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Early Christian Manuscripts: Encore

February 20, 2017

Early Christian manuscripts, especially copies of texts that served as scripture, exhibit both plain, functional qualities, and also distinctive features that are purely visual and that reflect a desire to mark the manuscripts and their texts with a Christian identity.

I’ve posted on some of these matters before (simply click on “codex” and/or “manuscripts” in the word-cloud on the right-hand side of the home page).  But I want to underscore two interesting things that reflect two different aims, which are combined in early Christian manuscripts.

For anyone who has viewed high-quality literary manuscripts of the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, the Christian literary manuscripts of the same period will seem somewhat plain in comparison.  Typically, the “hand” of these Christian manuscripts is not as elegant or “calligraphic” as in the pagan manuscripts reflecting elite circles of readers.  The impression given is of functionality as being the important factor.  These Christian manuscripts are readable, to be sure, with individual letters separated and quite legibly formed, and generous spacing between the lines.

Moreover, there are devices such as extra spacing to mark off sense-units (roughly the size of modern-day sentences).  There is also often elementary punctuation.  These we may think of rightly as readers’ aids intended to facilitate the reading of these manuscripts (which was dominantly done in a group setting).

As I say, by comparison, pagan literary texts are often in a noticeably more elegant hand.  The same is true also of early Jewish manuscripts, including those in Hebrew.  So, to repeat for emphasis, functionality, the ready use of the texts in question seems to have been the main object reflected in earliest Christian manuscripts.

And yet, these same manuscripts also demonstrate the distinctive early Christian copyist practice known as the “nomina sacra,” the writing of certain words in an abbreviated form and with a curious horizontal stroke written over the abbreviated forms. (For more on the nomina sacra, again click on the term on the word-cloud, and see the fuller discussion in my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts:  Manuscripts and Christian Origins, Eerdmans, 2006.)  The words most consistently treated in this way in our earliest manuscripts are Iesous, Christos, Kyrios,  and Theos, with other words added quickly, that together form core words in early Christian discourse.

But the point I highlight here is that the nomina sacra are purely visual phenomena.  The words so treated were read out as if written normally.  In previous publications, I have referred to the nomina sacra as giving our earliest evidence of an emerging (and, granted, still elementary) early Christian “visual culture”.  These devices show that the physical objects, the manuscripts, were themselves important, and so were marked to make them Christian.  A Christian identity, we might say, was conferred thereby on these manuscripts.  (Another noteworthy feature of early Christianity is the strong preference for the codex, particularly for texts treated as scripture.)

Further, these nomina sacra required readers to be familiar with them.  In a sense, they were an obstacle to readers who weren’t familiar with them. This seems to go against the other features that functioned as readers’ aids.  That shows us that the nomina sacra were a sufficiently important and sufficiently widespread Christian convention that they were not a problem for Christian readers.

So, on the one hand, earliest Christian manuscripts exhibit an intention to make the copies of key texts easily readable (and probably for a certain spectrum of reading ability), giving the manuscripts a somewhat plain and functional appearance.  And yet, on the other hand, these manuscripts also reflect a convention of bestowing a visual distinctiveness and Christian identity to the copies of the texts that they contain.  This means that these manuscripts themselves already held a certain importance as physical artifacts of Christian faith.  They were not simply crib sheets for some supposed “oral performance” from memory.  The nomina sacra represent a desire to express Christian faith in the way certain words were written, giving a distinctive visual and physical registering of faith.

In my recent book, Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, 2016), I devote a chapter to what I refer to as the “bookish” quality of early Christianity.   By that term I refer to the significant place that reading texts had in their gatherings, and the energies devoted to composing, copying, and distributing texts in early Christian circles.

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9 Comments
  1. Dr Hurtado, is there any indication that anti-christian pressure had a part in the production of this “secret code,” in order to make the writings seem less treasonous (all that non-emperor ” κύριος” talk) or “atheist” to the ruling polytheists of the day?

  2. Dr Hurtado, thanks again for an interesting post. On this occasion I have a question regarding the reading out loud of the nomina sacra. Especially given that there seems to be a possible connection to the jewish divine name issue (I think I nay even have learned that from you), how can we be confident that the earliest readings were read as if written in full?
    Blessings (if that’s allowed on this blog;)

    • In ancient Jewish texts we have substitutions for the divine name (e.g., adonai for YHWH), and other indications of a concern widely shared to avoid pronouncing YHWH. There is no such evidence/indication with the terms treated as nomina sacra, and every indication that they were read out as if spelled in full.

  3. Donald Jacobs permalink

    This is my favourite subject! About 15 years ago I read everything I could find on the topic from Paap, Roberts, Metzger and so on, down to your “proposal” article and Trobisch’s book, both of which were relatively new at the time. In my reading, I remember coming across the comment (in your work, or elsewhere) that, despite the fact nomina sacra forms are ubiquitous in Christian texts, and evidently a significant religious phenomenon, there is no discussion of them anywhere in the writings that survive from early Christians. Is that true? No discussion or explicit reference to them anywhere? If so, I wonder, how late, and when was the first discussion of nomina sacra as a textual phenomenon?

    • To my knowledge, the earliest scholarly work that gave the name “nomina sacra
      Traube, Ludwig. Nomina Sacra: Versuch einer Geschichte der christlichen Kürzung. Munich: C. H. Beck, 1907.

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        Was there any earlier discussion that used a different name for the phenomenon? It’s amazing to think that all the early Christian texts used them, but no one ever commented on them. Does it indicate the early Christians didn’t think it was important? Or was their significance so taken for granted it required no comment? It’s difficult to know how to interpret the silence.

      • The practice appears to have been commenced so early and taken up so widely among Christians that they did not feel it necessary to justify or explain it. It was obviously important, given its ubiquity, both in texts and then later in icons as well.

  4. Thanks for this, Larry. I had to laugh, though, at this line: “there are devices such as extra spacing to mark off sense-units (roughly the size of modern-day sentences). There is also often elementary punctuation.” Kinda reminded me of so many PPT slides of Christian songs I’ve seen in churches throughout North America: barely literate, missing most or all punctuation, and with only a little “extra spacing to mark off sense-units” (i.e., stanzas). Another way we’re faithful to the pattern of the early church! (Sheesh.)

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