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Wine in the Kingdom

Writing my last post on Papias made me think of something that is rather humorous even if it is only very tangentially related.   If you recall, Papias claimed that Jesus taught the following about the future utopian kingdom on earth:

 The days are coming when vines will come forth, each with ten thousand boughs; and on a single bough will be ten thousand branches.  And indeed, on a single branch will be ten thousand shoots and on every shoot ten thousand clusters; and in every cluster will be ten thousand grapes, and every grape, when pressed, will yield twenty-five measures of wine.

 When I was writing up that post, I was reminded of the story in the Gospel of John in which Jesus turns the water into wine.   Jesus appears to have enjoyed wine in great abundance.

The story in John is particularly interesting, and what is humorous to me is how I’ve heard it interpreted by well-meaning conservative Christians who were certain that Jesus would not ever encourage people to partake of alcoholic beverages.

In John 2 Jesus and his disciples are invited to a wedding.  (Contrary to what you sometimes here by creative interpreters, this could not be Jesus’ own wedding!  He gets invited to it by someone else.)   These wedding ceremonies could last for days.   After a while, the wine runs out.  That’s very bad indeed.   Jesus’ mother asks him to do something.  He rebukes her, but then does what she asks.  There are six large jars there, each large enough to hold over 20 gallons.  Jesus tells the slaves to fill them up to the brim.   He then tells the master of ceremonies to taste what is in them.  The master of ceremonies does so and to his amazement the water has turned into wine.  And not just any ole wine, but fantastic wine.  He goes to the bridegroom and praises him, saying that most people at long weddings serve the good wine first, and then when everyone has had a lot to drink, bring out the second-rate stuff (since no one much cares any more at that point).  But you, he says, have saved the best wine for last.

When I was a youth pastor of a conservative Christian church in Oak Lawn Illinois, back in the mid 1970s, a sincere and rather severe mother of one of my kids told me that this story in John could not really about Jesus turning water into wine.  (Since good Christians would not drink wine.)  No, she told me, the Greek word for “wine” in the passage means “new wine.”  And new wine is wine that has not yet fermented, so that it has no alcoholic content.

I’ve always found this interpretation highly amusing, and it has always struck me as a perfect example of how people will try to get around what a text says in order to make it mean what they want it to mean.

For one thing – something I didn’t know at the time – the word used for “wine” in this passage is not a special word meaning “new wine.”  It is simply the word wine.  That is, the stuff with alcohol in it.

For another thing, something that I *did* think at the time, but didn’t feel like I should tell this sincere woman who would have taken offense, the story simply makes no sense if the point was the Jesus turned the water into new wine.   Just imagine the scene.  People have been having a good time, hanging out, drinking good wine, enjoying themselves.  The supplies run low.  Jesus intervenes and performs a miracle.  And the master of ceremonies can’t believe it.  He goes up to the bridegroom and praises him.   Most people serve the best wine first and then bring out the second-rate stuff.  But you have outdone yourself!   At first we were drinking wine, but now you have given us GRAPE JUICE!!

As miraculous as this famous deed of Jesus is (recorded only in John 2), it pales in comparison with what will happen in the utopian kingdom according to Papias, who claims he is simply citing a saying of  Jesus.  According to that saying, each and every grapevine in the kingdom will have ten thousand boughs; each of those ten thousand boughs will have ten thousand branches; each of those branches will have ten thousand shoots; each of those shoots will have ten thousand clusters of grapes; each of those clusters will have ten thousand grapes; and each grape will produce 25 gallons of wine.

Now that’s a lot of wine!  Probably someone on the blog can do the math, and tell us how many gallons this one vine – presumably there are millions of them – will produce.  And it should be stressed: this won’t be the cheap stuff you buy at the supermarket.  This will be Chateauneuf du Pape.   And since this is the coming kingdom will have no suffering, there will be no downside of drinking it in abundance.  Now *that’s* a utopia!

Lecture: Jesus and the Historian
The Death of Judas in the NT



  1. cheito
    cheito  June 7, 2015

    DR Ehrman:

    Not only will we have wine, but we’ll also have weddings in the kingdom of God!
    And yes each will sit under his fig tree and there will be vines and aged old wine.

    Isaiah 25:6-The LORD of hosts will prepare a lavish banquet for all peoples on this mountain;
    A banquet of aged wine, choice pieces with marrow,
    And refined, aged wine.

    As for Papias’ ten thousand boughs with ten thousand branches on every single bough; and ten thousand shoots on every single branch; and ten thousand clusters on every single shoot; and ten thousand grapes on every cluster, and every grape yielding twenty-five measures of wine when pressed. God doesn’t like wasting anything. For a family of four this many grapes will not be practical…God is practical you know;
    Each household will have a vine producing commensurate to their household if they wish to drink wine.

  2. Avatar
    Philbert  June 7, 2015

    Hi Bart, I am so glad you brought this up!

    John 2:6 has always interested me because I can’t figure out what the intended message to the audience is supposed to be.

    6 “Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons”.

    >> Why did the author need to add the part about “the kind used by jews for ceremonial washing”- was this a slap to the jews to make fun of their ceremonial traditions? Does it mean something else? Was it added later by someone else?

    Also, Would turning water into great wine be something people of the time would expect in a savior messiah?

    Everything about this miracle seems….. wierd….

    I can’t figure it out.

    Please tell us..

    Thank You!

    • Bart
      Bart  June 7, 2015

      Jesus is the one who creates wine. In other words, he is a divine being, not just a human being.

  3. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  June 7, 2015

    It amounts to 10,000 to the fifth power in grapes = 100 Quintillion (one Quintillion has 18 zeros) grapes

    Multiply 25 gallons per grape = 2 sextillion (21 zeros) 500 Quintillion gallons or 2.5 sextillion gallons

  4. Avatar
    timber84  June 7, 2015

    In the United Methodist church which I used to belong to, they use grape juice during communion. I believe it was because the Methodist church was heavily involved in the American temperance movement which led to prohibition in 1920. I don’t know if there are any other denominations that don’t use wine for communion.

  5. John4
    John4  June 8, 2015


    Bart, in the version of the pious “unfermented wine” interpretation I was once given, the *reason* for the high praise by the ruler of the feast is that Jesus’ wine was unfermented. *That’s* what made it so exceptionally good, lol!

    By the way, as someone who’s health has moved him to tee-totaling in his old age, I’ve been curious about how you managed alcohol during your conservative Christian years. Somewhere I had gotten the impression that you never entirely went in for abstinence even when you were at Moody? But, how could that possibly be right? Well, none of my business, I know, but the mind does wander back to “bright college years” sometimes, lol.

    Thanks so much for everything you *do* so generously share with us! 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  June 9, 2015

      I tee-totaled when at school, but didn’t mind having a beer when home. I pretty much stuck to the rules!

      • John4
        John4  June 9, 2015

        Ah. Well, Moody *did* have a system, didn’t it. Thanks so much for sharing, Bart! 🙂

  6. Avatar
    garytheman  June 8, 2015

    BART: About time these fundamentalist bible belt thumpers get over the idea that Christ find’ t drink wine. Going to Lutheran seminary I can contest that besides Lutherans, liturgical seminaries including Roman Catholic and Eepiscopalian ones definitely swear that the Greek translation, I.e., Greek Lexicon, will state that it was alcoholic wine. Get with it you Bible belt thumpers.

  7. Avatar
    UMRevChris  June 13, 2015

    I remember giving a sermon on the John text and using it to show the symbolism in the passage. I can’t recall all of it now, but I remeber there seemed to be a lot. I don’t think John was trying to recount history as much as say Jesus was divine and the bringer of vitality. (Wine=fertility=life). That being said, I don’t think for a moment Jesus refused any alcohol. That would probably be blasphemous in itself for his time!

  8. Avatar
    gavm  June 24, 2015

    Prof what is the situation with the “slaves” in this story? are they basically just servents or is it more like the US black slaves situation? what sort of rights/freedoms might they have (if any)?
    thank you

    • Bart
      Bart  June 25, 2015

      Ah, that’s a very long story. Maybe I’ll post on it. (Short answer: it was not based on race; and there was an enormous range of status and condition of slaves, to the poor souls in the salt mines to the highly placed and influential secretaries and tutors in the imperial families)

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