So here are the facts: there are two words for “father” used in the New Testament. The first is the word, pater (which is similar to the Latin) and the other is the word, abba. The idea as usually preached is that pater is a formal address (“My most honored father”) while abba is a very familiar address (“Daddy, my knee has a boo-boo!”). The message is that certainly we can address God with respect and honor, but we can also address him as “Daddy” who cares deeply for us. Therefore, according to this idea, the overriding message of the Bible is that there are two ways of relating to God, as father or daddy.
So I fired up my Bible software and turned on my Greek language Thinking Cap. And I prepared myself for slogging through all the occurrences of “Abba” in the New Testament. So I performed the appropriate word search. Here’s what I found:
- Uses of the word, pater: 167 (one hundred sixty seven).
- Uses of the word, abba: 3 (three: Mk 14:36; Rm 8:15; Ga 4:6).
Unfortunately, I actually read my Bible. Again, my seminary professor’s words rang in my ear: “Don’t read the Bible!! It’s a dangerous book and will mess up your theology!” And this from a Systematic Theology professor. Of course, he was being mercilessly ironic by saying that. In fact, his clear point (and now I say the same thing) is that you *must* read what the Bible actually says. And when the clear teaching of the Bible conflicts with your theological notions, your notions must yield.
So here’s the reality: Jesus overwhelmingly refers to God as pater (father) and only once as abba.
Opps. Hear the sound of a hundred sermons based on the point that Jesus “constantly addressed the Almighty, … as ‘Abba’” going down the giant dustbin of bad exegesis.
So. Hmmmm. That’s not good.
Now one thing that an educated man is supposed to learn is ignorance. That is, I learn more so I can learn how much I don’t know. When I studied both Greek and Hebrew in seminary, I learned that I really don’t know very much about those languages. So I went to a real expert in Biblical languages and asked him about the abba and pater difference. Here’s what he told me.
The idea that pater and abba somehow signal two different kinds of relationship with a father is false. The two words come from two different languages and mean the same thing. Exactly the same thing. Pater means father in Greek and abba means father in Aramaic. Aramaic was the day-to-day language spoken by people in the Middle East and likely the language that Jesus spoke most of the time. Greek children who had a cuddly relationship with their daddies could call him pater. Middle Easter children of that time who were in a strained relationship with their father could call him, Abba.
Now there is a particular gramatic form that abba communicates and that is the Vocative. For you non-grammarians out there, the Vocative form is used by some languages as a form of address. Examples might be: “Father – look out!” or “Daddy, can you come here?” or “Old Man, who do you think you’re kidding?” – the idea in the Vocative is that you are trying to get the attention of the person you’re addressing by using their name or title. And when you look at the usage of abba in the New Testament, that’s exactly how the word is used – as a form of address.
Now the question is why would Jesus and Paul use Aramaic in those three instances? Notice this: in each of those instances, they also use the Greek word (abba ho pater is translated, “Abba, father”). When Jesus uses the word, it may be that Mark is attempting to communicate that Jesus’ feelings were so authentic that he used the language of his youth. When Paul uses the word, it may be to make a connection to a mixed audience of Greek and Aramaic speakers.
Maybe some of you language experts out there can help me out. What do you think?