Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Mamma Mia! It’s the Abba Daddy debate again

Doug Chaplin posts "Mamma Mia! It’s the Abba Daddy debate again." He points us to Rick Brannan's post, reassures us “Abba” doesn't mean “Daddy” by sending us to Steve Caruso's post, and he makes a couple of astute points himself.

I also like his title but wanted to say a few more things on the subject. Mainly, I'm interested in the literary, rhetorical stuff here. (Maybe my feminist lens is too serious for the big dogs of biblioblogs - so I'll try to avoid the f-word again). There are three things I want to look at.

First, the old Jewish sacred writings have plenty of pre-Jesus allusions and prayers to God as 'Ab (אָבִ). There's Deuteronomy 32:6, where the Jewish translation from Hebrew to Greek is sou patēr (σου πατὴρ); and there's the address to God in Psalm 32:6, where the Hellene rendering is patēr mou (πατήρ μου); and there's Isaiah 9:6, the "everlasting father" part of which the Greek Septuagint does not include; but there's Isaiah 63:16 and Isaiah 64:8 respectively with the Hellene translations of sú kúrie patḕr and kúrie patḕr hēmȭn (σύ κύριε πατὴρ and κύριε πατὴρ ἡμῶν); and there's also God's own endorsement of people calling him 'Ab (אָבִ) in Jeremiah 3:4 and 3:19 -- which is put this way in very Jewish Greek: patéra kaléseté me (πατέρα καλέσετέ με).

I think the fact that the Hebrew God was called 'Ab (אָבִ) and Patēr long before Jesus bolsters Doug's points. Mark's transliteration of Jesus's Aramaic - the Greek sounds Αββα - and Paul's own use of the same would not be especially unusual. The fact that both Mark and Paul seem to use the term "in the context of obedience being difficult, yet having to be accepted" is a point well made, indeed.

But I wonder if there's something more rhetorical here. Aren't Mark and Paul appealing to audiences of Greeks and Jews, or at least Jews who read the Septuagint? Perhaps, the two writers are wanting bilingual redundancy here: abba, ho patḗr (αββα ὁ πατήρ). Perhaps a larger implicit message to listeners and readers is that God is father in any language.

Second, there's more evidence that Abba doesn't mean Daddy. There's BarAbbas, the name of the one Pilate chooses as a possible substitute for Jesus. This person figures in all four canonical gospels and in the Gospel of Peter. Some variant texts of Matthew's gospel actually say that his name is Jesus Barabbas. To the Jew who spoke Jerusalemic Aramaic and who read the Septuagint alongside the Hebrew scriptures, this name would sound something like, "Joshua Son of the Father." In Matthew 27:17, Pilate gives the choice - "Joshua Son of the Father or Joshua who is called Anointed" (Ἰησοῦν τὸν Βαρ-Αββᾶν ἢ Ἰησοῦν τὸν λεγόμενον χριστόν). Matthew later (vv 40, 43, and 54) brings out in Greek the fact that Jesus was seen by many to be the Son of God. The pairing of the two men with the same name is a strong pairing indeed. And yet when Matthew quotes Jesus crying out in Greek-transliterated Aramaic, he has him crying out to God (Ἠλί, Ἠλί), not to Abba. There is no hint of "Daddy" in any of this.

Third, as long as preachers aren't dogmatically preaching that Jesus was the first to pray to God as Father (like Christians must and Jews didn't), there's enough stretch in language that I think it's just fine to translate both abba (αββα) and patḗr (πατήρ) as Daddy. As I work with college level ESL students, we often talk about how words sound in English and in plenty of other languages too. The fact is that words for mother are never "second-language" words, learned when taught. The bilabial sounds /ma/ are often the first consistent, word-like sounds a nursing infant makes. The association with Mama is nearly subconscious and instantaneous. Some linguists have been quite concerned with such things. When we come to the Hebrew Bible, we see similar things. The name Moses, for example, is an Egyptian word easily made Hebrew in a play on Jewish phrases:

משה (Mosheh aka "Moses")
משה (mashah aka "draw out")
מים (mayim aka "[from] water(s)")

The sounds for mother are from mamama. The sounds we make for Papa come later as we're nursing. But even so, the lips are often used in basic primal form, as in abba and pappa. More developed terms for papapa are pater or tata or dada or daddy or father. Hence, abba sounds more basic than father, more like daddy perhaps than Father.
Now, around all this talk of Abba, I have some of my own questions. Why is there the asymmetry in the bible with respect to males and females? Why does Paul (to the Colossians and Ephesians) address fathers but not mothers when giving household instructions to parents and children? And is that silence in any way related to what Carolyn Osiek has seen in the bible and in early Christianity? Osiek says, "The silence of most sources about the lives of female slaves in early Christian communities is a magnification of the common phenomenon of the silence of women's voices in general" (page 117 A Woman's Place: House Churches in Earliest Christianity coauthored with Margaret Y. MacDonald and Janet H. Tulloch. See also Early Christian Families in Context: an Interdisciplinary Dialogue with David L. Balch)

1 comment:

Doug Chaplin said...

Thanks – lots of good stuff to think about here