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What are Parables? This subject is easily explained as "a story with a meaning", but there is more to the answer than this!

Interpreting the Parables of Jesus


“Interpreting the parables of Jesus” implies an understanding of (a)who Jesus is, (b)what parables are, and (c)how to derive meaning from this interpretation. Of this the first, (a), is central to success.


Consider this! If a person said of me they wanted to “Interpret the sayings of Ken Briggs”, my first thought as the originator of the sayings is whether the person actually knows me or not.  I have very little confidence in those who claim to understand my sayings but don’t know me. To understanding Jesus’ parables you need to know Him. So to understand what a parable is and interpret it, you need to know Jesus personally. So, accepting Him, His purpose, and His work in our life is fundamental!


So with this fundamental clarified, what is a parable? According to Wood[1], the word is derived from greek Gk. parabolē, meaning ‘putting things side by side’. Easton[2] and Bullinger [3] suggests that it is similar to the Hebrew word for parable מָשָׁל (mahshal), that was used in the Septuagint and Vincent [4]points out that the word is “(παραβολαῖς). From παρά, beside, and βάλλω, to throw.” He indicates it is a form of teaching in which one concept is thrown beside another. So a parable is a single short story with parallel meanings that have key aspects that represent other aspects which are not stated, but are often understood by the audience. This term is a broad term and certainly covers a number of different aspects of communicating truths including, but not limited to, riddles, fables and proverbs. Wenham explains the parable as follows:


“The parables were the teaching method Jesus chose most frequently to explain the kingdom of God and the expectations God has for people despite the tradition that Jesus parables have only one point, many parables cover two or three truths and there may be several correspondences between a particular parable and the reality it portrays"[5]



In reviewing parables of Jesus, many authors have concluded that each parable has one great truth and one lesson to be gained. Bullinger[6] can be considered representative of the group who hold this view, and Wood[7] and Blomberg[8] representative of those who consider that this is not necessarily true. Wood and Bloomberg believe that there can be multiple opportunities and foci within the same parable. Wenham [9]suggests that to consider a parable as having only one truth is both an oversimplification and artificially limiting, and I tend to agree with him. A master communicator chooses to use multiple channels to communicate, particularly where attitudes need to be changed. Communicating multiple messages urging such a change within a single parable seems to be a highly effective way to achieve a chosen objective and the parable is such an effective form simply because it allows multiple levels of communication in one narrative.


One aspect of a parable’s context that we can never recover is the intonations and body language Jesus used to communicate the information. This is forever lost, but the words have been recorded by his disciples and imbedded truths are capable of being discerned from these words. Not all aspects of the narrative of the parable need to be considered as part of the parallel meaning provided by the parable. Much of the parable context is only to provide an environment within which the truths, which are represented by the key aspects of the parable, reside. The choice of truths as understood to be communicated is highly speculative. There is a continuum of opinions from the liberal critical to conservative opinions. Fortunately Jesus himself (Matthew 13:11-17[10]) indicated that this is to be expected. Jesus makes it clear that he did not intend everyone to understand the message inherent in the parables.


Many authors like Wenham indicate to understand the purpose of the parables one has to first understand the historical circumstances that the audience of Jesus found themselves. I contend that while this is true, understanding this historical context fully is still insufficient since many of those who listened to Jesus as he walked this Earth definitely understood the context but failed to understand the message of the parable. Historical context is merely an enabler. Today having the hindsight of Jesus’ death we often assume this makes us more capable in discerning these truths, however with the distortion of many years of cultural and linguistic differences, as well as a modern mindset, it is potential that Jesus’ words in this regard are as true today as when they were written. God reveals his words to those whom he desires and keeps them from those who are not ready to receive this gift.


The use of pictorial language in the parables makes it difficult to isolate a specific meaning or meanings. The dangers are in the extremes of ignoring the pictorial aspects or over emphasizing and allegorizing them. A balance needs to be struck and most arguments arise around where the balance point should be.


Blumenstein provides fifteen principles to apply in interpreting parables but cautions against a pedantic use of the principles. He suggests reading a specific parable aloud a few times to form initial impressions and comparing different versions to get the perspective from a variety of sources. Then, he suggests looking for clues and frameworks that identify the effective meaning or meanings before identifying the key characters. Understanding the structure of the interactions, the action and plot development as well as investigating the meanings of the key words in the original language are useful in completing this task. An attempt should be made to determine the original context of the parables and the context of the listeners at the time it was originally told. A careful comparison of similar parables in different gospels also needs to be performed, noting similarities and differences. The historical, cultural and geographical background of the parables and authors now need to be considered. Where related passages can be located in the bible (both old and new testament) these should be reviewed. Commentaries can be helpful at this time to gain understanding and locate references. With this information prevalent, a summary of meaning can now be constructed and it should be compared with impressions formed originally. Applications of the parable to our current context should be established, and understanding gained on how to clear obstacles to the modern understanding of the parable. Blumenstein points that out in this regard it is of importance to translate the ancient contexts into modern terms before establishing a teaching or preaching outline. His eclectic set of principles encompasses Wenham’s focus on form and context and Blomberg approaches the same subject. Blomberg however takes a more historical approach to the discussion and takes time to refute historically incorrect interpretative mechanisms and summarize research in this area. 


Blomberg considers the 20th century thinking on parables was to a large extent misguided, and summarizes this in his perspective of what the scholarly consensus encompasses. He feels that through most of history Christians evaluated parables as allegories and considers the modern approach of seeing each parable making one point and rejecting much of the allegorical nature as overly reactive. He considers the approach understandable as a reaction to the exaggeration of the allegorical components in the past. It is understandable, but wrong from his perspective. He does not agree that allegorical components should be considered as the exception and feels the parables are fairly uniformly allegorical. However, while parables are allegorical in nature, a sensible balanced approach to the allegorical components must be maintained. He points out Jesus explicitly explained some parables as allegories, and does not agree that these were exceptions to Jesus’ normal practice, rather Blomberg uses then to enable us to understand the extent to which Jesus’ parables were allegorical. Blomberg does however agree with the scholarly consensus that the parables are indisputably the sayings of Jesus.


Blomberg explains that in comparing Jesus sayings with that of Rabbi’s parables from a period after Jesus, certain similarities and differences emerge that show Jesus’ parables occur within a Jewish context but have distinct components unique to Jesus’ usage of the form. Jesus references the “kingdom of (God/Heaven)” consistently, and has less explicit interpretations than that of the Rabbi’s who use their parables to reinforce conventional wisdom or explain scripture. Jesus’ parables do use similar introductory mechanisms to the Rabbi’s and capitalized on their habit of explaining from the “lesser to the greater”. The length and structures are similar as well as much of the imagery and topics, since this is where the people’s understandings lay and the context resided. Rabbi’s also almost always used allegorical components to their parables.


Both Wenham and Blomberg reflect on Form Criticism and its impact on evaluating whether Jesus in fact spoke everything referred to in the parables.  The fact that parables resided in an oral form for a period of years is accepted by most, but the effectiveness of the method of conveyance is often disputed. These evaluations are difficult to perform and so often very subjective. Arguments for translation errors, embellishments, folk lore intrusions, audience variations, exhortational changes in perspective, church influences, conflations and alterations are many and varied. However, Blomberg reminds us that there were eye-witnesses alive that could have refuted false information, that there were centers of leadership would have controlled authenticity and the Christian elders would have promoted the respect for tradition. The fact that awkward and strange sayings were faithfully transferred despite failure to support practices or understand them fully supports the accuracy of the transferring mechanisms as does the fact that 1st century controversies that arose after his death are not injected into the texts. What is of interest is that it is becoming more evident that the form of the parables was structured to enable them to be memorable as is shown in some of the work of Kenneth Bailey. This showed that form criticism exaggerated the modifications introduced by oral tradition but performed the service of sensitizing scholars to the fact that an oral transference did occur and had some impact.


Were the gospels edited? That they were, is the focus of the redaction criticism approach to understanding the parables. Investigation of the differences between similar parables in different gospels was the main vehicle for this investigative effort. This group in general considered that Matthew and Luke used the sources of Mark and an unidentified source “Q”. I don’t like to base decisions on hypothetical evidence so find the use of “Q” to be suspect but, for argument sake, allowable. The redaction movement helped us understand the parables by providing focus on the distinctive approaches of the different authors of the gospels. It hindered by developing misleading parallels between gospels and suggesting rewrites with insufficient evidence on why the re-write should occur. It claimed to read ancient authors minds to identify specific areas as being author created and others that were from the oral tradition. Where it was author created was hypothesized to be when it reflected the author’s theology (often rejecting that perhaps they originally got this from Christ). Blomberg also points out editors inventing prophecy would probably have made it align more accurately to the historical facts than the texts reveal. Blomberg also comments that redaction criticism is subjective and distorts non-parallel parables by taking them to be parallel. He does however approve of the reaction critical approach to harmonizing of the gospels and points out this draws attention to their distinctiveness.


Blomberg also addresses the new hermeneutical method with its view that as metaphors, parables cannot also be allegories. He points out those unusual features in the parables are direct pointers to the parables allegorical nature. Structuralism is addressed by Blomberg and he points out this needs more investigation in specific areas such as that investigated by Kenneth Bailey. Aspects that address structuralism as an ideology or method are not overly useful. However, Kenneth Baileys review of repetition, parallelism and chiasmus, do provide deeper understanding of some parables. Blomberg rejects the post-structural work of generating conflicting meanings from the same text with its “cleverness” objective since it has very little factual or useful basis.


In conclusion, we have reviewed the fact that to interpret the parables we need to understand they make multiple points, have different levels of meaning and numbers of characters or objects. We understand they must be understood in a way that the audiences of Jesus would have understood them. Modernizing should promote original understanding and not generate false understandings. The key is understanding that parables are not proposition statements capable of scientific dissection, but an oral art form translated (with loss in meaning) into text and currently conveying meaning through logic, emotions, perception and personal application. The parable is allegorical in nature but needs balance in interpretation, a balance that was perhaps lacking historically. Finally the most import aspect to understanding parables is knowledge of their originator, Jesus, without which, the task is a worthless activity. It therefore a pity so many people are so deeply involved in this worthless activity when they could have eternal success. Let us pray they learn to “correctly” interpret the parables of Jesus!



Achtemeier, Paul J., Publishers Harper & Row, and Society of Biblical Literature. Harper's Bible Dictionary. Includes index. 1st ed. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985.


Blumenstein, John M., Audio Recording Section #1, Trinity 2008.


Blomberg, Craig L. Interpreting the parables. Intervarsity Press, 1990.

ISBN: 0830812717


Briggs, K. 2009. Essay #4, Dynamic Teaching Techniques, Trinity 2009


Bullinger, E. W. Figures of speech used in the Bible London; New York: Eyre & Spottiswoode; E. & J. B. Young & Co, 1898.


Easton, M. Easton's Bible dictionary. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc. 1996, c1897.


Ford, LeRoy. Design for teaching and training: A self-study guide to lesson planning. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2002. ISBN: 1579109918


Stein, Robert H. The method and message of Jesus’ teachings. Rev. ed. Louisville,

KY: Westminster John Knox Press,1994. ISBN: 0664255132


Zuck, Roy B. Teaching as Jesus taught. Wipf and Stock, 2002. ISBN: 1579108628


Vincent, M. R. Word studies in the New Testament (Vol. 1, Page 3-75). Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2002.


Wenham, David. The parables of Jesus. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1989.

ISBN: 0830812865


Wood, D. R. W., Wood, D. R. W., & Marshall, I. H. New Bible Dictionary. Includes index. (electronic ed. of 3rd ed.) Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, (1996, c1982, c1962).


Theological dictionary of the New Testament.. Vols. 5-9 edited by Gerhard Friedrich. Vol. 10 compiled by Ronald Pitkin. (G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley & G. Friedrich, Ed.) (electronic ed.) (Vol. 5, Page 752-753), 1964-c1976


[1] Wood, New Bible Dictionary. Pg 867 

[2] Easton, M. Easton's Bible dictionary.

[3] Bullinger, E. W. Figures of speech used in the Bible (Page v).


[4] Vincent, M. R.. Word studies in the New Testament (Vol. 1, Page 3-75).

[5] Wenham, David. The parables of Jesus.

[6] Bullinger E. W. Figures of speech used in the Bible

[7] Wood, New Bible Dictionary.  

[8] Blomberg, Craig L. Interpreting the parables.

[9] Wenham, David. 1989. The parables of Jesus.

[10] “The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”He replied, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them.  Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.  This is why I speak to them in parables: “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.  In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: “‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.  For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them”. The Holy Bible  : New International Version. 1996, c1984 (Mt 13:10-15). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

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