Saturday, August 30, 2014

Geza Vermes Discusses the Ancient Use of Abba

The following post is based on Jesus in His Jewish Context written by Geza Vermes. Here is what he has to say about Jesus' use of the Aramaic word Abba:

"Much has been written about the significance of the
use by Jesus of the title abba, especially by Jeremias
and his followers. In the opinion of the late
professor from Gottingen, this ipsissima vox Jesu is
unparalleled in Jewish prayer. Compared with that of the
ancient Jews, who, as one of Jeremias' pupils
explains, 'maintained the dignity of God, in so far as
they addressed him as Father at all, by scrupulously
avoiding the particular form of the word used by
children', it is the 'chatter of a small child'.
Jeremias, that is to say, understood Jesus to have
addressed God as 'Dad' or 'Daddy', but apart from the
A PRIORI improbability and incongruousness of the
theory, there seems to be no linguistic support for
it. Young children speaking Aramaic addressed their
parents as abba or imma but it was not the only
context in which abba would be employed. By the time
of Jesus, the determined form of the noun, abba ([=]
'the father'), signified also 'my father'; 'MY
father', though still attested in Qumran and biblical
Aramaic, had largely disappeared as an idiom from the
Galilean dialect. Again, abba could be used in solemn,
far from childish, situations such as the fictional
altercation between the patriarchs Judah and Joseph
reported in the Palestinian Targum, when the furious
Judah threatens the governor of Egypt (his
unrecognized brother) saying: 'I swear by the life of
the head of abba ([=] my father) as you swear by the
life of the head of Pharaoh, your master, that if I
draw my sword from the scabbard, I will not return it
there until the land of Egypt is filled with the
slain'" (pages 37-38).

Vermes also notes that Jeremias' thesis that no Jew
ever called God abba in prayer is "also open to
question" (page 38). No evidence seems to buttress the notion that
individual prayers in Aramaic failed to contain the
vocative abba. Furthermore, Vermes points out that
there may be "at least one indirect attestation" to
abba used in Jewish prayer with the so-called
rain-maker Hanan (first century B.C.E.). See bTann.

Vermes' conclusion is that the portrait of the Father
communicated in the Gospels satisfies the
form-critical criteria of multiple attestation and
consistence since Jesus' teaching concerning God the
Father is echoed in other sources, whether they
explicitly mention the word Father or not (ibid).

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