“Nomen Sacrum” is the term used for certain abbreviations that are found in ancient manuscripts of the New Testament books. These abbreviations for the “sacred names” are well known by church historians, theologians and text critics but not much known outside of those circles. I thought that Christian Ratburghers would be interested in the way the earliest Christian scribes abbreviated the names for God and Jesus.
This post is a follow-up to my post last month, which was a book review of The Earliest Christian Artifacts, by Larry Hurtado. That book was a historian reporting on what he found when he spent some time speaking with the papyrologists who study the earliest New Testament manuscripts, and what he saw when he examined these precious fragments of early Christian culture.
I hope Christians are familiar with the Tetragrammaton. That is the Hebrew abbreviation for the name of God. We see it as YHWH sometimes. When you are reading some of the English translations, you should know that if you see the word “Lord,” that was translated from the Hebrew “Adonai,” but if you see the word “Lord” in small capitals, that is the translation for YHWH.
This springs from the Commandment (Exodus chapter 20):
7 Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.
The Jews developed a very careful practice to make sure that nobody would violate the Commandment. They “built a fence around the Law,” and made it a rule that nobody should say the Name at all. YHWH does not even abbreviate the Name that God gave to Moses (Exodus 3:13-15); it actually abbreviates Ha Shem, which means “The Name.”
Early Christian scribes
So, mindful of the precedent that they saw in their Jewish Scriptures, Christian scribes carried the careful handling of the Name into their new Greek Scriptures. Special abbreviations appear in the oldest manuscripts. The earliest and most common were special abbreviations for God (Theos), Jesus (Iesus), Lord (Kyrios), and Christ (Christos).
When I say “special abbreviations,” I mean that they did not handle these abbreviations like ordinary abbreviations. They were not used to save space at the end of a line, nor were they used in manuscripts that abbreviated a lot of other words. These abbreviations were clearly special to the scribes. So, for example, it was uncommon to abbreviate Theos as Theta-eta: “ΘΗ.” What they more commonly did was to abbreviate Theos as “θΣ,” or “Ths,” using the first and last letters (in the second and third centuries the manuscripts were all written in uppercase, or “majuscule” letters). The scribes showed that these abbreviations were special by drawing a horizontal line over the top of the abbreviation.
Likewise, for Iesus (Jesus), they used “ΙΣ” (IS), though sometimes they did use “ΙН” (IE).
In the late third century, several sorts of scribal experimentation are seen, with additional words abbreviated as sacred names:
These additional terms are inconsistent whether they are treated as nomen sacrum, with only a few examples of the cases at the bottom of the list. The thing that jumps out, though, is the way they are applied in context. So, for example, “Lord” is treated with the special abbreviation when it refers to God or Jesus, but not if it refers to Herod or anyone else.
There is a special case, in addition to the sacred names above, that is really intriguing. In the very earliest manuscripts, the words “cross” and “crucify” get a peculiar treatment. The Greek words “stauros” and “stauroo” are abbreviated with “TR” or tau-rho, in a special ligature. The rho is elevated above the line of text. Why not abbreviate using the leading letter? It is a visual thing:
The special tau-rho ligature makes a visual image that reminds us of Jesus on the cross. It precedes the use of the commonly-recognized chi-rho by over a century.
In his book The Earliest Christian Artifacts, Larry Hurtado drew a few inferences from these features of ancient manuscripts. He especially noted that the tau-rho ligature is so common in the early manuscripts that historians refer to it as the “staurogram.” Hurtado took issue with historians and art historians who point to late fourth century carvings and mosaics as ‘the earliest visual depictions of Christian themes,’ and says that just looking at the manuscripts reveals this visual Christian image that is at least two centuries older.
Hurtado also noted that the special treatment of the nomen sacrum indicates that the special abbreviations were meaningful in the worship life of the people who commissioned the manuscripts.
My own inference is that the nomen sacrum are evidence that shows the canonical books of the New Testament were considered sacred by the scribes that made the copies. This evidence from the earliest manuscripts is consistent with other evidence that says the New Testament books were considered to be inspired scripture from the beginning when they first appeared.
The books of the New Testament were not selected at some late date from a long list, as some famous anti-Christians charge. They were not the books that remained after a supposedly very large collection of “potential scriptures” had been winnowed. The canonical New Testament books were treated as scripture by the scribes who made the earliest existing copies.
Those other books were either known, and used, but not considered as scripture because they were not “apostolic,” or else they were simply books that belonged to non-Christians, never were used by Christians, and are only used now by anti-Christians who mean to confuse the issues.
Trust the New Testament.