Many people believe that Jesus taught new things that replaced or superseded older Jewish teachings. This is called supersessionism, the idea that Christianity’s validity makes Judaism obsolete, at least as a standalone religion. Historically, Christian supersessionism was widely taught and accepted, explicitly or implicity, until about the time of the Holocaust, when it became grotesquely unacceptable to say that other people’s religions were invalid.
However, in this case we are concerned with whether or not Jesus repealed the Old Testament laws.
Cloth and Wineskins, Old and New
Jesus compares His teachings with the teachings of the Pharisees by comparing old and new wineskins in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but each time He begins by talking about old and new cloth. Today, we no longer store wine in wineskins, so we aren’t equipped to understand the part about the wineskins without first examining the part about the cloth.
When Jesus says, “You have heard it said… but I say unto you,” we often assume He means that He is introducing a new teaching that supersedes what went before. This is a misunderstanding.
“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.
—Matthew 9:16, NRSV
If buying a new shirt is economically silly, it’s better to replace the missing button or to sew up a torn seam. However, if you have to patch a hole, it’s not a good idea to find new, matching cloth, because the patch, being of new cloth, shrinks in the laundry, while the rest of the shirt does not. Your repair only lasts one wearing.
The best way to patch the hole is to take cloth from a non-essential part of the shirt that no one sees, such as by shortening the shirt tail.
The idea here is that the old shirt is more valuable to you than a new shirt. If you patch it, you need old cloth, not new cloth, or the whole thing is an exercise in futility.
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.’”
—Luke 5:37-39, NRSV
In winemaking, they grow the grapes and crush them to make new wine, which is actually just another way of saying “grape juice.” They put the new wine into kegs (these days) or wineskins (back then) and leave it to ferment in a temperature-controlled environment until it becomes wine.
New wineskins can stretch, old ones are more rigid. If they put new wine in an old wineskin, the fermentation gasses inflate the old wineskin, and since it is inflexible, it bursts and you lose your half-fermented wine. You have to wait until the next spring harvest to press more new wine, and you have to wait even longer for it to get as far along in the fermentation process to make it into wine.
You put new wine into new wineskins and old wine into old wineskins. You patch new garments with new cloth and old garments with old cloth. That much is obvious, but are Jesus’ teachings old or new?
The Taste Test
I was once part of a group that toured a vineyard in Achkarren, a major wine-growing region in Germany. At the vineyard, they gave us a sample of wine and a sample of new wine for comparison.
Jesus is definitely right. The old wine is better, and that means He must be saying that His teachings are older and more genuine than the teachings of the Pharisees.
Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.”
—John 8:58, NRSV
Okay, there you have it. Jesus’ nativity in Bethlehem notwithstanding, He is older than the Torah. He does not give us new teachings that replace the teachings of the Pharisees. His teachings are older and better than the teachings of the Pharisees.
From Jesus’ standpoint, His teachings are the old wine and the Pharisees’ teachings are the new wine. The Pharisees attempt to put their new teachings into the old wineskins of the Torah, but that ends up destroying the purpose and meaning of the Torah.
The Pharisees, the Sabbath, and Office Hours
Moses appointed judges Exodus 18:13-37 at the suggestion of his father-in-law, and delegated various duties, responsibilities, and authority to them. Their descendants-in-office are the rabbis. To be a rabbi, you have to be ordained by three rabbis who can trace their ordinations all the way back to that original group. Because of the destruction of the Temple, it is no longer possible to do that, so today, rabbis trace their ordinations back to rabbis who were known to be in the succession of Moses.
Rabbis have many functions other than leading worship in the synagogues. They serve as healers, exorcists, and judges who interpret and apply the Law. Just as court rulings have the force of law, rabbinical rulings also have the force of religious law—which makes it very important that they get it right.
By the first century, rabbis developed the idea that healing is work, therefore the Sabbath gave them a much needed break from their duty of healing. They weren’t being heartless, they were just exhausted. The renowned medieval rabbi Maimonides was physically overwhelmed by his duties as a physician, but he didn’t take breaks. It was apparently Jesus’ position that the people’s needs for healing were more important than the rabbis’ need for rest. Or we might say, if you want to be a doctor, you have to face the reality that people will have emergencies that preempt your free time.
Evidently, some people were desperate enough to present themselves to rabbis on the Sabbath for healing or exorcism, even though they knew that the rabbis wouldn’t do it. Unlike the other rabbis, when they approached Jesus, He dealt with them right away, partly to provoke the other rabbis into reviewing their rulings.
Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.
When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”
When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.
As soon as Jesus did this, the rabbi reminded the people of the ruling that the Law prohibited what Jesus had just done.
But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”
Imagine going to the emergency room because you broke your leg, and the staff says, “We are closed for the holiday. Come back tomorrow during our posted office hours.” That is essentially what the rabbi was saying. Jesus refuted his ruling in front of all the rabbis who were present:
But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”
When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.
—Luke 13:10–17 NRSV
No wonder the people were rejoicing! Jesus had shamed the rabbis into giving them medical treatment no matter what day it was.
Jesus challenged the rabbi’s ruling precisely because it was new and did not fit into the intent and purpose of the Torah. It was new wine forced into the old wineskin of the Torah, and as new wine causes an old wineskin to burst, the new teaching teaching would destroy the older and more valuable Torah. Instead of misrepresenting their new teachings as proceeding from the Torah, they might as well make up a new religion for them. The new wine of the Pharisees belongs in new wineskins. Call it anything, but do not call it a Torah teaching.
Jesus’ teachings, on the other hand, are old wine in the old wineskin of the Torah; in other words, Jesus reveals and fulfills the legislative intent of the Torah.
What Was the Fuss About the New Wine in Achkarren?
When I visited Achkarren, they had just harvested the vineyards, and since they didn’t need it all for winemaking, they were practically giving it away all over town. I wondered why the vineyards were in such a hurry to get rid of the excess new wine. There was plenty of it, Why not sell it in grocery stores or give it to the church for Communion year round?
Grape juice spoils very quickly, so without processing, it has to be used right away. There are only three choices, and you have to choose fast before it spoils: drink it, make wine out of it, or throw it away. It wasn’t possible to drink grape juice all year round until about 1869—somewhat later than the events of the New Testament—when Thomas Welch developed a process for pasteurizing and canning it. He called it “unfermented sacramental wine” and tried to get churches to use it instead of Communion wine, but met up with resistance from clergy—even Baptist clergy at the time—who considered the idea to be offensive to Scripture.
Eventually, during Prohibition, despite the exemption for sacramental wine, it became unusable in churches whose members were plagued with alcoholism. Dr. Welch’s “unfermented sacramental wine” finally caught on.
Today, churches can use grape juice for Communion all year round and you can buy grape juice at the grocery store in the summer, fall, or winter. Unfortunately, while Mr. Welch solved the problem of spoilage, he didn’t solve the problem of spillage. It is possible to clean wine stains out of cloth, but with grape juice, all things are impossible.
And Another Thing…
The New Testament refers to wine as a beverage so often that it poses a problem to people for whom abstention from alcohol is a Christian duty. A common rationalization is that biblical people drank wine because the water was bad—but that makes no sense, because you can’t make good wine from bad water. You can’t make good beer from bad water either, which is why beer companies often brag about the purity of the water they use.
In the first century, drinking wine straight was considered barbaric. They mixed wine with water before drinking it—so obviously the water couldn’t have been bad. If you’ve ever seen clergy adding a little water to the wine in the Communion chalice, that is why. That’s how they did it at the Last Supper.