIDENCE to support a view other than that it refers to standard, old-fashioned, alcoholic wine, decide for yourself what the word of God tells you; don’t just take my word for it. We are all able and empowered to read God’s word for ourselves, and we should be grateful we can!

For me, the only clear instruction regarding this is in Romans 14, where the only ambiguity Paul presents is how it falls with other matters under ‘follow your conscience’ BUT ‘don’t judge the person who does not do the same as you’ – I am forbidden to judge the tea-totaller, and they are forbidden to judge me. If you are someone who cannot control your drinking, for the sake of your own soul and body, ABSTAIN! If you do not have such a problem, but YOUR conscience tells you to abstain, then do so, please, and… I was about to say ‘be proud to be an abstainer’ but as I said before, pride is so unbecoming of a Christian.

Grace be with you.