Weekly Q&A: What are parables?

Story parables are a unique style of Jewish teaching found only in the Gospels on the lips of Jesus and within rabbinic literature. As a literary genre, story parables emerged within Judaism after the period of the Old Testament.

The story parable offers a story with a meaning. They seek to explain to common people a moral message, God’s attitude towards humanity, and the relationship between God and humanity. Their moral messages convey how people should live in obedience to God within the world.

The story evokes a comparison between the characters and action of the story and the moral message of the teacher. These comparisons, however, are not intended to be allegorical. Allegory assumes each detail, character, or aspect of a story represents something else. Parables do not work in this manner.

Rather, the story provides a message, but the audience should not seek to identify each detail. The world of the parable is the real world. It is neither mythological nor fantastic. Animals do not speak in parables. Rather, the parable conveys a real-world sense, fishermen fishing, farmers farming, sellers selling, etc. These everyday scenarios help to explain theological ideas to common people.

Parables often have an open ending. In other words, they do not bring the story to a satisfactory resolution. This underscores the rhetorical aim of the parable in which the listener found him or herself within the parable. Part of the ending depended upon how the listener responded in his or her life. At times the one telling the parable used amoral or even immoral characters to heighten the tension of the parable.

Luke preserves some of Jesus’ parables in which the main character is immoral. The immorality of the character emphasized the moral message of the parable. Yet, parables do not usually refer to characters as righteous and unrighteous, rather as wise and foolish. Thus, even though the purpose of parables was to convey a moral message, the parables themselves had an inherent immoral quality.

Parables only appear on the lips of Jesus and the Sages of Israel, who most closely represent the Pharisees. All parables within rabbinic literature appear in Hebrew. Parables are not told in Aramaic. While the Gospels were written in Koine Greek, Jesus did not use Greek to teach people. The universal use of Hebrew for parables within Judaism suggests Jesus also told his parables in Hebrew.

Parables only appear within Judaism in the land of Israel. We do not find parables told outside the land of Israel. Thus, parables were told in Hebrew, by the Sages, in the land of Israel. So too, the setting for the teaching of parables within the Gospels and rabbinic literature is outside of the synagogue. Parables do not come from the House of Study, but rather serve the common people seeking to understand God and what He wanted from them.

Jesus’ use of parables anchors him within the Jewish world of Israel’s Sages, to the Hebrew language, and in the land of Israel. Studying rabbinic parables can assist us in reading and understanding the parables of Jesus.

Marc Turnage is President/CEO of Biblical Expeditions. He is an authority on ancient Judaism and Christian origins. He has published widely for both academic and popular audiences. His most recent book, Windows into the Bible, was named by Outreach Magazine as one of its top 100 Christian living resources. Marc is a widely sought-after speaker and a gifted teacher. He has been guiding groups to the lands of the Bible—Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Greece, and Italy—for over twenty years.

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  1. REPLY
    ROSA cooksey says

    To me A parable Is talking Around a subject But not coming out to say what you mean ;until you learn the Meat of Subject you have the milk of it

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