Does ‘Abba’ mean Daddy?

In many contemporary sermons you hear preachers say, with respect Romans 8:15 for example, that ‘abba’ was the Aramaic word for da da or daddy that is used in the New Testament. Sometimes this is even carried over into prayer meetings and we have people addressing God as ‘dad’ and the like. Is this an accurate reflection of abba language in the New Testament? Probably not.

 

This idea was originally introduced by the prominent scholar J. Jeremias in his New Testament Theology: The Proclamation of Jesus. Jeremias asserted that abba was a vocative form (the Greek case for direct address) and could be traced back to childish babble based upon the way it sounds when pronounced. It latter came to be used by adults as well as a term for daddy, according to Jeremias. This argument is suspect for several reasons, however. First, it draws on a severely outdated and widely rejected understanding of word study which attempts to derive the current meaning of a word (for example, the meaning of a word in the New Testament) on the basis of its history (known now as the etymological fallacy and/or illegitimate totality transfer). Second, making presumptions about the meaning of a word based upon the way it sounds is equally dubious and has no evidence to commend it. As Porter notes, we can not assume that ‘pa’ and ‘ma’ came from childish babble for parents (S.E. Porter, Studies in the Greek New Testament: Theory and Practice, p. 61). Furthermore, the examples of Aramaic that Jeremias uses are far too late to be of any help in shedding light on New Testament occurrences. And when the New Testament does use ‘abba’ it is typically explained with the typical Greek word for father, not with some more intimate term of indearment as is often suggested. These and other criticisms have been developed in detail in J. Barr’s significant article, ‘Abba isn’t Daddy,’ Journal of Theological Studies 39 (1988), pp. 28-47. Yet it is still a major, though inaccurate, part of our Christian vocabulary. The word is better understood as an Aramaic term used in the New Testament, often in connection with other familial words, to emphasize fatherhood.

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4 Responses

  1. Very informative post! I always wondered this too because whenever I actually looked it up it only came back as meaning, “Father.”

    I just like to call Him daddy though haha. :].

  2. You’re answer couldn’t be more convoluted or indirect. What does “abba” mean?

  3. Thanks for your post. I have heard a lot of Christians translate this word as daddy. It has always seemed off to me but I am by no means a scholar when it comes to the old languages.

    You might also be interested to know that when I google “What does the word Abba mean?” your blog comes up at the number one position! Congratulations!

  4. It is in “intimacy” with our God and Savior through relationship and fellowship with Him rather than religion that we can truly call Him, “Daddy”.

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