Bibliotheca Sacra 155 (Jan.-Mar. 1998) 29-38.
Copyright © 1998 by
GUIDELINES FOR INTERPRETING
Mark L. Bailey
A turning point in the study of Jesus' parables came with
the work of Adolf Julicher,l who sought to expose the inadequacies
of the allegorical method of interpretation and asserted that each
parable taught a single moral truth. In answer to Julicher, C. H.
Dodd and Joachim Jeremias sought to discern more specific
lessons from Jesus' parables by focusing on their major referent,
the parables in their historical contexts in the life of Jesus and in
the gospel records.
More recent trends have tended to see the parables as literary
art at the expense of historical interpretation.3 Consequently
some writers have returned to the approach that sees multiple
meanings based on the subjective philosophical self-understand-
ing of the interpreters rather than the historical objectivity of Je-
sus and His message. The past fifteen years or so have been dom-
Mark L. Bailey is Vice President for Academic Affairs, Academic Dean, and
Professor of Bible Exposition,
*This is article one in an eight-part series, "The Kingdom in the Parables of
Julicher, Die Gleichnisreden Jesu, 2 vols.
2 C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom (New York: Scribner & Sons, 1961);
and Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, trans. S. H. Hooke, 2d ed. (New
3 For example Dan Otto Via, The Parables: Their Literary and Existential Di-
mension (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1967); John Dominic Crossan, In Parables: The
Challenge of the Historical Jesus (New York: Harper & Row, 1973); idem, "The
Servant Parables," Semeia 1 (1974): 17-62; and idem, "Parable and Example in the
Teaching of Jesus," Semeia 1 (1974): 63-104.
30 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January—March 1998
inated by a "sophisticated" literary criticism and structuralism
which seems to be more concerned with the style of argumentation
than the historical interpretation. From the pendulumlike ex-
tremes of Julicher and the multiple meanings allowed by the ex-
tremes of the philosophical linguistic movement, a more cautious
balance is being sought by recent conservative writers. Though
authors such as Robert Stein, David Wenham, Craig Blomberg,
and John Sider4 have sought to interpret Jesus' parables more
conservatively, it remains to be seen how many will join their ef-
Parables are distinguished from other literary figures in that
they are narrative in form but figurative in meaning. Parables
use both similes and metaphors to make their analogies, and the
rhetorical purposes of parables are to inform, convince, or per-
suade their audiences. Pedagogically Jesus utilized parables to
motivate hearers to make proper decisions. To Jesus' original
audiences the parables both revealed and concealed new truths
regarding God's kingdom program. Those who rightly re-
sponded were called disciples and to them it was granted to un-
derstand the mysteries of the kingdom. The same truth was con-
cealed from those who, because of hardened hearts, were unrecep-
tive to the message of Jesus.
A parable may be briefly defined as a figurative narrative
that is true to life and is designed to convey through analogy some
specific spiritual truth(s) usually relative to God's kingdom pro-
A proper interpretation of Jesus' parables should give atten-
tion to the following five steps.
UNDERSTAND THE SETTING OF THE PARABLE
Conservative hermeneutics proceeds on the premise that lan-
guage is meaningful and that the words in God's biblical com-
munication carry "historical, cultural, spiritual, and moral
meaning and values."5 As an interpreter approaches the Scrip-
tures, he is conscious of the words and endeavors to discover the
meaning carried by them. Sometimes Jesus supplied the interpre-
tation (e.g., Matt. 22:14; 25:13), and on other occasions the Gospel
H. Stein, An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus (
InterVarsity, 1990); and John W. Sider, Interpreting
the Parables (
5 A. T. Cadoux, The Parables of Jesus: Their Art and Use (London: Clarke, 1930),
Guidelines for Interpreting Jesus' Parables 31
writer made an editorial comment. Often the key to interpreta-
tion can be found in the prologue to the parable (e.g., Luke 18:1, 9;
19:11). Other times the epilogue gives a clue to the proper interpre-
tation (Matt. 25:13; Luke 16:9). And in some parables the prologue
and epilogue form an interpretive parenthesis around the story
(e.g., Matt. 18:23-24, 35; Luke 12:16-21).
In recent years many writers have misunderstood the parables
because they have not given adequate attention to their historical
setting. Doerksen notes forcefully that "the modern critical
method is to remove the parable from the setting."6 Whether alle-
gorized or taken with a totally aesthetic bias, the historical set-
tings of the parables have been overlooked in favor of seeking to
find existential implications for the present. In contrast to the lib-
eral tendency to generalize the lessons of the parables, Dodd
maintained, "The task of the interpreter of the parables is to find
out, if he can, the setting of a parable in the situation contemplated
by the Gospels, and hence the application which would support it-
self to one who stood in that situation."7 Stein correctly commends
the contribution of Dodd, who stressed the parables for Jesus’ ini-
tial hearers and for the initial readers of the three Gospels.
It was Dodd, who, more than anyone else, pointed out that to
understand the parables correctly one needed to interpret them
first of all in their original Sitz im Leben, i.e., in their original
setting in the life of Jesus and in the context of his ministry. In
other words, before one should seek to understand the signifi-
cance of the parables for one's own situation today, one should
seek the original meaning of the parables and their application for
Jesus' audience in the first century. If we were to reword this in
still another way, we could say that Dodd demonstrated that the
question, What is the meaning of this parable for me/us today?
must be preceded by the question, What did the parable mean
when it was uttered by Jesus during his ministry?8
Hunter spoke of a double historical setting: "The parables, in
the earliest context, had two settings—their original setting in the
life of Jesus, and their secondary one in the life of the early
church."9 The context concerns both the events recorded and the
recording of those events, that is, both the historical and the liter-
6 Vernon D. Doerksen, "The Interpretation of the Parables," Grace Journal 11
(Spring 1970): 11.
7 Ibid., 13-14.
8 Stein, An Introduction to the Parables, 59.
9 Archibald Hunter, Interpreting the Parables (
32 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January—March 1998
ary settings. The timing of the parables in the historical devel-
opment of Jesus' ministry is not accidental. He spoke a number of
His parables in response to the national leaders' rejection of
Him, and so those parables were weapons of controversy in
exposing the self-righteousness of the opposition and in extolling
of instruction for encouraging the disciples to be faithful. The
parables can be interpreted properly only by understanding the
audience and the occasion that promoted them. Most of Jesus'
parables are clustered around scenes of controversy, found
especially in the final year of His training the disciples, as found
in the Lucan travelogue (Luke 9:51-19:27).
It is not by accident that some [parables] appear in one Gospel
and are omitted from others, for on closer examination it will gen-
erally be seen that their record is in keeping with the character
of the Gospel in which they appear. . . . The Evangelists were in-
structed by the Holy Spirit not only what to record, but when to
record it, and all attempts to "harmonize" produce discord if we
The human authors were led by the Holy Spirit to arrange the
material of each of their Gospels for theological as well as chrono-
Understanding the cultural background also is essential for in-
terpreting the parables properly. As Ramm stated, "In the inter-
pretation of every parable it is necessary to recover as much as
possible the local color employed in it."12 Each parable Jesus
spoke was taken either from analogies to nature or from people's
reasonings and judgments. These were taken out of the thought
and mind-set of ordinary persons living in
local color of the parables have turned up a rich store of informa-
tion. Russell contended, "Most of the stories involve customs,
conditions, and ideas peculiar to the Jews of Palestine in Jesus'
time and therefore require explanation before an American
reader fully understands them."13
10 Peter R. Jones, The Teaching of the Parables (Nashville: Broadman, 1982), 37;
cf. Cadoux, The Parables of Jesus, 11-13. Apparently Cadoux coined the idea of the
parables as "weapons of controversy. "
12 Bernard Ramm, Protestant
Biblical Interpretation, 3d ed. (
Baker, 1970), 282.
13 Elbert Russell, The Parables of Jesus (
Association, 1912), 10.
Guidelines for Interpreting Jesus' Parables 33
Addressing the problem of "cultural foreignness"14 Bailey
proposed what he called "Oriental Exegesis."
The culture that informs the text of the Gospel parables can be
delineated in a relatively precise manner by bringing together
three tools. The culture of contemporary conservative peasants
must be examined to see what the parables mean in their setting.
Oriental versions need to be studied to see how Oriental church-
men through the centuries have translated the text. Ancient lit-
erature pertinent to the parables must be read with the insights
gained from these other two sources, not in isolation from them.
This text must be examined against the background of information
gleaned from these three sources. These three tools need to be
used along with and not in isolation from the other skills of mod-
Thus "Oriental Exegesis" is a method of studying a culturally
conditioned text. The method is to use the standard critical tools
of Western scholarship in combination with cultural insights
gained from ancient literature, contemporary peasants, and Ori-
Although Bailey offers fresh perspectives for the parables from a
literary-cultural approach, he seems at times to reconstruct the
social background at the expense of the text and context. Never-
theless his emphasis on cultural interpretation is a welcome cor-
rective in countering the existential tendencies of some modern
interpreters. Kelley rightly criticizes the tendency to ignore the
culture. "The danger we see in this sort of orientation is that it
yields a picture of Jesus not as a wandering Jewish rabbi who in-
structs disciples, replies to opponents, and stimulates crowds, but
rather of an existentialist theologian, wearing a Bultmannian or
Heideggerian face, who by parabolic speech dramatizes ontologi-
cal possibilities for hearers.”16
Augmenting the historical foundation with an awareness of
first-century culture allows the parables to retain their true-to-life
nature and unlocks the parabolic references to the religious and
social cultures of the original settings of the parables. "By
‘cultural’ is meant the total ways, methods, manners, tools, cus-
toms, buildings, institutions, and so forth, by means of which,
and through which, a clan, a tribe, or a nation carry on their exis-
tence."17 The proper understanding of a parable's historical and
cultural contexts is the beginning point for proper interpretation.
14 Kenneth E. Bailey, Poet and Peasant: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the
Parables (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 29.
15 Ibid., 29–30 (italics his).
16 Robert Kelley, "The Significance of the Parable of the Prodigal Son for Three
Major Issues in Current Synoptic Study" (Ph.D. diss., Princeton University, 1971), 132.
17 Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 152.
34 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January—March 1998
UNCOVER THE NEED THAT PROMPTED THE PARABLE
Jesus often told parables to answer a question, meet a challenge,
or invite the hearers to change their thinking. To discover the
need that prompted the parable is a significant step toward un-
locking its meaning within its original context. Often that need
in the original historical and/or literary audience is shared by
current readers. Thus the supporting braces for
plication can begin to be formed at this point in the interpretive
process. The need may be seen in the material that introduces the
parable (e.g., Luke 18:1) or it may not be revealed until after the
parable is told (e.g., 16:8). Zuck suggests nine kinds of occasions
or purposes that led to Jesus' parables, with examples of each:
parables in answer to questions, parables in answer to requests,
parables in answer to complaints, parables given with a stated
purpose, parables of the kingdom given because
tion of Jesus as Messiah, parables following an exhortation or
principle, parables that illustrate a situation, and parables with
the purpose implied but not stated.18
ANALYZE THE STRUCTURE AND DETAILS OF THE PARABLE
Traina suggests a most helpful means of analyzing the structure
of narrative discourse. In his discussion of the observation step of
Bible study, he notes the importance of understanding the struc-
ture of the passage being studied. He discusses five ways the lit-
erary structure is arranged to carry along the thought process of
the reader:19 biographical progression, which tracks the lives of
people; historical progression, which follows the sequence of
events; chronological progression, which unfolds the narrative
with time indicators; geographical progression, which journals
the changes of place; and ideological progression, which focuses
on the development of ideas.
To understand the communication of a narrative properly,
narrative art must also be appreciated. The contribution of set-
ting, characters, and plot all relate to this step of the hermeneuti-
cal process, and valuable insights are gained by not sidestepping
the values of narrative composition and the means ("progres-
sions") an author used to move readers through the narrative to a
Details in the parables serve as background for the central
truth in the foreground. Defining the parable as "truth carried in
19 Robert Traina, Methodical
Bible Study (1952; reprint,
van, 1980), 51-52.
Guidelines for Interpreting Jesus' Parables 35
a vehicle," Ramm speaks of the presence of "accessories." These
details "are necessary for the drapery of the parable, but are not
part of the meaning."20 Various details often play important
roles, but on the other hand they may be given simply to add back-
drop to the story.
Interpreters have often wrongly suggested that the presence of
details in the parables calls for allegorical interpretation. Bouch-
er, though not a conservative exegete, makes a helpful distinction.
I would suggest that it is more accurate and helpful to speak of
the meaning of the whole parable and the meaning of its parts
than to speak of "one point" and "many parts." . . . Once the
whole meaning is apprehended, the small constituent meanings
fall into place; or conversely, once the small, constituent mean-
ings are understood, the meaning of the whole emerges.21
The background details of a parable help focus attention on the
main point(s) in the foreground of the parable. A parable may be
compared to a wheel, with the central point being the hub, and the
details being the spokes. The central truth(s) in a parable may be
supported by a cast of subordinate or coordinate truths.22
STATE THE CENTRAL TRUTH OF THE PARABLE
AND ITS RELATIONSHIP TO THE KINGDOM
Understanding the central analogy of the parable is a safeguard
against excessive allegorizing. As stated earlier, this was the
major contribution of Julicher. But a weakness of his work was
that he viewed the central point of each parable as a general moral
truth unrelated to the historical context. Dodd called this empha-
sis on the central truth "the most important principle of interpre-
tation."23 Linnemann also discussed the importance of the cen-
tral truth in a parable.
Like the similitude, the parable is so arranged that the point of
comparison comes out clearly. The narrative of a parable has a
strong direct flow, which is determined by the point of compari-
son. Without halts and detours the narrative runs on to the
point of comparison. All the individual features of the narrative
join in this dramatic movement, and have a function in the devel-
opment of the narrative. Only when the flow of the narrative has
reached its goal is the listener released from suspense. The point
of comparison forms the end of the parable.24
20 Ibid., 283.
22 See Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation, 215-17.
23 Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom, 7.
24 Eta Linnemann, Parables of Jesus: Introduction and Exposition, trans. John
Sturdy, 3d ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 11.
36 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January—March 1998
THE CENTRAL TRUTH
The goal of each parable is to point up an analogy between the
story and the intended lesson or appeal. Trench writes, "It will
much help us in the matter of determining what is essential and
what is not, if, before we attempt to explain the parts we obtain a
firm grasp of the central truth which the parable would set forth,
and distinguish it in the mind as sharply and accurately as we
can from all cognate truths which border upon it; for only seen
from that middle point will the different parts appear in their true
The central truth can be identified by understanding what
question, occasion, problem, or need is portrayed in the historical
setting. This question or problem will usually relate to Jesus' dis-
ciples or to His opponents, and therefore is related to the revealing
and concealing purposes of the parables.
Stein suggests asking seven questions to help identify the
main point of the parables.
1. What terms are repeated in the parable? Which are not?
2. Upon what does the parable dwell, i.e., to what or to whom
does the parable devote the most space?
3. What is the main contrast found in the parable?
4. What comes at the end of the parable? [This has been called
"the rule of end stress."]
5. What is spoken in direct discourse in the parable? [Frequently
what is most important in the parable appears in direct dis-
6. What characters appear in the parable? Which are the least
important? Which are the two most important characters?
[Usually a parable focuses on two characters to establish its
7. How would you have told the parable? If Jesus told it differ-
ently, does this reveal anything?26
Also the context of a parable sometimes reveals the main point, as
in Luke 18:1, 9.
Blomberg has recently argued for as many major points as
there are central characters in the narrative. He calls this a con-
trolled use of allegory.27 However, the interpretations he suggests
are stated in the form of theological correlation and not exegetical
interpretation in the historical or literary context. His statements
are, however, invaluable for the bridge between interpretation
and contemporary application.
25 Richard C. Trench, Notes on the Parables of Our Lord (
26 Stein, An Introduction to the Parables, 56.
27 Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables, 166.
Guidelines for Interpreting Jesus' Parables 37
RELATIONSHIP TO THE KINGDOM
Most expositors agree with Hunter that the concept of the kingdom
is the primary referent of Jesus' parables.28 This is confirmed by
the frequent usage of the introductory formula, "The kingdom of
heaven is like...." The reason for the centrality of the kingdom
in the parables is the priority it held in Jesus' entire ministry. It
was the message of John (Matt. 3:2), Jesus (4:17), and the disciples
(10:5-7). As Hope observed, "all of [the parables] deal with one
great subject, and one great subject only, namely, the kingdom of
God."29 Or as Ramm states,
Many of the parables directly state that they are about the king-
dom, and others not specifically stated cannot be divorced from
the kingdom. Adequate interpretation of the parables must now
upon an understanding of the
relationship of Jesus Christ and His gospel to that kingdom.30
The definition of the kingdom has been one of the most wide-
ly debated issues in Synoptic scholarship. However, the study of
the kingdom in relationship to the parables has often been ne-
glected. Studying the parables in this light helps interpret the
kingdom within the progressive revelation of the life and teach-
ing of Jesus Christ as He presented Himself and the message of
the kingdom to
kingdom, it is difficult to dispute that the kingdom is the primary
referent of the majority of the parables. Too often the interpreter's
bias about the kingdom has been forced into parabolic exegesis
rather than allowing the parables to inform theology of the king-
dom. More work is needed to allow the parables to unfold the bib-
lical doctrine of the kingdom as the message of Jesus contributed
RESPOND TO THE INTENDED APPEAL OF THE PARABLE
Critical scholarship has tended to overlook the historical setting
of the parables in the life of Jesus. Also the presuppositions of crit-
ical scholars who see parables as only metaphors cloud their in-
terpretation. However, these scholars' discussions of the nature of
parable as "language-event" can be appreciated to a point, for this
emphasis calls for a decision by the literary audience in the days
28 Hunter, Interpreting the Parables, 39.
29 Norman Hope, "The Interpretation of Christ's Parables," Interpretation 6 (July
1952): 303. Some parables, like those in Luke 15, are more remotely related than
those that explicitly mention the term or describe the concept.
39 Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 153.
38 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January–March 1998
of early hearers as well as present-day hearers. While valuable
in emphasizing the need for making a decision, these discus-
sions have often missed the proper application which relates the
parables to the person of Christ and His kingdom. Their view of
polyvalent meanings—that the parables are open-ended—has
tended to remove the objectivity of interpretation with historical
validation. Therefore the door has been opened for all kinds of
opinions. Stein rightly states the need to ground application in
Only by attempting to understand the parables in their original
Sitz im Leben shall we be able to free ourselves from the chains of
modern-day fads or trends, whether they be liberalism's general
moral truth or existentialism's language event. The greatest rev-
erence we can give to the parables of Jesus is not to treat them as
literary accounts that are ends in themselves, but rather to treat
them as the parables of Jesus, i.e., as parables Jesus taught and
which are filled with his meaning and insight! What he means to-
day by his parables cannot be treated apart from the question of
what he meant by them in the first Sitz im Leben.31
Proper application is based on the timeless principles con-
tained in the message of the parables. Principles "summarize the
essence of a Bible passage in terms that are applicable to a broad
spectrum of readers and situations."32 "To principalize is to dis-
cover in any narrative the basic spiritual, moral, or theological
principles."33 This principle of truth may then be applied to many
situations in the reader's life.
A proper hermeneutical methodology for the parables must take
into account the nature and purpose of the parables as both a par-
ticular genre of literature and the reasons Christ employed them.
From the historical, literary, and cultural contexts, the structure
and details of the parabolic narratives may be studied to exegete
the central truth of the parables, which usually have as their refer-
ent some specific aspect of God's kingdom program. The in-
tended appeal for ancient as well as present-day readers provides
the framework for proper application. Additional articles in this
series will discuss these aspects of the kingdom in Jesus' seven
parables in Matthew 13.
31 Stein, An Introduction to the Parables, 69 (italics his).
voord: A Tribute, ed. Donald K. Campbell (Chicago: Moody, 1982), 26.
33 Ibid., 27.
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