What does Jesus mean by ‘new wineskins’?

img_4328In all three Synoptic gospels, Jesus concludes a conversation about the contrast between his teaching and practice and that of the Pharisees (and John the Baptist) by means of a parable about wine and wineskins.

No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out, and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved. (Matt. 9:16–17)

No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If they do, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. And people do not pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins. (Mark 2.21–22)

No one tears a piece out of a new garment to patch an old one. If they do, they will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. And people do not pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. And none of you, after drinking old wine, wants the new, for you say, ‘The old is better.’ (Luke 5.36–39)

The reference of the two parables is fairly straightforward. In most cultures, cloth shrinks when it is washed, and it you put an unprewashed piece of material onto cloth that has already shrunk, when it is washed it will itself shrink and tear a hole. Partially fermented wine (the ‘must’) was stored in wineskins, but as the fermentation process continued, it produced more gases and so stretched the wineskin which was made from the hide of a goat. An old skin which was no longer elastic could not stretch for this new wine, so you needed to use new skins for the current years’ wine production. As with most of Jesus’ parables, the information that it drew on was relatively mundane. But what is its significance? What is Jesus referring to?


The most common interpretation of this is the Jesus is showing the superiority of his teaching, and rejecting the Pharisees’ approach to religion—and more broadly, establishing the grounds for the rejection of Jewish belief and practice and the establishment of a new religion of Christianity. Here is a typical expression of such a view:

This, then, is the meaning of Jesus’ parables of the patched garment and the wineskins: the gospel of the Kingdom which Jesus brings cannot be fitted into the the Pharisees’ paradigm or way of living, for “by a mongrel mixture of the ascetic ritualism of the old with the spiritual freedom of the new economy, both are disfigured and destroyed”.

This was the use made of the parable by Marcion to establish a complete separation between ‘the religion of Jesus and Paul’ and the belief taught in the Hebrew Scriptures, which Marcion himself rejected along with most of the New Testament except Luke’s gospel. It has been used more recently to justify the establishment of new ‘churches’, since the new thing God is doing cannot be contained within the structures of the existing churches, which are not flexible enough to contain this new wine.


There are a number of problems with this way of understanding the parable. The first is Jesus’ general attitude to the Pharisees and the law. For one, Jesus at points appears to have no problem with the teaching of the Pharisees; it is their lack of living it out that he has a problem with (Matt 23.1–4). In other words, it is not that they are too ‘Jewish’ that bothers him—it is that they are not ‘Jewish’ enough. This fits with his wider attitude to the law: it might need reinterpretation in the light of his own ministry (and ultimately in the light of his death and resurrection, on which see Luke 24), but he has not come to ‘do away with it’ (Matt 5.17).

The second major problem is the language of the saying itself—at least in Luke’s version. Mark’s saying draws an absolute contrast by which we might think ‘new good; old bad’. Matthew introduces a hint of ambiguity; when he comments ‘both are preserved’ is he hinting that both old wine/skins and new wine/skins are kept? If so, this is made more explicit in Luke: people prefer the old wine, so perhaps the new is for a different purpose. In his NIC Commentary, Joel Green locates this in Luke’s emphasis on the rooting of this new movement within the expectations of Judaism.

The burden of the birth narrative, the genealogy, the temptation account, and the inaugural sermon in Nazareth (i.e. the greater part of Luke 1.5–4.13) is that Jesus is doing nothing more than bringing to fruition the ancient purpose of God. (p 250)

Matthew reinforces this idea explicit in his unique saying of Jesus, which he possibly sees as autobiographical:

Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old. (Matt 13.52)


But the major problem with this ‘new structures/religion’ interpretation comes from the setting of the passage within its narrative context. In all three gospels, the parable follows the same sequence of conflict stories, though Matthew varies the stories that come after it:

Matt 9 Mark 2 Luke 5
Healing the paralytic Healing the paralytic Healing the paralytic
Dinner at Levi’s house Dinner at Levi’s house Dinner at Levi’s house
The question about fasting The question about fasting The question about fasting
Cloth and garment Cloth and garment Cloth and garment
Wine and wineskins Wine and wineskins Wine and wineskins
Synagogue leader’s daughter Grainfields on the Sabbath Grainfields on the Sabbath
Woman with issue of blood Healing on the Sabbath Healing on the Sabbath

(Note that, as ever, Luke and Matthew never agree against Mark, which is a key argument for Marcan priority.) So the parable needs to be read in the context of these stories, and in particular the teaching about fasting. The argument I mentioned above continues thus:

These parables came in response to the Pharisees’ question about Jesus’ practice of fasting compared to their own and John the Baptist’s. Hence this parable also apparently applies to John the Baptist’s asceticism, which Jesus seemed to view as good but passing away, since it was part of the Old Covenant which he was fulfilling and renewing.

The problem here is that this assertion completely ignores Jesus’ actual teaching about fasting: ‘But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; in those days they will fast’ (Luke 5.34). This is supported by the Didache, and by the teaching of Christian leaders down the centuries (Wesley is a good example). In other words, Jesus is not rejecting ‘the Pharisees’ paradigm or way of living’ in any simple way since he assumes that his followers will indeed revert to this pattern once he has gone.


So if the parable is not about new structures, what is it about? An intriguing insight comes from the teaching of Elisha ben Abuyah (a near contemporary of Jesus) as recorded in the Talmud.

He who studies as a child, unto what can he be compared? He can be compared to ink written upon a fresh [new] sheet of paper. But he who studies as an adult, unto what can he be compared? He can be compared to ink written on a smudged [previously used and erased] sheet of paper. Rabbi Yose ben Yehudah of the city of Babylon said, “He who learns from the young, unto what can he be compared? He can be compared to one who eats unripe grapes, and drinks unfermented wine from his vat. But he who learns from the old, unto what can he be compared? He can be compared to one who eats ripe grapes, and drinks old wine. Rabbi (Meir) said: Do not pay attention to the container but pay attention to that which is in it. There is a new container full of old wine, and here is an old container which does not even contain new wine. (Pirkei Avot 4)

This offers a striking parallel not only to the parable but to Matthew’s comment about ‘treasures old and new’. And it makes common sense as well. After all, what functions as the ‘container’ for Jesus’ teaching—religious structures or religious people, in particular, his disciples?

In other words, the parable is not about creating new structures or institutions (which surely themselves, over time, will become rigid as the old wineskins have done) but about people who are willing to receive the teaching about what God is now doing. We don’t necessarily need to scrap the patterns created in response to earlier teaching (though we might be interested in reforming them). Much more important is whether, as people listening to this teaching, we enact the traditions we have received with flexibility, compassion and grace. It was this that the Pharisees lacked.


Two observations about the use of this term in the contemporary C of E. First is that the movement which derives its name from this parable, New Wine, has never called for new or separate structures within the denominations in which it works (principally but not exclusively the Church of England.) Secondly, David Pytches, the founder of the movement, famously called the parish system the ‘prophylactic of the Church of England’. But this structure has not been scrapped. Instead, partly through Bishop’s Mission Orders, and more recently with support from the Strategic Development Fund, church planting has been allowed to happen flexibly within and across this parochial structure without the structure itself being scrapped.

So, what is the ‘new wine’ God is pouring into your life at the moment, and are you being flexible like ‘new wineskins’ into order to receive it—without scorning the old thing that God did in your life yesterday?

(First published in March 2016)


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11 thoughts on “What does Jesus mean by ‘new wineskins’?”

  1. Ian, it would be interesting to hear some thoughts from you about the neoliberal notions of what ‘new wineskins’ might mean, as modelled by the likes of Kris Wallaton.

  2. “(Note that, as ever, Luke and Matthew never agree against Mark, which is a key argument for Marcan priority.) So the parable needs to be read in the context of these stories, and in particular the teaching about fasting. The argument I mentioned above continues thus:
    These parables came in response to the Pharisees’ question about Jesus’ practice of fasting compared to their own and John the Baptist’s. Hence this parable also apparently applies to John the Baptist’s asceticism, which Jesus seemed to view as good but passing away, since it was part of the Old Covenant which he was fulfilling and renewing.
    The problem here is that this assertion completely ignores Jesus’ actual teaching about fasting: ‘But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; in those days they will fast’ (Luke 5.34).”

    I think the older, Marcan version of the fasting passage supports the view that the wineskins are people not religious structures (and I suggest that the new wine is Jesus not Jesus’ teaching) even more than Luke’s version.
    Mark 2:20 has “But there will come days when there will be taken away (apairo, echoing Isaiah 53:8 Septuagint airo “from [favourable] judgement he was taken [away]”) and then they will fast ON THAT DAY” ( Luke has ‘then they will fast in those days’ and Matthew just has ‘then they will fast’).
    The next time in Mark Jesus uses the phrase ‘THAT DAY’ is at the last supper just before his crucifixion, when again he is talking about wine and the ‘New’ Covenant (the word ‘New’ not explicit but strongly implied by association with the ‘New Covenant’ of Jeremiah 31:31) – “This is my blood of the Covenant, being poured out on behalf of many. Amen I say to you, (that) no longer shall I ever at all drink from the fruit of the vine, until THAT DAY when I drink it NEW in the kingdom of God.”
    Curiously periphrastic phrase, ‘the fruit of the vine’ don’t you think, instead of ‘wine’? So when is THAT DAY when Jesus next drinks from the fruit of the vine? Why, it’s the very next day (Mark 15:36), when Jesus drinks ‘oxos’, ‘sharp stuff’, usually translated ‘vinegar’ or ‘sour wine’, definitely ‘fruit of the vine.’ THAT DAY is the day of Crucifixion, the day when favourable judgement was ‘taken’ from the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53:8, the day which was the culmination of the Jewish Day Of Atonement – which was THAT DAY once a year (and the only day in the year) when the Israelites were required to fast!

    So the sons of the bridechamber in Mark should feast not fast while Jesus the bridegroom is with them, but on THAT DAY when he is ‘taken’ from them, ‘then’ they will fast.
    And Jesus the New Wine in Mark will only graciously consent to be contained in renewed people = ‘new wineskins’ who have partaken by faith as they symbolically drink wine representing the blood of the (New) Covenant, partaking of the fruit of the vine Jesus drank on THAT DAY on the cross when he died and was poured out, on behalf of many.

    Jonny Kingsman

    • Yes, which is precisely why the phrase ‘fruit of the vine’ is used: the phrase is chosen carefully, to cover both wine and vinegar.

      There is a succession of mentions of an as-yet-undrunk drink:
      -the cup I drink (ch. 10)
      -I will not drink again of fruit of vine till (ch. 14)
      -take this cup from me (ch. 14)
      -wine and myrrh (ch. 15).

      Not till the 5th mention (vinegar) does Jesus drink. And (cf. the first mention of the cup) he is flanked on right and left by those for whom those positions have been prepared. So this is the coming of the kingdom promised since 1.15. The Lord reigns from a tree.

  3. Thank you Ian, your final closing question reminds me of Hosea 7:8 (as in, burned on one side, raw on the other). Is it an indictment if I can’t answer it immediately?

  4. Hi Ian,

    I need to take a closer look at what you say, but there are few things that strike me immediately.
    We need to take into account both the world within the texts, but also the world of the audiences to which the gospels were written. Even though Matthew has taken Mark’s story, probably written to to Christians in Rome, his Gospel is written to Jewish Christians who still meet in synagogues, and are observers of the Torah, and quite likely see themselves more as a continuation of Judaism than the other gospel redactors. Matthew is more sympathetic to the Pharisees. I would think this is the reason that the parable is followed by stories more relevant to a Jewish Christian audience.

    I am not sure that the comparison of modern day organisational structures with what may well have been a less structured Christianity is appropriate. And turning it into a personal reflection seems to reflect modern individualism rather than the situation of communities of Christians of the late first century. IMHO it should be a community reflection, not a personal reflection.

  5. Hi Ian,

    I may agree that, as you say, ‘the parable is not about creating new structures or institutions (which surely themselves, over time, will become rigid as the old wineskins have done) but about people who are willing to receive the teaching about what God is now doing

    However, we also know that St. Paul sought to work within the existing structures of his contemporaries until sheer obstinacy made it impossible: ‘But some of them became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way. So Paul left them. He took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus.’ (Acts 19:9)

    In terms of applying this to church planting, I would suggest that the parish system bestows incumbents with too much power.

    Christ Church Central, Sheffield is a prime example. Back in 2013, the then Bishop of Sheffield, Steven Croft, said of the non-parochial church plant (which was founded in 2003 by Rev. Tim Davies, curate at Christ Church Fulwood, with 50 adults from that parish) that it ‘could not be contained within the legal structures of the Church of England.’

    Although, back in 2003, Bishop’s Mission Orders did not exist, it should have been possible for a Conventional District to have been set up. However, this would have required agreement with the incumbent of the Anglo-Catholic parish of St. Matthew’s (where Christ Church Central is located).

    Christ Church Central had no alternative but to be founded as a non-parochial church plant, since Canon Palmer, who, at the time, was vicar of Fulwood and chairman of the diocesan mission committee, decided not to go down the provocative route of an evangelical parish plant in the back-yard of an Anglo-Catholic incumbent.

    Despite this, by 2014, Christ Church Central had grown to a thriving Sunday attendance of over 200. In 2016, the church purchased a former nightclub as its new home with a capacity for 300.

    That’s not a bad outcome for Rev. Tim Davies, a curate who, in following his vision, had to leave the parish licensing system.

    BMOs and strategic development funding may well provide the flexibility which gives
    the temporary impetus for setting up church plants. However, they still don’t address the ongoing need for such fledgling congregations to be eventually recognised by the diocese as fellow churches in their own right and to be treated as equals in the longer term.

  6. Continued?

    And in the discourse which contains Matt 13:52 we have the view to keep (some of) the old as well as the new, emphasising the continuity of the teaching of the Torah with the Teaching of Jesus. I don’t know to what extent the traditions of the Pharisees, which were in addition to the Torah, are examined/criticised.

    ‘Have you understood all this?’ They answered, ‘Yes.’ 52And he said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.’

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