As far back as the 1700's (and perhaps earlier), translators have known that this verse, in the KJV version, contains a typographical error. When it was finally discovered, the mistake was never corrected. It still appears in reprints. The more accurate translation of this verse should be "strain out a gnat" instead of strain at a gnat.
There are two indications why this is so.
1. The Greek word for strain "diulizo¯ means to filter out, which when applied to this verse makes the meaning more clean than filter at.
2. Printed versions of the Bible before 1611 --such as Tyndale's (1539), the Bishop's Bible (1568), the Geneva Bible (1557), and Erasmus' English and Latin Translations (1557)-- the word "out" is used instead of "at".
Still, there are those who would argue that there was no copy error. The change was deliberate because an acceptable translation of the Greek can be "strain out the wine "at" the appearance of a gnat". Except, this translation doesn't quite agree with the historical aspects of wine straining that was common at the time this text was written.
In first century Palestine, the camel was the largest animal that most folks had knowledge of, and the gnat was the smallest. According to the Jewish ceremonial law, both the camel and the gnat were unclean foods and it was forbidden to eat either. To do so was to become apostate. The punishment for such a sin was 39 lashes.
Not only Jews, but many Oriental peoples made a habit of straining their wine before drinking it so as to get rid of the disease-carrying insects that laid their eggs in the sediment of sour wine. Containers of wine were often left open or partially open for easy access, much like a community drinking water barrel with dipper. These open vats attracted insects, especially stinging insects like mosquitos.
Wine, as it aged, was diluted with more and more plain water so as to make it palatable to drink. But most water in ancient times was bad and rarely drank on its own. So while the water sweetened the wine, and the wine's alcoholic content purified the water, both needed to be strained of nesting insects and debris. Thus for reasons of health and the dictates of their law, the Jews were meticulous in straining their wine before drinking.
From Dean Richard Trench (Archbishop of Westminster Abby, 1872-1886). He received a letter from a friend traveling in North Africa. It contained this account: “In a ride from Tangier to Tetuan, I observed that a Moorish soldier who accompanied me, when he drank, always unfolded the end of his turban and placed it over the mouth of his bota, drinking through the muslin to strain out the gnats, whose larvae swarm in the water of that country.”
Evidence that wine straining was a common practice in the Roman world was offered in a report by the 18th century archaeologist, Johann Winckelmann. "In the ruins of Herculaneum, an elaborate tool was discovered for ancient wine straining. Made of well-crafted white metal, it consisted of two round and deep plates about four inches in diameter with flat handles. The plates and handles fit together so perfectly that they appeared to be one whole vessel type unit. The upper plate was perforated so that the wine passed through the holes with the good beverage going to the bottom for later pouring and the dregs and bugs being caught on the upper plate."
The action taking place in this verse was the circumstance of Jesus censuring the Pharisees for their elaborate judgments and precautions for many minor matters, but their carelessness of those that were important.
The intent of this verse was not a discussion on ancient health practices or ceremonial dietary laws, but rather a figurative pronouncement and condemnation of how the Jewish teachers (guides) regarded sin.
From Calment's Dictionary of the Holy Land / Gnat; 1823.) “You Jews take great pains to avoid offence in very small matters, superstitiously observing the smallest points of the law, like a man carefully straining out the animalcule from what he drinks, while you are at no pains to avoid great sins - hypocrisy, deceit, oppression, and lust - like a man who should swallow a (unclean) camel.”
The Arabians have a similar proverb: “He eats an elephant, and is suffocated with a gnat.” He is troubled with little things, but pays no attention to great matters.
Copyright by Ancient Bible History - Eden Games Inc.