The Glossary of Terms


Jesus' explanation for using parables: Explanation #1 | Explanation #2 | Explanation #3


The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology

edited by Colin Brown (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1975, 1986, Volume 2, pages 743; see also 743-760) [book review]

Parable, Allegory, Proverb

It has been estimated that roughly one third of the recorded teaching of Jesus consists of parables and parabolic statements, and that that there are some forty of the former and twenty of the latter (A.M. Hunter, Interpreting the Parables, 1960, 10 ff.; for a list see [The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Volume II, pages 749-751]). In its broadest sense a parable is a form of speech used to illustrate and persuade by the help of a picture. In ancient writing, including the Bible, the use of figurative speech was widespread in giving concrete, pictorial and challenging expression to religious ideas for which there were no corresponding abstract concepts. Figurative speech is still part and parcel of every day life. On a philosophical and theoretical level relgious language is interpreted in terms of abstractions and concepts relative to a contemporary world view. But this is merely to translate one set of thought forms from one conceptual scheme into those of another. In so soing care must be taken to avoid losing the original content of the picture and also the challenge which was an essential feature of the language. In discussing the character of the parable, scholars distinguish the parable proper from figurative language in general, metaphors, similes and similitudes, parabolic stories, illustrative stories, and allegories. These seven categories are all linked to parabole. The proverb (paroimia) also has a didactic religious function and is therefor treated in this article.


parabole (parable) [Strong's #3942]
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Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

You are strongly recommended to add to your library the excellent revised edition of Harper's Bible Dictionary titled, The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition [book review], edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, with the Society of Biblical Literature (NY: Harper Collins, 1996). It is currently the best one-volume Bible dictionary in English, and it is available at Border's Books, Christian Science Reading Rooms,, or

parables, very short stories with a double meaning. In the biblical tradition, the terms translated from Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek by the narrower term ‘parable’ should more accurately be translated by the wider term ‘metaphor.’ The basic distinction that the biblical tradition finds worthy of emphasis is that between literal and metaphorical language. In the context, the term ‘parable,’ therefore, must cover both aphorisms and stories, proverbs and riddles, dialogues and discourses, as long as these are metaphorical or figurative. In this understanding, the parables of Jesus range from metaphorical aphorisms, such as that on the kingdom and house divided in Mark 3:24-25, to metaphorical narratives, such as the one on the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-22, to metaphorical discourses, such as John 10. The biblical tradition’s wide interpretation of parable in the sense of metaphor makes it possible to say with Mark 4:34 that all of Jesus’ words are parables.

In the Aristotelian tradition, however, the distinctions are more detailed and more precise. In The Art of Rhetoric (2.20) Aristotle divides rhetorical proofs into general statements that can be used for deductive purposes, such as maxims and proverbs, and specific stories that can be used for inductive purposes. These latter stories can be either historical or fictional, and the fictional ones may be either possible, such as parables, or impossible, such as fables. For the Aristotelian tradition, then, parables are a very specific type of metaphor. They are realistic but metaphorical narratives.

The contemporary understanding of the parabolic genre is closer to the Aristotelian than the biblical tradition. For moderns, the three elements in a parable are narrativity, metaphoricity, and brevity; it is a very short story with a double meaning. On the surface level it speaks, say, of sowing or fishing, but on a deeper level it points to something else and it challenges one to discover that something else by close interpretation.

While the ot abounds in metaphors, aphorisms, proverbs, riddles, and other figurative discourse, it also contains parables in the narrower sense of a short story with a double meaning. The ‘Song of the Vineyard,’ found in Isaiah 5:1-2, is one such example. Its parabolic nature was recognized by Jesus when he fashioned his parable of the wicked husbandmen after it (Mark 12:1-11). Another example is the story Nathan tells David about the theft of a prized lamb (1 Sam. 12:1-4). In the Song of the Vineyard, the hearers are explicitly invited to participate in the story (Isa. 5:3-4), and David’s reaction to Nathan’s parable shows David’s participation in that story as well. In each instance, the parable has attached to it its interpretation (Isa. 5:7; 2 Sam. 12:7-9), a feature also found in some nt parables (e.g., Mark 4:14-20 for Mark 4:3-9; Matt. 13:36-43 for Matt. 13:24-30). Despite the appearance of parables in the ot, however, it is with the sayings of Jesus that the biblical parable achieves its most widespread use.

Parables of Jesus: When the parables of Jesus are understood in the biblical tradition as including the full spectrum from metaphorical aphorism through metaphorical narrative to metaphorical discourse, the listing includes almost everything Jesus said. When they are understood in the Aristotelian and contemporary traditions as including only metaphorical narratives, the list on the accompanying table is the basic corpus. The list is given in terms of the number of independent sources for each parable; in those cases where the parable may have appeared in more than one source, that is also indicated (e.g., the parable of the mustard seed, which apparently appeared in Mark and in Q).


The distinction between metaphorical aphorism and metaphorical narrative is usually quite evident. The aphorism is a one-liner, such as Mark 10:25, while the narrative has, as it were, three acts: a beginning, a middle, and an end. But the narrative should also have a middle and end not absolutely and irrevocably contained in its beginning. This is a significant criterion in those intermediate cases where we have what looks like a metaphorical narrative but is really just a developed metaphorical aphorism, and some of these may even be present in the list in the accompanying table. They are quite common in Q (a source, posited by scholars, containing sayings of Jesus), where they reflect the theology of Wisdom offering herself, being either accepted or rejected, and rewarding or punishing accordingly. A classic example is the three successive acts of building, storming, and staying/falling in Q/Matt. 7:24-27 and Q/Luke 6:47-49. This is not a narrative but an explicit development of what is already implicit in the aphorism of Matt. 7:24 and Luke 6:47.

In the basic parabolic corpus given in the table there are excluded not only metaphorical aphorisms and discourses but also those extended or developed metaphorical aphorisms that come closest in appearance to the metaphorical narratives so peculiarly characteristic of Jesus. Certain cases might still be argued one way or another, but, in general, the table lists Jesus’ parables in the sense of figurative stories whose plot is not just the inevitable unfolding of the opening sentence.

Interpretation: Parables provoke interpretation. They do this by making one wonder how they apply to their referent. They also do it by making one wonder what their referent is.

In some cases the referent is quite clear from the context. This may be given before and/or after the parable, and the parable may even be applied to its referent in specific detail. This often happens, for example, in rabbinical parables exemplifying the answers to exegetical difficulties or moral problems. The insertion of Jesus’ parables into their present Gospel positions often clarifies the referent by context in similar if less detailed fashion. Thus Luke connects the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son, both to each other in 15:3-32 and to their present referent in 15:1-2.

If one asks, however, about the original referent of the parables in the life of the historical Jesus, the question is much more difficult. One plausible working hypothesis is to connect all of the parables to his dominant theme of the Kingdom of God, to its gracious advent, its disturbing presence, and its challenging implications. This conjunction of Kingdom and parable is underlined by the parable of the mustard seed, for example (Mark 4:30-32; Matt. 13:31; Luke 13:18-19). We have three independent versions of this story and it appears as a Kingdom parable in all three. But even if one accepts the Kingdom as the original referent of Jesus’ parables, one can still ask whether the Kingdom for Jesus is a future and apocalyptic event or a present and mysterious reality. The answer must take into account the serene and everyday normalcy of Jesus’ parabolic imagery as against the necessarily extraordinary and unique imagery of apocalyptic discourse.

In their present Gospel locations, parables may be interpreted not only by general context but also by specific commentary from Jesus himself. Thus, on the one hand, Mark 4:13-20; Matt. 13:18-23; and Luke 8:11-15 interpret the parable of the sower, but the Gospel of Thomas does not; Matt. 13:37-43 interprets the wheat and weeds, but the Gospel of Thomas does not; and, on the other, Gos. Thom. 64b interprets the great supper, but Matthew and Luke do not. Those interpretations are most likely from the tradition rather than from Jesus himself, but their presence and especially their diversity sound an important warning. Parables demand interpretation, and multiple, diverse, and succesive commentary is their destiny. The sower, a parable of parabling the Kingdom, reminds us that misinterpretation is always possible but also that even faithful interpretation will be plural rather than univocal. The parable risks losing control over the hearer in the interest of participation by the hearer because the Kingdom of God is an interaction between the divine and the human. The parable is a most appropriate form for such a process.


paroimia (proverb) [Strong's #3942] - Joh 10:6; 16:25, 29; 2Pe 2:22
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A Translator's Handbook on the Gospel of John

by Barclay M. Newman and Eugene A. Nida (New York: United Bible Societies, 1980, page 516-517) [book review]

Verse 25 [of John 16] suggests that Jesus' words to his disciples are coming to an end. In these last few verses are united the themes of parables and plain speech, of Jesus' desertion by his disciples, and of the promise of ultimate victory. Jesus begins by telling his disciples that the time is coming when he will no longer speak to them in parables, but will tell them in plain words about the Father (verse 25). This seems to be a reference to the work of the Holy Spirit. Then the theme of speaking plainly to the disciples about the Father is united with that of asking and receiving from the Father (verses 26-27). Finally, Jesus affirms again his own origin and destination (verse 28). The disciples then respond , affirming that they do believe in Jesus' divine origin (verses 29-30). In this Jesus replies that their faith is not strong enough now (verse 31), for the time is coming when he will be left alone (verse 32). But his final remarks are words of encouragement: he has overcome the world, and his disciples must be brave in the confidence that they will untilmately share this victory (verse 33)...

The word translated figures of speech is the same word translated parable in 10.6. The reference to Jesus' use of figures of speech in teaching must not be limited to the analogy of the woman in childbirth. It may include as well the symbolism involved in washing the disciples' feet (13.8-11) and the parable of the vine and the branches (15.1-17); and it may even be enlarged to include such discourses as that of the shepherd (10:1-18). In fact, the reference may be to everything that Jesus has thus far taught his disciples, including this last discourse, but not limited to it...

Westminster Pelican Commentaries: Saint John,

by John Marsh (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1968)

25 - 'I have said this to you in figures': The only other use of the word figure in John is in 10:6 to describe the teaching about the good Shepherd. Jesus knows that what he has said cannot but be enigmatic to the disciples. But once the death has occured and the glorification of the Son has taken place, the enigmatic character of speech about his death will have gone. John is probably truer to the facts than Mark in suggesting that right to the very end the disciples did not fully understand the teaching of Jesus, but found it puzzling. (Contrast Mark's phrase: 'To you [the disciples] has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables.') The life of Jesus is like a parable; it can be told as a life, and as such can be quite intelligible. That is how the outside knows it. But to those 'inside' the life story is like a parable: there is a meaning behind the story more important than the story itself, because it consists of what the story is really trying to say. But even on Mark's own showing, the disciples did not understand the Lord's teaching about the cross (cf. Mark 8:33; 9:32).

The Anchor Bible: The Gospel according to John

by Raymond E. Brown (New York: Doubleday, 1970, Volume 2, page 723)

In recalling Jesus' custom of speaking in figures of speech, John is in agreement with Mark iv 34: "He did not speak to them without a parable [parabole, synonym of paroimia], but explained everything privately to his own disciples" (also Mark iv 11). Yet for John the full explanation did not come until the era of the Spirit.

The Gospel according to St. John, Second Edition

by C.K. Barrett (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978, page 495)

John is well aware of this radical division brought about by the teaching and work of Jesus; but he is perhaps truer to the facts than Mark when he suggests that even the Twelve remained to the end among the mystified. For him the contrast is not between the multitudes on the one hand the immediate circle of Jesus on the other, but between the multitudes and disciples alike during the ministry, and the disciples after the resurrection...

The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology

edited by Colin Brown (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1975, 1986, Volume 2, pages 757-758, by C.H. Peisker) [book review]

paroimia - proverb, wise saying; dark saying, riddle.

NT 1... It is striking that, although sayings that can be classified as proverbs occur in many places in the NT, only in few places (Jn. 10:6; 16:25, 29; 2 Pet. 2:22) are proverbs and saying designated by the word paroimia. The instances in Jn. occupy an exceptional position.

2. It is only in Jn., in fact, that paroimia occurs (10:6; 16:25, 29) in the sense of dark saying, or riddle. This meaning comes about because of the Heb. equivalent masal and the consequent approximation to parabole. In retrospect Jesus' discourse on the shepherd (10:6) and, indeed, his discourses in general (16:25) are characterized as dark sayings. The dark saying is contrasted with the later, clear revelatory saying (16:25, 29). This can be understood chronologically; the early Jesus spoke in riddles, the exalted Jesus speaks openly. But this interpretaion contains some difficulties. One cannot really characterize Jesus' words in Jn. as intectectually difficult to understand, nor can one distinguish between dark and clear sayings. Dark here probably does not mean intellectually difficult. The darkness of the words does not reside in the words but in the hearer. Therefore the words are dark and clear simultaneously. The words remain dark so long as the hearer tries to understand them intellectually. "It is possible to understand the words of Jesus only in the reality of the believing existence. Before that they are incomprehensible -- not in the sense of being difficult to grasp intellectually, but because intellectual comprehension is not enough. It is precisely this that the disciples must realize, namely that the commitment of one's whole existence is required to understand these words. They will be comprehensible in the new (i.e., eschatological) existence: rechetai hora hote ktl. ['the hour comes when etc.']: only then will Jesus speak to them parrhesia [openly]" (R. Bultmann, The Gospel of John, 1971, 587).

The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Abridged in One Volume

Kittel, Gerhard, and Friedrich, Gerhard, Editors (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985) [book review]

paroimia (proverb)

A. Outside the NT.

1. Literally “byword,” the paroimia is a sentence or proverb summing up what is said. The proverb is a popular, ancient, and familiar saying, expressing common wisdom in pointed form. When based on a typical example, it may be enigmatic to those not conversant with the example. It is less artistic than the maxim or aphorism and less specific than the apophthegm. It is common in speeches and letters, and may also be given poetic form. Drawing often on nature, it has some relation to the fable.

2. The Hebrew term, mashal, is a common one. Only twice in Proverbs and five times in Sirach is paroimia used for it. In Prov. 1:1 the term applies to all the sayings that follow. The meaning, then, is wisdom saying (so also Sirach).

3. Philo uses paroimia for “proverb.” The rabbis make much use of proverbs in elucidation and proof, usually with an introductory formula.

B. The NT.

1. The only NT instance of paroimia for “proverb” is in 2 Pet. 2:22, which uses two common sayings in disparagement of the conduct of the heretics. Jn. 4:37 also adduces a popular saying but does not use paroimia. The same is true in 1 Cor. 15:33, Gal. 6:7, Acts 26:14, and Tit. 1:12, and many sayings of Jesus reflect current proverbs (cf. Mt. 5:14; 6:21; 7:5, 7, 12; 20:16; Mk. 4:24-25, etc.).

2. John uses paroimia three times (10:6; 16:25, 29) but more in the sense of “obscure speech” that needs interpretation. Later, clearer speech about heavenly things will replace this more difficult form of statement, i.e., when Jesus reaches the end of his life’s task and tells the disciples that he is going back to the Father (16:29).

[F. Hauck, TDNT, Volume V, pages 854-56]


Topical index of terms
Edited for by Robert Nguyen Cramer
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