A word, name, person, or action which is related to what it symbolizes; it is not an arbitrary or conventional sign (as are, for example, the colours of traffic lights). It is not itself a biblical word, but symbols proliferate in the Bible. A symbol points to a reality which is not directly knowable and therefore has to be revealed indirectly by the symbol. In the OT God's presence is symbolized by fire and cloud (Exod. 13: 21–2) and Israel's covenant relationship with God is symbolized by the institution of the Sabbath and circumcision.
A clutch of symbols was associated with the feast of Passover; unleavened bread was eaten, as a symbol of the Exodus, reminiscent of the haste of the Israelites' departure; they did not have time even to collect food for the journey or wait for the dough to rise. The prophets used symbolic actions to convey their message—Isaiah walked barefoot (Isa. 20) and Hosea gave his children symbolic names (Hos. 1: 6, 9).
Places were often symbols—the Temple and its furnishings were symbols of holiness and the ephod and the breastpiece symbolized the dignity of the priesthood (Exod. 28–9). Certain numbers had acquired symbolic significance: twelve, because of the number of tribes; seven, as being the days of creation, indicating completeness; forty (Gen. 7: 12) became a round figure for a period of time. In the NT one and eight, being the days of resurrection, are symbols, and three, seven, and twelve seem to be important and to convey something more than the literal: hence the ‘twelve apostles’ was a symbol that a new people of God had been formed. In Rev. (13: 18) the famous number 666 on the beast is a symbol of Nero. Baptism with water is a symbol of newness of life in Christ and the Lord's Supper with bread and wine both of the death of Christ in the past and the Messianic Banquet in the future Kingdom.
Modern scholarship is divided about what is strictly factual and what is mainly symbolical in the NT. Some who stress the historical value of the narratives would, however, deny some of the miraculous elements (e.g. in the story of the multiplication of the loaves, Mark 6: 30–44). Other scholars who have argued for a strong element of symbolism (e.g. Augustine in the 5th cent. and Austin Farrer in the 20th cent.) suggested that the first narrative of the loaves (Mark 6) implied a message for Jews and the second (Mark 8) sanctioned the mission to the Gentiles but nevertheless held strongly to the credibility of miracles in the gospels as supernaturally caused.