What are Nomina Sacra?

Nomina Sacra, Matthew 1:1, Papyrus 1 (A.D. 200-299)

Nomina Sacra is a method early scribes used to contract Sacred Names when copying the New Testament. Although the term nomina sacra (plural; singular: nomen sacrum) is Latin1, it has a modern origin in Ludwig Traube’s 1907 book Nomina sacra: Versuch einer Geschichte der christlichen Kürzung (Essay on the history of Christian abbreviations). In my last article, What is Scriptio Continua?, I indicated spaces and punctuation weren’t used in some ancient manuscripts because space could be saved when writing on expensive media. In the case of nomina sacra, the contractions weren’t used to save space, but to show a reverence for the names of God.

Nomina Sacra, John 1:1-2, Codex Vaticanus (A.D. 300-350)
Nomina Sacra, John 1:1-2, Codex Vaticanus (A.D. 300-350)

There were 15 common words which are written as nomina sacra, although some scribes used additional ones (i.e. blood, crucify). There are two common ways of creating a nomen sacrum: the suspended form uses the first two or three letters of the word, while the contracted form uses the first one or two letters and last letter of the word. Greek uses five noun cases, so a noun can have several nomina sacra. Since the nomina sacra were created differently in different areas, they were not standardized. This means there are quite a few nomina sacra for some words, some of which were only used in a few manuscripts. For example, English equivalents for the word Jesus could be:

  • JE (suspended form – JEsus)
  • JES (suspended form – JESus)
  • JES (contacted form – JEsuS)
  • JS (contacted form – JesuS)

I don’t know if scribes typically used upper case, lower case, or a mixture of both2. In my research, I reviewed papyrus manuscripts, which only included upper case letters (Greek didn’t use lower case letters at all when papyri was commonly used). The contractions would have a bar, or overline, across the top, to indicate to the reader it was a nomen sacrum to be treated reverently, and not a word itself.

The New Testament was written in Greek, so it’s not surprising the contractions are found in the earliest Greek New Testament manuscripts. Nomina sacra were used in Bibles, commentaries, prayers, letters and even on jewelry. Because Christianity quickly spread across the Roman empire, nomina sacra are also found in other languages, such as Latin, Coptic3, Slovonic, Armenian, Gothic and Cyrillic. The use of contractions in this form with the overline appears to be exclusive to Christianity (and heresies loosely based on some form of belief in Jesus); non-Christian authors didn’t consistently use anything similar. Nomina sacra was so prevalent in Christian writing that when a fragment of a manuscript is found with a nomen sacrum, it’s often assumed the fragment is of Christian origin, even if nothing else in the fragment can be identified.4

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. …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.5

Scholars are unsure when scribes started using the contractions, but some people argue for the late first century. One belief is that Greek speaking Jewish Christians started abbreviating the word θεός (God) by removing the vowels, leaving ΘϹ, in the same way traditional Hebrew wasn’t written with vowels. The reason for this was to be distinct from the word θεός used by the pagan religions of the Roman Empire, to make clear the Christian God is not the same as the Roman gods. Soon, scribes started contracting other words related to God (Father, Christ, Jesus, Savor), then words which had religious importance to Christians.

It’s also theororized early Christians wanted to continue to show special reverence towards the written name of God, as the Jews had done for centuries. Early variations in how the contractions were written may be evidence there was no early consensus on how it should be done.

Another theory argues scribes used the letters ΙΗ in place of the Greek word for Jesus, Ἰησοῦς. However, ΙΗ is also the Greek number for 18. The non-canonical book Epistle of Barnabas 9:7 (Lightfoot) (A.D. 70-132) related the significance of the number 18 and the letters IH to both Abraham and Jesus6. The church father Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 150-215) also made the connection between ΙΗ and Jesus in his work The Stromata, or Miscellanies, Book VI, Chapter XI7. After using ΙΗ to represent Jesus, scribes decided to add other contractions, and use the overline in them to show their distinctiveness.

What seems to be the least likely theory are the claims Jews used nomina sacra prior to the birth of Jesus, when writing Greek copies of the Old Testament8. When writing the sacred name LORD, scribes may have started using ΚϹ instead of the full word κύριος which is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word יהוה, or YHWH. Some of the Dead Sea Scrolls have ΚϹ in them, and Jews still use G-D to avoid writing the name of God, but there’s a dearth of distinctly Jewish writings that use something similar.

Some skeptics claim the early Christians didn’t consider Jesus to be God, but that Emperor Constantine and the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325 elevated Jesus from a mere man to the status of God for political reasons9. Pre-Constantine New Testament manuscripts use KC in place of the Greek word κύριος when referring to God the Father (LORD) or Jesus, showing Jesus at an equal level as YHWH (God) in the Old Testament, clearly contradicting the Constantine conspiracy theory.

Nomina Sacra, Matthew 1:1, Papyrus 1 (A.D. 200-299)
Nomina Sacra, Matthew 1:1, Papyrus 1 (A.D. 200-299)

Regardless of when nomina sacra was first introduced into the early Christian writings, or by whom, these contractions became the standard way to write these sacred names for hundreds of years.

I found several resources which proposed “Jesus Christ, the Son of God” in Mark 1:1 could be shortened to four nomina sacra, and scriptio continua 10 can make it even more confusing.

  • The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. (Mark 1:1 ESV)
  • Ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ υἱοῦ θεοῦ. (Mark 1:1 Greek)
  • Ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου ΙΥΧΥΥΥΘΥ. (Mark 1:1 with nomina sacra)
  • ἈΡΧῊΤΟῦΕὐΑΓΓΕΛΊΟΥΙΥΧΥΥΥΘΥ. (Mark 1:1 with nomina sacra and scriptio continua)

Nomina Sacra in New Testament Manuscripts

EnglishStrong’s ConcordanceGreek root word (lower case, upper case)Greek Nomina Sacra (lower case, upper case)TransliterationTransliteration Nomina Sacra (lower case, upper case)
© BibleQuestions.info, 25-Jan-2020 Some of these are possible nomen sacrum based on Greek noun cases and may not have actually been used in New Testament manuscripts or by the church fathers.
     Ancient Greek Language Support for LibreOffice / OpenOffice
     Bokedal, Thomas. “Christ,” “Son,” and “David” among the Early Sacred Names (Nomina Sacra). Barry, John D., editor. Lexham Bible Dictionary (Lexham Press: 2016) (Logos)
     Comfort, Philip Wesley and Barrett, David P. The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 2001), 34. (Logos)
     Nomina Sacra (Wikipedia)
a man, mankind,
human being
G444ἄνθρωπος
ἌΝΘΡΩΠΟΣ
αθν, ανoν, ανoυ, ανε, ανοισ, ανοσ, ανουσ, ανω, ανων
ΑΘΝ, ΑΝOΝ, ΑΝOΥ, ΑΝΕ, ΑΝΟΙΣ, ΑΝΟΣ, ΑΝΟΥΣ, ΑΝΩ, ΑΝΩΝ
anthróposanoϲ
ANOϹ
DavidG1138Δαυίδ
ΔΑΥΊΔ
δαδ
ΔΑΔ
Dabiddad
DAD
GodG2316Θεός
ΘΕΌΣ
θκω, θν, θσ, θϲ, θυ, θω
ΘΚΩ, ΘΝ, ΘΣ, ΘϹ, ΘΥ, ΘΩ
theosthϲ
THϹ
IsraelG2474Ἰσραήλ
ἸΣΡΑΉΛ
ιηλ
ΙΗΛ
Israél
JerusalemG2419Ἱερουσαλήμ
ἹΕΡΟΥΣΑΛΉΜ
ιλημ
ΙΛΗΜ
Ierousalém
JesusG2424Ἰησοῦς
ἸΗΣΟῦΣ
ih, ιην, ιησ, ιησυ, ιηυ, ισ, ιυ
IH, ΙΗΝ, ΙΗΣ, ΙΗΣΥ, ΙΗΥ, ΙΣ, ΙΥ
Iésous, ie, ieϲ, ihs
, IE, IEϹ, IHS
LordG2962Κύριος
ΚΎΡΙΟΣ
κε, κν, κσ, κυ, κω
ΚΕ, ΚΝ, ΚΣ, ΚΥ, ΚΩ
kurios
motherG3384Μήτηρ
ΜΉΤΗΡ
μηρ, μρα, μρι, μρν, μρσ
ΜΗΡ, ΜΡΑ, ΜΡΙ, ΜΡΝ, ΜΡΣ
métér
HeavenG3772οὐρανός
ΟὐΡΑΝΌΣ
ουνoν, ουνoυ, ουνε, ουνοσ, ουνω, στου
ΟΥΝOΝ, ΟΥΝOΥ, ΟΥΝΕ, ΟΥΝΟΣ, ΟΥΝΩ, ΣΤΟΥ
ouranos
FatherG3962Πατήρ
ΠΑΤΉΡ
παρ, περ, πηρ, πρ, πρα, πρι, πρν, πρσ, πσ, πτρα
ΠΑΡ, ΠΕΡ, ΠΗΡ, ΠΡ, ΠΡΑ, ΠΡΙ, ΠΡΝ, ΠΡΣ, ΠΣ, ΠΤΡΑ
patérper
PER
SpiritG4151πνεῦμα
ΠΝΕῦΜΑ
πνα, πναι, πνι, πνοσ, πνσ
ΠΝΑ, ΠΝΑΙ, ΠΝΙ, ΠΝΟΣ, ΠΝΣ
pneumapna
PNA
CrossG4716Σταυρός
ΣΤΑΥΡΌΣ
σρν, στε, στν, στρν, στρον, στροσ, στρου, στρω, στσ, στυ, στω
ΣΡΝ, ΣΤΕ, ΣΤΝ, ΣΤΡΝ, ΣΤΡΟΝ, ΣΤΡΟΣ, ΣΤΡΟΥ, ΣΤΡΩ, ΣΤΣ, ΣΤΥ, ΣΤΩ
staurosstrϲ
STRϹ
SaviorG4990Σωτήρ
ΣΩΤΉΡ
σηρ, σρα, σρι, σρν, σρσ
ΣΗΡ, ΣΡΑ, ΣΡΙ, ΣΡΝ, ΣΡΣ
sótérsor
SOR
SonG5207Υἱός
ΥἹΌΣ
υε, υιν, υισ, υιυ, υν, υσ, υυ, υω
ΥΕ, ΥΙΝ, ΥΙΣ, ΥΙΥ, ΥΝ, ΥΣ, ΥΥ, ΥΩ
huios
ChristG5547Χριστός
ΧΡΙΣΤΌΣ
χε, χν, χρ, χρν, χρσ, χρυ, χρω, χσ, χυ, χω
ΧΕ, ΧΝ, ΧΡ, ΧΡΝ, ΧΡΣ, ΧΡΥ, ΧΡΩ, ΧΣ, ΧΥ, ΧΩ
Christoschrc, chc
CHRC, CHC

Disclaimer: I’ve never studied Greek, so all of the information I’ve presented here comes from books and the Internet. I can’t vouch all of the information in this article is accurate, but I tried to fact check before presenting it. I apologize for any errors.

Note: I struggled to figure out how to display the nomina sacra properly with the overline. I eventually found HTML supports the overline using this command

  • <span style=”text-decoration:overline”>ΘΝ</span>
  • The result is: ΘΝ

Resources

  • Ancient Greek Language Support for LibreOffice / OpenOffice Accessed 01-Jan-2020.
  • Barry, John D. Lexham Bible Dictionary (Lexham Press, 2016) Jewish Education. (Logos)
  • Bokedal, Thomas. “Christ,” “Son,” and “David” among the Early Sacred Names (Nomina Sacra). Barry, John D., editor. Lexham Bible Dictionary (Lexham Press: 2016) (Logos)
  • Comfort, Philip Wesley and Barrett, David P. The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 2001), 34. (Logos)
  • Hurtado, L. W. “The Origin of the Nomina Sacra: A Proposal” (Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 117, no. 4, 1998) Pages 655-673. (JSTOR) Accessed 03-Jan-2020.
  • Nomina Sacra (Wikipedia)
  • Scott, Shane. The Nomina Sacra (Expository Files, 2013) Accessed 28-Dec-2029.

Footnotes

  1. Latin is technically considered a dead language as the have been no native speakers of it for over 1,000 years, but it is not an extinct language as it is still in use in some areas, particularly the Catholic church and by classical scholars.
  2. I included both upper- and lower-case nomen sacrum in my chart because I don’t know Greek, so  being able to see both cases helped in my research.
  3. Coptic is the Egyptian language written using the Greek alphabet.
  4. Hurtado, L. W. “The Origin of the Nomina Sacra: A Proposal” (Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 117, no. 4, 1998) Pages 658, 660. (JSTOR)
  5. Comfort, Philip. Encountering the Manuscripts: An Introduction to New Testament Paleography and Textual Criticism (B&H Academic, 2005) Page 253. Quoted in: Andrews, Edward D. New Testament Textual Studies: What are the Nomina Sacra and Their Origin? (Christian Publishing House Blog, March 14, 2018) Accessed 31-Dec-2019.
  6. For the scripture saith; And Abraham circumcised of his household eighteen males and three hundred. What then was the knowledge given unto him? Understand ye that He saith the eighteen first, and then after an interval three hundred. In the eighteen ‘I’ stands for ten, ‘Η’ for eight. Here thou hast JESUS (ΙΗΣΟΥΣ). And because the cross in the ‘Τ’ was to have grace, He saith also three hundred. So He revealeth Jesus in the two letters, and in the remaining one the cross. (Epistle of Barnabas 9:7 Lightfoot)
  7. As then in astronomy we have Abraham as an instance, so also in arithmetic we have the same Abraham. “For, hearing that Lot was taken captive, and having numbered his own servants, born in his house, 318 (tih),” he defeats a very great number of the enemy. They say, then, that the character representing 300 is, as to shape, the type of the Lord’s sign, and that the Iota and the Eta indicate the Saviour’s name…. (Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, or Miscellanies, Book VI, Chapter XI)
  8. The earliest Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, was written about 300-200 B.C.
  9. Did Emperor Constantine Create the Canon?
  10. What is Scriptio Continua?

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