Abba Again

It is now two weeks since we finally dived into the details of the Lord’s Prayer in my Sunday school class. Moving at our usual fast pace, we covered one word on that occasion: Father.

I highlighted the evidence for Jesus have addressed God as abba in Aramaic, and the misconception that abba meant “daddy” was mentioned. And so I explained – as I also sought to do on the BLT blog recently – that abba simply is not an equivalent of “daddy.” It may be that Aramaic abba and Greek pater overlapped with our English word “daddy” in terms of their semantic domains, just as the English word “father” overlaps with the meaning of “daddy.” But that is something very different. Abba is not a diminutive form, it simply is the Aramaic for “the father.”

This is not to say that there isn’t an intimacy in addressing God as “father.” There certainly is – indeed, while the divine name is mentioned in the next line, God is not addressed by that name. And arguably “father” is more intimate than the use of a name, just as we address our own parents not by their names but by such titles.

Presumably the significance of Jesus addressing God as “abba” was that it was in Aramaic, the language of ordinary speech, and not in Hebrew. The closest parallel that I can think of that might be familiar to some readers is the shift to addressing God in English after being accustomed to using Latin for such purposes.

We also discussed gender-inclusive language, abusive parents, and other considerations relevant to thinking about or addressing God as “Father.” That topic also came up on the BLT blog recently, and they shared this sample of a gender-inclusive translation:

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  • Ian

    The question I have, for the ‘Abba is not daddy’ thing, is on use of the word to address. I don’t know anyone who calls their father ‘father’. Maybe in Dickensian TV drama. But not for real. The point of ‘daddy’ then is not the diminutive, but the address. Abba is ‘daddy’ or ‘dad’, if it is a form of address for one’s father.

    So when you say

    This is not to say that there isn’t an intimacy in addressing God as “father.”

    Hmm. That strikes me as making the opposite point you think it is making.

    It would be a distinct break of intimacy if I called my dad ‘father’. He’d rightly assume there was something strange going on. Don’t Todd and Rod Flanders from the Simpson’s call Ned ‘father’ as an indicator of an abnormal relationship (as Bart calls Homer ‘Homer’)?

    So the evangelical point of saying “Jesus didn’t call God ‘father’, but ‘daddy'” is sound, isn’t it? Because the point being made is not that, if you wanted to translate ‘father’ into aramaic, you couldn’t say ‘abba’. The translation is being made in the opposite direction. In the context of Jesus using the word, ‘daddy’ or ‘dad’ (the term used of one’s own father) is a better gloss than ‘father’ in English.

    I’m not sure I get quite the opposition to identifying it with ‘dad’ or ‘daddy’. Sure there’s a kind of naive popular piety at work there. But that’s not necessarily wrong, is it?

    Of course, no word means the same as any other word in any other language. Of course it isn’t just some diminutive, baby-babble word for one’s father. But if it is the regular term a person would be expected to use to refer to their own father, from their earliest childhood, then it is also that.

    • James F. McGrath

      I think that a part of the problem (illustrated well by the Ned Flanders example) is that today we are accustomed to speak in a manner that is very different from our forebears. What the Flanders do is strange because we recognize it as archaic, as something that was once appropriate but today sounds bizarre in its formality.

      • Ian

        But this is exactly my point. The use of ‘father’ as a way of referring to one’s own father is at best archaic. So, if ‘dad’ is the word we use to refer to our fathers, and ‘abba’ is the word Aramaic speakers used to do the same, then ‘abba’ should be translated ‘dad’, when used as a way of speaking to one’s father.

        Of course other glosses should be used to translate abba in other contexts, but specifically in the context of addressing God the Father, ‘dad’ is better.

        I’m not particular set on this, by the way, I just don’t understand the strength of the objections.

        • James F. McGrath

          I don’t have any problem with rendering it “dad” in English (although in Matthew’s Gospel you still end up with something that sounds awkward in modern English, “our dad who is in…” as a form of vocative speech). My objection is to saying it meant daddy, a diminutive form specific to small children.

          • Ian

            Okay, gotya, sorry I was conflating ‘Dad’ and ‘Daddy’, when — as beau pointed out — they are crucially different. I agree, Daddy isn’t a form that an adult would ordinarily use of their father, so it doesn’t make sense to translate Abba used in the Lord’s prayer that way. Or say that is what the word ‘abba’ ‘means’.

            ‘our Dad’ sounds Liverpudlian.

    • Beau Quilter

      I could understand your argument for Abba being equivalent to, “Dad” in modern parlance, but not “Daddy”. I don’t know of many people who use the term “Daddy” long after the age of 12.

      • Ian

        Good point.

        I need, I think, a clearer model of what translation is doing. A blog post, perhaps…

  • J. K. Gayle

    Thanks for the links. Even more, thank you for the conversation and for continuing it, James!

    Ian, You raise a really important question. (It’s to me the biggest issue in the conversation yet. The question of what’s a translation doing. We get Jesus’s “Abba” in the greek gospel as a transliteration followed by what appears to be a gloss. And if a scholar fails to get what the Greek appositive is doing there, not just what “ὁ πατήρ” means, then the scholar, well, fails. There are two issues on the Greek side. The first is this: ὁ πατήρ in other contexts really does mean what we in English mean by “Daddy.” So Αββα, ὁ πατήρ is quite an interesting construct. Second, then, we might read this construct as an appositive, where the transliteration ‘aBBa’ is interpreted by Greek readers as something very very very close to “Pappa” or “dadda” or “daddy.”)

    Ian, On the English side, if we leave Greek in the gospel aside, there’s your point.

    And I think again we find language play that brings home the familiarity of “father” in some contexts. One thing, in comments, I was trying to point out is how poet e. e. cummings, who plays with language wonderfully, would write lines like this:

    “Here Comes My Daddy Now (O Pop, O Pop, O Pop, O Pop)”

    It’s no surprise, and readers here get the fact, that the adult poet e.e. cummings is sounding a little like a child.

    But what if when he’s just six years old and when he may be childish and when he’s limited very naturally to his own childish poetry, what happens when he writes this, one of his first poems:






    Is there no intimacy here? Is there none also in Mark’s Jesus? Must we declare what little e.e. cummings had to mean and could not intend by “father”? Likewise a Greek (Greeked Aramaic) speaking Jesus?

    • Ian

      Thanks for this thoughtful response, great to have to think about other stuff.

      “Must we declare what little e.e. cummings had to mean and could not intend by “father”?”

      No, to do so would confuse intended meaning of the speaker, and the inferred meaning of the general listener. There may well be some portion of people who do call their fathers ‘father’ in a warm and loving, intimate way. The aim is not to exclude or deride their use of the word, but to ask if calling one’s father ‘father’ would generally be inferred as a warm intimate or a cold stand-offish mode of address, by someone with no prior knowledge of that relationship. There the Simpsons gives our answer when the Flander’s children call Ned ‘father’, we are supposed to get the joke. QED, we can reasonably expect ‘father’ is the wrong term in our context.

      That is not to say someone who addresses their father as ‘father’ is wrong to do so. Not in the slightest. They are using the appropriate word in the (two person) language community that gives meaning to their words. When we chose a word for a broader language community, we need to choose a word that will have the correct connotations for the broadest number of that community.

      It is on that basis that, I think, we can say that both ‘father’ and ‘daddy’ are worse glosses than ‘dad’.

      • J. K. Gayle

        “When we chose a word for a broader language community, we need to choose
        a word that will have the correct connotations for the broadest number
        of that community.”

        I would agree. And if we think about the writer/editors of the Greek gospel of Mark (and of the two Greek epistles of Paul), then we scratch our heads at this not-broadly-used bi-lingual phrase,

        Αββα ὁ πατήρ

        I dare say we know a whole lot more about how ὁ πατήρ was used. It was used, by children, synonymously with diminutives and with familial pappa words exactly in the same contexts with these phrases –


        ὦ παππία
        ὦ πατρίδιον
        ὦ πάτερ

        ὦ πάτερ πάτερ
        ὦ πάτερ ὦ πάτερ

        What’s strange is that scholars trying to assert what little they know about אבא from what they can deduce from the Greek lettering Αββα, next to the Greek phrase ὁ πατήρ.

        Why not let the writers suggest that Jesus and Paul and other Jews in the three NT uses are crying out like childlike children? Is this the Simpson’s Ned Flanders’s children joke all over again? Is that what Mark’s and Paul’s Greek is doing? Or shall we just solve everybody’s problem with the language here by insisting that we all be adults?, Jesus and Paul too!

        • Ian

          ὁ πατήρ was used. It was used, by children,

          The question is, was it only used in that context? Or was it also used for anyone to refer to their father. And for people to refer to fathers generally.

          See if we have a word in our source language that can map into three different words in our target language (‘father’, ‘dad’, ‘daddy’), depending on context, then the correct choice of gloss is the word in the target language that best matches the context. The choice of gloss is not arbitrary, just because all three words in the target language would have the same gloss in the source language. Gloss selection is not symmetric.

          If the word in the source language cannot map to some of those terms (let’s say, hypothetically, that ὁ πατήρ was never used by adults), then we can rightly assume the use of the word is intended to demonstrate some significance about the kind of relationship being portrayed. But if it maps to any of them, then to use a gloss which does not imply the context (in this case, an adult speaker addressing their own father) is irresponsible.

          Or, in other words, the use of ὁ πατήρ, or אבא in contexts that we would use ‘daddy’ is a necessary, but not sufficient criteria for using it as a gloss in this case.

          As I said to beau, the root of this issue is the lack of a clear model of what translation is doing / is supposed to do, I think.

          • J. K. Gayle

            “But if it maps to any of them…”

            Todd and Rod Flanders from the Simpson’s call Ned ‘father.’ And we can agree how funny this is. Jesus from Luke’s gospel (23.24), while on the cross, calls out to יהוה or to Θεέ or to Κυρία – “Πάτερ.” How normal was that? I believe you’re on to something with this sort of sociolinguistic perspective. And yet how are we, this far away from the cultural norms of Greek readers so long ago, able to decipher was how they might have understood what Mark’s gospel has Jesus crying out in in Greekish Aramaic plus Greek? Isn’t the scandal referring to God in one’s mother tongue as one’s parent? Doesn’t our fine distinction about whether the sounds / abba / map to adult speakers or also to children speakers somewhat miss the point of this intimate utterance?

          • Ian

            Yeah. I assume the original ‘abba is not daddy’ sentiment came from folks who are rather nervous of hermeneutics posing as scholarship, though. Which is a common enough problem. So the important part of the exegesis might be the intimacy. But I can understand why, when that is put in terms of ‘abba means daddy’, certain folks with an interest in the actual languages and cultures (rather than their appropriation in popular piety) might get concerned.

            I’m neither a scholar or a Christan, so I guess I’m not sufficiently invested in either camp. But I do find it interesting to think about.

  • Gary

    In the link, “In Modern Hebrew, “abba” has become commonly used as… You guessed it: “Daddy.” So, when a Hebrew speaker happens upon this anecdote, to them it makes “perfect sense.””
    Same applies to this English speaker (me). I don’t know about anyone else, but I was taught the Lord’s Prayer by my mother at bed time, each night, till I got it right, when I was about 6 years old. So when I hear that abba is daddy, right or wrong, I say to myself, of course. Jesus was teaching his infantile disciples how to pray, just like I was taught.
    On gender-inclusive, another thing the Gnostics got right.

  • arcseconds

    Are we quite sure he didn’t mean the swedish pop group?

    How many persons does the Trinity have again?

  • newenglandsun

    I don’t get the whole feminist rant of trying to turn God into a “she”. Obviously he’s not. Nor is he really a “he” either.

    • arcseconds

      Why is it OK to use ‘he’, then?

      • newenglandsun

        Maybe that’s because the one person of the Trinity who became incarnate called God “father” and himself was male.