In the ancient world, parables were a teaching tool. The word parable is an English transliteration of the Greek word parabole, which means “juxtaposition, comparison, illustration, analogy” (Liddell et al., A Greek-English Lexicon, 1305). In ancient Greek literature, the word could also have the connotation of moving side by side or indirectly, and therefore it could be used as an indirect way to teach a concept. Parables were fictional or illustrative stories, similar to a metaphor, and designed to teach a principle or lesson. The story of a parable often used comparison or hyperbole, and the story itself could be a model, analogy, or example of the intended lesson. By telling stories using the examples and situations familiar to people in a particular region and time, listeners could better relate to and understand what was being taught. Rhetoricians in antiquity also used parables to clarify or prove a point in an argument in a more interesting or more neutral way (Rhet. Her.). Although parables do not explicitly state their intended meaning, the basic lesson is usually obvious. Parables are always short, and focus on one principle or lesson, unlike allegorical stories which may be long and complex. Much of the teaching of Jesus recorded in the Gospels is in the form of parables, which may have descended from both Greek and Hebrew rhetoric tradition. In the Hebrew Bible, several stories similar to parables are found. These are called a mashal, and are essentially short stories intended to teach a moral lesson or a theological principle through allegory or comparison. This tradition continued on later texts of Judaism, and by the time of Jesus the use of mashal was probably a common teaching tool that had been influenced by the use of the parable in rhetoric of Hellenistic culture.
While parables certainly exist in various works from antiquity, studies suggest that the uniqueness, frequency, and excellence of the parables in the Gospels are unparalleled (Barton, “Parables Outside the Gospels”). The settings for the parables of Jesus are usually in the context of daily life in ancient Judea, ranging from stories reflecting the rural society to the life of the elites, both of which the listeners would have been familiar with. Common situations, such as agriculture, fishing, shepherding, politics, religion, family, travel, hospitality, economics, and celebration are found in the parables. Within the stories and familiar settings, unfamiliar spiritual principles and concepts are taught, which in general the listeners would not have known. The parables of Jesus are often preceded by a statement specifying that the story is a parable, and these parables, while having human characters, do not use names or directly refer to real people. For example, the story of the rich man and Lazarus is often mistakenly thought to be a parable even though the text does not say it is a parable, it is not in the context of other parables being taught, it teaches explicitly about the afterlife, and it names real people such as Lazarus, Abraham, and Moses are used in the story (Luke 16:19-31). His parables also often included the unexpected or use hyperbole (Huffman, “Atypical Features in the Parables of Jesus”; Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus). While Jesus indicates that He taught in parables to obscure those truths to certain people, it is also obvious that many of the listeners clearly understood what He was teaching (Matthew 13:10-17, 21:45). Another reason for teaching in parables may have been so that the religious leaders could not charge Him with any crimes such as treason or blasphemy, since He was merely “telling stories” (Luke 11:53-54). According to Matthew, Jesus also spoke in parables in order to fulfill prophecy from the Old Testament (Matthew 13:34-35; Psalm 78:1-4). Finally, parables are also a powerful tool in communicating a message to a person who may be opposed to the lesson if stated bluntly, but it allows the lesson to be taught free of prejudice due to the teaching technique. A variety of interpretational methodologies have been used for the parables of Jesus over the centuries, with the two major schools of thought being allegorical or metaphorical. During the medieval period, allegorical interpretation was extremely common, and extra or hidden meaning was often assigned to every character, item, place, and event in the parable. Since the reformation, metaphorical interpretation of parables stressing a main point or principle being taught has been the most common method. In addition to an allegorical versus metaphorical idea, there are several interpretational principles such as historical context, audience, common symbolism, the importance of the conclusion, and that they concerned the kingdom of Heaven, which must be noted in order to have a proper understanding of the parable (Matthew 13:11; Pentecost, The Parables of Jesus; Seal, “Parable”).
In the Gospels, although several parables are repeated and opinions vary on whether or not certain stories can be classed as a parable, there may be about 40 different parables of Jesus spread out through Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. It has been calculated that approximately one third of the teaching of Jesus recorded in the Gospels is in the form of parables. However, the Synoptic Gospels contain the vast majority, while John recounts perhaps three, which some do not consider to be actual parables (John 10:1-18, 12:24, 15:1-11). Slightly later writings from antiquity, such as the Didache, works of the Apostolic Fathers, 1 Clement, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Truth, and the Gospel of the Nazarenes repeat many of the parables that Jesus taught in the canonical Gospels, demonstrating widespread knowledge of these teachings even outside of orthodox Christianity as early as the beginning of the 2nd century AD. The parables of Jesus have continued to be a source of study, debate, and insight throughout the church, and even two thousand years later many of the stories are among the most well known in the world.