Abba Isn’t Daddy – The Traditional Aramaic Father’s Day Discussion

It is traditional that I bring up the common myth that the Aramaic word “abba” means “daddy” around this time of year, but I must admit that this is the first year in a long time that sightings of that anecdote among the blogs are few. (So either, there isn’t as much interest this year, or people are actually doing their research. :-) )

So, for those of you who aren’t familiar with this particular meme, it is common to find around the Internet and in sermons throughout the world that where Jesus is recorded in the New Testament to use the Aramaic word “abba” that the term was an informal word, the likes a child would refer to their pop (i.e. “dad” or “daddy”).

This stemmed from an idea that was originally proposed by a scholar named Joachim Jeremias (b1900-d1979); mainly, that the form “abba” originated from “child-babble.” The connection between “abba” and “daddy” was then popularized by his following.

However, this idea was immediately challenged by a number of other scholars, such as James Barr who published an article entitled “Abba Isn’t ‘Daddy'” (in the Journal of Theological Studies) which outlined the numerous problems with such an assertion and addressed them in detail.

Overall, I believe that Mary Rose D’Angelo summed up what happened next nicely:

“Jeremias began almost at once to retreat from the claim that “abba” had the same connotations as “daddy.” In a sense, Barr’s title (but only his title) misrepresents Jeremias. Even as Jeremias acknowledged that the word was in common use by adults and was used as a mark of repect for old men and for teachers, he continued to stress the origins in babytalk and the consequent intimacy as a special component of Jesus’ use of the word. This meaning seems to have been the basis on which he regarded Jesus’ use as absolutely distinct from the Judaism of his time.

The NT itself gives quite a different reading of αββα. Each of the three occurrences of αββα in the NT is followed by the Greek translation ο πατερ, “the father.” This translation makes clear its meaning to the writers; the form is a literal translation — “father” plus a definite article — and like abba can also be a vocative. But it is not a diminutive of “babytalk” form. There are Greek diminutives of father (e.g., παππας [pappas]), and the community chose not to use them.

–Mary Rose D’Angelo. Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 111, No. 4 (Winter, 1992), pp. 615-616

And beyond this, many years after Jeremias’ death, modern linguistic study of how children pick up speech has completely discounted his conclusions of abba as “babytalk.”

But…

There is still a point of confusion: 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.” :-)

The myth survives.

Nevertheless, happy Father’s Day to all of the pas, fathers, pops, dads, papas and daddies out there, wherever you are!

Peace,
-Steve

45 thoughts on “Abba Isn’t Daddy – The Traditional Aramaic Father’s Day Discussion

  1. Abba in Modern Hebrew is less formal than “av”. Av would mean Father, whereas abba is something that only a natural son or daughter would call their father. So our Father in the New Testament is telling us that we really can call him a Father, since he has adopted us as sons and daughters through faith.

  2. Nonetheless, the “Abba, Father” occurs only 3 times in the NT.

    And every time, the authors choose to write the original aramaic followed by a greek translation – there was something that really marked them about Jesus using the word “Abba” – something pretty dramatic.

    All over the middle east, kids have used and still use similar terms (even in arabic) to address their fathers directly. But adults also use the term, maybe with a more formal meaning than the kids. Did you call your dad “father” or “dad” when you grew up? What does this mean with respect to your culture? Are we confusing a debate about the English language’s dad/father distinction with a multi-usage Aramaic term? How formal or informal is it?
    And do we have clear definitions of this that Abba=Father > Abba=Daddy in all contexts from circa 1st century AD Israel? No.

    So the truth of the matter is that scholars can’t assert with 100% certainty that when Jesus said “Abba!” he was using a formal or an informal address for God -regardless of Jeremias’ argument or the qualms they have with it.

    The only thing we do know for certain is there was something that really struck witnesses about Jesus usage of the word Abba – enough to keep the aramaic in their greek texts – unlike nearly every other word. This is without a doubt the most salient feature about the “Abba! which means Father” utterance.

    So on the balance of probabilities, and as an academic myself, I wouldn’t go knocking the “abba=daddy” merely because of some scholars disputing some other scholar’s theory about a term whilst using extra-biblical evidence. There are other biblical reasons than those given by Jeremias to believe that Abba was possibly an informal way of addressing one’s father – including the aforementioned preservation of Abba! by greek writers; or Mt.8:3 and Jesus asking us to enter the Kingdom like little children. And this whole-of-scripture approach has been The guiding principle for exegesis for many a century…

  3. Yes, scholars cannot assert anything with 100% certainty. That is the nature of the quest for knowledge, and as “an academic [yourself]” I would assume that you’d understand that. :-)

    With all of the recorded uses of “abba” that we have, the existence of Greek diminutives which are unused to translate “abba” in the New Testament, the existence of diminutives of “abba” in Aramaic (“baba,” “babbi,” “abbi”, “pappya” etc. all of which literally mean “daddy”), and how the word is used historically in documents throughout the corpus of Aramaic literature, we *can* assert that the patterns found in the New Testament do not support the “abba” == “daddy” conclusion.

    I can’t argue against the fact that it is something that is characteristic of early Christianity as a focus, and something that stood out, even to the Greek -speaking/writing compilers of the New Testament. To them, it was something as unusual and defining as “marana tha” or “talitha koumi.”

    At the same time, it isn’t something that is unique, either as “מִן קֳדָם אֲבוּהוּן דְבִשְׁמַיָּא” (“min qadam abuhon di-bishmaya” – “before their father in Heaven”) even appears in the Kaddish and for a number of other uses see this entry in the Jewish Encyclopedia here.

    As such, the more context and examples where we can see “abba,” the less support we can see that it meant anything other than “father.”

    Peace,
    -Steve

  4. Thank you, Steve, for your comment on my blog, JohnOneFive, regarding my post, “How Jesus Saw the Father”. I was surprised and very pleased to have your learned statement that “Abba” doesn’t equate to “Daddy”. “Daddy” just hadn’t felt “right” to me for many years–especially since the NT invariably added the word “Father” directly after “Abba”. As my post observed, it just seemed to me that its meaning was untranslatable. It’s been a long time since I studied Hebrew, but I do remember that so many “simple” words had such complex and deep meanings. Nonetheless, if I recall correctly, Jesus uses the word for “Father” to speak of God far more frequently and naturally than it is used as such in the Old Testament, and that certainly reveals something new and amazing about our relationship with God. The comments from others on your blogpost are very enlightening. I guess I come from the same place as “Aramaic Student”–and willing to learn more. Thanks again.

  5. Good article.

    Abba is the vocative form of ‘Ab’ (father)
    Since English and most western languages have no vocative, the nearest translation would be
    Father! <– which is calling somebody

    However, this is true, only children would -call- a father. It’s however, no babytalk :)

  6. I’ve always been a bit dubious about the claims of “abba” as a “vocative” as Aramaic doesn’t really have a well defined vocative form (as declined languages such as Latin and Greek have).

    The choice of using the emphatic as a vocative is matched with the use of “abbi” (“my father”) or “abwun” (“our father”) in similar contexts. As such all three of these are more “functional” vocatives than “morphological” vocatives solely based upon the context they’re used in (i.e. there’s no written difference, just a matter of what role they play).

    Again looking back at how “abba” is translated in the New Testament, in all three places we find the Greek nominative form (ο πατηρ) rather than the vocative (ο πατερ). Once again this supports reading “abba” as a plain “vanilla” emphatic that in this case is functioning as a “vocative.”

    Peace,
    -Steve

  7. “The NT itself gives quite a different reading of αββα. Each of the three occurrences of αββα in the NT is followed by the Greek translation ο πατερ, “the father.” This translation makes clear its meaning to the writers;”

    or does it reflect an alternate?

  8. I noticed that no one has mentioned the other translations of the Lord’s Prayer from the original Aramaic, where God is addressed as “Birther” “Mother-Father” and/or “Thou, from whom the breath of life comes.” Is anyone familiar with these studies?

  9. I will simply offer that the significance of the usage is the context of the usage… it seems that the repetition reveals the deep emotion and desperation of the moment.

    I would submit that what Jesus is doing is not just referring to God as the Father but drawing on the divine relationship that existed between them regarding the petition for relief.

    For instance anyone could call me father, but if I were to hear one of my children call me father in a moment of deep distress it would mean so much more to me and get my attention in a much different way than when just anyone would refer to me as father.

    Jesus was in the most desperate moment of human history and when He said Father Father, all of heaven stood still at the sound of it…and Abba Father caught His breath…

  10. I’ve heard American Southerners, as adults, address their fathers as ‘Daddy,’ which is often simultaneously an intimate term and a term of very great respect. As a northerner, once I was an adult I never addressed my father as ‘Daddy,’ but I never addressed him as ‘Father’ either. It was always ‘Dad,’ intimate and respectful. Why not do the same (at least in private prayer) with God?

  11. Dear Caruso,
    ok “abba” is not “daddy”.
    But please let me understand.
    In Aramaic literature and texts from pre and Jesus’ time (not later) we find the term “abba” (and I mean “abba” and not other forms as “abbi”) used by sons to call their own earthly father?
    and it was used also to invoke God?
    Could we say that “abba”, even if not childish, is a familial word?

  12. domy,

    You are correct. In the Talmud and earlier Middle Aramaic sources we find “abba” used in this way. We also find “abunan” or “our father” in the Kaddish.

    However, its use to describe God seems to have started in Jewish tradition, as this is not something that we tend to see outside Judeo-Christian tradition.

    “Abba” was also a term of respect that was used to refer to older rabbis and those in positions of authority. In either case, it is a title of respect and used widely in the early church.

    Peace,
    -Steve

  13. “Abi” literally means “my father” and in direct address (i.e. talking to one’s father) it tends to be more intimate. When using the word while talking to others about one’s own father, it is purely descriptive.

    Peace,
    -Steve

  14. Just to emphasize: the idea of God as Father did not originate in the NT. In Isa 63:16, Israel appeals to YHWH as father: “For you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us, and Israel does not acknowledge us; you, O Lord, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name.”

    The mere use of familial language in the NT to describe the relationship between YHWH and his people does not necessitate the informality implied by the “Abba = Daddy” thesis.

  15. Thanks for this relevant line. Relevant because teaching people to call God “Daddy” implies a childish attitude, whereas Paul relates it to our being “heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ”.
    It is not about sitting on his lap or something, but is about representing Father’s business by his adult sons and daughters. We tend to forget that the very word Abba resounded Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane. Unlike being childish, he accepted the responsibility to go for Father’s task.
    Imagine a church that doesn’t promote members to behave childish but to act as Jesus did.

  16. So, with all the conversation, it seems that “abba” is a familiar form of father used by a child to call their own parent. Therefore, like a child calling his or her “daddy”. So, debate it all the ways you want, it makes little difference…”abba” family-ar and not formal from the gist of all your academic rhetoric – as far as I can tell. Let’s make a mountain out of a mole hill…

  17. Question for the expert Aramiac fellow… 😉

    Since Jesus spoke Aramaic (correct?) what would have been the word(s) that he used to address Father or speak of Father? You know, where they have been translated, father (pater) in Greek.

    Apart from the instances already where he used Abba.

    Any ideas?
    Rambash

  18. This is a fascinating discussion. Thanks to all who took the time to contribute. I wandered onto this blog attempting to recover (or perhaps discover) in my own personal life, the depth of meaning of God truly being my Father.
    Just a response to thinkhardthinkwell… You’re correct about God as Father not being new in the NT. However, I think it becomes more personal in the NT. Although I haven’t studied this exhaustively, it seems to me that all (??) the references to God as Israel’s Father were corporate in nature, whereas in the NT it becomes personal and we are “sons” of God.
    Of interest is that marriage metaphors remain corporate in both testaments. It is probably improper for an individual Christian to refer to Jesus as his/her groom or husband. Rather, the church corporately compromises THE bride of Christ. But in terms of adoption, each Christian is a “son” of God.
    So for individualistic metaphors, Father becomes very important, because in in we find both intimate love and powerful authority.
    –Russ

  19. And catching up on comments:

    @Rambash – Wherever you see pater in the Greek, you would have seen /abba/ in Aramaic.

    @Charles – Simply “father” or “my father” depending on context.

    For example, /amreth l’abba/ literally means “I spoke to father.” Usually this sort of phrase would be used in English among family members (most commonly direct relations), but in Aramaic even if you’re talking to someone outside of your family, it’s assumed you’re talking about your own father, not theirs (which you would instead refer to as /abbukh/ = “your father”).

    Peace,
    -Steve

  20. I’m not a scholar by any means, but I’m part Korean. In Korea, Abba, is daddy. It’s Korean baby talk, no doubt, used to address one’s father, out of love and need. It’s spelled exactly that way in phonetic Korean. To the double B’s. Also, even to this day, familial worship is a natural part of the Asian culture and lifestyle. It is no small matter.
    Again, I’m no scholar, but I assume by Jesus’ day Jewish people didn’t worship or BOW to their ancestors, dead or alive. The law forbade it, I assume.
    In Korea, they STILL DO. So for me, the concept of NOT worshiping or praying to an ancestor or familial spirit is sacrilegious. That’s just how I was raised. I literally bowed before my Uncle, like I was expected to, on hands and knees and then someone patted me on the back and said “Good boy”, in a deep voice.LOL.

    As much as familial worship is shunned by Jewish and Christian doctrine, and so many want to refute it, I find right from the Man himself, the use of the word Abba. That flies right into the teeth of non-familial worship, and that’s really the pink elephant in the room. Unless you’ve been around people who practiced familial worship, you just won’t ‘GET’ the concept.

    The use of Abba is a translation, for people of a certain time, who perhaps were raised in familial tradition, 2000 plus years ago, to be Exonerated for their urge to worship or pray to a lost loved one (ever lost a loved one and their voice is still in your head?) and who would a son remember more than his own father or grandfather?
    Thus Jesus calling God Abba, Dad, flies into the teeth of the law of no family worship (like he did with pulling the ox out of the hole on the sabbath), and instead he exonerates Man’s tendency to resolve an emergency and be empathetic, no matter the day, and to recall and converse in oneself, (pray) from those memories of a time when a more confident or memorable person in your life mentored you.

    So, if you will, familial worship from Jesus’ view wasn’t wrong, it was just misdirected, for lack of a better word. More like, if you think you had a father who loved you and raised you to be all you can be, then God is that and more, to you. Pray to God, like you would your own father. Cause he is. and That’s why He was loved by the people, and NOT the scholars.

  21. God is the father of us all as the creator, but when Jesus called him Abba in essences he was calling him daddy because of the close relationship they had. In real life we all have fathers but not all of them can be called dad or daddy because they are not in there child’s life as a daddy would or suppose to be. Therefore, Jesus called God abba.

  22. Have really enjoyed this conversation, and it is very helpful to think through some things, as I am in the process of doing some writing. One of my struggles with the “Daddy” terminology for God is that we have often made that a superficial term for even our family relationships, thus taking much of the depth out of our thinking about our relationship with God.

    It only appears 3 times in the N.T. In Galatians 4:6, it is the Spirit of the Son crying out “Abba, Father!” in our hearts. In Romans 8:15, it is we who are enabled to cry out “Abba, Father!” (by the Spirit of the Son in us). That means that to understand what is happening here we have to understand what Jesus meant when HE cried out “Abba, Father!”

    This happened in Mark 14:36, when He was in the Garden of Gethsemane. He was wrestling in deep distress over what lay ahead at the cross. He was desiring another way to do it. In that context, He cries out “Abba, Father!”

    Obviously, this isn’t a “Hey, Daddy, can I jump on your lap and watch some cartoons with you?” nor is it the mindless babble of a child who doesn’t know what he is saying.

    “Abba” comes from a deep certainty within Jesus that He is the beloved Son of the Father, loved with an endless delight from before the foundation of the world (John 17:24). Was there affection in the relationship? Of course, there must have been! Anything good that we have in our love is only a reflection of the love shared between the Father and the Son.

    But it is much more than affection. I think that is where we get hung up here, not wanting to (and rightly so) limit our addressing of God to an affectionate feely title.

    It has to be much more than that, though, because “Abba” is also a term of deep respect(not at all taking away the affection, though, because there must be plenty of beautiful affection within the Godhead if it is really true that in His presence is “fullness of joy”).

    Maybe if we understood “Daddy” properly, it wouldn’t be so hard to equate these two. Speaking from the limits of a very human relationship, I know when my kids call me “Daddy,” it is multi-faceted and deep. It is filled with affection. It is filled with respect. It is filled with submission…though not perfect :) It is filled with a deep certainty of what is in my heart towards them, leaving them free and confident to put their lives in my hands. Yes, we have fun together. We laugh together…a LOT. We hug and cuddle…a LOT. But that is the overflow of the relationship, not the definition of it.

    I think it is that deep certainty that defines the N.T. use of “Abba.” In Galatians 4:6 and Romans 8:15, it is the cry of a child who knows with absolute certainty that nothing can take the heart of his Father from him. That is exactly what was happening in the Garden, the prayer of a Son who had deep confidence and complete certainty about who He was….not that He held a birth certificate that proved He was the Son of the Father…not that He held deep respect for the Father and therefore He was willing to go to the cross out of that respect. But the strength of a mutual and beautiful and full love that had existed between them from all of eternity.

    If that is what “Daddy” could mean, then I am fine with “Abba” meaning that. Anything less than that, and I don’t think we really have “Abba.”

  23. I’m not a scholar, or theologian, or any other term. I’m just a person that has been transformed by my Abba’s grace. You see, I was a meth addict for 10 years (ages 15-25) who also became a lier, theif, and an all around piece of junk who could’ve just as easily beat you down in the street as shake your hand with no remorse. I was never raised in church, in fact the home I grew up in didn’t even own a bible. I knew nothing of Jesus. But one great day (Sept. 28, 2008) I found myself face down in an altar screaming out to God, asking him to please deliver me from what I had become. And imediately I felt love that was not of this world! When I stood up, I was no longer the drug addict, the lier, the thief, or anything else for that matter. I was simply just a product of my Abba’s grace!!! So you guys keep giving Him the formal title such as father, but I call him” Daddy ” because any one can be a father, but it takes the love of a Daddy to do what He done for me!

  24. What Abba means to me…

    It’s that secret place in me, where I am one with my Father, where there is no knowledge of good and evil. Where I’m free to speak purely from my emotions and needs, knowing that He is all to me and that I am all to Him.
    This secret unconditional love of my Father, is what empowers me to act as a fully fledged king/judge under my King of peace and Commander at war, Jesus Christ. I am thus qualified to judge between good and evil in accordance with the grace and truth of my Messiah.

    Blessings in Christ Jesus,
    Andreas from Finland

  25. It seems to me that, the reason why “Father” is used in Greek, following “Abba”, simply states the familial aspect of the term. For instance, my son might call me “daddy”, yet Paul, wishing to clarify the term to foreign readers, rather than using all the various terms other languages might use for the same title, simply clarified that he was referring to a “Father-Son”, or, familial sense of the term- i.e., I wouldn’t say, “He calls me daddy because I am his Papa” but “he calls me Daddy because I am his father.” So to say that Paul wouldn’t have translated the term “Father” to prove he wasn’t intending it to mean a son’s personal endearing relationship to his father could be erroneous. Slaves were not allowed to refer to their Masters as “Abba” because they were not “sons”. Anyway, it’s really only a matter of semantics. I think Chris, the former meth-addict has the best explanation, since he truly KNOWS God as His Abba now, even if it isn’t from the “scholarly” standpoint. My grandson called his dad “Papa” from a young age, yet he still calls him that, and the very ring of the term gives it that endearing relationship they have with each other! Say what you will with all the justification you can find, yet the very term probably sprang originally from the lips of hebrew infants, just as Dad and daddy and papa did. The etymology of a word can have MUCH to do with how present terms originated. “Abba” still has the ring of “Papa” to any human ear, and the ear is universal!

  26. Just an additional clarification to my previous post:
    Sometimes the etymology of a word can have greater weight than the later interpretations given them, which I think is the case in all the disputing here in this blog. In which case, it matters little what a term my come to mean long after its original meaning, so let us not be too dogmatic, other than to say, no FINAL conclusion can be reached dogmatically I think the whole point of this article was to prove people wrong who say Abba means Papa. It’s like the Sacred Name movement trying to say that all who call God’s Son “Jesus” are wrong and that “Yahshua” must be used, since, as they claim, although falsely, that Yahshua is His true hebrew name (which it isn’t!) As far as proving that Abba only means Father, is actually silly, since even the english word “Father” was never used by Paul to interpret the word. So if you want to be truly technical saying “Father” (eng.) is NOT Abba, NOR Pater. God’s ears aren’t restricted to “Thee” or “Thou” any more than “You” when addressing Him.

  27. I am a Christian (Follower of The Lord Jesus Christ) by His mercy and grace. Currently I live in the USA but I grew up in Pakistan. I and both my younger brothers call our father “Abba Jee” routinely, every time any of us addresses him, anywhere. The word Jee is used for respect. This is a common practice in Pakistan. Abba is the same word both in my mother tongue Panjabi and the national language Urdu. In addition to being fluent in Panjabi and Urdu, I am familiar with Arabic. Abba is one of the many Arabic word in the Urdu language. Ab = Father; Abba = MY Father. Abba is NOT equal to Father. Children (biological, adopted, and almost ALWAYS step-) call their OWN father Abba (with Jee for respect). So, when The Lord Jesus Christ addressed God The Father, “Abba” that literally means “MY FATHER” and signifies the PERSONAL and INTIMATE RELATIONSHIP between God The Son and God The Father EXACTLY LIKE ones OWN son. In my more than 30 years in this great country, I have NEVER heard a native English speaking person (child or grown up)address his or her own father as “my father”. English is my 3rd language. So, please help me, how would you address your own father when you want to address him as “my father”. May The Lord Jesus Christ, The Prince of Peace, THE ALL WISE who rightfully and correctly addressed His Father, “Abba”, grant you His peace and blessings! In The Mighty Name of The Lord Jesus Christ, Amen!

  28. I enjoyed this article, however, my siblings and I grew up our entire lives calling our father Abba, and still refer to him by that name to this day. Although it is clear that “Abba” does not mean “daddy”, am I misguided to believe that is still means father and that it is incorrect to refer to my father in that term?

    1. Hey Ruth just a thought, Spanish term for grandfather is abuelo is a term picked up for the Moors. It is also a term of respect in the orthodox churches after the 3rd century from areas like Ethiopia. I don’t find it wrong to have an affectionate name for your father.

  29. Thank you for this article, Steve! This reinforces what I tell my Biblical Aramaic students concerning the affixing of the Aramaic definite article by doubling the final consonant and adding a suffix alaph or hey (depending on the word), i.e. that it strengthens the formality of the form. Abba is definitely not a diminutive form, as the emergents (like Rob Bell) like to preach. Even legitimate mainstream Christian scholars recognize that, e.g. Robert H. Stein, The Method & Usage of Jesus’ Teachings (Louisville, Ky.: WJK Press, 1994), 85-6.

  30. sh abba t. In the middle of sabbath (1st useage of abba). I believe this can give us a hint of what the word means. Since we are commanded to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, all that is encompassed in that might give us an understanding of abba. Interesting that the sabbath lies in between loving God and loving your neighbor in the sequence of the commandments. Is abba that connection between God our Creator and man His creation, a place of rest and security? And man and man in a familiar (family) relationship with the same abba father. Ab from one side and ba from the other direction, a kind of response one to the other an affirmation of the relationship. Also “Our Father which art in heaven…Holy is your name.”There is something sacred about that relationship. It is how Jesus always addressed God apart from the cross where He said, “My God, my God” as He hung in our place so that we could have access to God not simply as God but as our Father.

  31. Just a few Thoughts. First this thought did not originate from Joachim Jeremias, because it is printed in my 1828 Webster’s dictionary. The fact that the moors invaded Spain and their term for grandfather comes from this Arabic term and is in Spanish abuelo. There you go just a few thoughts on this.

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