Intimacy and the Lord’s Prayer

A friend asked me about familiarity and intimacy as regards the Lord’s Prayer, particularly about the use of “Abba” and informal 2nd person address in French translations. My response follows.

Regarding the Lord’s Prayer and its use of Abba, it depends on 1) which version of the Lord’s Prayer is meant (Q, Luke or Matt), 2) the language of the prayer, and 3) how one connects the Lord’s Prayer to the mention of “Abba” elsewhere in the New Testament.

  1. Both Luke and Matthew draw on an earlier source (Q = Quelle) of Jesus’ teachings and parables. Luke’s version of the Lord’s prayer is significantly shorter and is probably more faithful to this source. There you only find “Father” (pater), while in Matthew it is pater hum­on (Father of us). Matthew’s possessive form may convey intimacy, but my sense is that the stress is more on the community—that this Gospel is adapting Jesus’ prayer as the standard form prayer for its early Christian community in Antioch. The Didache follows Matthew and expands it, providing us with the “Kingdom and Power” climax typically used as part of the form prayer by Christians throughout history. More to the point, both Luke and Matthew (and thus Q) use the Greek term “Father”, not “daddy.”
  2. The Syriac version (the Peshitta) has aboun (Father of us), which parallels the Greek perfectly and does not use the diminutive (baby-talk) form Abba. There are two ways of reading this—either the Peshitta (a 4th century translation) is following the Greek, otherwise it represents the original Aramaic form of the prayer. In either case, the evidence is in favor of the more formal “Father”, rather than “Daddy”, as the earliest form of the prayer.
  3. Still, Jesus is quoted as praying “Abba” in his prayer of surrender in the garden of Gethsemane in Mark 14:36. Though Matthew and Luke do not follow Mark here, that may be due to their reluctance to repeat Mark’s Aramaicisms, i.e., the penchant to quote Jesus in Aramaic alongside a Greek translation. Paul mentions the “Abba” prayer twice (Gal 4:6, Rom 8:15), but he doesn’t seem to have the Lord’s prayer in mind in either of these examples. The stress is actually on adoption, perhaps evoking baptism as a repetition of Jesus’ adoption as Messiah by the Father. Moreover, in his authentic letters, Paul never gives an indication of knowing of such a form prayer.

In regard to the broader question of the intimacy of the prayer, there are other factors to consider as well. The Greek of Luke and Matthew resorts to a very formal and indirect form of request (3rd person passive imperative) at the beginning (“let be made holy your name”, “let come your kingdom”), before switching to a more informal and direct form (2nd person active imperative) thereafter (“give us”, “forgive us”, “don’t lead into”). Most later translations (including English and French) attempt to convey this shift in some way. Your reference to “tu/ton” is yet another issue. In Greek and Syriac, the 2nd person singular possessive form does not convey familiarity, but simply number (i.e., God is singular not plural). I’d agree that modern French (and German and Spanish) translations do convey familiarity by using informal 2nd person forms, but I’d say that this is more of a reflection of the particular character of those languages, not of the original/early versions themselves (which do not have a distinctive 2nd person plural form for conveying respect or formality).

Even so, the very use of “Father” in the Lord’s Prayer, not to mention Jesus’ many other uses of that term, conveys a familiarity and intimacy once set within the broader context of Jewish prayer. When compared with the amidah (the “standing” prayer of early Rabbinic Judaism), the Lord’s Prayer is strikingly similar in its content, but it is also far more familiar, addressing God as Father, rather than as “God of our Fathers.” I suppose the question then is not whether the Lord’s Prayer conveys intimacy, but the degree to which and ways in which it does this in its various renditions throughout history.

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