What does Jesus mean by ‘new wineskins’?

In 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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