Beer and the Bible: Would religious views change if ancient beer culture was better understood?
Dr. James Bowley, professor of the Department of Religious Studies at Millsaps College, told students that beer was very much a part of the ancient Eastern Mediterranean and Fertile Crescent during The Real Greek Week II.
The recent event, sponsored by the Department of Classical Studies, was called "Have a Beer, Bible Reader," and the description of the seminar asked, "Did Jesus drink beer, or was he strictly a wine man?"
"Playing off 'Greek Week' that sororities and fraternities on the Millsaps campus sponsor, the Classics Department of Millsaps had the excellent, and highly successful idea, of sponsoring 'The Real Greek Week,' which involves a week full of events for students and the general public," Bowley said.
"All the events ... (enlightened) us in enjoyable ways about the ancient world, especially ancient Mediterranean cultures: Roman food, Greek military formations and tactics, Greek mythology, the drinking of beer in the Fertile Crescent, and ... Alexander the Great's conquest of Persia."
Bowley spoke about the making and drinking of beer in Mesopotamia, Egypt and the entire Fertile Crescent, which includes ancient Israel. "As all archaeologists of the area know, references to beer are common, and a great deal of evidence shows beer making and drinking practices," he said.
"Since Mississippi just passed a new law that allows into the state many more high quality beers, I thought it would be a good time to link ancient people and cultures with modern changes in society. In addition, there's one link that many haven't thought about."
Bowley discussed beer and the Bible. "In my presentation, we (surveyed) the areas of the Eastern Mediterranean and read about beer production and drinking, and we find parallels to modern day life," he said. "Then we turn to ancient Israelite culture and see what evidence we find there. I think some people might be surprised."
Bowley said everyone who seriously studies the world and culture in which the people of Israel lived know that Israelite culture was fully integrated into that world and shared many traits and values of surrounding cultures.
"So, for the archaeologist and historian, it would be more surprising if Israelite literature (what is known today as the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible) did not reference beer," Bowley said. "So the question becomes, are there references to beer in the Bible?"
Bowley said the beer culture of this time was prolific. "The oldest beer recipes in the world come from these cultures, and beer was a staple in their diet," he said.
Would some religious people's views about alcohol change in any way if they understood the ancient beer culture better?
"Our culture clearly has difficulties handling alcohol, as one can see from our drunk driving accident rates," Bowley said. "But it's not because our laws are not strict enough, since in cultures where drinking laws are much more lenient and wine and beer are part of daily life from a young age, there are often fewer difficulties.
"Furthermore, the idea that religious people should abstain from all alcoholic beverages is a fairly modern one in history, and peculiarly Christian, and is certainly not the case in the ancient world of Israel, or other Mediterranean cultures, or among most early Christians.
"The wise use of these beverages, and the wise use of all of creation in the ancient world and today, is the lesson that sages, both ancient and modern, teach."
Bowley said he hoped students left the presentation learning more about "ancient people who were a lot like us, and thinking more expansively about ancient Israelites and the literature they gave us in our Bibles."
Dr. David Yates was the creative director for The Real Greek Week II. "It is all too easy to forget that the New Testament was originally written in Greek within a world saturated by Greek culture and dominated by Roman might," Yates said. "In fact, the Classical Studies Department at Millsaps College offers courses in Biblical Greek in which we read portions of the Gospels in the original Greek.
"As always, I leave it to the individual audience members to take what James says, compare that to what they know and believe, and come to their own conclusions. Regardless of whether they are persuaded or not, I think that those who (participated) in any of our great events will walk away with a better understanding of the ancient Greek and Roman world."