In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Parables

  • Introduction
  • Surveys of Scholarship
  • Major Works
  • Select Groups of Parables
  • Essay Collections
  • Social Context

Biblical Studies Parables
John S. Kloppenborg
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0045


The Greek term parabolē is used in several senses: It sometimes introduces a figurative saying or a cryptic remark that requires explanation; in the Shepherd of Hermas the term designates figurative visions, each supplied with an allegorical interpretation; and at other points parabolai are short narrative fictions. It is these latter narrative parabolai that are most commonly discussed under the heading of the parables of Jesus. Whether expressly designated as parabolai or not, short fictional narratives ascribed to Jesus appear in the Synoptic Gospels, the Gospel of Thomas, 1 Clement, Gospel of the Nazoreans, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Apocryphon of James, and the Shepherd of Hermas. They are of interest from numerous perspectives. First, the parables are comparable to a range of ancient and modern short narratives, including Aesop’s fables, historical anecdotes about the deeds of famous persons, humorous stories, the Apophthegmata Patrum (anecdotes about the desert fathers), and Zen koans. Such stories are pithy and sometimes marked by hyperbole and humor. Second, the parables of Jesus are usually regarded as the literary successors to the meshalim of the Hebrew Bible––a term that compasses a wide variety of figurative speech, including proverbs, riddles, and figurative stories that implicitly or explicitly compare one thing with another. The comparative function is explicit in many of Jesus’ parables, beginning with “the kingdom is like . . .” or “to what shall I compare . . .?” Third, whereas Greek rhetoric divided inductive proofs into three groups––historical anecdotes, fables (logoi), and invented comparisons (parabolai)––the parables of Jesus are best compared with invented comparisons: They are realistic fictions. Fourth, many of the topics and tropes featured in Jesus’ parables (kings, sons, slaves, travelers, banquets) recur in later rabbinic parables. Rabbinic parables, however, display a strong tendency to allegorize and function as stories designed to illustrate a halakhic point. The parables of Jesus, generally speaking, are not designed to illustrate legal exegesis, and not all are easily susceptible to allegorical readings. Fifth, insofar as they feature a wide array of ordinary social roles and activities the parables of Jesus provide a distinctive window onto the social and economic world of 1st-century Jewish Palestine. Because parables employ stock figures with multiple interpretive valences, they also afford an important laboratory in which to examine the ways in which discourse was transformed from one gospel to another, from one social level to another, and from homely stories told in rural Palestine to elaborate allegorical interpretations proposed by learned church writers. Finally, parables have played a special role in discussions of the message of the historical Jesus and, in turn, this has raised questions of the relationship between the concept of the kingdom of God, which often appears in the introductory formulae of parables, and the structure of the Christian proclamation of God’s saving activity in Christ. Although there is no generally accepted convention for naming individual parables, I refer to individual parables by consistent titles. These titles do not necessary correspond to the titles used by all of the authors cited.

Introductory Works and Tools

Of the various genres of speech attributed to Jesus, parables have probably generated the greatest bulk of commentary. Kissinger 1979 (cited under Bibliographies) lists nearly one thousand general articles and books on the parables in the 20th century (up to 1978) and more than one thousand articles and books discussing individual parables. Much of the literature on the parables is homiletic rather than exegetical and historical. And despite the large numbers of items in Kissinger’s bibliography, there are relatively few substantial dictionary entries and detailed introductory treatments.

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