Form Criticism

and the Parables of Jesus

The first step to understanding the parables of Jesus is form-critical classification. Form Criticism has to do with the oral tradition that lies behind the written gospels. It is much more than a simple exercise in taxomony. It allows us to determine various levels of interpretation of sayings of Jesus. Moreover, by viewing early Christian forms of speech in the context of the typicalities of Hellenistic and Jewish oral patterns, form criticism highlights what was distinctive of Jesus’ sayings and of Christian oral tradition and thus provides a “window” on life of the church between ca. 30 and 70 C.E.

Form criticism involves three steps: (A) identification and bracketing of redactional elements, i.e., what was contributed at the written stage, (B) classification of the remaining form, and (C) discussion of its Sitz im Leben (or the typical social situation in which the units was transmitted. We will be concerned mainly with the first two, though the Sitz im Leben of a parable may have contributed to its re-interpretation and may be responsible to the accretion of various elements, including the application.

A. Identification of Transmissible Units

Since we are interested only in what was transmissible in an oral context, it is necessary to isolate the form from its redactional frame. E.g., Luke 10:29-37 (Aland §183):

Frame: (29) But [the lawyer], desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” (30) Jesus replied,

Parables: (30b-35) A man was going down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho... I will repay you when I come back.

Frame: (36) Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbour... (37) He said, ... “Go and do likewise.”

The frame relates to the question about the great commandment which Luke has borrowed from Mark 12:28-31 (Luke 10:25-28 Aland §182) and hence must be secondary to the original setting of the parable.

When identifying framework material, look for (a) vocabulary distinctive of the evangelist whose gospel you are examining (e.g., Mark’s “immediately,” or redundant expressions), (b) literary & theological motifs characteristic of the writer (e.g., Mark’s secret motif or his depiction of Jesus as teaching), and (c) elements of the parable that betray the interests of the early Jesus movement which transmitted and used the parable (as opposed to interests that the historical Jesus could have had, e.g., Mark 2:20, appended to Mark 2:18-19), and then ask (d) how much of the present gospel unit is necessary to the sensible telling of the story or saying. In the example given above, one does not need to have any of the frame material to understand the purport of the parable. V. 29 of Luke obviously functions to connect the question about the Great Commandment (from Mark) with a special story available to Luke only. Dodd argues points out that while the applications of some parables belong to “the earliest tradition,” in other cases they are secondary, especially when one evangelists has an application that the others lack (e.g., Matt 5:14b-15 + 16 || Mark 4:21 || Luke 8:18 || Luke 11:33), or when one evangelist has several different applications (e.g., Luke 16:1-8a + 8b + 9 + 10-12 + 13).[1] The point of identifying secondary elements is to bracket them.

B. Types of Metaphorical Sayings

Parables belong to the second main class of NT forms, dominical sayings. The other two general divisions are chriae (or apophthegms, pronouncement stories) and narratives.[2] There are several other types of dominical sayings, including wisdom sayings (proverbs, admonitions, questions, riddles), prophetic and apocalyptic sayings, legal sentences, and revelatory sayings (‘I’ sayings).

Parables, Similitudes, Example Stories & Allegories

C. H. Dodd’s definition of a parable (in the broadest sense) is now famous:

“At its simplest, the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”[3]

Parables share the characteristics of folk narratives. This is a summary of Bultmann’s discussion:

(1) Conciseness—only persons necessary to the plot appear in it and there are seldom more than three persons or groups (which are treated as single persons);

(2) Duality is operative: i.e., only two persons (or groups) interact at one time;

(3) Single perspective: the auditor is asked to consider the events from the point of view of one character (e.g., the injured man in the Good Samaritan);

(4) There is little or no characterization: persons are not designated as good or evil, and

(5) Feelings and motives are left unstated.

(6) The parable frequently uses direct speech and soliloquy;

(7) Repetition (often threefold repetition) is used for the sake of internal coherence and dramatic development, and

(8) End-stress identifies the climactic element in the narrative.

(9) “Finally, it is important to notice how and why the hearer’s judgment is precipitated. The moral quality of the man who has found the treasure or of the pearl-merchant is not the subject of judgment; naturally, too, there is no verdict intended on the institution of slavery or upon imprisonment for debt.... In other instances, we are required to pass a moral verdict on some action [e.g., the Talents, Unmerciful Servant] where the point of the parable is directed to just this verdict. Naturally some judgment is in general required by all parables and their argumentative character is often expressed in their form.... Such a purpose is also often served by the antithesis of two types: two debtors, two sons....”[4]

Critics do not agree on precise definitions for the sub-types of parabolic narrative, and in some cases it is difficult to decide e.g., whether a unit is a similitude or has already become a parable. Some basic guidelines are available, however.

1. Similitudes

Similitudes are the simplest form. Normally a similitude has only one or two verbs, usually in the present tense, and refers to a typical or typically recurring situation.

“The image in a similitude is taken from real life and refers to things that happen every day, to circumstances that even the most ill-willed must admit exist.”[5]

“Here’s how yeast works.” “This is what mustard grows like.” Hence similitudes can begin with the formulae “who among you” [expecting the answer, ‘Everyone, of course,’ or ‘No one, of course’ depending upon the way the question is framed], or “no one....”

Apocryphon of James 12.22-30: For the Kingdom of heaven is like an ear of grain after it had sprouted in a field. And when it had ripened, it scattered its fruit and again filled the field with ears for another year. You also: hasten to reap an ear of life for yourselves that you may be filled with the kingdom!

2. Parables

Parables are normally complete narratives with several verbs, normally in the aorist (past). Each has a beginning (situation or problem), middle (several sequences which respond to the situation), and end (resolution of the problem).

The parable is normally a realistic narrative (as opposed to fabulous or surreal), but it relates an unusual incident.

“We are not shown what everyone does, what simply cannot be different, but what someone once did, whether or not other people would do it the same way.”

“The similitude appeals to what is universally valid, the parable proper to what has happened only once... The similitude guards against any opposition, since it only speaks of established facts; the parable hopes to avoid all opposition by telling its story so attractively, so warmly and freshly that the listener simply does not think of any objections... A well composed story creates the impression of a law to which one must submit, even more strongly than it if is proclaimed in advance that by the laws of human behaviour everyone must act in such a way under such and such circumstances.”[6]

The Sower (Mark 4:3-9) comprises a full narrative with beginning (going out to sow), middle (3 failures) and end (3 successes). It is realistic narrative, dealing with the procedures of Palestinian agriculture, but unusual in the yield. But the auditor would not see the unusual character until it is upon him/her.

3. Example Story

The difference between a parable and an example story is the way in which the point is delivered: a parable is a metaphor: the parable asserts that A (the unknown) is B (the known) and adduces a correspondence (analogy) between the two. An example story gives an instance or exemplum of a certain type of behaviour or person or act, etc.

Cicero, De Re Publica 1.38 (§§59-60).

Scipio. Well, when you are angry do you allow your anger to rule your mind?

Laelius. Certainly not, but I imitate the famous Archytas of Tarentum, who, when he found, upon arriving at his country place, that all his orders had been disobeyed, said to his steward, “You are at fault, wretched man, and I should have had you flogged to death if I were not so angry.”

4. Allegory

Like a parable, an allegory is normally a complete narrative. But the point of the allegory does not reside within the narrative, but in some interpretive key that allows one to see in every character or action in the narrative (A) a meaning of an entirely different order (B). It is a coded narrative.

The allegorist may provide certain clues that the narrative is not to be read as a simple narrative: (a) illogical or unnatural actions on the part of various characters, or inexplicable narrative shifts tell the reader that s/he is not to understand the narrative as a real story. In this regard, the allegory is unrealistic narration, while the parable offers realistic narration. (b) The allegorist may use stock figures which will be immediately recognized as bearing allegorical meanings. E.g., a king who gave a banquet for his son in early Christian discourse would transparently be a story about God, Jesus and the messianic banquet.

Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael on Exodus 14:22-25:[7] AND THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL WENT INTO THE MIDST OF THE SEA. R. Meir relates one version and R. Judah relates another version. R. Meir says: When the tribes of Israel stood by the sea, one said: “I will go down to the sea first” and the other said: “I will go down to the sea first.” While they were thus standing there wrangling with each other, the tribe of Benjamin jumped up and went down to the sea first, for it says THERE IS BENJAMIN, THE YOUNGEST, RULING THEM. [Ps 68:28]. Do not read “ruling them” [rodem] but “braving the sea” [rod-yam]. Then the princes of Judah began hurling stones at them, as it is written THE PRINCES OF JUDAH WITH THEIR HEAPS [Ps 68:28]. To give a parable, to what is it like? To a king who had two sons, one grown up and the other still young. He said to the younger one, “Wake me up at sunrise,” and to the older one, “Wake me up after three hours of the morning.” When the young one came to wake him up at sunrise, the older one would not permit him, declaring, “He told me to wake him up only after three hours of the morning.” And the younger one said, “He told me to wake him up at sunrise.” While there were standing there wrangling with each other their father woke up. He said to them, “My sons, after all both of you had only my honour in mind. So I will not withhold your reward from you.”

Likewise, what reward did the tribe of Benjamin receive for going down to the sea first? The Shekinah [God’s presence] rested on his portion of the land, as it is said, BENJAMIN IS A WOLF THAT TEARS (to pieces) [Gen 49:27] and of Benjamin he said: THE BELOVED OF THE LORD SHALL DWELL IN SAFETY WITH HIM (Deut 33:12).

It is important to distinguish between allegories proper—stories composed for allegorical purposes, and the allegorizing of existing stories. Likewise, we must distinguish between the exemplary use of a narrative, and a story compose only for exemplary use.


Bultmann, Rudolf K. The History of the Synoptic Tradition. Rev. ed. Translated by John Marsh. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1968.

Dodd, Charles Harold. The Parables of the Kingdom. Rev. ed. London: James Nisbet & Co., 1961.

Jülicher, Adolf. Die Gleichnisreden Jesu. 2. Aufl. Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1888–1899 [repr. 1910; Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1963, 1976].

[1]. C.H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom, Rev. ed (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1961), 16–17.

[2].  See Rudolf K. Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition, rev. ed., trans. John Marsh (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1968).

[3].  Dodd, Parables (1961), 5.

[4]. Bultmann, History, 188–92.

[5].  Adolf Jülicher, Die Gleichnisreden Jesu, 2. Aufl. (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1888–1899 [repr. 1910; Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1963, 1976]), 1:93.

[6].  Ibid., 97.

[7]. Mekhilta is the earliest extant rabbinic commentary on Exodus.  This particular parable is ascribed to R. Meir, ca. 140-65 CE.  Biblical quotations are given in capital letters.