Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Abba Dabba True?


From the March 2010 E-Block.
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Our next installment in the Personability of God series will be short, for it involves a single, simple term: Abba. Not as in, the Swedish band, but the address used towards God the Father by Jesus (Mark 14:36) and Paul (Romans 8:15, Gal. 4:6), the latter indicating that it is an address to be used by all Christians. 

From pulpits around the country many have heard it said that “Abba” is an address that indicates a special sort of personal intimacy, and that it may be equated with the address “Daddy” in modern English. Pastoral writers like Max Lucado, featured in this issue, intimate the same. 

The problem: This meaning for “abba” is something along the lines of an urban legend in the way it has been perpetuated. 

The most credible proponent for this view was the German scholar Joachim Jeremias (1900-1979), who derived several conclusions from the use of Abba in the NT, such as that it was a unique address not used by other Jews. His findings have not all weathered the test of time and examination (though some have -- see here), but for our purposes, we are concerned with only one in particular: Jeremias believed that “abba” had its origins in the babbling “babytalk” of Jewish infants addressing their own fathers. From this he concluded that “abba” somehow reflected the specialized intimacy and vulnerability associated with an infant and its father. 

Unfortunately, although Jeremias’ thesis in this regard spread like a typical urban legend, the refutations of this thesis did not. Indeed, Jeremias himself recanted his claim, though he also continued, rather inconsistently, to repeat it as though it were true. The chief rebuttal to Jeremias came from philologist James Barr, who in an article in the Journal of Theological Studies declared, “ ‘Abba’ Isn’t ‘Daddy’ “. 

Barr reports that Jeremias was heavily influenced by a school of thought that certain words of address to parents – such as “mother” -- found their origins in infant babbling. Barr is quite blunt in retort: “Generally speaking, a safe rule is to disbelieve any philological explanation that rests on such babbling.” Jeremias’ idea was merely speculative, and involved a sort of chicken and egg question: Did infants universally first say “abba” and then did parents adopt that as their title? Or did parents teach infants to say “abba”? Either way, there remained no actual evidence for the thesis. Among the chief discrediting points is that “Abba” was found to be continued to be used by adult children towards their fathers; although admittedly an adult child might conceivably continue to use “Daddy” even today in modern English.

At the same time, Jeremias’ error was a logical one in which he confused philological origins with temporal usage. Put another way, he linked together the use of “abba” and the perception of intimacy illicitly: While a Jewish child and father with an intimate relationship may use “abba”, no link between the word and level of intimacy is established unless there is a broad indication that a father and child with a more distant relationship do not use the term – and such indication is unknown.

So what can then be said of the significance of “abba” in terms of intimacy? Very little. Jesus’ single use of it is wholly without contextual additions to inform it. Paul’s two uses do tell us that Christians are subject to use the word of God the Father, and in Galatians, the usage is counterposed to the child’s experience with non-relatives and guardians who oversee them. “Abba” clearly indicates some sort of exchange relationship, but without Jeremias’ endearing “infant babbling” thesis, there is nothing whatsoever to permit reading into it notions of modern paternal intimacy and tenderness.

In response to Barr, evangelical scholar Gordon Fee, in his book God’s Empowering Presence (410-2), acknowledges that the equivalence of “abba” to “Daddy” is artificial, but insists that it nevertheless indicates some level of intimacy. However, he does not specify what degree of intimacy he finds in the term, and offers no justification for the claim, save that he supposes that because Paul indicates that the believer “cries out” with the address, some intimacy must be indicated. The word used for “cry out,” however, bears no such connotations in other uses; for example, in Matthew 8:29, the demons inside the wild man “cry out” to Jesus, and it is rather doubtful that Jesus had an intimate personal relationship with any demons. The word indicates urgency, perhaps, and distress, which would fit well with Paul’s references, but there is nothing to justify a claim of any special intimacy. (Note as well that modern uses of the word by modern Jews has no bearing on usage in the ancient world -- a mistake Lucado makes in his own reasoning.)

So it is that in the final analysis, the discovery of “intimacy” seems to be more a case of reading modern values and understandings into the text than reading it out of relevant contexts.

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