Jesus’ double parable of the old and new garments and the old and new wineskins (Matthew 9:14-17; Mark 2:18-22; and most fully, Luke 5:36-39) is one we all know well and is usually seen as being straightforward in comparing the “old truth” of the Mosaic dispensation with the “new truth” of the gospel (law vs. grace, law vs. love, law vs. Spirit, or some similar duality). This nearly universal interpretation of the parable may seem to make good sense, but it runs afoul of a particularly difficult problem: Luke shows Jesus ended his parable by stating that “no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, ‘The old is better’” – which flatly contradicts the usual interpretation of the parable he had just given.
The apparent contradiction is so strong that as far back as the early church some attempted to remove Luke 5:39 from the text of his gospel, and numerous manuscripts omit the verse. But almost all textual scholars agree that the verse is clearly authentic. Rather than trying to do away with it, we need to look more closely at its location and meaning.
Using Luke’s version, we see that the setting in which the double parable occurs is a section of text – Luke 5:1-6:16 – which, apart from some small insets recording healings that Jesus performed, deals with the character and selection of his disciples. At the center of this section, when Levi (Matthew) held a great banquet for Jesus and his followers, we are told that the Pharisees and scribes who were also present began to question and criticize Jesus’ disciples. First, they asked them, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” (Luke 5:30), and then they said to Jesus, “John’s disciples often fast and pray, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours go on eating and drinking” (Luke 5:33). Both these questions were indirect criticisms of Jesus by the Pharisees, but they were direct criticisms of his disciples.
Jesus answered the question regarding the disciples’ lack of fasting by pointing out that the friends of the bridegroom do not fast as long as the bridegroom is with them. He then told the Pharisees the double parable of verses 36-39. The fact that the parable does not make much sense to us indicates it probably made more sense to the Pharisees to whom it was spoken. Interestingly, the Jewish Talmud, which records many of the traditions of the pharisaic/rabbinic scholars, contains a saying that ties directly to Jesus’ statement. In the section Pirkei Avot (“Chapters of the Fathers”) we read: “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” (Avot 4:20).
These sayings are clearly proverb-like – as is the case with Jesus’ words “they say, ‘The old is better,’” and it is likely that we are dealing with proverbs or proverb-like sayings that the Pharisees would have recognized. But what was the point of those proverbs? Keeping context in mind, it is likely that the “wine” of both Jesus’ parable and the Talmudic saying is the teaching that the individual disciple imbibes, and that different types of disciples relate differently to new and old teachings. Implicit in Jesus’ parable is the fact that new teaching requires previously uneducated disciples in order to be properly received, just as new wine requires new containers.
Jesus, then, was answering the Pharisees’ criticisms by pointing out that his new teachings could not be received by established students such as themselves, and that the Pharisees should not be critical of the “new containers” that he was selecting. The parallels with the statement recorded in the Talmud are direct: “Do not pay attention to the container but pay attention to that which is in it” could certainly be said of Jesus’ disciples.
This is not to claim that the sayings later recorded in the Talmud were directly behind Jesus’ parable, but that expressions of this type were widely known and used enough that they formed a meaningful cultural backdrop to his words. If this possibility is accepted, then we have clear equivalences: the new wineskins of Jesus’ parable represent previously untrained disciples, while the old wineskins represent previously trained disciples. Seen this way, the new wine of the parable represents Jesus’ teaching, and the old wine represents the traditional training of the Pharisees. Established disciples who had already studied under the Pharisaic schools had learned traditions and approaches that were accepted and viewed as correct. Such disciples would naturally regard their own understanding of the law as superior. As Jesus remarked “they say ‘The old is better.’”
In essence, Jesus’ parable told the Pharisees that “you cannot teach an old dog new tricks” – that they were not receptive to the teachings he offered. But the disciples he was choosing – despite their failings by pharisaical standards – were indeed receptive and suitable disciples.