“Abba” is the English transliteration of an Aramaic word (אַבָא), forms of which were used in late portions of the Old Testament (Dan. 2:23; 5:2,11,13,18; Ezra 4:15; 5:12) and in three passages in the New Testament (Mark 14:36; Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6). The Aramaic word is pronounced “ab-ah” (ab as in abs), but in English it most often is pronounced “ah-bah” from its Greek equivalent ( ͗αββά), which was derived from the Aramaic. The root word is shared in a broad range of Semitic languages, and the Hebrew word for “father” (אׇב) is among those. The plural forms of the word often are translated “fathers” or “ancestors.”
Biblical interpreters often have emphasized that Abba was the appellation applied to the father in the intimacy of the family circle. New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias popularized this idea after witnessing a child in the Holy Land running to greet his father while crying out “Abba, Abba.” Earlier scholars like Dalman and Lietzmann had previously explored the term. In English, Jeremias’ idea often is illustrated by contrasting the formal title “Father” (πατήρ in Greek) with the more intimate “Daddy.” While the family connection certainly is true, the idea of Abba implying a special kind of intimacy may be somewhat overblown. The usages in Daniel 5 and Ezra certainly show a formal application of the term in the Babylonian court.
Some early Greek-speaking Christians borrowed the Aramaic term and carried it over into their cult language as a vocative used in prayer. This is popularly understood to have been derived from the actual term Jesus commonly used in praying to God, a conclusion based solely on a single example in Mark 14:36. In Mark’s account, Jesus, engaged in anguished prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, began his prayer, “Abba Father” ( ͗αββά ò πατήρ). Since Mark generally is recognized as the oldest Gospel, this certainly is a significant appellation. Somewhat troubling, however, is the fact that Matthew and Luke (who are widely assumed to have drawn upon Mark’s Gospel) do not follow Mark’s use of ͗αββά in their Gethsemane accounts but instead employ πατήρ μου (“my father” in Matt.26:39) and πατήρ (“father” without a possessive pronoun in Luke 22:41). In addition, the model prayer that Jesus taught his disciples to pray used the more common Greek word for “father” (πάτερ, Matt. 6:9 with the possessive “our” and Luke 11:2 again without a possessive pronoun). Standing alone, this evidence might support an understanding of Jesus’ personal intimacy with God; but does it justify a similar intimacy for those of us who are Jesus’ disciples?
(To be continued)