< type="text/css"




by Doug Ward

During his earthly ministry, Jesus often reached out to help people who were excluded or marginalized by the Jewish society of the time. This aspect of Jesus' activities is given special emphasis in the Gospel of Luke. It is Luke who records the well-known words of Jesus, ``For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost'' (Luke 19:10, NIV).

Our Savior's concern for the outcast is evident in his selection of the tax collector Levi (a.k.a. Matthew) as one of the Twelve, a select group of disciples (Luke 6:12-16). Tax collectors were agents of the Roman government and often became wealthy at the expense of their countrymen by charging excessive amounts. As a result, they were typically despised by their fellow Jews.

When Jesus asked Levi to become his disciple, the tax collector did not hesitate. Giving up his lucrative position, he ``left everything'' (Luke 5:28) and did not look back. Like the merchant in a parable he would later hear Jesus tell, Levi knew that he had found the ``pearl of great price'' (Matt. 13:45). He was so honored and gratified by Jesus' invitation that he celebrated with a farewell banquet at his home (Luke 5:29). This banquet provided the setting for another of the Master's memorable parables.

Questions about Fellowship and Fasting

Jesus was the guest of honor at the banquet, which was also attended by some of Matthew's fellow tax collectors (v. 29). Jesus' presence there soon became known to some members of the sect of the Pharisees who were keeping close tabs on his activities. They had come from as far away as Jerusalem to observe his words and actions (v. 17), and they were puzzled by a number of things that they heard and saw (e.g., v. 21). In particular, they disapproved of the company he was keeping (v. 30). They wondered, ``Why do Jesus and his disciples associate with tax collectors and others of questionable reputation?''

A little background about the beliefs and practices of the Pharisees will help us understand their concerns. According to current scholarly opinion (see [3, pp. 117-122]), the Pharisees hoped to see Israel become ``a kingdom of priests and a holy nation'' as God had intended (Exod. 19:6). Their program for reaching this aspiration called for all Israelites to attain a high standard of Torah observance, including a level of ritual purity usually only required of priests. Dr. Oskar Skarsaune explains,

``In order to help each other achieve this ideal, the Pharisees organized societies, havurot, with the main purpose of enabling all members to maintain their purity and share their meals at a completely kosher table. It is possible that the name Pharisee originated with the emergence of this phenomenon. It means `one who separates himself,' namely from unclean things and persons, which included the majority of the people'' [3, pp. 120-121].

Given the priorities of the Pharisees, it is no wonder that they were surprised at Jesus' behavior. Sharing a meal with someone implied approval of that person. In their eyes, associating with tax collectors and other undesirables was conduct unbefitting a rabbi, let alone the Messiah.

But in his reply to them, Jesus suggested that a more inclusive approach would better accomplish their overall goal of lifting Israel to a higher standard of righteousness:

``It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance'' (vv. 31-32). 1

Jesus and his disciples also drew criticism for an apparent lack of attention to the discipline of fasting. While Pharisees and disciples of John the Baptist fasted as much as twice a week (Luke 18:12), the followers of Jesus feasted with tax collectors. Shouldn't they have been setting a better example and exhibiting a greater commitment to holiness?

He answered his critics by comparing his time on earth to a wedding banquet. Here he made an implicit claim that the messianic age had arrived-see Matt. 25:1-10 for a similar analogy-and added a prophecy of his coming death. Feasting and celebration were only to be expected in the presence of Israel's Messiah. His disciples would fast later, after he had been taken from them (Luke 5:33-35).

Jesus then told a two-part parable:

``No one tears a patch from a new garment and sews it on an old one. If he does, he will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, 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 no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, `The old is better.''' (vv. 36-39).

What did Jesus mean by these cryptic statements about garments and patches, wine and wineskins? To gain some insight into the meaning of this perplexing parable, let's look at some of the ways in which it has been interpreted, keeping in mind its context as part of Luke 5-6.

An Anachronistic Reading

One fairly common interpretation of Luke 5:36-39 identifies the old garment and old wineskins with Judaism and the new garment and new wine with the gospel message. According to this view, Jesus was saying that his disciples didn't follow the customs of the Pharisees or John the Baptist's disciples because his new message of the kingdom of God just wasn't compatible with traditional Jewish practices. For example, one commentary on Jesus' parable states, ``This is what it is like when you try to contain the effervescent life of the kingdom of God within the traditional patterns of Jewish religion.''2 A similar comment appears in [2]: ``Jesus' teaching is like fermenting wine that seems to have inherent vigor and cannot be contained within an old rigid system.''

However, there are serious problems with such a reading of the parable. For one thing, the Pharisees and disciples of John the Baptist actually were innovators, people trying to promote spiritual revival within Judaism. Their customs could hardly be described as ``an old rigid system.'' Second, Jesus said that his disciples would themselves fast after his death (v. 35). Indeed, we have historical evidence of at least some early Christians who observed their own twice-weekly fasts (e.g., Didache 8:1). Third, the first Christians were faithfully observant Jews who saw the gospel as the truest expression of Judaism, not as some new religion. This point is one of Luke's main emphases in the book of Acts (see e.g. Acts 2:46; 3:1; 18:18; 21:20; 22:12; 23:1,6; 24:14-16; 25:8; 26:6-7, 22-25; 28:17).

The reading of Jesus' parable that equates the old garment and old wineskins with Judaism seeks to justify one of the most unfortunate aspects of Christian history-the alienation between church and synagogue that gradually occurred over the first several centuries A.D. This reading implies that the regrettable severing of Christianity from its Jewish roots was somehow inevitable and even carried Jesus' seal of approval. But in addition to being unscriptural, such a view is anachronistic, coming from a vantage point colored by the centuries of history that have passed since the time of Jesus and the early church. It is a product of Christian supersessionism, the belief that the church has displaced Israel in God's plan and rendered Judaism obsolete.

Many modern exegetes have recognized the problems with a supersessionist interpretation of Luke 5:36-39. As a result, a number of explanations of the parable have been given that seek to avoid these problems. In this article, I will examine three such explanations. Two of the three, in my view, have serious problems of their own. Still, I believe that an examination of all three will help us to take a fresh look at the parable and reach a more accurate understanding of its meaning.

A Modern Messianic Model

One thought-provoking interpretation of the parable has been given by Messianic Jewish scholar David H. Stern in [4]. Stern identifies the old garment with Judaism and the new one with Christianity, as in some traditional readings, but he draws a decidedly nontraditional lesson from the first part of the parable. Just as the new cloth must be properly treated in order to successfully patch the old garment, he says, so Christianity must be well adapted to its Jewish roots in order to be effective and accomplish its purpose:

``The implication is that one must shrink the new cloth-adapt Messianic faith to Judaism- for Yeshua does not imply that there is anything wrong with patching an old coat! The early Messianic Jews did adapt Messianic faith to Judaism, but the later Gentile Church did not. Instead, some forms of Gentile Christianity became paganized precisely because the Tanakh was forgotten or underemphasized. Messianic Jews today are once again trying to bring New Testament faith back to its Jewish roots'' [4, pp. 36-37].

In the second part of the parable, Stern identifies the new wine with Christianity and the old wineskins with ``traditional Judaism,'' but he again reaches a nontraditional conclusion about the meaning of the second half of the parable. Stern interprets this part of the parable as a statement that Judaism must be suitably ``renewed'' or ``reconditioned'' in order to successfully absorb the new wine of faith in Yeshua (i.e., Jesus) as the Jewish Messiah. In support of his interpretation, he notes that the Greek word for ``new'' in the phrase translated ``new wineskins'' in v. 38 (``kainos'') has the sense of renewal in quality rather than newness in time. Stern concludes,

``As rendered here the point is that the only vessel which can hold the new wine of Messianic life in a Jewish setting is a properly renewed, restored, reconditioned and refreshed Judaism, such as Messianic Judaism was in the first century and aims to be now'' [4, p. 37].

I find David Stern's explanation of Luke 5:36-39 to be clearly preferable to the supersessionist interpretations mentioned earlier. I also agree with his views on the importance of Christianity and Judaism adjusting to each other. I don't believe, however, that Stern's model gives the original intended meaning of the parable. His explanation of the first part of the parable, especially, seems to rely on hindsight just as much as the antijudaic readings do. His model reflects concerns of modern Messianic Judaism that just wouldn't have occurred to first-century Jews.

``The Old is Better''

Another novel interpretation of Jesus' parable comes from Dr. Brad H. Young of Oral Roberts University [5, chapter 14]. Observing that the fast days of the Pharisees and disciples of John the Baptist were an addition to previous Jewish practice, Young identifies their teachings as the ``new wine'' in the parable. In contrast, he describes Jesus' program for revival in Judaism as a return to the ``old wine'' of ``the ancient faith and practices of the Jewish people.'' In his teaching, Jesus tended to focus the attention of his listeners on the original intent of biblical commandments. He also emphasized the importance of spiritual renewal (e.g. John 3:3). Noting these things, Young writes,

``Jesus desired to see new wineskins--that is, a revitalized people--enjoying the best of the old wine. The old wine is best. A spiritual renewal is needed. The new fasts may contribute something toward this goal, but the future of the spiritual renewal will be linked more to Jesus and his disciples as they teach about God's reign than to the new innovative fasts being called for by John the Baptist and the Pharisees'' [5, p. 158].

Young's reading is noteworthy for its attention and sensitivity to the Jewish background of the New Testament. He correctly characterizes the parable as part of an intra-Jewish discussion rather than as the kind of blanket condemnation of Judaism described in some traditional interpretations.

Still, there are problems with Young's explanation of the parable. First, his explanation actually alters the parable by saying that the wineskins must be renewed in order to receive the old wine. In the parable, on the other hand, the wineskins are reconditioned to be able to contain the new wine.

A second weakness of Young's model is its reliance upon Luke 5:39 to support the idea that the old wine in the parable is better than the new. This verse does say that one who has tasted old wine will consider it to be better, but it does not say that the old wine actually is better. In fact, Young's interpretation assigns a meaning to Luke's version of the parable that couldn't possibly be shared by the close parallels in Matthew (9:16-17) and Mark (2:21-22), thus placing the Gospels in contradiction with each other. No one reading just the versions in Matthew or Mark-neither of which explicitly mentions ``old wine''-would come to the conclusion that Jesus' parable was claiming superiority for the old wine.

The Parable in Context

A third interpretation is presented by Daniel Thomas Lancaster in [1]. Lancaster bases his interpretation on two major considerations:

(i) The section of scripture containing the parable (Luke 5:1-6:16) is largely devoted to issues connected with the disciples of Jesus, including the calling of the Twelve (Luke 5:1-11, 27-28; 6:12-16) and questions about Jesus' choice of disciples (5:30, 33; 6:2). The parable is part of the response Jesus gives to such questions.

(ii) In rabbinic literature, wine is often used as a metaphor for the teachings of Torah, with students of Torah pictured as wine containers.

One example of (ii) is cited by Young in [5]:

``One does not feel the taste of the wine at the beginning, but the longer it grows old in the pitcher, the better it becomes; thus also the words of the Torah: the longer they grow old in the body, the better they become (Soferim 15:6).

A second example comes from Pirkei Avot, the most famous tractate of the Mishnah:

``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 4:20)

Although these sayings were compiled in written form two hundred years or more after the time of Jesus, similar metaphors were probably familiar in Jesus' day.

Taking into account (i) and (ii), Lancaster suggests that the garments and wineskins in the parable represent individual disciples rather than any religious system or movement. He offers the following paraphrase of Luke 5:36-39:

``No one takes a lesson meant for a new student and tries to teach it to an old (already educated) student. If he does, he will fail to teach the new student, and the lesson meant for the new student will be rejected by the old student.

``No one teaches new Torah-teaching to old (previously educated) students. If he does, the new teaching will be rejected, the student will be lost. No. Instead new Torah-teaching must be taught to new students. And no one after receiving old teaching (previous education) wants the new, for he says, `The old teaching is better''' ([5, p. 19]).

In Lancaster's reading, Jesus is saying that although his disciples do not have advanced theological training (see Acts 4:13), they are receptive to the Gospel of the Kingdom of God, his ``new Torah-teaching.'' On the other hand, some who have already received training from other instructors-e.g., those who question Jesus in Luke 5-6-find it harder to accept the new paradigms of Jesus' teaching.

Lancaster points out that if his reading is correct, then the lesson of the parable is similar to that of the first part of Pirkei Avot 4:20, the second and third parts of which were quoted above:

``Elisha ben Avuyah said: `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.'''

Lancaster's interpretation fits well with both the biblical context and cultural background of Jesus' parable. It is the best explanation of the parable that I have yet encountered.


1. D. Thomas Lancaster, “Yeshua’s New Wine:  The Double Parable of Luke 5:33-39 Re-examined, Bikurei Tziyon, Issue 76 (2003), pp. 16-20.

2. Walter L. Liefeld, Luke, Expositor's Bible Commentary, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1995.

3. Oskar Skarsaune, In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 2002.

4. David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary, Jewish New Testament Publications, Clarksville, Maryland, 1992.

5. Brad H. Young, Jesus the Jewish Theologian, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Massachusetts, 1995.


1With this reply, he pointed his listeners toward the best of Pharasaic teaching. Hillel the Great, a famous Pharisee whose life overlapped with that of Jesus, is known for saying, ``Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving mankind and bringing them nigh to the Law'' (Pirkei Avot 1:12).

2R.T. France, The Gospel of Mark, Doubleday, New York, 1998 (discussing the parallel account in Mark 2).

Issue 15


File translated from TEX by TTH, version 3.01.On 16 Nov 2003, 00:23.