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Nomina Sacra

Posted: June 10th, 2011, 10:06 pm
by Jonathan Robie
Tim Finney and I are discussing the Nomina Sacra:

And we're trying to figure out what the set of words represented by Nomina Sacra have in common.

He says that the current scholarly tradition suggests this is related to the sacred names in the Old Testament. But these words aren't all for holy things - e.g. Ἄνθρωπος is not.

Why would you choose sacred abbreviations for this particular set of words?

Re: Nomina Sacra

Posted: June 10th, 2011, 10:42 pm
by Louis L Sorenson
Perhaps for dictation? Hebrews did not say the word YHWH. But I don't think Greek speakers had problems with any of these words. Other words like καί are also abbreviated with ligatures. I think most of these words fall into the 'Frequent Word' category. David and Jerusalem both have variant spellings. Are there dative/accusative abbreviations?

Re: Nomina Sacra

Posted: June 11th, 2011, 9:43 am
by Louis L Sorenson
What's the best book on Nomina Sacra?

Re: Nomina Sacra

Posted: June 12th, 2011, 2:43 am
by Nigel Chapman
Hi Louis, -- Noting the capitalised words in column one of the table prompts the following thought:

These are all words that might have attracted Honorary Capitals in English usage, especially in the Victorian period with which I'm personally more familiar. I remember reading in Colenso's c.1860 work on the Pentateuch, phrases like "His Divine Will and Character" or "the Light of Natural Science," the author being careful to capitalise the qualities and works of divinity. Sorry, the... Qualities and Works of Divinity.

It seems intuitively likely that the Nomina Sacra served a similarly honorific mechanism for entities associated with God in Ecclesiastical Greek, esp. since, compared to English, there were fewer lexicographic mechanisms available for special emphasis. But how, of course, to prove it?

Wikipedia notes that the Nomina Sacra for 'Mother' appears in the fourth century; if this were linked to the appearance of Mary-veneration (and appeared in that context?), it might support the idea of honorific abbreviations.

Though as you note, anthropos, unless some strange exception, must be evidence against this. Looking up an example, P50 has ANOS used in Peter's "ἀνάστηθι· καὶ ἐγὼ αὐτὸς ἄνθρωπός εἰμι." It would be somewhat ironic to apply a divine honorific to the statement, "Stand up, I am only a man myself." It's a monotheistically-approved thought -- man in his right relation to God -- and an image-of-God idea is conceivable as a justification in this case, but it's a stretch.

Re: Nomina Sacra

Posted: June 12th, 2011, 7:33 am
by Ken M. Penner
Louis L Sorenson wrote:What's the best book on Nomina Sacra?
I'd suggest:
C. H. Roberts, Manuscript, Society and Belief in Early Christian Egypt. London, 1979.
A. H. R. E. Paap, Nomina Sacra in the Greek Papyri of the First Five Centuries A. D.: The Sources and some Deductions, Leiden 1959.
J. O’Callaghan, “Nomina Sacra” in papyris Graecis saeculi III neotestamentariis, Rome 1970.
S. Brown, “Concerning the Origin of the Nomina Sacra”, Studia Papyrologica 9 (1970), 7–19.
B. M. Metzger, Manuscripts of the Greek Bible, 36–37.

Re: Nomina Sacra

Posted: June 13th, 2011, 5:34 pm
by S Walch
I'd add the Book "Encountering the Manuscripts: An Introduction to New Testament Paleography & Textual Criticism" by Philip Comfort to Mr Penner's list. He has a whole chapter of the book dedicated to a discussion on the NS, pp. 199-254.

I'd also recommend Larry Hurtado's blog at as he usually has some great stuff on the Nomina Sacra, as well as his book "The Earliest Christian Artifacts" Chapter 3 pp.95-134.
Other words like καί are also abbreviated with ligatures.
Looking at most of the 70+ pre-300 Greek NT Papyri, και is actually very rarely abbreviated among them. I find και abbreviated to ϗ in Papyrus 12 (which is effectively the top of a letter containing only Heb 1:1); Papyrus 16 (only in Phil 3:17, at the end of a leaf); Papyrus 66 (used in John 1:10, 21, 25, 45, 46, 48; 2:2; 3:11, 12, 22; 4:30, 38, 47; 5:30; 6:40, 42, 45, 63, 70; 7:11, 12, 36; 8:21, 25, 32, 50, 56; 9:15; 10:9, 10, 28, 35; 11:31, 33, 34, 37, 43, 48; 12:18, 28, 34; 13:31, 32; 14:19, 22; 16:14, 22, 26, 27; 17:19; 18:33; and conjectured to be in 21:11); and finally in Papyrus 75 (only in Luke 24:35).

As can be quite clear from above, it seems that only one pre-300 Greek NT manuscript abbreviated και more than a couple of times, and then, not unanimously.
Other words like καί are also abbreviated with ligatures. I think most of these words fall into the 'Frequent Word' category.
As Larry Hurtado notes in his book mentioned above, "With the nomina sacra, however, it is usually the case that limitations of space are not a factor. As noted previously, the wide margins, generous line spacing, and usual size of the characters all indicate no concern whatsoever about conserving space or having to crowd text into a limited amount of space. Thus the nomina sacra are not really abbreviations, at least in the sense that they do not function to save space or writing effort." (TECA, pp. 100).

So I don't think the Nomina Sacra were chosen because they were used frequently, especially when not all the words noted above were instantly used in their nomen sacrum form from the earliest evidence, nor were they always nomen sacrum in manuscripts where the Nomina Sacra are quite prevalent. Papyrus 75 for example seems to fluctuated between using the Nomen Sacrum for ανθρωπος, and writing out the word in full (See John 1:4 where [O]ανων[/O] appears, and then John 1:6 where ανθρωπος is written out in full).
David and Jerusalem both have variant spellings. Are there dative/accusative abbreviations?
For David and Jerusalem, or for the Nomina Sacra in general? For the NS in general, yes - for David and Jerusalem, the list of Nomina Sacra on wikipedia (compiled from The Text of the Earliest NT Greek Manuscripts by Philip Comfort and David Barrett), the only manuscripts to have Jerusalem as a nomen sacrum are Papyrus 50, and Uncial 0189, both of which only have it for the transliteration of the Aramaic form as [O]ΙΛΗΜ[/O].

Unfortunately I've yet to finish that for Papyrus 75, but thankfully Philip Comfort in "Encountering the Manuscripts" says: The scribe of P75 used a nomen sacrum for “Jerusalem” only in Luke, not in John. Furthermore, the nomen sacrum for “Jerusalem” in P75 is used only for the Greek transliteration of the Aramaic form, never the hellenized form. This could indicate that the scribe was simulating an earlier Greek Old Testament scribal practice. The scribe of P50 and the scribe of 0189 also used the nomen sacrum for the transliteration of the Aramaic form. (pp. 250).

And not surprisingly, P. Comfort doesn't discuss the Nomen Sacrum for David, for as far as I can recall, Codex Sinaiticus is the earliest manuscript to use the Nomen Sacrum for David. Although I don't know for the pseudepigrapha/Apocrypha Greek NT Literature, which also used the Nomina Sacra, as did manuscripts containing writings from the ECF (an early manuscript containing Irenaeus' "Against Heresies" contains the Nomen Sacrum [O]XΣ[/O]. Unfortunately I can't remember the papyri's name).

Does anyone know whether the ECF mention the Nomina Sacra, or had they become so widespread, that an explanation of them wasn't effectively necessary for those in an around the early believers?

Re: Nomina Sacra

Posted: June 14th, 2011, 6:32 pm
by tjfinney
Hi Everyone,

It seems to me that nomina sacra are used for words that might often be heard spoken by Christians. "Mother" would join the list later; frequent use of the rest would be enough for someone in the first century to suspect the speaker was Christian.

I think that nomina sacra were a device used by early Christians to make it less obvious that a written work in their possession was Christian. I would date the practice of using nomina sacra as a way to hide the identity of a Christian writing from 65 AD, after Nero made it dangerous to be a Christian in the Roman Empire. If Christian terms were obscured (nomina sacra look like numerals) then a Christian writing might escape identification following a casual glance by a semi-literate official.

Other examples of secretive practices among early Christians include code words (e.g. Babylon = Rome) and suppression of names (e.g. John in the Gospel and Epistles of John).


Tim Finney

Re: Nomina Sacra

Posted: June 14th, 2011, 7:16 pm
by S Walch
I've never thought about them like that, Mr. Finney.

Whilst I certainly would expect that to work for names like Jesus/Ιησους and titles like Christ/Χριστος, would that necessarily therefore also go onto include God/θεος and Lord/Κυριος, both of which were most certainly spoken by non-Christians as well? And why not also go on to include other words that most certainly would've been used by Christians from such an early stage, such as The Way, Life, Saviour (Codex Sinaiticus is first to have Saviour as a NS, iirc), Grace, Nazarene, faith, etc.

Larry Hurtado also notes (TECA, pp. 114) the fact that the Epistle of Barnabas talks about Jesus' name being noted as represented by ΙΗ (a Nomen Sacrum used in several manuscripts), and of course noting it's numerical value of 18, and therefore seeing it as a reference to the 318 servants who aided Abraham in Genesis 14:14. Here is the text from EoB, 9:8:

For it says, "And Abraham circumcised from his household eighteen men and three hundred." What then was the knowledge that was given to him? Notice that he first mentions the eighteen, and after a pause the three hundred. The eighteen is I (=ten) and H (=8) -- you have Jesus -- and because the cross was destined to have grace in the T he says "and three hundred." So he indicates Jesus in the two letters and the cross in the other. ( ... -lake.html)

Clement of Alexandria is also said to have mentioned something regarding the numerical value of Jesus' name in Stromata 6.278-280.

I would actually think that such a thing as the Nomina Sacra would effectively work against people not knowing whether it was a Christian text or not - not realising what the NS were, but constantly seeing a few people use certain characteristics in their scribbling, would actually rouse suspicions, rather than deaden them.

I personally think that Philip Comfort's main reasons for the Nomina Sacra are perhaps more likely: (EtM, pp.206-254, although only the second paragraph is quoted below)

In my estimation, the nomina sacra originated for one of two reasons: (1) a scribe or scribes (whether Jewish Christian or Gentile Christian) created a nomen sacrum form for kurios (Lord), reflecting knowledge of and purposeful distinction from the Hebrew Tetragrammaton, YHWH; or (2) a scribe or scribes (whether Jewish Christian or Gentile Christian) created a nomen sacrum form for kurios (Lord), reflecting knowledge of and purposeful distinction from the presence of kurios in hellenistic literature as describing a particular god or Ceasar. In the second option, the creation of the nomen sacrum could have also been for theos for the same reasons.

Re: Nomina Sacra

Posted: June 14th, 2011, 9:34 pm
by tjfinney
If a collection of Paul's letters was the first widely published Christian book then it seems a good candidate for the first book to contain nomina sacra. The field would then narrow down to words found in Paul's letters which would give away the book as Christian. This goes some way to explaining why the way and life did not qualify. As for saviour and salvation, these may have been below the notional threshold of what would be a give away in the mind of whoever introduced nomina sacra.

Re: Nomina Sacra

Posted: June 18th, 2011, 10:27 pm
by Jake Horner
Hiya Hiya,

I wrote a paper this spring on the structure of Ephesians 1:1-14. Part of my method was approaching the text from P46, and wrestling with the idea that there is nothing in the text besides the words themselves that would indicate to the reader (and hearers) how the letter is organized. The way the NS are used in Eph. may be organizational in some respects. I'm probably going to continue this work through a PhD. This usage may be peculiar to Ephesians, or I may be hallucinating. It's too early to tell, I'm still on my first pass through the rest of the letter in the Greek. But I have some confidence that there is something interesting going on with the NS in Ephesians.

It may be worth looking at other texts to see if NS are used in a similar manner.

Usual caveats apply, your mileage may vary, etc.

ps. I'm hoping this forum can be a place where I can expand my Greek beyond what is available here at PTS and find others who are also interested in Ephesians.