I’ve often heard from well-meaning preachers that the Aramaic word “abba” is equivalent to the English word “daddy,” because it conveys an intimate, child-like relationship when used. So when Jesus prays to the Father, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you” (Mark 14:36), it is assumed that the Son is using intimate language with the Father. Growing up with my second language being Korean, this hit home for me, since the Korean word for “daddy” is “appa” (sounding very similar to the Aramaic “abba”), compared to the Korean word for “father,” “abuhji.” But does Korean have anything to do with Aramaic? And does “daddy” have anything to do with “abba”? Are we just projecting our preconceived ideas into this ancient word?
James Barr, the famous biblical linguist, back in 1988, wrote an article entitled: ” ‘Abba’ Isn’t ‘Daddy’ ” in the Journal of Theological Studies (vol. 39), where he examines the basis of this contention (made popular by Joachim Jeremias), and argues that the evidence in the extant literature suggests that the word “abba” is actually not like our English “daddy,” but simply the word for “father,” used by child and adult alike; and it may very well be either Hebrew or Aramaic. He shows that this “preaching point” is simply based on erroneous assumptions, and that the linguistic evidence suggests that there are actually many possibilities for determining the meaning of “abba,” one of which is likely just a variation of “father.”
In fact, the Greek NT shows three places where this word occurs, and all three instances in collocation with the Greek correlative (αββα ὁ πατήρ; Mark 14:36; Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6). It is simply assumed that “abba” is Aramaic (in an emphatic form), but the more probable explanation is that it is just synonymous to “father,” and Jesus was probably using both words as emphatic (repetition is often used to convey emphasis in Greek).
The lesson to learn is this: don’t read your theological agenda into the text. Don’t make the text say what it does not say, just because it sounds good. Just because a certain “point” aligns with your theology doesn’t mean that’s what that particular text is saying. Yes, I believe we must have child-like faith and depend on God as a child does to his “daddy,” but that’s from other texts like Matt 18:4, not Mark 14:36. We honor God through his Word by properly interpreting his Word, rather than reading our own theological agenda into it. That’s how we accurately handle Scripture. It takes hard work and critical thinking (and the Spirit’s illumination), but it’s so worth it.
“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15).