Monday, June 30, 2008

Quote of the Day

The fact that 'abba' is remembered as particularly characteristic of Jesus' prayer probably implies that it was an unusual style of prayer. Had it been the typical style of addressing God in the prayers of the ordinary people of Galilee or of a particular Jewish sect, it would not have been regarded as evidence of the Christian claim to the Spirit and to divine sonship. But since (so far as we can tell) the claim to a share in divine sonship through the Spirit is something which marked out the first Christians within the Judaism of the time, the evidence which these Christians cite as proof of that claim must itself have been distinctive. Had 'abba' been widely used outside Christian circles, its use within Christian circles would have proved nothing. It is cited in Romans 8 and Galatians 4, then, precisely because it was remembered as something distinctive -- a distinctive bond between Jesus and his disciples, and so distinctive also in its original use by Jesus himself.

Why was it so distinctive of Jesus' own prayer? The most probable answer is the 'Abba' was a surprising word to use in addressing God. In its natural usage it was a family word and usually confined to the family circle. It was the word with which children would address the head of the family, and so carried with it a considerable note of warm trust as well as of respect. It was a word resonant with family intimacy, probably used by children from earliest years of speech; as we can tell from its very form, it would be one of the earliest words an infant would be able to say. There is no precise equivalent in English, though the older style 'Papa' probably comes closest. The nearest today would be the colloquial 'Dad'.

The point is that to address God in such a colloquial way, with such intimacy, is hardly known in the Judaism of Jesus' time. The regular Jewish prayers were a good deal more dignified, more in the style of the second address used in Matt. 11.25 - Luke 10.21: 'Lord of heaven and earth'. Interestingly enough, the same is true of the typical Muslim today: he will address Allah as the 'All merciful'; but 'Father' is too bold and improper. So too at the time of Jesus. Had most Jews of Jesus' time considered using 'Abba' in addressing God they would probably have rejected it as too intimate, as a mark of irreverence.

Jesus would not have been unaware of this. And yet 'Abba' was his characteristic way of addressing God. Presumably for the same reason: what others thought too intimate in praying to God, Jesus used because of its intimacy. The most obvious explanation for Jesus' adoption of just this word as the hallmark of his prayer was that it expressed an intimacy with God which he experienced and relied upon in his relationship with God. He thought of himself before God as a son before his father. Since the 'Abba' prayer is both so characteristic and so distinctive of Jesus, it must mean that Jesus naturally or instinctively saw himself as God's son, sustained by that intimate relation with God which only a son close to his father can know.

James D. G. Dunn
The Evidence for Jesus

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