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4 versionsHahaha. Funny meme.

But seriously. Many of us have been taught to think something along these lines, that the Gospels are basically on the same page and any differences are either imagined or inconsequential.

Maybe. That works for some things. But the problem with that way of thinking is that it presumes that “saying the same thing” is a prime goal of the Gospels. But there are simply too many differences between them, small and large, for that way of thinking to be convincing.

The Gospels differ because the Gospel authors had different influences and different agendas. The first they didn’t control: they wrote what they knew, based on what they were told and perhaps stories floating around orally.

The second they could and did control. I think the “new wineskin” teaching of Jesus is an example.

This story appears in the 3 “Synoptic” Gospels—meaning the 3 that “look similar,” Matthew, Mark, and Luke. (John is off on his own.) New Testament scholars generally agree that Mark is actually the oldest of the Gospels, and that Matthew and Luke worked off of Mark and freely made adjustments and changes in telling their own versions of the life of Jesus.

Scholars work out the details in all sorts of ways and come up with charts like these to remind you how smart they are and how much you need them.


We’re not going to spend our time looking at these charts, even though they really tell us a lot, namely that the question of why the Synoptic Gospels can look so similar and at the same time so apparently haphazardly different is a long and complicated one that learned people spend a lot of time thinking about.

So let’s get back to the “new wineskin” teaching of Jesus. Here they are in the order in which they were likely written:

Mark 2:22 And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.”

Matt. 9:17 Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”

Luke 5:37-39 And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, “The old is good.”

These words of Jesus are set in the context of why Jesus’s followers didn’t fast the way John the Baptist’s disciples did. Because, Jesus explains, he is the bridegroom at a wedding feast, and as long as he is with them, it is not a time of fasting.

These 3 versions are “more or less” the same, to be sure. All 3 say that putting new wine in old wineskins is a bad idea, because the new wine (when it ferments) will stretch the old wineskins to the breaking point.

Jesus makes the same point in previous verses about sewing an new patch of cloth onto an old garment. When the new patch shrinks it will rip the old garment.

So, moral of the story: old and new don’t work well together. But note how the three are different.

The point of the “new wineskins/new patch” thing for Mark is to illustrate how Jesus brings something new that can’t be contained in old familiar patterns.

Now, many of us would have liked Mark to explain himself more fully, namely what exactly do the old wineskins/garments represent here? As it stands, Mark seems to be saying that Judaism’s rituals are now being given up because of Jesus. (I think Mark is saying that: he makes a similar move in 7:19 where he claims that Jesus “declared all foods clean,” which Matthew 15:17 leaves out.)

Whether or not breaking with Judaism was Mark’s point (who knows, really), you have to admit one could get that impression. So, enter Matthew and Luke who add a clarifying comment.

Matthew adds that by putting new wine in new wineskins where it belongs, the old wineskins are kept from breaking, thus preserving the old alongside the new.

Luke takes it a step further. For him the old wine is in fact quite tasty, so tasty in fact that it is to be preferred.

What’s the deal, guys?

Mark’s version was apparently troubling to both Matthew and Luke, who did not want to give the impression that Jesus was turning his back on his own Jewish traditions and in effect “starting a new religion.” They were doing some damage control: “Well, the old’s not bad. In fact, what Jesus wants you to know is that, properly understood, the old is to be preferred.”

We have here an inner-biblical debate of sorts, which are hardly few and far between in the Old and New Testaments.

The question which naturally comes up is, “So what did Jesus actually say?” We don’t know. Even though Mark is the oldest Gospel, we still don’t know whether Jesus uttered his barebones version, or whether Mark left out all that “old is good” stuff to make his point and Matthew and Luke are actually closer to the original words of Jesus.

Actually, can we even talk of the “original?”

We. have. no. idea.

But what we do have—and I find this so absolutely intriguing and amazing—is diversity concerning the teachings of Jesus at such an early stage in history, probably by about 70 CE.

It seems that, right here in black and white, we see that even the earliest followers of Jesus were trying to figure out what following Jesus meant vis-a-vis the Judaism out of which the Jesus movement grew. And that process is preserved for us in the pages of the sacred text.

This is an example of what I never grow tired of saying and that has deeply practical and spiritual implications: The Bible isn’t an owners manual or set of instructions. Rather, the Bible models for us a process of working out and working through what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

That process has not come to an end; each generation, each of us, is called to participate. The Bible tells me so.



Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.