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Pater may be Daddy

October 30, 2013

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.
– Mary Rose D’Angelo

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.
– James Barr

Barr rightly points out that in contrast to Aramaic or Hebrew “words somewhat similar in nuance and usage to our ‘Daddy’ did exist in Greek….” This does not show, however that abba was fully equivalent to the Greek ‘father’; since in Aramaic abba was not in contrast to another word [meaning ‘daddy’] and [in Greek] pater was, their value was necessarily different.
– Anna Wierzbicka

The following statement in the Talmud was often used to support this view [that Abba may be Daddy]:

An infant cannot say “father” (abba) and “mother” (imma) until it has tasted of wheat [i.e., until it is weaned]. (b. Ber. 40a; b. Sanh. 70b; Tg. Isa. 8:4.)

…. While it is true that children would address their father as abba, it is also true that grown children would address their father as abba…. It is true that little children called their father abba, but these were the normal words of the language and they were “correct and grammatical adult Aramaic.” The early church and the writers of the NT demonstrate this understanding of the term in that they do not translate abba as “Daddy” but as “Father.” If they thought it meant “Daddy,” they could easily have revealed this by translating the term by the diminutive term patridion (“Daddy”). They never did this, however. They instead used patēr (“Father”). Thus it is best to understand abba as a reference by young or old to their “Father.”
– Robert H. Stein

This blogpost starts in by quoting the Mamas and the Papas of “Exactly How the N-T and the Early-Church Writers Literally Translate Abba into Greek as Meaning Only ‘Father’ (and NOT at all as daddy).”

Well, that’s not true is it?

To be sure, I have not quoted Moms and Dads but have used for my epigraphs for this blogpost only exact quotations by the literal mothers and the literal fathers of the semantics of the Aramaic phrase אבא and its Greek equivalent αββα. Ha ha, you my dear readers may respond. And, yes, I’m attempting to be funny. It is humorous how we can play with our language(s). It’s laughable to say that someone, or even something [like the semantics of a phrase], has more than one mother and more than one father, since, as we all know it literally takes one and only one father and one and only one mother to have babies. Ha ha, again.

But, of course, we’re now even using “literal” in a metaphorical sense.

And at no point so far in this post has our English really ever pointed to a literal, or shall we say a “biological,” mother or father.

This is some the point.

We get all hung up on what αββα in the Greek gospel of Mark isn’t. “Abba isn’t Daddy,” we say and we hear over and over. It is really only just simply merely Father, like adults would use for their address to their fathers. “Jesus really said αββα,” we hear the scholars declare. It’s clearly obviously indisputably in what Wierzbicka agrees is one of “the sayings widely regarded by reputable scholars as preserving Jesus’ ipsissima vox and ipsissima verba.” To put that in the words of some of those scholars, “If Jesus could not speak Greek, we [Members of the Jesus Seminar] must conclude that his exact words have been lost forever, with the exception of terms like ‘Abba,’ the Aramaic term for ‘Father,’ which Jesus used to address God…. The Fellows agreed that Jesus used the term ‘Abba’ (Aramaic for ‘Father’) to address God. To this term they gave a rare red designation.” The scholars writing using the English alphabet (for ‘Abba’) reading the gospel writer using the Greek alphabet (for αββα) all use the Greek appositive, or “translation,” ὁ πατήρ, to say what Jesus really meant. And Paul too. His extant letters, full of fragments though they might be, copyist revisions and the like, nonetheless maintain not one but two “Αββα, ὁ πατήρ” – s. This is a lot of scholarly weight. Especially when the scholars know exactly how the Greek works. Know the Greek, know the Aramaic that the Greek surely translates. It’s “Father.” “Abba isn’t Daddy.” Since Father, in Greek, isn’t Daddy. We know “babytalk” form; and this ain’t that. Wierzbicka, whose book What Did Jesus Mean?, explicates “The meaning and significance of the word abba,” says definitively that “it certainly did not mean ‘daddy’ and — unlike pápa [in French], papá [in Russian], babbo [in Italian], and tato [in Polish] — was not specifically a children’s word…. Barr rightly points out that in contrast to Aramaic or Hebrew ‘words somewhat similar in nuance and usage to our “Daddy” [in English] did exist in Greek….’ This does not show, however that abba was fully equivalent to the Greek ‘father’; since in Aramaic abba was not in contrast to another word [meaning ‘daddy’] and [in Greek] pater was, their value was necessarily different.” Paul didn’t write Αββα ὦ πατρίδιον to his pals in Rome. Paul didn’t use Αββα ὦ παππία with his intimate buddies in Galatia. Mark’s Greek gospel fails to quote Jesus ipsissima vox or ipsissima verba as saying Αββα πάππαν. And therefore, case closed: “Abba isn’t Daddy.” Are we hung up on this yet?

Yes, and yet. Two problems with getting so hung up on this.


“father” and “père” and “otéc” and “padre” and “ojciec” do not necessarily and always indicate some strictly-spoken more-formal-than-baby-talk adult-talk for the male parent. The range of meanings of the Hebrew phrase אב, especially for G-d in the Bible, is vast. And to use this language is sort of anthropomorphic. It’s definitely a word that applies, in human terms, to animals and humans, to creatures created (or species evolved) and that are sexual and that are spawning offspring. How is it a name for the Creator? How is it a description of Deity? As soon as it’s applied to “him,” then it is no longer “literal.” And so if Jesus is calling God “Father,” and if Paul is writing only “Father” when using “Abba” for God, then already the meaning has shifted from the literal meaning of “father.” The use of such a term, in any language, is never literal when applied to God. It is always metaphorical. And translational.

Which brings us to Two.


the Greek terms for father/daddy that the Bible scholars I’ve quoted here say are always and only different terms (adult-talk / baby-talk) may indeed be variants of the same term.

Little Greek children did indeed say ὁ πατὴρ as theirbabytalk.” And adults, acting like babies, called their dads by these variants:

ὁ πατὴρ

ὦ πάτερ ὦ πάτερ
ὦ πάτερ
ὦ παππία
ὦ πάτερ πάτερ

ὦ πατρίδιον

And the “early church,” despite what Stein would insist, did see themselves as approaching God as little children.

Clement of Alexandria, for example, writes in his Protrepticus:

Ἡ δὲ ἐκ πολλῶν ἕνωσις ἐκ πολυφωνίας καὶ διασπορᾶς ἁρμονίαν λαβοῦσα θεϊκὴν μία γίνεται συμφωνία, ἑνὶ χορηγῷ καὶ διδασκάλῳ τῷ λόγῳ ἑπομένη, ἐπ’ αὐτὴν τὴν ἀλήθειαν ἀναπαυομένη, «Ἀββᾶ» λέγουσα «ὁ πατήρ»· ταύτην ὁ θεὸς τὴν φωνὴν τὴν ἀληθινὴν ἀσπάζεται παρὰ τῶν αὑτοῦ παίδων πρώτην καρπούμενος.

The union of many in one, issuing in the production of divine harmony out of a medley of sounds and division, becomes one symphony following one choir-leader and teacher, the Word, reaching and resting in the same truth, and crying Abba, Father. This, the true utterance of His children, God accepts with gracious welcome-the first-fruits He receives from them.

Pater may indeed be Daddy. And if so then what might Abba be?

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