The word for “my father” or “the father.” This Aramaic word appears three times in the New Testament, followed by a translation into Greek: once in Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane (Mark 14.36) and twice in the letters of Paul, where it is an ecstatic cry of believers in prayer (Rom. 8.15; Gal. 4.6).

The prayers of Jesus in the Gospels regularly address God as “Father” (Matt. 11.25, 26; 26.42; Luke 10.21; 23.34, 46; John 11.41; 12.27, 28; 17.1, 5, 11, 21, 24, 25); probably the Aramaic word ʾabbāʾ lies behind the Greek word for father in these prayers. Christian liturgical usage, which drew on reflection about the relation between the “Son” and the “Father,” may have shaped the language of some or even all of these passages.

Originally, abba was probably a child's word, but it had become an accepted way of speaking to or about one's father. It expresses a close relation to God on the part of Jesus, a relation that is also expected of the disciples, who were told by Jesus to pray, “Our Father …” (Matt. 6.9; see Lord's Prayer). Some scholars have held that the relation between God and Jesus as father and child, which this language expresses, was highly distinctive and original with Jesus, but others point to similar language in Jewish prayers of the period.

In early Christianity, this Aramaic word was retained as an address to God in prayer even after Greek had become the language of worship. It expressed the newly found relation to God as father, a relationship assured by the presence of the Spirit. The original setting for this exclamation may have been baptism, but it probably also functioned as a response to preaching.

The word also underlies the English word “abbot” (cf. French abbé), a monastic title originating in Syriac Christian usage.

William A. Beardslee