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Did John Drink Vodka? - Luke 1:15 (Monday with Mounce 195)

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Monday with Mounce

The angel tells Zechariah that his son, "is never to take wine (οἶνον) or other fermented drink (σίκερα)" (NIV).  On this traditional reading of σίκερα, John was not allowed to drink any alcohlic beverage. 

Most translations go this direction: "wine or liquor'" (NASB); "wine or strong drink" (ESV, NRSV, NET, KJV); "wine or other alcoholic drinks" (NLT).

However, when you check BDAG, σίκερα is not a generic word meaning "fermented drink," as if it were a broad term covering any alcoholic beverage. It means specifically "beer." HCSB sees this and properly translates, "wine or beer."

No Coors for John!

But this brings up another question, at least to me. What about spirits? Vodka? Whiskey? Tequila? Lava Flows? If σίκερα is translated properly, is the angel saying that John cannot drink specific types of alcohol — wine and beer — but by omission allows him to drink other kinds? I have been polling people on this, and apparently I am in a minority. When I hear "wine and beer," I hear it as only restricting those specific type of alcohol. But most people hear it as meaning "all" alcohol. I am curious; what do you hear?

As you dig into this issue, the meaning is pretty obvious. John could have nothing alcoholic in any form. (1) While the making of beer and wine goes back many centuries in time, distillation apparently wasn't practiced until somewhere around the first century A.D. All John had was wine and beer. 

(2) This is a reflection of the Nazarite vow, which says, "they must abstain from wine and other fermented drink (שֵׁכָר) and must not drink vinegar made from wine or other fermented drink. They must not drink grape juice or eat grapes or raisins" (Num 6:3, NIV). שֵׁכָרlikewise specifically mens, "beer." This makes it clear the Nazarite could have no alcohol at all. 

The more I translate, the more I am intrigued by how different people hear the same word or phrase differently. This is why translations are done by committees and decisions made by voting. 

So for you Nazarites out there: sorry. No alcohol of any kind.


MouncewWilliam D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at Koinonia. He is the author of numerous books, including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek, and is the general editor for Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation, and is currently on the Committee for Bible Translation for the NIV. Learn more about Bill's Greek resources at Teknia.com and visit his blog on spiritual growth, Life is a Journey, at BiblicalTraining.org.

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