Abba and Father: Imperial Theology
in the Contexts of Jesus
and the Gospels
Mary Rose D'Angelo
One of the most widely held but problematic ideas about the historical Jesus is the claim that Jesus had an absolutely new and unique relationship with the Deity that he expressed by addressing God with the Aramaic word abba. This argument was laid out in an article in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT) by Gerhard Kittel, who interpreted the word abba as a form of baby talk and concluded that “Jewish usage shows how this Father-child relationship to God far surpasses any possibilities of intimacy assumed in Judaism, introducing indeed something which is wholly new.” Kittel was not only editor of the TDNT but also the author of Die Judenfrage (1933) and of contributions to the Nazi publication Forschungen zur Judenfrage. His arguments were expanded, supplemented, and popularized after the war by Joachim Jeremias's influential essay “Abba” and were revived against feminist calls to avoid masculine theological imagery.
In fact, the evidence that the word abba was important to or even used by Jesus is, at best, extremely slender. This word occurs only once in the Gospels, in a scene for which the Evangelist provides no witnesses (Mark 14:35–36). Mark presents Jesus at prayer in Gethsemane in terms and circumstances that recall the prayer of Joseph (see below): “And going ahead a little way he fell upon the earth and began to pray that the hour might pass from him, and he was saying, Abba! Father! (Greek: Abba ho pater) all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me. But not what I will, but what you do.” The scene reflects the theology of the Evangelist, writing sometime between the late 60s and early 80s (probably after the fall of Jerusalem in 70) rather than a historical event.
Evidence from early Judaism and Christianity begins in the second half of the first century (i.e., slightly later than Jesus) and shows that it was used by adults, both for their natural fathers and as a title honoring teachers. Paul twice attributes abba to the Holy Spirit in the community (Galatians 4:6; Romans 8:15). In Galatians, abba func