Many people believe that Jesus taught new things that replaced or superseded older Jewish teachings.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 Christianity makes Judaism obsolete.
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 goat-skin bags, so we aren’t equipped to understand the part about the wineskins without 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, which we can see from what he said about cloth 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.
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.’”
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 goatskins (back then) and leave it to ferment in a temperature-controlled environment. They give it time to ferment and become wine. This can take years.
New wineskins can stretch, old ones are more rigid. If they put new wine in an old windskin, the fermentation gasses would 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?
Many people misinterpret Jesus as saying that we must put the new wine of His teachings into the new wineskins of Christianity, not the old wineskins of the Old Testament. From this we (falsely) conclude that His teachings repeal or replace older Jewish teachings. This is called supersessionism, the idea that Christianity’s validity makes Judaism obsolete. Christian supersessionism was widely taught and accepted, explicitly or implicity, until about the time of the Holocaust, when it became grossly unacceptable to say that other people’s religions are invalid.
The Taste Test
I was once part of a group that toured a vineyard in Achkarren, a major wine-growing region in Germany. It was spring; they had just harvested the vineyards, and they had too much new wine. They didn’t need all of it for winemaking, so the excess had to be consumed right away since it would quickly spoil. They were practically giving it away all over town. At the vineyard, they gave us a little sample of wine to drink and a glass 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.
Why Not Keep the Grape Juice for Communion?
I mean, why were the vineyards in Achkarren in such a hurry to get rid of the new wine? There was plenty of it, why not use it 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, when Thomas Welch discovered that he could pasteurize it, like milk. 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 who considered the idea to be contrary to Scripture. It didn’t catch on until a couple decades later.
Incidentally, in the first century, drinking wine straight was considered barbaric, so they mixed wine and water before drinking it. If you’ve ever seen clergy adding a little water into the Communion chalice, that is why. That’s how they did it at the Last Supper.
Eventually, during Prohibition, regular wine became unusable in churches whose members were plagued with alcoholism and Dr. Welch’s “unfermented sacramental wine” finally caught on.
Unfortunately, he didn’t address the problem of stains. It’s hard, but possible, to clean wine stains out of cloth. You might say that with grape juice, all things are impossible.