Monday, November 27, 2023

Sacred names

Michael J. Kruger is a professor of New Testament and Early Christianity. He regularly teaches an elective, “The Origin and Authority of the New Testament Canon.” He writes "I think my students particularly enjoy a sub-module of that course where we study high-resolution photographs of early Christian manuscripts." I found this interesting:
...[W]e 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 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”). ....

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. ....

The nomina sacra are designed to show reverence and devotion to the name(s) of God. Contrary to what the term “abbreviation” implies, the nomina sacra were not designed to save space. Instead, 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.

Of course, it should be noted that the earliest Christians didn’t show devotion merely to the words “God” or “Lord,” but also to the names “Jesus,” and “Christ.” Thus, the nomina sacra constitute one of earliest pieces of evidence for the Christian belief in the divinity of Jesus. They demonstrate a remarkably high Christology, at least among these Christian scribes. ....

In sum, this oft-overlooked feature has tremendous significance for our understanding of early Christian culture. Not only did the earliest Christians care about books, and the careful copying of such books, but the nomina sacra demonstrate that they had a rather developed scribal infrastructure to make that happen.

Moreover, the scribes appeared to be fairly theologically astute. Through these abbreviations, they expressed a view that Jesus deserved honor and devotion right alongside God. The bundle of names—God, Lord, Jesus, Christ—showed that Jesus was not considered a new and separate divine being, but (somehow) shared the same divine identity as the God of the Old Testament. (more)

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