What Does ‘Abba’ Really Mean?

When I’m in Jerusalem, I love watching gaggles of Jewish children walking alongside their fathers. And when I hear them call their daddy, my heart melts.

“Abba! Abba!” 

At times I’m sure it sounds a lot like when my kids were little and needed my attention, calling out my second name incessantly until I responded: “Mom! Mom! Mom! Mooommm!”

But Abba? It’s different. 

Origins of abba

Of Aramaic origin (seen in Dan 5:2, 11, 13, 18), abba parallels the Hebrew word av from where abba, or “father,” is derived.1 

Some scholars consider it to be a colloquial term of familiarity that a young child would have used, similar to how American children use “papa” or “daddy.” Joachim Jeremias, a German Lutheran theologian, held that abba is a “children’s word used in everyday talk” and that it expressed the heart of Jesus’ relationship to God. He writes: “[Jesus] spoke to God as a child to its father: confidently and securely, and yet at the same time reverently and obediently.”2

But is that the meaning of abba?

Abba in the New Testament

The term “abba” is only found in the New Testament three times—in Mark 14:36, Romans 8:15, and Galatians 4:6—and is used only by Jesus and Paul. In each instance, abba is transliterated into Greek and accompanied by the Greek translation of “father,” ho patēr.3

Paul’s use

Paul used abba ho patēr when discussing the believer’s status as “sons” or “children” of God in Romans 8:15 and Galatians 4:6:

  • Paul links the use of abba ho patēr to the reception of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God indwelling the believer: “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” (Rom 8:9).4
  • For Paul, then, the presence of the Spirit of God’s Son functions as proof of the believer’s adoption into God’s family and enables him to “call out ‘Abba Father’” (Gal 4:6–7 NLT).5

In these verses, abba ho patēr is thus a term of familial intimacy—and one Paul says we can claim as believers. 

what does abba mean blog post

Jesus’ use

In Mark 14:36, just before his arrest, Jesus begins his prayer in Gethsemane with both “Abba” and “Patēr,” or “Abba, Father.”6 

Jesus also used the word patēr, and in an intimate way, when addressing his Father in heaven in John 17:  

Father (Patēr), the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. (v. 1) 

When teaching his disciples how to pray in Matthew 6:9–13, Jesus addressed God as “our Father” (Patēr hēmōn, Matt 6:9; see also Luke 11:2) and called his disciples to do the same.7 

But in the second part of Matthew 6:9, Jesus also stressed a level of holiness: “hallowed be your name” (see also Luke 11:2).

There’s a sacredness in calling God Abba Father, a reminder of who we are addressing—the holy Lord of all.

And it seems some scholars agree.

What does abba really mean?

In his essay “Abba Isn’t Daddy” in the Journal of Theological Studies, James Barr writes:

If the New Testament writers had been conscious of the nuance of ‘Daddy’ they could easily have expressed themselves so; but in fact, they were well aware that the nuance is not that of ‘Daddy’ but of ‘Father’.” . . . [T]he semantics of abba itself [based on various evidences] all agree in supporting the nuance ‘Father’ than the nuance ‘Daddy’.”8

It is fair to say that abba in Jesus’ time belonged to a familiar or colloquial register of language, as distinct from more formal and ceremonious language. . . . it was not a childish expression comparable with ‘Daddy’: it was a more solemn, responsible, adult address to a father.9

Michael S. Heiser writes:

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.10

And Darrell Bock adds:

Believers may address God with the endearing term (Abba) because he is “our Father,” yet (we) should never use this term in the spirit of unsavory familiarity but with the full acknowledgment of his majesty.11

Though abba is a term associated with intimacy and relationship, to address God as “papa” or “daddy” reduces his glory. God our Father is also Master of the universe, Creator of all things, Revealer of mysteries, and Judge of every hidden thing.12 He is “the Lord, the Most High, is to be feared, a great king over all the earth” (Psa 47:2). 

When children call their father’s “Abba” in twenty-first-century Jerusalem, it does indeed mean “daddy,” or “papa.” And that it’s the same Aramaic word Jesus and Paul used 2,000 years ago when addressing God the Father makes me pause.

But we don’t need ‘abba’ to mean ‘daddy’ for the words to be marvelous on our lips. That the sovereign Lord of the universe would make us his children and allow us to call him by an intimate, familial name is astounding. It is better that ‘abba’ holds the intimacy of our adoption alongside the holiness of God. We don’t want a Father like our fathers.

We want a perfect Father who is high and lifted up.

what does abba mean blog post

  1.  Lexham Bible Dictionary. The usage of the term in these passages aligns with the common use of the Hebrew term for “father” (אָב, av) in reference to an ancestor, forebear, or predecessor.
  2. Joachim Jeremias. New Testament Theology. (SCM Press LTD, 1971), 67.

  3. John D. Barry, et al. Lexham Bible Dictionary, “Abba.” (Bellingham, WA), 2016.

  4. Martinus C. de Boer. Galatians: A Commentary. Louisville, Ky : Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, 60.
  5. Martinus C. de Boer, 265
  6. John D. Barry, et al. Lexham Bible Dictionary,
  7. Joseph Grassi in his article “Abba, Father (Mark 14:36) offers another approach. He examines the meaning of abba within the context of Mark 14:32–42 and relates this passage to the story of the sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22 to demonstrate that abba as used by Jesus in the Mark passage has the special meaning of an address from a devoted, obedient son. Despite his horror and anguish before the prospect of an imminent sacrificial death, Isaac calls to Abraham his abba and, as a faithful son, obeys the voice of God speaking through his father. Parallel to this, Jesus says Abba to God in the same way that Isaac does to Abraham. Journal of the American Academy of Religion 1982, Vol. 50 (3), pp: 449–458.
  8. James Barr, “Abba Isn’t Daddy” Journal of Theological Studies, vol. 39 no. 1, (1988), 38.

  9. James Barr, 46.
  10. Michael Heiser, 13 May 2013, https://drmsh.com/abba-daddy/, accessed 11 June 2020.
  11. Darrell Bock, Bible Knowledge Word Study—Acts through Ephesians. (David C Cook, 2006), p. 179
  12. https://www.hebrew4christians.com/Names_of_G-d/Father/father.html, accessed 17 June 2020

Comments

  1. Pastor Ron McCracken says

    Is ‘abba’ the sole term for ‘father’ in Aramaic? No one here gives us any other, more formal Aramaic term. If ‘abba’ means ‘daddy’, surely there would also be a more formal Aramaic term for ‘father’.
    Otherwise, why would Jesus say ‘Abba, Father’? Use of the two words in English leads me to believe that ‘Abba’ does indeed mean ‘Daddy’ as distinct from ‘Father’ which follows. No?
    Do Israeli children use only ‘abba’ for both ‘daddy’ and ‘father’ today? That may be a helpful indicator.

    • Karen Engle says

      Hi Ron,

      Thanks for your post. I checked in with my friend in Israel who teaches Hebrew, and she affirmed that children use only “Abba” when referring to their fathers. It’s a term of affection.

      Karen from Faithlife

  2. Ben Schmidt says

    My question is, since Jesus did speak Aramaic and not greek: Which title did He use in fact ? Maybe he only used “Abba” and not “Pater”, while Mark added “Pater” as explanation to “Abba”? Could this be possible?

    Blessings,
    Ben

    • Karen Engle says

      Hi Ben,
      Though the only example of the Aramaic term “Abba” transliterated into Greek in any Gospel is Mark 14:36), I would say your point is possible.
      Karen

  3. Dennis Dean says

    Years ago, my congregation was comprised of numerous Arab Christians.
    Visiting in their homes, I was fascinated and educated to hear their diapered toddlers try to get their father’s attention with “Ab” or “Abba”. The only familiarity or intimacy that passed from infant to father, at that age, was instinctual and did not arise out of mature understanding. I submit that the use of ‘abba’ among older children is merely a cultural colloquialism.
    In Jesus’ use of both terms, He likely gives us to understand our relationship to God as Father does not depend on maturity. He is our Heavenly Father from the moment of our new birth.