Chapter 4


Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., Andrews University

A major objection to the view that Scripture approves the use of unfermented grape juice is the alleged impossibility in Bible times of preserving grape juice unfermented. Burton Scott states this objection most clearly in his article on “Wine” in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia: “Unfermented grape juice is a very difficult thing to keep without the aid of modern antiseptic precautions, and its preservation in the warm and not overly-cleanly conditions of ancient Palestine was impossible.”1 

Objective of This Chapter 

This chapter aims at ascertaining whether the preservation of grape juice in its unfermented state was possible or impossible in Bible times. Our investigation will show that the ancients were far more knowledgeable in the art of preserving fruits and wines than generally presumed.

This chapter is divided into two parts. The first considers the methods used by the ancients to preserve fruits and wines in general and the second, the methods used to prevent the fermentation of grape juice in particular.


1. The Preservation of Fruits

Amazing Ability

There is considerable information regarding the amazing ability of the ancients to preserve fruits and juices. An example is Josephus’ account of the Roman capture of the fortress of Masada. He tells us that the fruits and grains the Romans found in the fortress were still fresh, although they had been stored for many years: “Here was laid up corn in large quantities, and such as would subsist men for a long time; here was also wine and oil in abundance, with all kinds of pulse and dates heaped up together; all which Eleazar found there, when he and his Sicarii got possession of the fortress by treachery. These fruits were also fresh and full ripe, and not inferior to such fruits newly laid in, although they were little short of a hundred years from the laying in (of) these provisions (by Herod), till the place was taken by the Romans; nay, indeed, when the Romans got possession of those fruits that were left, they found them not corrupted all that while: nor should we be mistaken, if we supposed that the air was here the cause of their enduring so long.”2

Josephus’ claim that the Jews in Masada were able to preserve grain and fruits fresh for almost one hundred years is obviously an exaggeration. The statement, however, does suggest that the art of preserving produce was well known to the Jews. Unfortunately Jewish sources do not tell us what such technology was.

Classical Writers 

Some classical writers, however, do offer us considerable insight into the methods used by ancient people to preserve grains, fruits, vegetables and wines. One of them is Columella, a renowned agriculturalist who lived in the first century A.D. In his treatise On Agriculture and Trees, Columella discusses at great length the various methods used by different people to preserve such produce as lettuce, onions, apples, pears, berries, plums, figs, olives, unfermented grape juice and fermented wine. We shall summarize briefly what he says first about the preservation of fresh produce in general and then about the preservation of fermented and unfermented wines in particular. This information should dispel the mistaken notion of the impossibility of preserving grape juice unfermented in Bible times.

Columella describes first of all a method used to preserve berries and plums: “Cornel-berries, which we use instead of olives, also wild plums and onyx-colored plums should be picked while they are still hard and not very ripe; they must not, however, be too unripe. They should then be dried for a day in the shade; then vinegar and must boiled-down to half or one third of its original volume should be mixed and poured in [the vessel containing the berries or plums], but it will be necessary to add some salt, so that no worms or other form of animal life can be engendered in them.”3

Methods of Preserving Fruits 

A similar method was used for the preservation of other kinds of fruits. Columella explains: “Before they [pears] are ripe but when they are no longer quite raw, examine them carefully to see that they are sound and free from blemish or worms, and then arrange them in an earthenware vessel that has been treated with pitch and fill it with raisin-wine or must boiled-down to one-third of its original volume, so that all the fruit is submerged; then put a cover on the top and plaster it up.”4

Columella goes on to explain that instead of boiled-down must, some people used honey-water or bee’s wax-water for preserving fruits.5 The submersion of fruit in liquid honey was viewed as one of the safest methods of preservation, because as Columella remarks, “such is the nature of honey that it checks any corruption and does not allow it to spread.”6 Today we use a similar method when we can fruit in a heavy sugar syrup.

Another method used was to place the fruit in a barrel between layers of sawdust and when the barrel was full, its lid was carefully sealed with thick clay.7 Still another method consisted of “dabbing the fruit, when it is fresh, thickly with well-kneaded potter’s clay, and when the clay has dried, hanging it up in a cool place; then, when it is required for use, the fruit should be plunged in water and the clay dissolved. This process keeps the fruit as fresh as if it had only just been picked.”8

The Preservation of Grapes 

Several methods were used for preserving grapes fresh. One of them consisted in cutting the grapes with lengthy branches and sealing the cut with pitch. The grapes were then placed in vessels filled with dry chaff. “In order that the grapes may remain green for as much as a year,” Columella explains, “you will keep them in the following manner. When you have cut from the vine grapes . . . , immediately treat their pedicles with hard pitch; then fill a new earthenware pan with the driest possible chaff, which has been sifted that it may be free from dust, and put the grapes upon it. Then cover it with another pan and daub it around with clay mixed with chaff, and then, after arranging the pans in a very dry loft, cover them with dry chaff.”9

Other people, according to Columella, preserved grapes by dipping their pedicles into boiling pitch immediately after they were cut, and then placing them in dishes arranged in different layers within a barrel containing boiled-down must.10 Instead of must, some people used barley-bran to “fill the barrel with alternate strata of bran and grapes. Next they put on the lids and seal them up and store the grapes in a very dry and cool loft.”11

Columella goes on relating similar methods used by other people. “Some people,” he says, “after the same method, preserve green grapes in dry sawdust of poplar-wood or fir; others cover up the grapes, which they have picked from the vines when they were not too ripe, in dry flower of gypsum. Others, when they have picked a bunch, cut off with shears any defective grapes in it, and then hang it up in the granary where there is wheat stored below them. But this method causes the grapes to become shrivelled and almost as sweet as raisins.”12

After describing several other methods used by different people to preserve grapes fresh, Columella concludes, saying: “different methods suit different districts according to the local conditions and the quality of the grapes.”13

Pliny, a Roman scholar and naturalist, contemporary of Columella, briefly describes in his Natural History other methods used to preserve grapes: “Some grapes will last all through the winter if the clusters are hung by a string from the ceiling, and others will keep merely in their own natural vigor by being stood in earthenware jars with casks put over them, and packed round with fermenting grape-skins.”14

Squeezed Grapes 

The fact that the ancients knew several methods for preserving grapes fresh until the following vintage suggests that unfermented grape juice could be produced at any time of the year simply by squeezing grapes into a cup. This practice is confirmed both in rabbinical and Christian literature. For example, the Halakat Gedalat, the earliest compendium of the Talmud, says: “One may press out a cluster of grapes and pronounce the kiddush [blessing pronounced at the consecration of the Sabbath or a festival] over the juice, since the juice of the grape is considered wine in connection with the law of the Nazirite.”15

The apocryphal Acts and Martyrdom of Matthew, a document which circulated in the second and third centuries of the Christian era, attests to the use of freshly pressed juice of grapes in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper: “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.”16 This is a clear and positive testimony not only of the custom of making grape juice by pressing grapes, but also of using unfermented grape juice in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

There are indications that the practice of pressing preserved grapes directly into the Lord’s Supper cup continued for centuries. For example, the third Council of Braga (A.D. 675) reports Cyprian’s charge against those “who presented no other wine [vinum] at the sacrament of the Lord’s cup but what they pressed out of the clusters of grapes.” 17 It is noteworthy that fresh grape juice is called “wine” (vinum). The charge was not against the use of unfermented grape juice as such, but rather against the failure to mix the grape juice with water.

The practice of mingling wine with water apparently originated, as Leon C. Field points out, “not necessarily in the weakening of alcoholic wine, but in the thinning of boiled wines and the thick juices of the crushed clusters.”18 Instruction about this had already been given three centuries before by Pope Julius I (A.D. 337) in a decree which read: “But if necessary let the cluster be pressed into the cup and water mingled with it.”19 Additional historical testimonies will be given in the following chapter, in conjunction with our study of the communion wine. Such testimonies show that freshly preserved grapes were used throughout the year to make pressed grape juice.

2. The Preservation of Fermented Wine

A Prevailing Misconception

It is widely believed that in the ancient world it was much easier to preserve fermented wine than to preserve unfermented grape juice. Such a belief rests on the mistaken assumption that the preservation of fermented wine was a simple process requiring only that the pressed grape juice ferment naturally. The truth is quite different. Fermented wines are subject to a number of infections which cause them to become acid, malodorous and mouldy. The ancients were well aware of these problems. Pliny, for example, frankly acknowledges that “it is a peculiarity of wine among liquids to go mouldy or else to turn into vinegar; and whole volumes of instructions how to remedy this have been published.”20

Columella similarly notes that both fermented wine and unfermented, boiled-down must were subject to spoil: “Boiled-down must, though carefully made, is, like wine, apt to go sour.”21 He goes on saying: “This being so, let us be mindful to preserve our wine with boiled-down must of a year old, the soundness of which has been already tested.”22

Here Columella indicates that unfermented, boiled-down grape juice, which generally kept better than fermented wine, was used to preserve the latter. Before discussing some of the techniques used in the ancient world to preserve wine, it is important to note how delicate and difficult it was in those days to preserve wine. A major reason was the lack of a precise technology for controlling the fermentation process.

The Discovery of Pasteurization 

It was in the late nineteenth century that Louis Pasteur, the great French chemist, discovered the cause of fermentation and a remedy for it, known as pasteurization. Pasteur’s famous research, Études sur la bière (1876), was in fact conducted at the request of beer and wine producers who asked him to find a way to prevent the infections which spoiled their products, causing them enormous financial loss. This research led Pasteur to discover that fermentation was caused by the multiplication of microorganisms rather than by chemical change. To prevent or control fermentation, Pasteur discovered in 1876 a method known today as “pasteurization,” which consists in the destruction of certain bacteria by exposing a liquid (wine, milk, beer) for a period of time to a certain temperature.

Today through pressure boilers, filters, separators, complex refrigeration and pasteurization, the wine industry (known as enology) is able to control the fermentation process. Such a control becomes especially necessary when the must contains too much water and too little sugar because the season has been cold or rainy, or because the grape has grown on moist lands. In such case, wine makers today correct the imperfect composition of the must by adding to it saccharin substances and by diminishing its water content through artificial evaporation. These modern technical procedures have freed wine growers from the constant fear that their vintage may become spoiled. Without such a technical knowledge and means, ancient wine makers faced the constant risk of losing their vintage.

Problems in Preserving Wine 

Marcus Porcius Cato (234-150 B.C.), who is considered the father of both Latin prose and literature on agriculture, refers to some of the problems related to the preservation of fermented wine. In chapter 148 of his treatise On Agriculture, Cato alludes to such problems when he speaks of the terms “for the sale of wine in jars.” One of the conditions was that “only wine which is neither sour nor musty will be sold. Within three days it shall be tasted subject to the decision of an honest man, and if the purchaser fails to have this done, it will be considered tasted; but any delay in the tasting caused by the owner will add as many days to the time allowed the purchaser.”23 The fact that the purchaser was to taste the wine within three days of purchase or take it as it was, shows how quickly wine was subject to turn sour or musty.

Cato prescribes some precautions to prevent wine from becoming sour or musty: “Divide the grapes gathered each day, after cleaning and drying, equally between the jars. If necessary, add to the new wine a fortieth part of must boiled-down from untrod grapes, or a pound and a half of salt to the culleus [a liquid measure]. If you use marble dust, add one pound to the culleus; mix this with must in a vessel and then pour into the jar. If you use resin, pulverize it thoroughly, three pounds to the culleus of must, place it in a basket, and suspend it in the jar of must; shake the basket often so that the resin may dissolve. When you use boiled must or marble dust or resin, stir frequently for twenty days and press down daily.”24

In this statement Cato provides quite an insight into the variety of products used to preserve fermented wine: boiled-down must, salt, marble dust, and resin. Later we shall see that Columella mentions other preservatives as well. In spite of the use of such preservatives, problems still developed with fermented wine.

In chapters 107 to 110 Cato refers to some of these problems. One of them was the bad odor emitted by wine and absorbed by the brims of the wine jars. Another problem was the wine that became itself acid or bad smelling. To remedy the problem of bad-smelling brims, Cato prescribes the preparation of a cream, made up of boiled must, crushed iris and Campanian melilot. These ingredients were to be mixed and allowed to boil over a slow fire. The resulting cream was smeared over the brims of wine jars.25

Apparently this treatment did not always prevent wine from turning sour (asperum). To sweeten the wine turned bitter, Cato offers this prescription: “Make four pounds of flour from vetch, and mix four cyathi of wine with boiled-down must; make into small bricks and let them soak for a night and a day; then dissolve with wine in the jar, and seal sixty days later.”26 This procedure was to make the wine “sweet” and “of good odor.”

Presumably this did not always happen, because in the following chapter Cato gives another prescription to remove bad odor from wine: “Heat a thick clear piece of roofing-tile thoroughly in the fire. When it is hot coat it with pitch, attach a string, lower it gently to the bottom of the jar, and leave the jar sealed for two days. If the bad odor is removed the first time, that will be best; if not repeat until the bad odor is removed.”27

The above examples of ancient remedies to cure problems caused by fermenting wine show how mistaken the assumption is that the preservation of fermented wine was a simple process in the ancient world. The sources indicate that the process was far from simple. The different means used to prevent spoiling the wine reveal the perplexity and uncertainty of vine growers regarding how to remedy the deterioration of fermented wine. To better appreciate the complexity and intensity of the problem, we shall consider briefly some of the methods used to preserve fermented wine.

Preservation of Wine with Boiled-Down Must 

Boiled-down unfermented must was used in the ancient world not only as a drink, diluted with water, but also as a preservative for fermented wine. Columella, the renowned Roman agriculturist, discusses at great length how boiled-down must was used to preserve wine. “Let us be mindful,” he urges, “to preserve our wine with boiled-down must of a year old, the soundness of which has been already tested.”28

Not all wine needed to be preserved with boiled-down must or other preservatives, but especially that produced from new vineyards, or vineyards located in less than ideal locations. “We regard as the best wine,” Columella says, “any kind which can keep without any preservative.”29 Such wines, however, were apparently rather rare, because Columella discusses extensively how to preserve wines from different kinds of vineyards and seasonal conditions.

The preparation of boiled-down must to be used as a preservative for fermented wine was quite a laborious process. It involved not only the boiling down in a leisurely manner of the must to half or one-third of its original volume, but also the addition of such preservatives as pitch and turpentine resin. Spices were also added such as “the leaf of spikenard, the costus [an Indian aromatic plant], the date, the angular rush and the sweet-rush . . . myrrh, cinnamon, balsam and saffron.”30

This complex preparation was eventually mixed with the wine to be preserved. The actual ratio of the mixture depended on the quality of the wine. As Columella explains: “It is uncertain how much of this preparation ought to be added to forty-eight sextarii, because the calculation of the right amount must be based on the quality of the wine, and care must be taken that the flavor of the preservative is not noticeable, for that drives away the purchaser. I personally, if the vintage is wet, usually mix a triens of the preservative in two amphorae; if it is dry, a quadrans.”31

Preservation of Wine with Salt 

Another significant method for preserving wine was by adding salt or sea-water to the must during the first few days of fermentation. Apparently this method was widely used, since Columella says: “Some people—and indeed almost all the Greeks—preserve must with salt or sea-water.”32

If powdered salt was used it was diluted with water before being poured into the fermenting wine. If sea-water was used, it was “boiled-down to a third of its original volume,”33 and then poured into the must, after the latter had been transferred into fumigated jars. The use of salt was widely recommended to prevent a mouldy taste in the wine. “If possible,” Columella advises, “every sort of vintage in every district ought to be salted with this same quantity; for this prevents there being any mouldy taste in the wine.”34

Preservation of Wine with Pitch 

Another substance used to preserve wine was pitch, in both its liquid and solid form. Columella devotes three chapters of his treatise On Agriculture (22, 23, 24) to the discussion of the various kinds of pitches used to preserve wine. Usually the pitch was dissolved in sea-water which was allowed to evaporate, and then such a solution was poured into the wine to be treated. The actual quantity of the solution used depended on the condition of the wine.

To those wishing to preserve the whole vintage with pitch, Columella offers this advice: “But if you wish to preserve the whole vintage with the same pitch in such a way that it is impossible to tell from the taste that it has been preserved with pitch, it will be enough to mix six scripula of the same pitch with forty-five sextarii of wine when at length it has ceased to ferment and the dregs have been cleared away.”35

The foregoing discussion of the various methods used by ancient people to preserve fermented wine is by no means exhaustive. Other substances were used as preservatives such as marble dust, lime sulphur fumes or crushed iris. The examples cited suffice to show that the preservation of fermented wine in the ancient world was a far more complex process than is generally assumed. In fact, in some places the risk of preserving fermented wine was so great that, as we shall now see, all the vintage was boiled-down and preserved as sweet, unfermented grape juice.


Fermentation Process

The ancients were acquainted with the fact of fermentation, even though they did not understand its causes. Just what happens during the conversion of grape juice into wine was not clearly understood until the 1860’s, when Louis Pasteur undertook his study of fermentation. The ancients, however, were familiar with some of the methods by which fermentation can be prevented.

Grape juice contains two leading ingredients, glucose or grape sugar and albumen, both of which contribute to the fermentation process. The albumen, which is found in the lining of the skin and in the envelope of the seed of the grape, contains microscopic organisms which are the fermenting agents, known as ferments or yeast.

The decaying of the albumen in the grape juice affords conditions favourable for the multiplication of yeast germs which mix with those already present in the air and release a chemical enzyme capable of breaking down the grape sugar into two forms. One is ethyl alcohol, a colourless liquid that readily mixes with water and remains in solution in the wine. The other is carbon dioxide gas, which appears in tiny bubbles which give the appearance of ebullition.36

The process of fermentation occurs only in the presence of certain conditions such as a moderate temperature, moisture and air in the grape juice. Now there are four major methods by which these conditions can be altered or eliminated and thus grape juice be preserved fresh and unfermented. We shall now consider each of these four methods, all of which were known to the ancients.

1. The Preservation of Grape Juice by Boiling

Moisture and Heat

The fermentation of grape juice can be prevented by reducing sufficiently its moisture content or by heating the juice at high temperature. The reason for this is that the growth of the yeast germs, which are the fermenting agents, slows or stops entirely when the moisture content of the grape juice is heated at 150º to 180º F. At such a temperature most of the ferments are destroyed. Both of these results are achieved by boiling the grape juice.

By boiling, the water of the grape juice evaporates, yeasts and molds are destroyed, and the sugar content increases, thus inhibiting yeast growth. This method of preserving grape juice unfermented by carefully boiling it down to a syrup was commonly and successfully used in the ancient world. When desired, the syrup would be drunk diluted with water. Several sources confirm this practice.

Ancient Testimonies 

The most celebrated Roman poet, Virgil (70-19 B.C.), in his Georgics, pictures a housewife thus “She boils down by the fire the moisture of sweet must, and skims off with leaves the wavy froth of the simmering caldron.”37 This method was widely used, as indicated by Columella’s lengthy description of how to preserve must successfully by boiling it down. “Care should also be taken,” he writes, “so that the must, when it has been pressed out, may last well or at any rate keep until it is sold.”38

To ensure its preservation, Columella explains that “some people put the must in leaden vessels and by boiling reduce it by a quarter, others by a third. There is no doubt that anyone who boiled it down to one-half would be likely to make a better thick form of must.”39 Must boiled-down to a third was called defrutum: “Must of the sweetest possible flower will be boiled-down to a third of its original volume and when boiled-down . . . is called defrutum.”40

Pliny differs from Columella by calling defrutum the must boiled-down to one-half and sapa, the must boiled-down to a third. In discussing the various kinds of “sweet wine” (vinum dulce), he writes: “Siraeum, by some called hepsema and in our country sapa, is a product of art, not of nature, made by boiling down must to a third of its quantity; must boiled-down to only one-half is called defrutum.”41 The difference in the names given to the different kinds of boiled-down must, only serves to confirm the common usage of this beverage.

The preservation of must by boiling required considerable care. Columella gives us this insightful description: “We shall heat the furnace at first with gentle fire and with only very small pieces of wood, which the country people call cremia (brushwood), so that the must may boil in a leisurely manner. The man in charge of this boiling should have ready prepared strainers made of rushes or broom, but the latter should be in a raw state, that is to say, not beaten with a hammer. He should . . . stir up any dregs which have settled at the bottom and bring them up to the top; he should then clear away with the strainer any scum which remains on the surface, and he should go on doing this until the must seems cleared of all lees.”42

Safe Preservation 

When the necessary care was exercised, the boiled grape juice could be safely preserved for a long time. This required lengthy boiling and careful removal of all scum, as Columella explains: “If there is plenty of wood, it is better to boil the must and clear off all the scum with the dregs; if this is done a tenth part will be lost, but the rest keeps good forever.”43

This method of preservation was especially recommended by Columella for “any estate where the wine often turns acid.” In this case, all the must was to be poured into the cauldron and boiled until a tenth part of it evaporated. “Afterwards, when it has cooled, you should pour it into vessels, cover it and seal it up; in this way it will keep longer and no harm will befall it.”44

Wide Use of Boiled Grape Juice 

The custom of preserving grape juice by boiling it down into a syrup has survived through the centuries in the Near East and Mediterranean countries. This beverage is known as vino cotto (boiled wine) in Italian, vin cuit in French, nardenk in Syriac and dibs in Arabic. In its article on “Wine,” the John Kitto’s old but renowned Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature quotes several nineteenth century historians on the use of boiled grape juice in the Near East. One of them, Dr. A. Russell, in his Natural History of Aleppo, writes: “The inspissated juice of the grape, sapa vini, called here dibbs, is brought to the city in skins, and sold in the public markets; it has much the appearance of coarse honey, is of sweet taste, and in great use among the people of all sorts.”45

Similarly, Cyrus Redding, in his History of Modern Wines, states: “On Mount Libanus, at Kesroan, good wines are made, but they are for the most part vins cuits (boiled wines). The wine is preserved in jars.”46 J. D. Paxton, who witnessed a vintage in Lebanon, also says: “The juice that was extracted when I visited the press was not made into (what is now called) wine, but into what is called dibs.”47 The common use of unfermented, “boiled wine” in the Near East during the nineteenth century is also attested by several travel accounts.48

Rev. Henry Homes, an American missionary to Constantinople, in his article on wine published in the Bibliotheca Sacra (May 1848) gives this account of his observations: “Simple grape-juice, without the addition of any earth to neutralize the acidity, is boiled from four to five hours, so as to reduce it one-fourth the quantity put in. After the boiling, for preserving it cool, and that it be less liable to ferment, it is put into earthen instead of wooden vessels, closely tied over with skin to exclude the air. It ordinarily has not a particle of intoxicating quality, being used freely by both Mohammedans and Christians. Some which I have had on hand for two years has undergone no change.”49

Dilution of Boiled Grape Juice 

It was a common practice in ancient times to dilute both fermented and unfermented wines. In Rome a public establishment existed for this purpose, known as the Thermopolium. It furnished its patrons both cold and hot water to dilute their wines. “The hot water,” as Sir Edward Barry observes in his treatise Observation on the Wines of the Ancients, “was often necessary to dissolve their more inspissated and old wines.”50

The dilution was especially necessary for those wines which had been reduced to a kind of thick cream through boiling. Aristotle, the famous Greek philosopher who lived in the fourth century B.C., says that the wine of Arcadia was so thick that it was necessary to scrape it from the skin bottles in which it was contained and to dissolve the scraping in water.51 Similar, very likely, was the Teniotic wine of Egypt, which Athenaeus, a Greek grammarian who lived in the second century A.D., tells us had “such a degree of richness [liparon, literally, ‘fatness’], that when mixed with water it seems gradually to be diluted, much in the same way as Attic honey well mixed.”52

Several ancient authors refer to the custom of diluting fermented wines. “Hesiod prescribed, during the summer months, three parts of water to one of wine. Nicochares considers two parts of wine to five of water as the proper proportion. However, according to Homer, Pranmian and Meronian wines required twenty parts of water to one of wine. Hippocrates considered twenty parts of water to one of the Thracian wine to be the proper beverage.”53

It seems reasonable to assume that those wines which were diluted with twenty parts of water were the boiled, condensed grape juices mentioned above. A lover of fermented wines would hardly have enjoyed drinking a wine which had been diluted with 95% of water. Thus, the wines which were heavily diluted must have been primarily unfermented grape juices, thickly condensed through boiling.

Boiled Grape Juice among the Jews 

Several reasons lead us to believe that the boiling process was most probably used also in ancient Israel to preserve grape juice. The art of making and preserving wine was common to Mediterranean countries where viticulture prevailed, and has survived to the present.54 There are indications that the ancient Jews preserved wine by boiling it. John Kitto’s Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature says: “The Mishna states that the Jews were in the habit of using boiled wine. ‘They do not boil the wine of the heave-offering, because it diminishes it,’ and consequently thickens it, thus rendering the mingling of water with it when drunk necessary; but it is immediately added, ‘Rabbi Yehudah permits this because it improves it’ (Teroomoth Perek 100, 11).”55

In the Talmudic treatise entitled ‘Abodah Zarah there is a lengthy discussion on what some rabbis thought of the use of boiled wine. One of the issues discussed is whether a Jew could use boiled wine which he had handed over for storage to a Gentile. The fear was that the Gentile might have offered it to an idol. Rabbi Ashi dismissed such a fear, saying: “Our boiled wine which is in the keeping of a heathen does not require double sealing. For as to the fear lest he would offer it to the idol, it is not offered in that state.”56 The reason is, as the footnote explains, that Gentiles used only raw wine for their sacrificial offering. Boiled wine was unacceptable for their sacrifices, and consequently there was no fear of its being offered to an idol.57

Another issue discussed is whether boiled wine left uncovered became unfit for use. On this issue the renowned Rabbi Hiyya deliberated: “Boiled wine is not rendered unfit by being left uncovered.”58 The reason given in the footnote is that “a snake does not drink it.”59 The popular notion appears to have been that snakes were fond of fermented wine but did not touch boiled wine. Consequently fermented wine needed to be covered lest it be poisoned by a snake, but boiled grape juice could remain uncovered because snakes would not touch it. These incidental remarks provide an indirect and yet compelling evidence that boiled wine was produced and used by Jews.

Boiled Grape Juice in Ancient Israel? 

It is hard to tell how extensive the use of boiled wine was in ancient Israel is hard to tell. But there is no reason to doubt that it was used. Some of the Biblical references to “honey—debash” could be referring to a sweet grape syrup. The Hebrew debash corresponds to the Arabic dibs, which is the usual term for a sweet syrup made by boiling down the juice of grapes, raisins or dates. In his article on “honey” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, J. I. Ross writes: “The honey of the Bible was of three different kinds: (a) a thick grape syrup (Arabic dibs); (b) wild honey . . . (c) honey from domesticated bees.”60

Some scholars maintain that certain Old Testament texts refer not to bee’s honey but to a grape syrup. For example, in the Dictionnaire de la Bible, J. A. de Bost states: “Some authors believe that several Old Testament texts, namely Gen 43:11; Ezek 27:17, Jer 41:8 do not refer to bee’s honey but to a sweet beverage, a syrup that drips from ripe dates (these are the Hebrew scholars Maimonides, Josephus, Hiller, Celsius, Geddes, etc.). They appeal, among other things, to the fact that the Hebrew word debash, which means honey, in Arabic has the meaning of dates. Other scholars maintain that the word must be understood as grapes’ honey, that is, grape juice boiled with or without sugar until it becomes thick as a syrup (Rosenmüller). This beverage is made even today in Syria and Palestine (Shaw, Russell, Burckhardt). 150 kilos of grapes produce 50 kilos of this beverage, called dibs (debash). It is used instead of sugar, diluting it with water. For the poor it replaces butter and for the sick wine. The Greeks and the Romans knew the honey of grapes.”61

The account of the spies in Numbers 13 may support the meaning of debash as the honey of grapes. The spies “came to the valley of Eshcol, and cut down from there a branch with a single cluster of grapes, and they carried it on a pole between two of them; they brought also some pomegranates and figs” (v. 23). In front of the fruits which the spies brought back as proof of the fertility of the land, namely, an enormous cluster of grapes with pomegranates and figs, they said: “We came to the land to which you sent us; it flows with milk and honey [debash], and this is its fruit” (v. 27). Since the fruits shown to prove that the land flowed with “milk and honey” were especially the incredibly large grapes, “honey” may refer to boiled grape juice, known as “grapes’ honey—dibs,” produced with the kind of grapes displayed, and “milk” may signify the green pastures which nourished the milk-producing cows. The emphasis appears to be on the value of the natural products of the land.

The Encyclopedia Biblica notes in this regard that “in later Hebrew certainly, and in OT possibly, debash is also used to denote certain artificial preparations made from the juice of various fruits by inspissation, like the modern dibs. Reference has already been made to the theory that the ‘honey’ with which the land of Canaan was said to ‘flow’ was this inspissated syrup; it has also been held that at least the honey intended for transport (Gen 43:11; 1 King 14:3) and export (Ezek 27:17) must be so understood.”62

Speaking of grape juice, the article continues, saying: “The early inhabitants of Canaan, however, as Bliss appears to have shown, were certainly acquainted with this manufacture. His excavations at Tell el-Hesy (Lachish) revealed two wine-presses with apparatus (as he judged) for boiling down the filtered juice (inspissation) into grape syrup.”63 The preceding observations give us reason to believe that the boiling process was most probably used by the ancient Jews to preserve grape juice unfermented.

2. The Preservation of Grape Juice through Filtration

Separation of Albumen

Another method by which the fermentation of grape juice can be prevented is by separating the albumen, which is located in the lining of the skin and in the envelope of the seeds of the grape, from the other elements. The albumen, as noted earlier, contains the fermenting agents, known as ferments or yeast. By careful procedures the juice of the grapes can be separated from the fermenting pulp. The ancients understood this principle and applied it in two ways: (1) gentle pressing, (2) filtration. 

Gentle Pressing 

The grapes were brought in from the vineyard and placed in wine vats. The first juice that flowed before the treading began, according to Pliny, was called protropum. “The name,” he explains, “was given by some people to must that flows down of its own accord before the grapes are trodden.”64 This juice, that flowed spontaneously from the grapes, was composed almost entirely of the sugar portion of the grapes. The high sugar content of the juice, combined with its relative freedom from yeast, would make its preservation in an air tight container relatively easy.

In this particular passage Pliny mentions that protropum was allowed to ferment. But this was not always the case. Other passages now to be considered indicate that the first juice as well as the subsequent juice which flowed from gently pressed grapes was preserved unfermented.

After discussing two “sweet wines,” namely sapa and defrutum, which were made by boiling down the must respectively to a third and to one-half of its volume, Pliny mentions the raisin-wine, known as passum, which was well known under different names in most Mediterranean countries. This unfermented grape juice was made by drying the grapes in the sun and then gently pressing out the juice. “Some people,” Pliny explains, “make this wine from any sweet white grapes that ripen early, drying them in the sun till little more than half their weight remains and then they gently press out the juice [leniter exprimunt].”65

By pressing out gently the sun-dried grapes only the rich juice would be released. Because of its high sugar content and the absence of the fermenting pulp, this juice could be more readily preserved. Sometimes the level of sugar was raised by adding honey. Speaking of “honey-wine,” Pliny says: “it differs from mead because it is made from must, in the proportion of thirty pints of must of a dry quality to six pints of honey and a cup of salt, this mixture being brought just to the boil.”66

Polybius, an historian of the second century B.C., tells us that “among the Romans women are forbidden to drink [fermented] wine; and they drink what is called passum, which is made from raisins, and tastes very much like the sweet wine [gleukos] of Aegosthena or Crete. This is what they do to quench their thirst. But it is almost impossible for them to drink wine without being found out.”67 It is noteworthy that unfermented grape juice made from sun-dried grapes was drunk especially by women in the Roman society.

The importance of pressing the grapes gently to prevent the escape of the albumen is emphasized also by Columella. Speaking of sun-dried grapes, he says, “Tread them on the fourth day and pour the must, which should have none of the last squeezing in it.”68 The Latin verb used for “tread” is calcato, which means “trodden by foot.” Thus the juice was to be removed after treading the grapes by foot and before their squeezing with the heavy beam (tortivo). The latter would release the fermenting yeast located in the lining of the skin of the grapes.

To prevent the fermentation of gently pressed grape juice, it was necessary to pour it into properly sealed jars which would be stored in a cool place. Columella gives us an informative description of how they did it: “That must may remain always as 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; then daub it over and cover it carefully with pitch, that thus no water may be able to get in. Then sink the whole flagon in a pool of cold, fresh water so that no part of it is above the surface. Then after forty days take it out of the water. The must will then keep sweet for as much as a year.”69

The importance of storing the juice in a cool place will be discussed later. At this point it is important to note the caution taken in utilizing “the freshest possible must” which flowed before the grape-skins were put to the press. This would ensure that the juice would be rather free of the fermention-causing yeast found in the lining of the skin of the grapes.


When the fermentable pulp was pressed out together with the saccharin juice, a separation of the former was still possible by means of filtration. It is evident that the ancient means of filtration were far less sophisticated and efficient than those used by the wine industry today. Their basic method consisted of using a bag, called sacco, in which the grapes were placed. A vase was placed below the bag to receive the falling juice. Several Latin writers refer to the use of such strainers or filters in the preparation of wines.

The Roman poet Virgil (70-19 B.C.) mentions the sackcloth (cola) as one of the standard pieces of equipment of the wine press (prelum). Its purpose, as Pliny points out, was to remove the fermentable substances from the juice: “Wines are most beneficial when all their potency has been overcome by the strainer [sacco]. We must remember that wine is grape juice that has acquired strength by fermentation.”71 In this statement Pliny clearly explains that the purpose of the strainer (sacco) was to remove the fermentable substances which give alcoholic potency to the wine.

It is certain that grape juice was filtered to deprive it of the intoxicating power caused by fermentation. Plutarch, the first-century Greek biographer and moralist, after speaking of the filtering process in very much the same words as Pliny, says: “Wine is rendered old, or feeble in strength, when it is frequently filtered. The strength being thus excluded, the wine neither inflames the brain nor infests the mind and passions, and is much more pleasant to drink.”72

It is noteworthy that Plutarch observes that the filtered, non-alcoholic wine was “more pleasant to drink” than the alcoholic variety. This observation can help us understand the nature of the “good wine” produced by Christ at the wedding of Cana (John 2:10). A reason for the production of filtered wines was, according to Pliny, to enable people to drink more without becoming intoxicated: “What is more, to enable us to take more, we reduce its strength by means of a linen strainer.”73

It is significant to note in this connection the comment of the Delphin edition on Horace’s words, “Strain clear the wine,” which says: “The ancients filtered and defecated their must repeatedly before it could have fermented; and thus the faeces which nourish the strength of the wine being taken away, they rendered the wine itself more liquid, weaker, lighter and sweeter, and more pleasant to drink.”74

A Biblical Allusion 

Isaiah 25:6 may contain an allusion to the Biblical custom of filtering the must. The text reads: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees, of fat things full of marrow of wine on the lees well refined.” The word “wine” present in the two phrases, “wine on the lees” and “wine on the lees well refined” (RSV), is not found in the Hebrew text. Instead, the Hebrew term used is shemarim, which means “preserves,” a term which can refer to vintage-produce. Thus, a more accurate translation would be “a feast of vintage-produce” and “a feast of vintage-produce well cleansed.” The Vulgate (Latin) translation respects this meaning: “a feast of vintage-produce (convivium vindemiae), a feast of vintage-produce well-cleansed (vindemiae defaecatae).”

In this verse God compares the blessings of the Gospel feast to His providing of two festal luxuries: fat things—rich, marrowy meats—and confections such as jellies and syrups. The former would be served in the most savoury way and the latter in their purest state. The “vintage-produce well cleansed” could refer to the filtered grape juice, which on account of its purity and sweetness was regarded, as we have seen, as most pleasant to drink. This harmless nutritious drink fits the emblem of the blessings of salvation which here God promises to all the redeemed.

3. The Preservation of Grape Juice Through Cold Storage

Below 40º Fahrenheit

The fermentation of grape juice can be prevented also by keeping it below 40º F (4º Celsius). Nearly all processes of fermentation cease at about 40º F. Fermentation is possible only between about 40º and 80º F(4º and 27º Celsius). Below the former point fermentation is inoperative and above the latter point the acetous supplants the vinous process. By lowering the temperature to about 40º F., the albumen settles at the bottom and the juice does not ferment. 

Ancient Method 

The ancients were familiar with this method of preservation. When they desired to preserve grape juice in its sweet, unfermented state, they would take an amphora and coat it with pitch within and without. Then they would fill it with mustum lixivium—the must that flowed before the grapes would be pressed with a heavy beam—and they would seal it carefully with pitch. It was then immersed in a pool of cool water or a cistern and allowed to remain undisturbed for six weeks or two months. After this process the grape juice could remain unfermented and hence it was called semper mustum, that is, permanent must.

We cited earlier a description of this process as given by Columella. To ensure that must remains semper dulce “always sweet,” Columella prescribes this procedure: “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; then daub it over and cover it carefully with pitch, that thus no water may be able to get in. Then sink the whole flagon in a pool of cold, fresh water so that no part of it is above the surface. Then after forty days take it out of the water. The must will then keep sweet for as much as a year.”75 Columella goes on to say that “for as long as it is properly cold, so long will it remain in good condition.”76

In the method described by Columella fermentation was prevented in two ways:

(1) by the exclusion of the air, 
(2) by the reduction of the temperature. The yeast germs are introduced by the action of ordinary air into the fermentable juice. Thus, by placing the grape juice in air-tight wine jars, fermentation was unlikely to occur, especially since the jars were kept in a cold pool.

A similar description of this process is provided by Pliny. Speaking of the sweet wine called aigleukos by the Greeks and semper mustum “permanent must” by the Romans, he says: “Care is needed for its production, as it must not be allowed to boil [fervere, to ferment]—that is the word the Romans used to denote the passage of must into wine. Consequently, as soon as the must is taken from the vat and put into casks they plunge the casks in water till midwinter passes and regular cold weather sets in.”77

This method of preserving grape juice must have been in use long before the time of Pliny and Columella, because Cato (234-149 B.C.) mentions it two centuries before them: “If you wish to keep grape juice through the whole year, put the grape juice in an amphora, seal the stopper with pitch, and sink in the pond. Take it out after thirty days; it will remain sweet the whole year.”78

Gibeon’s Wine Cellars 

It seems reasonable to presume that the Jews knew and used the Roman method of preserving grape juice in air-tight jars, stored in a cold place. The various techniques for making and preserving wine, according to the Roman authors cited earlier, seemed to have been well known throughout the Mediterranean world. Explicit information about Palestine, however, is lacking.

Some indirect information is provided by James B. Pritchard, who excavated the ancient Gibeon where sixty-three storage wine-vats were found, with a holding capacity of 25,000 gallons. His reconstruction of the process of wine making at Gibeon includes the filtration of the pressed juice into two cylindrical tanks 2 ft. in diameter and 2 ft. deep. After filtering the wine was stored in cool cellars in large jars sealed with olive oil.79 Pritchard tested a suggestion of a local wine maker that wine would keep from turning into vinegar in the cellar, if it was sealed with olive oil. The excavators stored a jar of wine sealed with a film of olive oil for a month in the cellars of Gibeon. To their delight they found at the end of the month that the wine was perfectly preserved.80 The reason was that the oil provided a practical barrier preventing the oxidation of the wine.

The success of the experiment suggests the possibility that the same method could have been used for preserving unfermented grape juice. Freshly pressed grape juice, after being filtered to eliminate glutinous material, could have been stored in cool cellars in jars sealed with olive oil. To some extent this method was used by my father when I was a boy. I recall helping him to filter the grape juice through a thick linen sack and then pouring the juice into bottles which were sealed with a film of oil and a tight cork. The bottles would be stored in a cool cellar. Today, with the availability of bottle caps which seal bottles hermetically, my father follows a simpler procedure. He boils the must and pours it into bottles which he seals immediately with bottle caps pressed tight by a simple machine. He then stores the bottles in a cool cellar.

The frequent linkage in the Old Testament of olive oil and wine may suggest not only the common use of the two products, but also the dependency upon the former to preserve the latter.

4. The Preservation of Grape Juice

Through Sulphur Fumigation

Sulphur Fumigation

The fermentation of grape juice can also be prevented by the fumes of sulphur dioxide. The method consists in filling the jars nearly full with fresh unfermented grape juice, then burning sulphur dioxide in the empty portion, and while the sulphur fumes are present, the jars are tightly closed. Another possibility is to pour the must into jars or bottles which have been strongly treated with sulphur fumes. The sulphur absorbs the oxygen of the air and inhibits the formation of yeast germs. Sulphur dioxide is widely used today in the wine industry to deal with some of the infection to which wine is subject. 

Ancient Use of Sulphur 

The use of sulphur to preserve wine was known in the ancient world. In a chapter devoted to various methods used to preserve wine, Pliny speaks of Cato who “mentions sulphur.”81 Horace alludes to this practice in a poem dedicated to the celebration of a glad anniversary: “This festal day, each time the year revolves, shall draw a well-pitched cork forth from a jar set to drink the smoke in Tullus’ consulship.”82 The next stanza suggests that this fumigated wine was unfermented, because a hundred cups of it could be drunk without causing “clamor et ira,” that is, “brawls and anger.”83

In his book on Roman Antiquities, T. S. Carr says that “the application of the fumarium [sulphur fumes] to the mellowing of wines was borrowed from the Asiatics; and thus exhalation would go on until the wine was reduced to the state of syrup.”84 In its comment on this statement, John Kitto’s Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature says: “When the Mishna forbids smoked wines from being used in offerings (Manachoth, viii. 6, et comment.), it has chiefly reference to the Roman practice of fumigating them with sulphur, the vapor of which absorbed the oxygen, and thus arrested the fermentation. The Jews carefully eschewed the wines and vinegar of the Gentiles.”85


The study conducted in this chapter on the ancient methods of preserving both fermented wine and unfermented grape juice should help dispel two major misconceptions: (1) In the ancient world it was easy to preserve fermented wine because all that it takes is to let the pressed juice ferment naturally; (2) In the ancient world it was impossible to preserve the grape juice unfermented because people had neither the technical knowledge nor the means to prevent fermentation.

We have found that both of these popular notions are unfounded. The problems the ancients encountered in preserving fermented wine were as great as, if not actually greater, than, those faced in preserving unfermented grape juice. To prevent wine from becoming acid, mouldy, or bad-smelling a host of preservatives were used such as salt, sea-water, liquid or solid pitch, boiled-down must, marble dust, lime, sulphur fumes or crushed iris.

In comparison to preserving fermented wine, the keeping of grape juice from fermenting was a relatively simple process. It was accomplished simply by boiling the juice down 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 with sulphur the wine jars 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.

The fact that the documentation comes mostly from the classical world rather than from the Old Testament world does not mean that the art of preserving grape juice was unknown in ancient Israel. The Jews were not less knowledgeable in the art of preserving fruits, cereals and juices than were the surrounding nations. We found that, according to Josephus, the Romans were astonished to find in the fortress of Masada, wine, oil, fruits and cereals freshly preserved, though they had been stored for several years.86 Furthermore, rabbinical sources mention specifically the use of boiled wine.

The reason for the silence of Scripture on the means used for preserving grape juice is to be found in the nature of the Bible itself, a book which deals primarily with those aspects of life which are related to salvation history. In the Bible we find no treatise on agriculture, as among classical writers. The reason is not a lack of interest or of knowledge of farming, but a reluctance to deal with issues unrelated to the religious life of God’s people.

No mention is made in the Bible of the means used to prevent the spoilage of fermented wine, yet the Jews must have known them. The same holds true for unfermented grape juice. The Bible attests that God’s people did have and did use unfermented grape juice. We are not told how the Jews preserved the grape juice unfermented. We have reasons to believe that they knew some methods of preservation known and used in the ancient world. This conclusion will be confirmed in the next two chapters, which examine the teaching of Jesus and of the apostolic church regarding alcoholic beverages.

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