Nomina Sacra

Contents: Introduction* Chart of Nomina Sacra* Other Early Abbreviations* Footnotes


Ancient manuscripts were, of course, written by hand, often in largeuncial scripts, on papyrus (moderately expensive) or parchment (even moreexpensive). The expense of writing materials and the time needed to copya manuscript meant that every attempt had to be made to save space.

One way to conserve materials was abbreviations. A number of strategieswere adopted at one time or another -- e.g. a special symbol suchas an elaborate script kappa for και, a superscript ς at theend of a word, or a bar representing a terminal ν.

The latter two methods are known as suspension, and it is suspectedthat they were related. Initially, the terminal letter was simply written as asuperscript, e.g. ΘΕΟΝ. Such a small letter couldquickly degenerate into a squiggle such as ΘΕΟ~, andfrom there it is a tiny step to just writing an overbar.

The Christians went a step further by creating the nomina sacra("sacred names"). These were abbreviations formed by taking thefirst one or two letters of certain words, plus the final letter(s) (to determinethe inflection), omitting the intervening letters, and drawing a line overthe whole.

The reason for the development of the nomina sacra is disputedand will not be covered here.[1]It is interesting to note that the Christian tendency is rather unlikesecular authors; in a secular commentary manuscript, e.g., abbreviations tendednot to be used in the main text of the work, but were freely used in the marginalcommentary, which was considered less valuable than thetext.[2]Christians, by contrast, abbreviated the most important words.

The use of nomina sacra became standard at a very early date.[*3]By the third century their presence or absence can be used to tell a Christianfrom a Jewish codex of the Old Testament. The use of the abbreviationsat this time was slightly haphazard (e.g. one or two scribes might usethe abbreviation ΙΣfor Joshua; in later use it would have been reservedexclusively for Jesus; similarly, shouldσωτηρbe abbreviated if not used for Jesus?). One or two marginal abbreviations fluctuated in their use(e.g. the Egerton Gospel abbreviatesπροφητας).But by Byzantine times a list of fifteen nomina sacra had beengenerally adopted. They were as follows:

Chart of the Standard NominaSacra

It should be observed that these were not the only abbreviations used by individualscribes. One or another might use an abbreviation from some other source -- perhapscreating confusion or even a variant reading. Christopher de Hamel gives an examplederived from the Latin text Berengaudus on the Apocalypse: a lost manuscriptmay have read "in hoc l'o" (or "in hoc lo, or some such).A later scribe was not sure whether "l'o" stood for "libro" or"loco," and written both as alternatives -- and a later scribe might adoptthe wrong one.[4]It's hard to know how often this happened; if a manuscript containstwo readings, they are surely at least as likely to come from comparison of manuscriptsas from not understanding an abbreviation. But with thousands of scribes working fromthousands of manuscripts, it is a possibility that can't be excluded.

Other Abbreviations

In addition to the above, some abbreviations occur in various classical documents.Thompson lists the following among others:[5]

3 termination αι
α' ανα
γ' γαρ
δ' δε\ The potential for confusion between these two will be obvious.
δ` δια/
κ'και\ Another easily confused pair.
μ'μεν\ And still another source of confusion.
π'παρα\ And another.
τ`την\This is probably the worst source of confusion of all, although the form can probably be determined from the following noun
τ›της |
υ›υπερ\ This pair could really produce some interesting confusions. It's also rather funny to see a smooth breathing following υ.
XR χρονος
αυτοςand cases


1. A good brief summary of ideas on the matter can be foundin Bruce M. Metzger, Manuscripts of the Greek Bible: An Introductionto Paleography (1981), pp.36-37. It should not be assumed that the reason issimply to save space, since it doesn't save much. Nor is writing ΘC with anoverbar significantly faster than writing ΘΕΟC. It is reasonable toassume that the system arose out of some other need -- it has been suggested thatit may have come from LXX and the need to show where one should read Adonaiinstead of the tetragrammaton -- that is, that κυριοςwould be a translation of adonai but that the contraction KC would representthe divine name.
Another possibility, mentioned by Kennicott, is that at one time there wereHebrew manuscripts which used an abbreviation for the tetragrammaton YHWH -- perhaps 'י or י or the like. ﬥיום might have been ' or or similar. From there, the development of the abbreviations KS and ΘC would be obvious, and the rest of the system not a great stretch. However, no Hebrew manuscript with this usage has been found, although there are a few places in LXX which hint that they might result from misconstruing such a reading; see Emmanuel Tov, The Text-Critical Use of the Septuagint in Biblical Research, third edition, Eisenbrauns, 2015, pp. 160-161. [back]

2. E. G. Turner, Greek Papyri: An Introduction (slightlyrevised edition, 1980), pp. 95-6. [back]

3. There are no nomina sacra visible inP52; the line lengthperhaps implies the use of the abbreviationIN, but this is notcertain (see discussion in the entry onP52).The substantial early papyri use the abbreviationsat least intermittently.
According to Scrivener, the Old Uncialsuse the following abbreviations: [back]

4. Christopher de Hamel, A History of Illuminated Manuscripts,Phaedon, 1997, pp. 90, 94-96. [back]

5. Sir Edward Maunde Thompson, An Introduction to Greekand Latin Paleography, Oxford, 1912, p. 79, fn. 1. [back]