2007-10-14

The Twelve Apostles Among the Old Wineskins?

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by Neil Godfrey

(updated 3:20 pm)
I’ve posted repeatedly reasons for believing the Gospel of Mark was an attack on that school of Christianity that claimed to trace its roots to the Twelve Apostles, and this post is a continuation of that theme although with a couple of new explorations into the interpretation of the gospel.

I’ve relied heavily in the past on the parable of the sower, following Tolbert’s Sowing the Gospel in this. But there is another prominent parable or maxim presented before this one and it is on that one, the sayings about the new cloth being sown into an old garment and new wine being poured into old wineskins, that is the fulcrum of my interpretation of Mark in the following snippet.

Mark 2:21-22

“No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, he pours new wine into new wineskins.”

This saying follows criticism that Jesus’ followers do not fast while the disciples of John and the Pharisees do. Jesus explains that the new wine of having the bridegroom — Jesus himself — with them in their very presence is enough to shatter and render useless any of the old notion of fasting. Now is the time to rejoice. There’ll be time enough for fasting when the bridegroom departs the scene.

The leper’s disobedience

Mark 1:40-45

A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured.

Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: “See that you don’t tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.”

Instead he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere.

Jesus told the leper to report the miracle to the priest in order to perform the required follow-up ritual. But he may as well have poured new wine into an old wineskin. How could a leper even think of silently going off to perform the ritual of cleansing when he had not only been cured of leprosy, but cured so dramatically by a touch and a word from Jesus? There was no place for the old Mosaic or Levitical ritual at such a moment.

Compare another healing and another command and the response it elicited.

The demonaic’s obedience
Mark 5:18-20

As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. Jesus did not let him, but said,

“Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.”

So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.

New wine in new wineskin here. It was in gentile territory, too, which probably explains a lot. There were no old wineskins of Levitical priests in attendance for these people. They were after all beyond the covenant. “Sinners” if you like, which is how many Jews perceived them. Like the leper, the demonaic had been unclean, living with an evil spirit (or host of them who all had an affinity for pigs) among tombs. Once cleansed or healed he was found sitting clothed, like the young man in the tomb of Jesus at the end of the gospel. And this new wineskin filled with new wine had great success in his proclaiming to all in his homeland what Jesus had done for him. “All marvelled.”

Now the final scene.

The women’s disobedience

This final scene is surely structured to direct the reader’s memory to the the first scene of the leper’s disobedience. In both, the parties do the opposite of what they are told, with notable consequences. In their disobedience they both illustrate the uselessness of the old wineskin representatives.

Mark 16:5-8

As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him.

But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.'”

Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

This one is very like the leper scene, and I suggest that is because it follows the same theme of attempting to poor new wine into old wineskins.

The women, like the leper, are looking for Jesus and are ritually unclean since they have entered the tomb. They are commanded by the Jesus surrogate to go, not to the Mosaic or Levitical priesthood, but to the disciples, in particular Peter. But the young man may just as well have poured new wine into old wineskins. The disciples, Peter in particular, simply could not understand Jesus or what had happened. Nor could any other follower such as these women who were looking for him at the tomb, thus proving their hardness of heart and failure to understand the life, death and teachings of Jesus. The disciples would no more hear the message (it would not have made any difference if they had anyway) than the priest got to see and perform the sacrificial rituals for the healed leper.

Jesus had been placed inside a “hewn out rock (petra)” (Mark 15:46) and had now left it behind as an empty unclean place. Peter was likewise to be left behind in Jerusalem. He, or those pretending to be him, and his close associates, James and John, would proclaim that they had seen the glorified Christ and were thus qualified to be the pillars of the Jewish church (Mark 9:2-4; 2 Peter 1:16-18; Galatians 2:6-9).

But their denial of the meaning of the death of Christ, and focus on his power and glory to the exclusion of his suffering and death, and at least part-way maintenance of the Jewish customs, meant that these apostles had become broken useless old wineskins. Try and try as he might, Jesus just could not break the Twelve’s hold on the old theological understandings. Indeed, their understanding grew darker as the gospel progressed, culminating in desertion, betrayal and denial of their Master. The gospel could only be advanced, at least according to the author of the Gospel of Mark, by someone more . . . let’s say, Pauline in outlook.

And that may go a long way to explaining some long outstanding questions about the call of Levi in Mark. But will discuss that aspect next post.

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Neil Godfrey

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0 thoughts on “The Twelve Apostles Among the Old Wineskins?”

  1. The verses in Mark beginning from 16:9 were not part of the original gospel. They are in part a conflation of the endings of Matthew and Luke. See the discussion of this section on the wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gospel_of_Mark#Ending

    If we are new to this idea I know it raises many other questions that are worth addressing. (These are taken up in other posts on Mark and elsewhere, but I will no doubt add more.)

    You compare Mark with the other gospels. Yet the other evangelists disagreed with Mark’s views and spoke much more favourably of Jesus’ disciples. It is not easy at first to see how different Mark really was when we read it with those other gospels in the back of our minds. But if we can do that, and read it with no more background than the Jewish scriptures, then this point becomes much more obvious. So for but one example, when Mark speaks of the disciples “hardness of heart” then we are reminded immediately of the stubborn rebellious Israelite generation of old whom God had to reject. (There is much more to this discussion and I have addressed some of the other points elsewhere, however, and will do more in the future.)

    But back to the women, Mark’s Jesus points to his real family, including his “real mother”, as being among his spiritual disciples, and in case readers miss the point, he does this in a scene where Jesus keeps his own physical mother outside and excluded from his inner circle. Mark 3:31-35.

    Again at the crucifixion, Mark pointedly says the women looked on Jesus “from afar”. This again reminds us of Psalm 22 (which Mark has already flagged for us in this scene in 15:33) where God’s persecuted one is left alone by all his human acquaintances — even God is “far off” from helping him. Commentators and artists generally paint that scene of the women as a touching one of love and grief. But to Mark, it was a picture of futility, of desolation. All Jesus’ companions had either fled or were “far off”. John will have none of this. He moves the women right up beside the cross — John 19:25-27. Matthew and Luke undo the damage done to the women the same way they overturn the damage done to the disciples — all are reunited as one happy band again after the resurrection. Not so in Mark.

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