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Abba may be Daddy

October 29, 2013

“Abba Isn’t ‘Daddy'” said the late James Barr, scholar.

“Abba Isn’t Daddy” repeats Steve Caruso, Aramaic translator, even on his more scholarly Aramaic Designs About Page.

He quotes Mary Rose D’Angelo, who’s said:

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.

Which sounds like what Barr’s said:


“The myth survives” nonetheless, says Caruso. And still lots of pastors and Bible bloggers and scholars have rather conclusively concluded that “Abba Isn’t Daddy.”

I’d like to contend something else. Mark the Greek gospel writer may just be making his Jesus sound like little girls in Greek. And Paul writing to Galatians in Greek and even to Greek readers (not Latin) in Rome could have been just a little more aware of the plays of Aristophanes than it seems Professor Barr was.

Let’s not belabor this too much. Here’s the girly Greek in Peace, one of the other plays by Aristophanes, starting at line 110:

Οἰκέτης Α

ἰοὺ ἰοὺ ἰού:
ὦ παιδί᾽ ὁ πατὴρ ἀπολιπὼν ἀπέρχεται
ὑμᾶς ἐρήμους ἐς τὸν οὐρανὸν λάθρᾳ.
ἀλλ᾽ ἀντιβολεῖτε τὸν πατέρ ὦ κακοδαίμονα.


ὦ πάτερ ὦ πάτερ ἆρ᾽ ἔτυμός γε
δώμασιν ἡμετέροις φάτις ἥκει,
ὡς σὺ μετ᾽ ὀρνίθων προλιρὼν ἐμὲ
ἐς κόρακας βαδιεῖ μεταμώνιος;
ἔστι τι τῶνδ᾽ ἐτύμως; εἴπ᾽ ὦ πάτερ, εἴ τι φιλεῖς με.


δοξάσαι ἔστι κόραι, τὸ δ᾽ ἐτήτυμον ἄχθομαι ὑμῖν,
ἡνίκ᾽ ἂν αἰτίζητ᾽ ἄρτον πάππαν με καλοῦσαι,
ἔνδον δ᾽ ἀργυρίου μηδὲ ψακὰς ᾖ πάνυ πάμπαν.
ἢν δ᾽ ἐγὼ εὖ πράξας ἔλθω πάλιν, ἕξετ᾽ ἐν ὥρᾳ
κολλύραν μεγάλην καὶ κόνδυλον ὄψον ἐρ᾽ αὐτῇ.


καὶ τίς πόρος σοι τῆς ὁδοῦ γενήσεται;
ναῦς μὲν γὰρ οὐκ ἄξει σε ταύτην τὴν ὁδόν.


πτηνὸς πορεύσει πῶλος: οὐ ναυσθλώσομαι.


τίς δ᾽ ἡ ‘πίνοιά σοὐστὶν ὥστε κάνθαρον
ζεύξαντ᾽ ἐλαύνειν ἐς θεοὺς ὦ παππία;


ἐν τοῖσιν Αἰσώπου λόγοις ἐξηυρέθη
130μόνος πετεινῶν ἐς θεοὺς ἀφιγμένος.


ἄπιστον εἶπας μῦθον ὦ πάτερ πάτερ,
ὅπως κάκοσμον ζῷον ἦλθεν ἐς θεούς.

Now, read any good English language translation. Here’s a recent one by George Theodoridis:

Slave 2: (To the children, desperately)
Dear me, dear, dear, dear me! Children, your father is abandoning you, see? He’s secretly flying off, high into the sky. Beg him, please not to do that! Plead with him, please. Beg the idiot not to leave you here to us, all alone.

Daughter 1:
Daddy, daddy, is it true? Is it true you’re going to leave us here while you go flying off with the birds -is it true you’re leaving us to these  cocks here? (Indicating the slaves) Is it true, really and truly?  If you love me tell me father, is it true?

It’s true, daughters, but don’t make me angry, now, you two!  You always give me this “daddy” talk when you need something, a piece of bread or something even if there’s no money in the house -not even a whiff of it anywhere.  But look, if -no, when I succeed in this and in due time I return, I’ll give you a huge roll… stuffed full with my knuckles.

But how will you do this, daddy? There are no ships going that way!

No need for ships. I have saddled up this little winged stallion, here.

But what on Earth possessed you to put a saddle on a dung beetle’s back and fly of to the gods, daddy?

Because, my darlings, Aesop tells us that it’s the only winged animal that ever managed to go to the gods.

But that’s a myth, daddy! No one believes that! No one believes that such a terrible animal ever went to the gods!

Perhaps in comments, I’ll eventually include some of the other translators’ translations. What ought to be clear from this play and its wordplay is that Greek listeners and readers hear and see synonymous phrases:

ὁ πατὴρ
ὦ πάτερ ὦ πάτερ
ὦ πάτερ
ὦ παππία
ὦ πάτερ πάτερ

It’s the little girl who gets the fact that her daddy is following a myth. It’s the playwright and his audience who’s let in on this fact, let in on the plenty funny and profuse proliferation of the P sound with the letter PI. Nobody mistakes this pappa for some distant formal father despite where he plans to go, no matter how he plans to abandon his children. The intimacy is rather undeniable. And so how may we respond, then, to the scholars of “abba”?

17 Comments leave one →
  1. October 29, 2013 8:54 am

    I have always found this whole discussion irritating. Our words for our parents obviously come from infancy. MA (with a few variations) is the word for mother, nearly universally; change the bilabial nasal into a bilabial stop and you get AB or BA or PA or DA, the words for father. But these are still the first articulations of the human mouth, and they are found in nearly every culture on the face of the earth. By the same token, when the primary syllable is doubled, it becomes the familiar, the diminutive, the intimate: mommy, mama, dada, daddy, papa, papi, ima, abba, nana, tanti, etc.

    Translators from one language may see “mama” and translate it “mother,” but that doesn’t mean it’s a good translation. It’s an adequate translation, but not a precise one. Looking at the Greek translation of a primal Hebrew word that has been in continual use for countless millennia won’t be the final word on what it really means; instead, we need look no further than our own babies, no matter what language they are taught to speak or in what culture they’re raised.

  2. October 29, 2013 9:49 am

    I don’t follow your argument. Is it because someone has translated what is literally “O father” in Greek as “Daddy” in their English translation, and that Greek phrase is what Paul offers as an equivalent of abba? If so, then it seems that the evidence actually makes the opposite point. Clearly the word pater does not always mean what “daddy” does in English. And so in the same way, the suggestion that abba means that in Aramaic is likewise problematic. It may appear in some contexts where, in English, we would use daddy. But that is a different matter.

    Ab is the word for father in Hebrew and Aramaic. Abba is the noun in the definite state, which Aramaic has but Hebrew does not, using instead a definite article prefixed to words. It is not baby talk, it isn’t diminutive, it isn’t particularly familiar or anything else. It is simply the word for “the father.”

  3. October 29, 2013 9:58 am

    Yes, it’s a very good point about the universal and basic / baby linguistics here. It’s interesting how the /m/ voiced nasal bilabial sound is that that we all make when as infants we nurse from our mother’s breasts. The /d/ and /p/ and /t/ and /th/ more often in the father words of various languages are sounds that are arguably a bit more distant (at least in the Gestalt psychological sense of relational field and ground by “points of articulation” in the mouth, the mother sounds in relational contrast to the father sounds). And yet the vowel sound /a/ is typical and common for both parents; the tongue is as low in the center of the mouth as possible, the sound we also make as adults when visiting physicians who want to look in and down our throats. Despite the claims, “abba” is a basic set of sounds for our most intimate caretakers.

    Craig, You do a wonderful thing with your translation of the Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament, including “Abba” as a term for G-d throughout. Thank you for that and for your comment here:

  4. October 29, 2013 10:02 am

    This seems to be confusing origin with meaning. Presumably “ma” and “pa” originated this way, but that doesn’t mean that “pater” is equivalent of “daddy,” does it?

  5. October 29, 2013 10:04 am

    No, but it doesn’t mean that pater is a good translation for abba, either. Perhaps they should have translated it tata instead.

  6. October 29, 2013 10:08 am

    Given the fact that abba is simply the emphatic state of ab, and not a diminutive form, and that Paul considered it equivalent as someone in that time in history who likely knew both languages, what makes you think that it isn’t a good translation?

  7. October 29, 2013 10:15 am

    Is it because someone has translated what is literally “O father” in Greek as “Daddy” in their English translation

    James, Fair question. And I for now only just have a couple of minutes to respond, and only to the first part. Later, I’ll get into the English translation issues. At the moment, my main contention is that James Barr didn’t know all of the Greek he needs to know. He and the rest of us would be hard pressed to distinguish the registers (i.e., levels of hierarchy and formality and distance) in the various father/daddy words in this brief passage in Peace. I just don’t like this conclusive conclusion that fails to account for all of the evidence in the Hellene. And then also there’s what Craig observes in Language in general, where Abba has found its way into Hebrew and into Greek and into English. The evidence in Greek and in universal spoken communication suggests that “Abba may be Daddy.” (I believe one first step in opening up this conversation a bit is not to say that our English – or even their Greek – is “literally ‘O father’ in Greek.” Which of these phrases is “literally” ‘O father’?
    ὁ πατὴρ
    ὦ πάτερ ὦ πάτερ
    ὦ πάτερ
    ὦ παππία
    ὦ πάτερ πάτερ)

  8. October 29, 2013 10:23 am

    Well, I think the question is complicated by the fact that in modern English we would never say “Oh, father” except to express exasperation. 🙂

    But this isn’t about Greek, ultimately. Abba is the emphatic state of ab. It is not a diminutive form. It is simply the word for “father.” I don’t think there is any ambiguity in the evidence. Those who previously claimed otherwise did so based on an inadequate knowledge of Aramaic, or perhaps the influence of modern Hebrew, which doesn’t have the emphatic state and in which abba does indeed function as “daddy.”

  9. October 29, 2013 10:31 am

    But this isn’t about Greek, ultimately.

    Except that D’Angelo and Barr and Caruso rely on their understanding of Greek, however limited, to interpret the Greek transliterated Aramaic. I think it is some about translation, and as Craig says, about universal communications, and I’ll try to show that later when more time.

  10. jamesbradfordpate permalink
    October 29, 2013 12:12 pm

    Reblogged this on James’ Ramblings.

  11. October 29, 2013 6:23 pm

    Many thanks for the reblog on James’ Ramblings, James Pate!

    James McGrath,
    Thanks again for your comments. The three NT instances of αββα (Greek-lettered Aramaic we all understand) are in each case followed by ὁ πατήρ.

    While you might want to assume that the Aramaic אבא “is the emphatic state … is not a diminutive form … [and] is simply the word for ‘father’,” I’m not sure you can conclude that so conclusively, not in the NT Greek contexts.

    I am sure that Barr and D’Angelo over step when they conclusively conclude something similar about the Greek alone. Respectively, let’s repeat what they say:

    The Greek word used in the New Testament is always the normal adult word πατήρ [pater] and never a diminutive or a word particularly belonging to the speech of children.


    There are Greek diminutives of father (e.g., παππας [pappas]), and the community chose not to use them.

    Well, Aristophanes’s Παιδίον [Paidon] or “Little Girl [Daughter]” in his play, clearly not an adult, uses the very word that Barr says adults never say. And she uses the diminutives too. And she uses the words quite synonymously in a very very short context. And the two males conversing with her in this short context clearly understand her words to all mean something like “Oh Daddy” and not some formal and distant cool reserved fearful far-off “Oh Father.”

    I may have to take another full post to show how the English translators, several of them, all agree on reading this way. The context of the play does not make such interpretation difficult.

    So when we see Αββα ὁ πατήρ in Mark’s gospel and in Paul’s two epistles, and when we understand the Greek also to indicate sometimes the language of a child (which Barr declared with certainty that it could not be, even though he looked at some other Aristophanes), well, then, what are we to conclude so conclusively?

    I think we have to allow that Barr and after him D’Angelo have not considered how the Greeks used their Greek.

    Craig, my co-blogger, also wants us to consider how we in most languages use consonants [and vowel sounds] to signify intimacy with mama and with papa.

    Can we also consider how we use appositives? I’m looking at the NT thrice-used Greek and notice a bi-lingual appositive; and we could punctuate:

    Αββα, ὁ πατήρ

    This reminds me of what English-language (Greek-translator) poet Anne Carson has done with some of our English. In her brilliant poem “The Life of Towns” (which shows up in pring again in the 2013 Best of the Best American Poetry: 25th Anniversary Edition (The Best of the Best)) she uses the appositive to great effect. She starts in this way:

    Towns are the illusion that things hang together somehow, my pear, your winter.

    After a few lines of showing what scholars do when they (when we) read things so very differently, Carson, the poet, brings in these lines:

    I am not being trivial. Your separateness could kill you unless I take it form you as a sickness.
    What if you get stranded in the town where pears and winter are variants for one another? Can you eat winter?
    No. Can you live six months inside a frozen pear? Now. But there is a place, I know the place, where you will
    stand and see pear and winter side by side as walls stand by silence. Can you punctuate yourself as silence?

    What I’m trying to suggest is that the three NT uses of Αββα, ὁ πατήρ are not so much a show of a “good” (vs. a “bad”) translation of transliterated Aramaic by some Greek equivalent. Rather, I’m hoping to suggest that the way we humans use our nouns, in apposition, allows us to make meanings side by side. There’s what Mikhail Epstein calls the stereo effect (“stereopoetry” and “stereo text” and “stereo prose”), or translingualism, or interlation, as different somewhat from translation.

    If pear, winter can be in English poetry a meaning maker, then what? What if ὁ πατήρ really is, as Aristophanes’ audiences understood, the language of a little girl for her papa? What if that very little-girl’s phrase is highlighting what Mark’s Jesus cries to his papa and what Paul writes of his papa? What if the NT is “the town where Αββα and ὁ πατήρ are variants for one another”? 🙂

  12. October 29, 2013 6:28 pm

    It isn’t an assumption. It is what the Aramaic is.

    Whatever the Greek rendering happens to be, I am not persuaded that a judgment based on how English speakers today use “father” and “daddy” is a basis for judging the connotations of ancient Greek.

    But the question of the Aramaic is a matter of Aramaic language, and cannot be settled except in terms of knowledge of that language.

  13. October 29, 2013 6:49 pm

    It isn’t an assumption. It is what the Aramaic is.

    And I guess your “logic” is what in English we call begging the question.

  14. October 29, 2013 7:00 pm

    No. This is a matter of language and linguistics. Saying abba means daddy is like saying tatal in Romanian means daddy. It simply does not, and when someone suggests otherwise, it doesn’t indicate a genuine linguistic issue, it indicates that the person making the assertion has little or no knowledge of the language about which they are making the assertion.

  15. October 29, 2013 7:04 pm

    That’s the barking of linguistic dogmatism. Abba absolutely may not mean Daddy?

  16. October 29, 2013 7:06 pm

    It absolutely is not limited to the range of meaning of the English word “daddy” nor does it share that word’s specific nuances. But like all words for a male parent, it overlaps in at least some instances with the English word “daddy” as does the English word “father.”

  17. October 30, 2013 6:45 pm

    James McGrath,
    As we begin to share some agreement, I move the discussion a bit more:

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