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A comparison or analogy. The word is simply a transliteration of the Greek word: parabolé (literally: "what is thrown beside" or "juxtaposed"), a term used to designate the geometric application we call a "parabola." Like the parabola, the verbal parable is a graphic, round-about way of plotting a point.

The basic parables are extended similes or metaphors. Like similes, some parables explicitly compare one thing to another:

A is like B; this situation is like that.

Rabbinic parables often open with the technical formula "it is like" (mashal) & thus are called meshalim. The synoptic parables of harvest, mustard seed, & treasure are of this type. In such cases, the subject that the parable is designed to illustrate is always clear even when the illustration itself is not.

Other parables, like metaphors, present one thing as an implicit characterization of another:

a volatile political issue is described as 'a hot potato';
an irrelevant item is called 'a red herring.'

In such cases, the speaker draws on the audience's cultural experience to dramatize a point that is self-evident in the context of the discussion. A political 'hot potato' is not related to the image of tubers from Idaho so much as the experience of trying to handle a heated item without protective gear.

In either case, the total imagery of the parable is used to illustrate something else. It is the logic or plot of the extended simile or metaphor, not the identity of particular images, that makes the point.

Unlike explicit meshalim, the original point of reference of a metaphoric parable is not preserved once it is removed from its original social context. In that case, what the parable was designed to illustrate is not immediately clear. Jesus' parable of the sower is a good example of this.

As early as the 2nd c. BCE, a Jewish sage named Jesus ben Sirach, described the role of the scribe/scholar in these terms:

He preserves the sayings of the famous,
and ponders the subtleties of parables;
he seeks out the hidden meaning of proverbs
and is familiar with the obscurities of parables
(Sir 39:2-3).

Here the scholar sees the parable as an intellectual puzzle that needs to be unraveled, not as the self-evident illustration it was designed to be. From the scholar's point of view, the parable does not explain but rather needs to be explained, precisely because it is being read outside of its original context.

During the Hellenistic period Jewish & Christian scribes, like their pagan counterparts, treated any graphic story inherited from tradition as a riddle that needed to be deciphered to find its hidden wisdom. The parables of Jesus were no exception. The writers of the gospels, Origen & later Christians tended to read parables as allegories: concrete ("earthly") stories with abstract ("heavenly") meanings.

A century ago, however, a German scholar, A. Jülicher, revolutionized NT scholars' treatment of the parables of Jesus. Unlike traditional exegesis which interpreted parables as figurative speech, Jülicher insisted that to understand what Jesus meant by parables they need to be read literally. Scholars still interpret parables; but, since Jülicher, we have learned to interpret them in terms of Jesus' own viewpoint rather than our own. Modern parable research focuses on clarifying the logical structure & social connotations of each parable's plot as signs of Jesus' own personal worldview & theology. The graphic images in the parables reveal things that Jesus himself thought were theologically significant. Thus, parables are central to the renewed quest of the historical Jesus in the late 20th c.

[For a clear, detailed introduction to parable research see J.D. Crossan, In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus, Sonoma CA: Polebridge Press, 1992].

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last revised 01 January 2018


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