The Expository Files

The Nomina Sacra
The Integrity of the New Testament - Special 2013 Series

[From The Editors: This article is one of a series we are running this year. The 2013 series is called "The Integrity of the New Testament" and deals with textual criticism. Can the New Testament be trusted? Has it been corrupted through time? Can we know what God has said? It should be obvious how important this topic is. This is especially so given the climate of society today and its attitudes toward the Bible.  We wish this series to help everyone understand the process of the Bible's history as a document and why we can have confidence in its message. Near the end of the year we are planning to publish these twelve articles in book form (Kindle, Nook and old fashioned print and ink).


The most immediately recognizable feature of ancient New Testament manuscripts is a system of abbreviation used for certain sacred names and terms. These abbreviated forms are called the nomina sacra, “sacred names”. In this chapter we are going to look at this system of abbreviation in more detail, and then we will examine the origin and the significance of the nomina sacra



The Nomina Sacra**

By Shane Scott


The most immediately recognizable feature of ancient New Testament manuscripts is a system of abbreviation used for certain sacred names and terms. These abbreviated forms are called the nomina sacra, “sacred names”. In this chapter we are going to look at this system of abbreviation in more detail, and then we will examine the origin and the significance of the nomina sacra.


The Nomina Sacra

Ancient scribes often used abbreviations to save space and time while copying ancient documents. Quite often these abbreviations were marked with a horizontal line above the abbreviated term (sometimes referred to as an overbar or an overline). Scribes would also use overlining to indicate when the letters of a document represented numerical values (such as Roman numerals).


In the case of the early New Testament manuscripts, however, only a handful of terms were abbreviated and marked in this fashion. In the very oldest manuscripts in our possession, this practice was limited to four terms: “Jesus,” “Lord,” “Christ,” and “God.” Sometimes the scribes would take the first two or three letters and overline them, while other scribes would take the first letter (or first two letters) and the last letter and overline them. Scholars refer to the use of the first few letters as the suspended form, and the use of the first and last letters as the contracted form.


To illustrate, if we used this same system for the English form of the name of Jesus, it would look like JE, JS or JES.   For the Greek form of the name of Jesus, IHSOUS (Iēsous), it would be abbreviated as , , or sometimes as . If you would like to see examples of the use of nomina sacra, The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts has photographs of hundreds of Greek manuscripts of the New Testament that you can view on its website (

Initially, this style of abbreviation was applied only to the four terms mentioned above:  “Jesus,”  “Lord,” “Christ,” and “God. The next term that appears to have been written in this fashion is the Greek word for “Spirit,” ΠΝEUMΑ (pneuma). By the third century this practice was extended to other terms, such as: cross, crucify, man, Father, Son, Jerusalem, Israel, and heaven.  

As the scribes employed this form of abbreviation, they carefully distinguished the sacred use of these terms from the common use. For instance, in First Corinthians 8:5-6 Paul writes: “For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” Where Paul uses the terms “gods” and “lords,” the scribes wrote these words in their standard format. Only where Paul speaks of “God, the Father” and “one Lord, Jesus Christ” did the copyists use the nomina sacra styling, similar to the distinction we make by capitalizing the sacred use of those terms. 

One peculiarity of the usage of nomina sacra is that it was not applied to all of the titles of God and Christ. For instance, “Savior” (soter) was rarely written as a sacred name, and “King” (basileus) was never treated in this fashion. As Philip Comfort observes, “The inclusion of certain titles and exclusion of others is significant, for it shows that there was some kind of universal recognition among Christian scribes as to which terms were to be written as a nomen sacrum and which ones were not” (Comfort, Kindle Locations 5232-5233).  

Since usage of the nomina sacra style is evident in the very oldest New Testament manuscripts available, this practice must have originated very early on in the development of the text of the New Testament. But how did this practice originate? Why did early Christian copyists use this unique form of abbreviation?


The Origin of the Nomina Sacra Style

While there is no way to be certain of the origin of this practice, most scholars believe that it sprang from the Jewish traditions connected to the writing and reading of the name of the LORD. In Hebrew, this name is spelled with four letters (HWHY, YHWH, pronounced as Yahweh). These four consonant are sometimes called “The Tetragrammaton.”  

Because of the great respect that was to be given to the name of the LORD (Exodus 20:7; Leviticus 24:16 LXX), Jewish scribes were extremely careful in how they handled the Tetragrammaton. For instance, while the Hebrew alphabet changed over time (like all alphabets), Jewish scribes continued to write the Tetragrammaton with the ancient style of lettering. And when Jewish scribes began to translate the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, they continued to write the Tetragrammaton in ancient Hebrew letters rather than translate and write it with Greek letters. Since all of the early Christians were Jewish, and since the Jewish scribal traditions would have been the natural backdrop for Christian scribal practices, it seems likely that the early Christians took their cue from their Jewish counterparts to treat the sacred names of God, Jesus, Lord, and Christ in a special way.  

Further, Larry Hurtado suggests that the practice was also connected with the Jewish custom of using the numerical value of letters to express important spiritual truths, a practice called gematria. The most famous example of gematria is the infamous number of the “beast” in Revelation 13:18. That number is given as 666, which happens to be the numerical value of the Greek letters that spell the Hebrew form of “Nero Caesar”. The early practice of abbreviating the name of Jesus as  may have begun because those letters have a numerical value of eighteen, which Hurtado points out is also the numerical value of the Hebrew word for “life”. Hurtado believes that the name of Jesus was the first term abbreviated as a sacred name, and that the practice then expanded to include other terms related to Christ and God.


One piece of evidence that lends support to this theory is found in an early second century Christian document called The Epistle of Barnabas. In 9:7-8 the author offers an interesting interpretation of the meaning of the number of Abraham’s men: 

Learn fully then, children of love, concerning all things, for Abraham, who first circumcised, did so looking forward in the spirit to Jesus, and had received the doctrines of three letters. For it says, “And Abraham circumcised from his household eighteen men and three hundred.” What then was the knowledge that was given to him? Notice that he first mentions the eighteen, and after a pause the three hundred. The eighteen is Ι ( = ten) and Η ( = 8)—you have Jesus —and because the cross was destined to have grace in the T he says “and three hundred.” So he indicates Jesus in the two letters and the cross in the other. (The Apostolic Fathers, I:373, The Loeb Classical Library).


The author of this document connects the number eighteen with Jesus since it is written as IH, and he connects the number 300 with the cross since that is numerical value of the Greek letter tao (T) which is shaped like a cross. What is important here is not the validity of such a fanciful interpretation, which is highly imaginative, but what is important is that it “almost certainly presupposes and derives from the prior Christian use of IH for Jesus’ name” (Hurtado Kindle Location 1144-1147). 

Other scholars, such as Philip Comfort, have suggested that “Lord” (kyrios) was the first word written as a sacred name, closely followed by “Jesus.” Whether this practice began with the abbreviation of the name of Jesus, as Hurtado suggests, or with the abbreviation of the title “Lord,” as Philip Comfort contends, the consensus remains the same. The early and universal use of the nomina sacra was probably the outgrowth of the long held Jewish tradition of treating the name of the LORD with special care, a practice the early Christians adapted in order to show great reverence toward God and Jesus, and then by extension to the Spirit and to other terms closely connected with them. 

Now let’s turn to the significance of this practice. What important conclusions can we draw about early Christianity on the basis of the use of nomina sacra?


The Significance of the Nomina Sacra

To appreciate the import of the nomina sacra, consider for a moment a scene from Dan Brown’s The Da Vince Code. In this scene, a character named Leigh Teabing explains the dark, political machinations of the Emperor Constantine: 

Establishing Christ’s divinity was critical to the further unification of the Roman empire and to the new Vatican power base. By officially endorsing Jesus as the Son of God, Constantine turned Jesus into a deity who existed beyond the scope of the human world, an entity whose power was unchallengeable (p. 233). 

Until Constantine’s power move, “Jesus was viewed by His followers as a mortal prophet…a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless. A mortal” (p. 233, original emphasis). And since he radically revised the stature of Jesus, “Constantine commissioned and financed a new Bible, which omitted those gospels that spoke of Jesus’ human traits and embellished those gospels that made Him godlike. The earlier gospels were outlawed, gathered up, and burned” (p. 234, original emphasis).  

So according to Dan Brown’s character, the belief that Jesus was deity was an invention of Constantine, three centuries after the time of Christ, and it required the complete rewriting of the holy books of Christians. 

The appearance of the nomina sacra, present from the very earliest New Testament manuscripts, completely repudiates both of these claims. As C.H. Roberts has argued, behind this primitive practice “lies a quite unmistakable, if implicit theology” (quoted in Balla, “Challenges to Biblical Authority,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, electronic ed.). From the very start of the textual tradition of the New Testament, Christian scribes uniformly treated the name of Jesus and the title “Christ” as sacred names. Particularly telling is the way the term for “Lord” (kyrios) was written. Whether it was used with reference to God the Father or with reference to Jesus, the early Christian copyists consistently wrote it as a nomen sacrum.  

The presence of the nomen sacrum in New Testament writings was a way for Christians to show that the title kyrios, assigned to Yahweh in the Old Testament, was now ascribed to Jesus. In other words, the nomen sacrum would signal that Jesus was worthy of as much sacred reverence as was given to Yahweh (Comfort, Kindle Locations 5494-5497).  

This is particularly significant since the common Jewish practice when reading the Greek version of the Old Testament was to substitute the word kyrios where the Tetragrammaton was used, just as they substituted the Hebrew word adonai for the Tetragrammaton when they read the Old Testament in Hebrew. The consistent treatment of kyrios in the New Testament manuscripts as a sacred name whether it is used with reference to God or Jesus is a powerful testimony to the early belief that Jesus was God. When Paul says in Philippians 2:9-11 that Jesus was bestowed the “name that is above every name,” and that “every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (kyrios),” this “must be taken as claiming that in some way God has given to Jesus (to share?) the divine name that was represented in Greek by Kyrios and represented in Hebrew by the tetragrammaton” (Hurtado, “How” p. 95). 

Since this practice originated long before the time of Constantine, the notion that the doctrine of the deity of Christ was a late development in the history of Christianity is simply false. The very earliest textual evidence we have, two centuries before the time of Constantine, contains clear indications that the early Christians uniformly “treated Jesus’ name and key epithets for God in the same, apparently reverential, manner” (Hurtado, Kindle Locations 1205-1206).  

Further, the fact that this practice was so early and so widespread “suggests that at an early date there were standard copies of the Christian scriptures” (Comfort, Kindle Locations 5462-5463, citing C.H. Roberts). In other words, scribes were not taking liberties with the text. Instead, there were standard practices in place from the very beginning that the scribes followed with remarkable uniformity.  

Because this practice must have originated so quickly in the textual history of the New Testament, some scholars have suggested that the practice may have begun with the actual writing of the books of the New Testament. Philip Comfort proposes that “if we can place the origin of that practice to the autographs and or /early publications of the New Testament writings, it explains the universal proliferation thereafter” (Comfort, Kindle Locations 5382-5385). One scholar has even suggested that the practice originated with Paul himself (Solomon 21). But the primary point is that the early, widespread, and precise use of the nomina sacra demonstrates that those who copied the New Testament manuscripts did so with great care and precision. 

The ancient manuscripts of the New Testament are some of the most important archaeological artifacts of early Christianity. Aside from the invaluable information contained in the content of these ancient documents, the presence of this simple form of abbreviation indicates that from the earliest documented history of Christianity, the name of Jesus was held in the highest reverence.


Works Cited

The Apostolic Fathers. Volume 1. P. Clement I, S. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, S. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna & K. Lake, Ed.. The Loeb Classical Library. London; New York: Heinemann; Macmillan. 

P. Balla, “Challenges to Biblical Theology.” New Dictionary of Biblical Theology. 2000 (T. D. Alexander & B. S. Rosner, Ed.) (electronic ed.). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. 

Dan Brown. The Da Vinci Code. 2003. New York: Doubleday. 

Phillip Comfort. Encountering the Manuscripts. 2005. Nashville: Broadman and Holman. Kindle Edition. 

Larry W. Hurtado. The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins. 2006. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. Kindle Edition. 

Larry W. Hurtado. How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? 2005. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 

Kenneth R. Solomon. “Nomina Sacra: Scribal Practice and Piety in Early Christianity.” Paper presented at the Evangelical Theological Society2008 Midwest Regional Meeting. Accessed 14 June 2013. 


By Shane Scott
From Expository Files 20.7; July 2013