I have been in a situation in the past where a local church felt it necessary to obtain fresh grape juice NOT from concentrate for use in the Lord’s Supper, this raises the question, is it okay to use today’s common grape juice at the grocery store that is from concentrate? An examination of ancient history will reveal that grape juice from concentrate is not just most common for us today but was most common for the first-century church as well.
From its beginning, the New Testament church observed communion with the Lord, partaking of the two emblems which the Lord had instituted for the new covenant while He was observing the Passover under the old covenant. On the first day of the week (Acts 20:7) the disciples of Christ gathered to break the bread and drink the cup. As Jesus had instituted this memorial, so the disciples followed His will; and the symbols remained the same: unleavened bread and fruit of the vine. These emblems were first historically linked to the old covenant Passover which God gave them as a shadow of the sacrifice of Christ and the deliverance of men out of the bondage of sin. Unleavened bread and fruit of the vine were staples of the original feast, symbolizing the flight of haste from bondage in Egypt, being not enough time for the bread to rise or fresh juice to ferment. The old law was clear that yeast could not be in the foods during the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. “For seven days no leaven shall be found in your houses, since whoever eats what is leavened, that same person shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he is a stranger or a native of the land. You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your dwellings you shall eat unleavened bread.’” (Exodus 12:19-20). Certainly this applied to the bread, but also to all other foods and beverages. During the Passover, Jesus picked up a pitcher containing “fruit of the vine” (Matthew 26:29), a common term used by the Jews for what we would call grape juice. They did not use “fruit of the vine” for any other vine fruit but grapes, and the term was never applied to fermented juice (alcohol). Jesus, when observing the Passover, informed his disciples that these emblems would be carried forward into the new covenant, but with an even greater depth of meaning: “I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom”.
From ancient times, the procedure of turning the fruit of the vine into alcohol was well understood; a process that required a leavening agent, usually the yeast naturally found in grape skins. Even in bread making, grapes were sometimes introduced into the flour for a more rapidly rising dough. The Jews, therefore recognized wine to be among the foods contaminated with leaven and therefore, had to be removed from the house during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. I’m not saying that the people of God used alcohol as a beverage, but alcohol was likely in their pantries for other uses, such as medicinal or sterilization. As already noted, the two unleavened emblems (bread and juice) were carried forward by Christ into the kingdom of God (Matthew 26:29), so we continue to honor the will of God in partaking of the same ingredients on the first day of the week. The making of unleavened bread is a fairly simple process that can be performed in the standard American home kitchen, and the fruit of the vine can be purchased at any convenience store. But, while the first-century church could easily replicate the making of unleavened bread for the first day of every week, they did not have grocery stores that carried a never-ending supply of shelf-stable grape juice year-round. The early church did not have such a product, and it wasn’t until 1869 that shelf-stable unfermented grape juice was invented by Thomas Bramwell Welch.
Welch came up with the idea of preserving grape juice to keep it unfermented for year-round communion. But before that time, how did the early church drink unfermented juice throughout the year? In the early days of the church, fresh grape juice would have been easy to find during the grape harvest (September-October) in the eastern world. The grape industry was very large and brought copious amounts of grapes for a variety of products that would be used throughout the coming year. While fresh grapes and juice were available for a very short time in the Fall, grapes were still consumed in other months in preserved forms, such as raisins. But if we stopped here, we would leave out one of the most popular uses of grapes in the East. It was a product they called “dibs”, a tasty and simple recipe that required just grape juice. Fresh juice was placed in a pot over the oven (or fire) until the natural water content of the juice evaporated. This reduction created a sweet and fruity syrup that was a staple condiment for the Eastern peoples. It remained unfermented through the whole year as long as they first filtered the grape juice, or if they submerged the dibs in water for thirty days. Filtration was the usual case, especially among the Jews; for to have “fruit of the vine” at Passover, dibs was simply rehydrated, thus reproducing 100% grape juice from concentrate, with the necessary 0% alcohol. The juice had not been corrupted by yeast, but to ensure this, the Jews would have simply filtered out the juice at vintage before reducing it to concentrate. The filtration would remove any chance of grape skin remnants and therefore, the removal of natural yeast leading to fermentation. Of course, there is still natural yeast floating around in the air, so reducing the juice to dibs, thus removing the H2O needed for fermentation will result in a product that will remain shelf-stable and unfermented throughout the year. Just add water to dibs and you have grape juice again. So the early church had unfermented grape juice on the first day of each week throughout the year, and it was nearly as conveniently accessible as juice from concentrate is today. And if you’re interested in teaching your children/grandchildren about the cuisine of bible times, how about cooking up some sweet dibs in your kitchen; maybe try drizzling it on top of your morning hotcakes.
Article by Tanner Campbell.