Nomina Sacra in Early Christian Manuscripts

Students of the Greek New Testament are sometimes alarmed to discover that while their Nestle-Aland Greek Text, or their UBS Greek text is quite readable, when one actually looks at photos of ancient manuscripts, even the best student has great trouble reading them!   Why? The reasons are twofold: 1) scriptum continuum is used, a continuous flow of Greek letters without separation of words, and  2) the use of abbreviations for nomina sacra,  abbreviations for sacred names and terms.

Here a few things should be said about this use of abbreviations, especially for sacred names.  In the first place, it is possible this practice owes something to the fact that early Jews were not only reluctant to say the OT name of God (regularly using circumlocutions for it) for fear of mispronouncing the holy name, but there was even the practice of combining the consonants from one sacred name with the vowels of another— which is where the term Jehovah comes from, which in fact is not a Biblical name for God per se (not one found in the Hebrew text as originally written without vowel pointing) but rather a synthesis of two names.

In any case, we find in numerous early Christian papyri and codexes the use of nomina sacra, and it will be well to spell out a few things.  Firstly, scribes realized the frequency with which words like God, Lord, Father, Jesus, Christ show up, and often in combination with terms like savior,son,spirit,Israel, Jerusalem, David, man, mother,father, and heaven, or in isolation.  Thus a system of abbreviating such words was devised, in two forms.  Sometimes the abbreviation involves the first two letters of a word so for example  IH for IHSOUS (Jesus) or XP for XPRISTOS (Christos).  Unfortunately this was not the only form abbreviations took, as sometimes a scribe would use the first and last letter of a word to abbreviate it— so for example Iota Sigma for  IHSOUS.  Fortunately the presence of an abbreviation was signaled in the text by a little horizontal line above the abbreviation.  It is interesting but odd, that in secular Greek manuscripts that same horizontal line is used to indicate letters being used as numbers.   It seems likely to me that Christian scribes were following numismatic principles of the abbreviation of names on coins, thatn that they were following the numerological practice.

If we are wondering where the term ‘paragraph’ comes from it actually comes from the ancient scribal practice of putting a paragraphus, that is a short horizontal line before the start of a new paragraph.  This horizontal line normally followed a tiny space indicating the ending of the previous paragraph.  But sadly, this practice was not always followed, even in Christian manuscripts.

If there is a lesson to be learned from all this, it is that the sentence, paragraph, chapter and verse divisions in the New Testament, even in the modern Greek text are not originally parts of what the inspired writer wrote. There is nothing inspired at all about the modern chapter and verse divisions in the English Bible— they are all a result of the efforts of an English medieval archbishop named Langton.  And sometimes his chapter and verse divisions are good, and sometimes, they are quite inappropriate.   In any case, if you are viewing the Bible as Holy Writ, it is the original words of the text, not the later punctuation, abbreviation, or versification of the text that can be seen as inspired.

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  • ben Witherington

    What is truly sad and pathetic is that you have nothing to say: 1) no reasoned arguments; 2) no historical evidence; and 3) you don’t even know what the Nomina Sacra post is about which is about abbreviating the sacred names. That’s all. It has nothing to do with errors of any kind even minor.

    If you have nothing but sarcasm and cynicism to offer, why should anyone believe you? That’s not truth over faith, that’s just you behaving badly.


  • ricke

    Thank you. I really value reading your insights on the New Testament. I recently re-listened to a recorded lecture you gave on a similar topic. I own many of your NT commentaries, but because much of my study time is also “drive time,” I wish you would consider doing some podcasts.

  • Anka_gbu

    thank you, I have recently found your blong and find it full of useful information, thank you for taking the time to do it!

  • Scott

    This is exactly why I do not understand the translators bias against capitalizing pronouns referencing deity. All capitalization and punctuation are the results of decisions made by translators. The decision to show honor to all references to God seems justified.

  • Philip B Payne

    Thanks, Ben, for highlighting nomina sacra. You might want to consider two revisions. First, you write, “It seems likely to me that Christian scribes were following numismatic principles of the abbreviation of names on coins, thatn that they were following the numerological practice.” It is unclear whether you mean:
    1. “It seems likely to me that Christian scribes were following numismatic principles of the abbreviation of names on coins, OR that they were following the numerological practice.”
    2. “It seems MORE likely to me that Christian scribes were following numismatic principles of the abbreviation of names on coins, THAN that they were following the numerological practice.”
    Am I correct guess that you mean the second of these? I suspect this since Webster’s defines numerology as “the study of numbers, as the figures designating the year of one’s birth, to determine their supposed influence on one’s life, future, etc.” It is also describes the analysis of the numerical values of letters and words to try to find hidden meanings in scripture. Neither of these has anything to do with the use of nomina sacra in my opinion. It makes more sense that these early scribes were conserving precious space on expensive writing materials while indicating special reverence for the holy names of God. The use of the same form of abbreviation for Father, Son, and Spirit in our earliest papyri is perhaps, as various scholars have argued, notably Larry Hurtado, the earliest evidence of trinitarian belief and worship of Jesus Christ.

    Concerning paragraphus (Greek: paragraphos) you write, “This horizontal line normally followed a tiny space indicating the ending of the previous paragraph.” At least in Codex Vaticanus B, the paragraphos bar is almost always relatively short and located primarily in the margin but extending slightly into the text IN BETWEEN lines. If the paragraph break occurs in the middle of a line, the paragraphos slightly underscores the first letter of the last line of the paragraph ending in the middle of this line. If a new paragraph begins at the beginning of a line, the paragraphos is immediately ABOVE its first letter and extends into the margin, effectively marking the interface between the two paragaphs. I have never observed a paragraphos in Codex Vaticanus B for which it would be correct to say, “This horizontal line followed a tiny space indicating the ending of the previous paragraph.”

    Philip B. Payne,

  • raphAH

    Dr Ben, I depended on “scholars” like you for many decades. I read your brilliant but lying books. You all spin the precious truth of the Manuscripts to support pagan Catholicism. You never show us a photograph of “Jesus” name do you? You tel us IH is for the Catholic Yea-Sus (hail Sus) when you know HaleleU-YAH is all about YAH. You decieve us ignorant trusting sheep while we trusted you and paid your salary to read and translate the text accurately. How can you sleep at night? You know very well that “Jesus” never occurs in any text before 1534 AD but as a “world scholar”, you’ll never say that will you? You have lied to us so long, that you have no conscience left for truth. There never was an Isaiah or Jeremiah or a Jesus or a Christmas or a Easter (aka Tammuz, Estar etc) but you blasphemers of His Word spew out your vile sutle Catholicism right along with Santa Claus and bunnies that lay eggs. Better store up some of those big love offerings, you merchants of idolatry, because more and more of us ignorant laymen are waking up, learning AbraUW, IbreW (Ibraisti), Coptic and Hellenic and are reading the Scriptures for ourselves. You change the Original Scriptures thousands of times and think that Rev 22:18-19 is a myth too. If you think I am harsh with your deceptions, wait until you meet the El YAH whose words you so arrogantly change. Try for some honest scholars.

  • Benw333

    Sadly you have been badly deceived, especially about the use of the name Jesus. It occurs for example in p46 from the second century A.D. and it occurs in the Acts fragment I have personally held in my hand. I am sorry you have become captive to bad theology and worse history, but you have. Repent RaphAH. Repent. Nothing that is historically false can be theologically true, and you have believed some big falsehoods when it comes to the sacred names and their history.

  • Mada

    I dont understand how people can say the Saviours name is Jesus and why anobody must repent if they want to use the true Hebrew name of OUR Saviour. It is just logical (if you have logic) to want to call someone on his birthname and not some twisted copy of it. The Saviour was a Hebrew person, He came in the Name of His Father. These two facts alone eliminates the modern name Jesus totally. The Fathers name (however you want to pronounce it – YHWH) has no connection to the word jesus. So when the Saviour said He came IN HIS FATHER’S NAME, surely He meant that! And the name jesus is not even closely related to anything Hebrew, so just ask yourself honestly where the word comes from. And ask yourself, why would anybody even want to change the name of the Saviour from what it was prophesied about in the Old Testament, what He was called in the Biblical time of Hebrews, and what the old churchfathers called Him? Why would anybody want to change it….hmmmm… if His name is the Name above all Names and I was the Deceiver, I would definately deceive people in believing that Name is something else. You don’t know you are deceived untill you see the deceipt yourself. But until then, you will be agressive and unfriendly to anyone who tries to show you the truth. Mada

  • Benw333

    Mada the name Yahweh is the name of the person Christians call the Heavenly Father. It is not the name of the Son, whose Hebrew name would be Ye-shua, which means Yahweh Saves. This is not the same name as Yahweh. In any case we are talking about a deity that presents himself in three distinguishable persons, Father, Son, Spirit, who share one divine essence. This is, and has always been Christian theology, from the time of the NT itself. Both the Father and Jesus are called God in the NT (Jesus seven times, the Father many more). The reason for repentance is quite simple—- both the NT and Christian theology for centuries completely disagrees with what was being suggested, and it is my responsibility as a teacher to make this clear. It’s the loving thing to do. There are serious problems with the theology of various messianic Jewish groups these days, and this is one of them.