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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Abba (2)

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ABBA.—An Aramaic word preserved by St. Mark in our Lord’s prayer in Gethsemane (Mark 14:36 Ἀββᾶ ὁ πατήρ, πάντα δυνατά σοι), and given twice in the same association with ὁ πατήρ by St. Paul (Romans 8:15 ἐλάβετε πνεῦμα υἱοθεσίας ἐν ᾧ κράζομεν, Ἀββᾶ ὁ πατήρ; and Galatians 4:6 ἐξαπέστειλεν ὁ Θεὸς τὸ Πνεῦμα τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτοῦ εἰς τὰς καρδίας ἡμῶν κρᾶζον, Ἀββᾶ ὁ πατήρ). A difficulty arises both as to the spelling and the pronunciation of the word Abba, and also as to its being found in all the above passages joined to ὁ πατήρ.

1. Abba (ἁββᾶ) corresponds to the Aramaic אַבְא abbâ, which is the definite state of אַב âbh (construct state אִב abh), and means ‘Father,’ unless it is used for ‘my Father’ (אַבּ֖א for אִבֽי) as in Genesis 19:34 a (Targ. [Note: Targum.] of Onkelos and pseudo-Jonathan; see Dalman, Aramaisch-Neuhebräisches Wörterbuch, s.v., Gramm. p. 162, and Words of Jesus, p. 192 [Dalman says that the suffix of 1 pers. sing. is ‘deliberately avoided with אָב and is supplied by the determinative form’]). It is not, however, quite certain that the word was pronounced abbâ in Palestine in our Lord’s time. As the points were not invented till many centuries after, we cannot be sure that abbâ was then the definite state rather than abhâ as in Syriac; and we have no indication except the Greek transliteration that the b was then doubled. But the fact that, when points were first used (a.d. 700?), the daghesh was employed for the definite state of this word in the Targnmic literature, coupled with the doubling of the Β in the Greek, affords a presumption that the b was hard and doubled in this word at the beginning of our era [Dalman gives for the definite state אַבָּא Genesis 44:19, or בָּא Numbers 25:14, or in Palestinian Targum also אִבָּא; with other pronominal suffixes we have אֲבוּהי etc., and the pl. definite state is אֲבָהָחָא]. The Syriac, on the other hand, has b aspirated throughout, ܐܰܒ abh, ܐܰܒܳܐ abhâ (pron. av, avâ, or aw, awâ), etc., and the distinction between abâ, a spiritual father, and ܐܒܼܐ avâ, a natural father, which the grammarians make, appears not to be founded on any certain basis, nor to agree with the manuscripts (Payne-Smith, Thesaurus Syriacus, s.v.). The proper name ܐܰܒܳܐ also in Syriac has always aspirated b, while Dalman (Wörterbuch) gives for Targumic אַבֽא, and says it is an abbreviation of אֲבִיָה. In Mark 14:36 (Peshitta) Pusey and Gwilliam give ܐܰܒܼܳܐ as in Massora 1 in the British Museum (Codex Additionalis 12138, Nestorianus, a.d. 899); the American edition prints ܐܲܒܵܐ (i.e. with ܒܿ) in all three NT places; but this is rather a following of the grammarians than of good manuscripts. It is very noteworthy, however, that the Harkleian version in the Markan passage spells the word ܐܰܒܒܰܐ, transliterating the Greek directly back into Syriac, rather than using the Syriac word itself.

John Lightfoot (Horae Hebraicae on Mark 14:36) remarks that the Targum, in translating the OT, never renders a ‘civil’ father, i.e. a master, prince, lord, etc., by אַבָא, but only a natural father, or a father who adopts; in the former sense they use some other word. But this throws no light on the pronunciation of Abba.

It is to be noticed that it is not certain how the Greeks of the 1st cent. themselves pronounced ἀββᾶ, whether abbâ or, as the modern Greeks pronounce it, avvâ. The word is not found in the LXX Septuagint. It passed into ecclesiastical Latin with a doubled b, and gave us such words as ‘abbot,’ ‘abbacy,’ etc.

But does it mean ‘Father’ or ‘my Father’? If it be a Jewish formula or fixed manner of beginning prayer, it may well be the latter. We must, however, note that whatever be the way of accounting for Ἀββᾶ ὁ πατήρ (see below), the originators or originator of that phrase in Greek, whether the Jews, or our Lord, or St. Paul, or the Second Evangelist, seem to have taken Ἀββᾶ to mean merely ‘Father.’ And the same is probably true of the translators of the Peshitta. The Sinaitic Syriac, however, appears to read ܐܳܒܼܝܝ my Father (see below). The Curetonian Syriac is wanting here.

2. We have next to account for the association of Ἀββᾶ in its Greek dress with ὁ πατήρ in all the three places where it occurs in NT. In Mark 14:36 the Peshitta reads ܐܰܒܼܳܐ ܐܳܒܼܝܝ ‘Father, my Father,’ and the Sinaitic Syriac has simply ܐܳܒܼܝܝ ‘my Father.’ In Romans 8:15 and Galatians 4:6 the Peshitta reads ܐܰܒܳܐ ܐܰܒܰܘܢ. All these appear to be mere expedients adopted to avoid the awkwardness of repeating ܐܰܒܳܐ, and they do not really throw light on the origin of the Greek phrase.

We may first take as a supposition that our Lord, praying in Gethsemane, used the Aramaic language, and therefore said ‘Abba’ only, and that ὁ πατήρ is the Evangelist’s explanation, for Greek readers, of the Aramaic word. St. Mark undoubtedly reports several Aramaic words, and except in the case of the well-known ‘Rabbi,’ ‘Rabboni’ (Mark 9:5; Mark 10:51 etc.), explains them. But then he always uses a formula, ὅ ἐστιν (Mark 3:17, Mark 7:11; Mark 7:34) or ὅ ἐστι μεθερμηνευόμενον (Mark 5:41, Mark 15:34). It is suggested that in the case of Abba the familiarity of the word would make the connecting formula unnecessary; but the same consideration would make it unnecessary to explain it at all. Another suggestion is that the solemnity of the context would make the formula incongruous. The strongest argument for ὁ πατήρ being an addition of the Evangelist is that, whatever view we take of our Lord’s having made use of Greek in ordinary speech, it is extremely unlikely that His prayers were in that language; and if He prayed in Aramaic, He would only say ‘Abba.’ It is the common experience of bilingual countries that though the acquired language may be in constant use for commerce or the ordinary purposes of life, the native tongue is tenaciously retained for devotion and prayer. Sanday-Headlam’s supposition (Romans, in loc.), that our Lord used both words spontaneously, with deep emotion, might be quite probable if He prayed in the foreign tongue, Greek; but scarcely so if He prayed in the native Aramaic (see, however, below).

If ὁ πατήρ be due to St. Mark, it is probably not a mere explanation for the benefit of Greek readers. The suggestion that Ἀββᾶ ὁ πατήρ had become a quasi-liturgical formula, possibly even among the Jews, or more probably among the Christians, would account for its introduction in a prayer, where interpretations would be singularly out of place. And this suggestion would account for St. Paul’s using the phrase twice, in two Epistles written about the same time, indeed, but to two widely distant Churches. St. Paul is not in the habit of introducing Aramaic words (‘Maranatha’ in 1 Corinthians 16:22 is an exception), and if he were not quoting a well-known form, it is unlikely that he would have introduced one in writing to the Romans and Galatians. It is not probable, however, that he is quoting or thinking of our Lord’s words in Gethsemane, for there is nothing in the context to suggest this.

If the phrase be a liturgical formula, we may account for it in various ways. J. B. Lightfoot (Galatians, in loc.) suggests that it may have originated among Hellenistic Jews; or else among Palestinian Jews, after they had learned Greek, as ‘an expression of importunate entreaty.’ He prefers the latter view, thinking that perhaps our Lord Himself used both words. He apparently means that Jesus took the Greek word into His Aramaic prayer; and he quotes from Schöttgen a similar case where a woman entreats a judge and addresses him as מרי בירי ‘My lord, lord,’ the second word being equivalent to the first, except for the possessive suffix, and being a transliteration of κύριε. Chase (‘The Lord’s Prayer in the Early Church,’ in the Cambridge and Studies, vol. i. p. 23) has suggested another origin for the phrase, which would place its home, not among the Jews (for which there is no evidence), but among the Christians. He suggests that it is due to the shorter or Lukan form of the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:2 ff.). The Aramaic shorter form would begin with Abba, for the Greek begins with Πάτερ; and the hypothesis is that the early Christians in the intensity of their devotion repeated the first word of the prayer in either language. A somewhat similar phenomenon is seen in the repetitions for emphasis in Revelation 9:11; Revelation 12:9; Revelation 20:2, where the names are given in both languages. Such a repetition is possible only in a bilingual country. That it is the shorter form of the Lord’s Prayer that is used (if Dr. Chase’s hypothesis be true), is seen from the Aramaic אַבָא Abba. If the longer form had been in question, Πάτερ ἡμῶν, the initial word of the Aramaic would have had the possessive pronominal suffix of 1 pers. pl., and would be אֲבוּנָא ăbhûnâ.

It is a confirmation of this theory that the words which follow, ‘Not what I will but what thou wilt,’ recall ‘Thy will be done’ of the Lord’s Prayer; compare especially Matthew 26:42 γενηθήτω τὸ θέλημά σου, the exact words of the longer form of the Lord’s Prayer. This shows that both Evangelists had that prayer in their minds when relating the agony. The only consideration which militates against the theory is that ὁ πατήρ is used for Πάτερ. The nominative with the article is, however, often used in NT, by a Hebrew analogy, for an emphatic vocative, and the desire for emphasis may account for its use here.

A. J. Maclean.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Abba (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/a/abba-2.html. 1906-1918.

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