Some Observations on the Nomina Sacra of the First Three Centuries

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

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Ben C. Smith wrote: Tue Apr 06, 2021 1:36 pm
Jax wrote: Tue Apr 06, 2021 12:41 pmIt all makes me wonder, if one were trying to abbreviate a noun that did not end a sentence and you wanted to alert the reader that the sentence wasn't ending at that point, why not simply abbreviate it by suspension adding a case ending letter to make it work grammatically and draw a line over the abbreviation without extending it beyond the abbreviation so as not to make it seem that the sentence was ending. The fact that you were adding the case ending to the abbreviation would signal that the abbreviation was not a number as the case ending would be expected in the context that the abbreviated noun was being used.
Wanted to point something else out here. If the nomina sacra are abbreviations, as it is obvious they are, then whether they work grammatically or not does not depend on the abbreviation. Rather, it depends on what the abbreviation represents. In context, both ΧΡ and ΧΣ work grammatically, since both represent Χριστός.

Compare those abbreviations in English which bear a plural form (like "lbs." for "pounds") versus those which do not (like "gal." for "gallon" and also for "gallons"). People write things like, "I put 13 gal. of gas in my car," all the time. The nonpluralized abbreviation "gal." works grammatically because it represents "gallons" in this context. No native English speaker would read that sentence as, "I put 13 gallon of gas in my car." English speakers would pluralize to "gallons," because that is what "gal." represents in this context.
Ok, I see what you mean.
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Re: Some Observations on the Nomina Sacra of the First Three Centuries

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Jax wrote: Tue Apr 06, 2021 12:58 pm Another thought occurs to me as well. Say you have a mystery cult like the Christ cult and you want to keep hidden the meaning of cult secrets from the uninitiated. So you abbreviate the important words and make them look like random numbers.

Only the people initiated know the meaning of the mystery. To everyone else it is not knowable.
If one wished to conceal the meaning which lay behind the abbreviation, it would be a mistake to use those abbreviations in quotations from the Hebrew scriptures, would it not? In such a case, even if the abbreviation system had been a complete mystery before, now the game has been given away.

Also, bear in mind how precious little confusion there is about the nomina sacra in the ancient translations. Here is part of a page from the bilingual Bezae, for example:

Scrivener, Page 171.png
Scrivener, Page 171.png (86.25 KiB) Viewed 525 times

Notice how κ{υρίο}υ (genitive singular) becomes d{o}m{in}i (genitive singular) in the Latin. This happens all over the translations.

It was not all that long ago that someone texted me something like, "Okay, gotta go. TTYL." I did not immediately know what TTYL meant, but without looking it up or spending more than about 5 seconds on it, I realized it must mean, "Talk to you later." The nomina sacra are no harder to figure out than TTYL, because they make sense in context and are not secret codes; also, antiquity was already chock full of abbreviations on inscriptions and coins and, yes, even in literary texts. If they were meant to conceal secrets, the concealment would have worked only on the practically illiterate.

ETA: And, when Barnabas 9.7 bases a weird interpretation on Ι and Η representing Ἰησοῦς, it does not sound like the author is revealing hidden things. Ι and Η representing Ἰησοῦς is the part that is assumed as obvious enough, while his interpretation of that fact is the new information.
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Re: Some Observations on the Nomina Sacra of the First Three Centuries

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Ben C. Smith wrote: Tue Apr 06, 2021 2:04 pm
Jax wrote: Tue Apr 06, 2021 1:51 pmWithout background, would it have been back then?
Yes.
How? Something like IH could be 18 or anything that started with an I in Greek. Same with IC.

Christos might be surmised from XR or XC if you knew that the cult was called Christian and Theos From ThU might be a no brainer but IHCOYC from IC or IH? How could an outsider figure that out?

Remember code rings? I remember writing all kinds of secret things when I was a kid, most of it just kid drivel that would interest none but me, and probably something any adult could figure out in seconds. But it was my thing back then. It made me happy to think that I knew something that others didn't; I'm sure that some of this mindset was inherent in the early Christ cults.

Whether or not outsiders could crack the code of the early cult was probably non consequential to the desire of the early mystery/Christ cult to retain the mystery of the Christ, as found in the scriptures, from raw uninitiates.

Course. I could be talking completely out of my but, but it sounds good. :D :thumbup:
Last edited by Jax on Tue Apr 06, 2021 2:45 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Some Observations on the Nomina Sacra of the First Three Centuries

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Ben C. Smith wrote: Tue Apr 06, 2021 2:23 pm
Jax wrote: Tue Apr 06, 2021 12:58 pm Another thought occurs to me as well. Say you have a mystery cult like the Christ cult and you want to keep hidden the meaning of cult secrets from the uninitiated. So you abbreviate the important words and make them look like random numbers.

Only the people initiated know the meaning of the mystery. To everyone else it is not knowable.
If one wished to conceal the meaning which lay behind the abbreviation, it would be a mistake to use those abbreviations in quotations from the Hebrew scriptures, would it not? In such a case, even if the abbreviation system had been a complete mystery before, now the game has been given away.

Also, bear in mind how precious little confusion there is about the nomina sacra in the ancient translations. Here is part of a page from the bilingual Bezae, for example:


Scrivener, Page 171.png


Notice how κ{υρίο}υ (genitive singular) becomes d{o}m{in}i (genitive singular) in the Latin. This happens all over the translations.

It was not all that long ago that someone texted me something like, "Okay, gotta go. TTYL." I did not immediately know what TTYL meant, but without looking it up or spending more than about 5 seconds on it, I realized it must mean, "Talk to you later." The nomina sacra are no harder to figure out than TTYL, because they make sense in context and are not secret codes; also, antiquity was already chock full of abbreviations on inscriptions and coins and, yes, even in literary texts. If they were meant to conceal secrets, the concealment would have worked only on the practically illiterate.

ETA: And, when Barnabas 9.7 bases a weird interpretation on Ι and Η representing Ἰησοῦς, it does not sound like the author is revealing hidden things. Ι and Η representing Ἰησοῦς is the part that is assumed as obvious enough, while his interpretation of that fact is the new information.
Fair enough. But I am thinking about a more primitive form of the Christ cult.
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Re: Some Observations on the Nomina Sacra of the First Three Centuries

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Jax wrote: Tue Apr 06, 2021 2:37 pm
Ben C. Smith wrote: Tue Apr 06, 2021 2:04 pm
Jax wrote: Tue Apr 06, 2021 1:51 pmWithout background, would it have been back then?
Yes.
How? Something like IH could be 18 or anything that started with an I in Greek. Same with IC.

Christos might be surmised from XR or XC if you knew that the cult was called Christian and Theos From ThU might be a no brainer but IHCOUC from IC or IH? How could an outsider figure that out?
The cult being called Christians and worshiping a figure named Christ was, as far as we can tell, common knowledge. And you are right: most of the instances of God and, I would suggest, many of the instances of Lord are no brainers.

Jesus is the only one in the most common set of 4 which would require exact knowledge of the name. And, since many scribes also abbreviated instances of Joshua, Moses' sidekick, that secret (if such it was) would not last long.

So, if you want to focus on Jesus/Joshua alone, then you could try to make the case that the nomina sacra hid that name from outsiders. The overall system of nomina sacra, however, did no such thing. This, to my mind, makes the hiding of the name an unattractive explanation, especially given how common the abbreviation of ancient names was in coinage and on inscriptions. Hiding the name could clumsily account for one of the nomina sacra; the abbreviation of names and other nouns important to the movement accounts for all of them.
Fair enough. But I am thinking about a more primitive form of the Christ cult.
Right. That is where the discussion always ends up. In the manuscripts as we have them the meanings of the nomina sacra are clear. It is in trying to account for how or why such a system arose in the first place that we get to pick behind our extant manuscripts and imagine what must have gone on. I do that myself, for sure, and my recent thread is an attempt to figure out what the Christian scribes were doing, and why the system originated.

ETA: Also, drawing attention to the abbreviation with an overstroke, as was sometimes done for other Greek abbreviations, does not feel very "super secret decoder ring" to me.
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Re: Some Observations on the Nomina Sacra of the First Three Centuries

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Ben C. Smith wrote: Tue Apr 06, 2021 2:49 pm
Jax wrote: Tue Apr 06, 2021 2:37 pm
Ben C. Smith wrote: Tue Apr 06, 2021 2:04 pm
Jax wrote: Tue Apr 06, 2021 1:51 pmWithout background, would it have been back then?
Yes.
How? Something like IH could be 18 or anything that started with an I in Greek. Same with IC.

Christos might be surmised from XR or XC if you knew that the cult was called Christian and Theos From ThU might be a no brainer but IHCOUC from IC or IH? How could an outsider figure that out?
The cult being called Christians and worshiping a figure named Christ was, as far as we can tell, common knowledge. And you are right: most of the instances of God and, I would suggest, many of the instances of Lord are no brainers.

Jesus is the only one in the most common set of 4 which would require exact knowledge of the name. And, since many scribes also abbreviated instances of Joshua, Moses' sidekick, that secret (if such it was) would not last long.

So, if you want to focus on Jesus/Joshua alone, then you could try to make the case that the nomina sacra hid that name from outsiders. The overall system of nomina sacra, however, did no such thing. This, to my mind, makes the hiding of the name an unattractive explanation, especially given how common the abbreviation of ancient names was in coinage and on inscriptions. Hiding the name could clumsily account for one of the nomina sacra; the abbreviation of names and other nouns important to the movement accounts for all of them.
Fair enough. But I am thinking about a more primitive form of the Christ cult.
Right. That is where the discussion always ends up. In the manuscripts as we have them the meanings of the nomina sacra are clear. It is in trying to account for how or why such a system arose in the first place that we get to pick behind our extant manuscripts and imagine what must have gone on. I do that myself, for sure, and my recent thread is an attempt to figure out what the Christian scribes were doing, and why the system originated.

ETA: Also, drawing attention to the abbreviation with an overstroke, as was sometimes done for other Greek abbreviations, does not feel very "super secret decoder ring" to me.
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.
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Re: Some Observations on the Nomina Sacra of the First Three Centuries

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Jax wrote: Tue Apr 06, 2021 2:55 pmYeah, 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.
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Re: Some Observations on the Nomina Sacra of the First Three Centuries

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

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Ben C. Smith wrote: Tue Apr 06, 2021 5:05 pm
Jax wrote: Tue Apr 06, 2021 2:55 pmYeah, 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 concur. I'll add to this is a simple observation. The nomina sacra are very easy to locate in a ocean of unical script.

Could we just be seeing a early and very simple example of verse numbering?
Because the NS nouns are short, usually just two or three letters long with a line over the letter block, they really stand out in a sea of unical letters all crammed together without spacing between words or punctuation marks. Is the fact that sometimes some space surrounds the nouns being abbreviated a further clue that ease of identification is intended?

This kills two birds with one stone. First you give VIP status to the names by abbreviation, just use the first letter or two of the name, slap a case ending on and then draw a line over the abbreviation, and you make it way easier for a reader to find passages in the text by hunting for the overlined NS for the name that you are looking for.

At first it starts out with the three or four most important nouns, ThY, KY etc. and then gradually gets added to with other important nouns as the utility of the NS becomes more obvious as a reading aid.
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Re: Some Observations on the Nomina Sacra of the First Three Centuries

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I'll note also that the early Christians were early adopters of the codex, another tool that makes studying easier.
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