Although Evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics both recognize the institution of the Lord’s Supper and celebrate it regularly, one of the several differences between the two is that Roman Catholics have added a liturgical step that is generally unfamiliar to most Protestants. As part of the Eucharistic rite of Roman Catholicism, the priest mixes a little water with the wine prior to consecration. So indispensable to the sacrament is the mixing of water with wine that the 22nd session of the Council of Trent (1562-1563) anathematized anyone who denied that step in the liturgy (Council of Trent, Session 22, Canons on the Sacrifice of the Mass, Canon IX). It may therefore come as a surprise that, as indispensable as the mixing of the water is to their liturgy, Roman Catholics do not actually know why they do it, do not know how much water to add, are not sure how to administer it correctly, and are not even sure what it is alleged to signify. And that is a pretty thin foundation for a liturgical rite, the denial of which is considered to be an excommunicable offense.
The Catholic Encyclopedia correctly indicates that the Early Church used mixed wine for the Lord’s Supper, but tellingly suggests that they were not entirely sure why they did so. They “tried” from the earliest days “to find reasons why the Church” mixed its water and wine:
“With regard to the water mingled with the wine in the Mass, the Fathers from the earliest times have tried to find reasons why the Church uses a mixed chalice though the Gospel narrative implies that Christ consecrated pure wine.” (Catholic Encyclopedia, Liturgical Use of Water)
Zenit, a Roman Catholic news agency, insists that the rite of mixing water with wine “is very ancient,” and “it is believed” that Jesus used a mixed cup at the Last Supper:
“The brief rite of pouring water into the wine used for consecration is very ancient. Indeed, it is believed that Our Lord himself used wine tempered with water at the Last Supper as this was the common practice among the Jews and in Mediterranean culture in general.” (Father Edward McNamara, Zenit Roman Catholic News, Why Water and Wine?, June 29, 2004)
The knowledge that the Early Church did indeed use “a mixed chalice,” along with the historically accurate belief that Jesus would have “used wine tempered with water” at His last meal, has led ordinary Catholics, apologists and clergy to an invalid conclusion: that Jesus Himself must have instituted, as a liturgical rite, the mixing of water and wine at the table as part of His administration of the Last Supper.
The Zenit article, cited above, reasons in just that way in order to arrive at an ancient “rite.” Zenit is correct that using “wine tempered with water” was “the common practice” of the time (in fact it is still practiced today by wine manufacturers, and for the same purpose). However, the institution of a liturgical rite cannot validly be inferred from a common secular manufacturing practice. As we shall demonstrate, there is no evidence for the introduction of the liturgical mixing of wine with water as a rite until the end of the 4th century.
The puzzle that this presents to Roman Catholicism is evidenced by the Catholic Encyclopedia‘s statement that the Early Church Fathers “tried to find reasons” for the practice. Such wording suggests that the Early Patristic writers did not know its origin. But that is not entirely fair to the Early Church. As we shall prove, they understood exactly why mixed wine was used, and said so in their writings. The Early Church was not befuddled in its attempts to understand the origins of using mixed wine. It is Rome that has befuddled itself in its attempts to ritualize and liturgize what the Early Church clearly understood as the standard wine production process.
The Catholic Encyclopedia exemplifies Roman Catholic confusion by its claim that “the Gospel narrative implies that Christ consecrated pure wine.” The Gospel narrative implies no such thing. “Pure wine” actually has a very specific meaning when it comes to wine production, and the Gospel accounts make no mention of it.
At the time of the Last Supper, the use of “pure wine” was abhorrent to Greeks, Romans, Jews and Christians alike, which is why they all diluted their wine with water—which is to say, they prepared their wine prior to consumption. Jesus instructed His disciples to prepare a meal, and a prepared meal is exactly what they arranged. They did not leave part of the meal preparation to Jesus, nor were they instructed to do so. Preparing a feast included the procurement of food and a venue, plus the mixing of “pure wine” with water for drinking. That was the standard meal preparation for the whole civilized world for centuries before—and for centuries after—the Last Supper.
To understand the ancient history of mixing wine—i.e., adding water to “pure wine” to make “wine”—and why the drinking of “pure wine” was so objectionable at the time, and how a common wine production process developed into a Roman Catholic liturgical rite, we will review the historical data. We will start with the ancient art of winemaking, then examine the Early Church’s representations of the mingled cup in the Lord’s Supper, followed by an examination of how a medieval misunderstanding of ancient winemaking and the Early Church led to confusion about the Last Supper, and finally a summary of the Roman Catholic importation of a secular manufacturing process into a Christian ordinance.
This week, we will simply focus on the relevant step in the preparation of wine for consumption: the mixing of water with “pure wine” to make “wine,” a suitable drink at a meal.
The Encyclopedia Romana, in its entry on “Wine and Rome,” explains that throughout the Greek and Roman empires, water was almost always added to “pure wine,” or merum, prior to drinking because it was uncivilized to drink the merum straight:
“Wine almost always was mixed with water for drinking; undiluted wine (merum) was considered the habit of provincials and barbarians. The Romans usually mixed one part wine to two parts water (sometimes hot or even salted with sea water to cut some of the sweetness). The Greeks tended to dilute their wine with three or four parts water, which they always mixed by adding the wine.” (Encylopedia Romana, Wine and Rome)
The word merum refers to wine that has not yet been mixed with water, and shares a common Latin root with the English word, mere, as in pure, unalloyed, or undiluted. It can be used in a diminutive sense, as in “a mere child,” or to convey purity, as in “mere Christianity,” or in a legal sense, as in “merum imperium,” which in English is “pure power.” When applied to wine, merum refers to pure wine before it is mixed with water for consumption. It is mere wine, pure wine, undiluted wine, unmixed wine, or simply, “wine without water.” Merum, or “pure wine,” was not considered suitable, or proper, for drinking.
As first century Roman poet Martial testifies, if someone desired purposefully to become inebriated, the ratio of water to merum would be reduced from the standard Roman ratio of two-to-one, down to a much less diluted one-to-one:
“Boy, mix me bumpers half [wine] and half [water], such as Pythagoras used to give to Nero, mix them, Dindymus, and not too long between them. I can do nothing sober, but when I drink, fifteen poets will come to my aid.” (Martial, Epigrams, Book XI, chapter 6)
As we noted above, Fr. Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University, acknowledged in the Zenit article that the dilution of merum with water was a common practice of Jesus’ day. Importantly, that means it was not a rite particular to the Last Supper. Rather, it “… was the common practice among the Jews and in Mediterranean culture in general” (Zenit, June 29, 2004). It was not something that Jesus or His followers introduced.
That seemingly modest concession from McNamara belies an inconvenient historical reality that undermines the Roman Catholic insistence on liturgizing the mixing of wine with water. The fact is, Jesus used merum mixed with water because that is what “wine” was, and it was common knowledge to the whole ancient world, and importantly, to the Early Church. When Jesus sent His apostles to prepare for the Passover (Matthew 26:17-19; Mark 14:14-15; Luke 22:8-9), merum mixed with water is precisely what they would have prepared for the feast.
Even the Roman Catholic Vulgate translation acknowledges this reality. When the Scriptures refer to “the blood of grapes” (Genesis 49:11), or to “the pure blood of the grape” (Deuteronomy 32:14) in Hebrew, it is a reference to merum. In Deuteronomy 32:14, the reference to merum follows a listing of the choicest of pure, undiluted delicacies: honey, oil, butter from the cow, milk from the sheep, fat of the lamb, the “kidney” of the wheat and “the pure blood of the grape”:
“He made him ride on the high places of the earth, that he might eat the increase of the fields; and he made him to suck honey out of the rock, and oil out of the flinty rock; Butter of kine, and milk of sheep, with fat of lambs, and rams of the breed of Bashan, and goats, with the fat of kidneys of wheat; and thou didst drink the pure blood of the grape.” (Deuteronomy 32:14)
In this context, the reference is to the choicest delicacies, each one special for the fact that it was provided in its purest, undiluted form.
When Jerome rendered the Latin Vulgate, he considered the reference in Deuteronomy 32:14 to be a reference to merum:
“butyrum de armento et lac de ovibus cum adipe agnorum et arietum filiorum Basan et hircos cum medulla tritici et sanguinem uvae biberet meracissimum.”
“Butter of the herd, and milk of the sheep with the fat of lambs, and of the rams of the breed of Basan: and goats with the marrow of wheat, and might drink the purest blood of the grape.” (Deuteronomy 32:14, Latin Vulgate)
The word, meracissimum, as used by Jerome, is simply a superlative form of merum. As Fr. Henrici van Overbeke informs us, meracissimum actually means merum, and refers to wine before it has been mixed with water:
“Meracissimum: merum, substantivè significat vinum, cui aqua mixta non est [signifies wine that has not been mixed with water]” (van Overbeke, Henrici, Dictionarium Scripturisticum, (Lovanii, 1696) 146)
Thus, as Jerome and Roman Catholic scholars acknowledge, Deuteronomy 32:14 included a reference to merum, and merum refers to wine without water. To put it another way, merum refers to wine alone.
A similar reference occurs in Psalms 74:9 of the Vulgate (75:8, KJV), which uses the term meri, which is the genitive singular of merum:
“quia calix in manu Domini vini meri plenus mixto …” (Psalms 74:9, Latin Vulgate)
“For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup of strong wine full of mixture…” (Psalms 74:9, English Translation)
The original Hebrew refers to wine that is chamar, or “red,” “foamy,” or “fermented,” but the Vulgate rendering creates a contradiction that is not present in the original: a cup of undiluted wine that is full of mixed wine. That contradiction left Augustine grasping in an attempt to wrestle some coherent meaning from the Psalm:
“The first question that meets us is this, ‘of pure wine it is full of mixed.’ How ‘of pure,’ if ‘of mixed’? … Let it not terrify you that it is both pure and mixed: pure because of the genuineness thereof, mixed because of the dreg.” (Augustine, Exposition on Psalm 75, chapter 10)
“Prima quæstio ista occurrit, ‘Vini meri plenus est mixto’: quomodo ‘meri,’ si ‘mixto’? … Non ergo vos terreat, quia et merum et mixtum: merum propter sinceritatem, mixtum propter fæcem.” (Jacques-Paul Migne, Patrologiae Cursus Completus, Series Latina (PL), volume 36 (Imprimerie Catholique, Paris, 1865) 954)
Although the Latin rendering confused Augustine, the value to us is that Jerome understood, and Augustine confirmed, that merum means undiluted wine. Psalms 74:9 was, in Jerome’s mind and to Roman Catholics everywhere, a reference to merum. Or, as Augustine understood it, “pure wine.”
A similar reference is found in the writings of Greek historian, Herodotus, who reports that Cleomenes’ countrymen attributed his untimely death to his “habit of drinking wine unmixed with water (ἀκρητοπότην), which he learnt of the Scyths.” That is to say, Cleomenes unwisely drank a “purer wine than common” (Herodotus, History, Book VI), for he had become an ἀκρητοπότην, a drinker of unmixed wine. In this case, that “purer wine” that Cleomenes drank was merum, which is “wine unmixed with water.” Merum mixed with water, of course, was the common fare for the more civilized. Only uncivilized Scyths would drink straight merum.
A reference to merum in that same sense is found in 2 Maccabees 15:39, in which the writer declares that drinking straight merum, or wine alone, is “hurtful,” but “wine mingled with water” is delightful to the taste:
“… it is hurtful to drink wine or water alone; … wine mingled with water is pleasant, and delighteth the taste…” (2 Maccabees 15:39, RSV)
Clement of Alexandria, writing at the end of the 2nd century, also explained the danger of drinking wine alone without first tempering it with water. To Clement, water was “the medicine of temperance,” and unmixed wine the medicine of lust. While it was dangerous to consume water “in too great profusion,” it was equally dangerous to consume “unmixed wine.” Therefore merum, that “Bacchic fuel,” was to be mixed with water, for water was the antidote to merum‘s inevitable side effect: “the agitation of lust”:
“I therefore admire those who have adopted an austere life, and who are fond of water, the medicine of temperance, and flee as far as possible from wine, shunning it as they would the danger of fire. It is proper, therefore, that boys and girls should keep as much as possible away from this medicine [wine]. For it is not right to pour into the burning season of life the hottest of all liquids—wine—adding, as it were, fire to fire. … And we must, as far as possible, try to quench the impulses of youth by removing the Bacchic fuel [wine alone] of the threatened danger; and by pouring the antidote to the inflammation [water], so keep down the burning soul, and keep in the swelling members, and allay the agitation of lust when it is already in commotion.” (Clement of Alexandria, Pædagogus, Book II, chapter 2, “On Drinking”)
In the preceding paragraph, Clement had already provided an even simpler recipe: “the blood of the grape,” which is to say, merum, is to be “mixed with water” (Clement of Alexandria, Pædagogus, Book II, chapter 2, “On Drinking”). In the same chapter, Clement cited a poet’s admonition against drinking undiluted wine:
“For unmixed wine (ακρατος) is far from compelling a man to be wise.”
Ακρατος, literally means “unmixed wine,” and this is why Clement’s medieval Latin translator correctly renders the citation in its succinct Latin form:
“Parum enim cogit merum, sapere” (Jacques-Paul Migne, Patrologiae Cursus Completus, Series Graeca (PG), vol. 8 (Imprimerie Catholique, Paris, 1857), 414).
Unmixed wine is merum.
Thus, the Greeks, Romans, Jews and Early Christians all mixed merum with water when preparing wine for a meal. Drinking straight merum was not only unhealthy, but also unwise, dangerous and risky—it was the practice of barbarians and drunkards. With the exception of the uncouth and the uncivilized, the whole world mixed its merum with water—both for medicinal and culinary benefit, and in Clement’s case, for moral benefit as well.
Once these aspects of winemaking come to the fore, it is a lot easier to understand comments like those of Cyprian of Carthage who echoed the same sentiments as those expressed by the Maccabæan Jews, “… it is hurtful to drink wine or water alone…” (2 Maccabees 15:39, RSV), and those of Clement who said that “the medicine of temperance” must be added to “the Bacchic fuel” prior to consumption. In their historical context, these are simple statements that it is best not to drink either merum or water, but to mix them together to make wine, and Cyprian’s reference is similar:
“Thus, therefore, in consecrating the cup of the Lord, water alone cannot be offered, even as wine alone cannot be offered. … Thus the cup of the Lord is not indeed water alone, nor wine alone, unless each be mingled with the other…” (Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle 62.13)
Not surprisingly, therefore, at the time of Christ the mixing of merum with water—that is, taking “wine alone” and adding water to it prior to drinking it—was so well known as to be practically universal. When Jesus dispatched His disciples to prepare the Passover feast, the wine they prepared would have been a mixture of merum with water. Or, as the author of 2 Maccabees called it, “wine mingled with water,” or as Clement called it “the blood of the grape … mixed with water,” for it was uncommon by then, and certainly uncivilized, for anyone to drink straight merum. Nobody would have prepared a feast and left the guests to mix their own merum. Jesus sent his apostles to prepare a feast, and prepare feast is exactly what they did.
What makes this matter chronically confusing—and therefore ripe for misuse—is that both “merum” and “merum mingled with water” can be called “wine,” depending on the context. Examples of the former are plentiful. Fr. Overbeke’s Dictionarium Scripturisticum defines merum as “wine that has not been mixed with water,” or “vinum, cui aqua mixta non est.” As the author of 2 Maccabees 15:39 shows us, merum may suitably be called “wine alone.” Augustine thought merum was “pure wine,” and Clement called merum “the Bacchic fuel,” “the hottest of all liquids—wine.” Ovid’s famous quip, “Vixque merum capiunt grana, quod intus habent,” is rendered in English, “And scarce the grapes contain the wine they have within” (Ovid, Tristium, Book IV, chapter VI).
On the other hand, examples of “wine” as a reference to “wine mixed with water” are also plentiful. One Patristic writer says Jesus had “wine” in His cup (Tertullian, Against Marcion, Book IV, chapter 40), and another says we are to celebrate the Eucharist with “bread and wine” (Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, Lecture 19.7). Clement of Alexandria ends up having it both ways. Writing of the Eucharistic cup, he said,
“the mixture of wine and water, nourishes to faith;”
but later in the same chapter,
“And He blessed the wine, saying, ‘Take, drink: this is my blood’— the blood of the vine.” (Clement of Alexandria, The Pædagogus, Book II, Chapter 2)
That linguistic imprecision yields an ambiguous construct in which “wine” may suitably refer to merum that has not yet been mixed with water (as in Overbeke’s Dictionarium Scripturisticum, Ovid’s Tristium, 2 Maccabees 15:39 and Augustine’s interpretation of Psalms 75:8), but may also refer to merum that has been mixed with water, as in Clement’s Pædagogus or Tertullian’s Against Marcion and Cyril’s Lecture 19.
Merum is wine without water. Water with merum is wine. Wine without merum is water. If merum is wine without water, then merum with water is simply “wine without water” plus water—which is wine. All of this makes sense as long as winemaking is understood. The imprecision ceases to be an obstacle to interpreting Early Church writings as long as the practice of mixing merum with water to make wine is taken in its historical context.
In fact, when Justin Martyr, Irenæus of Lyons, Clement of Alexandria, Cyprian of Carthage and Aphrahat of Persia are read in their context, winemaking is precisely what they had in mind when they spoke of the mingled cup, and their writings indicate that exact understanding. When we pick up with the Early Church Fathers in our next installment, what we will find is that the ones who spoke of a mingled cup recognized that mixed wine was a “common drink,” and that a mingled cup was simply prepared as part of a feast, just as bread, in like manner, was also prepared for a feast.
The act of mixing water with wine was not liturgically significant to them, for they wrote of the mingled cup in the same sentence that they spoke of making bread. They spoke of the mixed cup in the same context that they spoke of mixed grains in the bread. They spoke of adding water to wine in the same sentence that they spoke of adding water to flour to make bread. There was nothing particularly special, religious or liturgical about mixing either the bread or the wine at the Lord’s Table, and they certainly expressed no knowledge, belief or conviction that Jesus had mixed it Himself.
The Roman Catholic belief that the wine is to be mixed at the Table actually did not emerge until Ambrose at the end of the 4th century. It is only then that we begin to see allusions to mixing the water and wine as part of the Eucharistic liturgy. It was then, no earlier, that the liturgical rite of mixing the water and the wine at the Table was introduced. The Early Church was completely unaware of the “brief rite” identified by Zenit, and certainly was not occupied with “trying to find reasons” for it as suggested by the Catholic Encyclopedia. Christians mixed their wine and baked their bread just as everyone else in the world did. Then they brought the bread and wine to Church, blessed it and celebrated the Lord’s Supper, just as the apostles had before them.