Appendix 3. A Vocabulary for Parables and Analogies

(Audio 5:59)

Hebrew and Greek Words for Parable

The word that underlies the Hebrew understanding of parables is the Hebrew noun mashal (māšāl). It covers a wide territory, from pithy proverbs and parables, allegories, sayings and riddles, to bywords, taunts, and discourses, even a developed comparison or similitude.1 When māšāl was translated into the Greek Septuagint in the second century BC, it was translated by parabolē, "parable," and, in a very few instances, as paroimia.

The Greek word parabolē is compounded from two words, the preposition para ("beside") + the noun bolē (from the verb ballō, "to cast"). The image is of something cast beside something else, a comparison. In John's Gospel we don't see the word parabolē, but rather paroimia, "veiled saying, figure" of speech.2 In the Synoptic Gospels, parabolē is defined as:

"A narrative or saying of varying length, designed to illustrate a truth especially through comparison or simile, comparison, illustration, parable, proverb, maxim."

In the Synoptics Gospels, the word refers to a wide variety of illustrative formulations in the teaching of Jesus.3

An English Vocabulary for Parables

A.M. Hunter writes helpfully,

"In germ, a parable is a figurative saying: sometimes a simile ('Be wise as serpents'), sometimes a metaphor ('Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees'). What we call parables are simply expansions of these. 'All we like sheep have gone astray' is a simile. Expand it into a picture and you get a similitude like the Lost Sheep. Expand it into a story by using past tenses and circumstantial details, and you get a story-parable like The Prodigal Son. The difference between a similitude and a story-parable is this: whereas the similitude bases itself on some familiar truth or process (like putting a patch on a garment or leaven into meal), the story parable describes not what men commonly do but what one man did. 'A sower went out to sow.' 'A certain man made a Great Banquet.'"4

We have a rich English vocabulary to describe all kinds of sayings, comparisons, and stories. In the text of the study, I'll mainly use "parable," "analogy," and "saying" to differentiate different parables. I've grouped some of the English words below with their dictionary definitions to help you understand the precise meaning of each.5


  • Adage, "a saying often in metaphorical form that embodies a common observation."
  • Aphorism, "a concise statement of a principle," "a terse formulation of a truth or sentiment, adage."

  • Epigram, "a terse, sage, or witty and often paradoxical saying."
  • Maxim, "a general truth, fundamental principle, or rule of conduct;" "a proverbial saying."
  • Proverb, "a brief popular epigram or maxim, adage.
  • Saying, "something said, especially adage."


  • Analogy, "resemblance in some particulars between things otherwise unlike, similarity, then comparison based on such resemblance." This is an umbrella term that would include both metaphor and simile.
  • Figure of speech, "a form of expression (such as a simile or metaphor) used to convey meaning or heighten effect often by comparing or identifying one thing with another that has a meaning or connotation familiar to the reader or listener."
  • Metaphor, "a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them" (as in "drowning in money").
  • Simile, "a figure of speech comparing two unlike things that is often introduced by 'like' or 'as'" (as in "cheeks like roses"). In Matthew 13 we often see the phrase, "The kingdom of heaven is like...."
  • Similitude, "an imaginative comparison."
  • Word picture, "a graphic or vivid description in words."
Jesus' Parables for Disciples, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Available in paperback, PDF, and Kindle formats


  • Story, "an account of incidents or events ... anecdote."
  • Narrative, "something that is narrated, story, account."
  • Parable, "a usually short fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude or a religious principle." [Note: this is the English definition of "parable," but doesn't include the wide range denoted by Hebrew mashal and Greek parabolē.]
  • Allegory, "the expression by means of symbolic fictional figures and actions of truths or generalizations about human existence." Especially parables in which characters in the story are meant to be seen as real figures.


References and Abbreviations

[1] Victor P. Hamilton, māšāl, TWOT #1258a; Holladay 219. Friedrich Hauck, parabolē, TDNT 5:741-761, especially pp. 747-749.

[2] Paroimia, BDAG 779, 2. It seems to be compounded from two words, the preposition para ("beside, aside") + oumos, "way," which may amount to "a saying out of the usual course or deviating from the usual manner of speaking, here, "a symbolic or figurative saying" (Thayer 490, 2), "figure, comparison" (Liddell-Scott 1342, 2). Hauck sees John's use "in the sense of "obscure speech" that needs interpretation (Friedrich Hauck, TDNT 6:854-856). Used of a proverb in 2 Peter 2:22 and of figurative speech in John 10:6; 16:25, 29.

[3] Parabolē, BDAG 759, 2a.

[4] Hunter, Parables, p. 9.

[5] English definitions from Merriam-Webster 11th Collegiate Dictionary.

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