The Sacred Names: Nomina Sacra in Early Christian Manuscripts

Updated on December 18, 2017
Jesus (IY) the lamb of God (OY) - John 1
Jesus (IY) the lamb of God (OY) - John 1 | Source

What are Nomina Sacra?

Nomina Sacra (Latin for "Sacred Names") are Greek abbreviations of certain words and names in early Christian manuscripts. They are a unique feature to Christian writings, particularly Christian biblical texts both from the Old and New Testament, and are one of several key methods of distinguishing a Christian text of the Old Testament from a Jewish text. Although the use and regularity of Nomina Sacra varies from manuscript to manuscript, typically they are formed from the first and last letter of the word, a practice known as “abbreviation by contraction.” For instance, Theos (God) – ΘεOC - is frequently abbreviated – ΘC. Customarily a horizontal line is drawn across the top of the two or three letter abbreviations.

Why did early Christians use Nomina Sacra?

There is no scholarly consensus as to why Christians developed this system of abbreviations. Some have postulated that these abbreviations were simply a way of saving time and space. This does not appear to be the case however, as many Christian manuscripts are written with generous line spacing and broad margins which show no effort to conserve space. Furthermore, the Nomina Sacra do not follow the same patterns of abbreviations found in other, non-Christian works of the time. Abbreviations of significant names and titles, such as those found on Roman coins, were not usually contractions, but rather “suspensions” – abbreviation by writing only the first few letters of the word – this is true for abbreviations in common “documentary texts” as well such as contracts, ledgers, etc. In works of literature abbreviations are rare and far from systematized unless it is the practice of leaving the last few letters off a readily identifiable word that ends a line and drawing a horizontal line over the space to note the absence. While the use of the horizontal line is doubtless a shared convention in secular and Christian abbreviations, the similarity ends there. Words selected for abbreviation, conventions that determine when to abbreviate, and the way in which the abbreviations are written differ completely. However, when we study the words most commonly abbreviated as Nomina Sacra we gain fresh insight into the possible reasons for this Christian scribal convention.

What Words and Names Were Written as Nomina Sacra?

The choice of words designated to be most regularly abbreviated is perhaps the most interesting and illuminating feature of the Nomina Sacra. As mentioned before, abbreviations in literary texts were uncommon; however they do occur, particularly in manuscripts for personal reading and study rather than public use. In these cases, words abbreviated are usually pedestrian terms which occur frequently and have little significance. “Kai” for example (Greek - And) is often abbreviated in the same way we might draw the symbol “&”. However, from the earliest observable stage of development (the second century) Christian texts employ the Nomina Sacra regularly to denote words that are central to the Christian doctrine*. The earliest regularly occurring Nomina Sacra are:

God - ΘεOC (Theos) [ΘC, ΘY]

Lord – KYPIOC (Kyrios) [KC, KY]

Christ – XPICTOC (Christos) [XC, XY]

Jesus - IHCOYC (I­­­esous) [IC, IY]

Not only were these words the most frequently written as Nomina Sacra, but often times they were written in this way ONLY if they were in reference to THE God or The Christ (Although there are exceptions, such as Manuscript P46 which abbreviates the name “Jesus” even when it is referencing another, as in Col 4:11 – “Jesus who is called Justus”).

For example, Manuscript P4 does not abbreviate the name “Joshua,” but “Jesus” is written as a Nomen Sacrum (Jesus and Joshua are both western renderings of Yeshu’a “The help of Yahweh”3) and P46 gives a very interesting example in the text of Colossians 8:4-6, in which references to “God” and “Lord” (in reference to Jesus) are written as Nomina Sacra, but “gods” and “lords” are written out in their entirety:

“With regard then to eating food sacrificed to idols, we know that “an idol in this world is nothing,” and that “there is no God [ΘΣ**] but one.” 5 If after all there are so-called gods [ΘεOi], whether in heaven or on earth (as there are many gods [ΘεOi] and many lords [KYPIOi), 6 yet for us there is one God [ΘΣ], the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we live, and one Lord, Jesus Christ [KΣ, IHΣ XPΣ], through whom are all things and through whom we live.4

Because these four words were selected and used most regularly only when referencing God and Jesus, these four terms are also called the Nomina Divina – the Divine Names. It is possible that the practice of writing the names of Jesus and God as Nomina Sacra developed out of the Jewish tradition of refusing to speak God’s name – the tetragrammaton YHWH – as a result, the tetragrammaton was often written is distinct ways such as using a different color of ink or writing the Hebrew characters in a Greek translation rather than translating or transliterating them. Although it is likely this special treatment could have influenced an early Christian piety toward the “Divine Names” this remains unproven.

Manuscript P46

Look closely at the text and you can see small horizontal lines over two and three characters that denote the Nomina Sacra
Look closely at the text and you can see small horizontal lines over two and three characters that denote the Nomina Sacra | Source

Further Development Nomina Sacra

Regardless of the original intent of the Nomina Sacra, it is not controversial to state that, as the practice expanded to include more words and more names, it was a reflection of expanding Christian “Piety” – a display of reverence. By the beginning of the Constantinian Era, the Nomina Sacra had grown to regularly include fifteen words and names in total: God, Lord, Christ, Jesus, Son (particularly when referencing Jesus), Spirit (the Holy Spirit), Savior, Cross, Father (especially God), Man (especially Jesus “the son of man”), Mother (Mary), Heaven, Israel, Jerusalem, and David. Many of these abbreviations are unsurprising, but it is interesting to see the word “Mother” in reference to Mary appearing, as it denotes a developing, Pre-Byzantine piety around the mother of Jesus.

It is also interesting to note that this practice did not limit itself to Greek copies. Although the Nomina Sacra have their origins in the Greek, they soon found their way into Latin, Coptic, and other manuscripts from a very early stage.

Conclusion

Although lively debate is likely to continue for some time as to when, how, and why the Nomina Sacra developed, they present us with both a fascinating insight and a tantalizing mystery. Even before the year 300A.D., The Nomina Sacra are represented in all but a mere handful of verifiable Christian manuscripts, and those are all, or nearly all, non-biblical in nature2. Seeing this, it is difficult to deny an early Christian desire to treat at least the four “Nomina Divina” with some special care, but if so, then why? If it was to display the deity of Christ, then why was the name of the Spirit so late in developing? And why should the names of Israel and Jerusalem grow in piety as the church drifted farther away from its Jewish roots? We do not know for sure, and it may be some time before the scholarly world comes to a general interpretative consensus, but the Nomina Sacra remain one of the most fascinating characteristics of early Christian texts.

Study the page of P46 above and see if you can answer these questions!

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Footnotes

* Sadly, our earliest extant New Testament Manuscript, a fragment of the Gospel of John known as P52, does not contain the portions in which Jesus’ name is written and so we cannot say for certain whether it did or did not once contain Nomina Sacra. Some Scholars hold that it could not have due to the likely size of the original page and the size of the letters, etc., others contest this point. It is unlikely the matter can ever be resolved without a find of equal antiquity which possesses Nomina Sacra2.

** Note the suspended form used in this passage: exp. ΘΣ to represent Theos as opposed to the contracted ΘC

1. Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins

2. Hurtado, P52 (P. RYLANDS GK. 457) and the Nomina Sacra: Method and Probability http://www.tyndalehouse.com/TynBul/Library/TynBull_2003_54_1_01_Hurtado_P52Rylands.pdf

3. Durant, Caesar and Christ, 553-574

4. Colossians 8:4-6, New English Translation, https://lumina.bible.org/bible/1+Corinthians+8

Dedication

In writing this article I would like to acknowledge my deep debt to Dr. Larry Hurtado. A great deal of the information here is gathered from his dedicated and thorough study of early Christian manuscripts and their unique characteristics as presented in his excellent book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins.

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