Some Observations on the Nomina Sacra of the First Three Centuries

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Re: Some Observations on the Nomina Sacra of the First Three Centuries

Post by perseusomega9 » Wed Apr 07, 2021 8:06 am

Ben C. Smith wrote:
Tue Apr 06, 2021 5:05 pm
Jax wrote:
Tue Apr 06, 2021 2:55 pm
Yeah, it occurs to me also that if one wanted to keep the name of the Christ secret from outsiders one just need simply omit it from the texts.
Good point.

The issue we face when trying to trace the origins of the nomina sacra is that none of the usual reasons for abbreviations appear to hold in our manuscripts:
  • The nomina sacra are not saving space, given that most of our manuscripts have very generous margins and line spacing. Oikonomides points out that, while abbreviations commonly begin as space saving devices they often stay on only as time or labor saving devices.
  • But the nomina sacra do not appear to be designed to save time or labor, either. If that were their purpose, we might expect the practice to extend to a fair number of different words, but in reality, for the most part, only 15 words are thus rendered.
  • If secrecy were the goal, then we face the conundrum that, in our extant manuscripts, the vast majority of the nomina sacra are very easy to figure out. Furthermore, we have no evidence that the most important names or titles in the nascent movement (Jesus, Christ, God, Lord, Son, and so on) were ever actually kept secret. And, as you point out, one could simply keep the names out of the manuscripts if one wished to keep them secret.
Because it is difficult to think of a reason for the extant system of nomina sacra, it is not uncommon to suppose that the system began for a reason which no longer holds in our extant manuscripts. In other words, perhaps the original reason was to save space or time, but even once that original reason faded the tradition continued. There is nothing irrational about such a guess. This kind of thing can definitely happen.

My most recent approach, however, is rather different. It proposes a reason which may well be both current in and original to the system. Basically, the suggestion is that the abbreviations of what may be considered the most important names, titles, and related nouns of early Christianity run parallel, both in form and in effect, to the abbreviations of the names and titles of important Roman officials in inscriptions and especially on coins, which everyone great or small would have regular access to. The purpose of the system of nomina sacra would be to highlight those names and titles and concepts which Christians regarded as more important than the reigning Caesar or the officiating governor. While the Roman world was calling Claudius the "savior of the world" and naming Domitian as "Lord and god" and Augustus the "son of a god," Christians were claiming these titles for Jesus Christ instead, and my suggestion is that Christian scribes did this very same thing by abbreviating the important elements of those (and other important) names and titles: son, lord, savior, Jesus, Christ, and so on. Just as one would find both the name of Claudius and his various titles abbreviated on a coin or an inscription, so too one would find both the name of Jesus and his various titles abbreviated in Christian manuscripts, which is all Christians could work with, since they had very little control at first over inscriptions and absolutely no control over coinage. The special treatment which Jewish scribes accorded to the name of Yahweh would also have inspired a similar treatment of the title of God for Christian scribes, given that the Greeks themselves did not tend to abbreviate the term "god" or the names of their gods. Thus, Jewish concerns (special treatment for the name of God) + Greek concerns (the most common abbreviations being of rulers and their titles) = Christian concerns, which is an equation that proves true time and time again in so many other areas that one may be surprised if it did not prove true in this one, as well.

I am still quite happy with this reconstruction. It explains the limited scope of the nomina sacra, as well as the obviousness of the words being thus abbreviated: the whole point was that they were the most important words to a Christian, just as the name and titles of the current emperor were the most important words to the civic body of a Greco-Roman city. It also works as an explanation both of the current state of the extant manuscripts and of the possible origins of the system itself; there is no need to imagine a change in focus or purpose. At least, I have yet to come across a better explanation or one which explains more data.
I like this.

I also like Trobisch's point of this being a very specific editorial decision, at least with the Big Four, and I think that goes beyond anti-imperial psyops and so were also in the world of counter-arguments to unorthodox positions (including names).

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Re: Some Observations on the Nomina Sacra of the First Three Centuries

Post by Jax » Wed Apr 07, 2021 8:33 am

hakeem wrote:
Tue Apr 06, 2021 5:45 pm
Jax wrote: Yeah, it occurs to me also that if one wanted to keep the name of the Christ secret from outsiders one just need simply omit it from the texts.
Such a suggestion is really implausible since Jesus himself supposedly preached the Gospel publicly and later the apostles also preached the story of Jesus to everyone.
This is where one really gets into trouble in my opinion. I understand that you feel that the letters of Paul are a later creation than the Gospels and Acts, I was seriously leaning that way with my thinking at one time myself, so by this logic your statement makes sense.

If however the letters of Paul, at least some of them, in a shorter form, came first, then you would have the first Christians believing that the Christ was a mystery hidden in the scriptures.

I agree that no mention of Paul and his letters appearing before the mid second century looks suspicious but we don't have a very good selection of material to go off of, no copies of the early heretics works for instance.

If Jesus supposedly preached the Gospels publicly what need then to create a letter collection of someone named Paulos who is calling the Christ a mystery only to be found in scripture and revelation?

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Re: Some Observations on the Nomina Sacra of the First Three Centuries

Post by Ben C. Smith » Wed Apr 07, 2021 9:25 am

perseusomega9 wrote:
Wed Apr 07, 2021 8:06 am
I like this.

I also like Trobisch's point of this being a very specific editorial decision, at least with the Big Four, and I think that goes beyond anti-imperial psyops and so were also in the world of counter-arguments to unorthodox positions (including names).
Thanks. And I completely agree that it probably goes beyond just providing a counter to imperial propaganda. Yesterday I added to my OP in that linked thread:
ETA: The 15 typical nomina sacra according to the developmental tiers proposed by Hurtado:

Ἰησοῦς, Χριστός, Κύριος, Θεός
Πνεῦμα, Ἄνθρωπος, Σταυρός
Πατήρ, Υἱός, Σωτήρ, Μήτηρ, Οὐρανός, Ἰσραήλ, Δαυείδ, Ἰερουσαλήμ

Much from a proto-orthodox perspective could be told about Jesus using just these 15 words as the main story points.
Those 15 words seem to specifically evoke a (proto-)orthodox vibe. Not all 15 came into use at the same time, of course, but the development of the set seems to be in a decidedly (proto-)orthodox direction, at least to my eye.

Of course, we can see the core set being developed in a rather different direction in the Nag Hammadi tomes, which add supralinear strokes to the names of various important entities (Sabaoth, Adam, Enoch, Gamaliel, and so on), without abbreviating those names. Those tomes abbreviate only Greek loanwords from the set: Christ, Cross, Jerusalem, Jesus, Savior, and Spirit, but not David or Israel. (Father, God, Heaven, Lord, Man, Mother, and Son are rendered in Coptic and never abbreviated at Nag Hammadi.)

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Re: Some Observations on the Nomina Sacra of the First Three Centuries

Post by perseusomega9 » Wed Apr 07, 2021 10:33 am

Ben C. Smith wrote:
Wed Apr 07, 2021 9:25 am
perseusomega9 wrote:
Wed Apr 07, 2021 8:06 am
I like this.

I also like Trobisch's point of this being a very specific editorial decision, at least with the Big Four, and I think that goes beyond anti-imperial psyops and so were also in the world of counter-arguments to unorthodox positions (including names).
Thanks. And I completely agree that it probably goes beyond just providing a counter to imperial propaganda. Yesterday I added to my OP in that linked thread:
ETA: The 15 typical nomina sacra according to the developmental tiers proposed by Hurtado:

Ἰησοῦς, Χριστός, Κύριος, Θεός
Πνεῦμα, Ἄνθρωπος, Σταυρός
Πατήρ, Υἱός, Σωτήρ, Μήτηρ, Οὐρανός, Ἰσραήλ, Δαυείδ, Ἰερουσαλήμ

Much from a proto-orthodox perspective could be told about Jesus using just these 15 words as the main story points.
Those 15 words seem to specifically evoke a (proto-)orthodox vibe. Not all 15 came into use at the same time, of course, but the development of the set seems to be in a decidedly (proto-)orthodox direction, at least to my eye.

Of course, we can see the core set being developed in a rather different direction in the Nag Hammadi tomes, which add supralinear strokes to the names of various important entities (Sabaoth, Adam, Enoch, Gamaliel, and so on), without abbreviating those names. Those tomes abbreviate only Greek loanwords from the set: Christ, Cross, Jerusalem, Jesus, Savior, and Spirit, but not David or Israel. (Father, God, Heaven, Lord, Man, Mother, and Son are rendered in Coptic and never abbreviated at Nag Hammadi.)
But Trobisch's Big Four (first in your list) seem to preempt all others and can be debatable about the protoorthodoxy.

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Re: Some Observations on the Nomina Sacra of the First Three Centuries

Post by Ben C. Smith » Wed Apr 07, 2021 10:45 am

perseusomega9 wrote:
Wed Apr 07, 2021 10:33 am
Ben C. Smith wrote:
Wed Apr 07, 2021 9:25 am
perseusomega9 wrote:
Wed Apr 07, 2021 8:06 am
I like this.

I also like Trobisch's point of this being a very specific editorial decision, at least with the Big Four, and I think that goes beyond anti-imperial psyops and so were also in the world of counter-arguments to unorthodox positions (including names).
Thanks. And I completely agree that it probably goes beyond just providing a counter to imperial propaganda. Yesterday I added to my OP in that linked thread:
ETA: The 15 typical nomina sacra according to the developmental tiers proposed by Hurtado:

Ἰησοῦς, Χριστός, Κύριος, Θεός
Πνεῦμα, Ἄνθρωπος, Σταυρός
Πατήρ, Υἱός, Σωτήρ, Μήτηρ, Οὐρανός, Ἰσραήλ, Δαυείδ, Ἰερουσαλήμ

Much from a proto-orthodox perspective could be told about Jesus using just these 15 words as the main story points.
Those 15 words seem to specifically evoke a (proto-)orthodox vibe. Not all 15 came into use at the same time, of course, but the development of the set seems to be in a decidedly (proto-)orthodox direction, at least to my eye.

Of course, we can see the core set being developed in a rather different direction in the Nag Hammadi tomes, which add supralinear strokes to the names of various important entities (Sabaoth, Adam, Enoch, Gamaliel, and so on), without abbreviating those names. Those tomes abbreviate only Greek loanwords from the set: Christ, Cross, Jerusalem, Jesus, Savior, and Spirit, but not David or Israel. (Father, God, Heaven, Lord, Man, Mother, and Son are rendered in Coptic and never abbreviated at Nag Hammadi.)
But Trobisch's Big Four (first in your list) seem to preempt all others and can be debatable about the protoorthodoxy.
Yes, this is what I meant by things going in a (proto-)orthodox direction within the 15. The first few of the set probably did not serve to distinguish between different Christian sects very well.

Also, I am beginning to look into whether the Big Four concept holds water. Some of the other abbreviations (like Father) are also very early in our manuscript evidence.

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Re: Some Observations on the Nomina Sacra of the First Three Centuries

Post by perseusomega9 » Wed Apr 07, 2021 10:54 am

I'm sure you'll do a thorough job, but pater is another that doesn't necessarily have an immediate proto-orthodox connotation, but one that can easily be subsumed.

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Re: Some Observations on the Nomina Sacra of the First Three Centuries

Post by Ben C. Smith » Wed Apr 07, 2021 11:02 am

perseusomega9 wrote:
Wed Apr 07, 2021 10:54 am
I'm sure you'll do a thorough job, but pater is another that doesn't necessarily have an immediate proto-orthodox connotation, but one that can easily be subsumed.
Yes, exactly. I can easily see, say, the Marcionites being totally okay with Father being treated as a special noun.

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Re: Some Observations on the Nomina Sacra of the First Three Centuries

Post by Ben C. Smith » Wed Apr 07, 2021 11:08 am

Ben C. Smith wrote:
Wed Apr 07, 2021 11:02 am
perseusomega9 wrote:
Wed Apr 07, 2021 10:54 am
I'm sure you'll do a thorough job, but pater is another that doesn't necessarily have an immediate proto-orthodox connotation, but one that can easily be subsumed.
Yes, exactly. I can easily see, say, the Marcionites being totally okay with Father being treated as a special noun.
I can see in retrospect that my emphasis and yours is not the same for this conversation, and thus some of what I am affirming may be coming across differently to you than how I intend it. The nomina sacra most clearly pointing in a certain direction for me are Μήτηρ, Ἰσραήλ, Δαυείδ, and Ἰερουσαλήμ, and I think all four of these come fairly late in the development. The conventions displayed in the Nag Hammadi texts seem to have diverged from an earlier point of this development.

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Re: Some Observations on the Nomina Sacra of the First Three Centuries

Post by Peter Kirby » Wed Apr 07, 2021 11:42 am

Ben C. Smith wrote:
Wed Apr 07, 2021 9:25 am
Of course, we can see the core set being developed in a rather different direction in the Nag Hammadi tomes, which add supralinear strokes to the names of various important entities (Sabaoth, Adam, Enoch, Gamaliel, and so on), without abbreviating those names. Those tomes abbreviate only Greek loanwords from the set: Christ, Cross, Jerusalem, Jesus, Savior, and Spirit, but not David or Israel. (Father, God, Heaven, Lord, Man, Mother, and Son are rendered in Coptic and never abbreviated at Nag Hammadi.)
Do we have other examples of the full words with supralinear strokes?

I wonder: could words with the supralinear strokes precede the abbreviations in the New Testament?

(In the NHC, if that were true, some loanwords could have been assimilated to the redacted NT texts, in their abbreviated forms.)

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Re: Some Observations on the Nomina Sacra of the First Three Centuries

Post by Ben C. Smith » Wed Apr 07, 2021 12:05 pm

Peter Kirby wrote:
Wed Apr 07, 2021 11:42 am
Ben C. Smith wrote:
Wed Apr 07, 2021 9:25 am
Of course, we can see the core set being developed in a rather different direction in the Nag Hammadi tomes, which add supralinear strokes to the names of various important entities (Sabaoth, Adam, Enoch, Gamaliel, and so on), without abbreviating those names. Those tomes abbreviate only Greek loanwords from the set: Christ, Cross, Jerusalem, Jesus, Savior, and Spirit, but not David or Israel. (Father, God, Heaven, Lord, Man, Mother, and Son are rendered in Coptic and never abbreviated at Nag Hammadi.)
Do we have other examples of the full words with supralinear strokes?
I think I have seen some examples (besides at Nag Hammadi), but IIRC they are late and rare.

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