Jesus, Paul, and "Abba Father"

An anonymous commentor questioned my connection between Paul's
reference to crying out "Abba Father" and the Gospels' reference to
Jesus crying out "Abba Father." Of course, the commentor was Mr.
Carr, who also raised the issue at the Secular Web. At first I
thought his criticism had merit. At first, I originally replied in this

I think that is a fair criticism of that one point. If it
belongs in the connections between Paul and Jesus, it probably should
be in the category of allusions to his teachings.
But upon further review, I find the connection between the use of "Abba
Father" in the Gospels and in Paul's correspondence to be very
probable--certainly the best explanation of all of the relevant facts.
For convenience, I also repeat the point from my earlier post:

7. Jesus prayed to God using the term “abba”
• Gal. 4:6; Romans 8:15-16 (Mark 14:36)
The context in Galatians 4 is important:

Now I say, as long as the heir is a child, he does not
differ at all from a slave although he is owner of everything, but he
is under guardians and managers until the date set by the father.
So also we, while we were children, were held in bondage under the
elemental things of the world. But when the fullness of the time
came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so
that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might
receive the adoption as sons. Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God.
Gal. 4:1-6.

Paul is focusing here on Christians being adopted as sons of
God. In other words, it is how Christians move from being
slaves to being like Jesus--sons of God. One way that this adoption is
manifested is by our being able to cry out , "Abba! Father!." That this
is as Jesus did is strongly suggested by the locus of Jesus (having
come to earth), and the reference to being empowered to pray in this
manner by the "Spirit of His Son." In other words, Christians have been
enabled to do what Jesus did, to approach God as his Son Jesus did.
There is also the curious retention of the Aramaic (in both the Gospels
and in Paul's correspondence) which suggests an early origins of the
prayer in Palestine.

This conclusion receives additional support from the other
use of "Abba Father" by Paul. For all who are being led by the Spirit
of God, these are sons ofGod. For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, "Abba! Father!" The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.
Rom. 8:14-17.

Again the focus is on being adoptive sons of God. Here the connection to being like the
Son of God is more explicit. We are not only children of God, but
"fellow heirs with Christ" who suffer and will be gloried "with Him."
Again, crying out "Abba Father" is a sign of being like
Jesus, of doing what he did. But since approaching God as a father is forbidden
by those who are slaves under the law (no slave would so address his
master), we must be transformed by the Spirit before we can approach
God as Jesus did.

Additionally, the identity of the suffering of the Christian and that
of Jesus in connection with the use of the phrase "Abba Father" is

further indication that Paul has Jesus' prayer in mind. The context of
Jesus' use of that phrase was his prayer in the Garden prior to his
arrest. The Gospels depict it as a time of great
suffering for Jesus.

Paul probably saw the prayer as an echo of Jesus' own prayer style, and thus
as proof that those who so prayed thereby attested that they shared his
sonship. The point can be stated briefly. The retention of the Aramaic
('Abba'), even when the Greek equivalent is attached, clearly
indicates a prayer form well established prior to its transposition
into Greek (hence the almost formulaic ring of iv.6 = Rom viii.15). And
since that transposition happened at an early stage, the reason for the
cherishing of the Aramaic form most probably reaches back behind the
earliest Aramaic-speaking community (if there ever was an only Aramaic-speaking
community in the first place). That ties in to the tradition that
"Abba" was a characteristic prayer form of Jesus himself. But this is
precisely the implication here: that the Spirit of the Son prays the
prayer of the Son and so attests sonship of those who thus pray; hence
also the further thought of Rom. viii.17 -- not only heirs,
but "heirs together with Christ".

James D.G. Dunn, The Epistle to the Galatians, pages 221-22.

Finally, there is the uniqueness of this form of address. Praying
to God as "Abba Father" appears to be unique to Christianity at that

When Jesus addressed God this way he did something new, for in the
literature of early Palestinian Judaism there is no evidence of Abba
being used as a personal address to God. To the Jewish mind the use of
this familiar household term would have been considered disrespectful
in prayer.
William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark, page 518.

Wrapping up many of these points, Witherington comments:

The confirmation that we are on the right track here comes in what we find
the Spirit prompting the believer to do, which is to pray as Christ
did, using the same intimate terms he used to address God, namely Abba.
I have argued elsewhere at some length for the distinctiveness and
importance of this form of addressing God, as something we do not
really find elsewhere in the prayer language of early Judaism. [fn.
131. See my Christology of Jesus, pp. 216-21]. We do not have evidence
outside of the NT for any other early Jews praying to God as Abba. What
is stricking about this prayer language here is that the Aramaic is
juxtaposed with the Greek, and even more striking if the fact that the
one time we find this language on the lips of Jesus in Mk. 14.36, we
find exactly the same form -- literary 'abba, the Father' or 'abba,
So at the moment, I'm inclined to keep it on the list things Paul knew about Jesus. Further comments are welcome.


Anonymous said…
'....we find this language on the lips of Jesus in Mk. 14.36, we find exactly the same form -- literary 'abba, the Father' or 'abba, Father'.'

Were the words 'Abba, o patre' really on the lips of Jesus?

Surely Mark is translating the word 'abba' here for the benefit of his Christian readers?
Layman said…

I'm not sure what your problem is here. Witherington does not appear to suggest that Jesus actually spoke both terms, but that is simply how Mark wrote it. Perhaps the next paragraph will make this more clear to you:

"What this suggests is that we have here not only a relic of the prayer life of the earliest Aramaic speaking Christians, but one which became common coin for non-Aramaic speaking Christians as well, hence the need to juxtapose the Greek equivalent with the Aramaic abba."

Ben Witherington, Grace in Galatia, page 291.
BK said…
If the objection is that Jesus wouldn't say (in literal translation) "Daddy, Father" when he said "Abba, Father", then I believe that Witherington, as quoted by Layman, fully responds to that objection.
Layman said…

It may be that Mark is suggesting that Jesus said "Dad, Father", only retaining the Aramaic for the more distinct way of referring to God. But Witherington seems to agree with Carr (if Carr would just let him), the "Father" that Mark and Paul are simply providing a translation in Greek. This again suggests just how widespread and peculiar the retention is? Why preserve this Aramaic expression (WITH a translation)?
BK said…
I am in agreement with your understanding of what Witherington says. I think it makes a lot of sense to say that the phrase actually used by Jesus (which may have simply been "abba") was preserved in that way by the apostles as a witnessing tool to the Gentile world. I don't think it is the only possibility. It is also possible, e.g., that Jesus did say "Daddy, Father" in a way that reflects both the genuine love between them with the awesome respect (Father being by commandment a person whom you are to honor.) The apostles may have picked that up and it became an idiom for showing both the love and closeness together with the absolute respect and honor that a Christian should be showing the Father.

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