Spending Time with Jim McGuiggan

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1. Those who think that grape-juice just turns into drinkable fermented wine, that it just makes itself, need to listen to the wine industrialists. Winemaking was always that: winemaking. The ancient nations had to work at it and that’s part of the reason that the word “wine” has been claimed exclusively for manufactured wine! Winemakers would have a fit if you told them their wine was nothing but grape-juice.

2. But there’s abundant literary evidence from Roman times that not everyone wanted to make fermented wine. We’re told of many ways in which people could and did keep non-fermented wine from fermenting and one of them was the use of sulphur, a prime inhibitor of fermentation used by the modern wine industry. [Patrick McGovern, Ancient Wine, The Search...Princeton University Press, 2003, page 57, tells us ancient winemakers didn’t have sulphur as an inhibitor until the Roman period—he must have meant (as the index suggests) that there is no evidence of it. Sulphur mines were known from the Red Sea to the Zagros Mountains, and southern Palestine had more than enough to get Sodom’s attention. Sulphur technology was well established in the millennia before Jesus and the idea that the ancient winemakers hadn’t learned that there were things—sulphur among them—that prevented or retarded the fermentation process until the Roman period is too hard to swallow.]

3. Ancients who used skins as water and wine "bottles" had to treat the skins for various uses (“tanners” would have known all about that). It’s interesting that the Bible doesn’t ever speak of a tanning industry though in a settled society “tanners” would always be needed (“Simon the ‘tanner’” is in Acts 10:6). The same is true about winemaking. Though wine drinking is at least as old as Noah and there are plenty of general remarks about the process there is no development in the Bible anything like, “Here is how wine is made and kept.” You hear a lot of that among those scientific/agricultural types in Greece and later in Roman times but we’re not to suppose because the OT didn’t mention it that the technology wasn’t known to Semitic ancients—we know it was! The Bible simply doesn’t talk about it.

Moving on.

Matthew 9:14-17 gives us two “parables”. Jesus is responding to the question about set fasts of the Pharisees and the disciples of the Baptist. There was some criticism that Jesus and his group had no ritual fasts and Jesus responds by saying that devotion to God and a healthy response to life requires spontaneity and fitness to the circumstances.

No one wears a black arm-band or puts a wreath on their door unless the occasion calls for it. We don’t dace happy jigs at a funeral (well, maybe in New Orleans) or dress in mourning attire at a wedding. To fast without reason is to “manufacture” piety and engage in a contrived religious ordinance. Unless there is heartfelt repentance or mourning or some such inner experience the fasting ritual is without meaning. The parables are a call to heartfelt and spontaneous religion and especially in the face of criticism from those who (it appears) felt superior. An unshrunk piece of cloth doesn’t belong on an old garment; unfermented new wine does not belong in an old wineskin and fasting didn’t belong where the heart and the circumstances didn’t warrant it.

Imagine someone comes to work wearing a black armband. You go to him and express your sorrow for his loss and he cheerfully says he has suffered no loss. You ask about the mourning symbol and he says he just decided to wear it. You shrug, go about your business and for many months he wears his armband. One morning he rebukes you for joking and not commiserating with him and you say you didn’t know he was in mourning and he points to his black armband.

His pointless wearing the insignia of mourning not only destroyed the symbol, leaving it meaningless, it blinded you to the occasion—a time when mourning was appropriate. Something like that, I think, was what Jesus had in mind.

I see nothing in the text at all about someone trying to join the Old Covenant to the New Covenant or combine “legalism” and “grace”. I think Jesus’ teaching is just as potent and needful for Christians who make no attempts to put a patch of the New Covenant on the Old Covenant or vice versa.

Moving on.

See if what follows makes sense to you. Whatever the point of the two parables, the imagery should be plain enough. There’s a piece of “unshrunk” cloth (Mark 2:21) that’s sewn to an old (already shrunk) garment and there’s new unfermented wine (oinon neon—accusative) put in an old wineskin (2:22 and parallels).

In saying, “Nobody puts new wine in old wine skins” Jesus obviously is calling on common sense and practice. Yes, but what common practice?

It’s generally said, and on the surface it makes sense to say, that the “new wine” was not put in the old, already stretched and brittle wineskins because in the course of fermentation the production of carbon dioxide gas would be too great for the old skin and it would burst (so Ross, Bandstra and many others). But there’s a problem with that explanation!

A gallon of non-fermented wine in the process of fermentation would produce enough CO2 to burst any skin new or old if the skin was ventless. If you purposed to make fermented wine you would not only choose a new skin (rather than one with dregs of ferment, moulds and fungi now clinging to it) you would leave a vent to allow the gas to escape (Job 32:19). But if you purposed fermented wine and left a vent it wouldn’t make any difference if the skin was new or old—the gas would be no threat!

So what was Jesus talking about? If he had been talking about someone purposing to make fermented wine he must have forgotten that they vented the bags precisely to prevent bursting. No, it appears Jesus was talking about a sealed, ventless skin otherwise the skin wouldn’t be in danger of bursting. But if that’s true then he wouldn’t have had the manufacture of fermented wine in view because an unvented skin would burst, new or old. The aim was to keep the non-fermented grape juice from fermenting so it’d be put in a skin treated for the purpose—“tanners” would have known all about that.


Making the parable “work”

In making alcoholic wine they wouldn’t have chosen a ventless skin.

But Jesus had a ventless skin in mind.

He began with unfermented wine because if the wine had already fermented it would not have produced CO2 to threaten the skin and the parable wouldn’t have worked.

If he had begun with partly fermented wine he wouldn’t have spoken of a ventless skin. Their common sense and practice wouldn’t have allowed them to use a ventless skin and the parable wouldn’t have worked.

He had a ventless skin in mind for the gas production in a vented skin would not have been a threat to any skin (new or old) and the parable wouldn’t have worked.

So it seems to me we’re compelled to say

1) Jesus started with unfermented wine,

2) spoke of it going into a ventless skin and

3) not generating explosive CO2

4) and the wine and the skin are safe.


Taking it that the above is a fair understanding of the situation some things seem surely to follow. While it was certainly common for people to manufacture intoxicating wine it must also have been common for them to “bottle” and keep non-intoxicating wine otherwise Jesus couldn’t have implied it was common sense and practice.

Taking it to be a fair understanding of the case, we have Jesus calling the unfermented liquid that goes into the skin “oinon neon” and then, twice calling it “oinos”. That would mean that it’s perfectly acceptable in Jesus’ day to call unfermented grape juice “oinos” and that the NT does in fact speak that way on this occasion.

Finally—it sometimes happened that the new, sweet wine was allowed to begin to ferment before being sealed and it swelled to bursting point. Here’s what fuming Elihu says: “My heart is indeed like wine that has no vent; like new wineskins, it is ready to burst.” (Job 32:18-19 and the rest of the versions). Two things worth noting: Elihu calls the wine yayin and the LXX has gleukos (“sweet”—the word “wine” is contextually implied) and rendered “sweet wine” in English. It is rendered as “new wine” in Acts 2:13 and in Josephus’ Antiquities 2.5.2 the juice pressed from the grapes for the Pharaoh to drink is called gleukos [Philo calls it oinos.]

If we’re allowed to parallel Elihu’s words and Jesus’ words, and I don’t see why not, we have yayin put in a ventless skin. But if it was unfermented and it was called yayin perhaps we should allow the generic nature of yayin.


·         It appears that oinos and neos oinos can be used to speak of unfermented wine.

·         It appears that it was commonplace for people to put unfermented wine in skins with no intention of making fermented wine.

·         It appears that gleukos [“sweet” (unfermented wine)] is a legitimate translation of the Hebrew yayin.

[Take issue with the above if you're in the mood.]


Spending Time with Jim McGuiggan