Nomina Sacra and early Christian manuscripts

by Luke Wayne
8/31/16

Nomina Sacra, or "Sacred Names," are abbreviations that were used in early Christian manuscripts to mark out certain common names or titles related to God in general and Jesus Christ specifically. For example, words like "theos" (God), "kurious" (Lord), "Christos" (Christ/Messiah), and "Iesous" (Jesus) were often abbreviated to just two letters with a distinctive line over them. This practice appears to go back to the earliest Christian manuscripts. It is also uniquely Christian. In fact, if scholars find a tiny fragment of an ancient text that is too small to figure out what the writing is about, but they see a Nomina Sacra on it, they conclude that the text was written by a Christian scribe1 (or a scribe from a heretical offshoot from Christianity). While the practice clearly began in biblical Greek, we even see it used in Christian writings in other languages like Latin, Coptic, Gothic, and Armenian.2 Scholars debate exactly where this practice came from, but however it started, it tells us at least two things about early Christianity.

First and foremost, this points to the early Christian belief in the deity of Christ. Early Jews had their own unique scribal practices to mark out and honor the name of God in their writings, as well as divine like Elohim.3 For Christians to develop a practice that marks out the names of God and Jesus alike, in the same manner, speaks volumes. Christians didn't do this with the names of revered men like the apostles or the prophets. The name "iesous" would be written out in full whenever it was the name of another man, but was abbreviated to a Nomina Sacra when the text was speaking of Jesus Christ. The word "kurious" would be written out in full if it referred to a normal human lord or master, but was abbreviated to a Nomina Sacra when it applied to God or Jesus.4 The names and titles of Jesus were set apart and honored in exactly the same way with no distinction. While there are a few occasional exceptions where a scribe used the Nomina Sacra form out of habit in places that are not directly referring to God or Jesus, these instances are rare and are exactly the kind of mistakes you would expect from people using this convention for these words so often.5 It is clear that these Christian writers honored "Jesus" and "Christ" as divine names. The practice is thus a fascinating evidence of the reverent belief in the deity of Christ held by Christians throughout the ancient world and from the earliest years of Christianity.

Secondly, since the Nomina Sacra are a remarkably consistent convention throughout the span of early Christian writings we have, this demonstrates that the earliest Christians were already a distinct community from the culture around them. It is not just that they abbreviated these particular words, but that they used and unique system of abbreviation that no one else in the culture was using. Compressing the word to two of its letters and then marking it with a distinctive line over the top to abbreviate a word was uniquely a Christian system.6 For Christians scribes everywhere to share a unique convention of writing that even crossed languages is remarkable. The fact that even the heretical offshoots of Christianity in the 2nd and 3rd centuries wrote in this convention while no one else in the ancient world did shows just how early it goes back. We know that Christians didn't dress differently than their countrymen, or speak a different language or eat distinctive foods. Yet clearly they had a unique identity and bond of fellowship with one another that allowed a unique practice like this to be shared by virtually all Christians everywhere. There was a real, tangible sense in which Christians everywhere were one people. They were separate enough from the world around them and united enough to another that across great geographic distances and communication barriers, they shared things in common with one another in ways that distinguished them from the world around them.

In these two ways, the fascinating practice of the Nomina Sacra in early Christian writings testifies to the deity of Christ and the power of the gospel to make a new and distinct people from men and women of every nation.

  • 1. Larry Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts (William B Eerdman's Publishing, 2006) 96
  • 2. ibid, 96 (details are given in the footnote on that page)
  • 3. ibid, 101-104
  • 4. ibid, 129-130
  • 5. ibid, 126
  • 6. ibid, 111