The passage from the gospels which is titled "The Question about Fasting" in Luke 5:33-39 is by no means named properly. While it is true that Jesus is questioned concerning the additional fasts introduced to the Jewish liturgical calendar by John the Baptist and the Pharisees, Jesus does not answer the question directly. Should we concentrate on the question or on the answer? The answer possesses greater value. Perhaps this text has a deeper meaning. Why does Jesus respond to a question about fasting by telling them that the bridegroom will be taken away? Why does he speak about the patch of new cloth in an old garment and new wine in old wineskins? Today few people really understand these parables. What is the central point of Jesus' illustration? In Luke, the conclusion of the episode in Jesus' life gives meaning to the parables. The main focus in the teaching emerges when Jesus says, "The old wine is better" (Luke 5:39).
Contrary to popular belief, fasting is not the major issue here. Although Jesus was asked about fasting, he wanted to say something more. He explained his own mission in terms that the Jewish people of the first century could understand. When asked a question about fasting, Jesus took the opportunity to teach a deeper message. The message of Jesus was intimately related to his task and to his desire for the people's salvation.
Is fasting the issue? Many Bible students tend to overlook the final words of Jesus in Luke 5:39, "And no one after drinking old wine desires new; for he says, 'The old is better." The Jewish liturgical year included a number of specified fast days for the entire nation. On Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement for example, all the people afflict themselves and fast asking for God's mercy and forgiveness. The Pharisees desired spiritual renewal. They wanted the people to be close to God all the time. Also the movement of John the Baptist was characterized by its urgency for spiritual revival. This gospel passage indicates that both the Pharisees and John the Baptist instituted new fasts to intensify the spiritual awareness of the people.
What did Jesus think? Jesus was spearheading a renewal movement within
Judaism of his day. His approach to reform was much less radical than the
Pharisees or John the Baptist though all of them desired a return to the
people's spiritual heritage. The fasting of John's disciples and the Pharisees
was one way to call for revival. The disciples of Jesus apparently did not
observe these additional fasts. Jesus answers the question about fasting with
two parables. The form of these two parables and their Hebrew background is
firmly rooted in the teaching of Jesus.2 The structure of these
parables of the old garment and the wineskins, moreover, leads up to Luke's
conclusion and forceful application in Luke 5:39 when Jesus declares that the
old wine is better. The emphasis on the old wine indicates that all the talk
about fasting may not be the answer for the true spiritual renewal. In modern
times however, Jesus' saying about the old wine has been overlooked and
sometimes emphasis has wrongly been focused on the new wine.3 No one
should forget that when it comes to wine, the old is better than the new. Jesus
seems to speak about the rich Hebrew heritage of Judaism in his day with the
The old wine refers to the ancient faith and practices of the Jewish people. Then the question of fasting is related more to these additional fast days which were called by John the Baptist and the Pharisees and certainly not to the recognized fasts of the Jewish holy days which would be observed by everyone. New fast days were used sometimes for encouraging members of a particular religious order to express their identification with their movement. These new fasts were being called in addition to the accepted practice. The new fasts may be compared to new wine while the old wine is closer to the accepted practices of the ancient faith. For genuine spiritual renewal, according to Jesus, the people must return to the best of the old wine.
The purpose of Jesus was to revitalize the people spiritually by a revival through the old wine. He did not teach that Judaism should be abolished. Rather he compared the Judaism of his day to an old garment which needs mending or to old wineskins. Jesus was saying that the spiritual condition was not ideal. But certainly he did not desire to put away the noble traditions of the ancient faith. On the contrary, when he says that the old wine is better, he is upholding the finest contributions of ancient Judaism and seeking wholehearted reform from within. The old wine is the Judaism of his time. It is best.
Jesus wanted people to experience God in a revitalization of their faith in God. New fasts days may not be the best way to pursue the path leading back to the old wine. He wanted to see fresh wineskins for old wine. The truth and grace of the ancient faith must be renewed for all the people. Men and women must embrace the ancient faith with their whole hearts and receive God's salvation.
The old wine is good. It teaches the way of life according to the faith in the one and only God of ancient Israel. But the old wine needs new wineskins. Men and women of God must be renewed in order to hold the old wine. Jesus points the people to the truth of God's love and grace on the basis of the best in the old wine. But fresh skins are required for the old wine!
In a penetrating study of these sayings of Jesus, David Flusser has understood this meaning of the words of Jesus.4 While many New Testament scholars would deny the truth of Luke 5:39, "The old wine is better," Flusser has shown the clear authenticity of the saying in his careful study of the gospels. Flusser notes the results of his work, "The best opinion of Jesus' opinion about Judaism in his days would probably have been, if Jesus had said: 'Fresh skins for old wine!'"5
Some New Testament scholars may object to reading Luke since the accepted theory of gospel origins begins with Mark. Sometimes almost unintentionally, Mark's gospel is studied without examining the sayings of Jesus in Luke. Since it is taught that Luke copied from Mark as his best source for Jesus' life and teachings, there is no reason to read Luke's version. Luke is wrongly considered to be secondary to Mark. When we understand the work of R.L. Lindsey, the gospel of Luke cannot be discounted as a late corruption of Mark's earlier version.6 Luke's gospel preserves vital testimony about Jesus that should be admitted as evidence in the study of Jesus' life. The saying, "The old wine is better" (Luke 5:39) cannot be attributed to the later church. In fact it seems that the heretic Marcion was quick to delete it from his Bible because it spoke about Judaism in a positive way. Jesus was telling the people something about his purpose. He came to bring renewal and redemption through the power of the kingdom of heaven. His purpose was not to destroy the significance of Torah but to fulfill it.
When it comes to wine, the rabbis along with all knowledgeable wine connoisseurs would agree with Jesus. Old wine is better than new. The rabbis related wine to the study of the Torah. The more one studies the scriptures the more proficient one will become. Knowledge of the scripture will change an individual's life. Concerning old wine and the study of Torah, the rabbis taught:
One does not feel the taste of the wine at the beginning but the longer it
grows old in the pitcher, the better it becomes, thus also the words of the
Torah: the longer they grow old in the body, the better they become. (Soferim
Jesus desired to see new wineskins - that is a revitalized people - enjoying the best of the old wine. The old wine is best. A spiritual renewal is needed. The new fasts may contribute something toward this goal. But the future of the spiritual renewal will be linked more to Jesus and his disciples as they teach about God's reign than to new innovative fasts which were being called by John the Baptist and the Pharisees.
Jesus was not against the Judaism of his day. The ancient faith is like the old wine. He did not come to destroy the law but to fulfill it. He desired the revitalization of the faith. A renewed people, spiritually prepared for the best of the old wine.
Jesus speaks, moreover, concerning the bridegroom. In fact the whole passage surrounds the image of the bridegroom. Why do not Jesus' disciples fast? The bridegroom is with them. The day will come when the bridegroom is taken. In Hebrew the term "taken" used in this context is an euphemism clearly understood to refer to death.
The bridegroom is for a wedding, the occasion of supreme joy in Jewish thought and custom. Great joy is reserved for the wedding ceremony. The exact opposite is the case for a funeral. The grief expressed at a funeral is the supreme act of mourning. Jesus combines the two strongest emotions of men and women. The great joy of a wedding and the solemn mourning characteristic of a funeral.
His purpose is to revitalize fresh skins for the best of the old wine! But he also speaks about his redemptive mission. He is the bridegroom! He brings joy which is compared to the happiness associated with the customs of the wedding. On the other hand, he also brings mourning.
When Jesus said, "But when the bridegroom is taken away from them," the people were probably puzzled. The word "is taken away" (in Hebrew lukach, in Greek aparthe) was another way of saying, when he dies or when he is killed. Why must the bridegroom die? The term bridegroom could be associated with the coming of the messianic redeemer (cf. Mt. 25:6). The time will come when he will be taken, then his disciples will fast. In the puzzling saying of Jesus, one sees both joy and sadness inter-related. But how can one associate the joy of a wedding to the death of the bridegroom? Perhaps the answer to this question is related to messianic task as defined by Jesus himself.
Jesus quite possibly alludes to Isaiah 53:8, where the same Hebrew word refers to the death of the suffering servant.7 Joy is associated with the coming of the Messiah. But when the messianic idea is connected to the suffering servant in the words of the prophet Isaiah as Jesus taught in his prophecies concerning his death, then a reference to the death of the bridegroom is not out of place. Both of the diverse feelings of joy and mourning may be associated with the coming of the messianic figure in the teachings of Jesus. At least in Isaiah 53:8, we read, "He was taken away from rule and from judgment... For he was cut off from the land of the living." Is it possible that Jesus makes a veiled mention of his death as the bridegroom?
Probably the gospel passage, "The Question about Fasting" would
be more properly named, "Jesus speaks Prophetically about His Sufferings."
The bridegroom is here. Now is not the time for fasting. He brings renewal.
He is fulfilling his mission. Renewed wineskins are being prepared for the
finest old wine. But the day will come when the bridegroom will be taken. He
will die. This also will be a part of his mission.
The twin parables of the garment and the old wine make no sense when they are separated from their original religious setting of the first century. The message of these parables must be heard as a dialogue within Judaism. Some of the new efforts at reform like innovative fast days will not contribute to a deeper level of interaction with the ancient faith. Jesus is an insider promoting renewal and reform from within the system.
According to Jesus, the old wine is best! We as Christians have tended to
view the Judaism of the time of Jesus in a negative way. The teachings of
Jesus, however, present a very positive evaluation of Judaism. When we prefer
new wine, the message of Jesus is distorted. The followers of Jesus should be
for Judaism and enjoy the fine taste from the best of the old wine. A greater
understanding of the Jewish roots of early Christianity will enhance our
appreciation of the theological depth of Jesus' message.
1) Thus we read, "The disciples of John fast often and offer prayers, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours eat and drink" (Luke 5:33).
2) On the Hebrew background of the parables of Jesus, see the discussion in my book, Jesus and His Jewish Parables (Paulist Press, 1989), pp. 40-42. On the parables as traditional literature, see now the fine work of David Stern, Parables in Midrash (Harvard University Press, 1991), pp. 34-37.
3) Luke 5:39, "And no one after drinking old wine desires new; for he says, 'The old is better."
4) David Flusser, "Do you prefer New Wine?" Immanuel 9, (1979), pp. 26ff.
6) R.L. Lindsey, A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark (Baptist House, POB 154, Jerusalem, Israel, 1973). This book is much more than a Hebrew translation of Mark. It has a comprehensive introduction to the gospels and is vital for a proper understanding of the text.
7) Such an understanding of Isaiah 53:8 seems to be attached to Acts 8:33f. when Philip joined the chariot of the Ethiopian eunuch. The Ethiopian eunuch was a proselyte to Judaism who was reading from Isaiah and asked Philip for help in interpretation. The eunuch probably recognized Philip as a religious Jew or teacher of the law and so he believed that Philip could explain the words of the Hebrew prophet. Philip interpreted Isaiah 53:8 to the eunuch as referring to Jesus who had been killed. This story is deeply rooted in the best sources of Luke-Acts and represents an early understanding of Jesus' sufferings. See also the very important work of, A. Neubauer and S.R. Driver, The Fifty-Third Chapter of Isaiah according to Jewish Interpreters (New York: KTAV, reprint 1969, first published 1877). Though outdated, the work remains valuable.