Jesus Didn’t Call God Daddy

Jesus Didn’t Call God Daddy May 26, 2016

(Michelangelo, Doni Tondo [detail], 1508; Source: Wikimedia, PD-Old-100)
Pictured: Not God the Father (Michelangelo, Doni Tondo [detail], 1508; Source: Wikimedia, PD-Old-100)

One of the perennial temptations for Christians is to forget their Jewish roots. Anthony Sciglitano has a great book, Marcion and Prometheus: Balthasar Against the Expulsion of Jewish Origins from Modern Religious Dialogue, about how these very Jewish roots were recovered during the 20th century.

51pbAzNkreL__SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The major symptom of this temptation is at least as old as Marcion. Marcion dumped the Old Testament, and much of the New Testament, because the old God didn’t seem to fit the picture of the God of Jesus that he built up for himself. The “Old Testament God” engaged in way too much disturbing divine behavior to stomach [see especially volumes like Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God for modern day worries]–as if Jesus was totally palatable to even his followers…

But Stephen Bullivant in his The Trinity: How Not to be a Heretic reminds us that jettisoning the Hebrew Bible is a heresy precisely because it would’ve left the earliest Christians, Jesus including without any Scriptures whatsoever. When they spoke of “The Scriptures,” as some of them were writing the last one-fifth of the Bible that would come to be known as the New Testament, the only scriptures they had were the Old Testament.

Given this obvious fact Bullivant’s The Trinity reminds us that Jesus and his followers got the idea to call God “Father” not from their own ingenious creativity, but from the Tradition:

In fact, Father is itself a classic example of Jesus and his followers “creative borrowing” from the Hebrew Scriptures. The Old Testament’s most popular name for God YHWH or Yahweh, appears, either alone or in combination with other titles, approaching 7,000 times. The metaphor of God as Father, by comparison, puts in merely twenty or so appearances. Sometimes it is used by individuals, as when the Lord prophesies that the Davidic messiah “shall cry to me ‘You are my Father, My God, and the Rock of my Salvation” (Psalm 89). It is also used in a collective sense. Isaiah, for instance, has Israel declar, “O LORD, you are our father” (64:8) . . .

the trinity bullivantHe goes on to give a couple more examples of this. If you want to have a comprehensive look of how the early Christians went about rereading their ONLY Scriptures, then grab Richard B. Hays’s Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness.

The most interesting thing in Bullivant’s The Trinity on the topic of God the Father emerges in the footnotes. As I read the passage above I wondered whether the usual reading of “Abba” as “Daddy” might be just another strategy by modern day Christians to drive a wedge between the “God of the Old Testament” and the “God of Jesus Christ.” It appears that my suspicions were right on target:

It is often said that Abba was a child’s word for God in Aramaic, such that Hesus’ usage here should be translated into English as “daddy.” To the best of my knowledge, and I am, I admit, no Aramaicist–this idea is no longer widely held [emphasis mine –AR]. Furthermore, each time the word appears in the New Testament, it is immediately followed the Greek translation Pater [πατέρ], which is the normal Greek for “Father,” rather than for “daddy” or “pops. See The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 1.

The Cultural Dictionary of the Bible confirms this reading. The scholar Joachim Jeremias pretty much singlehandedly propagated the “Daddy” reading. James Barr, best known for The Scope and Authority of the Bible, definitively proved it false in a 1988 article. Through the magic of the internet I was able to run down the relevant passage from James Barr’s essay “Abba Isn’t Daddy” from the Journal of Theological Studies (vol. 39, 1988):

It is fair to say that abba in Jesus’ time belonged to a familiar or colloquial register of language, as distinct from more formal and ceremonious language. . . . But in any case it was not a childish expression comparable with ‘Daddy’: it was a more solemn, responsible, adult address to a Father.

He continues:

If the New Testament writers had [wanted] the nuance ‘Daddy’ they could easily have expressed themselves so; but in fact they were well aware that the nuance is not that of ‘Daddy’ but of ‘father’.” . . . [T]he semantics of abba itself [based on various evidences] all agree in supporting the nuance ‘father’ than the nuance ‘Daddy’.”

There you have it, your linguistic Waterloo for the day:

If you want to poke into some more strange and wonderful facts about the Traditions see: Nudus Nudum Christum Sequi: On Christ’s Genitalia


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