October 03, 2006

More wineskin history

In response to Sunday's post about new (or old) wine in old (or new) bottles, two correspondents pointed out to me that the history is more complicated -- and more interesting -- than I thought. In the first place, there is an "old wine in new bottles" version of the proverb that is roughly as old as the "new wine in old bottles" version in the gospels. In the second place, the message of this alternate version is the basic "can't tell a book by its cover" idea which is behind most modern uses of the expression, as opposed to the message of the version in the gospels, which is something like "new ideas need new practices". In the third place -- well, let's get to the facts first.

Aaron "Dr. Whom" Dinkin writes:

I read the discussion of the interpretation of "new wine in old bottles" with interest; but it seems to me you've missed an early related example which seems to give the metaphor the reading that your original correspondent understood it to have (viz., "a new item or concept with little intrinsic value being packaged in a way that deceptively gave it the high values belonging to an older or well-established concept or item"). The Talmud (Avot 4:27) says:

Rabbi Meir said, "Look not at the flask, but at what it contains: there may be a new flask full of old wine, and an old flask that has not even new wine in it."

I gather that Meir lived in the late 1st century or early 2d.

And from Jacob Baskin comes a different translation, a hyperlink, and further insight:

Upon reading your Language Log post yesterday, I remembered having seen something like "new wine in old bottles" somewhere else. I found it in the Mishnah, in Pirke Avot (Chapters of the Fathers), a text containing Jewish proverbs dating between the 3rd century B.C. and the 3rd century A.D. In Chapter 4, Mishnah 20:

A Rabbi used to say: Do not look at the flask but at what is in it; there may be a new flask that is full of old wine and an old flask that does not even have new wine in it.

This saying is unattributed (attributed sometimes to Rabbi Meir, because all unattributed sayings are thus attributed traditionally), and could have been written before or after the books of the Gospel. The interesting thing is that it talks both about new flasks full of old wine and old flasks full (or empty) of new wine -- and uses the metaphor in a very different way. I found Pirke Avot in English and Hebrew here:

The obvious (and I suppose unanswerable) question is whether there is some implicit two-thousand-year-old dialogue here. And if so, who was responding to whom. More food for the thought: I gather that the Pirke Avot was compiled in the 3rd century A.D. in Roman-occupied Palestine by Rabbi Yehudah ha Nasi, and the wineskin proverb is among the least spectacular of the stories attributed to Rabbi Meir.

A more accessible question is how the mishnaic wineskin proverb (or some older folkloric version) has contributed to the modern interpretation of the various new/old wine in old/new bottles expressions.

[Update -- Ian Slater offers an alternative (or perhaps additional) interpretation:

The passage from the Mishnah may be pertinent. However, the specific translation of "flagon" could be a problem. The on-line "Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon" offers the definition "vessel" for the noun QNQN (http://cal1.cn.huc.edu/), which is at least compatible.

However, Marcus Jastrow's great "A Dictionary of the Targumim, The Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature"* (1903) suggests a different image. It defines Qanqan (page 1394) first very specifically as "a cylindrical vessel let into the ground of the cellar," and then adding "in gen. wine- or oil-vessel." Avot is the first text cited; several others clarify the location in the cellar, and the considerable size, and relative value, of the object (e.g., giving someone not only the wine but the vessel is generous).

Jastrow indicates that, in its context, the Avot saying means that even a young man may be filled with a great quantity of good (old, established) learning, and even an old man may contain only what is new (and raw).

So the idea, and the vessels, may not be the same as those in the Gospel, although in modern usage some influence is likely.

*Available in pdf format from Tyndale House at http://www.tyndale.cam.ac.uk/jastrow/, and from ETANA, at http://www.case.edu/univlib/preserve/Etana/JAST.DICv1/JAST.DICv1.html and (for volume two) http://library.case.edu/ksl/ecoll/books/jasdic01/jasdic01.html


Posted by Mark Liberman at October 3, 2006 08:00 AM