New Wine and Old Wineskins: The Parable of Luke 5:36-39 Re-examined
The Emperor's daughter said to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah: "What beautiful Torah in an ugly vessel." He replied, "Learn from the house of your father. In what is the wine stored?" "In jars of clay," she answered. "But all the common people store their wine in jars of clay! You use them too? You should keep your wine in jars of gold and silver!" She went and had the wine placed in vessels of gold and silver, and it turned sour. "Thus," said he to her, "It is the same with Torah!" She asked, "But are there not handsome people who are learned?" He replied, "If they were ugly they would be even more learned!" (Talmud Bavli Nedarim 50b)
The Tax Collector's Banquet
Imagine, if you will, a banquet at the house of Levi the tax collector. There is singing and drinking and eating and merriment, and in the midst of it reclines the Master and his disciples. On the periphery of the scene are the Pharisees and several disciples of Yochanan the Immerser.
Expositors have been scratching chins and nodding heads for a long time over the double parable of Luke 5:36-39.
There are serious problems with the incompatibility interpretation. For example, it is anachronistic. Critical scholarship now acknowledges that Yeshua was not trying to start a new religion nor was his intention to dismantle Judaism. At the time that Yeshua gave the double parable there was no Christianity, no Church, no new religion for Judaism to be incompatible with. At the time the Gospel writers were recording the double parable, the Church Fathers' model of Yeshua as an antagonist of the Old Covenant and Judaism had not yet even been conceived. What has, in fact, become worn and obsolete is the very notion that the historical Yeshua was opposed to the Torah and Judaism. Regarding this incompatibility interpretation Kee says, "There is no denying that Jesus radically transformed [and] revolutionized Judaism for his followers, but surely we need not labor the point that it was in fact Judaism which he transformed for them...To attribute the idea of incompatibility to Jesus, as a way of describing his relationship to Judaism, is bad theology and bad history." His point is well taken. The incompatibility interpretation stems from a supersessionist theology of a later century. To place it into the mouth of Yeshua is absurd.
Attempts to Salvage
Recognizing that the incompatibility interpretation is flawed, several scholars have made valiant attempts to reinterpret the double parable in a manner consistent with the rest of the Gospels. R. S. Good (1983) and David Flusser (1979), for example both try to force an explanation of the words "the old is better" by reversing the direction of the entire double parable in Luke. According to Good, Luke intentionally reinterpreted the two parables to mean that the Old is better because it is the Old Israel that Yeshua has come to save.
Choosing the Twelve
The context in which the double parable occurs is a narrative relating how Yeshua chose his disciples. All of chapter five and the first 16 verses of chapter six string together several stories which deal with the calling and selection of the disciples. Luke 5:1-11 records the story of the first miraculous catch of fish during which Yeshua invites James, John, Peter (and by inference Andrew) to become his disciples. The pericope concludes in Luke 5:11 with the fishermen leaving their boats, their nets and the miraculous catch to follow Yeshua. The narrative then turns aside to relate two short healing stories (Luke 5:17-26), but returns to the calling of the disciples with the call of Levi in Luke 5:27 and 28. Like the fishermen, Levi leaves everything and follows Yeshua. Levi holds a banquet for Yeshua and at this banquet the Pharisees level criticisms aimed at Yeshua's disciples. They asked his disciples, "Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and 'sinners'?" They asked Yeshua, "Why don't your disciples fast and pray like Yochanan's disciples and like our disciples?" Both questions are criticisms of Yeshua's disciples and his choice of company. Yeshua replies to the question on fasting with the bridegroom statements of Luke 5:34, 35 and then tells the double parable. Following the double parable, Luke six begins with a short pericope that at first seems unrelated to the concerns of choosing disciples. In the story (Luke 6:1-5) the Pharisees challenged Yeshua on Sabbath issues, but it is in fact the disciples' behavior that the Pharisees criticized, not the behavior of Yeshua. They accused the disciples of breaking the Sabbath by picking the heads of grain and husking them in their hands. Again the criticism is directed toward Yeshua's choice of disciples. Connected with the Sabbath observance conflict raised in Luke 6:1-5, Luke offers a matching pericope in Luke 6:6-11 that echoes and complements the first but is clearly meant as an aside. Returning to the matter at hand, that is the call and selection of Yeshua's disciples, Luke closes the section with the final elimination round in which Yeshua chooses the Twelve (Luke 6:12-16). With the choosing of the Twelve, the disciple issue is settled.
|The call and selection of Yeshua's disciples (Luke 5:1 - 6:16)|
|A.||Calling of the first disciples||5:1-11|
|(Aside to healing of the leper)||5:12-16|
|(Aside to healing of the paralytic)||5:17-26|
|B.||Calling of Levi||5:27-28|
|C.||Levi's banquet/Pharisee's criticisms of disciples.
Yeshua's response and double parable
|D.||Pharisees accuse disciples of Sabbath violation||6:1-5|
|(Aside to a similar Sabbath story)||6:6-11|
|E.||Final selection of the Twelve Disciples||6:12-16|
Smudged Paper and Old Wine
We might imagine the Pharisees leaving Levi's banquet and later pondering Yeshua's words saying, "I don't know what he meant by that, but it sounded very profound." Or perhaps not. Unlike us, the Pharisees probably knew exactly what Yeshua meant because they were probably already familiar with the symbolism Yeshua employed in his double parable. By comparing Luke 5:36-39 with the well known Pharisaic proverb of Avot 4.20, a whole new interpretation arises which is a natural complement to the context of the passage and is more satisfactory than those previously suggested.
|Luke 5:36-39||Pirkei Avot 4:20|
|He told them this 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.'"||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. 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.|
Like the larger Gospel context of Luke chapters five and six, the Avot passage is comparing different types of teachers, disciples and teachings. If we allow the similes of Avot 4 to inform the metaphors of Luke 5, we have surprising results.
|New garment||previously uneducated students|
|Old garment||previously educated students|
|New wineskins||previously uneducated students|
|Old wineskins||previously educated students|
|New wine||new teaching|
|Old wine||previous teaching|
Singular Meaning: New teaching requires previously uneducated students in order to be received.
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."
The Avot interpretation of the double parable offers several advantages. Unlike the incompatibility theory, the Avot interpretation is not anachronistic. It does not pit Yeshua against Judaism nor does it imagine a conflict between New Covenant Grace and Old Covenant Law. Instead, it pits Yeshua's choice of disciples against the Pharisees' choice of disciples. Unlike the incompatibility theory, the Avot interpretation fits the context in which the parable is found, namely the call and selection of Yeshua's disciples. It addresses the Pharisee's criticism about fasting and it answers the problems raised by Luke 5:39.
Luke has gone to some pains to demonstrate the unsavory character of Yeshua's choice in disciples. They are fishermen, tax collectors and "sinners." They are feasting and drinking instead of fasting and praying. They are bungling Sabbath observance to feed their stomachs. They are not the pious types. They are not the types to follow in the tradition of the disciples of Hillel and Shammai. They have not been educated with the sages. In this regard, they are like a clean slate, a fresh, unsmudged piece of paper for Yeshua to write on. This is not to suggest that the disciples had no education. A primary education in Yeshua's day involved an extensive memorization of Scripture and knowledge of Torah. Educational standards in the Galilee may have even surpassed those of Judah, so even fishermen and tax collectors had received training in the Scriptures. However, only the very gifted went on to study beyond the age of 12 or 13 and only the truly exceptional (and perhaps wealthy) went on to become disciples of the sages.
The Old is Better
Finally, the Avot interpretation solves the problems raised by Luke 5:39, "And no one, after drinking old wine wishes for new; for he says, 'The old is good.'" If the parable is comparing Yeshua's Torah teaching (New Wine) with the Pharisee's Torah teaching (Old Wine) the meaning becomes perfectly clear. Disciples who have already studied Torah under the Pharisaic schools (or under the tutelage of Yochanan) and have learned to interpret according to those traditions and models are unlikely to be interested in a new approach. Those students will be apt to disregard contradictory teaching because they have already formed opinions and made judgments. They will regard the education they have already received as superior. Yeshua has chosen fishermen and tax collectors precisely because of their lack of formal education. Luke returns to the disciples' lack of formal education in Acts chapter 4 when the Sanhedrin questions Peter and John. In Acts 4:13 Luke writes, "Now as [the Sanhedrin] observed the confidence of Peter and Yochanan and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed, and began to recognize them as having been with Yeshua." On that day, when two, poorly educated fishermen stood before the Sanhedrin, they demonstrated the full caliber of their education under Yeshua and vindicated his choice of disciples. New garments, new wineskins and new students.
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