The word parable (παραβολή, parabole) does not even appear in the Gospel of John, and neither does the brief story form, which is what scholars usually describe as the classic form of the parable. Instead John uses the word paroimia (παροιμία) to describe an aspect of the discourse of Jesus. The figurative image of the sheepfold in John 10:1-5 is not a story and is not described as "parable," but rather as paroimia (10:6). Scholars provide several translations for this word: pithy saying, proverb, maxim, or hidden, obscure speech. Its only other occurrences in the New Testament are translated as "figure" (John 16:25, 29) or "proverb" (2 Pet 2:22). The kind of language to which it refers is indirect language (i.e., not directly related to the issue at hand) or language that paints a picture.
John 16:16-29 deliberately contrasts paroimia (16:25, 29) with clarity of speech (16:29)—paroimia being conceived as obscure, unclear, inscrutable and mysterious language, suggesting that it is not plain speech, but rather that it is obscure and that its significance is open to question. In this section (John 16:16-29) there really is no "figurative" language for the disciples to be perplexed over. They quite plainly state that what confused them was Jesus' statement "a little while, and you will see me no more; again a little while, and you will see me" (16:16-19). Jesus refers to his explanation to the disciples over their perplexity (16:20-28) as "paroimian language" (i.e., unclear, 16:25). And they accept this explanation of what they regard as an obscure saying, as plain or clear language (16:29-30). In short, the narrator in John 16:16-29 seems to misunderstand paroimia—at least, one may say that what the disciples are confused about does not have the character of figure, pithy saying, proverb, or maxim.
The image in John 10:1-5 (and presumably also John 10:7-18) is described as paroimia (John 10:6). And it certainly is, without doubt, a "figure," that paints an image of the situation with a sheepfold, the door to the sheepfold, and identifies the one who legitimately has access to the sheep and to the fold. This image (unlike the saying in John 16:16-29), however, does not confuse, it only succeeds in angering the audience of Judeans/Judaites/Jews (10:19), who apparently are not confused about the image, but rather are confused over the person of Jesus.
The reason for the correct usage in one instance and the incorrect usage in the other is the fact that John 10:6 is a "narrative aside," written from a perspective different than that held by the principal narrative voice of the Gospel of John, which in this case is represented by John 16:16-29.*
The Jesus of the Gospel of John does not use parables simply because the flesh and blood author does not know the tradition that Jesus told brief stories that the synoptic evangelists dubbed "parables." Nevertheless, both the authors of the synoptic gospels and the author of John agree that the language of Jesus was cryptic and in need of explanation, which is very interesting in the light of their almost complete disagreement on everything else. Their lack of understanding of the nature of parable arises from their erroneous idea that Jesus the early first-century Israelite believed the same things they did. But he was a Judean Israelite and they, coming along later, were Greek Christians. Little wonder that they found his language strange, arcane, and in need of explanation.
Scholium (a marginal comment):
Brown is clearly wrong that "paroimia and parabole are used synonymously in Sirach 47:17." R. E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (i-xii). AB 29. New York: Doubleday, 1966, 385-86.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
*See Hedrick, "Authorial Presence and Narrator in John. Commentary and Story," in Gospel Origins and Christian Beginnings, pages 74-93. Edited by Goehring, Hedrick, Sanders, and Betz; Sonoma, CA: Polebridge, 1990).