Friday, October 16, 2009

New Acropolis Museum and Nomina Sacra

The following will be no surprise for those of us who see lots of Greek inscriptions, but it may nevertheless be of some interest.

During the summer I had the opportunity to visit the New Acropolis museum in Athens. It is a great place, certainly when compared with the old one up on the Acropolis. For those of you who will go there sooner or later, there is an interesting inscription in the first major gallery (here, at the right hand side; sorry, I don't have a picture of the actual inscription). The inv. no. is EM 8123, is published as IG II² 2894, and is dated to the end of I AD.

The eight lines of this dedication in Greek to Apollo start off with mentioning the Latin name of the donor. His praenomen is Τιβεριος which is, naturally, abbreviated as τιβ. The interesting feature is that there is an overstroke over these three letters. There is no need to set these letters apart from the other text, as the praenomen occupies a line on its own (the first line within the enclosing wreath). I have seen the overstroke used for abbreviated names in more Greek inscriptions, always indicating Latin praenomina.

It is interesting to see that the overstroke for abbreviated names is a known feature in the first century and is part of the context in which nomina sacra came into existence. I think this phenomenon affects the balance of probabilities of two notions, but without settling the issue:

1) It is likely that the nomina sacra were 'designed' in a Graeco-Roman context.

2) The origin (or original idea) for the nomina sacra started with the name ιησους in the form ιης (with overstroke).


  1. "I have seen the overstroke used for abbreviated names in more Greek inscriptions, always indicating Latin praenomina."

    I have seen an overstroke used in P72 for non-Greek proper names like Michael (the archangel, Enok, Sarah, Abraham, Noah. Some other names are marked with an apostrophe, and others left unmarked. Interestingly, however, the names are not abbreviated, and the overstrokes in these cases do not cover the whole width of the name.

  2. Interesting. But if the NS originated in a Greco-roman context around the end of the 1st century or later, then wouldn't it be quite possible (maybe even probable) that the title Christos would also have been conceived by the scribes as essentially part of Jesus' name and equally susceptible to being abbreviated by the same convention?

    Also, is it correct to infer from your argument that you believe the sigma in the early abbreviation ιης would have been first thought of as the first sigma in the name and not the ending as we are used to seeing in inflected nomina sacra? If so, then Barnabas 9:8 helps support your case I think.

  3. Eric, if the original idea for the nomina sacra started indeed with ιησους, then I assume that in the form ιης the sigma is indeed the third letter. But frankly, how this moved from abbreviation (suspension of final part of a name) to contraction (in recording only the first and final letter[s]) is still unclear to me. Might it have something to do with the fact that in literary texts there is more need to report the case ending of a name than in an inscription?

    I would not be surprised if the basic set of nomina sacra (ιησους, χριστος, κυριος, θεος, πνευμα [possibly]) was conceived in just a single afternoon when a bunch of scribes were having a cup of tea on the agora, happened to see an inscription, felt a bit creative, and started talking.

  4. You may not have a photo, but how about a nice drawing?

  5. I like the idea that NS originated with KURIOS in Greek OT mss, out of a fear of violating the Third Commandment, and spread from there to QEOS and thence to IHSOUS.

    I'm wondering if the overstroke served some of the same semantic function now filled by initial capitals in proper nouns.

  6. Dirk, I definitely think you're right about the NS requiring the final letter in order to indicate the inflection. I've heard it remarked before that this was innovative and that earlier known Greek abbreviations were just the beginnings of words without the endings (exactly as you propose for the original ιης). But I also have heard that abbreviations were very rare in literary manuscripts and were mainly confined to documentary texts. Isn't it the case that documentary texts have much less need for inflection of nouns in general than literary texts do? Many documentary texts, such as lists, wouldn't have had complete sentences. But in the texts where we find NS, the inflection often conveys valuable information. If early Christian scribes did first begin abbreviating Ihsous (and I suspect by the same reasoning, Christos) after the pattern you observed in inscriptions with only the initial letters, then it wouldn't have taken long before they realized they needed those last letters.

  7. Here's an interesting inscription in Latin from the early 5th century, with XPI inserted in Greek letters as an NS:

    In case the link doesn't work, the inscription reads:

    I don't know Latin well enough--could these be the first two and last letters, or must it be the first three?