(1) Primitive man conceives of the objects around him as possessing his own characteristics. Consequently in his stories, beasts, trees, rocks, etc., think, talk and act exactly as if they were human beings. Of course, but little advance in knowledge was needed to put an end to this mode of thought, but the form of story-telling developed by it persisted and is found in the folk-tales of all nations. More particularly, the archaic form of story was used for the purpose of moral instruction, and when so used is termed the fable. Modern definitions distinguish it from the parable (a) by its use of characters of lower intelligence than man (although reasoning and speaking like men), and (b) by its lesson for this life only. But, while these distinctions serve some practical purpose in distinguishing (say) the fables of Aesop from the parables of Christ, they are of little value to the student of folk-lore. For fable, parable, allegory, etc., are all evolutions from a common stock, and they tend to blend with each other.
(2) The Semitic mind is peculiarly prone to allegorical expression, and a modern Arabian storyteller will invent a fable or a parable as readily as he will talk. And we may be entirely certain that the very scanty appearance of fables in the Old Testament is due only to the character of its material and not at all to an absence of fables from the mouths of the Jews of old. Only two examples have reached us. In Jg 9:7 through Jg 15:1-20 Jotham mocks the choice of AbimeItch as king with the fable of the trees that could find no tree that would accept the trouble of the kingship except the worthless bramble. And in 2Ki 14:9 Jehoash ridicules the pretensions of Amaziah with the story of the thistle that wished to make a royal alliance with the cedar. Yet that the distinction between fable and allegory, etc., is artificial is seen in Isa 5:1-2, where the vineyard is assumed to possess a deliberate will to be perverse.
(3) In the New Testament, "fable" is found in 1Ti 1:4; 4:7; 2Ti 4:4; Tit 1:14; 2Pe 1:16, as the translation of muthos ("myth"). The sense here differs entirely from that discussed above, and "fable" means a (religious) story that has no connection with reality--contrasted with the knowledge of an eyewitness in 2Pe 1:16. The exact nature of these "fables" is of course something out of our knowledge, but the mention in connection with them of "endless genealogies" in 1Ti 1:4 points with high probability to some form of Gnostic speculation that interposed a chain of eons between God and the world. In some of the Gnostic systems that we know, these chains are described with a prolixity so interminable (the Pistis Sophia is the best example) as to justify well the phrase "old wives' fables" in 1Ti 4:7. But that these passages have Gnostic reference need not tell against the Pauline authorship of the Pastorals, as a fairly well developed "Gnosticism" is recognizable in a passage as early as Col 2:1-23, and as the description of the fables as Jewish in Tit 1:14 (compare Tit 3:9) is against 2nd-century references. But for details the commentaries on the Pastoral Epistles must be consulted. It is worth noting that in 2Ti 4:4 the adoption of these fables is said to be the result of dabbling in the dubious. This manner of losing one's hold on reality is, unfortunately, something not confined to the apostolic age.
Burton Scott Easton