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Nomina Sacra in Early Graffiti (and a Mosaic)

August 18, 2011

In connection with my moving office I’ve run across a few journal articles accidentally misplaced, and have now taken the time to catch up in reading them.  One of these is a stimulating study of nomina sacra (special abbreviated forms of certain key words in early Christian discourse) in graffiti, inscriptions and a mosaic, all of which are dated (with varying degrees of confidence) to the pre-Constantinian period:

James R. Wicker, “Pre-Constantinian Nomina Sacra in a Mosaic and Church Graffiti,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 52, no. 1 (2009): 52-72.

After briefly explaining “nomina sacra”, mosaics, and “house churches”, Wicker reviews evidence from “The House of St. Peter in Capernaum” (graffiti, some of which have been dated as early as the 3rd century CE, on plaster from a domus ecclesiae beneath remains of a 5th-century octagonal church), the “Prayer Hall” more recently unearthed at Megiddo (which includes a mosaic floor with a dedicatory inscription, dated by the lead archaeologist and an expert in epigraphy to the 3rd century), and the Christian structure found in Dura Europos in the early 20th century (confidently dated to the early 3rd century CE, featuring graffiti).

Starting from the most securely dated evidence, Dura Europos, we have gaffiti employing nomina sacra forms for the Greek word “Christos”.  Likewise, in graffiti dated palaeographically to the 3rd century from the Capernaum site, we have graffiti using nomina sacra forms of the words “Kyrios“, “Iesous“, and “Christos“, “Soter“, and possibly “Theos“.   Another curious feature of one graffito (#121) is what appears to be a monogram form of the Hebrew letters yod and he (Yah, a known abbreviated form of the Tetragram, YHWH), which appears twice along with the Greek letters “IHC T”, which may represent “Iesous” and the tau referring to Jesus’ cross.

I’m myself less confident about the “prayer hall” at Megiddo, as to the dating.  On the one hand, I hesitate to take issue with Dr. Leah Di Segni (an expert epigrapher), who dates the dedicatory inscription to the 3rd century.  On the other hand, it seems curious that there was a Christian meeting place that apparently formed part of a Roman military struture in the 3rd century.

In any case, from Dura Europos alone, it is clear that the use of nomina sacra forms extended well beyond circles of copyists of Christian manuscripts, and that a much wider body of people would have seen these visual expressions of Christian piety.   Wicker is right to emphasize this.  Moreover, the Dura Europos evidence is almost as early as our earliest manuscript evidence, and confirms also that the nomina sacra practice was observed trans-locally from a very early point, e.g., evidence from Syria as well as Egypt.  If we throw in the Capernaum evidence (Galilee), this is further confirmed.

To my mind, this also further confirms the view that nomina sacra served primarily as expressions of Christian piety, and not simply as short-hand devices.

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11 Comments
  1. After hearing about the appearance of σωτηρ among the graffiti, and the fact that it could be the earliest use of the word as a nomen sacrum, I tracked down some of these sources. It turns out that it is not clear that σωτηρ was treated as a nomen sacrum in these instances. I quote Wicker’s relevant comment about graffiti #94:

    “Due to fragmentation it is impossible to know if ‘Savior’ were written in full or as a suspended nomen sacrum or if it had an overbar. However, since it followed a contracted nomen sacrum and CWT was definitely not a contracted nomen sacrum, it was probably written in full” (p. 61).

    The “CWT” here refers to the Greek σωτ, meaning that what probably appeared here was the entire word σωτηρι, since whenever σωτηρ appeared as a nomen sacrum in the first five centuries it was contracted rather than suspended.

    Wicker discusses two other possible graffiti uses of σωτηρ as a nomen sacrum (#121 & 127), but in both instances he concludes that it is more likely something different (p. 62-63).

  2. Yes, Stephen raised the same point about σωτηρ that came to my mind. That would be a significant discovery if indeed it is from the 3rd century. I wonder how confident that dating is.

    • So far as I’m aware, the main controversy about the Capernaum site has been whether the lst-century remains beneath the 5th century church are from the house of Peter (disciple of Jesus). I think it’s clear that this was a pilgrimage site, regarded by pilgrims (4/5th centuries and later) as Peter’s church/house. But there is doubt about the historical validity of this ancient notion.
      As to the dating of the graffiti, I don’t know what dispute there may be (and would welcome expert input). The graffiti were found on plaster remains beneath the mosaic floor of a 4th century church structure. So, it would seem that the graffiti must be 3rd century (or perhaps earlier). For an accessible review of the archaeological data, see James F. Strange & Hershel Shanks, “Has the House where Jesus Stayed in Capernaum been Found?” Biblical Archaeology Review Nov/Dec 1982; reprinted in Archaeology and the Bible: The Best of BAR, Volume Two, Archaeology in the World of Herod, Jesus and Paul, eds. Hershel Shanks & Dan P. Cole, Washington, DC: Biblical Archaeology Society, 1990, pp. 188-99. See also, Jack Finegan, The Archaeology of the New Tesetament: The Life of Jesus and the Beginning of the Early Church (Princeton: Princeton University PRess, 1992), 107-10.

  3. Rick permalink

    Thanks for the tip on this article, looks interesting. I also agree that nomina sacra had a wider influence outside of Christian copyists. The doc papyri are evidence of this. But, I’ve recently been questioning whether there is a discernible link between explicit occurrences (eg ‘nomina divina’ other than formulaic usage of ΚΣ) in papyri and a scribal/copyist context. Without reading this article yet, I wonder how these instances might fit within the data I’m working with. Something to think about…thanks.

    • Can you clarify for me what you mean in your third sentence?

      • Rick permalink

        In a portion of my SBL paper last year I proposed that the emergence of n.s. in doc papyri is evidence of a wider influence beyond those who came into visual contact with a MS (contra Tuckett).

  4. Stephen Walch permalink

    Does the Graffiti of the nomina sacra for “Christos” contain the three or two letter contraction (XRS/XS)? From the fact that the three letter contraction for “Iesous” is used, I’m guessing it’s the same for “Christos”?

    I couldn’t find any information really regarding the Graffiti found at Dura Europos, except for that concerning the Mithraeum.

    • Unfortunately, it appears that the planned volume on inscriptions from Dura Europos was never published. Wicker relies on Carl H. Kraeling, The Christian Building, part 2 of The Excavations at Dura-Europos, Final Report VIII (New Haven: Dura-Europos Publications, 1967).
      Per Wicker, in inscription #17, we have “XPIC” (the first three Greek letters of “Christos”), and in #18 there is “XN IN” (contracted forms of “Christon Iesoun”, “Christ Jesus”).

      • Stephen Walch permalink

        Thanks, Prof. Hurtado.

        Seeing as though the inscriptions are from the 3rd Century CE, is it a bit odd that we find the Nomina Sacra for “Soter” (“Saviour”) in the Graffiti, yet not in any of the unearthed Pre-Constantinian manuscripts of the NT, that is until the Nomina Sacra for Soter appears in later codex’s in the 4th Century?

      • Interesting, yes. I’m not quite sure what to make of it, other than observing that the extant evidence shows (1) some words rather consistently treated as n.s. (words for “God”, “Lord”, “Jesus” and “Christ”), and (2) a string of other words treated as n.s. with varying regularity/frequency. It seems to me that there was in these early centuries a certain amount of “experimentation” in extending n.s. treatment to words beyond the “fab four” I’ve listed. But outside of these, there is a “ragged” frequency.

      • Stephen Walch permalink

        Do any of the ECG (Early Christian Graffiti) contain just the Iota-Eta (ΙΗ) NS form of Ιησους, or do we really not have all that much extant ECG to determined whether the wider Christian populace knew of all the NS forms?

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