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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible


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FABLE . For the definition of a fable, as distinct from parable, allegory, etc., see Trench, Parables , p. 2 ff. Its main feature is the introduction of beasts or plants as speaking and reasoning, and its object is moral instruction. As it moves on ground common to man and lower creatures, its teaching can never rise to a high spiritual level. Worldly prudence in some form is its usual note, or it attacks human folly and frailty, sometimes in a spirit of bitter cynicism. Hence it has only a small place in the Bible. See Parable.

1. In OT . There are two fables in the OT, though the word is not used; it is perhaps significant that neither is in any sense a message from God. (1) Jotham’s fable of the trees choosing their king illustrates the folly of the men of Shechem ( Judges 9:8 ). (2) Jehoash’s fable of the thistle and the cedar ( 2 Kings 14:9 ) is his rebuke of Amaziah’s presumption a rebuke in itself full of haughty contempt, however well grounded. Ezekiel 17:3-10 is not a fable, but an allegory. In Bar 3:23 ‘authors of fables’ occurs in the list of wise men of the earth who have not yet found Wisdom. Sir 13:17 would seem to be a reference to Æsop’s fables; so Matthew 7:15 . This type of literature was freely used by later Jewish teachers, and Æsop’s and other fables are frequently found in the Talmud.

2. In NT . ‘Fable’ occurs in a different sense. It is used to translate the Gr. ‘myth,’ which has lost its better sense as an allegorical vehicle for truth, whether growing naturally or deliberately invented, as in Plato’s Republic , and has come to mean a deluding fiction of a more or less extravagant character. The ‘cunningly devised fables’ of 2 Peter 1:16 are apparently attempts to allegorize the Gospel history, and the belief in the Second Advent. The word occurs four times in the Pastoral Epp., with a more definite reference to a type of false teaching actually in vogue at Ephesus and in Crete. These fables are connected with ‘endless genealogies which minister questionings’ ( 1 Timothy 1:4 ); they are described as ‘profane and old wives’ fables’ ( 1 Timothy 4:7 ), and contrasted with ‘sound doctrine’ ( 2 Timothy 4:4 ). They are ‘Jewish,’ ‘the commandments of men’ ( Titus 1:14 ), and the ‘genealogies’ are connected with ‘fightings about law’ ( Titus 3:9 ). The exact nature of the teaching referred to is disputed, but the following points are fairly established, ( a ) The references do not point to 2nd century Gnosticism, which was strongly anti-Jewish, but to an earlier and less developed form, such as is necessarily implied in the more elaborate systems. The heresies combated are no indication of the late date of these Epistles. ( b ) The heresy may be called Gnostic by anticipation, and apparently arose from a mixture of Oriental and Jewish elements (perhaps Essene). Its views on the sinfulness of matter led on the one hand to an extreme asceticism ( 1 Timothy 4:3 ), on the other to unbridled licence ( Titus 1:15-16 ). ( c ) There is much evidence connecting this type of teaching with Asia Minor Col., Tit., Rev., Ignatian Letters, and the career of Cerinthus. Ramsay points out that Phrygia was a favourable soil, the Jews there being particularly lax. ( d ) The fables may be specially the speculations about æons and emanations, orders of angels, and intermediary beings, which are characteristic of all forms of Gnosticism; the passages are so applied by 2nd cent. Fathers. But we are also reminded of the legendary and allegorical embellishments of the narratives of the OT, which were so popular with the Jewish Rabbis. Semi-Christian teachers may have borrowed their methods, and the word ‘myth’ would be specially applicable to the product.

C. W. Emmet.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Fable'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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