Friday, November 04, 2011

Abba is not Daddy

One of Joseph Prince's sayings that promote irreverence towards God is stating that we can call God "Daddy" since that is what the term "Abba" means. We therefore hear expressions such as "Daddy God" and such expressions are given the rubber stamp of scriptural approval. However, is such a meaning really the case?

Some time back in 1988, the biblical scholar James Barr published an article in the Journal of Theological Studies arguing against Joachim Jeremias' interpretation that seem to imply that "Abba" is the same as "Daddy." Barr disputes that claim, stating in the process that the biblical writers could have used the Greek diminuitive form for "father" παπας instead of πατηρ to indicate such a connotation, much as τεκνιον ("dear child") is a diminuitive form of τεκνον (child). Doing some dichronic and synchronic study of the words related to father and "abba" in the Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic and their uses in extra biblical literature, Barr showed that it is unlikely that "abba" has the same connotation as the word "daddy." As Barr concludes,

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 ceremonius usage, though it would be unwise, in view of the usage of the Targum, to press this too far. But in any case it was not a childish expression comparable with 'Daddy': it was more a solemn, responsible, adult address to a Father

— James Barr, 'Abbā isn't "daddy"', Journal of Theological Studies, ns 39 no 1 Apr 1988, pp 28-47

While certainly this does not give us a really good idea of what the term "abba" refers to, we can safely conclude that the term is NOT "Daddy" and therefore Prince is in error here.

In conclusion, God is not our pal, or the over-indulging parent of a spoilt brat. Although we can call God as Abba Father as a name of endearment, we should not ever think that God is just our pal down the street or someone whom we can just approach informally without reverence and fear.


Anonymous said...

I have always been taught that the word "Abba" means the same thing as "Daddy", but the reason against that idea makes sense. One of the things I remember from taking Spanish classes is the fact that one would address God using a possessive pronoun that has the connotation of closeness (which is used for God, close friends, family, etc.) while another possessive pronoun is used for more formal relationships or people that we don't know well.

Daniel C said...


Interesting. I don't think Spanish is related to Hebrew/ Aramaic though. =)

Djony Tanuwidjaja said...

Here is another interesting similar article from Allen Ross :

Daniel C said...


thanks. The article recaps the main points of Barr's article well.

Evangelist Daniel King said...

My son is almost two years old and he is just beginning to talk. On occasions that warm my heart with joy, he holds out his hands to me and says, “da da.” He cannot say much else, but he knows that “da da” will pick him up and hug him. As a common sense observer of human nature, I think it is likely that the first words of an Aramaic or Hebrew speaking child were the two-syllable (simple to pronounce) word “ab ba.”

According to the Anchor Bible Dictionary, “[abba] has been explained as a rare vocative…or as derived from children’s baby talk (cf. “Papa,” “Daddy”). If the last explanation were right, then the use of abba as an address to God in Mark 14:36 might be thought to imply a special, indeed a unique, intimacy.” The article goes on to call this interpretation “wrong.”

However, the case can be made for “abba” to mean “daddy.” For every incidence that scholars discover where abba is “employed of the fathers of grown-up sons” the term was used a million times by Aramaic or Hebrew speaking toddlers when reaching up for their fathers. Jesus probably would have used the term to refer to Joseph, but by the time he twelve he had figured out that “his father’s business” was not carpentry.

So, in what sense did Jesus use “abba” when he was struggling with his destiny in the Garden of Gethsemane? In the midst of severe mental anguish, he cries out “Abba, Father…take this cup from me” (Mark 14:26). Matthew and Luke record the use of the word Jesus used in this prayer as “pater mou” and “pater” respectively. Was Jesus crying out for his grown-up, infinitely wise, Father God, or was he crying out in the midst of pain to the intimate “da da” who would pick him up after he skinned his knee as a child?

It is tough to separate the two meanings. When I was young, I called my father “daddy” now I call him “dad” or “father. If I was in pain and crying out for help, what would I say?

Paul used the term because Jesus used the term. In Romans 8:15 and Galatians 4:6, Paul is talking about the Roman practice of legal adoption which mostly involved grown-ups, not young children. But, he moves from the formal language of “huiothesia” (to place as sons) to the informal, spontaneous, Spirit-inspired cry of “Abba Father.”

Paul’s childhood language was Aramaic and the language of his education was Greek. In this passage he combines his heritage and his education and expresses a heart cry for his daddy (language of his childhood) father (language of his adulthood). I agree with Ross’s article that “the significance of the word "Father" is one of a reverent, respectful and solemn adult address of God” for an adult, but for a child, the same word would have a childish meaning. For the young, God is like a daddy, for the mature God is like a father.

The article you cited does not “[prove] decisively that Abba is not Daddy.” All it does it prove that one scholar’s opinion is that abba does not mean daddy.

Daniel, this is one of those areas that is non-essential. In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty, in all things charity. Daniel, you may be a mature Christian and thus you understand God as a Father. An immature believer may benefit from perceiving God as a daddy, a daddy might be exactly what they need. Of course, Jesus did say “you must become as a little child to enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Daniel C said...

@Daniel King,

I don't see what your relevance your comment has to the post