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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
(μύθος , a myth), a legend or fictitious story, applied in the N.T. (1 Timothy 1:4; 1 Timothy 4:7; 2 Timothy 4:4; Titus 1:14; 2 Peter 1:16) to the Jewish traditions and speculations which were prevalent in the apostolic days, and were afterwards embodied in the Talmudical writings. (See Fleischmann's Comment. in 1 Timothy 1:4.)
1. Taking the words fable and parable, not in their strict etymological meaning, but in that which has been stamped upon them by current usage, looking, i.e., at the Esopic fable as the type of the one, at the parables of the N.T. as the type of the other, we have to ask (a.) in what relation they stand to each other as instruments of moral teaching? (b.) what use is made in the Bible of this or of that form? That they have much in common is of course obvious enough. In both we find "statements of facts, which do not even pretend to be historical, used as vehicles for the exhibition of a general truth" (Neander, Life of Christ, Harper's ed. page 67). Both differ from the Mythus, in the modern sense of that word, in being the result of a deliberate choice of such a mode of teaching, not the spontaneous, unconscious evolution of thought in some symbolic form. They take their place so far as species of the same genus. What are the characteristic marks by which one differs from the other, it is perhaps easier to feel than to define. Thus we have (comp. Trench, On Parables, page 2)
(1.) Lessing's statement that the fable takes the form of an actual narrative, while the parable assumes only that what is related might have happened;
(2.) Herder's, that the difference lies in the fable's dealing with brute or inanimate nature, in the parable's drawing its materials exclusively from. human life;
(3.) Olshausen's (on Matthew 13:1), followed by Trench (1.c.), that it is to be found in the higher truths of which the parable is the vehicle. Perhaps the most satisfactory summing up of the chief distinctive features of each is to be found in the following extract from Neander (1.c.): "The parable is distinguished from the fable by this, that in the latter, qualities or acts of a higher class of beings may be attributed to a lower (e.g. those of men to brutes), while in the former the lower sphere is kept perfectly distinct from that which it seems to illustrate. The beings and powers thus introduced always follow the law of their nature, but their acts, according to this law, are used to figure those of a higher race... . The mere introduction of brutes as personal agents in the fable is not sufficient to distinguish it froml the parable which may make use of the same contrivance; as, for example, Christ employs the sheep in one of his parables. The great distinction here, also, lies in what has already been remarked; brutes introduced in the parable act according to the law of their nature, and the two spheres of nature and of the kingdum of God are carefully separated from each other. Hence the reciprocal relations of brutes to each other are not made use of, as these could furnish no appropriate image of the relation between man and the kingdom of God."
Of the fable as thus distinguished from the parable we have but two examples in the Bible:
(1.) that of the trees choosing their king, addressed by Jothaml to the men of Shechem (Judges 9:8-15);
(2.) that of the cedar of Lebanon and the thistle, as the answer of Jchoash to the challenge of Amaziah (2 Kings 14:9). The narrative of Ezekiel 17:1-10, though, in common with the fable, it brings before us the lower forms of creation as representatives of human characters and destinies, differs from it in the points above noticed,
[1.] in not introducing them as having human attributes;
[2.] in the higher prophetic character of the truths conveyed by it. The great eagle, the cedar of Lebanon, the spreading vine, are not grouped together as the agents in a fable, but are simply, like the bear, the leopard, and the lion in the visions of Daniel, symbols of the great monarchies of the world.
In the two instances referred to, the fable has more the character of the Greek αϊ v νος , or supernatural tale (Quintil. Inst. Orat. 5:11), than of the, μῦθος, or myth; that is, is less the fruit of a vivid imagination, sporting with the analogies between the worlds of nature and of men, than a covert reproof, making the sarcasm which it affects to hide all the sharper (Muller and Donaldson, History,of Greek Literature, volume 1, c. 11). The appearance of the fable thus early in the history of Israel, and its entire absence from the direct teaching both of the O. and N.T., are, each of them in its way, significant. Taking the received chronology, the fable of Jotham was spoken about B.C. 1209. The Arabian traditions of Lokman do not assign to him an earlier date than that of David. The earliest Greek αϊ v νος, or proper fable; is that of Hesiod (Op. et D. 5:202), and the prose form of the fable does not meet us till we come (about B.C. 550) to Stesichorus and AEsop. The first example in the history of Rome is the apologue of Menenius Agrippa, B.C. 494, and its genuineness has been questioned on the ground that the fable could hardly at that tine have found its way to Latium (iiller and Donaldson, 1.c.). It may be noticed, too, that when collections of fables became familiar to the Greeks, they were looked upon as imported, not indigenous. The traditions that surround the name of AEsop, the absence of any evidence that he wrote fables, the traces of Eastern origin in those ascribed to him, leave him little more than the representative of a period when the forms of teaching, which had long been familiar to the more Eastern nations, were traveling westward, and were adopted eagerly by the Greeks. The collections themselves are described by titles that indicate a foreign origin. They are Libyan (Arist. Rhet. 2:20), Cyprian, Cilician.
All these facts lead to the conclusion that the Hebrew mind, gifted, as it was, in a special measure with the power of perceiving analogies in things apparently dissimilar, attained, at a very early stage of its growth, the power which does not appear in the history of other nations till a later period. Whatever antiquity may be ascribed to the fables in the comparatively later collection of the Pancha Tranta, the land of Canaan is, so far as we have any data to conclude from, the fatherland of fable. To conceive brutes or inanimate objects as representing human characteristics, to personify them as acting, speaking, reasoning, to draw lessons from them applicable to human life — this must have been common among, the Israelites in the time of the judges. The part assigned in the earliest records of the Bible to the impressions made by the brute creation on the mind of man when "the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every fowl of the air, and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them" (Genesis 2:19), and the apparent symbolism of the serpent in the narrative ofthe Fall (Genesis 3:1), are at once indications of teaching adspted to men in the possession of this power, and must have helped to develop it (Herder, Geist der Ebrdischen Poesie, Werke, 34, page 16, ed. 1826). The large number of proverbs in which analogies of this kind sre made the bases of a moral precept, and some of which (e.g. Proverbs 26:11; Proverbs 30:15; Proverbs 30:25-28) are of the nature of condensed fables, show that there was no decline of this power as the intellect of the people advanced. The absence of fables accordingly from the teaching of the O.T. must be ascribed to their want of fitness to be the media of the truths which that teaching was to confer. The points in which brutes or inanimate objects present analogies to man are chiefly those which belong to his lower nature, his pride, indolence, cunningand the like, and the lessons derived from them accordingly do not rise higher than the prudential motality which aimis at repressing such defects (comp. Trench, On the Parables, 1.c.). Hence the fable, apart from the associations of a grotesque and ludicrous nature which gather round it; apart, too, from its presenting narratives which are "nec verne nec verisimiles" (Cicero, De Invent. 1:19), is inadequate as the exponent of the hbiher truths which belongs to man's spiritual life. It may serve to exhibit the relations between man and man; it fails to represent those between man and God. To do that is the office of the PARABLE, finding its outward framework in the dealing of men with each other, or in the world of nature as it is, not in any grotesque parody of nature, and exhibiting, in either case, real and not fanciful analogies. The fable seizes on that which man has inl common with the creatures below him; that parable rests on the truths that man is made in the image of God, and that "all things are double one against another."
It is noticeable, as confirming this view of the office of the fable, that, though those of AEsop (so called) were known to the great philosopher of righeteousness at Athens, though a metrical paraphrase of some of them was among the employmenmts of his imaprisonment (Plato, Phaedo, page 60, 61), they were not employed by him as illustrations, or chanuels of instruction. While Socrates shows an appreciation of the power of such fables to represent some of the phenomena mf human life, he was not, hue says, in this sense of the word, μνθολογικός . The myths, which appear in the Gosgias, the Phaedrus; the Phaedo, the Republic, are as unlike as possible to the AEsopic fables, are (to take his own account of them) οὐ μῦθοι ἄλλα λόγοι, true, though figurative, representations of spiritual realities, while the illustrations from the common facts of life which were so conspicuous in his ordinary teaching, though differing in being comparisons rather than narratives, come nearer to the parables of the Bible (compare the contrast between τὰ Σωκρατικά , as examples of the παραβολή and the λόγοι Αἰσόπειοι, Aristot. Rhet. 2:20). It "may be said, indeed, that the use of the fable as an instrument of teaching (apart from the embellishments of wit and. fancy with which it is associated by such writers as Lessing and La Fontaine) belongs 'rather to childhood, and the child-like period of national life, than to a more advanced development.' In the earlier stages of political change, as in the cases of Jotham, Stesichorus (Aristot. Rhet. 1.c.), Menenius Agrippa, it is used as an element of persuasion or reproof. It ceases to appear in the higher eloquence of orators and statesmen. 'The special excellence of fables is that they are δημηγορικοί (Aristot. Rhet, 1.c); that "ducere animos solent, praecipue rusticorum et iniperitoruni" (Quintilian, Instit. Orat. 1.c.). — Smith, s.v.
2. The μῦθοι, or "fables" of false teachers claiming to belong, to the Christian Church, alluded to by writers of the N.T. in connection with "endless genealogies" (γενεαλογίαι ἀπέραντοι . 1 Timothy 1:4), or with disparaging, epithets ("Jewish," Ι᾿ουδαικοί, Titus 1:14; "old wives', γραωδεῖς, 1 Timothy 4:7; "cunningly devised, σεσοφισμένοί, 2 Peter 1:16), do not appear to have had the character of fables, properly so called. As applied :to them, the word takes its general meaning of anything false or unreal. Thus Paul exhorts Timothy and Titus (1 Timothy 1:4; 1 Timothy 4:7; Titus 1:14) to shun profane and Jewish fables, as having a tendency to seduce men from the truth. By these fables souce understand the reveries of the Gnostics; but the fathers generally, and most modern commentators, interpret them of the vain traditions of the Jews. The great reservoir of Jewish tradition is the book, or rather the books, called the Talmud. At the time of the Christian aera, the traditions, as they were called, of the law (by which was meant the decisions of the doctors on disputed points of the Mosaic code, and the extravagant fables with which they adorned their comments) had attained so great a bulk and so high a degree of veneration as quite to supersede the law itself in the common estimation. These traditions which were supposed to have been handed down, some from the law of Moses, and some from a period far anterior, were, for the most part, mere directions for ridiculous ceremonies, questions of absurd casuistry, and fables which by their absurdity alone would have disgusted any other nation. Some of these fables and legends are too impious and blasphemous to be quoted, but we select a few specimens.
Adam, of whose knowledge we can hardly form too high an idea; was said to be endued with magic. " God, "say the Talmudists, "gave him a precious jewel, the very sight of which would cure all diseases; this came afterwards into the possession of Abraham, but after his death, because, by resson of its exceeding brightness, it was likely to be worshipped, God hung, it in the sun." Our first parents were, according to rabbinical tradition, of a gigantic stature; and this legend has been borrowed and improved by the Mohamedans. The transmigration of souls is much insisted on in the Talmud, and the soul of Adam is said to have passed successively into the bodies of Noahs and David; it will also pass into the Messiah. This doctrine they took from the Egyptian mythology, and it is still ucore ancient than their residence in Egypt. Abraham was the person to whom, they say, it was first revealed, and he taught that the souls of men passed into women, beasts, birds, and even reptiles, rocks, and plants. The spirit of a man was punished by passing into a woman; and if the conduct of the man had been very atrocious, it took some reptile or inanimate form; and if a woman act righteously, she will, in another state, become a man. Thus the ass that carried Balsam, the ravens that fed Elijaha, the whale that swallowed Jonah, are all supposed to have possessed reasonable, transmacigarated souls.
The Mishna says, "The two tables of stone were upwards of two tons weight, but the moment God's word and commandments were engraved thereon by the shanzir, they became as light as a feather. When Moses left the mount and cace within sight of the nmolten calf; and heard the multitude shouting, he was alarmed; so that when the rays of the molten calf, which were of gold, came in contact with the tables of stone, the letters thereon immediately flewr away, and the tables of stone returned to their former weight, which was more than Moses could support, and therefore he threw them down, and they brake in pieces." It is also said that Moses was the richest man that ever was or ever will be. His riches consisted of diamonds, which be obtained possession of in the same way that every laborer gets rewarded, by being considered worthy of his hire. Moses never looked for any emolument from the Jews, and God therefore rewarded him in this manner. The two tables of stone were one solid mass of diamonds, and the chippings that came from the two tables were his own perquisites. But what was truly wonderful and astonishing, as the chippings flew off, they became regular and beautiful in their form.
This circumstance gave the wicked Jews occasion to charge him with breaking the tackles purposely, in order that he might have the opportunity to obtain more chippings. It is said that Elijah the prophet is going about the world as an ambassador of God, and is everywhere present at one time, and is in his person a venerable old man, wearing a long beard. When Messiah shall appear, there will be a great feast, at which every Jew will be present, This feast will consist of fowl, of fish, and of flesh, which God created for the purpose at the beginning of the world. First, God provided a large fowl or bird, called Agal Loshder; also a large ox, called Shur Abur; and two large fish, called Leviathan. When God created these two great fish, male and female, being of such immense size, lest they should multiply, God slew the female, and buried it in salt, there to remain until it is wanted for this great feast. Then all the Jews that have been born, or that have existed since the creation of the world, will be restored to life. The table will be spread, and the provision placed upon it, and it is so ordained that each one will take his station according to his conduct in the present life. Moses will sit at the head of the table, and next to him Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the prophets in rotation. Rabbi Simon says he was once sailing in the Great Sea, when he and the mariners espied a fish of such enormous size, that, although they had a fair wind, after they saw one eye of the fish, they sailed five days longer in a direct line before they reached the other eye of the same fish, which confirmed his belief in the report of the size of the leviathan. Much also is related concerning the size of the ox, which is said to be so immense that he eats up the whole of the grass that grows upon a thousand hills every day. The bird, also, is said to be of enormous size, and it is stated that one day this bird, in her flight, dropped an egg, which broke, and the yolk drowned fifty cities and villages (Stehelin, Jewish Traditions. passim). (See TALMUD).
In the genuine fables and traditionary narratives of remote antiquity, especially those of the ancient classics, many correspondencies with the Biblical history are found, such as intimate that these traditions were derived from this history. Of such a nature are the tales concerning a golden age of our race, an apostasy, a general flood, a future restoration. It may with safety be inferred from these traditions that the records in the book of Genesis concerning the apostasy, etc., are not philosophical myths; for, were they nothing more than the emanations of some Hebrew philosopher, how could they have been spread abroad among all nations? These popular traditions point us to the time when the human family were collected into one place, and afterwards separated into various branches. In this separation every tribe took with it the traditions that were common to all. (See MYTHOLOGY).
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McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Fable'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tce/​f/fable.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.