WHAT DOES THE BIBLICAL WORD “ABBA” REALLY MEAN?
By R. Herbert
Many readers of the Bible have heard and accepted that the Aramaic word Abba, as used by Jesus in addressing God, means something like the English word “Daddy.” Many presume that this is an established fact of biblical scholarship, but this is not the case. For the short answer to what Abba really means, you can skip down to the last two paragraphs; for the full explanation, read on ...
The idea that Abba meant “Daddy” or “Dad” was actually first put forward by the German theologian Joachim Jeremias (1900-1979), who suggested that the Aramaic word likely originated from children’s “babble” and that it was used as a diminutive form of “father” by children. The connection between “Abba” and “Daddy” was then popularized by others in countless sermons and religious articles to the point that it is now widely accepted by much of Christianity.
But let’s take a closer look. First, we should realize that in Semitic languages the normal word for father is some form of Ab(x). For example, in ancient Akkadian the word father was Abu, and today father is Ab or Abba in most Semitic languages. In modern Hebrew Abba has become commonly used to mean “Daddy,” so the supposed meaning of Abba as “Daddy” in the Bible seems to be reinforced by this.
But Jeremias’ suggestion that Abba meant “Daddy” in New Testament times was not accepted by most biblical scholars who responded to the idea, and especially by those who were actually experts in Aramaic. The idea was strongly critiqued by Georg Schelbert in an 1981 essay and then later in a book entitled ABBA Vater in 2011. Schelbert stated flatly that Jeremias' interpretation was in “error” and “unwarranted.” Numerous other biblical scholars have also rejected the idea as speculative and without grounds, including Professor Geza Vermes and noted scholar James Barr, who wrote an article actually titled “Abba Isn’t Daddy” (Journal of Theological Studies 39, no. 1 : 28-47) in which he showed that the connection between the biblical era use of Abba and “Daddy” had no evidence to support it.
Even back in the 1970s, after Aramaic specialists and other scholars first rejected the idea, Jeremias backpedalled considerably on his original position, but it was already too late to get the suggested connection “back in the box,” as the supposed meaning had begun to spread worldwide among Christians.
If we think about it, the Bible itself shows us that Abba does not mean Daddy. The word Abba only occurs three times in the New Testament: once in the story of Christ’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:36) and twice in the writings of Paul (Romans 8:15 and Galatians 4:6). In all three cases the Aramaic word Abba is followed by the Greek definite article and the word for father (patros) in order to translate it for those who did not know Aramaic.
Greek has specific words that could have been used for “Daddy” if that had been the intended translation – words such as “papas,” which is a true diminutive, mainly used by children rather than adults, and does mean “Daddy.” But the New Testament writers did not translate Abba with a Greek diminutive – they translated it with patros, the standard word for father – and we can only believe that the inspired writers knew what they were saying. Furthermore, there were actually diminutives of Abba in Aramaic – such as “baba,” “babbi,” “abbi,” etc., that could have been used if Christ and Paul had wanted to stress the idea of “Daddy.”
So, if there is no proof that Abba means “Daddy” in the New Testament, and several indications it does not, what does the word mean? The biblical texts themselves clearly show us that the word meant “father,” but what was the particular nuance of the word in biblical usage? There are a number of clues.
First, Schelbert, Barr, and others scholars have successfully shown that the term Abba was used by adults as well as young children, and there is no indication of it meaning “Daddy” in the Middle Aramaic sources. Second, Paul’s use of the word Abba in Galatians 3:22, 4:7 suggests that the word actually “asserts not childlike relation to God, but the privileged status of the adult son … and heir” (Mary Rose D'Angelo, “Abba and ‘Father’: Imperial Theology and the Jesus Traditions”, Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 111, No. 4 , pp. 615-616).
The usage of the word was certainly respectful. In most Semitic cultures it was (and still is) polite to refer to a man by his fatherhood, so that Ab(x) has the function of an honorific title. In the early centuries of the Christian era, Abba was used by Jews in this manner as a title of honor when addressing rabbis and learned scholars, and it may be found used in that manner in the Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot 16b). The title also was used by early Christian clergy, and the English words “abbey” and “abbot” are both derived from it.
Finally, although the aspect of respect is clear, there was also an element of intimacy in the usage of Abba. According to Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament (commentary on Galatians 4:6), the Gemara (the rabbinical commentary on the Mishna) states that slaves were forbidden to use this term in addressing the master of the house because it had an intimate aspect. Although this Jewish source is relatively late in date, there is no reason to doubt that it reflects an accurate tradition.
So, the evidence we have indicates that the meaning underlying the usage of Abba was not that of an intimate diminutive like “Daddy” but more a term of intimate respect. That seems to have been the usage underlying Paul’s comments on the mature heir (Galatians 4:1-7), and as seen in the use of the word in Judaism and early Christianity. We should also remember that although Jesus is not recorded as having used the term Abba elsewhere in his prayers throughout the Gospels, that is not to say, as some have, that he was “revealing to his disciples a new and intimate diminutive manner of addressing the Father in his final moments with them.” There is no biblical indication of this speculation, and it overlooks the careful instruction the disciples usually needed and that Jesus constantly gave in introducing and explaining new concepts to them (as we see clearly, for example, in his instructions on prayer and regarding aspects of the Lord’s Supper).
What Mark 14:36 does show is that Jesus' use of Abba was simply part of his prayer in his most difficult hour, and it seems clear that his usage of the word in that pre-crucifixion prayer was one of a particularly respectful intimacy in addressing his Father in those extreme circumstances. Certainly, his use of the word in that instance made such an impression on the disciples that they carefully recorded it with the translation that most closely fit the meaning of the word – “Father”.
What difference does all this make? Simply that the idea Abba means “Daddy” or “Dad” has taken on such a life of its own and has been so influential in recent Christianity that it has undeniably colored many people’s understanding of the range of appropriate forms of address to our heavenly Father. Perhaps it has sometimes made that address more casual than it should be. The present writer has even seen an instance where a religious writer “translated” the term as “Hi, Dad!” Linguistically, Abba is a “functional vocative” form used in addressing others, but there is nothing in the word of God or in history to substantiate such an extreme informality in the use of the word. Rather, Abba would seem to be simultaneously an intimate term and a term of great respect. Perhaps “Dear Father!” – the exclamation showing the intense nature of both the intimate and respectful aspects of the word – would be the most appropriate translation.
Realizing that Abba doesn’t really mean “Daddy” or “Dad” in its biblical context doesn’t change the nature of God as a loving Father who is happy to accept us and treat us as a father treats a small child on occasions when that kind of love is appropriate. It doesn’t change our ability to use the word in addressing our heavenly Father intimately. But it might help us to keep our relationship with him in better perspective if we understand that Abba connotes the privileged intimate relationship we have with a Father worthy of our total respect. And one thing is for sure: Abba most certainly does not mean “Hi, Dad!”