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 (Matt.13.34). It is interesting to note when Christ began to use this methodology. So abrupt was the change in his form of teaching that his disciples asked him why he did this (Matt.13.10). In his reply one notes the value of this method of instruction. It was an effective method of revealing truth to the spiritual and ready mind and at the same time of concealing it from others (Matt.13.11). Christ came as Israel’s King and only after they had rejected him did he employ this form of imparting spiritual truth. Those who had rejected him were not to know the “secrets of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt.13.11).

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 Biblical Interpretation, 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 (Matt.13.3-Matt.13.8; Mark.4.4-Mark.4.8; Luke.8.5-Luke.8.8)

2. The Tares (Matt.13.24-Matt.13.30)

3. The Mustard Seed (Matt.13.31-Matt.13.32; Mark.4.30-Mark.4.32; Luke.13.18-Luke.13.19)

4. The Leaven (Matt.13.33; Luke.13.20-Luke.13.21)

5. The Hidden Treasure (Matt.13.44)

6. The Pearl of Great Price (Matt.13.45-Matt.13.46)

7. The Drag Net (Matt.13.47-Matt.13.50)

8. The Blade, the Ear, and the Full Corn (Mark.4.26-Mark.4.29)

B. Service and Rewards

1. The Laborers in the Vineyard (Matt.20.1-Matt.20.16)

2. The Talents (Matt.25.14-Matt.25.30)

3. The Pounds (Luke.19.11-Luke.19.27)

4. The Unprofitable Servants (Luke.17.7-Luke.17.10)

C. Prayer

1. The Friend at Midnight (Luke.11.5-Luke.11.8)

2. The Unjust Judge (Luke.18.1-Luke.18.8)

D. Love for Neighbor: The Good Samaritan (Luke.10.30-Luke.10.37)

E. Humility

1. The Lowest Seat at the Feast (Luke.14.7-Luke.14.11)

2. The Pharisee and the Publican (Luke.18.9-Luke.18.14)

F. Worldly Wealth

1. The Unjust Steward (Luke.16.1-Luke.16.9)

2. The Rich Fool (Luke.12.16-Luke.12.21)

3. The Great Supper (Luke.14.15-Luke.14.24)

II. Evangelic Parables

A. God’s Love for the Lost

1. The Lost Sheep (Matt.18.12-Matt.18.14; Luke.15.3-Luke.15.7)

2. The Lost Coin (Luke.15.8-Luke.15.10)

3. The Lost Son (Luke.15.11-Luke.15.32)

B. Gratitude of the Redeemed: The Two Debtors (Luke.7.41-Luke.7.43)

III. Prophetic and Judicial Parables

A. Watchfulness for Christ’s Return

1. The Ten Virgins (Matt.25.1-Matt.25.13)

2. The Faithful and Unfaithful Servants (Matt.24.45-Matt.24.51; Luke.12.42-Luke.12.48)

3. The Watchful Porter (Mark.13.34-Mark.13.37)

B. Judgment on Israel and Within the Kingdom

1. The Two Sons (Matt.21.28-Matt.21.32)

2. The Wicked Husbandmen (Matt.21.33-Matt.21.34; Mark.12.1-Mark.12.12; Luke.20.9-Luke.20.18)

3. The Barren Fig Tree (Luke.13.6-Luke.13.9)

4. The Marriage Feast of the King’s Son (Matt.22.1-Matt.22.14)

5. The Unforgiving Servant (Matt.18.23-Matt.18.25)

Bibliography: T. W. Manson, The Teaching of Jesus, 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

Old Testament.

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” (Prov 10:26), or (to quote one where the comparison is left to be inferred) “the ants are a people not strong, yet they provide their food in the summer” (Prov 30:25).

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 (Judg 9:8-15). The fable is a parable and not an allegory: the olive, fig, and vine do not stand respectively for distinct individuals or types. The point is that trees, which have useful work to do, are too busy to accept the offer of kingship; the only tree to accept the offer is the useless briar, which, far from providing food or shelter, catches fire and burns the other trees down. In the actual situation the moral is plain, and does not require to be spelled out, although Jotham draws his hearers’ attention to the lesson of his tale.

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” (2 Sam 12:1-7).

King Jehoash’s fable of the thistle trying to arrange a marriage alliance with the cedar (2 Kings 14:9) was a not very diplomatic warning to Amaziah not to let success go to his head. Again, there is no allegory, for a marriage between two families is not an obvious counterpart to military confrontation between two kings; but the point was sharp enough; it was just that Amaziah was too insensate to pay heed to it.

Isaiah’s song of the vineyard (Isa 5:1-7) was not understood immediately by his hearers to be a parable. It was a sad tale of devoted labor expended in vain, until it was made plain to them that “the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel” and that He could not be expected to go on caring for it as He had done when it persistently produced the fruit of oppression instead of the justice for which He was entitled to look. As before, there is no detailed allegorization; the point of comparison is the failure to produce the fruit that was reasonably expected after all the painstaking work to insure it.

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” (Hos 11:3f.).

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 Ecclesiastes 9:14f. of the little city that in time of siege was delivered by the wisdom of a poor man—an allusion to Archimedes in Syracuse?—whose services were forgotten when the danger was past. The lesson of the parable is that wisdom is better than military might, although the wise man will know better than to expect any reward or gratitude for his wisdom.

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 (Dan 7:4), that loses its wings but receives a human mind and stands on two feet, and are devised from the first to correspond to the historical reality that they represent.

Synoptic gospels.

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” (Matt 13:34). To His disciples, for example, He told the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt 18:23ff.), to the crowds, the parable of the sower (Mark 4:3ff.), and to Simon the Pharisee, the parable of the two debtors (Luke 7:41ff.). To the city of Jerusalem He addressed the parable of the fruitless fig tree (Luke 13:6ff.) and to the Jewish rulers there He addressed the parable of the vineyard (Mark 12:1ff.), as they themselves readily recognized: “they perceived that he had told the parable against them” (Mark 12:12).

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” (12:8), becomes “they took him and cast him out of the vineyard, and killed him” (Matt 21:39), in accordance with the historical fact that Jesus was taken outside Jerusalem before He was put to death.

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” (Luke 10:37).

The fashion of allegorical exegesis of the parables is generally considered to have received its deathblow from Adolf Jülicher’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 [1962], 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 (Matt 13:44-46).

The kingdom and its preacher may seem unimpressive and insignificant at present, when the preacher is still beset by limitations (Luke 12:50) and the kingdom has not yet come “with power” (Mark 9:1), but that is no reason for despising it. Small beginnings may lead to great consummations: the seed that a farmer scatters on the ground germinates and sprouts while he is busy with other things until, almost before he realizes it, harvest has come and he sets to with the sickle (Mark 4:26-29). Similarly the tiny seed of mustard becomes a huge shrub (Mark 4:31f.) and the handful of leaven that a woman puts into a basin of meal leavens the entire contents (Matt 13:33; Luke 13:20f.). The element of growth and development in these parables should prob. not be emphasized in the manner that was common when an evolutionary interpretation of the kingdom of God was popular; this element may be present from the very nature of the aspect of life or nature from which the comparison is drawn, but no weight is expressly attached to it in the teaching of Jesus.

Rudolf Otto in Reich Gottes und Menschensohn (2nd ed., 1940), Eng. tr., The Kingdom of God and the Son of man (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 (Mark 4:3ff.) and of the tares (Matt 13:24ff.) was the present ministry of Jesus. In so far as the element of growth has any significance, it refers to the preparation for Jesus’ ministry in, e.g., the preaching of John the Baptist. The crop was now ripe; there was no need to wait for a restitution of all things before putting in the sickle. No farmer delays because some of his seed has been wasted and has not produced grain. Where there is a plentiful harvest in good ground waiting to be reaped, reaped it must be forthwith. Again, no farmer postpones harvest until he has weeded out all the tares among the wheat; so the kingdom of God cannot wait until there are no more sinners in Israel. The kingdom of God in the ministry of Jesus does its own work of weeding. Such parables convey the message of John 4:35-38, where Jesus described the fields as “already white for harvest” and sent the disciples out not to sow but to reap, since the sowing had already been done by others.

In dealing with the parables of crisis—the faithful and unfaithful servants (Matt 24:45-51; cf. Luke 12:42-46), the waiting servants (Mark 13:33-37; Luke 12:35-38), the thief at night (Matt 24:43f.; cf. Luke 12:39f.) and the ten virgins (Matt 25:1-13)—Dodd argues that, whereas they were increasingly interpreted as the parousia during the formation of the Gospel tradition, they originally referred to a crisis within the period of Jesus’ ministry. The critical day will break in like a thief, or it will spring like a trap, and those who are not vigilant will be caught unaware. The call then is to stay awake, like servants who sit up late to be ready when their master returns home. This latter simile, he finds, has been gradually transformed into an allegory, in which the returning master is Christ and the homecoming His parousia. In the original setting, the present ministry of Jesus was the supreme crisis of world history; these parables therefore meant that His hearers should be prepared for any development, however unexpected, in the times of decision amid which they were living. The inner group of His disciples, however, might be intended to recognize a more specific reference—perhaps to the test with which His impending arrest in Gethsemane would present them, in the light of His express warning in Mark 14:38. Those who failed to keep awake and so were unprepared would be overwhelmed by the catastrophe as the people of Noah’s day were by the Flood.

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 (Dan 7:14, 18, 22, 27) had drawn near, what of the four kingdoms that it was destined to displace, and esp., what of the fourth? Many of Jesus’ contemporaries were prepared to bring in the new kingdom by waging war against Rome, and if they would not listen to His dissuasion, disaster was inescapable. Much of the apocalyptic language in His parabolic and other teaching has reference to the current crisis; only by an effort of supreme decision could His hearers avert the day of doom when the eagles would be gathered together (Luke 17:37).

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” (Matt 25:13), is given a futurist reference in later witnesses to the text, which add “...when the Son of man comes” (cf. KJV). That this futurist element was present in some parables from the start, as in Jesus’ general teaching about the kingdom, is antecedently probable. If the similes of a thief by night and of a woman in birth pangs were used to show the suddenness of the day of the Lord and the destruction that will then overtake the sons of darkness (1 Thess 5:2f.), one should not rule out the possibility of the same themes occurring in the teaching of Jesus twenty years earlier.

The parable of the sheep and of the goats in its present form (Matt 25:31-46) has manifest reference to the future judgment; the form, though not the content, approximates quite closely the parables of Enoch. Whatever success may be thought to attend attempts to reconstruct a more primitive phase of this parable, like that of J. A. T. Robinson (“The ‘Parable’ of the Sheep and the Goats,” in Twelve New Testament Studies [1962], 76-93), “it contains features of such startling originality that it is difficult to credit them to anyone but the Master himself” (T. W. Manson, The Sayings of Jesus [1949], 249). Moreover, in view of the role predicted for the Son of man elsewhere in the teaching of Jesus, as advocate for the defense or counsel for the prosecution in the presence of God (Luke 12:8f.; Mark 8:38), it is not difficult to interpret this parable in a similar sense, but it is the future consummation, not the present proclamation of the kingdom in the ministry, that forms its life setting.

The life setting of the synoptic parables has been studied preeminently by Joachim Jeremias in The Parables of Jesus (Eng. tr., 2nd ed. [1963], from Die Gleichnisse Jesu, 6th ed. [1961]). 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 John 16:25, Jesus concluded His discourse to the disciples on Passover eve with the words: “I have said this to you in figures (en paroimíais); the hour is coming when I shall no longer speak to you in figures (en paroimíais) but tell you plainly of the Father.” If the “figures” are to be understood as parables in the usual sense, one might think of the short parable of the woman in childbirth in v. 21, or of the longer parable of the vine and the branches in ch. 15. The context implies that the “figures” are not so intelligible as unfigurative speech, for after a short statement (16:26-28) of the implications for the disciples of Jesus’ impending departure, they said, as though enlightened, “Ah, now you are speaking plainly, not in any figure (paroimía)!” (v. 29). Perhaps the suggestion is that all Jesus’ teaching, however expressed, remains enigmatic to His hearers until the Spirit comes to make its meaning plain (14:26).

The one other place in John where paroimía appears is in John 10:6 (RSV “figure”), with reference to the parable of the sheep and the sheepfold. J. A. T. Robinson applies to this parable the form-critical method that J. Jeremias uses for the synoptic parables and discerns the authentic features of the true parabolic form in verses 1-5 (“The Parable of the Shepherd,” in Twelve New Testament Studies, 67-75). C. H. Dodd draws attention to parabolic forms elsewhere in this gospel, citing (in addition to those already mentioned) the grain of wheat (John 12:24), the benighted traveler (11:9f.), slave and son (8:35), bridegroom and bridegroom’s friend (3:29); he finds in them evidence for a primitive tradition lying behind both the Johannine and synoptic records (Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel [1963], 366ff.).

The gospel of Thomas.

The Gospel according to Thomas, one of the Coptic MSS found near Nag Hammadi in 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. Luke 14:28-32).

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 the Gospel of Thomas can 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 (1 Thess 5:2f.) appear incidentally in his letters, and the figure of the grain of wheat (cf. John 12:24) is elaborated to illustrate the resurrection (1 Cor 15:36-38, 42-44), perhaps under the influence of the first fruits and harvest sequence in the earlier part of the ch. agricultural and architectural figures are used (e.g. in 1 Cor 3:6ff.) to illustrate the inauguration and sustenance of the Church. The simile of the body and its parts illustrates the interrelation of members of the Church (1 Cor 12:12ff.; Rom 12:4f.); in Colossians and Ephesians this concept becomes much more than a simile.

The picture of the olive tree (Rom 11:17ff.) is an allegory more than a parable, since features of the real situation are brought into the picture. Whatever may be said about the practice of grafting a slip from a wild fruit tree on to a cultivated tree—and Paul himself described this process as “contrary to nature” (v. 24)—the idea of grafting back on to the parent stock branches that had been cut off (v. 23) is out of the question in horticulture. Paul, however, was talking about a miracle that God is to perform in the spiritual realm, and expressing it pictorially in terms of the olive branches.

Although this is an allegory, Paul did not use the word here; the one place where he did use it is in Galatians 4:24, where he referred to the Genesis story of Hagar and Sarah and their sons to illustrate the contemporary contrast between those who adhered to the law and those who embraced the liberty of the Gospel.


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 Hebrews 9:9 the arrangements of the Mosaic tabernacle are “symbolic (lit. ‘a parable’) for the present age,” and in 11:19 Abraham received Isaac back from the dead “fig. speaking”—lit. “in a parable” (a parable, that is to say, of the resurrection of Christ).

Rabbinical parables.

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” (Isa 51:1):

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 Matthew 16:18, “on this rock (Gr. petra) I will build my church,” leaps to the eye.

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 Synoptic Gospels (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)


1. Name

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

1. Name:

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 nodetitle Greek, under the word). This is also what substantially some of Christ’s parables amount to, which consist of only one comparison and in a single verse (compare Mt 13:33,44-46). In the more usual and technical sense of the word, "parable" ordinarily signifies an imaginary story, yet one that in its details could have actually transpired, the purpose of the story being to illustrate and inculcate some higher spiritual truth. These features differentiate it from other and similar figurative narratives as also from actual history. The similarity between the last-mentioned and a parable is sometimes so small that exegetes have differed in the interpretation of certain pericopes. A characteristic example of this uncertainty is the story of Dives and Lazarus in Lu 16:19-31. The problem is of a serious nature, as those who regard this as actual history are compelled to interpret each and every statement, including too the close proximity of heaven and hell and the possibility of speaking from one place to the other, while those who regard it as a parable can restrict their interpretation to the features that constitute the substance of the story. It differs again from the fable, in so far as the latter is a story that could not actually have occurred (e.g. Jud 9:8 ff; 2Ki 14:9; Eze 17:2 f). The parable is often described as an extended metaphor. The etymological features of the word, as well as the relation of parables to other and kindred devices of style, are discussed more fully by Ed. Koenig, in HDB, III, 660 ff.

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 Lord’s Prayer can be duplicated in the Jewish liturgies of the times, yet on Christ’s lips these petitions have a significance they never had or could have for the Jews. The term "Word" for the second person in the Godhead is an adaptation from the Logos-idea in contemporaneous religious thought, though not specifically of Philo’s. Baptism, regeneration, and kindred expressions of fundamental thoughts in the Christian system, are terms not absolutely new (compare Deutsch, article "Talmud" Literary Remains) The parable was employed both in the nodetitle and in contemporaneous Jewish literature (compare e.g. 2Sa 12:1-4; Isa 5:1-6; 28:24-28, and for details see Koenig’s article, loc. cit.). Jewish and other non-Biblical parables are discussed and illustrated by examples in Trench’s Notes on the Parables of our Lord, introductory essay, chapter iv: "On Other Parables besides Those in the Scriptures."

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 nodetitle. Mark again has only one peculiar to this book, namely, the Seed Growing in Secret (Mr 4:26), and he gives only three others that are found also in Mt and Lk, namely the Sower, the Mustard Seed, and the Wicked Husbandman, so that the bulk of the parables are found in the First and the Third Gospels. Two are common to Matthew and Luke, namely the Leaven (Mt 13:33; Lu 13:21) and the Lost Sheep (Mt 18:12; Lu 15:3 ). Of the remaining parables, 18 are found only in Luke and 10 only in Mt. Luke’s 18 include some of the finest, namely, the Two Debtors, the Good Samaritan, the Friend at Midnight, the Rich Fool, the Watchful Servants, the Barren Fig Tree, the Chief Seats, the Great Supper, the Rash Builder, the Rash King, the Lost Coin, the Lost Son, the Unrighteous Steward, the Rich Man and Lazarus, the Unprofitable Servants, the Unrighteous Judge, the Pharisee and Publican, and the Pounds. The 10 peculiar to Matthew are the Tares, the Hidden Treasure, the Pearl of Great Price, the Draw Net, the Unmerciful Servant, the Laborers in the Vineyard, the Two Sons, the Marriage of the King’s Son, the Ten Virgins, and the Talents. There is some uncertainty as to the exact number of parables we have from Christ, as the Marriage of the King’s Son is sometimes regarded as a different recension of the Great Supper, and the Talents of the Pounds. Other numberings are suggested by Trench, Julicher and others.

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 Mt 18:21 gives the scope of the following parable, and the real purpose of the Prodigal Son parable in Lu 15:11 ff is not the story of this young man himself, but is set over against the murmuring of the Pharisees because Christ received publicans and sinners, in 15:1 and 2, to exemplify the all-forgiving love of the Father. Not the Son but the Father is in the foreground in this parable, which fact is also the connecting link between the two parts. Sometimes the scope can be learned only from an examination of the details of the parable itself and then may be all the more uncertain.

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 Mt 13:18 ff, interprets the parable of the Sower, yet a number of data, such as the fact that there are four, and not more or fewer kinds of land, and others, are discarded in this explanation as without meaning. Again in His interpretation of the Tares among the Wheat in Mt 13:36 ff, a number of details of the original parable are discarded as meaningless.

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.

G.H. Schodde