In Vino, Veritas
It is fascinating that Jesus can say something in the regular
language of the time using figures of speech that are particular to His
audience also at the time, and still speak directly to someone 2,000
years (or six) after He said it. It seems that each word He utters, in
any combination, echo and overflow with infinity, yet allow people to
focus on only one concept at a time. So it is with Jesus' teachings on
wine and wineskins in Matthew 9:14-17, which are paralleled in Mark
2:18-22 and Luke 5:33-39.
And they said to Him, "The disciples of John
often fast and offer prayers, the disciples of the Pharisees also do the
same, but Yours eat and drink." And Jesus said to them, "You cannot make
the attendants of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is with them,
can you? But the days will come; and when the bridegroom is taken away
from them, then they will fast in those days." And He was also telling
them a parable: "No one tears a piece of cloth from a new garment and
puts it on an old garment; otherwise he will both tear the new, and the
piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into
old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and it will
be spilled out, and the skins will be ruined. But new wine must be put
into fresh wineskins. And no one, after drinking old wine wishes for
new; for he says, 'The old is good enough.'" Luke 5:33-39 NASB
All three accounts are almost identical, and occur in the narration
right after comments concerning eating habits from the Pharisee's (with
sinners) and John's (fasting) disciples. There have been a great many
attempts to identify the meaning of the wine and the wineskins by
various writers and teachers who call themselves Christian over the
years. These efforts have mostly centered around the identification of
the 'new wine' and 'new garment' as 'grace' (new economy, age, joy,
gospel, Church), which was not acceptable to the religious leaders of
the time (who were the old wineskins), and the old wine or old garment
as 'law' (old economy, age, rituals, Judaism) so Jesus needed to put the
new wine (grace) into 'new wineskins' (His disciples). The 'new wine' of
Jesus is construed to be the 'gospel,' while the 'old wine' was the
supposed teaching of the Law. Some of these comments are quoted here.
The incongruities mentioned in Lu 5:36-38 were
intended to illustrate the difference between the genius of the old
and new economies, and the danger of mixing up the one with the
other. As in the one case supposed, "the rent is made worse," and in
the other, "the new wine is spilled," so by a mongrel mixture of the
ascetic ritualism of the old with the spiritual freedom of the new
economy, both are disfigured and destroyed.
issue is a matter of appropriateness. Routine fasting as the
Pharisees did on Mondays and Thursdays was not an adequate
reflection of God's grace and generosity toward the world. To Jesus'
way of kingdom living there is an aspect of joy and thanksgiving.
Weddings and banquets are proper analogies of the kingdom. Of course
the Passion of Jesus evoked fasting among his followers, and until
the end of days the church recalls the cross as well as Easter.
Jesus tells his critics that his disciples can no more join their
newfound joy to old rituals than one can tear up a new garment to
patch an old, or put new wine in old skins. Christian rituals must
be appropriate to the new life.
But of course
all these attempts to regenerate heathenism by foreign elements were
utterly futile. They were like galvanizing a decaying corpse, or
grafting fresh scions on a dead trunk, sowing good seed on a rock,
or pouring new wine into old bottles, bursting the bottles and
wasting the wine.
Comments on the Matthew section.
The incompatibility of old and new is
illustrated with the homely figures of patching with new cloth an
old fabric and pouring new wine into used wineskins. The meaning of
the figures is that the Gospel is incompatible with the Law. The
order Jesus initiates is not a patchwork of elements derived from
Judaism and pronouncements of Jesus. It is as new as was the
revelation of the Torah through Moses.
Comments on the Mark section
Two parabolic sayings now stress the
incompatibility of the new economy with the old Mosaic economy,
Jesus' disciples can no longer adhere to the Baptist's manner of
life without compromising their new view of things. 21 . unshrunk
cloth on an old garment: The garment may be a symbol of the
universe, which Jesus does not merely patch up but creates anew (cf.
Heb 1:10-12 ; Acts 10:11 ff.; 11:5 ff.). 22 . new wine into old
wineskins: Wine may be a symbol of a new era (Gn 9:20 ; 49:11-12 ,
Nm 3:23-24 ); Jesus refers to himself as the one who dispenses the
new wine at the Messianic banquet (J. Jeremias, Parables, 117-18; C.
H. Dodd, Parables, 117).
The New Bible Dictionary is slightly better.
On more than one occasion Jesus used wine to
illustrate his teaching. Mark 2:22 points to the current practice of
putting new wine into new skins and emphasizes the impracticality of
doing otherwise. Commentators differ regarding the interpretation of
this parable. For, while the new wine clearly points to the lively
and powerful working of Christ's new teaching, the skins which are
broken may equally well refer to certain conventional forms or to
the whole Judaistic system or to the human heart, all of which need
to be recast in accordance with the challenge of the new age which
has arrived. Unfortunately the Pharisees were unwilling to face the
changes which would have been involved, and obstinately clung to the
system upon which their livelihood depended (Luke 5:39 ).
But the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament just reiterates
The new wine of the new age demands new skins.
At Cana (Jn. 2:1 ff.) Jesus turns a great amount of water into wine.
If the nature of Johannine miracles as signs is considered, a deeper
meaning must be sought. Thus law and gospel may be contrasted as
water and wine, or wine may be equated with Logos (Philo).
The teachings from this interpretation have been used for the
justification of everything from new Protestant denominations to para-church
organizations, and for sundering fellowship whenever disagreement was
offered for 'new teaching.' Usually, when confronted with recalcitrance
on the part of an 'old' person by a younger person who would like to see
some changes in Church practices or teaching, the comment is made that,
"Well, you can't put new wine into old wineskins." The teaching of Jesus
is reduced by the younger person to "one can't teach an old dog new
This is no great surprise, as there are many individuals
down through the centuries who thought permission was given them by the
Scriptures to do whatever they wanted by focusing on a narrow range of
verses or interpretations of verses. As the reasoning goes these groups
feel that since a recognized congregation would not accept the 'new
wine' of whatever 'new thing' a person wanted to do, then the answer was
to break off and form a new congregation or denomination. While it is
acknowledged that on occasion some mild civil disobedience or 'new wine'
(in some parlance) is good for the soul of a community, there is
entirely too much of this kind of fruit coming from this kind of
teaching. Because so many have used these interpretations in so many
spurious ways it seemed that further investigation and analysis was a
good idea. The mere proliferation of congregations has not improved the
average person's (or the group's) testimony.
One of the reasons
that the conventional wisdom has developed might be that the process has
been approached with little consideration for the perspective and
understanding of the Hebrew people. Obviously, Jesus was Jewish, the
apostles were Jewish and most of the people Jesus dealt with were
Jewish. It would follow that the Jewish understanding is
critical to a general apprehension of the meaning and dynamics involved
in delivering the message to and through the Hebrews. The Hebrew
understanding was conditioned by a study and application of the Tanakh
(OT), so it should be used as the foundation for interpreting the
Apostolic Scriptures (NT). Indeed, at the time Jesus and the apostles
were delivering their message the Apostolic Scriptures had not even been
written, and so all the references to the Scriptures in the New were
referring to the Old. Although the Apostolic Scriptures
were composed by Hebrew writers, almost from the first it was considered
a 'Christian' document and avoided by most Jewish scholars, so
Christianity has been virtually bereft of the Hebrew perspective when
contemplating the meaning for a very long time.
Lancaster is one exception to the failure of including the Hebrew
perspective. In his article Yeshua's New Wine he suggests
an interpretation based on the immediate context concerning the
selection of disciples, along with a consideration of the historical
teachings of the Hebrew teachers themselves. In the immediate context,
Mr. Lancaster proposes that the comments by Jesus are simply references
to the suitability of a new, relatively uneducated person's (new
wineskin) ability to absorb new teaching (new wine). He sees this coming
from the historical context including evidence from the teachings in Pirkei Avot 4.20. Avot 4.20 (a rabbinic proverb) uses wine and wineskins
as similes illustrating the relative unwillingness of a person to absorb
new teaching who had already been educated in a particular style. The
lack of argument from the disciples of John would tend to support
Lancaster's proposal that they understood the metaphors, because similar
metaphors or similes were part of their learning programs. Even though
written ex post facto, the teachings in Avot 4.20 are probably
representative of the staples of rabbinic oral teaching at the time of
The strength of Mr. Lancaster's proposal is
that he includes the Hebrew perspective in his interpretation. This
helps to focus attention on the receptivity of the disciple (old
garment/old wineskin) rather than the appropriateness of the teachings
(old or new). It also matches up with other teachings of Jesus on the
receptivity of the hearer such as the parable of the different ground in
Matthew 13. In addition he notes correctly that the reading of
law/church into the text is anachronistic in that the Church as we know
it now was not in existence then. However, the weakness is that it
doesn't refute well enough the grace/law interpretation, and begs the
question of why. The grace/law doctrines could still be superimposed
over his interpretation because he doesn't deal with this question. What
was it about the teachings of Jesus that was incompatible with the 'old
wineskins' of the other group's disciples? Is it simply that the
disciples of John and the Pharisee's were exposed to a certain method of
teaching and were therefore less receptive to a different understanding?
Or was it the nature of the teachings that was the problem? We know that
Jesus came to establish the Law (Matthew 5:17-20) so the 'old' was not
the 'Old Testament/age/law.'
If we accept his arguments that the
context is the selection of disciples and learning, which is plausible,
there are still a number of other questions to be answered. What would
the application, or significance, of these passages be? For instance,
were these references included by the Gospel writers simply as a resume,
a figurative 'slap in the face' for the other religious leaders of the
time? Or can there be a broader application, including all disciples
everywhere? If the new wine represents the teachings of Jesus, how are
we to understand 'new?' New in relation to character, or new in relation
to time? By Jesus' own admission He only taught what He heard from the
Father. The standard Christian interpretation of new wine as grace and
old wine as law would still fit under this interpretation. Why is the
old wine 'old?' In addition, are we to understand from this
interpretation that education is not good, while lack of education is
If education (or in the Church's view Torah) was the
problem, why would Jesus tell us in Matthew 23:1-3 to 'do and observe'
what the Pharisees say?
Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His
disciples, saying: "The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves
in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe,
but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not
do them." (NASB)
This presentation will proceed from the idea that the Hebrew
perspective is usually missing from the standard Church interpretations
of this and other Scriptures, and that this perspective is grounded in
the Hebrew Tanakh. This does not mean that all things Hebrew are
automatically correct, but that a significant portion of daily living
was influenced and modified by the Book they claimed to follow. There
were also many aspects of daily living, such as the details involved in
garment repair or winemaking, that were 'second nature' to Jesus'
contemporaries, and if these can be determined they should also help
with the Hebrew perspective. The intent will be to define terms for wine
from the Tanakh or teachings based on the Tanakh that teach about wine,
if available. From there an understanding will be built of the other
comparisons such as the garment and bridegroom by working back and forth
from the definitions to the immediate context and other teachings of
Jesus. If definitions are properly extracted they should give insight
into the meanings of the other illustrations used also. Perhaps it will
be seen that In Vino, Veritas (in wine, truth).