What if I told you Paul’s advice to Timothy was to drink a little wine, because it makes you feel good?
“No way,” one might say. “Paul’s giving outdated medical advice to Timothy.”
If this is so, 1 Tim 5:23 is perhaps the most embarrassing verse in the Bible. Why?
Paul’s Unsolicited Health Advice is Scientifically False. When the passage is taken literally, “a little wine” seems to have positive effects on one’s stomach and mitigate nameless ailments. However, 2,000 years later we are yet to have scientifically plausible evidence that wine really helps us with anything (regardless of what the 6 o’clock news says). In fact, studies that they will never report on television show that wine does absolutely nothing to aid digestion or improve health in any real way.
Some speculate that the wine is beneficial in that the ancients used it to purify water. They will tell a story about in Europe people drink wine because the water is dirty. Of course, this is nonsense as the standard for mixing wine with water in the ancient world was one parts for every three, which means it had as much alcohol as a beer. While 5 percent alcohol won’t dehydrate the drinker, the process of the liver breaking down that alcohol does. Plus, it is an inefficient way of killing bacteria. Anyone who has been to the third world knows that unclean drinking water is purified by the “magical” process of boiling.
My wife preparing fire to boil water (pot is immediately adjacent) which is used for drinking in my grandma-in-law’s village. Picture taken during our 2014 trip to the Cambodian countryside.
What Does Context Tell Us? Let’s look at the passage and the immediate context in question:
Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses. Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning. I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of His chosen angels, to maintain these principles without bias, doing nothing in a spirit of partiality. Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thereby share responsibility for the sins of others; keep yourself free from sin.
No longer drink water exclusively, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.
The sins of some men are quite evident, going before them to judgment; for others, their sins follow after. Likewise also, deeds that are good are quite evident, and those which are otherwise cannot be concealed.
All who are under the yoke as slaves are to regard their own masters as worthy of all honor so that the name of God and our doctrine will not be spoken against. Those who have believers as their masters must not be disrespectful to them because they are brethren, but must serve them all the more, because those who partake of the benefit are believers and beloved. Teach and preach these principles.
If anyone advocates a different doctrine and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing; but he has a morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words, out of which arise envy, strife, abusive language, evil suspicions, and constant friction between men of depraved mind and deprived of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain (1 Tim 5:19-6:5).
The part about wine sure does seem to stick out like a sore thumb. John Calvin, though not taking this view himself, speaks of how other interpreters thought that the passage was not inspired as it appears irrelevant to the immediate context:
“No longer drink water.” There are some who conjecture that this sentence, which breaks off the train of thought, was not written by Paul. …[I]t is possible that what had been formerly written in the margin of the Epistle afterwards.
This begs the question, what is Paul’s train of thought? Without getting into every minute detail, Paul is clearly talking about Timothy’s difficulties in dealing with people being disruptive. This includes those who accuse elders, aspire to be elders (“do not lay hands…hastily), and do not submit to their elders by disputing doctrine.
Whatever 1 Tim 5:23 is talking about, it directly relates to dealing with people that “give you agita [stomach pains]” as some of us American Italians might say. Tertullian made a similar comment about agita and heretics years ago: “[A] controversy over the Scriptures can, clearly, produce no other effect than help to upset either the stomach or the brain” (Prescription Against Heretics, Chapter 16).
What Did the Early Church Say? Upon first glance, it would appear that all of the early church fathers ascribed to a wrongheaded view of medicine: wine promotes good health.
We must drink it then not for the sake of pleasure, but because of infirmity, and therefore sparingly as a remedy, not in excess as a gratification (Letter 63, Chap 27).
He does not however allow him to indulge freely in wine, but as much as was for health and not for luxury (Homily 16 on 1 Tim).
[N]otice the reasons for which the permission is given, to cure an aching stomach and a frequent infirmity. And lest we should indulge ourselves too much on the score of our ailments, he commands that but little shall be taken…He evidently feared that Timothy might succumb to weakness, and might prove unequal to the constant moving to and fro involved in preaching the Gospel (Letter 22, Chap 8).
It may appear that they believed it was unlawful to drink enough to get a pleasant buzz. But, is this what they are saying? It is important to understand just how the ancients thought wine promoted good health. This will help us understand how they viewed a pleasant buzz as something different than purposeful drunkenness.
The Connection Between Temperament, Bodily Fluids, and Wine. The ancients believed that our emotions were governed by humors (which literally means “fluids” in Latin) in our bodies. Wine, it was thought, played a role in affecting the chemical equilibrium of bile and other bodily fluids which supposedly affect how we feel emotionally and physically.
We can see this in the secular medical “textbooks” of the time. According to Galen’s Method of Medicine Book XII:
Therefore, the best wines are those that are naturally sharp and no longer have any perceptible astringency due to their age, but have a heat that is very clear, for they will do everything we require for those in whom the cardiac orifice of the stomach is picrocholic, since they are pleasant to take, facilitate digestion and distribution, mitigate the badness of the humor, bring about a state that is hot, and strengthen the cardiac orifice of the stomach (Source).
In plain English, wine affects the distribution of bodily fluids, thereby mitigating “the badness of the humor” as well as assisting the body physically. We can see in the (inaccurate) description of human biology that it was thought that bodily fluids literally affect emotions, not unlike how we popularly believe that hormones and chemicals in the brain do the same today. In the passage, the wine’s effect on the stomach was inexorably linked to one’s temperament.
The science of the day was presumed upon by the early church fathers, as we can glean from their writings. Gregory of Nyssa writes in passing:
That, moreover, which appears to oppress the region of the heart is a painful affection, not of the heart, but of the entrance of the stomach, and occurs from the same cause (I mean, that of the compression of the pores), as the vessel that contains the bile, contracting, pours that bitter and pungent juice upon the entrance of the stomach; and a proof of this is that the complexion of those in grief becomes sallow and jaundiced, as the bile pours its own juice into the veins by reason of excessive pressure (On the Making of Man, Chapter 4).
Chrysostom, in a sermon specific to 1 Tim 5:23, elaborates upon how wine can be taken for health and not luxury. When he says this, he specifically says that the benefit of drinking wine is that it affects our temperament positively. He contrasts this pleasant buzz with drunkenness:
For wine was given us of God, not that we might be drunken, but that we might be sober; that we might be glad, not that we get ourselves pain.
Wine, it says,
makes glad the heart of man...It is the best medicine, when it has the best moderation to direct it (Homily 1 on the Statues, Chapter 11).
Wine, when used in moderation and not for drunkenness, brings healing:
Wine was given to restore the body’s weakness, not to overturn the soul’s strength; to remove the sickness of the flesh, not to destroy the health of the spirit (Chap 12).
Paul’s Point: Drink Wine Because People Are Annoying. The real gist of what Paul is saying in 1 Tim 5:23 is, “When dealing with annoying people all day, drink a little wine to calm down and relax.” The reference to Timothy’s “stomach and frequent ailments” is likely the feeling we get in our stomachs when we are stressed. So, if the wine does anything in Paul’s mind, it helps Timothy deal with the stress.
Perhaps Paul was like other ancients in believing that wine helped heal literal, physical ailments as a result of affecting Timothy’s bodily fluids. However, I do not see the text demanding the interpretation that Paul ascribed to the same view of medicine as his contemporaries did.
If he did, it still does not detract from the literal point. Even if the belief behind why it works is pseudo-scientific, the applicability to the given situation is as applicable then as it is today. For example, having a drink after a hard day at work is not something that is unheard of, though we rarely think of the Bible endorsing such a notion. Yet, the Bible has positive references pertaining to the pleasurable effects of alcohol (2 Sam 16:2, Ps 104:15, Prov 31:6-7, Ecc 9:7), even if they are outnumbered by warnings against drunkenness. So, we must conclude that the Bible does endorse the moderate use of alcohol for the sake of the pleasurable buzz it gives.
Why On Earth Am I Writing This? The reason I am writing this is because I think it is important to defend the Scripture against accusations that it contains obviously fallacious science or admonishments that are no longer applicable today. It is far too easy to read a passage about pretty much anything (fornication, head covering, wine) and if we disagree with what it teaches, ignore the passage based upon the assumption that the Scripture is merely addressing an issue in an ancient context that is no longer applicable. This gives us a false justification in ignoring what we don’t like and accepting what we do, critically undercutting the authority of God’s revelation in directing our thoughts, values, and actions.
The danger of this train of thought is that it obviously makes the Scripture capable of disseminating error; something that is categorically impossible if it is truly God-breathed (2 Tim 3:16).
If we are not sure if drinking a little wine is good for us when we are surrounded by people and circumstances stressing us out, then let’s do the research. Avoid the pseudoscience (unless it is ancient pseudoscience) and try to understand what the words Paul wrote would have meant to him at the time he wrote them.
When we do this digging into the text, as we have done here, we cannot help but conclude that the context of the passage is sufficient in cluing us in to the meaning of 1 Tim 5:23– Drink a little wine, because it helps you deal with the agita that annoying people will give you.