10 million Ukrainians without power because of Russia. Help us purchase electrical generators for churches.
Consider helping today!

Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


Additional Links


1. Definition and Classification.—The word ‘parable’ is an oft-recurring one in the Synoptic Gospels, appearing altogether 48 times. Otherwise it is found in the NT only in Hebrews 9:9; Hebrews 11:19 (Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885 ), where it has the meaning of ‘type’ or ‘symbol’ (Authorized Version ‘figure’). The Evangelists use of it suggests that for them it was a technical term designating a certain form of discourse or method of teaching, and they report Jesus as employing it in like manner. It is always introduced as something well known, and nowhere denned. The readers are assumed to be as familiar with it as are the writers. This occasions no surprise, for we know that the term had long been current in the circle to which the Evangelists belonged, appearing, as it does, often in the LXX Septuagint . The connexion between the NT usage and that of the LXX Septuagint is expressly pointed out by St. Matthew (Matthew 13:35), who sees in Jesus’ use of parables the fulfilment of Psalms 78:2.

In the LXX Septuagint παραβολή serves frequently, though not uniformly, to translation the Heb. mâshâl (מָשָׁל). The practice is sufficiently constant to warrant the assumption that it had much the same range of meaning. But, accepting this as true, we have made little progress in determining the exact significance of παραβολή, for as yet agreement has not been attained with reference to the definition of the Semitie original (משל, Aram. Aramaic מתלא). By some scholars the root is thought to mean primarily to represent or stand for something (so Fleischer; cf. Franz Delitzsch, Com. zu Prov., Leipzig, 1873, p. 43 f.; Gesenius-Buhl, HWB [Note: WB Handwörterbunch.] ; Bugge, Die Haupt-Parabeln, i. 20 f.); while others, following a different line of derivation, make the conception of likeness or resemblance to be fundamental (König in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible iii. p. 661; cf. Jülicher, Die Gleichnisreden Jesu, i. p. 36 f.). An examination of the OT makes it evident that Hebrew writers employed the term in the broadest and most inclusive way. Allegory, similitude, parable, proverb, paradox, type, and even riddle could be so designated. Jülicher concludes (op. cit. i. p. 37) that the most that can be done in the way of definition is to say that in the OT mâshâl is a discourse expressing or implying comparison. The limitations thus suggested are, that it be a complete statement and not merely a word or phrase, and that it employ or rest on comparison.

The modern understanding of the word ‘parable’ has not as yet become well defined. One naturally expects this to follow the Greek conception, but in many definitions one finds a considerable infusion of the Semitic point of view. παραβολή (from παρά ‘beside,’ and βάλλειν ‘to throw or east’) signifies literally a placing beside, and in ancient rhetoric designates an illustration or comparison. The fundamental idea is thus in agreement with that which is found by some in the Heb. mâshâl. Aristotle classes parable and fable together as means of indirect proof, more convenient and easier to use than historical example for one who is able to detect resemblances, but less effective.

That the Synoptists should entertain this narrower and more definite view of Greek and Roman writers is not to be anticipated. One expects to find in them rather the wider and more indefinite application of Semitic authors, and in this one is not disappointed. Proverb (Luke 4:23), paradox (Mark 7:17), similitude (Mark 4:30), allegory (Mark 4:13), and example or illustrative instance (Luke 12:16) are so named. The word appears with sufficient frequency to make evident its wide application. This does not prove, of course, that in the NT it has a meaning identical with that which it bears in the OT. It is Jülicher’s view that a new element entered in during the period of the Jewish-Hellenistic literature. Besides being a complete thought and expressing or implying comparison, the parable is now understood to veil a hidden meaning. The real teaching is not in what the words seem to say, but in their deeper import. We shall have occasion to return to this topic after reviewing the range of the parabolic material.

It is not to be assumed that the Synoptists have prefixed a title to all the sections that they regarded as παραβολαί. On the contrary, they have done so only incidentally as occasion required, since they had no particular interest in rhetorical categories. In Mk. the word παραβολή is found 13 times, with reference to 6 different sections; 17 times in Mt., with reference to 12 sections; and 18 times in Lk., with reference to 13 sections. It is not used in Jn., but παροιμία occurs with much the same meaning. Deducting parallels, there are 20 passages in the Synoptic Gospels that are spoken of as parables. How far short this comes of full enumeration is made evident by noting the number of parables recognized by modern expositors: e.g. van Koetsveld, 79 (including Jn.); Bugge, 71; Weinel, 59; Jülicher, 53; Heinrici, 39; Lisco, 37; Bruce, 33, and 8 parable germs.

This divergence of opinion makes it evident that it is not easy to determine the precise extent of the parabolic material. Nor is it easy to discover a satisfactory principle for classifying it. This has been attempted from various points of view. Some have sought to make the truth taught a standard for grouping. So Bruce distinguishes (1) Theoretic parables, or those embodying a general teaching regarding the Kingdom of God; (2) the parables of Grace; (3) the parables of Judgment. Others have made the realm from which the illustration was taken the criterion of division. More satisfactory results are obtained by paying heed to the form of the parable, that is, to the character of the illustration and the manner of its introduction. From this point of view a large portion of the material falls within one general division. To this belong all the sections in which a spiritual or moral truth is established or enforced by the use of an express or implicit comparison. An appeal is made to common experience, to what is recognized and accepted by all, in support of less evident truths pertaining to a higher realm. The tacit assumption is that the same laws are valid for moral and religious as for daily practical life. If assent is yielded without hesitation in the one case, it cannot be withheld in the other.

At times the comparison is expressly made by some formula, or by some word or particle (e.g. ὅμοιον, ὥσπερ, or ὡς). Attention is in this way directed to the resemblance between two distinct relationships. The writer makes his readers aware that a concrete experience is being used to teach some moral or spiritual lesson. Parables of this kind have been happily called Similitudes. The passage regarding the Fig-tree, found in all the Gospels (Mark 13:28 f., Matthew 24:32 f., Luke 21:29 f.), and designated in them all as a parable, is a good example. ‘Now from the fig-tree learn her parable: when her branch is now become tender and putteth forth its leaves, ye know that the summer is nigh; even so ye also, when ye see these things coming to pass, know that it is nigh, even at the doors.’ All the dwellers in Palestine knew that the bursting buds and tender shoots of the fig-tree gave unmistakable indication that summer was at hand. The application is that the nearness of the Parousia can with equal certainty be inferred from the signs that immediately precede its coming. There is here no thought of the resemblance of details, as, for example, between summer and the Parousia; but in both instances it is pointed out that with equal certainty, from the signs of the coming, the nearness of the coming itself can be inferred. The likeness is one of relationships and not of details. In the pair of parables of the Hidden Treasure and the Pearl of Great Price we have two illustrations of like character to enforce the one truth, that to gain a possession of greatest value no sacrifice is too great. The Synoptic records afford evidence that not infrequently Jesus thus employed a double illustration. The attempt to discover resemblances between the Kingdom of heaven and the treasure or the pearl may be homiletically admissible, but it is exegetically beside the mark. Equally irrelevant are the ethical discussions regarding the conduct of the man who found the treasure. Jesus no more approves the quality of his act than He does that of the younger brother, or that of the unjust steward.

The following inferences regarding the character of a Similitude are possible in view of what has been said: (1) Fundamentally it is a comparison. Often this is expressly indicated, as above. (2) It is a comparison of relationships and not of details. There may chance to be some suggestive resemblance in details, but this is immaterial to the real purpose of the illustration. (3) In each Similitude there is one main comparison and one application, one truth that is unfolded. (4) Since there are two parts, the statement needing proof and the illustration supplying this, it is wrong, as is often done, to speak of the illustration alone as the Similitude. (5) The purpose of the Similitude is manifestly to elucidate or to prove, to win assent for what is unfamiliar by an appeal to what is well known.

A group of passages of lesser extent than the one just considered makes a like use of sayings which were apparently proverbial. Luke 4:23 is an instance of this: ‘And he said unto them, Doubtless ye will say unto me this parable, Physician, heal thyself: whatsoever we have heard done at Capernaum, do also here in thine own country.’ Jesus, conduct is likened to that of the physician in question. The proverb by itself does not constitute the parable, but the proverb used as an illustration. Since such proverbs are the concise and pointed formulations of the truths of common experience, we need not differentiate these parables from those last discussed—no further, at least, than to make them a subdivision of the Similitudes. Besides the passage quoted, others, such as Matthew 5:14 b, Matthew 6:24 (Luke 16:13) Luke 15:14 (Luke 6:39) Luke 24:28 (Luke 17:37), Mark 2:17 (Matthew 9:12 f., Luke 5:13 f.), would be included.

Often the illustration from experience is not stated as a general inference, recognized always and by all, but is embodied in the form of a specific incident, in what was done by some person or persons, or in what happened to them. Thus Luke 15:11-32 begins, ‘A certain man had two sons,’ and Mark 4:3-9 ‘Behold, the sower went forth to sow.’ In purpose and in the way the illustration is employed there is close resemblance between this group and the Similitudes. The difference is mainly in the definiteness of the experience. Here it is presented as a single occurrence. It may still be, and no doubt usually is, wholly imaginary. All that is required is a degree of naturalness and probability sufficient to command unhesitating assent. Such a story, formed by the imagination from the material of actual experience, might be classed as a Fable, had not this name gained in the course of time a restricted meaning. By many writers it is looked upon as applicable only to the small group of animal fables in which the main actors are animals or inanimate objects. Since such stories often serve merely to entertain or to teach worldly prudence and discretion, the difference between parable and fable is made by some to consist in the kind of truth enforced. The latter is restricted to the lower realm of worldly knowledge, while the former is assigned to the service of the higher truths of morality and religion. We need not further discuss the distinction, because fable has become exclusively associated in most minds with the type of teaching attributed to aesop. To connect it with any of the discourses of Jesus would occasion misunderstanding. Jülicher’s proposal is to retain for this group the name Parable in its narrower meaning. Until a better designation is found, it will be well to accept this.

The Gospel of Lk. contains at least four sections differing in character from any previously considered. They have the narrative form, but the illustration is taken, not from a different realm, but from that to which the truth under discussion belongs. A specific instance wherein this is exemplified is recited to win the approval or call forth the disapprobation of the hearer. The application is made, not through analogy, not by some word expressing likeness or resemblance, but by simple affirmation: ‘So is it’ or ‘so should it not be.’ The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37), the Foolish Rich Man (Luke 12:16-20), the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), and the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18:9-14) belong to this group. Possibly, as Heinrici suggests (PRE [Note: RE Real-Encyklopädie fur protest. Theologic und Kirche.] 3 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , vi. 692), we ought also to add the accounts of the Importunate Friend (Luke 11:5 ff.), and the Unjust Judge (Luke 18:1 ff.), since the lesson is gained in these instances by reasoning a minori ad majus. It is often difficult, as here, to determine to which division a given section may be most properly assigned. Comparison enters into this class only through the demand made upon the listener to test his life and conduct by that depicted in the story. The abstract truth is commended to him in concrete form. We might call such illustrations, which stand apart from the groups previously enumerated, Narrative Examples, or perhaps it will be better to term them, with Jülicher, Illustrative Instances.

On the basis of the reference in Mark 7:17 (Matthew 15:15) it has been proposed (cf. Bugge, op. cit. i. pp. 59, 15, and 16) to regard the Paradox as a class of parable. That the name might be so applied may, in the light of Semitic usage, be assumed as probable, though there is wide difference of view regarding this particular passage in Mk. and Mt. Expositors have not, however, generally made paradoxes a distinct group in their treatment of the parables.

It now remains to ask whether there is another class of passages that should be brought together under the head of Allegory. This question has recently been much discussed, and opinion is still widely divided. It is variously affirmed that, even according to the Synoptists, Jesus never spoke in allegories (Weinel, Die Gleichnisse Jesu, p. 30); or that He is mistakenly reported by them as so doing (Jülicher, op. cit. i. 61 ff. etc.); or that He did make use of allegories, and is correctly reported in this respect (Bugge, op. cit. i. 40 ff. etc.). Allegory (ἀλληγορία, ἀλληγορεῖν) comes from ἄλλο, ‘other,’ ‘something else,’ and ἀγορεύειν, ‘to speak.’ The word occurs as a substantive nowhere in the NT or in Biblical Greek, nor does the verb appear except in Galatians 4:24, where St. Paul makes use of the participle ἀλληγορούμενος. It is a mode of speech whereby one thing is ostensibly described or narrated, while the primary reference is to something very different. It is thus closely akin to the metaphor (wh. see), differing from it in consisting not of a single word or concept, but of a series of concepts belonging to the same realm, and so related as to form together a continuous and intelligible narrative. Since the several details are introduced, not because they are the component parts of a vivid and artistic picture, but because of their suitability to portray the desired meaning, the best of allegories are marked by some degree of artificiality and incongruity. The attentive listener is made aware that the story is being told to convey some deeper meaning and not for its own sake. Often it will be impossible for him to determine what this is until the allegory has been wholly or in part interpreted. In other instances the setting in which it occurs may afford the needed clue. To understand it fully, he must be able to translate the terms one by one and read their hidden meaning. Naturally no one but the framer of the allegory can be his infallible guide in this. In the similitude and parable we do not feel the need of seeking for any meaning beyond that which the words usually bear, whereas in the allegory the deeper, hidden significance is of first importance. Are there sections in the Gospels of which this is true? It seems to be, to some degree, in at least five. Three are in the Synoptic Gospels, namely, the accounts of the Sower (Mark 4:3-9; Mark 4:14-20, Matthew 13:3-9; Matthew 13:18-23, Luke 8:5-8; Luke 8:11-15), of the Wicked Husbandmen (Mark 12:1-12, Matthew 21:33-46, Luke 20:9-19), and of the Tares (Matthew 13:24-30; Matthew 13:36-43): and two are from the Fourth Gospel, the Door of the Sheepfold (John 10:1-16), and the Vine and the Branches (John 15:1-8). In each of these, except the Wicked Husbandmen, an allegorical interpretation is expressly added, while in this latter the setting, the comments, as well as the character of the narration, suggest an allegory. According to the definition given above, none of the five passages can he regarded as a perfect and fully developed allegory, because each has unimportant details that are not, and clearly were not intended to be, interpreted. They are introduced as natural parts of the picture, without reference to a hidden meaning. For instance, in the Sower no deeper meaning attaches to the way, the thirty, sixty, and hundredfold, as would be the case in a carefully developed allegory. The Wicked Husbandmen and the Tares are better examples of allegory; but even in these there are several features without allegorical significance. The passages in the Fourth Gospel differ quite markedly from those in the Synoptics. The literal and the figurative are blended in such an unusual way that it has not been possible for commentators to agree in their classification. In ch. 10, following the first interpretation (John 10:7-10) comes a second (John 10:11-16), which seems to presuppose a closely related but really different allegory. Or we can regard these last verses as a new allegory with continuous interpretation. The discourse of ch. 15 is of exactly the same type; parallel to ‘I am the good shepherd’ we there have ‘I am the true vine.’ Besides lacking the unity that usually marks the allegory, these Johannine sections contain many terms that have no significance beyond that belonging to them in ordinary speech. It seems, nevertheless, more correct to class them as allegories than to call them parables with an allegorical interpretation, or collections of related metaphors.

In addition to these passages there are numerous others where little doubt can exist that the Evangelists understood some details allegorically, for they suggest, even if they do not give, such an interpretation. By way of illustration the reference to the whole and the sick (Mark 2:17) may be cited, so also the taking away of the bridegroom (Mark 2:20), and the blind who lead the blind (Matthew 15:14, Luke 6:39). Jülicher maintains that they looked on all parables as allegories. They have given, it is true, few allegorical interpretations, and have not often indicated that they felt such treatment necessary, but this is only because their practice is not in accord with their theory. Whenever they reflect (as they do in Mark 4:10-12; Mark 4:33-34 || Matthew 13:10 to Matthew 15:34 ff., Luke 8:9-10), they think of parables as always veiling a hidden meaning, one hard to be understood and intelligible to the disciples themselves only after interpretation. This conception, as was stated above, is not held to be their own creation, but is thought to be one that came to them from the age of the Jewish-Hellenistic literature. It was the product of scribal activity. Such an explanation is open to serious question. It may be doubted whether existing evidence proves that the notion of mystery belonged so exclusively to this later period. It is true that with the decadence of prophecy men looked for the message of God in what had been said rather than in what was being said, and that the allegorical method of exegesis was assiduously cultivated. It may also be true that the Gospels indicate that, at the time when the Evangelists wrote, the words of Jesus received to some extent like treatment; but that it went to the length that this theory supposes is not attested. Such a claim could be more reasonably made for the Church Fathers and the interpreters of later generations. From post-Apostolic days even down to the present the prevailing method of exegesis has been allegorical. (On its prevalence in Alexandrian and Palestinian circles before and after Christ, see Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible , art. ‘Allegory,’ i. p. 64). Representatives (e.g. Chrysostom, Calvin, Maldonatus) of sounder interpretation have not been altogether wanting, but they have been little heeded. There is no parable or detail of a parable that has not received many and conflicting interpretations. The judge of Luke 18:2, for example, according to some stands for God, and according to others for the devil. Elsewhere results are no less incongruous (e.g. Matthew 24:28, Luke 17:37; Matthew 24:43 f., Luke 12:39 f.; Luke 11:5-8). So great was the contradiction, that in the 17th cent. the thesis was proposed that parables should not be used as a source of doctrine, but only to illustrate and confirm what was otherwise established (‘theologia parabolica non est argumentative,’ cf. Jülicher, op. cit. i. p. 277). The form of the disciples’ question (Mark 4:10 f., cf. Mark 4:33-34) might at first incline us to agree that the Church Fathers were but following the Synoptists, were it not that so many parables are recorded without even suggestion that they need interpretation. Julicher finds it a priori improbable that a popular teacher, who expressed himself without any considerable deliberation or preparation, should employ such a highly artificial, rhetorical form as the allegory. This tends to veil rather than to reveal, and belongs to the writer rather than to the speaker. He concedes that Jesus may on occasion have made metaphorical or allegorical application of certain suggestive details of some parable, but finds little or no evidence of His having done so. Everything indicates, rather, that all the passages to which we have alluded derive their allegorical features and interpretations from the writers. Originally, as spoken by Jesus, the Synoptic accounts were parables in the narrower meaning of the term.

This extreme position of Professor Jülicher has been opposed by many, and unqualifiedly approved by few. Admitting the proclivity of Jesus’ hearers, by reason of their traditions, to give an allegorical interpretation to many details, admitting that this might be increasingly done as men recalled these discourses and reflected on their import and sought to apply them to existing conditions, still to deny to Jesus all allegorical application of details and restrict Him to simple comparison, is unwarranted. If along with comparison (e.g. Matthew 23:37 [Luke 13:34] Matthew 10:16 [Luke 10:3], Luke 10:18) He made frequent use of metaphor, as the Gospels indicate (e.g. Mark 5:34; Mark 10:21 [Matthew 19:21, Luke 18:22] Matthew 12:40 [Luke 20:47]), and if He expanded comparison into parable, is it unwarrantable to assume that occasionally metaphor might be so extended as to become virtually an allegory? As long as such an interpretation of suggestive particulars contributes in a natural way to the enforcement of the main lesson, it cannot be considered irrelevant or artificial. Weinel has pointed out (Die Bildersprache Jesu in ihrer Bedeutung für die Erforschung seines inneren Lebens2 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , 1906) that in its psychological origin the parable is closely akin to the allegory. It springs often from some suggestive analogy of detail which might well be made evident in the progress of the discourse. Such an assumption does not, to be sure, account for all the allegorical features that a sound exegesis will discover in the Gospels, but it enables us to understand how Jesus may, in the case of some parables, have added an application distinctly allegorical, as, for example, in the account of the Sower. And if He wished to address to His enemies such thoughts as are contained in the Wicked Husbandmen, could they have been more suitably presented? The great service of Jülicher and of B. Weiss before him in effectually discrediting false methods of interpretation and establishing true, can hardly receive too great recognition. But past extravagances and present danger of their perpetuation do not furnish adequate reason for denying to Jesus the use of allegory, or of parables so developed as to be hardly distinguishable therefrom. We accordingly admit allegory as a division of our classification.

2. Purpose.—Why did Jesus make use of parables? It would occur to hardly any reader of the Gospels to-day to be in doubt as to their purpose, were it not for the statements of the Synoptists. Parables have been used by teachers of all ages to unfold and enforce their instruction. Was it otherwise with Jesus? Is it otherwise, for example, in His use of the story of the Prodigal Son? The passage which occasions the perplexity is as follows: ‘And when he was alone, they that were about him with the twelve asked of him the parables. And he said unto them, Unto you is given the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all things are done in parables: that [ἵνα] seeing they may see, and not perceive, and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest haply they should turn again, and it should be forgiven them. And he saith unto them, Know ye not this parable? and how shall ye know all the parables?… And with many such parables spake he the word unto them, as they were able to hear it. And without a parable spake he not unto them: but privately to his own disciples he expounded all things’ (Mark 4:10-12; Mark 4:33-34, cf. Matthew 13:10 ff., Matthew 13:34 ff., Luke 8:9 ff.). These words are beset with difficulty from any point of view. Taken by themselves they affirm that parables lead to the hardening of men’s hearts, and were intended so to do. Notwithstanding differences in statement, all three accounts are in substantial agreement as to this. It is instinctively felt, however, that Jesus could not possibly have entertained a purpose so at variance with the spirit of His whole ministry. He went forth to seek and to save that which was lost. To win, not to harden; to enlighten, not to mystify, was ever His endeavour. Otherwise, why should He express surprise at the failure of His hearers to comprehend His parables? Why should He exhort them to hear? Can we think that He would mock at their helplessness? Why should He speak to His own disciples as well as to the multitude in parables which they could not understand without interpretation? Does not the parable of the Sower, to which these words are joined, imply an understanding on the part of all classes, even though all do not alike heed and profit by what is heard? It is evident that the statements cannot be attributed to Jesus in their most obvious meaning. While this is generally conceded, there is disagreement as to how they are to be qualified and the extent to which this should be done. A few have resorted to text emendation for the removal of the difficulties, but most have preferred to keep the form and seek for a new interpretation. Some expositors suppose that the truths needful for salvation were not presented after this manner, but in a way intelligible to all. What is here said refers only to parables dealing with the mysteries of the nature of the Kingdom of heaven, or the one mystery of its gradual development. Or this reference is limited to the parables of this chapter, or to the parables of Judgment. Such teaching, being suited only to those who are already disciples, is so conveyed that they alone receive it, while outsiders hear without understanding. The improbability and unnaturalness of such a supposition are too apparent to need refutation. The harshness of the view is softened by assuming that the unreceptive and unworthy multitude already stood self-condemned because of their rejection of the message of salvation. Teaching in parables is part of their just punishment, and serves also to keep the door open for those who may become receptive. Another way of removing the harshness is to say that the parable, while executing God’s judgment, was at the same time a merciful provision, preventing an increase of guilt. Had the unreceptive understood what was taught in these parables regarding Jesus and themselves, or had it been spoken openly, they would have added to existing sins those of hate and blasphemy, and fallen into a passion, making all hearing impossible for themselves and others.

A different explanation is proposed by those who see here the enunciation of a pedagogical purpose. No class of hearers, not even the disciples, can understand the truth so presented, but the receptive will reveal themselves by their questions as to the meaning of the parable, while the unreceptive remain indifferent, and thereby make clear the hopelessness of their condition. Plain speech would have been equally unintelligible to such hearers, whereas the parable was calculated to quicken in them a spirit of inquiry, if anything could. This, again, is a very improbable supposition. Another interpretation sees in these words a reference not to intellectual comprehension, but to the inner spiritual appropriation of the truth set forth. Jesus seeks for this on the part of all, but finds it wanting in those who were dulled and hardened in their short-sighted self-righteousness and superficial self-satisfaction. Their hearing is as though they heard not. The parables are thus a summons to the conscience of the hearer, and bring about a separation between the receptive and the unreceptive.

Professor Jülicher, together with other recent writers, accepts the verses in their most obvious meaning, but assigns them to the Evangelists. When Jesus’ words were collected after His death, the large proportion of parabolic material attracted attention. An explanation was sought, and it was found in the character of those to whom the parables were addressed, and in their attitude toward Jesus. The multitude had not accepted Him as the Messiah. What had happened must have been in accord with the Divine plan. This plan had been fulfilled through the use of parables. Paul’s teaching in Romans 9-11 is here applied by the Evangelists to the history of Jesus. J. Weiss, indeed, holds that Mk. was acquainted with Romans, and followed St. Paul (Die Schriften des NT, i. p. 101). Whatever may be thought as to the dependence, the likeness of conception is obvious.

This explanation has in its favour a full and frank recognition of the difficulty as well as the avoidance of forced and unnatural interpretation. Many who think that the passage goes back to Jesus admit that the Evangelists in their report have been in some measure influenced by the hostility and opposition of unbelieving Israel, so pronounced at the time when they wrote. The explanation gains added support from the fact that the existing difficulty is not confined to the words of Jesus, but is occasioned in part by the appended comments of the Evangelists. Still, it cannot yet lay just claim to the validity of a demonstration. That the Evangelists should feel the need of accounting for the large proportion of parabolic material in Jesus’ teaching is not obvious. The proportion in Mk., with whom we have primarily to do, is not striking. We should need to postulate, what many deny, his acquaintance with the Logia. Again, if the Evangelists evolved this whole conception, it is certainly strange that they should make so little use of it. Writers are not wont thus to forget or neglect their own pet hypotheses, as Mk. apparently did, even in the course of ch. 4. Could he fail to notice, too, how his theory was contradicted by the readiness with which Jesus’ hearers understood the account of the Wicked Husbandmen? With all their freedom in transmitting Jesus’ words, is it probable that the writers would venture upon an entirely new creation of this kind at so late a date?

There is greater likelihood that we have to do in this passage with a saying of Jesus that, in the course of time, has been modified, or received a false emphasis. At what stage of the development of the Gospels the change took place we cannot be certain. The lack of responsiveness on the part of His hearers and the growing opposition of which we learn in the Gospels, may have caused Jesus to apply to His ministry the words of the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 6:9 f.). The outcome of His mission might appear, on first thought, to be a repetition of this experience; but a deeper insight revealed as true what the parables of this chapter (Mark 4) teach. The despair of the prophet’s words receives its answer. That it was the Evangelists who first brought this OT quotation into such connexion can be doubted, though we can no longer be certain of its exact application, and though the text does not seem here to be in order. If Jesus used the words ironically, they might be cherished by the Christians of the later days of conflict as a statement of the Divine purpose. There is, in any case, too much contradictory evidence to admit of our receiving them as the deliberate statement of Jesus’ intention.

3. Interpretation.—In what sense is it permissible to speak of the interpretation of a parable? If we mean thereby an allegory, the need of translating its terms into their equivalents is evident. This will be required by the hearer in more or less fulness, according to circumstances. The statements of the Synoptists (Mark 4:10-13; Mark 4:33-34 ||) are then comprehensible so far as they may refer to allegories, but can the same be claimed if the remaining parabolic material is likewise included? By some it is said that it can be for the narrative parables, or parables in the restricted meaning of the term. Similitude and Illustrative Instance are excepted, as necessarily clear from the way in which they are introduced, but narrative parables, being complete and independent accounts, require interpretation. The hearer is as little aware of their real significance as was David when listening to Nathan’s story of the poor man and his lamb (2 Samuel 12:1 ff.). This view evidently represents Jesus as wont to relate incidents that had no apparent connexion with what was being said or done, and then to add an application, as the moral is appended to the fable. One, for instance, who heard about the Treasure in the field (Matthew 13:44), or the Two Debtors (Luke 7:36-50), would have no reason to think of the Kingdom of heaven, or the duties of the sons of the Kingdom, until it was demanded by the application. The Gospels are not responsible for this theory, for they do not give the impression that Jesus kept His hearers in suspense. Either an explicit statement, as in the first example, or the occasion, as in the second, left commonly no doubt as to the topic under discussion. Furthermore, there seems to be no good reason for making such a distinction between this group of parables and the Similitudes and Illustrative Examples. Two parts are here essential to constitute a parable, the illustration and the truth illustrated. That the illustration appears in a slightly modified form does not involve a change in the parable’s essential character. And can we suppose that Jesus ever told the people one story, or a series of stories, and withheld all indication of His purpose? What could be expected to result therefrom beyond a little entertainment? And even this would be of short duration, unless the stories were longer than most of our parables. How can we harmonize the fact that the parables, as they now stand, set forth in unparalleled clearness and beauty the deepest truths of the gospel, with the assumption that they were used by Jesus as a means of punishing the unrepentant by hiding the truth?

It is not improbable that oftentimes the illustrative half of a parable alone was preserved by tradition. In such cases we can speak of interpretation if we mean thereby the discovery of the original setting and application, whether this service is performed by the Evangelists or undertaken by their interpreters. Such an understanding of the term is, however, misleading, as it obviously does not represent the thought of Mark 4 and parallels. The demand of these passages is satisfied only when we assume that interpretation means an unfolding of details such as is provided for the story of the Sower. This would not be required for all parabolic material, but only for those parables that were considered to be allegories. We have found above that it is not easy to decide how many were included by the Synoptists in such a point of view. A priori considerations or ingenious conjecture cannot decide the question, but only the internal evidence discovered by detailed exegetical study.

4. Transmission and Value.—Have the Evangelists rightly understood and faithfully reported Jesus’ parables? Had the tradition, upon which they were dependent, preserved an exact recollection of His words and their application? The parables were quite certainly spoken originally in Aramaic, and many of them, after being preserved for a time by oral tradition, may have first been written down in this same language. But even if the bulk of them were first written in Greek, we should, of course, still possess them only in translation. The possibility of modification accordingly exists, even if an earnest endeavour at historical accuracy, as we conceive of it, could be postulated. A comparison of the records of even the shortest parable appearing in all the Gospels, or in two of them, reveals many variations. While the major part are trifling, others may affect materially the meaning and structure of the parable. In the description of patching the old garment, for instance (Mark 2:21, Matthew 9:16, Luke 5:36), the casual reader of the English notes the striking variation in Luke. The defenders of the validity of the several accounts in all their details have been wont to explain the divergences by advancing the hypothesis of the use of the same parable on different occasions. In some parables common to Mt. and Lk. such a view may be advocated with a show of reason, but when these two Gospels are following Mk. it has little support. There are parables, furthermore, like the one just noted and the Sower and the Wicked Husbandmen, that are spoken under conditions and with applications so much alike and at the same time so peculiar as to exclude any thought of repetition. The differences in the accounts of the Evangelists are unquestionable, and they leave the interpreter no choice. He must seek to ascertain the original form of the parable. If we say that these differences existed in the sources, we simply carry the problem back to an earlier stage and contribute nothing to its solution; and even then the personal equation of the Evangelist enters in, through the choice and arrangement of the details of his narrative. When we observe Mt.’s tendency to group material, revealed in so many connexions, we can but conclude that this purpose, rather than special knowledge of the occasion, has often determined the setting of his parables. A comparative study shows that each of the Synoptists has peculiarities which reveal themselves in his report. Lk.’s interest in the individual and his love of the beautiful are as noticeable as Mt.’s regard for the OT and discovery of allegorical meanings.

If the existing evidence proves that Jesus’ words were not at first treated as unalterably holy, it does not, on the other hand, show that there was such freedom as to cast doubt on all His reported sayings, or justify giving them a value secondary to that of the narrative portions of the Gospels. Notwithstanding differences, the Synoptists show such essential agreement that we feel little doubt regarding most parables. The wonder is that there should be so little divergence, even though so short a period separated our records and their Aramaic sources from the original utterances. It can be urged in explanation that Jesus’ teaching was too well remembered to admit of the incorporation of new creations. What He had said became early a precious heritage for all believers, and, besides, the parables are of a character to make them especially well remembered. Their freshness, beauty, and earnestness attest their originality and faithful transmission, as does also, in a special degree, their suitability to explain and enforce the teaching in whose service they are employed. That they can be so varied and at the same time so simple, excites wonder. One turns from Rabbinical literature to the parables of Jesus with an increased appreciation of their literary excellence, to say nothing of the marked contrast in dignity and grandeur of theme. Nor is there any writer of early Christian literature worthy of a place in this field beside the Master. An observation of the details and relationships of common life and an appreciation of their significance is revealed that is unparalleled. We gain an insight into the inner life of Jesus Himself, as well as into His teaching, that is afforded by hardly any other portions of the Gospels. The parables are rightly regarded as a most valuable part of the Evangelical tradition, and they will so continue when their right to be heard in their simplicity is generally recognized.

Literature.—The most important work of recent date on the Parables and their exposition is A. Jülicher’s Die Gleichnisreden Jesu, Freiburg, 1899. See also C. A. Bugge, Die Haupt-Parabeln Jesu, Giessen, 1903; Heinrich Weinel, Die Bildersprache Jesu in ihrer Bedeutung für die Erforschung seines inneren Lebens2 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , Giessen, 1906; ‘Die Gleichnisse Jesu, zugleich eine Anleitung zu einem quellenmässigen Verständnis der Evangelien,’ Leipzig, 1904 [a volume of the series Aus Natur und Geisteswelt]; Paul Fiebig, Alt-jüdische Gleichnisse und die Gleichnisse Jesu, Tübingen u. Leipzig, 1904; S. Goebel, Die Parabeln Jesu methodisch ausgelegt, Gotha, 1879–80 [English translation (Edin. 1883) The Parables of Jesus]; A. B. Bruce, The Parabolic Teaching of Christ, London, 1882; F. L. Steinmeyer, Die Parabeln des Herrn, Berlin, 1884; R. Winterbotham, The Kingdom of Heaven (1898); A. L. Lilley, Adventus Regni (1907); artt. in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible , the EBi [Note: Bi Encyclopaedia Biblica.] , and the PRE [Note: RE Real-Encyklopädie fur protest. Theologic und Kirche.] 3 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , vol. vi. pp. 688–703 (Heinrici); Commentaries on the Gospels, and Lives of Christ. For further literature, see Jülicher, op. cit. i. pp. 203–322.

W. J. Moulton.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Parable'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

Search for…
Enter query in the box below:
Choose a letter to browse:
Prev Entry
Next Entry