Tired of seeing ads while studying? Now you can enjoy an "Ads Free" version of the site for as little as 10¢ a day.

Bible Encyclopedias

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature


Additional Links

a word derived from the Greek verb παραβάλλω, which signifies to set side by side, and thus comes easily to have attached to it the idea of doing so for the purpose of comparison. A parable therefore is literally a placing beside, a comparison, a similitude, an illustration of one subject by another. Parables or fables are found in the literature of most nations. They were called by the Greeks αι῏νοι, and by the Romans fabuloe. In the following discussion we treat the whole subject from a Scriptural as well as rhetorical point of view, as developed by modern criticism. (See FIGURE).

I. Signification of the Terms in the Original. "Parable" is the rendering in the A.V. of the following Hebrew and Greek words.

1. In the Old Testament it answers to מָשָׁל, mashal, usually rendered "proverb," which denotes

(a) an obscure or enigmatical saying, e.g. Psalms 49:4 :

"I will incline mine ear to a parable; I will open my dark saying upon the harp;" Psalms 78:2.

"I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings of old."

(b) It signifies a fictitious narrative invented for the purpose of conveying truth in a less offensive or more engaging form than that of direct assertion. Of this sort is the parable by which Nathan reproved David (2 Samuel 12:2-3); that in which Jotham exposed the folly of the Shechemites (Judges 9:7-15); and that addressed by Jehoash to Amaziah (2 Kings 14:9-10). To this class also belong the parables of Christ.

(c) A discourse expressed in figurative, poetical, of highly ornamented diction is called: a parable. Thus it is said, "Balaam took up his parable" (Numbers 23:7); and, "Job continued his parable" (Job 27:1). Under this general and wider signification the two former classes may not improperly be included. (See PROVERB).

2. In the New Testament it is employed by our translators as the rendering of παραβολή (derived as above), a word which seems to have a more restricted signification than the above Hebrew term, being generally employed in the second sense mentioned above, viz to denote a fictitious narrative, under which is veiled some important truth. It has been supposed, indeed, that some of the parables uttered by our Savior narrate real and not fictitious events; but whether this was the case or not is a point of little consequence. The fact that in one instance only (the parable of Lazarus and "Dives") an actual name is given though probably but a conventional one commonly indicative of a class is evidence that our Lord had no particular individual in view. Each of his parables, however, was essentially true; it was true to human nature, and nothing more was necessary. Another meaning which the word occasionally bears in the New Testament is that of a type or emblem, as in Hebrews 9:9, where: παραβολή is rendered in our version figure. According to Macknight, the word in Hebrews 11:19 has the same meaning, but this is probably incorrect. (See EMBLEM).

The word παραβολή therefore does not of itself imply a narrative. The juxtaposition of two things, differing in most points, but agreeing in some, is sufficient to bring the comparison thus produced within the etymology of the word. The παραβολή of Greek rhetoric need not be more than the simplest argument from analogy. You would not choose pilots or athletes by lot; why then should you choose statesmen?" (Aristot. Rhet. 2:20). In Hellenistic. Greek, however, it acquired a wider meaning, coextensive with that of the above-mentioned Hebrew mashal, for which the Sept. writers, with hardly an exception, make it the equivalent. That word (=similitude), as was natural in the language of a people who had never reduced rhetoric to an art, had a large range of application, and was applied (as seen above) sometimes to the shortest proverbs (1 Samuel 10:12; 1 Samuel 24:13; 2 Chronicles 7:20), sometimes to dark prophetic utterances (Numbers 23:7; Numbers 23:18; Numbers 24:3; Ezekiel 20:49), sometimes to enigmatic maxims (Psalms 78:2; Proverbs 1:6), or metaphors expanded into a narrative (Ezekiel 12:22). In Ecclesiasticus the word occurs with a striking frequency, and, as will be seen hereafter, its use by the Son of Sirach throws light on the position occupied by parables in our Lord's teaching. In the N.T. itself the word is used with a like latitude. While attached most frequently to the illustrations which have given it a special meaning, it is also applied to a short saying like "Physician, heal thyself" (Luke 4:23), to a mere comparison without a narrative (Matthew 24:32), to the figurative character of the Levitical ordinances (Hebrews 9:9), or of single facts in patriarchal history (Hebrews 11:19). The later history of the word is not without interest. Naturalized in Latin, chiefly through the Vulgate or earlier versions, it loses gradually the original idea of figurative speech, and is used for speech of any kind. Mediaeval Latin gives us the strange form of parabolare, and the descendants of the technical Greek word in the Romance languages are parler, parole, parola, palabras (Diez, Roman. Worterb. s.v. Parola). (See SIMILE).

II. Definition and Distinctions. From the above examinations we are prepared to find the word frequently used both by the evangelists and by the disciples of Jesus, with reference to instructions of Christ which we should call simply figurative, or metaphorical, or proverbial. In Luke 6:39 we read. "And he spake a parable unto them, Can the blind lead the blind? Shall they not both fall into the ditch?"(comp. Matthew 15:14-15, where Peter speaks of the saying as "this parable"). In Mark 7:17, after Jesus had taught that not the things entering into, but those coming out of a man defile him, we are told that, "when he was entered into the house from the people, his disciples asked him concerning the parable;" and, in Luke 14:7, the warning against taking the chief seats at table is introduced as "a parable put forth to those which were bidden." In all these sayings of our Lord, however, it is obvious that the germ of a parable is contained. We have only to work upon the hint given us, and we have the perfect story. Two blind men, for example, are seen leading each other along the road, and, after struggling for a time with the difficulties, of doing so, both fall into the ditch by the wayside. A pure and noble-spirited man takes his food with unwashed hands, while a hypocrite and oppressor of the poor is careful to cleanse them before he eats; both rise up from table and return, the one to his career of benevolence, the other to his wrongs land his injustice: which is the one deserving condemnation? The banquet is spread, a vain guest enters, and takes the highest seat, a meritorious but humble one follows and takes the lowest, the master of the house notes the impropriety, and requests the former to go down, the latter to come up, the attention of the whole company is directed to them, the one is shamed, the other is honored. Thus in each case we have the substance, although not the form, of the parable; in each an incident of common life is employed for the illustration of higher truth. But while comparison is thus the general meaning of the word before us, it has acquired a special sense in distinction from those other words, similitude, metaphor, allegory, fable, etc., which also imply comparison. Let us endeavor to distinguish it from these.

1. The parable is not a mere similitude, in which the mind rests simply upon the points of agreement between two things that are compared, and experiences that pleasure which is always afforded by the discovery of resemblances between things that differ. In such a case both terms of the similitude must be enunciated, and the pleasure springing from their agreement is all that the speaker or writer looks to as what will lend force to his instructions. (See SIMILITUDE).

2. Nor is the parable a mere metaphor, in which a word familiar to us in the region of sensible experience, and denoting some object possessed of particular properties, is transferred to another object belonging to a more elevated region, in order that the former may impart to us a fuller and. livelier idea of the properties which the latter ought to possess. Were we to speak of the Word of God as a seed we might be said to use a metaphor, but in that case we transfer the properties of the seed to the Word; the seed itself, having suggested the particular property upon which we wish to dwell, vanishes from our thoughts. But when as a part of instruction by parable we use the same expression, the idea of the seed abides with us, and, the keeping before our minds of its actual history, that we may ascend from it into another sphere, is a necessary part of the mental process through which we pass. (See METAPHOR).

3. It is more difficult to draw the distinction between parable and allegory. It can hardly be (as in Trench, On the Parables, p. 8) that in the latter there is a transference of the qualities and properties of the thing signifying to the thing, signified, so that the mind blends the two together, while in the former it keeps them separate. This distinction proceeds upon the idea that an allegory is only an extended metaphor, an idea which cannot be regarded as correct, for the allegory seems to differ from the metaphor especially in this, that no transference of qualities, and properties takes. place. In the allegory the circumstances employed for, the purpose of comparison remain in their real or supposed existence; the mind does not, as in metaphor, rest at once in the final object of thought, and only travel backwards to the figure employed for giving liveliness to the representation, in order that it may fill out its idea of the higher by recalling the attributes of the lower. It starts from the facts, whether real or imaginary, which form the basis of the similitude it employs; it leaves them as they are; and only hastens to the conclusion that a corresponding order of things is to be found in the other sphere to which it ascends. The allegory thus corresponds, strictly to what is involved in the derivation of the word. It is the teaching of one thing by another thing, of a second by a first a similarity of properties is supposed to exist, a like course of events to be traceable in both; but the first does not pass off in the second; the two remain distinct. Viewed in this light, allegory, in its widest sense, may be regarded as a genus, of which the fable, the parable, and what we commonly call allegory are species. It only remains for us, therefore, to note the differences of these.

4. Between fable and parable the difference appears to be determined by the object which they severally propose. It is the business of the fable to enforce only some prudential maxim, some common-sense principle, some wise saw founded on the experience of the world, and to do this in such a way as shall awaken surprise and pleasure. Hence it deals. mainly with plants or the lower animals, and, by clothing them with all the powers of reflection which lie within the compass of its aim, it gives not only interest but force to its lesson. If even animals or plants, we reason, can display such prudence or be the victims of such folly, how much more ought we, with our higher powers, to exhibit the one or to avoid the other? The parable has a nobler end. It would teach either religious or high moral truth. It deals with the loftiest aspect of man's being, with the nobler side of his character, with his relation not to mere earthly experience, but to a spiritual, an ideal world. Hence it cannot admit into its story those actors in which the fable mainly delights. The lesson which it would enforce is too solemn for that. It would jar upon our sense of propriety and would be unnatural. That such actors should appear in the fable produces no feeling of incongruity, because we know that there is a side of our nature which is possessed in common with us by the beasts of the field. But it is not so with that side of it which the parable would instruct, and to introduce therefore the lower animals as our instructors there would be to destroy our sense of what chiefly distinguishes us from them, and would only produce disgust. The correctness of what has been said may still further appear if we consider that we would take no offense at a parable in which angels were actors, because, whatever points of difference there may exist between the human and angelic nature, they agree in this, that they are fitted for moving amid the same spiritual realities, and cherishing the same spiritual emotions. These considerations will also show us that, while a fable may proceed upon facts palpably fictitious, the parable can only proceed upon those which are or may be true. It deals so much with the severe majesty of truth that it cannot accept the aid of anything plainly false. It is the truthfulness, in short, of the lower side of the representation that makes it the fitting vehicle for the conveyance of the higher. Thus also we remark, in conclusion upon this point, that the parable might take the place of the fable, but not the fable of the parable. As to the distinction again between the parable and the allegory commonly so-called, it is probably to be sought in this, that the latter is the offspring simply of a poetical imagination, while the former is conversant with the actual realities of life. (See FABLE).

Thus, distinguished both from similitude and metaphor, and regarded as a species of allegory, the parable may be said to be a story which, either true or possessing all the appearance of truth, exhibits in the sphere of natural human life a process parallel to one which exists in the ideal and spiritual world. It differs from the "story" of the modern romantic tale chiefly in the fact that its incidents are. drawn from ordinary life, while the latter deals with unusual and marvelous conjunctures, such as rarely if ever occur in reality. The moral effect therefore is very different. (See ALLEGORY).

III. Use of Parables by our Lord. It will help us, however, still further to understand the meaning of the parable, and its high significance as a method of tuition, if we consider the grounds upon which its power to instruct us rests. For that power is not simply dependent upon the pleasure which an aptly chosen similitude always affords. It is rather dependent upon the truth, of which we become gradually more sensible as our views of religion rise, that the whole of nature and providence, the whole constitution of human life, and the laws which regulate the progress both of the individual and of society, spring. from one God, and are maintained by him. All outward things thus become transfigured to us are not merely what they are to the bodily eyes, but are pregnant with a fuller meaning, colored with a richer light to the eye of faith. Beneath the outward we see the inward; beneath the material, the spiritual; beneath the visible, the invisible; beneath the temporal, the eternal. Everywhere the same perfections of God's being, the same rules of his government appear. We feel ourselves placed in the midst of a grand harmonious system, all the lines of which spring from the same center, and return to it again. Whatever lesson, therefore, is associated with any one part of the Almighty's works or ways, comes to us with the weight, not of that one part only, but of all. If God reveal himself in this way here, he will reveal himself, we reason, in this way elsewhere. We call in the universe to bear witness to the truth which we may be considering; and we rest in the assurance that, could we explore it all, we should find analogous principles at work in it.

It may be said indeed that this view of parables is Christian, and that our Lord's parables were addressed to Jews. The statement is true. The feeling which we have expressed belongs, in its most developed form, to Christianity alone. In its thoroughness and completeness it was first revealed in Christ. He alone has taught us to behold in everything the tokens of our heavenly Father's presence, and yet to avoid the pantheistic error of merging the Father in his works. But although fully developed only in Christianity, this lesson was one also of Judaism. The Jew believed in a personal God, and looked upon the world as his handiwork. What he lacked was that well-grounded belief in the love of God which could alone guide him through the many perplexities and reconcile the many apparent contradictions by which he was surrounded. Still he knew enough to make him in a great degree alive to this power of the parable. Further, we must bear in mind that our Lord, as the great Teacher of man, could not, while he sought to be understood by the Jew, be limited in his teaching by the capacity of the Jew to understand. He had to speak for all ages, and all stages of advancement; for the spiritual as well as for the carnal, for full- grown men as well as babes. More than all, we must remember that in his teaching the Savior had to present himself that his lessons were not like those of an ordinary teacher, who may be more or less taught by others to speak what he himself is not. Christ was to embody in himself the highest conception of Christianity. He was to exhibit our faith in living reality, by showing how he himself felt and lived how he himself looked on heaven and earth, on God and man. Therefore, even although the Jew might have been less favorably situated than he was for owning this particular element of the parable's power, such a method of instruction would still have possessed a divine and beautiful appropriateness in the lips of Jesus.

To understand the relation of the parables of the Gospels to our Lord's teachings, we must go back to the use made of them by previous or contemporary teachers. We have sufficient evidence that they were frequently employed by them (see Horwitz, Hebrew Tales, Lond. 1826; N. Y. 1847; Levi, Parabole dai libri Talmudici, Florence, 1861). They appear frequently in the Gemara and Midrash (comp. Lightfoot, Hor. Heb. in Matthew 13:3; Jost, Judenthum, 2:216), and are ascribed to Hillel, Shammai, and other great rabbins of the two preceding centuries. The panegyric passed upon the great rabbi Meir, that after his death men ceased to speak parables, implies that upon that time there had been a succession of teachers more or less distinguished for them (Sota, fol. 49, in Jost, Judenthum, 2:87; Lightfoot, l.c.). Later Jewish writers have seen in this employment of parables a condescension to the ignorance of the great mass of mankind, who cannot be taught otherwise. For them, as for women or children, parables are the natural and fit method of instruction (Maimonides, Porta Mosis. p. 84, in Wetstein, On Matthew 13), and the same view is taken by Jerome as accounting for the common use of parables in Syria and Palestine (Hieron. In Matthew 18:23). It may be questioned, however, whether this represents the use made of them by the rabbins of our Lord's time. The language of the Son of Sirach confines them to the scribe who devotes himself to study.

They are at once his glory and his reward (Sirach 39:2-3). Of all who eat bread by the sweat of their brow, of the great mass of men in cities and country, it is written that "they shall not be found where parables are spoken" (38:33). For these, therefore, it is probable that the Scribes and teachers of the law had simply rules and precepts, often perhaps burdensome and oppressive (Matthew 23:8; Matthew 23:4), formulae of prayer (Luke 11:1), appointed times of fasting and hours of devotion (Mark 2:18). They, who would not even eat with common people (comp. Wetstein and Lampe, On John 7:49), cared little to give even as much as this to the "people of the earth," whom they scorned as "knowing not the law," a brute herd for whom they could have no sympathy. For their own scholars they had, according to their individual character and power of thought, the casuistry with which the Mishna is for the most part filled, or the parables which here and there give tokens of some deeper insight. The parable was made the instrument for teaching the young disciple to discern the treasures of wisdom of which the "accursed" multitude were ignorant. The teaching of our Lord at the commencement of his ministry was in every way the opposite of this. The Sermon on the Mount may be taken as the type of the "words of grace" which he spake, "not as the Scribes." Beatitudes, laws, promises, were uttered distinctly, not indeed without similitudes, but with similitudes that explained themselves. So for some months he taught in the synagogues and on the seashore of Galilee, as he had before taught in Jerusalem, and as yet without a parable. But then there comes a change. The direct teaching was met with scorn, unbelief, hardness, and he seems for a time to abandon it for that which took the form of parables. The question of the disciples (Matthew 13:10) implies that they were astonished. Their Master was no longer proclaiming the Gospel of the kingdom as before. He was falling back into one at least of the forms of rabbinic teaching (comp. Schottgen's Hor. Heb. vol 2 "Christus Rabbinorum Summus"). He was speaking to the multitude in the parables and dark sayings which the rabbins reserved for their chosen disciples. Here, for them, were two grounds for wonder. Here, for us, is the key to the explanation which he gave, that he had chosen this form of teaching because the people were spiritually blind and deaf (Matthew 13:13), and in order they might remain so (Mark 4:12). Two interpretations have been given of these words.

(a.) Spiritual truths, it has been said, are in themselves hard and uninviting. Men needed to be won to them by that which was more attractive. The parable was an instrument of education for those who were children in age or character. For this reason it was chosen by the Divine Teacher, as fables and stories, "ad minicula imbecillitatis" (Seneca, Epist. 59), have been chosen by human teachers (Chrysostom, Hom. in Johann. 34).

(b) Others, again, have seen in this use of parables something of a penal character. Men have set themselves against the truth, and therefore it is hid from their eyes, presented to them in forms in which it is not easy for them to recognize it. To the inner circle of the. chosen it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God. To those who are without, all these things are done in parables. Neither view is wholly satisfactory. Each contains a partial truth. All experience shows, first, that parables do attract, and, when once understood, are sure to be remembered; secondly, that men may listen to them and see that they have a meaning, and yet never care to ask what that meaning is. Their worth, as instruments of teaching, lies in their being at once a test of character, and in their presenting each form of character with that which, as a penalty or blessing, is adapted to it. They withdraw the light from those who love darkness. They protect the truth which they enshrine from the mockery of the scoffer. They leave something even with the careless which may be interpreted and understood afterwards. They reveal, on the other hand, the seekers after truth. These ask the meaning of the parable, will not rest till the teacher has explained it are led step by step to the laws of interpretation, so that they can "understand all parables," and then pass on into the higher region in which parables are no longer necessary, but all things are spoken plainly. In this way the parable did its work, found out the fit hearers and led them on. It is also to be remembered that even after this self-imposed law of reserve and reticence, the teaching of Christ presented a marvelous contrast to the narrow exclusiveness of the Scribes. The mode of education was changed, but the work of teaching or educating was not for a moment given up, and the aptest scholars were found in those whom the received system would have altogether shut out.

If we test the parables of the Old Testament by the rules above laid down, we shall not find them wanting in any excellence belonging to this species of composition. What can be more forcible, more persuasive, and more beautiful than the parables of Jotham (Judges 9:7-15), of Nathan (2 Samuel 12:1-14), of Isaiah 5:1-5, and of Ezekiel 19:1-9? There are other illustrations, like that of the city delivered by one wise inhabitant (Ecclesiastes 9:14-15), which are substantially parables, although not in express form. But the parables uttered by our Savior claim pre-eminence over all others on account of their number, variety, oppositeness, and beauty. Indeed, it is impossible to conceive of a mode of instruction better fitted to engage the attention, interest the feelings, and impress the conscience than that which our Lord adopted. Among its advantages may be recapitulated the following:

(1.) It secured the attention of multitudes who would not have listened to truth conveyed in the form of abstract propositions. It did so in virtue of two principles of human nature, viz. that outward and sensible objects make a more vivid impression than inward notions or ideas; and that the particular and the concrete affect the mind more than the general and the abstract. Thus a virtue or vice may be held up for abhorrence or admiration far more successfully by exhibiting its effects on the character of an individual than by eulogizing or declaiming against it in the abstract.

(2.) This mode of teaching was, as we have seen, one with which the Jews were familiar, and for which they entertained a preference. They had been accustomed to it in the writings of their prophets, and, like other Eastern nations, listened with pleasure to truths thus wrapped in the veil of allegory.

(3.) Some truths which, if openly stated, would have been opposed by a barrier of prejudice, were in this way insinuated, as it were, into men's minds, and secured their assent unawares.

(4.) The parabolic style was well adapted to conceal Christ's meaning from those who, through obstinacy and perverseness, were indisposed to receive it. This seems to be the meaning of Isaiah in the passage quoted in Matthew 13:13. Not that the truth was ever hidden from those who sincerely sought to know it; but it was wrapped in just enough of obscurity to veil it from those who "had pleasure in unrighteousness," and who would not "come to the light lest their deeds should be reproved." In accordance with strict justice, such were given up to strong delusions, that they might believe a lie." (See BLINDNESS, JUDICIAL).

Accordingly, from the time indicated in the passage just cited, parables enter largely into our Lord's recorded teaching. Each parable of those which we read in the Gospels may have been repeated more than once with greater or less variation (as, e.g., those of the pounds and the talents, Matthew 25:14; Luke 19:12; of the supper, in Matthew 22:2, and Luke 14:16). Everything leads us to believe that there were many others of which we have no record (Matthew 13:34; Mark 4:33). In those which remain various writers have thought it possible to trace something like an order; but as these classifications must be in any case somewhat subjective and arbitrary, we refrain from presenting them, and give simply a complete list in tabular form (p. 647).

Lastly, it is to be noticed, partly as a witness to the truth of the four Gospels, partly as a line of demarcation between them and all counterfeits, that the apocryphal Gospels contain no parables. Human invention could imagine miracles (though these too in the spurious Gospels are stripped of all that gives them majesty and significance), but the parables of the Gospels were inimitable and unapproachable by any writers of that or the succeeding age. They possess a life and power which stamp them as with the "image and superscription" of the Son of Man. Even the total absence of any allusion to them in the written or spoken teaching of the apostles shows how little their minds set afterwards in that direction, how little likely they were to do more than testify what they had actually heard.

IV. Rules of Interpretation. It has been usual to consider the parable as composed of two parts: viz. the protasis, conveying merely the literal sense; and the apodosis, containing the mystical or figurative sense. It is not necessary, however, that this second part should always be expressed. It is frequently omitted in the parables of our Lord, when the truth illustrated was such as his disciples were unable at the time fully to comprehend, or when it was his design to reveal to them something which was to be hidden from the unbelieving Jews (comp. Matthew 13:11-13). The excellence of a parable depends on the propriety and force of the comparison on which it is founded; on the general fitness and harmony of its parts; on the obviousness of its main scope or design; on the beauty and conciseness of the style in which it is expressed; and on its adaptation to the circumstances and capacities of the hearers. The scope or design of Christ's parables is sometimes to be gathered from his own express declaration, as in Luke 12:16-20; Luke 14:11; Luke 16:9. In other cases it must be sought by considering the context, the circumstances in which it was spoken, and the features of the narrative itself, i.e. the literal sense. For the right understanding of this, an acquaintance with the customs of the people, with the productions of their country, and with .the events of their history, is often desirable. Most of our Lord's parables, however, admit of no doubt as to their main scope, and are so simple and perspicuous that "he who runs may read."

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.

Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Parable'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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