The nomina sacra are designed to show reverence and devotion to the name(s) of God…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.
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 [here] 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.
- 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.
- 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.