Who’s Your Daddy?

One often hears over the pulpit (both LDS and non) that Jesus referred to God the Father in Mark 14:36 (cf. Gal. 4:6 and Romans 8: 15) with the word Abba, which is taken to be a familial diminutive and thus having the connotation of something like “daddy, papa.” I remember that when I first heard this idea, it appealed to me. It had a certain plausibility; the word for “father” in Hebrew/Aramaic is Ab (pronounced Av), and it is common enough to form a diminutive by an added syllable (as in papa itself). Indeed, abba in modern Hebrew is used as a familial diminutive. And I liked the idea of the possible intimacy suggested by the posited nuance to the word.

It’s a cool idea. Unfortunately, it is pretty unlikely. In each of its three appearances in the NT, it is rendered by the Greek ho patEr, lit. “the father,” and not the vocative pater, suggesting that the NT writers saw it as a determinative form: ‘abba’. Such determinative forms are frequently used in Aramaic and Hebrew when a vocative is required. Thus, the form is a determinative “the father,” which is used in the place of a vocative in direct address “O father.”


See the article “Abba” in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, and an article with a great title: J. Barr, “‘Abba’ Isn’t ‘Daddy’,” Journal of Theological Studies 39 (1988): 28-47.


  1. Too bad. Similarly, I love reading some passages in the Book of Mormon in Spanish because “tu” (rather than “usted”) strikes English-native readers as being unusually familiar. My favorite is at the end of Enoch, where Enoch envisions the Lord saying “Come unto me, ye blessed.” In spanish it reads “Ven a mi, tu, que bendito eres…” which sound to me like “C’mere you; bless your heart…”

    I know I’m reading a certain affect into the text that is the result of translation, but it nonetheless seems meaningful to me.

  2. A Jewish friend of mine calls his parents Ima and Abba. I think it’s sweet.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Yes, Ima is the modern Hebrew familial diminutive of Um, “mother.” So this is something like mommy and daddy, or mama and papa. It is indeed sweet.

  4. Wait, I’m confused. In the Mark instance the text says “And he said, Abba, Father.” Wasn’t Abba always a part of the text, a lone Hebrew/Aramaic word in the middle of the Greek? I can understand if the Greek for Father ho patEr was an explanatory translation of Abba for Greek readers, but does that change the nature and connotation of Abba purely?

  5. Proud Daughter of Eve says:

    Or the Greeks of the time, who seem to have muddied the waters in general anyway, didn’t like the idea of God being referred to in such a familiar way and changed it in their texts.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    The Greek ho patEr isn’t explicitly a translation, but the most likely reading is that it is implicitly a translation of the Aramaic abba for Greek readers. If so, that shows how the writers of the NT who used the word understood it. There is more evidence on this usage from later talmudic literature, on which see the ABD article.

  7. Kevin, you say the “daddy, papa” meaning is “cool” but “unlikely.”

    A certain Yale Ph.D. (one who is also authorized to represent Him who said it) seems to think the “daddy, papa” meaning is dead-on:

    “In that most burdensome moment of all human history, with blood appearing at every pore and an anguished cry upon His lips, Christ sought Him whom He had always sought—His Father.  ‘ Abba,’  He cried,  ‘ Papa,’  or from the lips of a younger child, ‘ Daddy.’  (Mark 14:36.)” (Jeffrey R. Holland, Ensign, May 1999, p. 14.)

    I’d tell you about the spiritual confirmation I felt, deep down inside of me, when I heard that general conference talk, but I realize that my own feelings probably don’t count for much in this venue.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Well, I like the sentiment, as I have expressed, so I’m not inclined to complain too loudly when someone expresses it, over the pulpit or otherwise.

    But I’m not sure I follow why Elder Holland’s expression of this sentiment is somehow privileged. Do you mean to suggest that he studied the ancient Aramaic expression Abba and drew this conclusion? Or that he received a revelation that Abba is indeed a child’s diminutive for papa?

    More likely, he simply picked up this idea from secondary sources (just do a google search on something like “abba aramaic daddy” and you’ll see it is all over the place) and assumed it was accurate without any sort of independent or authoritative stamp of apostolic approval being intended.

  9. Kevin, I’m missing something. What is the difference in meaning between Abba and Ab, and why would Jesus have used Abba rather than Ab?

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    Mark 14:36 reads as follows in the KJV:


    nd he said, Abba, Father, all things [are] possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt.

    The Greek has abba ho patEr. Presumably, the ho patEr is meant to be a translation of the Aramaic abba for Greek speakers. The Greek translation does not use a diminutive form of the Greek word for “father.” It does use a definite article, ho, which has led scholars to see abba as a determinative form of ab. In Hebrew and Aramaic, such determinative forms were often used for what in other languages would be represented by a vocative.

    Therefore, the nuance is not one of familial intimacy, as in “Daddy, all things are possible with you, take this cup from me.” Rather, the nuance is that of a vocative, which suggests a direct, plaintive appeal: “O Father! All things are possible with you, take this cup from me.”

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    For another example of a determinative Aramaic form being translated into Greek with a definite article and thus standing for a vocative, consider Mark 5:41, which in the RSV reads:

    Taking her by the hand he said to her, “Talitha cumi”; which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.”

    The “Talitha” is a Greek transliteration of Aramaic talyeta’, and it is translated into Greek with the article: to kurasion. So the sense is something like “O little girl! Stand up!.”

  12. Thanks. I’m a bit dense. I realize now that I should have read your original post more closely.

    I find it interesting that the Abba=Daddy idea is used by James Charlesworth in his article “From the Philopedia of Jesus to the Misopedia of the Acts of Thomas” (By Study and Also by Faith, vol. 1 [1990]) (citing Jeremias) and Andrew Skinner in his book Gethsemane (2002).

  13. Kevin Barney says:

    You can still find it in even some scholarly literature. It is a very pervasive idea out there.

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    BTW, Justin, I’m a big fan of the Wasp. You do a great job with that site.

  15. Kevin, this seems to be a rather literalist reading of “Abba, Father”. While frankly, I don’t care one way or another, I don’t really see this as a definitive argumnet these “scholars” are making, and could see it just as easily, if not better argued the other way. And is there some modern english equivilant to this Oh Father or Oh Little Girl. As people don’t speak like that, I have a hard time understanding the significance.

  16. Kevin (in #8), please reread D&C 50:21-22.

    Unfortunately, the context of this discussion doesn’t allow me to say anything more about what was communicated by the Spirit of truth through Elder Holland on the morning of Saturday, April 3, 1999. As I said above (in #7), in this setting my feelings probably don’t count for much.

    I will say, however, that today Elder Holland conducted a significant portion of the worldwide leadership training broadcast and it was once again my privilege to feel the depth and power of his testimony.

  17. Gary,
    Be careful. That sounds an awful like you are saying that if we all had the spirit we would agree with you. Them’s fightin’ words.

  18. Kevin Barney says:

    R. Gary, I certainly have no wish to challenge your spiritual experience. I’m glad that works for you. Of course, such an experience is nontransferable and therefore nonbinding on me.

    Matt W., you say the scholarly argument is overly literalistic, but what is the argument the other way? You’ve got three NT passages that give abba in transliteration, each time interpreted by the people on the ground at that time and place with the arthrous (IE articular) Greek ho patEr. So that is our most important evidence of what the word meant to them. Why is it more likely that the word is a diminutive? What is the case for that position?

    An additional class of evidence for the more formal reading is that abba is found in Mishnaic Hebrew or Targumic Aramaic with the meaning “father” or “my father” of grown up sons. One example, cited by Geza Vermes, is Judah’s threat to his unrecognized brother, Joseph, in the Tg. Neof. version of Gen. 44:18: “I swear by the life of the head of abba, as you swear by the life of the head of Pharaoh your master….” The meaning of words is determined by context, and contextually abba here must mean “my father,” not “daddy.”

  19. R. Gary, I think your experience (though not your interpretation) is emblematic of what I consider the sacred artifact model of scripture. These exegetical narratives, whether true or false, serve to channel our minds and spirits in a way that gives us access to higher truths. In the end, though, they are like any other artifact (eg seerstones), primarily a means to an end. I think it’s appropriate to relate that you had a revelation in the setting of Elder Holland’s sermon, but I think you set yourself up for heavy disappointment (and a form of idolatry) if you maintain that this experience requires that you understand it as an exegesis that is verily true. Better to believe that God is an intimate parent because you have received that revelation than to require the Textus Receptus and its sources to agree with you.

  20. I, like Kevin, have also analyzed this and studied the literature on it. Kevin, of course, cannot possibly discuss all the evidence in favor of the viewpoint that Abba does not mean “daddy.” I have Barr’s article, and several others I have collected, and their extensive analysis really does show that Abba doesn’t mean “daddy.” It was used by J. Jeremias, and after an extensive disucssion with other scholars, Jeremias changed his mind about that particular interpretation of the word “daddy.” Just so ya know…….

    This, of course, does nothing against me believing that our Father in Heaven is just that, our Father…… in Heaven.


  21. Kevin,
    This is off-topic entirely but I don’t know where else to ask the question. I’m curious about your career path and your decision not to become an academic. You have an immense capacity of knowledge and learning, and many of us readers are grateful for your continuing willingness to share it so generously.
    For the benefit of younger LDS scholars deciding on career paths, would you mind sharing–perhaps in a separate post??–what led you to take the path of the part-time (but still prolific and influential) scholar? thanks in advance!

  22. “[…you will be] to Him like a firstborn son and He will feel for you as a man does for his only child…”
    – The Secret of the Way Things Are 4Q416 Frag. 2 2.13

    “Many early Jews tended to conceive of God as distant, visiting humanity only through intermediaries such as angels, as we know from studying the Pseudepigrapha and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Jesus perceived that God himself was very near, and that he was directly concerned about each person, even (perhaps especially) sinners.”
    – James H. Charlesworth, Jesus Within Judaism

    “…The Aramaic invocation Abba (‘my own dear Father’) occurs on the lips of Jesus only once in all four Gospels, yet many critics ascribe it on other grounds to the historical Jesus.”
    – John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew – Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Vol. 1.

    “Abba, Father,’ he said, ‘everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.'”
    – Mark 14:36

    “…It is clear that Jesus chose one particular Aramaic noun to articulate his conception of God. Jesus refers to God by the word ‘Abba’, which is a determinative Aramaic noun, ‘the Father’. It is employed frequently as a vocative form, meaning ‘O Father’, and, since the pronominal suffix is often omitted in colloquial speech, it also means ‘my father’. Occasionally in Jerusalem I hear children call their fathers with the sounds ‘Abba, Abba’, which is, of course, Hebrew for ‘Daddy’.”
    “Jesus’ unique use of ‘abba’ (Aram.) for God builds upon the Jewish custom to call God ‘abinu ‘ (Heb.) , ‘our father’. God is invoked as ‘Our father’ in a version of the second benediction before the Shema in the morning synagogal service, namely the Ahabah Rabbah. This prayer can be dated with some probability in form and content, but not exact wording, to pre-70 Palestinian Jewish liturgical settings.”
    – James H. Charlesworth, Jesus Within Judaism

    “Our Father (abinu), merciful Father, thou who are ever compassionate, have pity on us and inspire us to understand and discern, to perceive, learn and teach, to observe, do, and fulfill gladly all the teachings of thy Torah.”
    – Ahabah Rabbah

    “.. For Jesus to address God so directly as ‘Father’ does not necessarily mean he claimed to be his divine son in the Christian sense. Rather it was a form of address often used by the Jewish holy man, the nabi, the hasid or indeed anyone who felt he could enter into a direct dialogue with God.”
    – Ian Wilson, Jesus, The Evidence

    The first time Godd is addresses as Abba in rabinnical literature occurs in the Talmudic account of Honi, the Circle Drawer.

    “Thus he says to him, Father [Abba] take me to bathe in warm water [and he does], wash me in cold water [and he does], give me nuts, almonds, peaches, and pomegranates and he gives them unto him.”
    – Babylonian Talmud, Taanith 23a

    “‘Abba’ as a way of addressing God was certainly used by the grandson of Honi the Circle Drawer.”
    – Ian Wilson, Jesus, The Evidence

    “A. Hana ha-Hehba was the son of the daughter of Honi the Circle-Drawer. When the world was in need of rain, the Rabbis would send him school children and they would take hold of the hem of his garment and say to him, Father, Father [Abba, Abba], give us rain.
    B. Thereupon he would plead with the Holy One, Blessed be He, [thus], Master of the Universe, do it for the sake of these who are unable to distinguish between the Father [Abba] who gives rain and the father [abba] who does not.”
    – Babylonian Talmud, Taanith 23b

    “That is also the second and final time that God is addressed as ‘Abba’ in rabbinical literature. Both cases are in the context of miracle workers and their imperious, childlike control of the divine power.”
    – John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus, The Life of a Mediterranean Peasant (1991)

  23. Cory Crawford says:

    I know this thread is long dead, but I just wanted to put it out there that no one mentioned the fact that in Aramaic, the final ‘a’ (aleph) marks the definite article (Hebrew does this differently, with ha- plus the doubling of the next consonant). Abba, then, would literally mean, as it is glossed in Greek, “the father.”

    The reason this comes to be understood as ‘daddy’ (and I may be contradicted by Barr here, I haven’t had a chance to look at his article) is that in Aramaic personal names are treated differently from other nouns in that the definite article on a personal name indicates familiarity. This is why Jastrow (Dict. of Targumic etc Aramaic) renders ‘abba’, among other things, as “my father” even though there is no pronominal suffix attached. I’m not sure that “daddy” is quite appropriate, since it brings with it all kinds of implications as to who is speaking (a small child) that are not necessarily what the Aramaic conveys, but it’s not a suggestion that comes out of nowhere. (Not to speak of the fact that this may have been simply conventional–when one speaks to his father one says “abba”). I should be clear, too, that Abba is definitely NOT a diminutive in Aramaic.

    The usage in Modern Hebrew of ‘abba’ comes through Aramaic, as did many things in MH.

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