FactChecker: Does ‘Abba’ Mean ‘Daddy’?

When listening to a sermon on the Fatherhood of God, we’ve heard it more times than we can probably count: the illustration that when Jesus refers to his Father as abba, it is a very comfortable, deeply intimate child-like term, interpreted as either papa or daddy. Jesus uses the term once in Mark’s gospel and Paul uses it two times in Romans and Galatians.

Of course, the bible teacher or pastor’s purpose in explaining the word abba this way is to show us that Jesus had a very intimate relationship with his father, not stoic or merely positional. It is what a loving father has with his son and the son who lives securely and comfortably in that love. It is an important message—and it is true.

You can’t read John 17, Jesus’ intimate and passionate prayer to his Father the evening before his brutal and sacrificial death, and not see this tender intimacy. You see it also in John 1:18 where some versions have it that Jesus dwells “in the bosom of the Father.” Ask someone you know well if you can sit at their side. They will be happy and honored to have you do so. Ask them if you can dwell at their bosom and you’ll get a different reaction. We also see this Father/Son intimacy at Jesus’ baptism where the Father proclaims from heaven to us all his extravagant love and pride in his Son.

This intimacy and love between the divine Father and his Son is as true as the existence of God himself, for it is his very nature. But it is simply not true that Jesus’ use of the word abba means something a small child would utter in reference to his father. It does not mean “daddy” or “papa.”

This origin of this understanding is generally traced to the notable German Lutheran New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias who in his 1971 text New Testament Theology explained that abba was “the chatter of a small child. . . . a children’s word, used in everyday talk” and seemingly “disrespectful, indeed unthinkable to the sensibilities of Jesus’ contemporaries to address God with this familiar word” (p. 67). While Jeremias did not use the word “daddy” or “papa” in relation to abba, the implication was strong and others came along to make that connection.

But other Hebrew and New Testament scholars have taken exception with this understanding.

University of Fribourg’s Georg Schelbert critiqued Jeremias’ assertion in a 1981 essay and then later in a 2011 book-length treatment entitled ABBA Vater. He contends that Jeremias’ interpretation is in “error” and “unwarranted.” He elaborates,

In the Aramaic language of the time of Jesus, there was absolutely no other word [than Abba] available if Jesus wished to speak of or address God as father. Naturally such speaking of and addressing thereby would lose its special character, for it is then indeed the only possible form!

This is because, as we shall see, abba means either “father” or one’s own father. Schelbert explained that Jeremias even adjusted his earlier understanding in the face of critical peers.

Schelbert was followed by Professor Geza Vermes, a most important scholarly voice on the Jewishness of Jesus. In his book, Jesus and the World of Judaism (Fortress, 1983), Vermes calls out the “improbability and incongruousness of the theory” and that “there seems to be no linguistic support for it.” (p.42). Vermez holds, in agreement with Schelbert, that abba can either be understood as “the father” or the more personal, “my father.”

This criticism was followed up a few years later with an essay in the Journal of Theological Studies by James Barr (vol. 39, 1988). His article, “Abba Isn’t Daddy” explains:

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 ceremonious language. . . . But in any case it was not a childish expression comparable with ‘Daddy': it was a more solemn, responsible, adult address to a Father. (p. 46)

Although he explains that in Jesus’ time, this address was used by a father’s children of all ages, young and adult, it was often used by small children. Barr adds,

If the New Testament writers had been conscience of the nuance ‘Daddy’ they could easily have expressed themselves so; but in fact they were well aware that the nuance is not that of ‘Daddy’ but of ‘father’.” . . . [T]he semantics of abba itself [based on various evidences] all agree in supporting the nuance ‘father’ than the nuance ‘Daddy’.” (p. 38)

It is important and true to understand that God is our intimate Father. So many places in the New Testament make this vividly and encouragingly clear. It is one the rich qualities that makes Christianity distinct from all other faiths and philosophies.

But let’s not illustrate this grace for others with something that is not true.

Other articles in this series:

C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton Quotes

Burning Your Ships for Jesus

Misquoting Francis of Assisi

The Cross an Electric Chair?

Divorce Rate Among Christians

Do Faithful Christians Take the Bible Literally?

Is the ‘I Only Need Jesus!’ Declaration Christian?

Who Really Started the Family ‘Culture War’?

Are Your Kids Likely to Lose Their Faith?

Are Millennials More Self-Sacrificing and Community-Minded Than Previous Generations?

  • james ritchie

    Do you think perhaps while working hard to get the Greek/ Aramaic languages right Barr and schelbert may have considerably misunderstood the English language? I don’t know if I’ve ever really heard a person refer their own father as ‘father’ (I’m 25 and come from Australia). Surely the more colloquial and most commonly used expression in the English language would be ‘dad’.

    • Steven McCarthy

      I too think that is an extra layer of complication to this whole translational issue. In my experience, “Father” has a sort of overly proper and, perhaps, archaic feel if used in regular conversation (which, consequently, doesn’t happen unless we’re making fun of overly proper and archaic speech). On the other hand, our common “Dad”, while it can be an endearing term, unfortunately no longer has much reverence about it, if any, and “Daddy” is, as these scholars point out, too little-kiddy sounding It seems like the only place where “Father” feels right is in prayer and theology as an identifier of the first person of the Holy Trinity. Perhaps “Father” is the best we can do, but it does seem to loose some of its impact for being relegated to the liturgical/theological and distanced from personal, intimate address. If I’m right about that, the larger problem is that Christian liturgy and theology must be intimate and personal. Thus, only Biblical teaching and passionate example can rehabilitate “Father” so that it is again both intimate/personal and liturgical/theological.

  • http://theoldadam.com/ the Old Adam

    I like the ‘Daddy’ translation, better.

    It works to give a better picture of a loving God in relationship to His children.

    After all, we aren’t biblicists are we?

    • Billy Detzel

      “It works to give a better picture of a loving God in relationship to His children.”

      Not if it’s an incorrect translation. And our relationship to the Father as children is derived from the Bible.

    • http://chanroberts2.wordpress.com/ Chancellor C. Roberts, II

      It doesn’t matter what you like, it matters what the authors of scripture meant.

    • mark273

      It seems like that if we are truly Biblicists that we should take the text as it is rather than translating according to which one we like better. The picture of God as a loving father of his children is true. But according to the best studies, translating abba as “daddy” would be incorrect. But it is incorrect, not because God is not a loving father, but because the word does not mean “daddy.”

  • http://www.sbcfocus.net/ Chris Roberts

    “While Jeremias did use the word ‘daddy’ or ‘papa’ in relation to abba…”

    I assume that should be “did not” rather than “did”?

    Good article, thanks for the info. I had always assumed what so many said about the word abba was true. I’m glad to see a little more on the subject.

  • Melody

    Am I the only one with the experience of Americans from the south referring to their fathers as daddy even while middle aged?

    • Stephanie Nelson (@stephanienels)

      You’ve hit the nail on the head, Melody. The problem with this kind of commentary is that it is born out of a Western context. (And not even exclusively. I know some people here in the West that don’t consider the term “daddy” childish at all.)

      While I understand the spirit of this piece, I think it points out faulty hermeneutics while practicing it.

  • Sam Loveall

    I have no linguistic expertise, but personal experience. I had a friend who was a Rabbi, and I spent some good time in his home with him and his family. His wife bore a son, and I was privileged to watch the boy grow from infancy to about 5 years old. “Abba” was the term the boy learned to address his father from the beginning. Zafti would see his father and me enter the house, and come running to be picked up, saying, “Abba, abba, abba . . .”

    Again, not historic linguistic proof, but a real world example of how the word was used, in one family, between a young child and his daddy.

  • Michael Herrington

    “there was absolutely no other word [than Abba] available if Jesus wished to speak of or address God as father.”

    then further down

    “If the New Testament writers had been conscience of the nuance ‘Daddy’ they could easily have expressed themselves so”

    Granted, we are talking about Aramaic vs. Greek (and different authors), but the last quote, considering the NT writers used the Aramaic for a reason, doesn’t seem to agree with the first. I, at least, would like some more info. How would the NT writers have easily done so?

    • Joe Carter

      I think what Glenn meant is that the authors could have added more context (e.g., by saying something like “Jesus spoke to His Heavenly Father as a young child would speak to their earthly father”) rather than merely using a more nuanced term.

      • Michael Herrington

        Thanks, Joe. Makes sense now.

  • john sullivan

    i think the larger cross-cultural (universal?) reality of ‘papa’ ‘abba’ like words still gives credence to a possible ‘daddy’ connotation in Romans 8 (especially in light of ‘cry out’ which seems to evoke the picture of a child crying to their father as well).

    it certainly isn’t as certain though as perhaps jeremias made people believe

    ADDITIONALLY – why does romans 8:15 use both abba AND pater? there seems to be some nuance added by using more than one word. perhaps the contextual use of romans 8:15 itself IS the only evidence that abba may have a ‘daddy’ sense

    • http://textsincontext.wordpress.com Michael Snow

      Why “both”? Because the word coming from Jesus’ lips (Aramaic)needed to be translated for the Greeks.

      • Bruce

        Michael – it is not altogether clear that the readers needed an “interpretation” here. Some (Hebrew and especially) Aramaic forms used in prayers & worship were widely known and used by Greek-speakers (sometimes in slightly adapted forms), with no explanation added (“Amen”, “Alleluia”, “Hosanna”). Every other less common Aramaic word or form I can find in the NT adds an expression like “which is to say” or “which means” (e.g., the name Golgotha, and Jesus’ utterances “Ephphatha!” and “Talitha qumi” [in Mark]). “Abba” never appears alone nor with an explanatory bridge, but in all three NT uses (Mk 14, Rom 8, Gal 4) we read “Abba ho pater” (appropriately translated “Abba, Father” since the second expression is in the language of the base text). I suppose it may be an abbreviated explanatory form though why such is only used in this instance is not at all clear.

        Again, the Greek form means exactly the same as the Aramaic (it is not something “more formal”). My best guess is that the writers are emphasizing that the Greek-speakers (esp non-Jews) are able to approach and speak/pray to God on the very same terms as Jewish beleivers, and side-by-side with their Jewish brothers. This was, of course, a big deal in the early church, which at first thought non-Jewish converts were sort of second-class citizens… at least until God blew that out of the water in Acts 10 (Peter & Cornelius).

        • http://fishedup.wordpress.com Carla Schodde

          Bruce – I agree with you that the Greek means the same as the Aramaic, because they both mean “father” in a general, not child-specific sense. While Ancient Greek has various terms of endearment like “Pappas” and “Paterion”, both meaning Daddy or little father, the ordinary word “Pater” is used here in the NT alongside Abba. It’s the most common word for father used by adult Greek-speakers.

          I also agree that the use of both Aramaic and Greek terms side by side in the NT encourages the gentile readership to identify with God.

  • Tony

    I’ve studied this for sermons before, and I agree in part with what what you say. ‘Daddy’ is certainly not the right word because it’s an overly juvenile translation. However, there is more data that connects ‘abba’ to the language of children than Stanton suggests. Rabbinic literature appears to connect ‘abba’ to ‘child-speak’ (NIDNTT, s.v.) Another question I would have is why Mark and Paul would write ‘Abba, ho pater’ (Abba, Father) if ‘abba’ added nothing to the Greek word for father. It would seems that ‘abba’ in some way added particular content to, or directed the understanding of, the word ‘father.’ The argument that Jesus had no other way to say “Father” would for that reason seem to be beside the point. It appears that Jesus, Mark and Paul found the Aramaic word for father to say father in a better way than the Greek word. My own conclusion is that ‘abba’ emphasizes the intimacy of a child without being childish. ‘Abba’ appears to have been a term of endearment, and a word that could be used by a two year old girl or a forty year old man. We simply don’t have a word which carries that sense in English. Perhaps the solution is what Paul and Mark did – leave it untranslated. The gospel is that you have God as a loving Father. The permitted response (even commanded response if you see ‘abba’ behind ‘Father’ in the Lord’s Prayer ) is that we take hold of that status as child like a child would – with the love and trust of a child to the Father they love.

    • http://textsincontext.wordpress.com Michael Snow

      From NIDNTT re ‘abba becoming the only form that was used:
      …’abba as a form of address to one’s father was no longer restricted to children, but also used by adult sons and daughters. The childish character of the word (“daddy”) thus receded, and ‘abba acquired the warm, familiar ring which we may feel in such an expression as “dear father”.

      • Bruce

        Michael – NIDNTT’s explanation is a bit odd. In fact, there is no reason to argue that the form “Abba” was EVER a form “restricted to children” — an idea built on the false notion that the -a ending was a (child’s) diminutive or affectionate addition (like Dadd-y). But, in fact, the -a is no such thing. It is the standard Aramaic ending for ALL forms of address using a common noun (that is, a vocative form). Hence, in Daniel 2 (the Aramaic section of the book), we read “malka'”, meaning “O king” when Nebuchadnezzar is being addressed. That is, ALL the -a does is indicate that it is a vocative (just as the following Greek “pater” is a vocative form).

  • Jeff

    Sorry, but this article is worthy of little more than an eye roll. If in 1st Century Israel, a child or adult used the word “abba” to refer to his male parent, and the child or adult loved his male parent, then “father” is a bad translation into modern English. “Dad” or “daddy” is a much better translation. Why? Because almost nobody in 2013 refers to his male parent as “father” unless the relationship is distant or strained.

    • Dan

      Jeff, I completely agree.

    • Jeremiah

      unless you are talking to a priest…IMHO

  • david

    I have always thought it was somewhat irreverant to address God the Father as “daddy”. I am quite certain, when we see Him face to face, we won’t be running up to him and yelling “daddy”. Instead, I believe, we will be lilke the 24 elders in Revelation – fallen on our faces before a holy God.

    • Kevin Allard

      Would it be irreverent for God the Son to call God the Father “Daddy”? I don’t think it would and we are in him. I often start my prayers with the phrase “Almighty God, Daddy…” to remind me both that the one I call Daddy is the Father of the universe who has the power to destroy body and soul in hell but also to remind myself that this creator has adopted me as his son in Christ and that he invites me to relate to him as a little child relates to his dad.

      • david


        We are in Christ but we are not Christ. Christ addresses the
        Father as the One and Only Son. There is a distinction there that needs to be maintained.

  • Kevin Allard

    I agree with comments above about not giving enough consideration to how the words are used in English. I never refer to my dad as Father, I call him Dad. So I have often said when I am addressing God, “Almighty God and Heavenly Dad…” However, some adult friends I know refer to their fathers as Daddy and in my experience this tends to be what is used among the “upper” and “upper-middle” classes. When I was in Israel I heard a 5 year old boy shout “Abba” to his dad. I know that there are probably differences between Aramaic and modern Hebrew but it did strike me that Abba is a term used by small children. If there was only one word in Aramaic for both children and adults to refer to their fathers by, I don’t see how one can say that “Abba” doesn’t mean “Daddy”. Surely it means “Daddy” “Dad” and “Father” depending on how it is used in the original text and also depending on how the English words are used by the reader.

  • Brad

    Great comments everyone!

    Aren’t we making a linguistic mistake when we say “Abba” equals or doesn’t equal “Daddy”? I only took a basic linguistics class but the one thing I remember is that words have a semantic range of meaning that is ultimately determined by their contexts.

    I have always found Mark L. Strauss very helpful in this area. He seems to understand how language works.

  • Doug

    Thank you Glenn. Wonderfully helpful.

  • David

    Thanks. I’ve always been disturbed by this translation to “Daddy” or “Papa” – it just never sat right and now I know why.

  • http://thereconciledlife.blogspot.com/ Rob

    My personal experience is that I am richly blessed the more I dialog with my Father in a loving way.

    In my language, today, my dad on earth would consider it a bit impersonal if I referred to him as “Father” in the context of an intimate personal conversation. I love my earthly dad. I refer to him as my loving father when I speak of him to others, and even then sometimes I refer to him as “dad”, because it signifies the unique intimacy of the relationship we share. I believe that dad’s and son’s have shared this type of intimacy in all time. Using the word “Dad” is meaningful to me, especially as my faith becomes more child-like. The letters d-a-d or f-a-t-h-e-r do not assign the meaning to the relationship. It is the song around those sounds that assign the meaning, imo. This has been my super and natural experience with my Father in Heaven, whom I often refer to as “Dad”. I love him.

  • John

    FWIW – I have a friend who is a native-born Israeli and Orthodox Jew (so, no Christian overtones or theology in his thinking).

    When his 5 year old daughter wanted to interrupt our Skype calls, she called him “Abba.”

    • http://textsincontext.wordpress.com Michael Snow

      Which helps makes the point of the article. It was the only term available. She would still call him ‘Abba’ as an adult.

  • Bruce

    Much of the comment entirely misses the point. And the article itself does not quite touch on one of the main reasons preachers & Bible teachers tend to MIS-understand “Abba” as a diminutive form or term of endearment. It is, in fact, quite simply the ARAMAIC vocative form, that is, the grammatical form used to directly address someone. It is characterized by the addition of the suffix -a’ to the root form (in this case, “Ab” father). Precisely the same construction is found in Daniel 2 (in one of the few sections of the OT written in Aramaic rather than Hebrew), when servants of Nebuchadnezzar address him, “O king, live forever…”

    Now most students of biblical languages never study Aramaic, so they are prone to miss its differences from the related Hebrew lanaguage. Hebrew has NO vocative forms — one would simply say “Ab” when addressing one’s father — so “Abba'” may *look* to them like it has a diminuitive ending. This is simply not so (anymore than Daniel 2’s “malka'” is a term of endearment!)

    As for the addition of “Pater” — this is simply the Greek equivalent; also the vocative form. Combining the two may be, in part, an intepretation for the Greek speakers, though I tend to think the phrase also emphasizes the equivalence, that Jew and Gentile alike can, in Christ, address God as their Father (and perhaps also to underline that we are, by grace, enabled to pray to him as JESUS did).

    Much of the discussion above is quite beside the simple and very clear grammatical point. Our understanding of exactly what it means to call God Father is derived from the teaching of many verses, paragraphs and chapters, NOT from one mis-understood Aramaic grammatical form.

    (There is, of course, teaching that encourages us in some ways to approach God as/with faith like little children. But the THIRD place to use “Abba Father [Pater]”, viz., Galatians 4, is emphasizing almost the opposite — that we now come as ‘grown sons’, with the full rights of sons & HEIRS. The latter is a part of the Romans 8 use as well.)

    • http://hamilim.netronix.com Mike Tisdell


      While I do agree with most of your points, I do think that there is more to consider i.e. while the Jewish people clearly did speak Aramaic, many were also somewhat fluent in Hebrew and in Hebrew this is a diminutive form; additionally, it is vocally representative of how the speech of children develops when they first learn to talk. The difficult question to answer is how much did these aspects influence the 1st century Palestinian Jewish understanding of the Aramaic word abba?

      That being said, it is fair to point out that abba is the regular form used in the Peshitta (which probably the closest thing we have to NT Aramaic); the declined form ‘avi’ is also frequently used but av (alone) is never used in the Peshitta. While the claim made in the article, that abba is the only form that could be used, is inaccurate, the most common usage in Aramaic (at least by the time the Peshitta was written) in any context was clearly abba.

    • Matthew Smith

      It is impossible to argue someone into the Kingdom – for it belongs to such as these (Matthew 19:14) … children. A child could care less about eschatology, soteriology, hermeneutics, conjugation, etymology, the finer points of apologetics, the sociocultural makeup of the Holy land and the contemporaneous relationship with the language and it’s evolution based on which nemesis had a thumb firmly held onto the collective heads of the Jewish people at a given time … children respond to love an affection. Children are generally “innocent” and they do not mince words, nor do they parse them. Why do we care. We are instructed to love one another and avoid divisions caused by useless chatter. My child calls me daddy, I still call my own dad daddy, and my dad called his 87 year old father, daddy. Semantics make us feel wise and add air to our puffed up chests and size and girth to our skulls, maybe, but what does it do for the Kingdom and for Christ’s glory?!

      In the patience and love of Christ Jesus!

      Matthew Smith

  • Ben Thorp

    I think that the other thing that hasn’t been mentioned, although it’s come up a bit in the comments, is the kinds of words children use. The reason people of all ages use “Abba” is because it is a word that is easy for a child to use, but retains it’s adult root, whereas “Daddy” is (in most western contexts, but not all, as noted above) regarded as a juvenile derivation. In other places (eg France) “Papa” is very similar – an adult word that is easily spoken by children.

    The other thing is that people often want to append “God” to the phrase, and so use “Daddy God” (or, in the case of one of my friends, “Papa God”) because “Dad God” sounds weird, and they think “Father God” is too formal.

    Personally, despite the debates of Father vs Dad, I think the article has hit the nail on the head. All too often we settle for a weird “cultural myth” than a rigourous reading of the Scriptures, and this is one of those times. (Don’t get me started on phile and agape in John’s gospel….)

    • Matthew Smith

      May I ask, would you seek to save the lost or repel them? Let’s listen to Paul in his first letter to Timothy…

      1st Timothy 1:5-7 But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. For some men, straying from these things, have turned aside to fruitless discussion, wanting to be teachers of the Law, even though they do not understand either what they are saying or the matters about which they make confident assertions.

      1st Timothy 6:20-21 O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you, avoiding worldly and empty chatter and the opposing arguments of what is falsely called “knowledge” which some have professed and thus gone astray from the faith. Grace be with you.

      If one is not endanger of condemnation by violating the essentials, grace is always to be the go to response – not fruitless bickering over supposition.

      In the patience and love of Christ.

      Matt Smith

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  • Jacob

    My grandmother and mother both addressed my grandfather as ‘Daddy’ up until he passed away in his eighties. It never seemed juvenile when they said it but more spoke to the endearing nature of their relationship. That is my personal experience with the word. I think regardless of the translation we would be comfortable calling Father God ‘Daddy’ if we had a relationship as intimate as Jesus and Father God’s… Just a thought.

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  • Paul Hull

    So according to James Barr, “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 ceremonious language. . . . ” I think this is saying that the term abba is a form that a child or family member would use. But he then goes on to say that is isn’t THAT informal. Really?

    It seems to me the argument is over shades of pink. A child can use abba, but it isn’t a childish expression? It is not formal, but it’s sort of formal? If an adult child uses it, it means father, but if a child uses it it’s kind of formal but not really really formal?

    Here we are arguing over the written account of a verbal exchange between Jesus and the Great I Am and we want to argue whether his address was formal or informal? Please folks, was it not Jesus who said in John 14:10-11 “I am in the Father and the Father is in Me…”? There is no more intimate relationship in all the created universe. Was Jesus address in the garden personal and intimate? Of course it was. Is that personal and intimate use of the word abba the only way it can be used? Of course not.

    When my son was two he contracted pneumonia. To confirm the diagnosis he had to be xrayed by standing naked in a plexiglass tube with his arms extended over his head. I had to leave the room and as I went around the corner with the technician two heart wrenching words followed me. “Daddy! Daddy!” No tears. No screaming. Just two words from a child in extremis to his father. Words that communicated desperation, fear, separation and longing into four syllables. Should we argue over whether his words were formal or informal? Should we argue over whether he could call me daddy when I am on the verge of death? Should we…

    Oh, what is the use. Christianity will forever will be fractured and weak for as long as we attack and devour one another over things like this. It could start with trying to understand what the other person is trying to express. It could continue with loving teaching about being careful with over using the words and understanding of other uninspired humans. It could go to looking for the good in others. It could continue with curbing our own appetites for devouring the others who are supposed to be in our faith community.

    Will it?

    • Bruce

      “Attack and devour each other” -??
      I’m sorry if you think that is what is happening here. I believe, on the contrary, that people are working hard to try to determine what Scripture actually TEACHES us. I see no mean-spiritedness, but rather a serious effort to be faithful to the Word so that we all might understand it better. And I would hope we would WANT others to challenge us, to point out how they are interepreting debated matters and where they believe we have misunderstood or overlooked something, rather than taking offense where none is intended.

      As for the specific matter debated here, again, there is much room for discussion of what the complete Scripture teaching about our relationship to our heavenly Father is. But as we seek to sort that out, ought we not begin by making sure our translations are correct, that we are not, for example, making a simple grammatical error and making entire arguments *based* on that error? That is what Glenn sees here — and I agree (see above). The *grammatical* form is a vocative [form used to address someone] NOT a diminutive.

  • Paul Hull

    Thanks Bruce,

    My comments were not directed at the commentors. I believe in rigorous fact checking. I distrust every glurgy story that comes across the internet or across the airwaves of christian radio. I strive to my utmost to accurately delivery the word of God to God’s people.

    My comments were primarily directed at the experts, so called, who were being quoted in the post. They did not agree with each other and, especially in the case of James Barr, offered only contradictory reasoning. Did Joachim Jeremias go one bridge too far? I think so. Abba cannot be confined to the ‘chatter of a child’, but neither does it exclude this interpretation. On the other hand it cannot be confined to a formal interpretation. The only mistake that Jeremias made was trying to confine the word to a partial meaning.

    To address your points, certainly it is vocative. That is the central point of what I said above. But trying to capture the nuances of spoken words in written form leaves the reader with gaps of understanding that will never be filled. I too want to be challenged to get it right, and I appreciate your desire for the same. I just think there are other, more glaring examples of misinterpretation, or misapplication, that could be addressed to the greater good of all. For my taste it was just too much like the old arguments about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.

  • Ross

    Just continue to use Abba today in our prayers. problem solved.

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  • Matthew Smith

    I think a lot of legalistic energy is wasted here on semantics and a Pharisaical slap on the wrist to those who mean daddy when calling God, Abba. I for one – at the ripe old age of 40 – still call my mother Momma and my father Daddy and when I speak to our Father, I do not approach Him in an Oliver Twist-ish “I’m sorry kind sir, that you have had to hear my voice, your lorsdhip, but could I please have a lil’-bit-o-chocolate” kind of way. This is about as graceful as demanding that we spell His titles as “L-rd” or “G-d”. When a child is wounded, or hungry, or in need of help from their father – when the chips are down and they are in deep anguish … they do not call out father!, they scream for their daddy.

    If we must parse words, then why this anomaly – When Christ said (John 2:16) “and to those who were selling the doves He said, “Take these things away; stop making **My Father’s** house a place of business.” ….. and every other time He says “My Father” the words _ ἐγώ or egō & πατήρ or patēr = EGO PATER/My Father _ are used, but there is a compulsion to add Abba to Pater for these specific moments of great intimacy. Abba – a form of the Hebrew Ab – found over and over again in David’s songs and prayers – are used as a term of endearment not a stoic title.

    This is grace – leave them alone, those who love their heavenly Father and speak to Him earnestly in faith and when they say Abba, they mean Daddy. One, if you say carrot but mean daddy, God knows – two, lets not find yet another reason to divide the body again. If we have love one for another, THIS is how the world will know we are His. In the patience and love of Christ.

    Matthew Smith

  • http://hamilim.netronix.com Mike Tisdell

    As I noted above, I think the scholars quoted in this article got this one wrong but I believe it is unfair to say that “a lot of legalistic energy [was] wasted here on semantics.” The author of this article and the scholars he quoted were only seeking to better understand the text of Scripture and that is never wasted energy. And while I do not agree with their conclusion, their argument isn’t without merit. While I am far more inclined to agree with your conclusions than with the conclusions of the scholars cited in this article, I think the condemnation of their work here is far more representative of wasted legalistic energy than anything that they wrote. I personally am very thankful for the work of scholars who seek to understand every minor nuance in Scripture because most of the time their work aids in our understanding of Scripture (even when their conclusions are wrong).

  • Matthew Smith

    I’m sorry you find this condemning – rather, my intention is one of edification, to exalt the grace of God and to lift up those who may now feel like they are being called ignorant for thinking they are saying daddy when using the term, Abba.

    I stand by my post, though. I find it repulsive – or rather repelling – and not edifying at all to presume to the be the final word – one that assumes ultimate authority and on it’s face, has an almost belittling air – that can only be supposition at best, since the writers were not contemporaries of 1st millennium Hebrew nation and can only speak to the facts as they interpret them.

    Yes, we are to be as the Bereans, and with regard to the essentials, immovable and even calling out error. However, if the Bible isn’t self interpretive of the phrase “Abba” in either direction, being dogmatic can only be problematic and may seem offensive to a weaker brother or sister. These are those I seek to shelter from what could be perceived as a holier than thou attitude. Again, the Gospel is so simple a child could understand, I am uncomfortable with telling a child (literal or spiritual) they are not saying Father correctly, or that they are foolish to believe Abba means daddy. While this article doesn’t explicitly say that, neither does it explicitly say the opposite.

    I realize I am beating a dead horse here, but I want to be clear – I am not condemning the study for the means of theological debate (I actually enjoy arguing a point at times, myself) – I am, however, cautioning that a tone of criticism of the Abba/Daddy belief was what was coming across during my read, and heavily, and that little to no thought was expended on giving assurance to the baby Christian that our Father cares not one wit what words we use to call on Him, He just want’s us to call on Him, regardless … and I would seek to be a Son of Encouragement, not seemingly a critic of spirituality.

  • Lou G.

    From Vines

    Abba is an Aramaic word, found in Mar 14:36; Rom 8:15 and Gal 4:6. In the Gemara (a Rabbinical commentary on the Mishna, the traditional teaching of the Jews) it is stated that slaves were forbidden to address the head of the family by this title. It approximates to a personal name, in contrast to “Father,” with which it is always joined in the NT. This is probably due to the fact that, abba having practically become a proper name, Greek-speaking Jews added the Greek word pater, “father,” from the language they used. “Abba” is the word framed by the lips of infants, and betokens unreasoning trust; “father” expresses an intelligent apprehension of the relationship. The two together express the love and intelligent confidence of the child.

    Essentially, it’s considered more like “daddy” because it’s considered more of an “infantile” word that’s used. Children called their fathers abba. However, adults used the Greek word pater for “father”.

    • Bruce


      If this is what Vine’s actually says it misses a key GRAMMATICAL point (as, unfortunately, do many of these discussions). To reiterate my original point the root is “Ab”, and the -a ending is simply the standard marker in Aramaic for a form of address (vocative). It can be used for ANY common noun. Thus it IS used in Daniel 2’s Aramaic section when addressing Nebuchadnezzar — malka’ = “O king” — which is certainly NOT a form “framed by infants”. How the specific word Abba was used within the culture is a fair issue to explore, but the origin of the grammatical form itself is not really subject to debate. (And I continue to believe the “Daddy” explanation is accepted by many with seminary training because they studied Hebrew but NOT any Aramaic, so are not aware of this grammatical form.)

      • http://hamilim.netronix.com Mike Tisdell


        I believe the reason that so many with seminary training accept the “daddy” explanation is not because they don’t know Aramaic but because there is more to consider than just the Aramaic grammatical arguments. The way in which ‘abba’ was used in the culture (despite the question of Aramaic grammar) are also important to consider as we weigh in on this issue. If the vines article is accurate in its reference to the Gemara (I would love to see the reference) then it would add a little more strength to the cultural argument (although it is a little too late of a text to give more than hints to an earlier understanding). I personally think that the scholars who have rejected the ‘daddy’ understanding have ignored the cultural usage arguments and focused entirely on Aramaic grammar. Failing to recognize how a word is used in its cultural context often causes misunderstandings. Understanding Aramaic grammar helps one recognize that the semantic range of meaning of ‘abba’ is broader than just “daddy” but it doesn’t alone eliminate that aspect of its meaning.
        A similar misunderstanding can be seen in the popular teaching about the Greek ‘hamartia’ meaning only ‘to miss the mark.’ Those who have proposed this explanation have failed to consider how the Aramaic/Greek speaking Jews understood this Greek word or how it is used in the LXX and have instead based their entire argument only on the usage found in classical Greek literature. Such an understanding fails to grasp the moral aspects of sin that would have been understood by the Jewish culture that had written these texts.

        • Bruce


          No disrespect to pastors (and I’ve had a few whom I very much love and respect who stated that the FORM was a child’s form and meant “Daddy”), but I cannot recall EVER seeing a pastor or teacher make this claim in a church with any suggestion that they were basing it on (or even knew of) some more extensive studies of the culture and “how the word was used” (which, again, I accept as a legitimate part of the conversation). You are also assuming pastors generally DO know their Aramaic grammar, and that this is a vocative form. In fact, I’ve never heard a single pastor or Bible teacher making this claim who remotely suggested they even knew Aramaic HAD a vocative form. Very few will have add any seminary coursework in biblical Aramaic. (Again, I understand why this is, since there is so very little of the Bible IN Aramaic, so much less pressing need to study the language.) But any adequate discussion of this Aramaic word term MUST include an awareness of the basic grammar, even if there is more to then be considered.

          As for hamartia – no disagreement with you there. “Missing the mark” is most definitely inadequate and I am a VERY big proponent of pastors appreciating LXX (and Hellenistic) Greek… and the BIBLICAL/OT roots of much NT language.

          • http://hamilim.netronix.com Mike Tisdell


            I personally have never met a pastor who knew Aramaic. Very few of the pastors I know have more than a passing knowledge of Hebrew or Greek and most who have studied these languages have not kept up their studies and could not read the Hebrew or Greek texts of the bible.

            That being said, there are sources i.e. good bible commentaries that do deal with some of these issues and many of those commentaries are written by scholars who do understand these issues. So, while I would agree that the average pastor probably doesn’t understand all of the issues involved in this debate, their opinions are often not baseless.

            BTW – That passage from Dan. 2 is my favorite example to use when showing the the differences between Hebrew and Aramaic because of the switch from Hebrew to Aramaic mid sentence. And it is also a good place to show how context is needed to understand the difference between a vocative noun and a definite noun because the very next verse uses the exact same form as a definite noun i.e. ענה מלכא ואמר. In most contexts, the forms אבא or מלכא will be definite and not vocative.

            The Aramaic in this passage is also one of the stronger arguments against the idea that the Hebrew text reflects a letter emendation.

  • http://johnbotkin.net John Botkin

    It seems to me that so many comments here miss the point because of two false assumptions. First, they assume that what we do in modern culture is what was reality in the ancient world. Second, they assume that there is always a one-to-one correlation in vocabulary across languages.

    There is a reason for maintaining Father as the best translation, as Barr indicates. Even if it seems overly formal to some of us today, it much closer to the original abba of Jesus’ day. It’s possible to maintain respect in an address without losing intimacy. Moreover, just because we’ve been saying “Father” to God for 2000 years, you must remember how revolutionary that would have been for the early disciples.

    • http://hamilim.netronix.com Mike Tisdell

      John Botkin,

      I think you have missed the point. The question deals entirely with what was understood in the Jewish culture of the ANE. The issue is whether Abba (אבא) was understood as the formal “father” or the more casual “daddy.” In Hebrew, this exact form is always casual but in “proper” Aramaic it is formal i.e. the Hebrew equivalent of האב which is also formal. The difficulty is knowing exactly what was intended by the Aramaic speaking Jewish people of Palestine. The Jewish people of 1st century Palestine were fairly literate in both Aramaic and Hebrew (which are very similar languages) and borrowed heavily from their Jewish/Hebrew culture (as is common in most Jewish communities even today). Even in non-Hebrew speaking Jewish cultures “abba” has often been used as a word for “daddy.” This has been a common feature in almost every Jewish culture throughout the ages and must be part of the discussion when considering what the author meant. Looking only at how a non-Jewish Aramaic speaking person would understand this word form would be a mistake and it is that mistake that appears to be the bases for the arguments against the causal understanding of this form.

  • John Botkin

    Mike, from your reply I’m not sure how we’re disagreeing or saying much of anything different. Maybe you missed the point of my comment?


  • patty

    Why would Jesus (or anyone) say Abba Father if the meaning is father father? Why wouldn’t you just say father father or abba abba? To me, there must be a distinction between the two words or Jesus wouldn’t have used them together. I am over 50 and still call my dad daddy….because of who he is and what he represents in my life…not because I’m childish. (Okay…maybe I am at times, but that’s another discussion.)

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  • Amber McCoy

    I am pleased to see this addressed. As a “daddy’s girl” I understand the intimate implication they are trying to make, but I also find my God deserving the title “Father” out of reverent respect.
    I also think people miss the cultural difference it made at Jesus’ time by calling His God, “Father.” Setting aside the fact that God is and was His Father, calling your god “Father” was ground breaking at that time. I think that is why the disciples asked how they should pray. They recognized that Jesus’ God was far more intimate than any other, and thus Jesus replies, “Pray like this, ‘Our Father.'”