Q&R with Brad Jersak: Abba vs. Father?

Question

I have a question that is as much prompted by the timid and anxious heart of a recovering Evangelical as it is by the analytical rigor of a developing theologian.

If I understand you right, In your books A More Christlike God, A More Christlike Way and IN: Incarnation & Inclusion, Abba & Lamb, you argue the uniqueness of Jesus is to reveal Abba — Daddy. I want to believe that. However, as you know better than me, the word Ἀββά only appears three times in the NT: twice where Paul is talking about adoption (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6); and only once on the lips of Jesus, in Gethsemane (Mark 14:36).

On the plus side, all three actually say “Ἀββά ὁ πατήρ”, implying their equivalence. However, the remaining references (I counted 268 — see below) to God as “Father” all use πατήρ alone. Significantly, this includes all the prayers of Jesus (Matthew 11:25, 26; 26:39, 42; Mark 14:36; Luke 10:21(x2); 22:42; 23:34, 46; John 11:41; 12:27, 28; 14:16; 17:1, 5, 11, 21, 24, 25) and all his instructions to us about prayer (Matthew 6:6(x2), 8, 9, 14, 15; 7:11; 18:19; Mark 11:25; Luke 11:2, 13; John 14:13; 15:16; 16:23, 26).

Also, much of your case is built on John who, while he uses πατήρ more than any other NT author, he never uses the word Ἀββά. It was also interesting to me that, apart from twice on the lips of Jesus at the very beginning, and once in Peter’s Pentecost address, even πατήρ is absent from the book of Acts.

Now, I know word studies can be dangerous. I also know that theology is not just a matter of statistics. That Jesus would use Ἀββά in his darkest moment in the earliest Gospel is significant. That Paul sees it is work of the Spirit — the only Person of the Godhead who is immanent to us — to reassure us about Ἀββά is significant. I’m not contesting for a moment that the overwhelming testimony of the NT is that, in Christ, God is revealed as Father (…and Son and Spirit for that matter!), especially in John’s writings. Nor am I suggesting that this is not, in and of itself, a progression in revelation about relational, indeed familial, intimacy with God.

Nevertheless, 3 instances of Ἀββά versus 268 instances of πατήρ does not yet convince my heart that the NT overwhelmingly reveals God as Ἀββά, and that, by implication, where I see πατήρ I can read Ἀββά. What would you say to someone like me?

Peace

Response

Thanks for this important question.

The whole thing deflates dramatically when we realize that Christ almost certainly always preached in Aramaic, especially given his culture and audience. We know this because, in books such as Mark, the author will occasionally use the Aramaic term that the character used and then translates it into Greek for his readers. So in that case, the Greek pater is simply the best dynamic equivalent for the Aramaic Abba. And although the NT primarily uses pater to translate Jesus’ Abba, those few times when Abba is used serve to remind us that for Jesus, pater IS Abba.

A second point: I do not necessarily believe that the best English translation for Abba is Daddy. Abba is the only Aramaic term for Father. It’s not something that a child would exclusively say or some diminutive. But it IS used in a personal and intimate way, even of direct address (as in Gethsemane or in Romans 8), so it does help if the English equivalent in normal language reflects that.

So I might speak to others about “my father,” but in addressing my dad directly, “Father” would come across more formal and less intimate than it seems Abba would, which if I must translate it, might say Dad. But to capture both the intimacy and the honor of Abba, I do prefer Paul Young’s Papa.

I personally chose not to translate it because I figured, “whatever it means, I’ll go with Jesus’ immediate name” rather than the Greek or English translations of it…not that I am uncomfortable with either.
But in the end, it is not the word itself that delivers us that sense of both honour and intimacy. It is how Christ himself used it.

The intimacy we see in his High Priestly prayer is for Christ what Abba/Father evokes … in contract to the more generic sense of ‘o theos. Christ is revealing a God who is more personal and far more immanent than what humanity had previously conceived. Abba/pater indicates how God relates to us–as a parent to beloved sons and daughters… not merely creatures or subjects or servants. The One who does not simply reign on high from the heavens but has come to make his home in our hearts … whose temple we are.

I hope this makes some sense. But again, bottom line: the Greek pater is simply the closest translation for the Aramaic Abba, and whatever difference there would have been in nuance across languages was a non-issue for the NT authors. It is Christ’s relationship with the Father, not the word he used, that demonstrates the new revelation of intimacy.

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