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“Nomina Sacra”: Further Observations

March 6, 2017

The scribal convention known as the “nomina sacra” is among the earliest expressions of an early Christian “visual culture,” and deserves more attention that it has been given characteristically beyond circles of papyrologists.  Questions about when the practice began and how it began continue, although I remain supportive of the hypothesis I put forth in a 1998 journal article that it all may have begun with an abbreviated form of Jesus’ name, using the first two Greek letters, ΙΗ.[1]

In any case, this particular nomen sacrum is the only one commented on in early Christian texts, the earliest such reference in the Epistle of Barnabas 9.7-8 (a similar reference in Clement of Alexandria, Strommata 6.278-80). Specifically, these references note the combined numerical value of the two Greek letters in question, which is 18. The references don’t explain why this number is meaningful, perhaps because they expected this to be sufficiently well known, or (as may more likely be the case) because the original meaning for Christians had been forgotten. I have attempted to recover that original meaning of the abbreviation in my proposal, I won’t linger over this matter here.[2]

Instead, I want to draw attention to the ways that the nomina sacra, and especially this particular abbreviated form of Jesus’ name, came to mark out early Christian copies of texts. Let’s return to that Barnabas text, where the author gives a remarkable reading of the number of Abraham’s servants given in Genesis 14:14. Per the Genesis account, Abraham’s servants numbered 318. Barnabas observes that this number can be represented with the Greek letters ΙΗ (which = 18) and Τ (which = 300). He also notes that the T is the shape of the cross, and that the letters IH are the first two letters of Jesus’ name. Barnabas’ conclusion: “So the text reveals Jesus in the two letters [IH], and the cross in the other one [T]” (9.8). In short, Barnabas takes the number of Abraham’s servants as a type or foreshadowing of the redemptive force of Jesus’ crucifixion.

This has been noted in earlier discussions of the nomina sacra, but what has not so often been noted is that early Christian copies of Genesis can be identified readily by the way this number in Genesis 14:14 is written: as TIH. The “normal” way that numbers were given in Greek literary manuscripts was to write out the word: e.g., “three hundred and eighteen.” But, such was the antiquity and significance of the abbreviation of Jesus’ name as IH for early Christians that it affected the way the number of Abraham’s servants was written in early Christian copies of Genesis.[3] Here we see an early Christian belief about Jesus’ significance both expressed visually in this abbreviation of his name, and also in the way that this number (318) was written in early Christian copies of Genesis.

Similarly, early Christian copies of other OT texts exhibit key nomina sacra forms, including, notably, the Greek name of “Joshua” (Ιησους) written as a nomen sacrum. Again, the rationale for this was that the figure given this name (by Moses) thus served to prefigure Jesus of Nazareth. That is, in this view this figure bore Jesus’ name in anticipation of him, and so the name was written as a nomen sacrum. This is another visual/physical expression of early Christian beliefs that is often overlooked, or (among scholars who don’t understand the typology involved) taken as a puzzling scribal phenomenon.

In these and other ways, however, early Christian manuscripts give us fascinating glimpses of the emergence of a Christian “visual culture.”

[1] Larry W. Hurtado, “The Origin of the Nomina Sacra: A Proposal,” Journal of Biblical Literature 117(1998): 655-73. I have summarized my case for this proposal in my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 111-20. My proposal builds on some hesitant suggestions made by Colin H. Roberts in his discussion of the nomina sacra in his Schweich Lecture, Manuscript, Society and Belief in Christian Egypt (London: Oxford University Press, 1979), 26-48.

[2] I proposed that the writing of Jesus’ name as IH originated in circles where its numerical value was appreciated by aligning it with the numerical value of the Hebrew word for “life” (חי).

[3] E.g., P.Yale 1; LDAB 3081; VH 12; Rahlfs 814, dated 2nd/3rd century AD, a single leaf of a codex containing Genesis 14:5-8, 12-15.

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  1. Donald Jacobs permalink

    The very earliest instances of “Jesus” as nomina sacra seem to be contractions rather than suspensions. In P46, P69, P75, P90 instances of “Jesus” appear as contractions IHN and so on, rather than the suspension IH which tends to appear in later manuscripts such as P18. Is that a fair observation, and is isn’t it the opposite of what one would expect to find if IH was the original form?

    • No, Donald. The earliest reference to an abbreviated form of Jesus’ name is Epistle of Barnabas (cited in my posting), ca. mid-2nd century CE, and the IH form appears in the Egerton fragment (P.Lond.Christ. 1) and P45 for example, which come from sometime between late 2nd and mid 3rd century CE. The form dies out after the 4th century, and the contracted forms survive. So, the IH form looks like an early experiment (I’ve proposed it as the originating experiment) that was succeeded by what became the standardized technique of contraction. You mis-read the data.

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