A very intelligent lady – a professoresse no less – was interviewed on BBC Radio 4 earlier today. She said about fraud crimes now carried out on the internet “…old wine in new bottles, if you like” (52 minute into the clip in the link).
It was a clever metaphor, but her picture was, not only the wrong way around, but also slightly inaccurate, due, I guess, not to her lack of religious instruction, but because she was instructed in that glorious institution of the English language that is the Authorised King James translation. Now, many people think that is the only translation that counts. One quote that springs to mind is an old chap in a Southern Baptist Church in America who said, “If King James was good ’nuff for Paul, it’s good ’nuff for me”. That aside, the proverbial image conjured, albeit imperfectly, by this good lady is from the Bible (as so many of our idioms and expressions are) and back in those sandal wearing days they did not use bottles, but skins.
Here is the King James version that the professoresse based her outburst on:
Luke 5, 36:
“And he spake also a parable unto them ; No man putteth a piece of a new garment upon an old ; if otherwise, then both the new maketh a rent, and the piece that was taken out of the new agreeth not with the old. And no man putteth new wine into old bottles ; else the new wine will burst the bottles, and be spilled, and the bottles shall perish. But new wine must be put into new bottles ; and both are preserved. No man also having drunk old wine straightway desireth new ; for he saith, The old is better.”
The professoresse, consciously or not, turned the quote on its head. It is not “old wine in new bottles” but new wines into old that creates problems for the butler ( the word comes from the old French “boteillier”, the cup-bearer, the officer in charge of the wine). What, you may ask, does the age of the bottle has to do with anything at all? A very reasonable question, my dear fellow. Let us therefore turn to the New Living Translation, which has the following rendition:
“And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. For the new wine would burst the wineskins, spilling the wine and ruining the skins.38 New wine must be stored in new wineskins. 39 But no one who drinks the old wine seems to want the new wine. ‘The old is just fine,’ they say.”
First of all, I don’t really care much about the skins. Secondly, notice that old wine is the point one really should take away from all this, but leave that to another day. The comparison, as seen in the fuller quote from King James above, between cloth and the receptacle of wine only really makes sense when it is a wine skin and not a bottle. Cloth tends to shrink when washed, so mending old clothes with new fabric may cause a tear. Similarly, the old wineskins have been stretched, and if you put new wine, still fermenting, into the old skins, they may burst and waste the wine (an unforgivable act of uncreative destruction).
The highly educated professoresse’s misquoting of the Bible, even if it was a misquote of the King James’ version, which we readily forgive, is symptomatic of a society that is growing increasingly secular. Even if I am an atheist (which I am) I am concerned that we are losing touch with one of the greatest carriers of cultural heritage that we have: the Bible. One cannot understand, or even begin to have a whiff of understanding, of Shakespeare, or so much of our literary heritage, without some understanding of the Bible, and some knowledge of it.
So, in conclusion, as one is suppose to say, I am glad that the professoresse did make a biblical allusion, and I hope this may have tickled your curiosity about that great text a little.