Ask a Scholar

Parables by Mark Allan Powell

Q. How do Lutherans define parables?

A. Lutherans do not use the word parable in any distinctive manner that differs from the norm. In general, the word parable refers to a short saying or story that makes a particular point in a memorable fashion. Parables often rely on symbolism, metaphor, irony, or some sort of double meaning to make their point. Sometimes they simply illustrate a truth that might be widely accepted but, more often, they provoke reflection in a way that runs counter to conventional wisdom. Parables are most often associated with Jewish teaching, particularly that of the Second Temple period. Jesus of Nazareth is the best-known teller of parables, though some parables are also found in the Hebrew Bible and in rabbinic writings. Some scholars try to define the genre of "parable" in specific terms that would distinguish parables from fables or other types of symbolic stories, but at a popular level (and in the Bible) the word is used without technical precision. 

 When a modern-day teacher or pastor (Lutheran or otherwise) uses the word "parable" he or she is probably referring to one of the forty parables of Jesus found in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Of course generically, a parable can be any story that has symbolic meaning or that conveys a moral message.

 The word “parable” can also refer to a story that the speaker or writer thinks should be understood figuratively rather than literally. New Testament scholar Marcus Borg (a former Lutheran, now an Episcopalian) likes to refer to miracle stories in the Gospels as "parables about Jesus" because he thinks they are symbolic accounts rather than descriptions of actual historical events. But this is not the usual meaning of the word parable; most of the time when scholars or others who use the word, they are referring to the short sayings or stories employed by Jesus and other Jewish teachers to make particular points in a way that would be memorable and meaningful. 

The Harper-Collins Bible Dictionary offers a descriptive summary of what scholars think about parables, with a chart listing all the parables of Jesus (pp. 736-739) The condensed Bible Dictionary (on this site) has a shorter list.

Mark Allan Powell, "Parables", n.p. [cited 27 Apr 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/tools/ask-a-scholar/Parables

Contributors

Mark Allan Powell

Mark Allan Powell
Professor, Trinity Lutheran Seminary

Mark Allan Powell is professor of New Testament at Trinity Lutheran Seminary (Columbus, Ohio). He is editor of the HarperCollins Bible Dictionary and author of Introducing the New Testament (Baker, 2009) and Jesus as a Figure in History (Westminster John Knox, 2012).

A category or type, often of literary work.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

Related to the rabbis, who became the religious authorities of Judaism in the period after the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E. Rabbinic traditions were initially oral but were written down in the Mishnah, the Talmud, and various other collections.

The structure built in Jerusalem in 516 B.C.E. on the site of the Temple of Solomon, destroyed by the Babylonians seventy years prior. The Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. by the Romans responding to Jewish rebellion.

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which share similar literary content.

The third division of the Jewish canon, also called by the Hebrew name Ketuvim. The other two divisions are the Torah (Pentateuch) and Nevi'im (Prophets); together the three divisions create the acronym Tanakh, the Jewish term for the Hebrew Bible.

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