After Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper he said “I tell you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Mat. 26.29, also Mark 14.25 and Luke 22.18). The phrase “fruit of the vine” is very familiar to Christians, and that obscures the fact that it is not found anywhere else in Greek literature. I have not found it anywhere other than the Last Supper accounts in Matthew, Mark and Luke. The phase in Greek is γενμα της αμπελου. The closest to this phase, that I am aware of, is in the Deipnosophists, by Athenaeus (a 2nd century Greek rhetorician and grammarian). He uses the phrase τον της αμπελου καρπον. It would also be translated “fruit of the vine,” but Athenaeus used the common word for fruit, karpon, where Jesus used a much less common word, yenma which means the produce of the land (Deissmann, p. 109-110). But even this phrase by Athenaeus is over a century after Jesus spoke those words. Where did Jesus come by it?
In the Passover there were four cups of wine that were used, and the third cup is called the Cup of Blessing (Daube, p. 330), which Paul called the communion cup in 1Cor. 10.16. The benediction said over the third cup is “Blessed art thou, O Lord, who createst the fruit of the vine” (Daube, p.330). So, the Greek phrase that Jesus used was not from Greek literature, but from the Hebrew prayer used in the Passover to bless the third cup of wine.
The view that “fruit of the vine” comes from the prayer used in the Passover is not a new idea. You can also find it in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament “...γενμα της αμπελου, is to be equated with פְרִי חַגֶּפֶן, which occurs in the blessing of the paschal cup...” (Buchsel, p.685). Also, “The ‘fruit of the vine’ is a common Jewish way of referring in prayers to wine (cf. M Berakoth 6:1)” (Carson, p. 539).
Now, if like me, you were taught that since grapes don’t make wine “fruit of the vine” must mean “grape juice” learning that this phrase is a blessing for a cup of wine is a bit of a sticky wicket. But it does make sense: The Passover is in the spring and the grape harvest is in the fall, there would be no grape juice except at harvest time. The only practical way at that time to preserve grape juice was to allow it to ferment into wine. And this is the only method we read about in the bible.
We often make the mistake of projecting our understanding of things into the past. Since we can pasteurize juice and milk, and then keep it near freezing temperature we assume people in the past must have had access to fresh juice and milk year round too. When we think about it we realize that isn’t true even for everyone right now. When the grapes are harvested the juice begins to ferment as soon as it is squeezed. That is probably why we rarely read about grape juice in the bible. In places that are very warm, like the middle east, fermentation was the only practical way to preserve foods that spoil quickly: make grape juice into wine and milk into yogurt.
The Passover used wine because it was a celebration that everyone was to participate in. Getting grape juice out of season would have been impossible for most people. The communion is to be observed by all Christians, but by teaching that it has to be unfermented grape juice we have made it very difficult or impossible for Christians in less developed parts of the world to observe the Lord’s Supper. When Jesus instituted the communion he made it very simple: You need a loaf of bread and a single cup of the fruit of the vine. The fruit of the vine can be fresh or fermented grape juice.
I am not advocating the use of wine in the communion. I don’t drink alcohol, and I don’t want it in my communion cup. But our position that the New Testament forbids drinking a single drop of wine is wrong and unworthy of a people who claim to speak where the bible speaks and be silent where the bible is silent.
You may also be interested in Is Drinking Alcohol a Sin and Did Christians in the New Testament Drink Wine
Athenaeus. The Deipnosophists, vol. 1. Ed Charles Burton Gulick, Harvard University Press, 1927, pp.166-68.
Buchsel, Friedrich. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 1. Gerhard Kittel , ed. Eerdmans pub., com., 1964.
Carson, D.A.. Matthew. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Frank E. Gaebelein ed., Zondervan, 1984.
Daube, David. The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism. Hendrickson Pub., 1956.
Deissmann, Adolf. Bible Studies, Hendrickson, 1901.