This article is an exposition of Mark 2:18-22.

Source: Marcus - Het evangelie volgens Petrus (Kok Kampen). 5 pages. Translated by Albert H. Oosterhoff.

Mark 2:18-22 Commentary - Jesus Introduces a New Festival Calendar

In all the Gospels, the question about fasting follows the story about the meal at the house of Levi the tax collector. Matthew even begins the story about this question with the word “then” (Matt. 9:14) and thereby gives the impression that this question about fasting was asked in connection with that festive meal. Luke gives a similar impression in Luke 5:33: “[Your disciples] eat and drink [rather than fast].” It is quite possible that the meal at Levi’s house fell on a day of fasting or in a time of fasting. The annoyance about Jesus’ practice of eating with tax collectors and sinners was already apparent (Mark 2:16). The scribes now voice their annoyance by raising an issue that they observed more often in Jesus’ conduct. Would it not be better if he and his disciples were to observe days of fasting instead of eating and drinking with people such as tax collectors and sinners, who pay no attention to such days in Israel?

Some people regard Mark’s opening words in 2:18 (“Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast”) as a general characterization (they held days of fasting; cf. Matt. 9:14; Luke 5:33), whereas others think of them as a reference to a day of fasting that was being observed at that particular moment. We do not have to make a choice between these two. The way Mark formulates the question, it is clear that this is a general question about the attitude of Jesus and his disciples, while at the same time his choice of words suggests that this general question is made with reference to a specific day of fasting. Since the question is raised after the meal at Levi’s house, it is may well be that this was a day of fasting for the disciples of John and for the Pharisees and that therefore the scribes were more affected by the fact that Jesus ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners precisely on that day. Having expressed their annoyance about the Levi incident, they now add a more general objection to it.

Fasting was obligatory on the Day of Atonement according to the law of Moses. But the Jews recognized more days of fasting and even maintained calendars for days on which people could or could not fast. There was no fasting on feast days and Sabbaths. But it became the rule that Mondays and Thursdays were days of fasting for Jews who wanted to devote themselves to fasting and prayer. The Pharisees and the disciples of the Baptist expected the Messiah and fasted as they prayed for his coming. Their fasting was an aspect of the observance of the ecclesiastical feasts and a component of the ecclesiastical calendar. That was especially true of days of fasting on which people remembered events from the past, such as the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar (see Dan. 9:1-3; Zech. 7:1-6). So the question arose why Jesus and his disciples did not also devote themselves to these days of remembrance and prayer for deliverance, but instead acted like less devoted Jews and even ate and drank with them.

According to Matthew (9:14), the question is asked by the disciples of John, who point to the practice that they have in common with the Pharisees. Also in Luke (5:33) the questioners (who are unidentified here) first name John’s disciples and only then the disciples of the Pharisees. Many are of opinion that the reference to the “disciples of the Pharisees” (Luke 5:33; Mark 2:18) is an anomalous reading (and this opinion was followed in the first printing of this Commentary). Among the Pharisees there were scribes and their disciples, but the Party as such did not have “disciples.” But it is apparent from Josephus that it is possible to speak about “disciples of the Pharisees.”1 Why was this terminology chosen? Precisely because Jesus and his disciples were being addressed. They are being compared to what the disciples in the company of John and the company of the Pharisees do. They learned to observe days of fasting. But Jesus’ disciples only learn about eating and drinking! Mark gives the impression that both the disciples of John and those from the company of the Pharisees are asking the question. On the other hand, the question is not posed in the first-person plural and that gives the impression that third persons are raising the question on their behalf. Since the disciples who are mentioned and their spiritual sympathizers undoubtedly shared the same concern, the question could have been raised at the same time by various people. For Mark, posing the question is more important than the identity of the questioners. He shows that there is a broad basis for the question. It is not only the Pharisees who are faithful to the law, but also John’s disciples who keep the calendar of days of fasting faithfully!

Jesus’ answer (2:19) is in fact a pronouncement about himself. You can only understand everything through Jesus. He is the Bridegroom, the central figure of a feast! His disciples are the “sons of the bridal chamber.” This Semitic expression characterizes them as the first invitees to the bridal feast. They are more than guests. They are friends of the bridegroom who organize the wedding with him and for him. Precisely because they function in a sense as masters of ceremonies, they cannot be spoilsports. They need to comply with the character of the feast while the Bridegroom is with them.

Why did Jesus choose this metaphor? It doesn’t have much of an Old Testament background. But it does signify that Jesus is the central figure of the feast and that this explains the conduct of his disciples. Feast days prevent fasting! Will this feast come to an end? Jesus says (2:20), “But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then they shall fast in those days” (KJV). A small number of manuscripts (followed by many new translations) end with “on that day.” This reading could suggest a reference to Good Friday.2 However, at the beginning of the quotation it says that days (plural) will come when he is taken away. This makes it difficult to regard the taking away as referring exclusively to Jesus’ suffering and death. It also says that he will be taken away “from them” and that suggests a reference to the time in which Jesus is not with his disciples (on earth). The verb taking away points, in combination with “from them,” not directly to Jesus’ death, but to his being taken away from the “sons of the bridal chamber.” Consequently, it fits quite well with the image of the bridegroom, who is taken away at a good moment from the circle of his friends. For the image is about the marriage that follows: the bridegroom enters the bridal chamber (cf. Tobias 6:14) and the friends remain behind. John the Baptist had preached that the kingdom of heaven was near. His disciples expected it ardently with prayer and fasting. But Jesus introduces the present as the gospel. The joy of healing and grace surrounds him. And Jesus places that joy in the perspective of God’s calendar of feast days. With his disciples he is like a bridegroom. The bridal feast takes place because the marriage begins. Soon the bridegroom will enter the bridal chamber. By the use of a metaphor, Jesus indicates that the Son of Man will soon enter his kingdom. Why should the disciples fast and pray in that time? Because they will long to be allowed to follow him. Just like their present joy, their future fasting is focused on the bridegroom. Their rhythm of feasting and fasting is determined from now on by the memorable deeds of Jesus. That is why Jesus’ appearance signifies a new feast calendar and another rhythm of feasting and expectation.

The images that follow in 2:21-22 must be explained in this context. “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made” (2:21) (NKJV). The reference to a “piece of unshrunk cloth” is often understood as referring to a “piece that consists of new material.” But it is more likely that the reference is to new material from which a person cuts a piece that will serve to mend a tear in an old garment. But for such work you don’t cut pieces out of new material. That’s not what new material is used for! If you do cut it from new material, then the piece sewn onto the old material will shrink (to pleroma autou) and it will make a tear in the garment as large as the piece sewn onto it. In other words, it will be larger than the tear over which the new piece was sewn. In short, new material is not meant to be used to repair old garments!

The same is true of new wine. “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins – and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins” (2:22). The young wine ferments and the old wineskins cannot withstand this action. New wineskins are sufficiently supple to tolerate the strain of the young wine. In short, new wine is not meant to top up old wineskins!

Many commentaries use the keyword “incompatible” with reference to these two images (old and new don’t match). Is that what is meant? Or is it rather about the “risk of loss”?3  If the risk of loss were the focus, you would expect that the concluding sentence would have read, “Don’t put new wine into old wineskins!” Instead it is phrased positively: “But new wine is for fresh wineskins!” We may also ask whether it is correct to speak so quickly about the incompatibility of old and new, Jewish and Christian, etc. For the concluding sentence does not say, “Therefore get rid of the old wineskins!” Both images do not focus so much on the inferiority of the old or the superiority of the new, but on the need to make good use of new material and new wine. They are not meant for “patching up” and for “topping up.” They require the making of a new garment and the purchase of new wineskins. Continuity is maintained (it’s still about garments and wineskins, older or newer). The garment and the wineskin are not scrapped, but new material and new wine demand new garments and new wineskins.

But how is this connected to the pronouncement about fasting? In verses 19-20 it appeared that Jesus is the “new given” for determining the times for feasting and fasting. He is the “new material” and the “new wine.” He did not come so that people could fit him as a worker of miracles or a teacher into the pattern and calendar of festivals of the Pharisees and the disciples of the Baptist. He is not an “add-on.” He is new and brings with him a new practice and a new lifestyle. Many who did not believe in Jesus did give him much attention and were amazed at him. They wanted to use him within the existing Jewish society. But Jesus’ actions in eating and drinking shows rather that he came to use Israel in his new time.

The images he used are ordinary. They reveal how familiar Jesus was with daily life. They are “practical” parables. The choice of images is unexpected after the question about fasting, unless we reflect on the association of the disciples’ eating and drinking with festal garments and the wine of happiness. Jesus is new in Israel: the joy of new feasting is appropriate (a new garment and new wineskins). His presence on earth and his coming entrance into the kingdom determine the new feasting and fasting. An ecclesiastical year remains, together with a calendar of feast days, but we must make a new one now that Jesus has appeared.


  1. ^ JOSEPHUS, Antiquities 13, 289; 15, 3.370.
  2. ^ HEYER, C.J. DEN, Marcus. Een praktische bijbelverklaring. (Text and explanation). 2 parts. (Kampen, 1985).
  3. ^ KEE, A., “The Old Coat and the New Wine. A Parable of Repentance.” Novum Testamentum 12 (1970): 13-21.

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