Parable and Allegory

Posted on Posted in Academics, Theology

This is one in a series of papers that I wrote for either religion or philosophy classes.  These give a glimpse into some common debates and my perspectives on them at that time.

The differences between a parable and an allegory seem to be obvious on the surface.  The parable is supposed to have only one main point, while the allegory presents many hidden meanings.  Given the hidden meaning that seems to be present in the many of the Bible reading that we have encountered (especially the apocalyptic readings), it is hard to make a distinction between literal and code language.  And when one encounters the parables and their defiance of being allegories, it is difficult to decipher that one main point without being allegoric.

Even among Biblical Scholars, there seems to be a great debate about whether the parable of the “Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids” can be really considered a parable or if it should be taken as an allegory.  To get a better understanding of the debate surrounding this parable, one needs to look at what its literal interpretation tells of the story.  The story begins with ten bridesmaids preparing to meet a bridegroom.  Apparently it was a Palestinian custom at the time for the bridegroom to come to the bridesmaid’s parents’ home and take her back to his house (Oxford 38 NT).  In their preparation for this, all of the bridesmaids take a lamp with them.  However, only five wise bridesmaids take extra oil for their lamps.  When they awake, it is discovered that the five foolish bridesmaid’s lamps have started to go out and they ask the wise bridesmaids for some oil.  The five wise refuse to help and the five foolish bridesmaids have to get oil from a nearby dealer.  While they are away, the bridegroom comes and goes into the wedding banquet with the wise five.  Finally, the foolish bridesmaids return and  beg to be let in, but they were refused.  This being the case, the main point of this parable is that you should be prepared in life.

The context surrounding this parable and its meaning is Jesus and his fateful visit to Jerusalem (Interpreters 449).  Shortly after this parable is told, the final events of Jesus’ life take place with his betrayal, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection.  The exact positioning of this parable by Matthew is literary perfection.  Placing a parable that points to be prepared at all times, with the backdrop of Jesus’ forthcoming death was perfect timing.  As readers, we see the consequences of not being prepared through the fate of the foolish bridesmaids.  We can also see the benefits of being prepared through the later chronicling of Jesus’ death.  Jesus was prepared for his own death and through that preparation he could face it with no fear.

It does not really matter whether Jesus said this parable near his death or at an earlier time in his ministry.  Matthew places it near Jesus’ death since its message will be most effective at this later stage.  Given, it would still have been a powerful parable at an earlier point in the reading, Matthew interpreted its context to be the most effective in this crucial point of Jesus’ life because his preparedness for death shows precisely kind the message that Jesus wanted to get across to his followers.

As was mentioned earlier, most modern day interpreters seem to take the “Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids” strictly as a parable.  However, there are those who see it as allegorical in some ways.  It is hard for modern people not to look at this parable in an allegorical light, since they can find greater religious significance by viewing it this way.  Reading about the accounts of Jesus’ life two thousand years later, with the beliefs that we have about achieving afterlife and our beliefs of what Jesus’ death on the cross meant, we want to think that the parables that he told give insight into the afterlife and not simply daily (earthly) life.

To resist the temptation to look at the story of “Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids” as a commentary on the Parousia, we have to come back to the historical context of the parable and Matthew’s interpretation of it.  Jesus seems to use the point of preparedness in the parable as a lesson to his disciples (Oxford 1 NT).  He is nearing his death and moments such as this parable offered final advice to his followers.

Furthermore, if the story of the “Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids” was an allegory about the Parousia, it would be more diligent in its details.  One detail that many point to as proving it as an allegory is line 25:13, which states “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

The appearance of this line makes sense when one considers a leading opinion that the church created the parable of the “Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids” in order to teach the people that the Parousia would still be a long time in coming (Via 123).  The reason that this line was added is that in an allegorical context with this line does not work, since in the story itself all ten of the bridesmaids go to sleep, not just the foolish ones.  By sleeping, the bridesmaids would not be “Watching”, as proponents of allegorical view would have us believe.

Another reason for the debate among scholars as to whether the story of the “Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids” was a parable or an allegory comes from the material the precedes it in the bible.  Matthew 24 seems to have a somewhat prophetic tone to it.  There is some mention of the end-time and heavy references to similar passages in the books of Daniel and Revelation.  Leading from that discussion, the next passage in the bible is the story of the “Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids.”  Since one would be in a mindset of preparation in view of the Parousia from chapter 24, it is logical that many scholars feel that this passage ties in directly.  And continuity wise from the point of view of Matthew, it makes sense to add a parable such as the “Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids” for maximum effect in bridging chapter 24 to Jesus’ death and resurrection.

However, even though the literature continuity view is what we want to hear, scholarly evidence such as the possible church-added line 25:13, discount the romanticized message in favor of the story being a parable.  Again, we need to remember that the parable of the “Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids” might have been spoken at a time early in Jesus’ ministry.  It is very logical to assume that Matthew put it in its present position in his writings as Jesus’ parting words of advice for his disciples to follow on earth.  We have to look at Jesus’ parables through the eyes of the people who lived then, not as we would like to see them now.

Details such as the above remind modern people that they need to look into the context of what surrounds Jesus’ teachings.  They also remind us that we must check the authenticity of the text that we are studying. Today, we can still appreciate Jesus’ true message of preparedness in life.  In order for life to be successful we must plan many aspects.  Forgetting to do something or not better managing our time can devastate people’s lives.  Jesus realized this and told it to his disciples and exhibited what he preached as he faced his own death.

Works Cited

The Interpreter’s Bible.  Vol. 7  Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1951.  555-556.
The New Interpreter’s Bible.  Vol. 8.  Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1995.  449-451.
The New Oxford Annotated Bible.  Eds. Bruce M. Metzger and Roland E. Murphy.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 1989.
Via Jr., Dan Otto.  The Parables.  Philadelphia:  Fortress Press, 1967.  122-128.