PARABLE (păr'a-b'l, Gr. parabolē, likeness). Derived from the Greek verb paraballō, composed of the preposition para meaning “beside” and the verb ballō, “to cast.” A parable is thus a comparison of two objects for the purpose of teaching.
There are a number of English words similar in meaning to parable. R. Trench says: “The parable differs from the fable, moving as it does in a spiritual world, and never transgressing the actual order of things natural” (Notes on the Parables of Our Lord, 1841, pp. 15-16). The importance of definition is shown by Moulton when he says that because of varied definitions of a parable, scholars have counted seventy-nine, seventy-one, fifty-nine, thirty-nine, thirty-seven, and thirty-three parables in the NT (W. J. Moulton, “Parable” in HDCG). See also Herbert Lockyer, All the Parables of the Bible, 1963.
In comparing the parable with the similar figures of speech, one must bear in mind that often the parable contains elements of these other figures. For instance, there are often elements in the parable that must be treated as allegorical interpretation.
While Christ did not invent the parable, it is significant that he is the only one who used it in the NT. At one time in his ministry it was his only method of speaking to the masses (
In the discussion of the parable there is probably no area fraught with greater disagreement than the principles of interpretation. Ramm, in discussing the rules for interpreting the parables, notes four principles: “Perspective, cultural, exegetical and doctrinal” (Bernard Ramm, Protestant, 1956, p. 257). Perspectively, one must understand the parables in their relation to christology and God’s kingdom. Culturally, one must not overlook the background in which our Lord lived and worked. Ramm shows four things that are involved in the exegetical principle: “(1) Determine the one central truth the parable is attempting to teach....(2) Determine how much of the parable is interpreted by the Lord himself....(3) Determine whether there are any clues in the context concerning the parable’s meaning....(4) The comparative rule” (Ibid., pp. 258-67).
The following classification of parables is adapted from A. B. Bruce, The Parabolic Teaching of Christ, 1904, pp. 8ff.:
I. Didactic Parables
A. Nature and Development of the Kingdom
1. The Sower (
2. The Tares (
3. The Mustard Seed (
4. The Leaven (
5. The Hidden Treasure (
6. The Pearl of Great Price (
7. The Drag Net (
8. The Blade, the Ear, and the Full Corn (
B. Service and Rewards
1. The Laborers in the Vineyard (
2. The Talents (
3. The Pounds (
4. The Unprofitable Servants (
1. The Friend at Midnight (
2. The Unjust Judge (
D. Love for Neighbor: The Good Samaritan (
1. The Lowest Seat at the Feast (
2. The Pharisee and the Publican (
F. Worldly Wealth
1. The Unjust Steward (
2. The Rich Fool (
3. The Great Supper (
II. Evangelic Parables
A. God’s Love for the Lost
1. The Lost Sheep (
2. The Lost Coin (
3. The Lost Son (
B. Gratitude of the Redeemed: The Two Debtors (
III. Prophetic and Judicial Parables
A. Watchfulness for Christ’s Return
1. The Ten Virgins (
2. The Faithful and Unfaithful Servants (
3. The Watchful Porter (
B. Judgment on Israel and Within the Kingdom
1. The Two Sons (
2. The Wicked Husbandmen (
3. The Barren Fig Tree (
4. The Marriage Feast of the King’s Son (
5. The Unforgiving Servant (
Bibliography: T. W. Manson, The, 1935; C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom, 1936; A. M. Hunter, Interpreting the Parables, 1960; J. Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, 1963; J. D. Crossan, In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus, 1973.——HZC
The element of comparison is obvious enough in many of the OT proverbs, such as “Like vinegar to the teeth, and smoke to the eyes, so is the sluggard to those who send him” (
More important for the present purpose are the OT parables in narrative form. One of the earliest of these is the fable of the trees told by Jotham to show the Shechemites how unwisely they had acted in choosing Abimelech to be their king (
The prophet Nathan’s parable of the ewe lamb serves a similar purpose. Again there is no allegory: the details of the story are told for the sake of building up the picture, and do not correspond to the circumstances in which David had committed adultery with Bathsheba and arranged her husband’s death. But the story of a shameful act of injustice was sufficient to evoke David’s indignant condemnation of the perpetrator—and therewith of himself—as soon as Nathan pointed the parallel with his “You are the man” (
King Jehoash’s fable of the thistle trying to arrange a marriage alliance with the cedar (
Isaiah’s song of the vineyard (
In a deeper sense, Hosea’s experience of his wife’s unfaithfulness might be called a parable of Yahweh’s experience of the unfaithfulness of Israel; the simpler parabolic form is found when he depicted Israel, or “Ephraim,” as Yahweh’s little son whom He taught to walk, as parents still teach their children, with reins—“with cords of compassion, with the bands of love” (
Whereas the wisdom lit. is full of sayings in which the whole point lies in the comparison, only occasionally is the comparison developed to the dimensions of a self-contained story. A good example is the story in
In the apocalyptic symbolism of Daniel and his postcanonical successors there is a comparison indeed, but not the kind of comparison defined as parable; the symbols often are far removed from real life, as the lion with eagles’ wings (
When the subject of parables is discussed it is preeminently the parables of Jesus that come to mind; in His teaching, the parable form appears in perfection. Whether in His instruction of the disciples or His preaching to the crowds that flocked to hear Him or His debates with the scribes and Pharisees, He regularly used parables: “indeed he said nothing to them without a parable” (
This last parable has more allegorical elements in it than His parables usually had—to the extent, at least, that each stage of the story has a counterpart in real life. This element is slightly increased in the Matthaean VS, where Mark’s account of the tenants’ treatment of the owner’s son, “they took him and killed him, and cast him out of the vineyard” (
For the most part, however, the parables of Jesus are not allegories. The details of the stories make them more vivid and effective, but each parable is told to drive home one point. There are few examples of labor expended in vain throughout the history of Biblical exegesis to be compared with the persistent attempts to allegorize the details in the parable of the good Samaritan—his beast, the inn, the innkeeper, the two coins and so forth—all of which resulted in the obscuring of the moral that Jesus Himself drew from the story: “Go and do likewise” (
The fashion of allegorical exegesis of the parables is generally considered to have received its deathblow from’s Die Gleichnisreden Jesu (1888-1899). This does not mean that henceforth it should be accepted as a dogma, that there is no allegory in the parables of Jesus; but rather that allegory should not be read into them. Jülicher established on exegetical grounds the principle that normally a parable of Jesus is told for the sake of one point that is to be emphasized. He himself considered that the one point was some ethical maxim; the recognition of the eschatological orientation of the ministry of Jesus, which has been a feature of NT study in the 20th cent., has led to the conclusion that the point of the parables, far from being general and timeless, had special relevance to the crisis that was present in Jesus’ preaching of the kingdom of God.
The most distinctive parables of Jesus are parables of the kingdom, designed to embody some aspect of His preaching. They were not mere illustrations, but integral to the whole ministry of Jesus: in the terminology of Ernst Fuchs and his school they are a Sprachereignis, a “language-event” (cf., e.g., E. Jüngel, Paulus und Jesus , 87ff.). In the parables the kingdom of God itself comes to expression and Jesus bears testimony to His own person and mission, albeit in veiled form, so that the hearers’ response to the parable is their response to the kingdom of God and to Jesus Himself.
In Jesus’ general parables about the kingdom are two phases, one in which the kingdom is already present and one in which it is yet to come. Whichever phase of the kingdom is foremost in any particular parable, what is insisted on above all else is the urgent necessity of coming to a decision. The brief opportunity presented by Jesus’ ministry is of such paramount importance that nothing must stand in the way of grasping it; let everything go provided this be secured. This is the treasure hidden in a field for the sake of which a man sells all his property and buys the field; this is the pearl of great price to gain for which a merchant sells all that he has (
The kingdom and its preacher may seem unimpressive and insignificant at present, when the preacher is still beset by limitations (
in Reich Gottes und Menschensohn (2nd ed., 1940), Eng. tr., The and the (2nd ed., 1943), stresses some of the parables of the kingdom as embodying Jesus’ distinctive teaching about its “inbreaking,” showing how “from its futurity it already extends its operation into the present” (Eng. tr., p. 59). He cites particularly the parables of the seed growing secretly and of the four soils (Eng. tr., pp. 113ff.). This approach to the parables was taken up and carried through in thorough-going fashion by C. H. Dodd in his Parables of the Kingdom (1935), one of the most influential books on this subject since Jülicher’s. In terms of an exclusively “realized eschatology” (of which Parables of the Kingdom was Dodd’s first full-scale exposition), the harvest in the parables of the seed growing secretly, of the four soils (
In dealing with the parables of crisis—the faithful and unfaithful servants (
Much of this was well-founded in the setting of Jesus’ ministry. It may be said that, as tends to happen in a pioneer work where new insights are stressed to the overlooking of others that need to be borne in mind, Dodd’s exclusion of allegory is too absolute and his realized eschatology too rigidly drawn. In the parable of the four soils, for example, there is some emphasis on the four different kinds of ground on which the seed fell, and Jesus may well have had in mind the different kinds of reception that the message of the kingdom received. The statement that the seed in the good soil was multiplied thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold would have filled a Palestinian farmer with amazement; tenfold or twelvefold would be a very good harvest. Jesus imported into the story features of the spiritual situation that He wished to illustrate, which is the essence of allegory. To interpret this parable to mean that the sowing is already past and that nothing remains but the reaping is natural if one applies to it the exegetical principle of realized eschatology, but it is not an interpretation that arises out of the story as it stands. Still less do the parables of the seed growing secretly and of the leaven lend themselves prima facie to interpretation along this line. Rather, the seed is being sown, the leaven being placed among the meal, in the course of Jesus’ ministry: “now let it work!” As surely as harvest follows sowing, as surely as the whole basin of meal will be leavened, so surely will the message of the Kingdom by word and action fulfill God’s purpose.
Insofar as the parables of crisis point to an emergency imminent at the time of speaking, they should be examined against the contemporary political background. If the fifth and everlasting kingdom of Daniel’s vision (
The process of reinterpreting the parables of crisis in terms of the parousia and a futurist eschatology can be traced even more clearly in the transmission of the Gospel text than in the earlier, preliterary formation of the tradition: the parable of the ten virgins, for example, which ends with the warning, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (
The parable of the sheep and of the goats in its present form (
The life setting of the synoptic parables has been studied preeminently by Joachim Jeremias in The Parables of Jesus (Eng. tr., 2nd ed. , from Die Gleichnisse Jesu, 6th ed. ). This is a complex study for it aims at distinguishing the life setting in the ministry of Jesus, which determined the original purpose of each parable, from the life setting in the early Palestinian or Hellenistic church that found each parable still of great use, not always for its original purpose but for the conditions of primitive Christianity. It may even be necessary to distinguish further the life setting in the activity of the evangelist to whom men owe the parable in its present form. The parables of Jesus lend themselves more readily to this kind of study than much of His other teaching does. Jeremias pursues his task in a manner that shows how form criticism can be constructive rather than destructive of the Gospel tradition, increasing as it does the reader’s appreciation of the history both of Jesus’ ministry and of the Early Church. The upshot of his study is that the parables “are all full of ‘the secret of the Kingdom of God’..., the recognition of ‘an eschatology that is in process of realization’....God’s acceptable year has come. For he has been manifested whose veiled kingliness shines through every word and through every parable—the Saviour.”
One should not overlook the incidental light that the synoptic parables throw on the circumstances of everyday life in the Palestinian countryside in the twenties and thirties of the 1st Christian cent. Part of their effectiveness was due to their hearers’ familiarity with the kind of situation described—they all knew how the loss of a coin turned the house upside down; many of them could think of a prodigal son who had gone to seek his fortune in a far country, and the dangers of the Jericho road were notorious. That God should put Himself to trouble over a lost sheep of the house of Israel, and welcome a returning prodigal with such extravagant joy, or that a Samaritan should show an example of love to a neighbor—this was the novelty.
The gospel of John.
The Gr. word used for “parable” in John is not parabolē but paroimía which, as mentioned above is an alternative LXX rendering of Heb. mashal. In three of its Johannine occurrences the word refers to enigmatic utterances. In
The one other place in John where paroimía appears is in
The gospel of Thomas.
The Gospel according to Thomas, one of the Coptic MSS found nearin Egypt about 1945, appears to be a 4th-cent. tr. of a 2nd-cent. Gr. collection of sayings attributed to Jesus—114 sayings in all. Of these several are parables—some identical with, or closely related to, parables found in the synoptic gospels, and others unparalleled in the canonical writings but exhibiting the true parabolic form. The parables of the sower (No. 9), the rich fool (No. 63), the vineyard (No. 65) and the great feast (No. 64) reappear. No. 8 has reminiscences of the parable of the dragnet, but its lesson is that of the parables of the hidden treasure and the costly pearl:
Man is like a wise fisherman who cast his net into the sea. He brought it up out of the sea full of little fishes, in the midst of which this wise fisherman found a large, excellent fish. He threw all the little fishes back into the sea; without hesitation he chose the big fish. He that has ears to hear, let him hear!
The synoptic parable of the stray sheep has been recast in No. 107 to serve a Gnostic motive:
The kingdom is like a shepherd who had a hundred sheep. One of them, the biggest, wandered away. He left the ninety-nine others and sought this single sheep until he found it. After taking this trouble, he said to the sheep, “I love you more than the ninety-nine others!”
His seeking the lost sheep because it was the biggest changes the original point of the parable. The man who secured the hidden treasure then “began to lend at interest to whomsoever he would” (No. 109).
Two new “parables of the kingdom” are worth recording. No. 97:
The kingdom of the Father is like a woman carrying a jar full of meal and walking along a long road. The handle of the jar broke, and the meal poured out behind her on the road without her knowing it or being able to do anything about it. When she reached home, she set down the jar and found that it was empty.
And also No. 98:
The kingdom of the Father is like a man who wishes to kill a ruler. In his own house he unsheathes his sword and thrusts it into the wall to make sure that his hand will be steady; then he kills his victim.
The former may be a warning against imagining that one possesses saving knowledge when in fact one has lost it; the latter (drawn perhaps from a Zealot environment) urges that anyone who embarks on a hazardous enterprise must first make sure that he has the resources to carry it out (cf.
Only by careful comparative study and formcritical analysis, with due regard to the Gnostic life setting of the final stage of the compilation, will it be possible to decide which parables (and other sayings) in thecan reasonably be held to go back to Jesus Himself.
The writings of Paul.
Paul was not given to parabolic teaching. Such well-established figures as the thief by night and the woman in childbirth (
The picture of the olive tree (
Although this is an allegory, Paul did not use the word here; the one place where he did use it is in
Outside the synoptic gospels, parabolē occurs in the NT only in Hebrews, and in its two occurrences in this letter it is used of an OT picture of a NT truth. In
The rabbinical writings are full of stories, allegorical or parabolic in character, meant to drive home some point of teaching or to illustrate some passage in the Heb. Bible. A salutary moral is pointed, for example, by the story of the king who invited guests to a feast, but instructed them that they must each bring something to sit on. Some brought rough pieces of stone or wood, and then complained about their discomfort, to the king’s annoyance. This illustrates the plight of those who complain to God about the pains of Ge-Hinnom when it is they themselves who have prepared their abode by their conduct in this life (Ecclesiastes Rabba, iii.9.1). As for Biblical exegesis, the following parable is told to explain why Abraham is called “the rock from which you were hewn” (
A certain king desired to build and to lay foundations; he dug ever deeper, but found only morass, until at last, having dug deeper still, he struck a rock (Aram. petra, a loanword from Gr.). Then he said, “On this spot I will build and lay the foundations” (Yalquṭ on Numbers, 766).
It is further explained that when God called Abraham, it was because in him He found a man on whom He could build and establish the world. The parallel with
When Jesus taught “many things in parables,” He did not use a form unfamiliar to His hearers; the distinctiveness of His parables lies in their message and meaning.
A. Jülicher, Die Gleichnisreden Jesu, 2 vols. (1888-1899); A. T. Cadoux, The Parables of Jesus (1931); C. H. Dodd, Parables of the Kingdom (1935); W. O. E. Oesterley, The Gospel Parables in the Light of their Jewish Background (1936); B. T. D. Smith, The Parables of the(1937); H. Martin, The Parables of the Gospels (1937); D. W. B. Robinson, “The Use of Parabole in the Synoptic Gospels,” EQ, XXI (1949), 93-108; J. A. Findlay, Jesus and His Parables (1950); G. H. Lang, Pictures and Parables (1955); R. S. Wallace, Many Things in Parables (1955); M. Black, “The Parables as Allegory,” BJRL, XLII (1959-1960), 273-287; A. M. Hunter, Interpreting the Parables (1960); H. W. Montefiore, “A Comparison of the Parables of the Gospel according to Thomas and of the Synoptic Gospels,” in H. W. Montefiore and H. E. W. Turner, Thomas and the Evangelists (1962), 40-78; J. Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, Eng. tr., 2nd ed. (1963); G. V. Jones, The Art and Truth of the Parables (1964); R. A. Stewart, “The Parable Form in the Old Testament and the Rabbinic Literature,” EQ, XXXVI (1964), 133-147; E. Linnemann, Parables of Jesus, Eng. tr. (1966).
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
2. Historical Data
3. Christ’s Use of Parables.
4. Purpose of Christ in Using Parables
5. Interpretation of the Parables
6. Doctrinal Value of the Parables
Etymologically the word "parable" (paraballo) signifies a placing of two or more objects together, usually for the purpose of a comparison. In this widest sense of the term there is practically no difference between parable and simile (see Thayer, Dictionary of
2. Histotical Data:
Although Christ employed the parable as a means of inculcating His message more extensively and more effectively than any other teacher, He did not invent the parable. It was His custom in general to take over from the religious and linguistic world of thought in His own day the materials that He employed to convey the higher and deeper truths of His gospels, giving them a world of meaning they had never before possessed. Thus, e.g. every petition of the
3. Christ’s Use of Parables:
The one and only teacher of parables in the New Testament is Christ Himself. The Epistles, although they often employ rhetorical allegories and similes, make absolutely no use of the parable, so common in Christ’s pedagogical methods. The distribution of these in the Canonical Gospels is unequal, and they are strictly confined to the three
4. Purpose of Christ in Using Parables:
5. Interpretation of the Parables:
The principles for the interpretation of the parables, which are all intended primarily and in the first place for the disciples, are furnished by the nature of the parable itself and by Christ’s own method of interpreting some of them. The first and foremost thing to be discovered is the scope or the particular spiritual truth which the parable is intended to convey. Just what this scope is may be stated in so many words, as is done, e.g., by the introductory words to that of the Pharisee and the Publican. Again the scope may be learned from the occasion of the parable, as the question of Peter in
A second principle of the interpretation of the parables is that a sharp distinction must be made between what the older interpreters called the body (corpus) and the soul (anima) of the story; or, to use other expressions, between the shell or bark (cortex) and the marrow (medulla). Whatever serves only the purpose of the story is the "ornamentation" of the parable, and does not belong to the substance. The former does not call for interpretation or higher spiritual lesson; the latter does. This distinction between those parts of the parable that are intended to convey spiritual meanings and those which are to be ignored in the interpretation is based on Christ’s own interpretation of the so-called parabolae perfectae. Christ Himself, in
Just which details are significant and which are meaningless in a parable is often hard, sometimes impossible to determine, as the history of their exegesis amply shows. In general it can be laid down as a rule, that those features which illustrate the scope of the parable belong to its substance, and those which do not, belong to the ornamentation. But even with this rule there remain many exegetical cruces or difficulties. Certain, too, it is that not all of the details are capable of interpretation. Some are added of a nature that indeed illustrate the story as a story, but, from the standpoint of Christian morals, are more than objectionable. The Unjust Steward in using his authority to make the bills of the debtors of his master smaller may be a model, in the shrewd use of this world’s goods for his purpose, that the Christian may follow in making use of his goods for his purposes, but the action of the steward itself is incapable of defense. Again, the man who finds in somebody else’s property a pearl of great price but conceals this fact from the owner of the land and quietly buys this ground may serve as an example to show how much the kingdom of God is worth, but from an ethical standpoint his action cannot be sanctioned. In general, the parable, like all other forms of figurative expression, has a meaning only as far as the tertium comparationis goes, that is, the third thing which is common to the two things compared. But all this still leaves a large debatable ground in many parables. In the Laborers in the Vineyard does the "penny" mean anything, or is it an ornament? The history of the debate on this subject is long. In the Prodigal Son do all the details of his sufferings, such as eating the husks intended for swine, have a spiritual meaning?
6. Doctrinal Value of the Parables:
The interpreters of former generations laid down the rule, theologia parabolica non eat argumentativa, i.e. the parables, very rich in mission thoughts, do not furnish a basis for doctrinal argument. Like all figurative expressions and forms of thought, the parables too contain elements of doubt as far as their interpretation is concerned. They illustrate truth but they do not prove or demonstrate truth. Omnia aimilia claudicunt, "all comparisons limp," is applicable here also. No point of doctrine can be established on figurative passages of Scripture, as then all elements of doubt would not be eliminated, this doubt being based on the nature of language itself. The argumentative or doctrinal value of parables is found in this, that they may, in accordance with the analogy of Scripture, illustrate truth already clearly expressed elsewhere. Compare especially Trench, introductory essay, in Notes on the Parables of our Lord, chapter iii., 30-43; and Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics, Part II, chapter vi: "Interpretation of Parables," 188-213, in which work a full bibliography is given. Compare also the article "Parabel" in Hauck-Herzog, Realencyklopadie fur protestantische Theologie und Kirche.