Nomina Sacra

Edward D. Andrews

In the above is an image of five Nomina Sacra, the first four being divine names and the first four of the fifteen known. Nomina Sacra (Sacred Names): Various contractions and abbreviations that are found in our earliest manuscripts of the Christian Greek Scriptures. The type that is most important to this discussion is what has become known as the sacred names, or nomina sacra (nomen scrum, singular), such as Lord

Nomina Sacra_02_edited

These sacred names are abbreviated or contracted by keeping the first letter or two and the last letter. Another important feature is the horizontal bar placed over these letters to help the reader know that they are dealing with a contraction. The early Christian writers had three different ways that they would pen a sacred name: (1) suspension, (2) contraction, and (3) longer contraction. The suspension is accomplished by writing only the first two letters of such sacred names as Jesus (ιησους) = (ιη), and suspending the remaining letters (σους). The contraction is accomplished by writing only the first and last letter of say Jesus (ιησους) = (ις), and removing the remaining letters (ησου).

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The longer contraction would simply keep the first two letters instead of just one, as well as the last letter (ιης). After penning the suspension or contraction, the scribe would place a bar over the name. This practice of place a bar over the name was likely a carried over from the common practice of scribes placing bars above contractions, especially numbers, which were represented by letters, ΙΑ = eleven.

These nomina sacra are found only in Christian manuscripts. This is not to say other non-Christians did not use abbreviations and contractions, as they did. However, they served a purpose of saving space in their manuscripts (in other words no specific words), and the horizontal bar was used in their abbreviations as well, especially numbers. The Christian abbreviations while are an appropriate description of their form, it is inaccurate to function, as they served as sacred names.

What is amazing about the nomina sacra is that they appear in all the earliest New Testament manuscripts and Christian Old Testament manuscripts, no matter if the manuscripts were produced by professional scribes, documentary scribes, or those barely able to write in Greek. As was noted before, the handwriting of Christian biblical manuscripts falls into one of four categories: professional (those produced by full-time professional scribes), reformed documentary (those produced by scribes accustomed to making copies of documents and works of literature), documentary (those accustomed to making copies of documents only), and common (those who knew Greek as a second language or were just barely able to write Greek). There are extant manuscripts in all of these categories, and in all of them, there are nomina sacra. This indicates that the practice was well-known to all Christians, not just professional scribes. (P. Comfort, Encountering the Manuscripts: An Introduction to New Testament Paleography and Textual Criticism 2005, 253)

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Why, how, and when did this distinctive form of writing these fifteen names develop? Was it isolated to a certain area of the Roman Empire? Which of these sacred names came first? There are multiple reasons given by the textual scholars in an attempt to answer the above questions. We are going to look briefly at the 18-page paper by paleographer Dr. Larry W. Hurtado, The Origin of the Nomina Sacra: A Proposal, out of the Journal of Biblical Literature, (JBL117/4, 1998, 655-673). However, first, let us note that “the nomina sacra for Lord, Jesus, Christ, God, and Spirit are present in all extant second-century New Testament manuscripts where one or more of these nomina sacra are extant. The following second-century manuscripts that clearly show these nomina sacra are as follows:

  • P4+P64+P67Matthew, Luke
  • P32Titus
  • P46Paul’s Epistles
  • P66John
  • P75Luke, John
  • P90John”
Nomina_Sacra_in_Codex_Vaticanus_John_1
Two nomina sacra are highlighted, ΙΥ and ΘΥ, representing Jesus and God respectively, in this passage from John 1 in Codex Vaticanus (B), 4th century

However, P4+P64+P67 dates to (150-175 C.E.), P32 dates to (150-200 C.E.), P46 dates to 150 C.E.), P66 dates to about (150 C.E.), P75 dates to about (175 C.E.), and P90 dates to (150-200 C.E.). This means that the nomina sacra for Lord, Jesus, Christ, God, and Spirit are standard by 150 C.E. Which would suggest that, after the death of the last apostle John died in about 100 C.E., more than just division started to set in, as the apostles had really served as a restraint against the great apostasy that was about to come. Now, this little excursion into an area that might seem totally unrelated is just to say, we cannot know what the authors penned in their autographs, nor the first generation of copyists, based on mid-late second-century manuscripts. Why? The phenomena of the standardization of the nomina sacra only need about fifty-years to take place. Of course, John wrote his Gospel and three letters between 96-98 C.E. so we can say that his writings would have been closest. The other books all date prior to 70 C.E.

S0-Called Agnostic Bible Scholars writes in Opposition to Christianity

Hurtado introduces what the Nomina Sacra, offering his reader background information, like the above. He then points to a couple examples of the nomina sacra, dating back to about 150-200 C.E. “It is, however, particularly significant for the investigation of the origins of Christianity that nomina sacra … are found even in the very early scraps of Christian manuscripts, which take us back perhaps to the late or middle second century.” (L. Hurtado, The Origin of the Nominal Sacra 1998, 657) He offers us a footnote that points us to two manuscripts, one possibly dating between 150 to 200 C.E. (Egerton Papyrus 2), the other dating to about 150 to 175 C.E. (P4/P64/P67, three scraps, all from the same MS). We are then told,

They are found in Christian biblical manuscripts, noncanonical religious texts (e.g., the Egerton Gospel fragment), and in “orthodox” and unorthodox Christian writings (e.g., the Coptic Gospel of Thomas, Acts of Peter, Acts of John).9 All this indicates a remarkable instance of standardization that contrasts with the wide diversity we have come to associate with the earliest centuries of Christianity. (p. 658)

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It should be noted that to see the nomina sacra in both orthodox and unorthodox Christian writings, as well as biblical and non-biblical Christian writings across the Roman Empire, demonstrates a standardization, by 150-175 C.E., which we do not find in any other aspect. This is not like today’s internet, where a word or phrase goes viral, meaning hundreds of millions are using it instantly, and the next year, it is added to our dictionaries. As was state above, you would need a minimum of 50-years to have such a standardization to take place. However, while Hurtado loves to use the word “earliest” in describing the introduction of the nomina sacra, the evidence takes us no earlier than 100 to 175 C.E. for an introduction date, to standardization. The primary concern of Hurtado’s paper is,

Given that the nomina sacra are apparently both distinctively Christian and amazingly early, what relation do they have to the religious and cultural background of the early church, and what influences might have prompted and shaped them? (p. 660)

A chapter in his book, based on this article, offers the final analysis,

I propose that the suspended form of Jesus’ name (IH) was likely the originating device from which the whole scribal practice of the nomina sacra then developed. . . . It is an advantage of this proposal that it accounts well for features often not otherwise explained. In particular, we have a cogent explanation for the puzzling supralinear stroke that became characteristic in Christian nomina sacra. According to the view advocated here, this mark began its special Christian usage with the writing of Jesus’ name as IH, and originally functioned in its more familiar capacity as a signal to readers that this two-letter compendium could also be read as a number, eighteen. Then, however, as Christian piety quickly sought to extend a similar scribal treatment to other key designations of God and Jesus.  … This supralinear stroke came to function as a distinctly Christian device that functioned simply to highlight nomina sacra forms, signaling readers that these various compendia were abbreviations of these words. . . . I propose that in its initial usage the IH compendium was read as “Jesus” written in a manner designed also to allude to his significance as a divine vehicle of “life” for believers.

The point is clear: all throughout the Christian church in its early centuries New Testament texts displayed the nomina sacra. Special notice was given to “Lord,” “Jesus,” “Christ,” “God,” and “Spirit.” Whether we accept Hurtado’s hypothesis as to the how and why of the rise of the nomina sacra, or we go with other suggestions, we cannot make the connection back to the originals 27 New Testament manuscripts, or the first generation of copyists. Some would suggest Lord (κυριος, kurios), written as ΚΣ was first in the line of the nomina sacra (as Philip Comfort would suggest), or Jesus (ιησους, Iēsous), written as ΙΗ (as Larry Hurtado suggests). I would tend to agree with Comfort, and for the same reason, he offers as well.

It would seem to this writer, the best suggestion is the desire of the second century C.E. Christianity and Pharisaic Judaism to separate themselves from each other. For example, you have the Judaism abandoning the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, even though; just a few decades earlier they were espousing it to be inspired. Why? The Christians had adopted the Septuagint as their evangelism tool because the de facto language of the Roman Empire was Koine Greek.

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Jews never wrote nomina sacra the way Christians did; the Jews did things differently for one divine name and one divine name only: Yahweh. Jewish scribes would frequently write this in its Hebrew contracted form (even in paleo-Hebrew letters) and then continue on with the Greek text. Christians used κυριος (kurios = Lord) in place of Yahweh (YHWH) and wrote it in nomen sacrum form.

Here we can see second-century Christianity in their move to distance themselves from Judaism, by not adopting the same practice, even though it is likely that many of the Christian copyists were Jewish. In other words, “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.” At the beginning of the second century C.E., there were a number of things beginning to take place. (1) Judaism wanted to separate itself from Christianity. (2) Christianity wanted to distance itself from Judaism. (3) The Jews were starting to replace the Tetragrammaton (יהוה, JHVH) with ’Adhonai´ (Lord), as they felt the divine name was too sacred to pronounce. (4) Christians began the transition of Lord (κυριος, kurios), written as ΚΣ being first in the line of the nomina sacra that was to come.

Bibliography

C.M., Tucket. “Nomina Sacra in Codex E.” Journal of Theological Studies, 2006: 487-499.

Colwell, Ernest C. Scribal Habits in Early Papyri: A Study in the Corruption of the Text. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965.

Comfort, Philip. Encountering the Manuscripts: An Introduction to New Testament Paleography and Textual Criticism. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2005.

Comfort, Philip W. New Testament Text, and Translation Commentary. Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers, 2008.

Comfort, Philip Wesley. The Quest for the Original Text of the New Testament. Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 1992.

Comfort, Philip, and David Barret. The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts. Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001.

Edward, James R. “A Nomen Sacrum in the Sardis Synagogue.” Jornal of Biblical Literature, 2009: 813-821.

Howard, George. “The Tetragrammaton and the New Testament.” Journal of Biblical Literature, 1977: 63-83.

Hurtado, Larry. “P52 and the Nomina Sacra.” Tyndale Bulletin, 2003: 1-14.

Hurtado, Larry. “The Origin of the Nominal Sacra.” Journal of Biblical Literature, 1998: 655-673.

Hurtado, Larry W. The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006.

Metzger, Bruce M. The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Transmission. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964, 1968, 1992.

Metzger, Bruce. The New Testament: Its Background, Growth, & Content. Nashville: Abingdon Books, 1965, 1983, 2003.

Roberts, Colin H. Manuscript, Society, and Belief in Early Christian Egypt. London: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Roberts, Colin H., and Theodore C. Skeat. The Birth of the Codex. London: Oxford University Press, 1987.

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Translation and Textual Criticism

THE COMPLETE GUIDE to BIBLE TRANSLATION: Bible Translation Choices and Translation Principles [Second Edition]THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO BIBLE TRANSLATION: Bible Translation Choices and Translation Principles [Second Edition] 

THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO BIBLE TRANSLATION (CGBT) is for all individuals interested in how the Bible came down to us, as well as having an insight into the Bible translation process. CGBT is also for those who are interested in which translation(s) would be the most beneficial to use.

CHOOSING YOUR BIBLE: Bible Translation DifferencesCHOOSING YOUR BIBLE: Bible Translation Differences

There are more than 150 different Bible translations in the English language alone. Some are what we call literal translations, which seeks to give the reader the exact English equivalent of what was written in the original language text, thus allowing the reader access to the actual Word …

THE TEXT OF THE NEW TESTAMENT The Science and Art of Textual CriticismTHE TEXT OF THE NEW TESTAMENT: The Science and Art of Textual Criticism

THE TEXT OF THE NEW TESTAMENT was copied and recopied by hand for 1,500 years. Regardless of those scribes who had worked very hard to be faithful in their copying, errors crept into the text. How can we be confident that what we have today is the Word of God? Wilkins and Andrews …

MISREPRESENTING JESUS: Debunking Bart D. Ehrman's "Misquoting Jesus" [Third Edition]MISREPRESENTING JESUS: Debunking Bart D. Ehrman’s “Misquoting Jesus” [Third Edition]

Edward D. Andrews boldly answers the challenges Bart D. Ehrman alleges against the fully inerrant, Spirit-inspired, authoritative Word of God. By glimpsing into the life of Bart D. Ehrman and following along his course of academic studies, Andrews helps the reader to understand the …

Biblical Studies

HOW TO STUDY YOUR BIBLE: Rightly Handling the Word of GodHOW TO STUDY YOUR BIBLE: Rightly Handling the Word of God

A comprehensive book on HOW TO STUDY YOUR BIBLE by observing, interpreting, and applying, which will focus on the most basic Bible study tools, principles, and processes for moving from an in-depth reading of the Scriptures to application. What, though, if you have long felt that you are …

THE NEW TESTAMENT: Its Background, Setting & ContentTHE NEW TESTAMENT: Its Background, Setting & Content

…the author’s intended meaning to his original readers and how that meaning can then apply to us. Marshall gives you what you need for deeper and richer Bible study. Dr. Lee M. Fields writes, “‘Deep’ study is no guarantee that mature faith will result, but shallow study guarantees …

THE LIFE OF JESUS CHRIST: What Do You Know About Jesus? [Updated and Expanded]THE LIFE OF JESUS CHRIST: What Do You Know About Jesus? [Updated and Expanded] 

The life of Christ is an exhaustless theme. It reveals a character of greater massiveness than the hills, of a more serene beauty than the stars, of sweeter fragrance than the flowers, higher than the heavens in sublimity and deeper than the seas in mystery. As good Jean Paul has …

THE LIFE OF THE APOSTLE PAUL: The Apostle to the Nations [Updated and Expanded]THE LIFE OF THE APOSTLE PAUL: The Apostle to the Nations [Updated and Expanded] 

Stalker’s Life of St. Paul became one of the most widely read and respected biographies of the Apostle to the Gentiles. As an insightful compendium on the life of Paul, this work is of particular interest to pastors and teachers who desire to add realism and vividness to their account of …

INTERPRETING THE BIBLE: Introduction to Biblical HermeneuticsINTERPRETING THE BIBLE: Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics

Delving into the basics of biblical interpretation, Edward D. Andrews has provided a complete hands-on guide to understanding what the author meant by the words that he used from the conservative grammatical-historical perspective. He teaches how to study the Bible on a deep, scholarly …

HOW TO INTERPRET THE BIBLE: An Introduction to HermeneuticsHOW TO INTERPRET THE BIBLE: An Introduction to Hermeneutics

…Linguistic and literary factors are analyzed so that the various genres of Scripture are examined for their true meaning. The importance of having sound principles of interpretation cannot be overstated as to ignore them will result in all manner of erroneous assumptions. Beville presents …

THE CHURCH COMMUNITY IN CONTEMPORARY CULTURE: Evangelism and Engagement with Postmodern PeopleTHE CHURCH COMMUNITY IN CONTEMPORARY CULTURE: Evangelism and Engagement with Postmodern People

Once upon a time, Postmodernism was a buzz word. It pronounced Modernism dead or at least in the throes of death. It was a wave that swept over Christendom, promising to wash away sterile, dogmatic and outmoded forms of church. But whatever happened to postmodernism? It was regarded …

DEVELOPING HEALTHY CHURCHES: A Case-Study in RevelationDEVELOPING HEALTHY CHURCHES: A Case-Study in Revelation

church. It offers an appointment with the Great Physician that no Christian can afford to ignore. Developing Healthy ChurchesA Case-Study in Revelationbegins with a well-researched outline of the origins and development of the church health movement. With that background in mind the …

DYING TO KILL: A Christian Perspective on Euthanasia and Assisted SuicideDYING TO KILL: A Christian Perspective on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide

…liberties in a multi-cultural society that is becoming increasingly secular. This work provides an ethical framework in which euthanasia and assisted suicide can be evaluated. These issues are on the radar indicating a collision course with Christian values. It is time for Christians to be …

JOURNEY WITH JESUS THROUGH THE MESSAGE OF MARK: Experience the Ministry of Jesus in a Spiritually Captivating WayJOURNEY WITH JESUS THROUGH THE MESSAGE OF MARK

Journey with Jesus through the Message of Mark is an insightful and engaging survey of Mark‘s Gospel, exploring each major section of the text along with key themes. It is a work that can be enjoyed by laypersons as well as pastors and teachers. Pastors will find the abundant use …

ANGELS & DEMONS: The Bible AnswersANGELS & DEMONS The Bible Answers

What are angels & demons? Can angels help us? What does the Bible say about angels? What is the truth about angels? Can Angels affect your life? Who were the “sons of God” in Genesis 6:2? Who were the Nephilim in Genesis 6:2? Who is Michael the archangel? Can Satan the Devil control …

Bible Doctrines

WHERE ARE THE DEAD? Basic Bible Doctrines of the Christian FaithWHERE ARE THE DEAD? Basic Bible Doctrines of the Christian Faith

What is the Bible’s viewpoint? Without delving into an endless stream of what man has said, Andrews looks at what the Bible says about death and the like. Why do we grow old and die? What happens at death? Is there life after death, or is this all there is? Do we have an immortal soul? …

IDENTIFYING THE ANTICHRIST: The Man of Lawlessness and the Mark of the Beast RevealedIDENTIFYING THE ANTICHRIST: The Man of Lawlessness and the Mark of the Beast Revealed

Herein Andrews will give the reader exactly what the Bible offers on exposing who the Antichrist and the Man of Lawlessness are. If we look at the texts that refer to the antichrist and the man of lawlessness, we will have lines of evidence that will enable us to identify them. Why is it …

UNDERSTANDING THE CREATION ACCOUNT: Basic Bible Doctrines of the Christian FaithUNDERSTANDING THE CREATION ACCOUNT: Basic Bible Doctrines of the Christian Faith

Throughout the Scriptures, God is identified as the Creator. He is the One “who created the heavens (He is the God who formed the earth and made it, He established it.” [Isa 45:18] He is the One “who forms mountains and creates the wind” (Am 4:13) and is the One “who made the heaven and …

The SECOND COMING of CHRIST: Basic Bible Doctrines of the Christian FaithThe SECOND COMING of CHRIST: Basic Bible Doctrines of the Christian Faith

The information herein is based on the disciples coming to Jesus privately, saying, “Tell us, (1) when will these things be, and (2) what will be the sign of your coming, and (3) of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:3) What will end? When will the end come? What comes after the end? Who …

WHAT IS HELL? Basic Bible Doctrines of the Christian FaithWHAT IS HELL? Basic Bible Doctrines of the Christian Faith

What Really Is Hell? What Kind of Place is Hell? What Really Happens at Death? What Did Jesus Teach About Hell? How Does Learning the Truth About Hell Affect You? Who Goes to Hell? What Is Hell? Is It a Place of Eternal Torment? Does God Punish People in Hellfire? Do the Wicked Suffer in …

Miracles? - Do They Still Happen Today?: God Miraculously Saving People’s Lives, Apparitions, Speaking In Tongues, Faith HealingMIRACLES – DO THEY STILL HAPPEN TODAY? God Miraculously Saving People’s Lives, Apparitions, Speaking In Tongues, Faith Healing 

Miracles were certainly a part of certain periods in Bible times. What about today? Are miracles still taking place. There are some very important subjects that surround this area of discussion that are often misunderstood. Andrews will answer such questions as does God step in and solve …

HOMOSEXUALITY - The BIBLE and the CHRISTIAN: Basic Bible Doctrines of the Christian FaithHOMOSEXUALITY – The BIBLE and the CHRISTIAN: Basic Bible Doctrines of the Christian Faith

Today there are many questions about homosexuality as it relates to the Bible and Christians. What does the Bible say about homosexuality? Does genetics, environment, or traumatic life experiences justify homosexuality? What is God’s will for people with same-sex attractions? Does the …

Christian Fiction

THE DIARY OF JUDAS ISCARIOT: How to Keep Jesus at Arm's LengthTHE DIARY OF JUDAS ISCARIOT: How to Keep Jesus at Arm’s Length

…desert but none of such significance as a handful of scrolls retrieved from a buried Roman satchel (presumed stolen) at this site. The discovery has since come to be known as ‘The Diary of Judas Iscariot.’ In The Diary of JudasIscariot Owen Batstone relates the observations and feelings …

THE SECRET HIDEAWAYTHE SECRET HIDEAWAY ON BRIDGETON HILL

Rachael Garrison knows all the shrewd ways to successfully close multi-million-dollar real estate deals with her father’s famous New York real estate enterprise. But beyond her savvy to rake in huge deals is her premonition that an impending global takeover of the world’s financial wealth is on the horizon by evil leaders of The Great Ten Nations. From New York City to the Irish Hills of Michigan, and into the streets of Detroit her life takes on enormous purpose as

THE RAPTURE: God’s Unwelcomed WrathTHE RAPTURE: God’s Unwelcomed Wrath

Kevin Trill struggles with the notion that he may have missed the Rapture. With nothing but the clothes on his back and a solid gold pocket watch, he sets off towards Garbor, a safe haven for those who haven’t yet taken the mark of thebeast. While on his way to Garbor, he meets up …

SEEKERS AND DECEIVERS: Which One are You? It Is Time to Join the Fight!

There grew an element in the valley that did not want to be ruled by the Light of the Word. Over time, they convinced the people to reject it. As they started to reject this Light, the valley grew dim and the fog rolled in. The people craved the darkness rather than the Light because they were evil. They did not want to  …

The Shadow Flames of Uluru: Book ONE in the CHAOS DOWN UNDER 

When an ancestor saddles them with the responsibility to purge Australia of a demon threatening to wipe our humanity with black flames, fraternal siblings Amber and Michael Hauksby lay their lives on the line. As the world crumbles around them into chaos, and ancient marsupials wreak havoc in their hometown, they must journey into …

WRITE PLACE, RIGHT TIME: The Pre-Apocalyptic Misadventure of a Freelance Journalist 

“Write Place, Right Time” follows the pre-apocalyptic misadventures of freelance journalist Don Lamplighter. While on what he expects to be a routine Monday night trip to a village board meeting, Lamplighter’s good nature compels him to help a stranded vehicle. Little does he know that by saving one of the car’s occupants, he sets forth a chain of what to him seem to be unrelated events where he must use his physical and social skills to save himself and others from precarious situations.

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