Abba Doesn’t Mean ‘Daddy’

Posted By on May 13, 2013

Earlier today I saw something come up in my Twitter account that I appreciated. It was a tweet from New Testament professor Will Varner. The link Will provided led me to this online post at the Gospel Coalition site: “Does Abba Mean ‘Daddy’?” The brief post outlines why the answer is no.

Scholars have actually addressed this issue in academic journals several times, most famously James Barr’s essay in the Journal of Theological Studies (“Abba Isn’t ‘Daddy’,” vol 39, 1988). Barr’s essay isn’t available online, but the one below is, and I recommend it to readers:

Sigve Tonstad, “The Revisionary Potential of ‘Abba! Father!’ in the Letters of Paul,” Andrews University Seminary Studies, Vol. 45, No. 1 (2007): 5-18.

Basically, scholars have demonstrated that (a) the Aramaic term abba was not exclusively used by children, but frequently by adults in adult discourse, and (b) reducing the term to childish (though affectionate) prattle guts it of important interpretive nuances. Tonstad’s article demonstrates this nicely.

Be warned — this is a scholarly article, and so it’s long and can get technical. The “Daddy” discussion is only a page or so at the end (pp. 17-18 of the PDF). And you divine council fans will appreciate that there’s (again) another touchpoint with the divine council worldview in this issue, brought out nicely by Tonstad when he comments on the “elemental rulers” in the essay (though Tonstad doesn’t appear to be thinking about the divine council when he writes — normal for a NT specialist).

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3 Responses to “Abba Doesn’t Mean ‘Daddy’”

  1. Gabe Martini says:

    Great paper, thank you for sharing! I completely agree on this point, and am glad to see it have some scholarly backing as well.

    In the Orthodox Liturgy, our recitation of the Lord’s prayer bears out the implications of Tonstad’s thesis; that is, our calling upon God the Father with intimacy or closeness is what’s so incredible about the whole situation — not some sort of irreverent or immature babbling. As such, our recitation of the prayer is preceded by the priest’s words:

    “And make us worthy, Master, with confidence and without fear of condemnation, to dare call You, the heavenly God, FATHER (Abba), and to say …”

    We are daring to demonstrate our reconciliation with the Father through Christ; daring to show an intimacy that was previously unknown to the people of God (outside of the Paradise of Eden).

    • MSH says:

      good stuff; in divine council worldview terms, in Paul the term amounts to a declaration of new fidelity or “ownership” – we once belonged to the gods (rulers; per Deut 32:8-9, via DSS and LXX) of the world, but now we have been “adopted” into the family of the true God, who is God of all gods.

  2. Jason Cousins says:

    Thanks for posting. I took a New Testament as Literature course with Dr. Gnuse at Loyola University in New Orleans some years ago. I remember a lecture where he made a really big deal as Abba having a connotation closer to “daddy ” instead of the more formal “father”. That distinction has always stuck with me. I am surprised it isn’t true.

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