Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Nomina Sacra

We had an interesting seminar here in Cambridge on Tuesday with Chris Tuckett (Oxford) on Nomina Sacra. Basically the first half was a summary of his argument (against Roberts and Hurtado) in C. M. Tuckett, ‘“Nomina Sacra”: Yes and No?’, in J.-M. Auwers & H. J. de Jonge (eds), The Biblical Canons (Leuven, 2003), 431-458. In discussion it turned out that Tuckett agrees that by the 3rd/4th century nomina sacra did function in a 'religious' manner (i.e. it reflects a religious attitude to the names) [evidence for this esp in the emergence of SWTHR as a nomen sacrum in this period; also 1 Cor 8.5 in P46; purple gospels etc.]; but he doesn't buy this theory for the origin of the nomina sacra (which is what Roberts and Hurtado argued). He proposes that they originated as reading aids for Christians unused to uncial texts.

Essentially Tuckett gathers up everything that Roberts dismissed as minor exceptions to the main rule (and finds a few more) and says 'aha' there are enough exceptions here to prove that the supposed rule is wrongly conceived. The second half of the seminar looked at some very unusual uses of nomina sacra in E 08 (Laudianus).

My own reflections, for what they are worth, are as follows:
1. Once Tuckett has admitted that the NS did function as 'sacred names' for scribes in a later period (i.e. sixth century purple gospels; the 3-4th century emergence of SWTHR; the early 3rd cent P46), then he has to explain the emergence of a religious dimension as somewhat in discontinuity with the point of origin. But there is no evidence that would point to discontinuity and the selection of words for abbreviation do look 'religious' (as also in Ep Barn 9 & Test Sol 11).
2. Since the problem about the 'origin' of the NS is related precisely to our lack of evidence from the earliest period why don't we say that we are not sure about the point of origin of the practice, but that it appears to function in 'religious' way in most of the manuscripts.
3. Once we are onto manuscripts we'll gain more by careful analysis of the individual practices of the scribes, something that we don't really have for all the major early biblical manuscripts. More research needs to be done here.


  1. Since you brought up the subject...

    Perhaps this is one of the exceptions that you speak of, but I thought I would throw in a note. I was reading a much later mss than you're dealing with here, 2813 (13th century miniscule), and noticed that ανθρωπος was abbreviated much like the typical nomina sacra. For example, on the first leaf of John ( you've got ανθρωπων abbreviated as ανων with a bar over the last two letters (line 6) and ανθρωπος abbreviated as ανοσ with a bar over the last as well (line 9).

    I was a little surprised to see this particular word abbreviated like a nomina sacra. Was word abbreviated in this manner in the earlier manuscripts? And if so, why would this be considered a sacred word? I didn't see a discussion in Metzger's text on TC, so I figured I would ask the other experts :)

  2. Ummm...pardon the grammatical error there at the end :) "Was this word abbreviated..." instead of "Was word abbreviated..."

  3. I won't venture into paleographical arguments that are beyond my abilities. But isn't "the early 3rd cent" a somewhat generously late estimate of the date of P46. The date given in NA is "about 200," which is at the high end of the range I have seen given for P46. And "ealy 3rd cent" implies a range of 200-250.

  4. FWIW, is it possible that nomina sacra (AKA NS) originated as scribal abbreviations of common words?

    IMHO, as someone who prefers to write some things out by hand, e.g. sermons, I am often very tempted to reduce Lord Jesus Christ to LJC and Holy Spirit to HS - not out of reverence, but because of the frequency of these words and the tediousness of rewriting such long strings, particularly as I am usually trying to finish ASAP.

    OTOH, some NS examples seem unlikely to have originated as simple cases of abb. - e.g. the NS for God. But could it be possible that once certain forms of NS became acceptable then other common words were also adopted?


    BTW, if you are having trouble reading this post, you might want to type 'internet abbreviations' into Google.

  5. Eric,

    ανθρωπος is one of the standard 15 nomina sacra, and is abbreviated in early manuscripts (although e.g. P66 varies between ns and normal/plene(?) for ανθρωπος). This is one of the words which led Tuckett to question the whole 'reverential' framework for interpreting NS. [On the other side it is normally held to derive from Son of Man as a christological title/concept; which could relate to 'Man' as a messianic title too cf. Horbury on Son of Man in JTS about ten years ago].

    Perhaps you are right about the 'generously late estimate' for P46. I didn't mean it to be a considered opinion, I find P46 a bit difficult to pin down. SO it is worth varying the date given so that we don't think that 200 is a paarticularly close estimate.

    Andrew, the main issues/problems with the view you are proposing seem to be: a) that in the really core group of four words (QEOS, KURIOS, XRISTOS, IHSOUS) the net gain by contraction is relatively little if you then have to add a nice supralinear bar;
    b) that analogies already existed for giving divine names special treatment in Jewish mss of the OG;
    c) that among the other 11 words some are relatively uncommon and yet theologically potent (e.g. STAUROS, SWTHR);
    d) in other words it doesn't seem to be closely related to word frequency, but to particular types of words.

    BTW surprisingly it doesn't work if you google 'IA'

  6. I consider NS the original Capital Letters. Just as we capitalize God, Jesus, Savio(u)r, and Son of Man, so the early scribes used NS, which doubled as abbreviations in the cases Andrew pointed out.

    BTW, Pete, uncials are considerably easier for me to scan when they include NS at suitable intervals!

  7. Daniel,

    Yes, this is essentially Chris Tuckett's view too - the NS originated as a way to orient readers who were relatively unused to reading/scanning unbroken uncial texts. It is a kind of utilitarian theory. It was something that was found useful, and as it expanded it did take on a more 'reverential' aspect.

  8. Has anyone published an extensive work on πνεῦμα among the NS?