"Parables" in the Bible
by Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D.

Biblical Terminology:

The Greek noun παραβολή (parabolē) is used a total of 50 times in the New Testament (13 times in Mark, 17 in Matthew, 18 in Luke, twice in Hebrews, but never in John). Etymologically, it stems from the preposition para (“alongside of”) and the verb ballein (“to cast, place, throw”), and thus refers to something that is compared to or juxtaposed with something else. It always refers to some type of “figure of speech” or “literary comparison”; it is usually translated “parable” in English, but sometimes also “lesson” (Mark 13:28; Matt 24:32), “proverb” (Luke 4:23), “symbol” (Heb 9:9), or “figuratively speaking” (Heb 11:19, all in NRSV translations).

Greek parabolē is used in the following NT verses:

Greek parabolē is used frequently in the LXX (the Septuagint = the ancient Greek version of the Hebrew Bible), usually to translate the Hebrew word mashal (pl. meshalim):

In the HB/LXX, mashal & parabolē refer to "figures of speech," which can be of many different types (proverbs, maxims, riddles, symbols, fables, parables, allegories).
Similarly in the New Testament, parabolē can refer to figures of speech of various types:

Moreover, not all the stories or figures of speech identified by biblical scholars as parables are explicitly called “parables” in the Bible itself, including some very famous ones (the Good Samaritan, Luke 10:29-37; the Prodigal Son, Luke 15:11-32; the Unjust Steward, Luke 16:1-8; etc.). All of these stories use "comparisons" of various types to make their points.

A related Greek word, παροιμία (paroimia), which also refers to some type of “figure of speech” or “proverb,” is used only seven times in the LXX (Prov 1:1; 26:7; Sir 6:35; 8:8; 18:29; 39:3; 47:17) and five times in the NT (John 10:6; 16:25a, 25b, 29; and 2 Peter 2:22).

Parable-Like Stories in the Old Testament / Hebrew Bible:

PAROIMIA (7 times in LXX; 5 times in Greek NT):

PARABOLĒ in the LXX, the Greek OLD TESTAMENT (44 times – NRSV texts here for Hebrew books; RSV texts for Deutero-canonical books):

PARABOLĒ in the NEW TESTAMENT (50x in Greek; NRSV translations here):

See also my page on Parables in the Gospels

Electronic New Testament Educational Resources

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This page was last updated on April 5, 2016
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