One of the Most Remarkable Features of Early Christian Manuscripts

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

November 27, 2023

One of my favorite electives I teach here at RTS Charlotte is “The Origin and Authority of the New Testament Canon.” We cover a lot of ground in that course: why we have a NT canon, what is the earliest evidence for a canon consciousness, what were the factors that led to the church receiving just these 27 books, etc. (To take this class online, see RTS Global).

But I think my students particularly enjoy a sub-module of that course where we study high-resolution photographs of early Christian manuscripts. In particular, we spend some time working through images of P66, one of our earliest (nearly complete) copies of John.

There’s lot to say about P66, and early manuscripts in general, but when students see a NT manuscript up close for the first time, they notice something rather peculiar and unexpected. They notice that the Greek words for “God,” “Lord,” Christ,” and “Jesus” are not written out in full. Instead, they are abbreviated.

To abbreviate these words, the scribe would typically take the first and last letter of the word and put a horizontal stroke over the top. As an example, below are two instances of such abbreviations, side by side. The first is the abbreviation for θεοῦ and the second for Ἰησοῦς.

 

 

 

Scholars refer to this scribal phenomenon as the nomina sacra (“sacred names”). While it originally was applied to four words mentioned above, it was eventually expanded to include other words like “Spirit,” “Man,” “Father,” “Savior,” and more.

So, why is this particular scribal feature so significant? Let me mention a few things to consider.

1. The nomina sacra are a distinctively Christian scribal feature. While such abbreviations might echo the way the Jews would specially treat the divine name (the Tetragrammaton), it is clear that they derive from a distinctively Christian scribal culture.

2. The nomina sacra are remarkably early and widespread. In fact, so dominant are the nomina sacra that we can hardly find a Christian manuscript without them. Our earliest New Testament manuscripts, a number of which date from the second century, already utilize this feature as far back as we can see. As a result, the nomina sacra are now regarded by scholars as the primary way that we know a document is Christian.

But, this raises a critical question. How did Christian scribes, almost without exception across the empire, know to use the nomina sacra? How did that get communicated? Did someone send out a memo to every Christian scribe?

We don’t know all the answer to this but it does suggest a fairly developed scribal infrastructure. Or as T.C. Skeat noted, the nomina sacra “indicate a degree of organization, of conscious planning, and uniformity of practice among the Christian communities which we have hitherto had little reason to suspect.”

Put differently, the nomina sacra push back against the idea that early Christian scribes were a bunch of untrained amateurs who knew nothing about book technology.

3. The nomina sacra are designed to show reverence and devotion to the name(s) of God. Contrary to what the term “abbreviation” implies, the nomina sacra were not designed to save space. Instead, they were a way for the scribe (and, later, for the reader) to set apart the divine name. Thus, as strange as it might sound, they were a form of worship.

Of course, it should be noted that the earliest Christians didn’t show devotion merely to the words “God” or “Lord,” but also to the names “Jesus,” and “Christ.” Thus, the nomina sacra constitute one of earliest pieces of evidence for the Christian belief in the divinity of Jesus. They demonstrate a remarkably high Christology, at least among these Christian scribes.

4. The nomina sacra are one of the earliest pieces of evidence for a Christian visual and material culture.  These abbreviations remind us that Christians communicated their theology not merely by the words on the page, but by visual symbols. The nomina sacra are essentially the earliest Christian art.

This feature, therefore, would have been significant even for those who couldn’t read. If an early believer were to see a Christian codex in a worship service, the nomina sacra would have been easily identifiable on the page. Indeed, it would have allowed a person to recognize a book was “Christian,” even if they were illiterate. For more on this point, see Larry Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts.

In sum, this oft-overlooked feature has tremendous significance for our understanding of early Christian culture. Not only did the earliest Christians care about books, and the careful copying of such books, but the nomina sacra demonstrate that they had a rather developed scribal infrastructure to make that happen.

Moreover, the scribes appeared to be fairly theologically astute. Through these abbreviations, they expressed a view that Jesus deserved honor and devotion right alongside God. The bundle of names—God, Lord, Jesus, Christ—showed that Jesus was not considered a new and separate divine being, but (somehow) shared the same divine identity as the God of the Old Testament.

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