Nomina Sacra

Contents: Introduction * Chart of Nomina Sacra * 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 superscript sigma at the end of a word, a bar representing a terminal nu, or a special symbol such as an elaborate script kappa for KAI.

The Christians went a step further by creating the nomina sacra ("sacred names"). 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.

The reason for the development of the nomina sacra is disputed and will not be covered here.[1]

The use of nomina sacra became standard at a very early date.[*2] 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 IS for Joshua; in later use it would have been reserved exclusively for Jesus; similarly, should swthr be abbreviated if not used for Jesus?). One or two marginal abbreviations fluctuated in their use (e.g. the Egerton Gospel abbreviates profhtas). But by Byzantine times a list of fifteen nomina sacra had been generally adopted. They were as follows:

Chart of the Standard Nomina Sacra


1. 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. [back]

2. There are no nomina sacra visible in P52; the line length perhaps implies the use of the abbreviation IN, 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: