Daddy was not what Jesus meant, no matter how much Western people want.
DADDY! That is the answer you will get. But what is the question? If you were to ask any English-speaking Christian alive today what Jesus meant by calling God “abba,” the response, almost always, will be “daddy.”
Many English-speaking Christian preachers and teachers have been taught for decades that abba is Aramaic for “Daddy.” Jesus spoke Aramaic. Clearly, then, Jesus must have used this Aramaic term as a tender and loving expression to address his Father, the God of Israel—his heavenly daddy. Thus, ee in the pews been taught this for decades. The parrots repeat: Jesus thought of God as Daddy.
The Daddy of this Misunderstanding
Without renown biblical scholar Joachim Jeremias (d. 1979), our Churches probably would not have this understanding. Whenever you hear “Abba means daddy,” be it in a homily, lecture, Catholic audio-presentation, EWTN show, etc., remember to thank the late Jeremias. It’s mainly because of him that in religious education programs, kindergarten through RCIA, and even theology classes deep in the seminaries, this misunderstanding gets repeated endlessly without doubt. But doubt it we must.
As we’ve asserted elsewhere, the Bible is not clear and easy to understand. Too often, when a figure of Jeremias’ revered stature proposes something Biblical, even scholars become yes-men, head-nodding without challenge or question. So it goes on unchallenged: ABBA MEANS DADDY.
But the Aramaic “abba” is not magical. It is just like any other word in that it can only mean what it means where and when you use it. Just move “abba” and you necessarily change its meaning. My friends, during these past two thousand years, “abba” has been drastically moved from its original, Galilean setting. Therefore its meaning was certainly changed.
Daddy is a Bad Translation
Fatherhood is panhuman. Thus all cultures have and know fathers. On the other hand, each different culture perceives, understands, thinks about, and expresses “father” differently. This point is brought home brilliantly by the late Context Scholar John Pilch.
Consider the Spanish word padre, a term much closer to home than abba. Pilch asks how should we translate the English FATHER into Spanish? Many would answer, “padre.” But is that correct? Does padre really mean “father”? And what about translating father into French? And what about into German? And what about into Greek?
How should one go about translating into English…
– the German “Vater”?
– the Spanish “Padre”?
– the French “Père”?
– the ancient Greek “Πάτερ”?
Many would answer that these terms all identical and translate perfectly into English as “Father.” But do they really?
Mainstream, English-speaking Americans ought to consider what kind of images come to their mind when they hear the word “father” used.
We have post-Industrial, Romantic Santa Claus ideas impressed in our culturally-formed brains. The real meaning of “father” gets determined by our social system—the meaning gets derived from the roles, behaviors and values which are expected of “fathers” by our society. As scholar John Pilch has shown us, the English word “father” as used in English-speaking, non-bilingual United States communities refers to persons who fulfill the roles, behaviors and values expected of adult males in prevailing American society.
Say you translate “padre” or “Vater” or “père” or “Πάτερ” with the English “father.” Since the social roles of each of those names differs from those of American fathers, we ought to doubt your translation’s accuracy. It would be more accurate to translate “padre” into English as “Spanish father.” Likewise “Vater” would be “German father,” and “père” would be “French father.”
While it is true that fathers and fatherhood are ubiquitous in world cultures, presenting a fact of universal human experience, each culture nevertheless experiences “father” in a different way.
Fixing the Daddy Mistake
So how does this apply to the meaning and translation of abba? In 1988, just nine years following Jeremias’ death, language scholar James Barr thoroughly examined the evidence. He concluded that abba could not be a childish expression comparable to “Daddy.” Barr said “abba” was a solemn, responsible adult address culturally-specific to a Middle Eastern father. (See the 1988 piece by James Barr, “Abba Isn’t Daddy,” Journal of Theological Studies 39:27–47.)
There is no warm Santa Claus, winking and drinking cokes in the Bible. The Mediterranean Scriptures make it very evident that fatherhood there is synonymous with severe and stern authority. This is hardly the Western post-industrial “daddy” we ethnocentrically imagine and read into Jesus’ “abba.” From very early age Middle Eastern boys are reared to subordinate any personal ego to the authoritarian demands of the father or that male who leads the household. This understanding lies behind Jesus’ use of abba and also 1 Timothy 3:1, 4—
Whoever aspires to the office of elder desires a noble task… he must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way.
What insures absolute unquestioned obedience and subordination by Mediterranean sons to their fathers? Severe physical discipline is the key.
Do not withhold discipline from [male] youths; if you beat them with the rod, they will not die.
He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.
(See also Proverbs 10:17; 12:1; 13:1; 15:5; 17:10; 19:18; 19:29; 22:15; 26:3; 29:15, 17; Sirach 7:23; 30:1, 12-13).
No Daddy in the Bible
The authentic Biblical male—i.e., the authentic Mediterranean male—is the one who can endure physical pain without complaining. The Mediterranean father ensures this through physically beating his sons. Note the significance that the only time in the Gospels Jesus calls God “abba” is when he underwent the agony in the garden, and he didn’t mean by it “Daddy”—
[Jesus said] “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me, but not what I will but what you will.”
Please note that there is a Greek word for Mediterranean-type of daddy or poppa—pappas—but the author we call “Mark” does not use it.
If you study the world of Middle Eastern North African (MENA) males, you will be provided with vivid illustrations why abba cannot mean, does not mean, and never will mean daddy. For at least four thousand years these cultures have valued the fusion of love and violence, stoically suffering pain in honor, and the severe physical discipline of sons. And if you, via Marcion, think that’s just “Old Testament,” consider Hebrews 12:1-11.
Fatherhood in the Bible
In the New Testament world of Jesus, intense physical discipline was commonplace. The sage Ben Sira exhorts Israelite fathers to treasured folk wisdom: “Beat his ribs while he is young, lest he become stubborn and disobey you” (30:12). Joseph in Nazareth would have been formed by this. All the males there would have been.
Does any of this make “abba” sound like an “American daddy” to you? Is that how Westerners parent? Psychological and introspective, we Westerners see this as a horrific recipe for psychopathology! Were we to witness this kind of “folk wisdom” advice being played out in our world, we would (hopefully!) call Child Protection Services.
The social world of Jesus provided “abba” with its meaning—“Israelite Father” (rather than “Daddy”). This demonstrates how culture gives flesh or “in+carnates” the meaning to words and sentences. Dictionaries and lexica therefore cannot be the sources of the meanings to words and sentences. Rather, social systems are. As with inspiration, incarnation must forever be a messy business!
The 21st century American “daddies” (now slowly becoming “Family Guys”?) we know of are particular to the post-industrial West and our culturally-specific values and sentimentalities. Jesus’ world and values were very different. Beware of congenial Jesuses.
What a Messy Business!
American Bible readers need to be wary of spurious familiarity. We must caution ourselves not to read into the Mediterranean world of the Bible our 21st century American understandings of “father” and “daddy.” While it’s great to learn Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, without a culturally-informed understanding of these languages, you really don’t have the meanings.