Matthew 9:4-17 In the Light Of Relevance Theory


Matthew 9:14-17 seems to pose a number of problems of exegesis, as can be illustrated by the interpretation of the main point of the metaphor of the wine and the wineskins. For example, Gundry (1982) refers to it as "...a simple metaphor concerning the need to preserve a good religious practice" (171), but Lenski (1964) draws out as the main point the message "Cast aside all the old Pharisaism with all its ways; take only the new ways of life that fit the new doctrine" (371). What, if any, contribution can relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986) make to the interpretation of this section? The aim of this paper is to analyse at least part of the section in terms of the questions relevance theory would raise about it, and this will lead to some specific answers concerning the overall thrust of the section.


The starter of the section is the question of John's disciples in 9.14: "Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?" This is a double question: Why do the disciples of John and the Pharisees fast? Why do your disciples not fast?

Jesus answers by telling three metaphors. I will now try to look at each of them in terms of relevance theory, paying special attention to the logical construction of the argument and the various kinds of information needed to carry it through.


The First Metaphor

The first metaphor is that of the bridegroom and his guests/friends. Firstly, there is a question: "Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?" The answer seems obvious: No, they can't. However, how would this answer be arrived at? It seems to imply something like the following reasoning:


(1)       The presence of the bridegroom is a cause for joy for the guests/friends (contextual assumption).


(2)        When there is a cause for joy, one cannot be sad (contextual assumption).


(3)       As long as the bridegroom is with the guests/friends, they cannot be sad (contextual implication).


The contextual implication (3), which we naturally perceive as the message of the question, is very easily derivable from highly accessible contextual assumptions-hence its categorisation as a so-called "rhetorical question."


The metaphor then continues with the following statement: "The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast."


Here two propositions are expressed: The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them. Then they will fast.


What kinds of contextual assumptions are involved in the joining of these two statements? I suggest the following:


(4)       When the cause of one's joy is taken away, one gets sad (contextual assumption).


(5)       At time X, the bridegroom will be taken away from the guests/friends (or from the disciples?) (text).


(6)        Fasting is an expression of sadness (contextual assumption).


(7)        At time X, the guests/friends will be sad (contextual implication of (4), (1), (5)).


(8)        At time X, the guests/friends will fast (contextual implication of (6) and (7)).


This, then, would be a sketch of the contextual assumptions and implications that are contained in the metaphor itself, and we shall see that some of these assumptions will play an important role later on.


What about the interpretation of this metaphor? What are the referents, and what are the resemblances linking the metaphor to the referents? Potential referents highly accessible in the context are Jesus and his disciples: Jesus is present right there; they are asking about the disciples. Thus the guests of the wedding could easily be taken as representing the disciples of Jesus, and the bridegroom as representing Jesus himself. What about the resemblances between the figures and the referents?


I suggest the following resemblances, which are highly accessible already, either from the utterances expressed or from the contextual assumptions and implications already involved in the understanding of the figure itself.


(9)        The presence of Jesus is a cause of joy for the disciples (cf. (1) above).


(10)      As long as Jesus is with the disciples, they cannot be sad (cf. (3) above).


(11)     As long as Jesus is with the disciples, they cannot fast (contextual implication from (6) and (10).


All of the argumentation presented so far put together, then, supplies the answer to the original question about the reason why the disciples of Jesus don't fast. However, Jesus' answer is not in absolute but in temporal terms, "as long as," and so the figure goes on to explain what happens at other times. The resemblances for the second part of the figure are as follows:


(12)      At time X, Jesus will be taken away from the disciples (cf. (5)).


(13)      At time X, the disciples will be sad (cf. (7)).


(14)      At time X, the disciples will fast (cf. (8)).


So, Jesus' reply to the question is not a yes-no answer but has a time factor involved. However, what seems extremely remarkable is the kind of answer this is. What Jesus is, in fact, saying is that for his disciples it is his personal presence or absence that determines whether or when they fast: this is clear from the inferential chains (9) through (11) and (12) through (14). Note also that there is a strong dependence on fasting as an expression of sadness here via (10) and (14) which go back to the contextual assumption (6). Now both of these ideas clashed with some of the standard Judaistic assumptions that must have been present about fasting in this context. Firstly, the kind of fasting that John's disciples asked about was certainly that prescribed by the laws and traditions of Judaism; and, secondly, that time of fasting was fixed by law or tradition, not by feelings of sadness, as is strongly implicated in Jesus' reply through (6). We might represent the Judaistic background assumption about fasting by (15):


(15)      Fasting is a religious duty prescribed by the laws and traditions of Judaism.


Thus Jesus' reply implied the following: "Fasting is not determined for my disciples by the ordinances of Judaism but by their personal relationship to me. Whether I am present or absent from them, fasting is a natural outworking or expression of their feelings about me, and not a religious duty." This implication implied, in turn, that Jesus was counting his absence or presence as a factor that would override the ordinances of Judaism. It was as if Jesus was saying, "I know that Judaism has its laws about fasting, but my disciples won't fast as long as I am around because we are having a happy time together." What a preposterous thought that must have been in Jewish ears, leading naturally to the next question: "Who is this man, that he dares to put himself above the Judaistic laws and traditions?" This answer would have called for either the reply that he was a maniac or that he was divinely authorized-a very special person-and so the thought of him claiming Messiahship was probably not far off. So by his answer Jesus is effectively disputing the recognized authority of the Judaistic regulations about fasting, and by implication putting himself above the ordinances of Judaism as such. He is questioning the old order of Judaism and suggesting something quite new: a new ordinance where he himself is the determining factor, not the old regulations. This, I think, is the point from which the other two metaphors develop: If Jesus is setting up a new order over against the old, what is the relation between the two going to be? Perhaps Jesus was anticipating the question here: "Well, even if you are proposing a new order, why not take the best of both orders? Why not just supplement the old order by what is good in the new?"


The Second Metaphor

Matthew 9:16: "And no one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made."


The figure itself, first of all, involves the following:


(16)            Unshrunk cloth shrinks when it is washed.


(17)      The material of an old garment will not shrink.


(18)     When the unshrunk cloth is sewn onto cloth which has already shrunk, the unshrunk cloth will get smaller when washed; the old cloth will not change, and so the two will tear apart.


(19)      When the two tear apart the original tear will be worse than before.


(20)     One sews a patch onto a garment that is defective in some way (very thin or torn).


What would be natural referents for the unshrunk cloth and for the old garment? The analysis of the last verse led to the recognition that Jesus is suggesting a new order over against the old order of Judaism, and so it is only too obvious to link up the old order with the old robe and the new patch with (part of) the new order. This leads to the following plausible resemblances.


(21) The old order had deficiencies (cf. (20)).


(22) An attempt to make up for the deficiencies of the old by linking it up or integrating into it the new order will lead to worse damage than the original deficiencies (cf. (18) and (19)).


(As I take it, there is no particular evidence here for the view that Jesus was displaying any interest in the effect of the new order on the old order, i.e., that its deficiencies would get worse if joined together. (Allen 1977:92-93) All he implies is that joining the two will lead to worse damage, not that it is clearly implied that the old order was already deficient (cf. (20) and (21)). It also seems significant that Jesus is not suggesting the obvious: put an old patch on an old robe, though he does make a parallel suggestion in terms of the new order for the wineskin and wine figure in 9:17. So, in this metaphor Jesus' point is essentially a negative one: the new order cannot be integrated into or joined onto the old order, or damage worse than the deficiencies of the old order will result.


This brings us to the third metaphor.


Matthew 9:17: "Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; if it is, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved."


Here the following contextual assumptions and implications seem to play a role.


(23)      New wine ferments and expands.


(24)      Old wineskins are easily broken under pressure.


(25)      When new wine ferments, it exerts pressure on its container.


(26)     If new wine is put into old wineskins, it will easily break the old wineskins (cf. (23) through (25) ).


(27)      If a wineskin is broken, it is spoiled.


(28)      When a wineskin is broken, its contents will spill.


(29)     When new wine is put into old wineskins, it will spoil the wineskins (cf. (26) and (27) ).


(30)      When new wine is put into old wineskins, the wine will be spilled.


(31)      No one wants to spoil his wineskins or spill his wine.


(32)      No one will put new wine into old wineskins.


This concerns the first half of the verse dealing with the old wineskins and the new wine. Now to the second half.


(33)      New wineskins are not broken under pressure.


(34)     If new wine is put into new wineskins, the new wineskins will not be broken (cf. (23), (25), and (33) ).


(35)     If new wine is put into new wineskins, the new wine will not be spilled (cf. (23), (25), (28), and (33) ).


What, then, are the referents for this metaphor?


From the previous metaphor, there are already two referents available: the old order and the new order. Here, however, it seems that another pair of referents is needed. Assuming that the "new wine" is meant to represent the new order Jesus was talking about in the preceding verses, then the old wine would naturally be taken as a representation of the old order of Judaism. But what, then, about the old and new wineskins? Now the previous context started out about fasting, one of the practices (or expressions) of the old Judaistic order. Taking this as a clue, it would not seem too farfetched to take the "wineskins" as the practices corresponding to or belonging to the respective system or order (or as their forms of expression).


At this point let me comment on the interpretations suggested by Gundry (op. cit.) and by Allen (1977). As mentioned above, Gundry takes the whole point of the metaphor of the wineskins to be an argument for the "need to preserve a good religious practice" (loc. cit.). How does he get to this interpretation? The following statement gives a clue: "For example, if we were to identify the new wine with the gospel and set it in contrast with the old wineskins of Judaistic forms, what could we make of the concern not to let the old wineskins of Judaistic form perish?" The first question here is, from where does Gundry get the idea that Jesus is concerned "not to let the old wineskins" get spoiled? The basic mistake seems to be in the interpretation of the last sentence: here Gundry seems to assume that amphoteroi 'both' refers to the old wineskins and the new wine-though surely the most obvious and natural reading is that 'both' refers to the new wineskins and the new wine. Note that this is precisely Jesus' point in this verse: new wineskins are needed for the new wine. Now Gundry adduces other evidence for his view, some of it by a comparison with Mark's version of the metaphor. Thus the passivation "the skins are burst" is supposed to indicate that here the emphasis is on the wineskins rather than on the wine, and also, that in Matthew's version "the wineskins are emphasized again by having their own independent clause, in contrast with Mark, where they appear to be tacked on the single clause as an afterthought" (op. cit. 171). Given that a reader would not normally compare the two accounts, it is not clear how much weight one should give to this argument. Furthermore, Gundry seems to be overlooking that Matthew does, in fact, end up with a chiasm of the pattern a - b - a:



(a         the skins burst

(b         the wine is spilled

(a         the skins are destroyed


As has been proposed by a number of studies of chiasm, the central point of a chiastic statement is usually found in the central proposition, here b: "The wine is spilled." This analysis would then also favour the more natural interpretation that Jesus is not concerned with the preservation of "a good religious practice-"it would be hard to substantiate that Jesus ever had this idea of the ritualistic practice of Judaistic fasting-but with the uncompromising introduction of the new order with new practices. This is, of course, the interpretation suggested by Lenski, as quoted in the introductory section. Allen's problem seems to be similar to that of Gundry, though he solves it in a different way. He says, "The last clause, 'and both are preserved' can only give expression to the thought that if Christianity be allowed to develop independently of Jewish modes, both Christianity and Judaism are preserved. But the thought of the preservation and continuance of Jewish modes of religion is foreign to the context. The clause is doubtless due to the editor, who is thinking rather of completing the literary parallelism than of the meaning underlying the words which he records" (1977:93) [emphasis mine]. Again, the problem here seems to lie in the misconstrual of the reference for "both," and it is the interpreter rather than any editor who is not paying enough attention to the meaning of the text.



In summary, what can we see as the intended main points of this section? Firstly, Jesus answers the question of John's disciples by saying that the fasting of his disciples is determined by his presence or absence. This had the implication, obvious to Jews, that Jesus was rejecting the old Judaistic order and introducing a new order. It also conveyed the idea that Jesus was claiming an extraordinary status as a person both in replacing the old order and making his person the centre of the new order.


Secondly, there is no point in attempting to overcome the deficiencies of the old order by supplementing it with certain features of the new order. Thirdly, in particular, the practices of the old system, like fasting-the starting point of the conversation-cannot be maintained as expressions of the new system. The new system will have its own forms of expression-such as fasting out of personal concern for the person of Jesus rather than because of religious rules and regulations.


Lastly, let me highlight, especially for the translator concerned with communication, that there are a considerable number of contextual assumptions which the hearer or reader must have accessible if he is to arrive at the correct, i.e., speaker-intended interpretation of the text. Two particularly important ones are (6) and (15); they provide the crucial clues for seeing that Jesus is not just dealing with the issue of personal fasting, but that he expands his answer to deal with the fact that there are two distinct orders, an old one and a new, as well as with the relationship between the two. Without these clues, it is difficult to see how the reader will ever get the central message of this section. Jesus' reply is a masterpiece of communication-extremely economic, making optimal use of contextual information that was highly accessible to the original audience and communicating a very significant message by means of very simple metaphors taken from the sphere of everyday life. The reader or hearer who "had ears to hear," and who was willing to carefully think about all that was implied could derive tremendous insights from these few sentences.



Allen, W. C. [1912] 1977. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Matthew. Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark.

Gundry, R. H. 1982 Matthew. A Commentary on His Literary and Theological Art. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Lenski, R. C. H. [1943] 1964 The Interpretation of St. Matthew's Gospel. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House

Sperber, D., and Wilson D. 1986. Relevance: Communication and Cognition. Oxford: Basil Blackwell