Monday night I was listening to one of my favorite radio preachers, Pastor (not “Reverend”, thankyouverymuch) Ernie Sanders. Pastor Ernie is a bit of a wingnut; he believes that Obama may well be the Antichrist, he pickets abortion clinics, supports the Constitution Party, etc. Now, that’s all OK with me (a plus, actually). But he was talking about the Last Supper, and teaching false and silly doctrine. Now, If I concerned myself much with false doctrine, I’d have to be a preacher or theologian, because there’s just too much of it, and I have to make a living. But I do have to speak up about silly doctrine, because it makes Christians look silly.
The silly doctrine was that Jesus drank grape juice at the Last Supper. What is silly about this is its impossibility. Israel is in the Northern Hemisphere, and has the same seasons as the rest of that half of the earth. Grapes are ripe for Sukkot, not Passover. Any grapes from the previous harvest would have dried or molded; any grape juice would be wine, if not vinegar. Now, it is true that “With God, all things are possible“, and there is no reason that Jesus could not have provided grape juice to the Apostles. The wine at Cana could have been grape juice; I have no idea what the criteria for “good wine” were back then, though I suspect they were similar to our own. But note that there is no comment on the wine at the Last Supper; it is not called “fresh wine” or otherwise distinguished from ordinary wine, and if it had been of miraculous provenance, wouldn’t the evangelists have found that worthy of note?
Sanders’ defense of this is that wine contains yeast and would thus not be kosher for Passover. This is doubtless news to present-day Jews who are required to drink wine at the seder. But it also rests on a misunderstanding of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which is, duh, a feast of unleavened BREAD. Grain is not fruit. And grape juice doesn’t “leaven” (literally, “to make light”). It froths and bubbles, but does not gain volume. Technically, since alcohol has a lower specific gravity than sugar solution, wine does weigh less than its original must, but it’s not a difference that can be detected without fairly sophisticated instruments. The Jews didn’t have microbiology; all they knew is that if you mixed flour and water and let it sit, it got big and floofy and tasted better, and if you added some of the old batter to a new batch, it rose faster. If they’d had microbiology, they may have decided that one strain of saccharomyces was as good as another, and banned wine too. But probably not; the reason for the feast is to commemorate that Israel had to pack up and leave so quickly that there was not time for bread to rise. Nobody ferments wine overnight.
Now, what if fruit were considered chametz as the Five Grains are? In that case, there would be a problem with grape juice. In modern tradition, juice from chametz grapes would have to be squeezed and consumed within 18 minutes, just as matzo must be baked within that time. Ancient tradition would not have been that specific, but the principle would hold. Dried fruit may have fermented while drying; bruised fruit has fermented locally. It would be a mess.
Now, the only reason for a fundamentalist to doubt that when Scripture says “wine” it means “wine” is because he believes that wine is an evil thing. Personally, I concur with the line attributed (probably falsely) to Benjamin Franklin: “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”, and apply it to wine as well. I don’t know if fermentation existed before the Fall; the unreconstructed Wiccan in me still doubt’s Fr. Crume’s claim that “God did not intend anything to die”, and it would be pretty crowded here if all the vegetation that ever grew were still with us. But there is no doubt that wine can be misused. Should we ban it because it can be misused? Jesus told his disciples to get swords, and Peter misused his in the Garden. Should they not have had swords? Guns can be and are misused; should they be banned? Ernie doesn’t think so.
The “false doctrine” part of the Sanders broadcast (as opposed to the silly part) concerns the Eucharist. Just as “wine” doesn’t mean wine, Sanders waxes Clintonian on what the meaning of the word “is” is, in “This is My Body”. I don’t have time now to discuss the True Presence; maybe another time. But when is the last time Ernie did the “wine” and bread shtick, even under the True Absence? Jesus said, “Do this, in remembrance of me.” How often are we supposed to remember Jesus? I suspect Ernie’s answer (as any Christian’s) would be “24/7”. Well, then…