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“Abba:” A fair interpretation or a putdown of the Jews?

Abba, the word for “father” in the Aramaic language appears untranslated in the Greek Scriptures and in most English versions. Some people have tried to make a theological statement based on Jesus’s use of Abba, which appears to have a similarity to a toddler’s expression of intimacy with a father, such as “dada” and “papa”. By using the term, Jesus is supposed to have broken with Jewish tradition that required the use of more formal terms in addressing God. This attempt to show the superiority of Christianity to Judaism is based more on a need to make Christianity unique than on the available evidence.

1. The Hebrew Scriptures provide ample evidence that Jews called on God as “Father.”

2. Aramaic had no formal word for father. If Jesus did follow a Jewish custom in calling God “Father” in the Aramaic language, he had to say “Abba.”

3. Although the gospels in many places report that Jesus called God “Father,” in only one instance do the gospels relate a story in which he uses “Abba,” and that was at a moment when no one could have heard him. He was praying alone in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest and execution.

He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” (Mark 14:36) The Christian fondness for Abba may owe more to St. Paul than to Jesus. Jesus includes the term in at least two letters that most people accept as being genuinely from Paul.

For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ–if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:15-17)

And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” (Galatians 4:6)

Review & Commentary