What did Jesus call his Father? (Think of a Swedish pop band from the ’70s)

January 10, 2010

This is what I get for actually studying the Bible!

If you had asked me what word Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer in 6:9-13 used for “Father” (Luke’s version is found here), I would have sworn Matthew used the Aramaic word “Abba,” a more informal and intimate word, often used by children to address their father. Abba is the English equivalent of Papa (notice how it sounds like it) or even “Daddy.” It turns out that Matthew did not use the Aramaic word (which I found out when I consulted my Greek interlinear Bible); instead, Matthew used the Greek word pater, or Father, just like we say it in church. (It’s slightly disappointing: I could really shake things up in Vinebranch by having us recite the Lord’s Prayer using “Daddy” instead of “Father”! Not that I would do that, of course!)

So what gives? For years I’ve always heard that Jesus called his Father “Abba,” including in the Lord’s Prayer. Where does this come from? Were all the commentators and writers who said this wrong?

No.

That Matthew would use the Greek word for “father” is understandable: Like the other evangelists, he was writing in Greek to a Greek-speaking and Greek-reading audience. Jesus’ native language was Aramaic, a distant relative of Hebrew. Like many of his countrymen, however, he also knew Greek, the default language of the Mediterranean world. When Jesus spoke to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, and perhaps other Gentiles, he likely spoke Greek. But here he’s speaking to his disciples—fellow Galileans whose native language was also Aramaic. Of course he spoke Aramaic to them. Matthew is simply translating Jesus’ words into the nearest Greek equivalent.

We can also infer that Jesus called his Father “Abba” because the evangelist Mark, also writing in Greek, has Jesus praying to “Abba,” untranslated, when Jesus is in the garden of Gethsemene. The Greek word pater, which follows Abba in the text, is Mark’s translation for a non-Jewish audience (c.f., Mark 5:41, where he also translates Jesus’ Aramaic into Greek).

I’m going to explore some of the implications of Jesus’ use of the word in tomorrow’s sermon. Think about the intimacy suggested in calling God, the creator and sustainer of the cosmos, “Daddy.” Now consider that we are invited into this same relationship with God through Christ! How does that change our understanding of who God is? How does that affect how we relate to God?

The apostle Paul understands how radical this new relationship to God is when he writes the following in Romans 8:15-17: “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.”

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