God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

What Wine and Wineskins can Teach Us about Text and Context

Bill Mounce notes (also here) that Classical Greek had two words for “new”: neos and kainos.

We see them both in Matthew 9:17 (as well as Mark 2:22 and Luke 5:37), where Jesus relates that people “pour new wine into new wineskins” (NIV). The problem is that this translation (along with the NLT, CEV, and others) wrongly makes it sound as if it is the newsness of the skins that makes them suitable for the new wine. That is, the translation seems to suggest that the wine and the skin should match.

But the Greek uses neos for the wine and kainos for the skins. So in Greek, the wine doesn’t match the skin. Rather, there are two kinds of skins (palaios and kainos) and the question is which is better for wine that is neos.

In other words, the original question is “should neos wine go in to kainos or palaios skins?” Some translations prejudice the issue by asking instead, “should new wine go in to new or old skins.”

Simply as a description of the skin, I’m not sure that “fresh wineskin” — the other common option, from the KJV, NAB, NRSV, etc. — is better than “new.” (This might because I get my wine from bottles, so in truth I’m not really sure what this wineskin [askos] is, and what a fresh one looks like.) But in the context of Matthew 9:17, I think it’s more important to convey the point of the lesson than to describe the exact quality of the skin.

I also think that this is a perfect demonstration of why translating each word is not enough to create a good translation.

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April 28, 2010 - Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , , ,

12 Comments »

  1. I like fresh over new, but both convey the idea of being different than old. However, as you point out, almost no one USES wineskins anymore, which inhibits our ability to understand what Jesus is saying.

    Comment by Don | April 28, 2010 | Reply

    • Also — based on askos udatos, an “askos of water,” in Genesis 21:14 — it’s not clear if “wineskin” or just “skin” is called for here. (The KJV gives us “bottle.” Most others go with “skin.”)

      Comment by Joel H. | April 28, 2010 | Reply

      • Right and skin by itself is even less clear, as in “I put some liguid in that skin.” Crossing cultures is always a challenge.

        Comment by Don | April 28, 2010

  2. Below are my comments to Mounce (awaiting moderation):

    **** begin
    Nice post, but in the case of “To the Hebrews”, it isn’t Greeks using one word and Barbarians the other, so might the fact that the author (who is clearly functionally Greek) used two different words (most likely sensitive to the nuances implied in each word) signal that the nuances were significant?

    This would, of course, not always be true. Some authors have a literary, stylistic penchant for avoiding repeating their vocabulary, and their bouncing back and forth might well be for flourish.

    So, I don’t take exception to your general observation that there are such things as synonyms used that, one or the other, are used by people based on their familiarity with the language with disconnect from the parent language. But I think your example was poorly chosen. Consider:

    * he contrasts that which is “gittin’ ol'” with that which is young, fresh and zingy, so he uses KAINOS:

    Hebrews 8:13 In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away.

    But when speaking of the more recent, “on the scene for less time” testament (DIAQHKE), he uses NAIOS:

    Hebrews 12:24 And to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel.

    Now, we can be absolutely certain that the author is quoting LXX in 8:8, so he *has* to use KAINOS:

    Hebrews 8:8 For finding fault with them, he saith, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah:

    Jeremiah 31:31 (38:31) ιδου ημεραι ερχονται φησιν κυριος και διαθησομαι τω οικω ισραηλ και τω οικω ιουδα διαθηκην **καινην**

    So, the more significant feature is when the writer of “To the Hebrews” uses NEOS, to describe what “God” (because he believes all of the words of the LXX are ascribable to God) described as KAINOS.

    Hebrews 12:24 And to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel.

    Clearly he is referring to “the [more] recent” testament to contrast it in terms of time, rather than quality.

    The view from here…
    *** end

    Context makes it clear that he is referring to Judaism as an old, worn out wineskin, and that what God is doing now will go into a new wineskin, which speaks of a new testament, a new man, a new regime (commonly mistranslated as “new creation”) and newness of life; “I make all things fresh [KAINA].”

    Revelation 21:5 και ειπεν ο καθημενος επι τω θρονω ιδου **καινα** ποιω παντα και λεγει γραψον οτι ουτοι οι λογοι πιστοι και αληθινοι εισιν

    The “new” sky is actually the “fresh” or “made fresh” sky as is the “new” land:

    Revelation 21:1 And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.

    In my view, he makes all of the existing sky and land “fresh” as the “fresh Jerusalem” descend to the land:

    Revelation 3:12 Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new [KAINA] Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name.

    Revelation 21:2 And I John saw the holy city, new [KAINA] Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

    Of course, John’s command of Greek is suspect, so he may not have chosen his words as carefully….

    How is “leather bottle” for ASKOS?

    Comment by WoundedEgo | April 28, 2010 | Reply

  3. Well I am interested – the polemic implication of new old fresh etc may be overcome or may be worsened. Judaism it seems cannot be identified with old – but rather the old creation – the old heavens and the old earth – as to covenant, I wouldn’t jump to any immediate conclusion on identifying that too exclusively either. The new is positively seen in terms of the old b’rit in Colossians 2:11 pace all the implied polemics. Looking forward to any response you might get… Where else should I link?

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | April 28, 2010 | Reply

    • Hi, Bob.

      Are you saying that it isn’t *specifically and uniquely* to Judaism, or that it doesn’t apply?

      Would you say that this saying has a context that “anchors” it to a particular referent? Or that it was given as a universal, with no particular application in mind?

      Comment by WoundedEgo | April 28, 2010 | Reply

      • If by ‘it’ you mean what is ‘old’ in Hebrews – what is old is not ‘Judaism’ which in the form we know it in is just as new as whatever else was born at that time. The writer elaborates in chapter 9 and names the sacrificial cult as what is ‘first’ and decaying away. There is for instance no mention of the covenant with Abraham or the covenant of circumcision etc etc… and in the Apocalypse there is only the new heavens and new earth, a new creation, a new creature. I.e. the terms of reference are not the Judaism vs Christianity. So it is specific and not universal but each case must be thought out on its own. – but this is not my area of expertise if indeed I may be said to have any.

        Comment by Bob MacDonald | April 28, 2010

  4. >>>If by ‘it’ you mean what is ‘old’ in Hebrews – what is old is not ‘Judaism’ which in the form we know it in is just as new as whatever else was born at that time….

    Bob, “To the Hebrews” explicitly says that Judaism is not only old, but it is SO old that it has one foot in the coffin:

    Heb 8:13 In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away.

    Paul says the same thing:

    2 Cor 3:
    7 But if the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not stedfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance; which glory was to be done away:
    8 How shall not the ministration of the spirit be rather glorious?
    9 For if the ministration of condemnation be glory, much more doth the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory.
    10 For even that which was made glorious had no glory in this respect, by reason of the glory that excelleth.
    11 For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious.

    In light of this, can you defend your view of a vigorous Sinaitic covenant?

    Comment by WoundedEgo | April 28, 2010 | Reply

    • Of course – but this is not the place. Were it the place, you would know that it needs no defense.

      Comment by Bob MacDonald | April 29, 2010 | Reply

  5. The word for “new” in “new cloth” is also of note:

    Mark 2:21 No man also seweth a piece of new cloth on an old garment: else the new piece that filled it up taketh away from the old, and the rent is made worse.

    The word here is AGNAFOS. If I’m not mistaken, the “cloth” that Mark is referring to is wool, and before you could use the wool of a sheep, you would have to tease it with prongs to get the fibers to line up. New, here, seems to refer to fibers that have not even been teased out.

    Perhaps the idea here is that there is such a thing as a solution that is “too new” and “too raw” and “underdeveloped.” Maybe it is “half baked”?

    But the parable doesn’t suggest any defect in the un-teased wool, only that it is the inappropriate solution for patching up a worn out sweater.

    I’m not sure, though, how a lump of wool stitched into a hole in a sweater would “make the rent worse,” unless somehow it upsets the landlord! 🙂

    Comment by WoundedEgo | April 29, 2010 | Reply

    • “I’m not sure, though, how a lump of wool stitched into a hole in a sweater would “make the rent worse,” unless somehow it upsets the landlord!”

      This is one I can answer 🙂 assuming we are talking about wool. Aged wool fibers in wool cloth has constricted or compacted and is less flexible (think of how a cotton t-shirt shrinks a little over time, same thing with wool). A brand new piece of wool cloth is still pretty loose and flexible by comparison. If I cut a 3inch by 3inch hole into an old wool cloth, then patch it with a 3inch by 3inch piece of new wool cloth, when the patch shrinks with age it will tear away from the old cloth causing more damage.

      Comment by Jason Engel | July 17, 2012 | Reply

  6. 1. “New” wine is still fermenting and thus generating gases (i.e., it’s expanding).
    2. A “new” wineskin is flexible thus able to expand with the new wine. However, an old wineskin is inflexible and has already stretched to it’s capacity.
    3. So, you don’t -completely fill- an old, inflexible wineskin to its current capacity with wine that is still expanding, or the wineskin will burst, and both it and the wine will be ruined.

    “Neos” means “recently born, young, youthful, new”, and in reference to the wine would mean new as in recently produced and probably still fermenting. NIV’s choice of “new” in reference to the wine seems reasonable to me, and I think it fits the intention of the original Greek, as long as you understand #1 above.

    “Palaios” means “no longer new, worn by use, the worse for wear, old”, and so is clearly an antonym for “kainos” which means “recently made, fresh, recent, unused, unworn”. To me, “new” is an acceptable – though perhaps not so clearly descriptive – synonym for these possible translations of “kainos”. It gets the point across, as long as you understand #2 above.

    Understanding those three points at the top, and those definitions/translations of the Greek words, what’s wrong with the NIV translation? I’d argue it’s technically accurate, though it might be lacking the descriptive imagery of the original Greek. It seems to me that it correctly relates the newness of the wineskin with the newness of the wine (that is, they should “match”).

    [Definitions of Greek words taken from studylight.org’s Greek dictionary. I was aware of the passage and felt I understood it’s meaning, but did not know the Greek words referenced in this article or their definitions. Once I looked them up, I found that the definitions matched my understanding of the passage. That said, I’m open to hearing other explanations, because I’m obviously not a Greek scholar.]

    Comment by Jason Engel | July 17, 2012 | Reply


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