Thursday, December 22, 2022

Amalar of Metz on nomina sacra/orthography


I was recently skimming through Amalar of Metz' On the Liturgy (specifically, volume 2) and came across an interesting couple of pages. Not only does Amalar write about the nomina sacra, he also gives a bit of precedent to questions about orthography reflected in the Tyndale House Greek New Testament.

Amalar wrote a letter "To his dearest father and most acute rhetorician, the prophet Jeremiah in our Jerusalem." The reference to Jerusalem threw me because at first, I was looking for a ninth-Jeremiah in Jerusalem, unsuccessfully. Eric Knibbs' notes on the text at the back of the volume identify this person as "Archbishop Jeremy of Sens (818–827)."

Amalar writes (Knibbs' translation, pp. 267–269):

Our countrymen write the name of our savior Jesus with the letter "H," and I am puzzled about the reason. I know that, if there is a reason that an "H" in Jesus's name is placed after the "I," it is not unknown to you. If you know, tell your son. If you do know, I am certain that it will be in the storeroom of your mind to pass the reason on to me. ... Now the Greeks write that name with the letters "I" and "C," and they read "Isus." Thus it seems to me—if it does not seem otherwise to you—that what we read as "Iesus" should be written with an "I" and an "H" and a "C" or an "S." I ask that you tell me with which letters I should write the stated name.

Jeremy of Sens responded and explained to Amalar that the letter was [and I am using lower-case here for clarity] not actually 'h' but 'η,' though they are written the same.

To be honest, I have wondered this too—why do we see IHS in the Latin tradition, which we still see today? I remember as a kid somebody in my rural southern church culture explained to me that he thought it meant "In His Service." I guess Jeremy's answer still doesn't really explain why we see the Greek eta in the Latin tradition, only that the 'H' is an eta. Has anyone come across any patristic/medieval discussions of why the Greek eta was used? If any of you, our readers, does know, I am certain that it will be in the storeroom of your mind to pass the reason on to me.


  1. I would hazard a guess it is due to the uncial Greek η/Η looking like the Latin H (of which, you will well know, there's no "H" in Greek), so when the nomina sacra were used in Latin manuscripts and writings, they were just incorporating how the letters looked from the Greek manuscripts they had seen. There is unfortunately a distinct lack of any discussion concerning the nomina sacra in the ECF, despite the fact we know they must've seen them in their Greek manuscripts (and in the case of Irenaeus, must've used them in their writings - see P. Oxy. III 405). That's my $0.02c, anyway :)


  3. Maurice A. Robinson12/22/2022 11:56 pm

    Reminds me of my youth, seeing the more familiar Catholic crosses with the abbreviated Latin INRI, whereas I once was surprised to see (what I didn't understand at the time) a Greek Orthodox cross with the abbreviated INBI. Later I learned Greek and understood....

  4. It was - and perhaps still not is - uncommon for many pulpits in Scotland to have “IHS” on their front. The letters were usually explained as the abbreviation of the Latin phrase, “Iesus Hominum Salvator” - “Jesus Men’s Saviour”; but the learnèd insisted that the letters were simply the Romanised ones for the Greek abbreviation, “IHC” -“IHCOYC” - “JESUS”. Take your pick!

    Alexander thomson

    1. It seems to be both viz. a contraction (nomina sacra) and a nifty acronym all wrapped up into one.

  5. At one point, I looked at the nomina sacra forms of all early witnesses. The words that also occur as divine titles in the Greek OT witnesses (κυριος, θεος, etc) are completely consistent in spelling. The "new words" (ιησους, χριστος [new as a divine title]) are just as consistently nomina sacra, but they are not consistent in spelling. This suggests that scribes knew that they were supposed to be treated like θεος etc, but they were not quite sure what pattern to follow. If the manuscripts that first made it to the west followed the longer pattern, it would make perfect sense for that to become traditional. Once it had become traditional, there would be a very strong motivation not to change it, long after the true reason had been forgotten. In this context, it is perhaps not accidental that 05 has the longer form (that includes Η).

    1. I think that Peter's right: the Latin biblical tradition adopted the fuller form of the nomina sacra from Greek manuscripts (hence IHS XPS) and this then became standardised in western Christian symbolism and gave rise to the post hoc explanation that IHS was an acronym.

      Three further observations:
      1. Codex Bobiensis (VL 1), the oldest Latin gospel text, does not have these standard nomina sacra, but writes something like HIS for IHS and a Christogram for XRS. This could be because the copyist was not familiar with this Christian practice, or because this text reflects a time when it was still in the process of adoption in Latin.
      2. In the early fifth-century Rufinus of Aquileia tried to introduce two-letter nomina sacra into Latin (IS XS) in the products of his scriptorium, but it did not catch on: see Caroline Hammond Bammel's articles in JTS.
      3. Some learned scribes in Carolingian manuscripts replace the Latin S with the Greek lunate sigma, so IHC XPC. (There are also outliers which have a Latin R for Greek P).

  6. Peter Montoro12/24/2022 7:25 am

    Didn't mean to comment as anonymous, but for some reason it isn't letting me use my Google account.

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. Elijah, IHS is just a Latin sacred name for the name "Jesus," (IHSOUS) carried over from the period when both languages were used.
    It has been imaginatively treated, later on, as an acrostic in Latin, "Jesus Hominum Salvator.”
    See also