Nomina Sacra in Early Christian Manuscripts

Nomina Sacra in Early Christian Manuscripts October 9, 2011

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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