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The parables of Jesus, found in the three synoptic gospels, are a key part of the teachings of Jesus, forming approximately one third of his recorded teachings. Christians place high emphasis on these parables, since being the words of Jesus they are believed as what the Father has taught (cf John 8:28 and 14:10).

Jesus' parables are seemingly simple and memorable stories, often with imagery, and each conveys a message. Scholars have commented that although these parables seem simple, the messages they convey is deep, and central to the teachings of Jesus. Christian authors view them as not mere similitudes which serve the purpose of illustration, but as internal analogies where nature becomes a witness for the spiritual world.

Jesus, for example, likened the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed which although small can grow to be tree large enough for birds to nest in it. And he also likened it to leaven implying that as men get mixed with it, corruption can arise.

In Western civilization, these parables formed the prototype for the term parable and in the modern age, even among those who know little of the Bible, the parables of Jesus remain some of the best known stories in the world.

Roots and sources

As a translation of the Hebrew word mashal the word parable can also refer to a riddle. In all times in their history the Jews were familiar with teaching by means of parables and a number of parables also exist in the Old Testament. The use of parables by Jesus was hence a natural teaching method that fit into the tradition of his time. The parables of Jesus have been quoted, taught and discussed since the very beginnings of Christianity.

In the four gospels

Of the four canonical gospels the parables are almost all in the three synoptic gospels. The Gospel of John contains only the stories of the Vine and Good Shepherd, which some consider to be a parable, else it includes allegories but no parables. Several authors such as Barbara Reid, Arland Hultgren or Donald Griggs comment that "parables are noticeably absent from the Gospel of John".

The Catholic Encyclopedia states: "There are no parables in St. John's Gospel. In the Synoptics ... we reckon thirty-three in all; but some have raised the number even to sixty, by including proverbial expressions." The Gospel of Luke contains both the largest total number of parables (24) and eighteen unique parables; the Gospel of Matthew contains 23 parables of which eleven are unique; and the Gospel of Mark contains eight parables of which two are unique.

In Harmony of the Gospels, Cox and Easley provide a Gospel harmony for the parables based on the following counts: Only in Matthew: 11, only in Mark: 2, only in Luke: 18, Matthew and Luke: 4, Matthew, Mark and Luke: 6. They list no parables for the Gospel of John.

Other documents

Parables attributed to Jesus are also found in other documents apart from the Bible. Some of these overlap those in the Bible and some are not part of the Bible. The noncanonical Gospel of Thomas contains up to fifteen parables, eleven of which have parallels in the four canonical Gospels. The unknown author of the Gospel of Thomas did not have a special word for "parable," making it difficult to know what he considered a parable. Those unique to Thomas include the Parable of the Assassin and the Parable of the Empty Jar. The noncanonical Apocryphon of James also contains three unique parables of Jesus. They are known as "The Parable of the Ear of Grain", "The Parable of the Grain of Wheat", and "The Parable of the Date-Palm Shoot". The parables are thought to have been transmitted orally for years before being written down. The hypothetical Q document is seen as a source for some of the parables in Matthew, Luke, and Thomas.

Purpose and motive

In the Gospel of Matthew (13:10-17) Jesus provides an answer when asked about his use of parables:

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."

While and may suggest that Jesus would only speak to the "crowds" in parables, while in private explaining everything to his disciples, modern scholar do not support the private explanations argument and surmise that Jesus used parables as a teaching method. Dwight Pentecost suggests that given that Jesus often preached to a mixed audience of believers and non-believers, he used parables to reveal the truth to some, but hide it from others.

Christian author Ashton Axenden suggests that Jesus constructed his parables based on his divine knowledge of how man can be taught:

This was a mode of teaching, which our blessed Lord seemed to take special delight in employing. And we may be quite sure, that as "He knew what was in man" better than we know, He would not have taught by Parables, if He had not felt that this was the kind of teaching best suited to our wants.

In the 19th century, Lisco and Fairbairn stated that in the parables of Jesus, "the image borrowed from the visible world is accompanied by a truth from the invisible (spiritual) world" and that the parables of Jesus are not "mere similitudes which serve the purpose of illustration, but are internal analogies where nature becomes a witness for the spiritual world".

Similarly, in the 20th century, calling a parable "an earthly story with a heavenly meaning", William Barclay states that the parables of Jesus use familiar examples to lead men's minds towards heavenly concepts. He suggests that Jesus did not form his parables merely as analogies but based on an "inward affinity between the natural and spiritual orders".

An example harmony of parables

The table below provides an example of a Gospel harmony applied to the parables. Usually, no parables are associated with the Gospel of John, just allegories.

Number Parable Matthew Mark Luke Other parallels
1 Parable of the Wise and the Foolish Builders
2 Parable of the Two Debtors
3 Parable of the Sower Thomas 9
1 Clement 24:5
4 Parable of the Tares Thomas 57
5 Parable of the Growing Seed Thomas 57
6 Parable of the Hidden Treasure Thomas 109
7 Parable of the Pearl Thomas 76
8 Parable of Drawing in the Net Thomas 8:1
9 Parable of the Unmerciful Servant
10 Parable of the Good Samaritan
11 The Rich Fool Thomas 63
12 Parable of the Faithful Servant Thomas 103
Didache 16:1a
13 Parable of the Friend at Night
14 Parable of the Mustard Seed Thomas 20:2
15 Parable of the Leaven Thomas 96
16 Parable of the Lost Sheep Thomas 107
Gospel of Truth 31-32
17 Parable of the Lost Coin
18 Parable of the Prodigal Son
19 Parable of the Unjust Steward
20 Lazarus and Dives
21 Parable of the Unjust Judge
22 Pharisee and the Publican
23 Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard
24 The Master and Servant
25 Parable of the Two Sons
26 Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen Thomas 65
27 Parable of the Wedding Feast
28 Parable of the Ten Virgins
29 Parable of the Talents Nazoraeans 18
30 The Sheep and the Goats

In art

Of the thirty or so parables in the canonical Gospels, four were shown in medieval art almost to the exclusion of the others, but not mixed in with the narrative scenes of the Life of Christ. These were: the Ten Virgins, Lazarus and Dives, the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan. The Workers in the Vineyard also appears in Early Medieval works. From the Renaissance the numbers shown widened slightly, and the various scenes of the Prodigal Son became the clear favorite, with the Good Samaritan also popular. Albrecht Dürer made a famous engraving of the Prodigal Son amongst the pigs (1496), a popular subject in the Northern Renaissance, and Rembrandt depicted the story several times, although at least one of his works, The Prodigal Son in the Tavern, a portrait of himself as the Son, revelling with his wife, is like many artists' depictions, a way of dignifying a genre tavern scene. His late Return of the Prodigal Son (Hermitage Museummarker, St Petersburgmarker) is one of his most popular works.

See also


  • Barclay, William, 1999. The Parables of Jesus ISBN 066425828X
  • Lisco, Friedrich Gustav and Fairbairn, Patrick , 1850. The Parables of Jesus Daniels and Smith Publishers, Philadelphia
  • Pentecost, J. Dwight , 1998. The parables of Jesus: lessons in life from the Master Teacher ISBN 0825434580
  • Oxenden, Ashton, 1864. The parables of our Lord‎ William Macintosh Publishers, London.
  • Schottroff, Luise, 2006. The parables of Jesus ISBN 0800636996
  • Sumner, John Bird, 1850. The parables of our lord and saviour Jesus Christ C. Cox Publishers, London.
  • Theissen, Gerd and Merz, Annette, 1996. The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide Fortress Press, Minneapolis ISBN 0800631226
  • Trinder, William Martin, 1816. Sermons on the parables of Jesus Christ" Baldwin, Cradock and Joy Publishers, London.


  1. J. Dwight Pentecost, 1998 The parables of Jesus: lessons in life from the Master Teacher ISBN 0825434580 page 10
  2. Eric Francis Osborn, 1993 The emergence of Christian theology ISBN 052143078X page 98
  3. Biblegateway John 8:28 [1]
  4. Biblegateway John 14:10 [2]
  5. Friedrich Gustav Lisco 1850 The Parables of Jesus Daniels and Smith Publishers, Philadelphia pages 9-11
  6. Ashton Oxenden, 1864 The parables of our Lord‎ William Macintosh Publishers, London, page 6
  7. William Barclay, 1999 The Parables of Jesus ISBN 066425828X page 9
  8. Pheme Perkins, 2007 Introduction to the synoptic gospels ISBN 080281770X page 105
  9. William Barclay, 1999 The Parables of Jesus ISBN 066425828X page 9
  10. i.e. The Vine and the Branches by David Tryon, as others have throughout history including John Calvin in John Calvin's Commentary on John Volume 2
  11. is potentially a stand-alone parable of Jesus, which UBS calls "Parable of the Sheepfold",
  12. Barbara Reid, 2001 Parables for Preachers ISBN 0814625509 page 3
  13. Arland J. Hultgren, 2002 The Parables of Jesus ISBN 080286077X page 2
  14. Donald L. Griggs, 2003 The Bible from scratch ISBN 0664225772 page 52
  15. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia article on Parables: "There are no parables in St. John's Gospel" and the Encyclopædia Britannica article on Gospel of St. John: "Here Jesus' teaching contains no parables and but three allegories, the Synoptists present it as parabolic through and through."
  16. Steven L. Cox, Kendell H Easley, 2007 Harmony of the Gospels ISBN 0805494448 page 348
  17. Scott, Bernard Brandon (1989). Hear Then the Parable: A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 33-34. The actual number of parables in Thomas is fluid. John Dominic Crossan counts 15, Ron Cameron 14, and Bernard Brandon Scott 13. See also Crossan, John Dominic (1992). In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus. Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press and Cameron, Ron (1986). Parable and Interpretation in the Gospel of Thomas. Forum 2/2.
  18. Cameron, Ron (2004). Sayings Traditions in the Apocryphon Of James. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Divinity School, 8-30.
  19. Theissen and Merz 1996, p.339
  20. . See also and
  21. Harris, Stephen L., Understanding the Bible. Palo Alto: Mayfield. 1985.
  22. J. Dwight Pentecost, 1998 The parables of Jesus: lessons in life from the Master Teacher ISBN 0825434580 page 10
  23. Ashton Oxenden, 1864 The parables of our Lord‎ William Macintosh Publishers, London page 1
  24. Friedrich Gustav Lisco 1850 The Parables of Jesus Daniels and Smith Publishers, Philadelphia pages 9-11
  25. William Barclay, 1999 The Parables of Jesus ISBN 066425828X pages 8-11
  26. Steven L. Cox, Kendell H Easley, 2007 Harmony of the Gospels ISBN 0805494448 page 348
  27. Emile Mâle, The Gothic Image , Religious Art in France of the Thirteen Century, p 195, English trans of 3rd edn, 1913, Collins, London (and many other editions)

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