The Gospel Coalition recently published a “fact check” article that attempts to answer this question. The article contains a lot of good information on this topic but unfortunately reaches its conclusion before fully exploring all of the questions that need to be asked. The article includes the opinion of some scholars but fails to describe the evidence they relied on to support their conclusions. Here are some additional questions that, in my opinion, should have been asked before coming to a conclusion:
1) How much did Hebrew influences affect how these Aramaic / Hebrew speakers understood this word?
While it is true that “abba” in Aramaic is the most frequently used form for “father” in almost every context, this form is an informal form in Hebrew; it is the form used by Hebrew speaking children. First century Palestinian Aramaic spoken by the Jewish people had very strong Hebrew influences and it is not uncommon to read Jewish writings from that time period that contain a mix of both Hebrew and Aramaic.
2) How much did the use of this form by small children affect how this word was understood?
While it is clear that the form “abba” was not exclusively used by children, it is almost certain that this is the form that would have been also used by children. It is very unlikely that this term would have been understood as excluding the idea of “daddy”
3) What was the reason that “abba” was transliterated into Greek in Mk 14:36, Ro. 8:5, Gal 4:6?
In all of these examples, the reason for this transliteration appears to be to emphasize the intimacy of the father/child relationship. A relationship that Jesus had with his father and a relationship that we enjoy because of our adoption into God’s family.
While I believe that the “fact check” article is correct in concluding that “abba” means more than just “daddy,” I believe they failed to consider that this is one aspect that the Aramaic speaking Jews of the 1st century would have understood.
- While “abba” was the primary way of communicating “father” in 1st century Palestinian Aramaic, the article is incorrect in asserting that it was the only way.
- Open syllables are more common than closed in the speech of young children, and in infant directed speech. (Child Phonology: Volume 1, Production, Volume 1, edited by Grace H. Yeni-Komshian, James F. Kavanagh, Charles A. Ferguson; Stressed and Word-Final Syllables in Infant-Directed Speech, Drema Dial Albin and Catharine H. Echols, University of Texas at Austin.)