Skip to main content

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.

No Comments

  • Paul D. says:

    It’s utterly remarkable that already in the mid-first century, Christian apostles couldn’t agree on such fundamentals as whether Jesus had taught to keep the Torah or abolish it.

    • Andrew Dowling says:

      I think it speaks to the argument that none of the Gospel’s originate in Judea/Galilee, particularly Mark of which the earliest historically attested origin (although of course it could be wrong) is Rome, a far cry from where Jesus lived and taught.

  • Brian says:

    So, your article would actually answer that no, Jesus probably did not disagree with himself. Rather, the apostles may have had some disagreement in their understanding and/or in their presentation of Jesus in writing their own Gospel accounts of Jesus. Did I read that correctly?

  • Ben says:

    Hey Pete,
    First off, thanks so much for your work and writings. I’m most of the way through the Bible Tells Me So and I have found it to be thought provoking, challenging and a really enjoyable read. I’m still in process with a lot of things. But I had a thought about the above. – Do you think it is possible that Jesus’ words in Luke about people preferring the “old wine” could be a reference to the reality that the majority or many of the people hearing his “new” message were not receiving it, but rather still preferred the “old way”? And that he was comparing this to the natural and normal reality that once people have drunk the old wine they prefer it to any new wine. Because the old taste “good” to them. What do you think? I’m not opposed to the reality of diverse perspectives throughout the Bible and I really like how you put it that “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.” But I also wondered if taking the Luke passage the way I am suggesting may be a legit option, and may show the three passages to be more or less in line with each other. Or am I missing something? I appreciate any thoughts you may have. Thanks!

  • Ross says:

    My thoughts this last week have been about the narrative in the bible and the “meta-narrative”, I.e. what we make out of the written stuff. Quite frankly, and here I seem to be coming from a different point of view from many of my fellow church goers, the written stuff often makes no sense, usually doesn’t have much of a clear meaning and definitely doesn’t always agree with itself. In fact those who seem most keen on holding to an inherent and God given bible seem to have read very little of it and are highly selective in which bits they like. For instance the practically complete silence on anything Jesus says about money or wealth. (On this point they may concede that the Aramaic for money really alludes to cheese and that we need to refrain from having too much Stilton!).

    Here I think we need to recognise the sacredness of scripture, but put its value much lower down than the action of God’s Spirit in helping us to find Him through scripture. The practical “idolisation” of scripture seems to me to force the ability of the intellect to grasp what scripture says up there with God himself.

    This brings me in mind of the heated discussion I had last week with our curate where I disagreed with his point that Jesus was an inerrantist. All I said was that if Jesus was, we shouldn’t be eating bacon sandwiches, however our curate seems to want to keep his bacon sandwich and eat it.

    • Derek says:

      The study of theology needs to be practiced with a generous amount of humility and wisdom, or one can quite frankly go nuts.

  • Mike H says:

    I’m not sure that I could point to a specific example off the top of my head, but most of the attempts that I’ve seen to explain this sort of thing (per an inerrancy hermeneutic) appeal to a sort of “redaction method” inherent within the process of inspiration. That is, if you add all 3 of those verses together, you’ll have what Jesus actually said. Because that’s the way it has to be. So one account (Mark’s account for example) not including the entire citation (it being redacted) isn’t an “error” strictly speaking. That established, any variety of hermeneutics can be employed to demonstrate how these are really all saying the exact same thing. Nobody can say for sure exactly what that “same thing” is, but only godless liberals would argue that they aren’t, in the end, saying the exact same thing.

    I mean, a redaction defense is true as far as it goes. “Redaction” is not “error”. But it’s use here begins with a particular end in mind. Most relevant here, I think, is that it’s purpose is to eliminate the possibility that any diversity within teachings can really exist because that theological diversity can only be a sign of “error” – it can only be “bug” and not “feature”.

    That idea that we “don’t know what Jesus said” though. That’s the sort of thing that’ll get people screaming “slippery slope” faster than you can say “the Cubs will win a 2nd world series”.

  • Jeff says:

    “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.'”

    I don’t think this is the only take on this nor a necessary one. In fact, I think it has less explanatory power than reading this within the narrative structure of Mark (as well as Matthew and Luke). If this piece of Mark is read in its literary context (not just historical, but both go together), one sees it is placed by Mark in the context of a series of confrontations between Jesus and the Pharisees/scribes (not just the fasting one), Mark 2.1-3:6 (2:1-12 is a transitional hinge in the narrative as the “immediately” section starts to slow down; and in 3:6 the Pharisees & Herodians – a crazy unlikely merger! – conspire to destroy Jesus). Each gospel is pushing its own theological agenda – though obviously revolving around the same major points of similarity (Jesus as king, messiah, his subversive cruciform victory over Rome and enacting a new way for Israel to be in the world, etc.) are offering different angles based on more specific applications of the broad agenda. Matthew and Luke are not necessarily intended as correctives or the result of necessarily being troubled by Mark’s cryptic nature (which is notorious for Mark). They weave the stories to make their observations and application. They aren’t purely culturally driven. And, Luke’s added take is enigmatic (is it positive or negative? Depends on who you read!). Mark’s take is negative toward the Pharisees as it is indicating that their agenda/system is not ready for Jesus “new” (at least ‘new’ with respect to their current Theo-political, boundary oriented agenda).

    This is not to suggest “inerrancy” as it is typically defined (though as I.H. Marshall once put it, inerrancy is dying/has died the death of a thousand qualifications). But, it is to note that different theological uses – though actually in this case they are not altogether that different from one another – do not entail crystal clear contradiction, when other, perhaps better explanations suffice. It’s no different when reading the writings of a single individual- sometimes within a single book by the same author – there are often apparent contradictions that seem inexplicable on the surface.

    • Derek says:

      Jeff, no offense but this seems like one of those instances where someone writes a whole lot, but really says nothing at all. After reading your response, I basically have no idea what you’re talking about as there doesn’t seem to be a clear, coherent point.

    • Robin says:

      Derek’s response reminds me of many one-star reviews of good books on Amazon because “I don’t understand what the author tried to say, so this is crap.” Really not a constructive way to converse.

      • Derek says:

        Robin, there are also many one-star reviews on Amazon that are justifiably one-star because the author is writing in a convoluted fashion. I found this to be the case and therefore stated it as such.

  • Robert F says:

    From beginning to end, the New Testaments documents are witnesses to the early Christian community’s (communities’) experience and memory of the living Christ (I would say from this side of Jesus’ resurrection, looking back — and forward). The Gospels/Acts theologically interpret the memory of Jesus and his words as much as the Epistles (and Revelation) do; nowhere do we get Jesus’ words and deeds unfiltered and uninterpreted. This is why it’s wrong to contrast Paul’s Epistles as inferior to the the so-called “actual words and deeds of Jesus” in the Gospels for understanding Jesus and his teaching and way; there are no pure, theologically unshaped and untilted reports of Jesus in the Gospels. The entire NT interprets Jesus, and does so using the imperfect memory and understanding of those who ultimately wrote and redacted the documents. Nowhere can we be “sure” we are getting nothing but the words and deeds of Jesus; and apparently getting them is not ultimately important, otherwise Jesus would’ve made sure that he wrote that important stuff down himself, so that we would have his own words in his own hand. There is an important theological light shed by the fact that God committed the witness to his son’s life, death and resurrection to an error-prone, imperfect and fractious community, if only we are willing to take it to heart. Instead we want perfection and certainty.

  • Mike Wilson says:

    Thanks for the article. Is Luke really praising the old though? I get the ni impression the measning is that people don’t change old habits. Luke’s gentile readers are told that people raised in orthodox Judaism aren’t receptive to the new message.

    The original meaning of this proverb I imagine had nothing to do with Jewish ritual but about spiritual transformation. The new message requires its hearer to become a new person to comprehend it. What di you think?

  • I’m always curious: at what point does realizing the incoherence of so many things here (things that seem to be absolutely fundamental to Christianity) cause one to say “you know what? Maybe it’s time I start looking for a religion that makes more sense”? How on earth do we know what the historical Jesus taught at all, if on most issues virtually every theological position under the sun was ascribed to him to the gospel authors, etc.?

    Do people have some sort of notion of Averroist double-truth or something, where virtually everything about Christianity can be criticized or even rejected, but somehow they also still remain true through a lens of unwavering faith?

  • Ross says:

    I suppose this is another example of how we could learn from the Jewish tradition wherein an “inerrantist” ethic has to work with an “interpretive” ethic without tearing the fabric apart. I think our Christian tradition has never really successfully tried to build a co-authorative tradition along the lines of the Talmud. We have “scripture” and we have “tradition”, seeing them at closest as two separate legs of the mythical stool. Scripture is God Given and Tradition is purely the works of man.

    I can clearly see that what is described as “scriptural” by the “bible believers” is actually “tradition” but the “scripturalists” cannot see this as their own presuppositions using scripture I.e. non-contextual reference to support their own “meta-narrative”. Maybe the non-protestant traditions are better at this, but I’m not familiar enough to know.

    A large part off me sees that this phenomena, which is particularly harmful, is firmly rooted in the bibliolatrist Evangelical tradition, where its own tradition refuses to recognise its own “tradition” as it somehow believes it has no tradition, but somehow magically adheres to scripture alone.

    Another way of putting this is that Evangelicalism still believes it is Luther challenging Catholicism. or Wilberforce challenging Darwinism whilst at the same time avoiding the obvious fact that it is no different to the Inquisition challenging Galileo.

    We seem to divide into either interpreting, or reading the bible and cannot read and interpret at the same.

  • Donald Johnson says:

    I think the gospels can be read in a complementary fashion in this case, rather than in a conflicting fashion.

    In Mark, Matthew, and Luke the immediate context is contrasting the behavior of Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist in fasting with the disciples of Jesus not fasting. It helps to know that with Jewish disciples, their teacher tells them everything that they are to do, so what they do reflects directly on their teacher. So the question is “Why do you Jesus teach different from us about the times to fast?”

    There is a symbolic mapping going on, the question is what do the terms represent. Of course this can be a matter of discussion and debate, but to show a complementary reading, here is my mapping. Old wineskins: disciples of Pharisees and John the Baptist; new wineskins: disciples of Jesus; old wine: the teachings of the Pharisees and John the Baptist, respectively; new wine: the teachings of Jesus. With this mapping one can see that the unique phrase in Luke refers to the potential to not be fully aligned with one’s teacher because of what one has learned previously from an earlier teacher. Thus I see no requirement to see these 3 gospel stories as conflicting, rather they complement one another.

  • Skeptical Christian says:

    Alright, Pete. I have a pressing and momentous theological question…..

  • Phillip says:

    As for old and new being preserved, could “both are preserved” refer to the wine and skins being preserved, not old and new, necessarily? Matthew is Torah-friendly of course and both old and new skins being preserved would fit with his thoughts elsewhere. Reading it in English 2000 years later, however, the immediate impression I receive is that he is saying that both the product and packaging are preserved. Thoughts?

    • Ross says:

      My thoughts tend to be along the line of “I really don’t get this at all”. I have heard explanations that are anti-semitic and those which are philo-semitic, and maybe some which are in-between. It seems to be discussing the “new practices” against the “old” and may be more to do with the time they were written rather than when they were purported to be said. I’m really wondering whether they only made sense sometime around the latter first century. We view this possibly from a Christian or Jewish perspective which has been shaped by nearly two millennia of often antipathetic conflict (a bit one sided admittedly.). I think we need to recognise that if we could work out what it meant then, then maybe it could be helpful now. But additionally that which discussed the relationship between “Jews” and “Christians” then (if indeed that’s what it meant, which I doubt), may not mean much now. As the terms translated as “Hebrews” “Jews” “Israelites” “Church” “Synagogue” “Nazarene” etc are not particularly analogous today then maybe we need to avoid using this particular example (I.e. any or all the three versions) to inform our current situation.

      Now, as then, there has not been a homogenous Judaism or Christianity, at least in terms of agreed adherence to a set of intellectual propositions. There may be a difference in the hereditary requirements for inclusion, though possibly less than you may expect. I wonder if the way we look at there being “different” religions, which is probably a modern social construct, affects us in ways that just didn’t exist then.

      So after a fair bit of rambling maybe these are just one of many bits of scripture which have historical interest but no real modern significance. It is definitely not our role to “convert” Jews to Christianity, but maybe we can help them to discover Messiah. And maybe in the same way we should not feel threatened by Muslims or disgusted by them, but maybe we can help them to see Isa.

  • Sheila Warner says:

    This is why I loved reading “The Bible Tells Me So”. Even in the 21st century there are theologians who argue about how to follow Jesus. I think sacred texts work best when held lightly.

  • Ryan says:

    I think Luke’s take is particularly intriguing… I mean, we can assume that his readers would be following the notion that the “new” is in some way worthy of changing the established order (at least for the disciples, if not for others). So, I wonder if the commentary about people preferring the “old” isn’t a kind of veiled criticism of them. I think it’s a dig at them not recognizing the new for what it is.

    Maybe it’s taking the analogy too far, but it’s elf-evident that the “new” too will become “old” (and superior) at some point.

Leave a Reply