Nomina Sacra

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


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

One way to conserve materials was abbreviations. A number of strategies were adopted at one time or another -- e.g. a special symbol such as an elaborate script kappa (ϗ) for και, a superscript ς at the end of a word (allowing the letter to be written smaller), or a bar representing a terminal ν.

The latter two methods are known as suspension, and it is suspected that they were related. Initially, the terminal letter was simply written as a superscript, e.g. ΘΕΟΝ. Such a small letter could quickly degenerate into a squiggle such as ΘΕΟ~, and from there it is a tiny step to just writing an overbar ΘΕΟ̅.

There were also ligatures, in which letters were joined; these could eventually reach a point where several letters would be joined into a single symbol. In Latin, for instance, "per" came to be written ϼ (similar to a chi-rho), "et" of course became &, and so forth. The table below shows Judges 18:9 as it appears in a manuscript fragment I know and in a modern rendering (note both the ligatures and the suspensions; broadly speaking, a bar over a letter in Latin could be a suspended m or n):

vitqƺ dñs ṗcantem manue
& apparuit rursum angłs dñi ux
ori eius sedenti in agro manue a’
maritus eius nō erat cum ea. Que
cim vidisset angḹm
vitque Dominus precantem Manue
et apparuit rursum angelus Domini ux-
ori eius sedenti in agro. Manue autem
maritus eius non erat cum ea que
cum vidisset angelum

It will be evident that the abbreviated form saved a lot of space! The abbreviated form is 147 characters; the un-abbreviated form is 165, so all those ligatures and suspensions and such saved a total of about 10%.

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

Although the practice is obviously ancient, the term is relatively recent, having been introduced by Ludwig Traube in 1907.[1] Before that, they would likely have simply been called "abbreviations" or something similar.

The reason for the development of the nomina sacra is disputed and will not be covered here.[2] It is interesting to note that the Christian tendency is rather unlike secular authors; in a secular commentary manuscript, e.g., abbreviations tended not to be used in the main text of the work, but were freely used in the marginal commentary, which was considered less valuable than the text.[3] Christians, by contrast, abbreviated the most important words.

The use of nomina sacra as an idea became standard at a very early date. Nonetheless some abbreviations seem to have been adopted sooner than others, with θεος, Ιησους, κυριος, Χριστος being probably the first to become widespread.[*4] By the third century their presence or absence can be used to tell a Christian from a Jewish codex of the Old Testament. The use of the abbreviations at this time was slightly haphazard (e.g. one or two scribes might use the abbreviation ΙΣ for Joshua; in later use it would have been reserved exclusively for Jesus; similarly, should σωτηρ be abbreviated if not used for Jesus?). One or two marginal abbreviations fluctuated in their use (e.g. the Egerton Gospel abbreviates προφητας). But by Byzantine times a list of fifteen nomina sacra had been generally adopted. They were as follows:

Chart of the Standard Nomina Sacra

Abbreviation    Short for         Meaning
ανοςανθρωποςhuman being
κςκυριος[the] Lord
ουνοςουρανοςheaven/the heavens

It must be stressed that these were not the only abbreviations used by individual scribes. One or another might use an abbreviation from some other source -- perhaps creating confusion or even a variant reading. Christopher de Hamel gives an example derived from the Latin text Berengaudus on the Apocalypse: a lost manuscript may 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 wrote both as alternatives -- and a later scribe might adopt the wrong one.[5] It's hard to know how often this happened; if a manuscript contains two readings, they are surely at least as likely to come from comparison of manuscripts as from not understanding an abbreviation. But with thousands of scribes working from thousands 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: [6]

Ȝ αιspecifically αι at the end of a word, e.g. αγαπωμȜ = αγαπωμαι
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
υ›υπερ} This pair could really produce some interesting confusions.
It's also rather funny to see a smooth breathing following υ.
⚡︎ αυτοςand cases

Another curiosity of the Nomina Sacra is that it can produce errors that would not occur in any other context. In the Septuagint, for instance, it is quite common to find confusion between ιηλ, Israel, and ιλημ, Jerusalem (a confusion less common in the New Testament, where Israel is not so often mentioned). And, too, Ιησους and εις will not be confused, but ις and εις easily could be. Thus, in textual criticism involving these nouns, one must always be aware of the use of the nomina sacra, even if they are not shown in an apparatus.


1. J. Bruce Prior, "The Use and Nonuse of Nomina Sacra in the Freer Gospel of Matthew," essay in Larry W. Hurtado, editor, The Freer Biblical Manuscripts: Fresh Studies of an American TreasureTrove, Society of Biblical Literature, 2006, p. 147. [back]

2. A good brief summary of ideas on the matter can be found in Bruce M. Metzger, Manuscripts of the Greek Bible: An Introduction to Paleography (1981), pp. 36-37. It should not be assumed that the reason for the nomina sacra is simply to save space, since it doesn't save much. (This is not to deny that abbreviation in general was worth doing. But the nomina sacra by themselves don't save much. Take, say, θεος and its inflected forms. θεον, for instance, could be written with a suspension, θεο, or as a nominum sacrum, θν. Total savings of using the nominum sacrum? One letter per instance. In the Gospel of Matthew, the word θεος occurs between 40 and 45 times. So using it would save maybe two lines. Some of the nomina sacra save more letters, but many are not as common as θεος. The total savings would probably be less than a page.) Nor is writing ΘC with an overbar significantly faster than writing ΘΕΟC.
That being so, it is reasonable to assume that the system arose out of some other need -- it has been suggested that it may have come from LXX and the need to show where one should read Adonai instead of the tetragrammaton -- that is, that κυριος would be a translation of the actual word adonai but that the contraction KC would represent the divine name YHWH. On the other hand, the LXX has a tendency to use κυριος (as opposed to ο κυριος) for the tetragrammaton, so it is not clear that this usage was necessary.
Another possibility, mentioned by Kennicott, is that at one time there were Hebrew 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 extension to other words 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]

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

4. There are no nomina sacra visible in 𝔓52; the line length perhaps implies the use of the abbreviation ΙΝ, but this is not certain (see discussion in the entry on 𝔓52). The substantial early papyri use the abbreviations at least intermittently.
According to Scrivener, the Old Uncials use the following abbreviations: [back]

  • Vaticanus (B) abbreviates θεος κυριος Ιησους Χριστος πνευμα (generally only these, although the Old Testament sometimes abbreviates ανθρωπρος as well as Ισραηλ Ιερουσαλημ)
  • Bezae (D) abbreviates only θεος κυριος Ιησους Χριστος (D F G of Paul also follow this usage, but rather inconsistently)
  • Z "seldom abridges."
  • Σ abbreviates Πατηρ as ΠΤΗΡ
  • Codex 700 abbreviates εθνων as εθν.
  • The Bodleian Genesis has an odd abbreviation (ΠΑΡΝΟΣ with a Θ above the line) for παρθενος -- that is:

Prior, in the article cited above, looked at the usage in W, though the presentation is anything but systematic. There are hints that the different sections conformed to different patterns -- which in turn would seem to imply (as is widely suspected) different exemplars. I'm going to try to summarize Prior's results:
Abbreviated universally or nearly (at least when referring to Jesus or God): θεος, Ιησους, κυριος, Χριστος
Abbreviated frequently but not universally: ανθρωπος, μητηρ, πατρος, πνευμα
Abbreviated only rarely: Δαυειδ, υιος
Not abbreviated except in the supplement: Ισραηλ, ουρανος, σωτηρ
Not abbreviated even in the supplement: Ιερουσαλημ, σταυρος

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

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