Abba isn’t Daddy
Should Christians speak to God as “Daddy,” or think of God as their “Daddy God” as some people suggest?
This is the first in a series where I will summarise a scholarly article or book in theology. The idea is that there’s a great deal of theological writing that isn’t very accessible. I want to make that writing available to a wider audience.
The New Testament was written in Greek, but Jesus and his disciples most likely spoke Aramaic as their main language. (Aramaic is a Semitic language closely related to Hebrew.) There are a few places in the New Testament where Aramaic words are found transliterated into Greek, alongside a Greek translation of the word. It seems that the New Testament writers felt that those words had a particular significance to the early Christian community.
One of those words is abba, which appears in the following verses (actually it could be Hebrew, but most people assume it’s Aramaic):
Mark 14:36 “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”
Rom 8:15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.”
Gal 4:6 Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.”
From these verses, it seems likely that not only did Jesus address God as abba, but that it had become a distinctive way for Christians to address God too. In each of these three verses, the transliterated Aramaic is followed by the Greek ὁ πατἠρ (ho pater), so that Greek readers knew what abba meant (presumably most of the intended readers didn’t speak Aramaic).
In the mid-20th century, Joachim Jeremias (a famous New Testament scholar) suggested that the Aramaic abba was the way a child would spoke to its father—in other words, that abba was an intimate term, quite different from the more formal sounding “Father” found in our translations. He suggested that abba developed from baby talk, much like “papa” or “mama.”
His idea was that Jesus and the early Christians were speaking to God just like a little child to its father, and that we should do the same. This quickly became a very popular idea, and so it is very common to hear preachers tell people to speak to their “Daddy God,” or something similar.
But it is a silly idea, as we shall see.
Why does it matter?
It is no doubt puzzling to many Christians that our Bible translators seem too stupid to translate abba as “Daddy.” In fact, even though this idea has been around for over 50 years, translators seem adamantly opposed to changing their minds. Most English translations still use “Father,” which is actually more formal than the way most children speak.
As a result, talking about abba as “Daddy” is one way evangelical preachers can put distance between Christians and the Bible. Preachers who claim abba is “Daddy” are telling you something you could never have discovered simply by reading the text. Without meaning to, they are saying that the Bible can only be understood through secret knowledge that the translators of the Bible are determined to keep hidden away. You might well have heard other sermons along the same lines: telling you that a word “literally” or “really” means something in Greek that’s different from the word the translators have chosen.
Sermons like that are used to justify all sorts of stupid ideas, but evangelical Christians should want to be certain that their theology comes from the Bible.
Not only that, but if abba doesn’t mean “Daddy” then we could be addressing God without the respect he deserves. The issue matters to Christians because I assume we’re interested in speaking to God the right way. The only argument for addressing God as “Daddy” comes from the mistaken idea that this is what abba meant.
In 1988, James Barr wrote an article about abba (Barr, J. “Abba Isn’t Daddy.” Journal of Theological Studies 39, no. 1 : 28-47). This article is important, but generally overlooked by evangelicals. Barr was provoked to write the article partly because:
…the idea that ‘abba was like ‘Daddy’ is, the writer has been assured, a great favourite with students and with preachers.
Barr goes on to show that this is quite incorrect. It now seems very unlikely that abba could have been an infant child’s “babbling word” as Jeremias suggested, and in any case that whole argument is entirely conjectural—there is no evidence to support it. We don’t know how the word was developed, but there is nothing to suggest it has any particular connection with infancy or childhood.
The most important point is that abba was the normal term used by adults at the time of Jesus. In other words, an adult son or daughter would address their Father as abba—it was not a particularly intimate term, and was certainly not confined to children. Children could use the same word, but it wasn’t a child’s word. There is genuine debate about exactly how the word developed (its etymology), and precisely what function the second syllable has (its morphology), but no evidence that it was a word confined to infants or children.
As a result, “Daddy” is a particularly inappropriate word to translate abba. Very few adult children would call their father “Daddy,” because it’s an infantile word. (We might not use “Father” either, as it’s too formal, but “Daddy” is not so much informal as immature.) All the evidence from the ancient Aramaic writings fits this.
The killer on this is that abba could only mean “Daddy” if the writers of the New Testament were complete idiots. We know Greek words like “Daddy”—that is, Greek words that young children used, but which adults never used—such as πἀπας/πἀππας (papas). The writers of the New Testament seem to have a reasonable command of Greek, and one can only assume that if they thought abba meant “Daddy,” then they would have used one of these children’s words (diminutives, to use the technical term). But they don’t.
So if you think abba meant Daddy, you’re claiming to know the Aramaic of Jesus’ day better than the writers of the New Testament. In fact, you’re claiming that every Aramaic-speaker who read the New Testament would have recognised the stupidity of the New Testament writers. Rather unlikely, wouldn’t you agree?
In fact, the Greek in the three verses mentioned always has an article in front of it (ὁ, ho). This is actually an unusual way of addressing a person in Greek—it’s slightly more formal or emphatic than normal, if anything.
In any case, the point remains: Jesus was presumably doing something distinctive by addressing God as “Father,” as were the early Christians when they followed his example. But “Father” is a perfectly good translation for abba, and there’s no need for Christians to be infantile and address God as “Daddy.”