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Nomina Sacra: The Continuing Debate

September 22, 2010

The “nomina sacra“, a set of words given special treatment by copyists in ancient Christian manuscripts, continues to be a subject of debate about what the practice signifies and how it originated.  The words in question are written in a unique abbreviated form with a curious horizontal stroke placed over the abbreviation.  The earliest and most consistently treated words are the Greek words for “God,” “Lord,” “Jesus,” and “Christ.  These words are written as nomina sacra in the earliest clear instances of them in Christian manuscripts, which take us as far back as the second century CE.

Most scholars (this one included) think that (1) they originated in early Christian circles, and (2) they originated as an expression of reverence for the words so treated.  A few scholars (e.g., Robert Kraft today) propose that the practice originated among Jews and was taken over and elaborated by Christians.  Perhaps the major difficulty with this position, however, is that there is no instance of nomina sacra in any early and unambiguously Jewish manuscript.  (We have one or two manuscripts that may be of Jewish origin in which it appears that nomina sacra forms are present, but it’s not clear that they are Jewish manuscripts, and not instead manuscripts that may come from Jews who are also Christian believers.)  In no pre-Christian Jewish manuscript (e.g., from Qumran) do we find any instance of nomina sacra.

In an article published in 2009 in Journal of Biblical Literature, James R. Edwards drew attention to a fragmentary inscription from the synagogue at ancient Sardis, in which we have θυ (the nomina sacra form of the genitive of θεος, “god”) and with the horizontal stroke over it.  After reviewing what seem to me pretty good reasons for the likelihood that this inscription reflects the influence of the Christian scribal practice, Edwards (curiously to my mind) then urges that the inscription somehow lends support to the view that the nomina sacra began among Jews.  (James R. Edwards, “A Nomen Sacrum in the Sardis Synagogue,” JBL 128 [2009]: 813-21.)

I have to say I find his conclusion a bit bizarre.  This inscription he agrees is to be dated to the late 4th century, whereas we have unambiguously Christian instances from at least the mid-second century.  So, quite how this inscription is relevant to the question of origins escapes me.

Moreover, as he shows, the Sardis synagogue gives other indications of a Jewish community quite open to external influences, as reflected in the marble table in the synagogue apse decorated with Roman eagles clutching thunderbolts, and flanked by “sculpted lions from the Temple of Cybele, recycled in the synagogue ostensibly as lions of Judah” (Edwards, p. 813).  So, it would be entirely consistent with these other evidences to think that the inscription is another instance of the appropriation of things from the wider culture, in this case from Christian reverential practice in writing “theos”.  The debate will likely continue, but I don’t think the Sardis inscription has much probative significance.

(For a thorough discussion of the nomina sacra, including copious references to other scholars, see chapter 3 of my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts:  Manuscripts and Christian Origins [Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2006].  See also my essay “The Meta-Data of Early Christian Manuscripts,” on the “Essays, etc” section of this site, and also the list of nomina sacra there.)

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  1. Possibly the most amazing read I have read this week?!


  2. Even if there is no manuscript support, it is understandable why some find the Jewish source theory compelling given their propensity for reverence of the divine name as in the MT (though this is an anachronistic example).

    • As I and others previously (esp. C.H. Roberts) have argued, there is likely a relationship to the Jewish reverence of the divine name, and esp. the ancient Jewish scribal practices used in biblical texts where YHWH appears. See my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts. But the actual/particular scribal devices called “nomina sacra” appear to be invented by Christians. I’ve proposed why in an article published a decade ago, which has yet to be refuted or replaced with a superior view of the evidence.

  3. james permalink

    I find the idea a bit strange. If you shorten ‘theou’ to ‘thu’, how is that reverent?

    After all, we don’t think of the abbreviation ‘JC’ as a particularly reverent messianic epithet…

    Not that I’m disagreeing with the fact of it – it’s just that in most communication abbreviations are a result of familiarity and show informality.

    • Well, things done by people of other times and cultures will sometimes seem strange to us, which tells us more about us than about them. In the case of the nomina sacra there are good reasons for seeing the devices as originally reverential: (1) only key/certain words, earliest of which are the key terms for “God”, “Lord”, “Jesus” and “Christ; (2) the device doesn’t actually function as an abbreviation (to save space), i.e., doesn’t function where/how abbreviations usually do (at the end of lines, etc). Finally, note that the devices are then taken over into Christian iconography, where clearly the whole idea is reverence.

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