A parable is a picturesque figure of language in which an analogy refers to a similar but different reality. In the Hebrew Bible, the word “parable” (Hebr. māšāl) can refer to a proverb (Ezek. 18.2–3), taunt (Isa. 14.3–4), riddle (Ezek. 17.2–10), or allegory (Ezek. 24.2–5). Although story parables (2 Sam. 12.1–4; Isa. 5.1–7) are not specifically called parables, we should include them in any definition. It is not surprising that in the New Testament “parable” covers a broad semantic range as well, for the Greek term parabolē was used to translate māšāl in the Septuagint in all but two instances. In the Gospels it can refer to a proverb (Luke 4.23), aphorism (Mark 9.5), metaphor (Mark 7.14–17), similitude (Mark 4.30–32), story parable (Luke 14.16–24), example parable (Luke 10.29–37), or allegory (Mark 12.1–11). In contrast to Aristotelian tradition, no sharp distinction is drawn in the Bible between simile/allegory and metaphor/parable. This is true also in rabbinic tradition. In view of the broad semantic range of the term, it is impossible to give an exact list of Jesus' parables. Although parabolē is used explicitly to designate thirty different sayings of Jesus, when one adds other clear examples in which the term is not used (e.g., Luke 10.29–35) and other likely possibilities, the total number is about eighty. If the instances of the paroimia or “figure” of John are added, the number becomes still greater. Moreover, if one includes every simile, proverb, and aphorism that Jesus taught, then almost everything Jesus said falls into the category of parable (see Mark 4.34).

Numerous attempts have been made to classify the parables. These involve the use of specific chronological periods in Jesus' ministry, distinctive subject matter, as well as literary, theological, and existential categories. None of these attempts, however, has been very successful.

In his parables Jesus repeatedly used illustrations from daily life. These often contain a distinctly Palestinian and even Galilean flavor. This was originally intended to make the parables more understandable for Jesus' audience, but today it serves also to authenticate them. It is clear, for example, that the Sower (Mark 4.2–20) reveals a Palestinian method of farming in which sowing preceded plowing. Likewise, the references to a priest, Levite, Samaritan, a road going from Jerusalem to Jericho (Luke 10.19–35), as well as a Pharisee, publican, and Temple (Luke 18.9–14), indicate that such parables originated in Palestine. The portrayal of a fishing environment in the parable of the Great Net (Matt. 13.47–50), where good fish are separated from bad, strongly suggests that this parable originated around the Sea of Galilee. The example of farm laborers being paid at the end of the day (Matt. 20.8) according to biblical law (Lev. 19.14; Deut. 24.15) shows the contrast between Palestinian farming, which often employed laborers, and the farming in most of the Mediterranean world, which relied on slaves. Most scholars agree that in the parables one stands on the bedrock of authentic Jesus tradition.

Although the parables are drawn from daily life, they do not necessarily portray normal, everyday actions. On the contrary, at times one encounters both exaggeration and unexpected behavior. The forgiveness of the enormous sum of a thousand talents (Matt. 18.24–27), the fact that all ten maidens are sleeping (Matt. 25.5), and that all the invited guests refused the banquet invitation (Luke 14.18) suggests the intentional use of exaggeration. In the commendation of the Unjust Steward as well (Luke 16.1–8), the hearer is taken by surprise. These forms of exaggeration, however, are fairly specific; nowhere in the parables of Jesus does one find fables in which animals speak or trees sing.

The artistic character of the parables should be noted. Jesus' portrayal of the Prodigal Son is most memorable: Having squandered his fortune, starving and destitute in a far country, “joined” to a gentile (Luke 15.15), feeding the forbidden pigs, he wishes that he could fill his stomach by sharing the food of the pigs he feeds! And how beautifully the father's love is described. Laying aside his dignity, he runs to embrace his son, refuses to hear out his confession, reclothes him in appropriately filial garments, and joyfully celebrates having regained his lost son. The artistry and descriptive power of the parables often require only a single hearing for them to be forever remembered. Such parables as the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan must by any standard be recognized as literary masterpieces.

The primary reason that Jesus taught in parables appears to be self‐evident: he used them to illustrate. Can one find a better illustration of the love of God for the outcast than the parable of the Prodigal Son? Some of Jesus' parables are clearly “example” parables and require no explanation. Yet Mark 4.10–12 gives a different reason why Jesus taught in parables—in order to conceal his message. The reason given for concealing his message is more difficult still: Jesus did so in order that his hearers would not believe lest they repent and be forgiven. Numerous attempts have been made to explain this difficult passage, but none is truly convincing and without problems. The most common explanation is to see the lack of understanding as being the result rather than the cause of the unbelief of those “outside” (see also Messianic Secret). That the meaning of certain parables was not in fact self‐evident is clear from the various explanations associated with them (Mark 7.17; Matt. 13.36). Parables served a useful purpose in concealing Jesus' message from those hostile to him: by his parables he could publicly teach about the kingdom of God, but the representatives of the Roman empire could find nothing in them that was seditious. A third reason Jesus taught in parables was to disarm his listeners and allow the truth of the divine message to penetrate their resistance. Often hearers could be challenged to pass judgment on a story before discovering that in so doing they had in fact condemned themselves (cf. 2 Sam. 12.1–4; Matt 21.28–31; Luke 7.36–50). A fourth reason for the use of parables was to aid memory: since Jesus' listeners preserved his teachings by memorizing them, the memorable quality of the parables proved useful.

The early church saw in the parables (and in all scripture) three distinct levels of meaning: the literal, the moral, and the spiritual. In the Middle Ages an additional level was added, the heavenly. These deeper levels of meaning were discoverable by allegorical interpretation (see Interpretation, History of, article on Early Christian Interpretation). A famous example of this is the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.30–35), in which each detail was seen as meaningful, so that: the man going down to Jericho = Adam; Jerusalem = heaven; Jericho = our mortality; robbers = the devil and his angels; priest = the Law; Levite = the prophets; Good Samaritan = Christ; beast = the body of Christ; inn = the church; two denarii = two commandments of love; innkeeper = the apostle Paul; return of the Good Samaritan = the resurrection or the second coming; and so on. Of course, such an interpretation lost sight of the original question of what it means to be a neighbor!

Although interpreters of the Reformation sought to end allegorical methods of interpreting scripture, the parables continued to allegorize. More recently, however, new insight has been gained as to the difference between parables and allegories. An allegory consists of a string of metaphors that have individual meanings, whereas a parable is essentially a single metaphor possessing a single meaning. The details of parable, then, should not be pressed for meaning; rather, one should seek only its basic point of comparison. Although some parables do contain details that have allegorical significance, this distinction between allegory and parable is useful and provides an important rule for interpretation: seek the main point of the parable and do not seek meaning in details unless it is necessary.

In identifying the main point of a parable, several questions prove helpful: (1) What comes at the end? This rule of end stress recognizes that the main emphasis of a parable, as in most stories, comes at the end. (2) What is spoken in direct discourse? In a parable what is found within quotation marks is especially important. (3) To what or whom is the most space devoted? Usually the most space is given to the main point of the parable.

A second rule for interpreting the parables is to try to understand its meaning in its original setting. Jesus did not address his parables to modern readers but to a first‐century Jewish audience. The parables take on new life and vitality when one tries to understand them as Jesus' original audience would have. In this regard, the following questions prove helpful: (1) What is the general theological framework of Jesus' teachings? Each parable of Jesus should be interpreted in light of the totality of his teachings. (2) To what possible audience did Jesus address this parable? If addressed to Pharisees and scribes, its emphasis might be quite different than if addressed to publicans and sinners. The discovery of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas at Nag Hammadi has provided additional help for ascertaining the original form and meaning of the parables. Since this collection of 114 sayings and parables of Jesus did not stem from any canonical Gospel, it offers an independent tradition for investigating the original form of numerous parables.

A parable may have a specific meaning not only for its original situation of Jesus but also for that of the evangelist. One example is the parable of the Lost Sheep: in Luke 15.3–7 the parable is addressed to Pharisees and scribes, but in Matthew 18.10–14 it is addressed to the church and the “wandering” within Matthew's community. At times the evangelists added allegorical details to the parables that reveal a particular emphasis (e.g., Matt. 21.39). This leads to a third rule of parable interpretation: Seek to understand how the evangelists interpreted Jesus' parables.

Recently, the focus in research on the parables has shifted to literary‐aesthetic interpretation. Parables are seen as autonomous works that possess multiple meanings and power in themselves, completely apart from their author. Although it is important to appreciate the aesthetic quality of the parables, the parables of Jesus have been treasured and loved primarily because they are parables of Jesus.

Robert H. Stein