Did Jesus drink coffee?

While not an unreasonable question, it is one that's fairly short-lived in exploration.

Depending on your sources, the origins of coffee date as far back as the 9th century, to around 850 AD and the legend of Ethiopian goat herder Kaldi, who observed friskiness in his flock after consuming a local shrub: coffee cherries. This led to experimentation on the part of Kaldi and the rest is coffee history; at least, based on the premise of that legend. Jesus, however, scholars generally agree, is estimated to have lived between the years 6-4 BC and 30-36 AD, pre-dating that happy discovery, thus making it unlikely the lips of Jesus and a clay mug of coffee ever met. But that doesn't mean a theological wit can't try to make some sort of a connection: enter Michael Svigel.

In 2004, Svigel, now Department Chair and Professor of Theological Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, presented a paper to a regional meeting of evangelical scholars and scholar-wannabes, that, in his own words "constructed an argument for the incorporation of coffee into worship as a sacrament, appealing to biblical, theological, historical, and experiential grounds" that was also "completely illegitimate". Tongue in cheek although Svigel's thesis was  and one he jokes ended his career as a "respectable" theologian  his paper was, nevertheless, loads of fun.

So, did Jesus drink coffee? No, says Svigel. In his discussion of coffee as a means of grace  the things through which God is said to give grace, such as blessings or conversion — Jesus, Svigel argues, is already "the spiritual source of that grace" and is for that reason excluded. Other exclusions, he says, include everyone who is not a confirmed believer in God, which "demonstrates that coffee ought to be regarded sacramentally."

Why is coffee on the biblical table at all? Svigel argues there are a number of references to coffee in both the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, the verses Isaiah 51 and 52 exalt the reader to "Awake! Awake!" and "Put on strength!", which is developed further in 51:17 with a reference to "trembling" and "draining".

According to Svigel, various passages seem to suggest it is God's will to be alert and that the command to drink "at the hand of the Lord, the cup ... of trembling"  and so on  highlights the means by which people should awaken: through the downing of a beverage received with "thanksgiving," which translates to ejucaristiva (eucharistia) in Greek. Since the "eucharist" is a sacramental term in theology, writes Svigel, "the beverage referred to is obviously regarded as a sacrament." He concludes:

In sum, God's will is for people to be awake and alert, not groggy and tired. The means which He provides for bringing about His will in the lives of His people seems to be the beverage that causes trembling. That is, coffee is seen here as the means of grace for accomplishing His divine will.

The actual word "coffee" appears several times in the New Testament, claims Svigel. He references the use of the Greek word kovfino and contests the translation of kovfino and kofinos to mean basket or baskets, which he argues is inaccurate. The word should have been stuvri in that case, he says. The use instead of kovfino, which "sounds a lot like our English word for coffee," is "convincing proof" of what was really meant.

In Matthew 14:20, in verse 20 (following the famed feast of fish and bread in verse 19), after eating, Svigel insists suppers "took up twelve coffees" and not baskets — given the use of kovfino in the text. Coffee makes further sense, contends Svigel, because as "everyone knows," drinking coffee after a meal is a tradition and promotes fellowship (nowhere does Svigel refer to the accepted coffee timeline of Kaldi and his goats). He goes on:

When one factors in coffee as a means of waking up the believer and then keeping him or her alert, all of the practical problems with rising early and seeking the Lord are solved. Coffee has a very positive effect on the prayer life of the believer. In some cases, it is indispensable.

What about hymns extolling the virtues of coffee? There are none but, maintains Svigel (and others), Lutheran composer, Johann Sebastian Bach, did come "extremely close" in an Aria of Lieschen in Bach's famous "Kaffeekantate" first performed in Leipzig, Germany, sometime between 1732 and 1735. Be sure, to listen for yourself (exclamations of "coffee! coffee!" are very clear in parts). Translations and interpretations of the libretto vary. The following was printed by Discover Magazine and is among the most delightful this author has come across, in part because it compares coffee deprivation to shriveled goat meat — perhaps a reference to Kaldi's original inspiration: 

Father, don’t be so severe! / If I can’t drink / My bowl of coffee three times daily / Then in my torment I will shrivel up / Like a piece of roast goat.

First published March 24, 2016

Lisa Peryman
Lisa Peryman


Lisa Peryman has worked with Greenpeace Australia and The Wilderness Society (Australia). She studied journalism in New Zealand and book and magazine publishing in Canada. Her background includes reporting and editing for daily newspapers and trade magazines, as well as creative copywriting for broadcast. Lisa is continuing her studies in Canada and currently works with Probe International as an editor and writer. Earnings from Green Beanery operations support the work of Probe International, a Canadian charity that works with citizens' groups around the world to protect their lands and their livelihoods. Probe International is a Canadian trust.