Nomina sacra are abbreviations used for the sacred names of God, Jesus, the Spirit, etc. (though also common unsacred words such as ανθρωπος) in many Greek manuscripts. Do any approaches to textual criticism conclude that they were used in the autographs (original documents of the Biblical texts)?

Wikipedia has a table of manuscripts using nomina sacra. A lot of papyri use them, but not all, it seems.

  • Nomina Divina can be confirmed nor denied in with what we currently have. There is no visible nomina sacra in the P52 Jan 3, 2019 at 16:21
  • @MrConstantin Did you mean "can't be confirmed nor denied"?
    – curiousdannii
    Jan 3, 2019 at 22:41
  • I was in the middle of something. Yes that’s right. I find it curious you are approaching this subject from the angle you are taking. If you can prove that there is no evidence for nomina sacra then you rule it out as uninspired writing I presume or not sacred. But is the flip side also true. If there is evidence are you willing to take it as prescriptive? Also why are you limiting it to the NT writings only? Are the OT writings not inspired or are they irrelevant to Christians? The NT church only has OT writings and they contain abbreviated “nomina divina”. Jan 3, 2019 at 23:43
  • @MrConstantin If God directly inspired a practice, that is indeed notable and distinct from a human practice even if the human practice is a product of godly wisdom. It doesn't say everything of course - the NT adopts the Jewish practice of the time of saying Lord rather than YHWH, but we don't then conclude it's wrong to say YHWH. Whether nomina sacra are inspired or not is just another fact for us to consider for our current thinking and practices. As to the OT, I'm not aware of any NS in the Hebrew. If there are any, that would be valuable info for an answer to include. And the LXX too.
    – curiousdannii
    Jan 4, 2019 at 0:09
  • When I mean nomen sacrum in the OT I actually mean the most likely origin of NS which is Sacred Tetragrammaton. It occurs very often but gradually dies out. deadseascrolls.org.il/explore-the-archive/image/B-371124 and also csad.ox.ac.uk/POxy/requests/3522.htm Jan 4, 2019 at 0:45

1 Answer 1


curiousdannii, I'm writing this as a sort of answer. But more accurately, this is a request for clarity. We make a distinction between the Divine Name (tetragrammaton) and nomina sacra. They are not exactly the same.

Let's take a chronological approach to your question. In the Hebrew text, the scribes (especially the Masoretes of the later, 9-11th centuries, AD) treated the tetragrammaton (the four-letter word, thus, 'divine name') in a special way. Instead of saying it, they had a perpetual margin note (qere) that had you read an entirely different word. No one is precisely sure how to pronounce this name (the qere). Yahweh is proposed. But it is also unproven. The HCSB translation went with Yahweh. But after valid criticism, it opted for the old "Lord" translation in the updated CSB.

We find much the same pattern in the DSS. Tov writes:

g. Writing of Divine Names

The divine names were written in a special way in many Hebrew Qumran texts. These practices reflect reverence for the divine names, considered so sacred that they were not to be written with regular characters lest an error be made or lest they be erased by mistake. An additional purpose may have been a warning against pronouncing the divine name. → Scr. Prac., 218–21, 238–46

(a) Paleo-Hebrew+ characters in texts written in the square+ script, mainly in non-biblical texts, but also in 7 biblical texts exemplified for 4QIsac: יהוה 6 6 (Isa 11:9); צבאות 24 38 (Isa 44:6); אלוהים + suffix 24 36 (Isa 44:5); אדוני 9 I 25 (Isa 22:12).

(b) Four dots (named Tetrapuncta) in texts written in the square script+ represent the Tetragrammaton+, mainly in non-biblical texts, but also in 4QSamc, e.g. 1 3 (1 Sam 25:31); 1QIsaa XXXIII 7 (Isa 40:7; plates 4*–5*, line 7) and XXXV 15 (Isa 42:6), in both cases supralinear+ corrections.

(c) A dicolon ( : ) followed by a space is systematically placed before the Tetragrammaton (written in the square script) in 4QRPb (4Q364). → p. 56, n. 75

(Emmanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, 3rd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 205.)

So they didn't add the marginal qere. Instead one (but note that there were other approaches) approach in the DSS was to use paleo Hebrew instead of the Aramaic square script to denote the Tetragrammaton.

As the Old Testament age draws to a close and the diaspora descends on the Jewish people, few of them speak Hebrew anymore. So there is the need to translate into other non-Hebrew languages.

In Greek, then, when they came across the Divine Name (tetragrammaton), they translated it (almost universally) to the Greek word, ⲕⲩⲣⲓⲟⲥ (Lord/Master).

In the Syriac churches they followed much the same pattern, translating the tetragrammaton as ܡܳܪܝܳܐ (Lord/Master).

The practice in the Aramaic Targumim is quite unrestrained. And as a result is too much to categorize here.

That, then brings us to the NT age. As scribes handed down to us copies of the New Testament manuscripts, scholars noticed a pattern. When they got to ⲕⲩⲣⲓⲟⲥ, (again what the Divine Name was translated into), they seemed to fall into a pattern of abbreviating the word by using the first and last letters with a macron over the top (e.g. ⲕ︦ⲥ︦). This practice of contracting the words wasn't only used for "lord." it was also used for...

  • ⲑⲉⲟⲥ
  • ⲓⲏⲥⲟⲩⲥ
  • ⲭⲣⲓⲥⲧⲟⲥ
  • ⲡⲛⲉⲩⲙⲁ
  • ⲡⲛⲉⲩⲙⲁⲧⲓⲕⲟⲥ
  • ⲁⲛⲑⲣⲑⲱⲡⲟⲥ
  • ⲟⲩⲣⲁⲛⲟⲥ
  • ⲩⲓⲟⲥ
  • ⲇⲁⲩⲓⲇ
  • ⲓⲉⲣⲟⲩⲥⲁⲗⲉⲙ
  • ⲓⲥⲣⲁⲏⲗ
  • ⲡⲁⲧⲏⲣ
  • ⲙⲏⲧⲏⲣ
  • ⲥⲱⲧⲏⲣ

Some have tried to make the case that this pattern of usage shows "reverential treatment." But this is impossible to prove. The one who has done the most extensive treatment on this is Dirk Jongkind. He writes:

The origin and subsequent use of nomina sacra is connected with reverential notions, but the use of nomina sacra in Sinaiticus is not determined solely by reverence. Often nomina sacra are employed with very mundane referents: ⲡⲛⲉⲩⲙⲁ and its derivatives are used both for evil spirits and for the Holy Spirit, and ⲡⲁⲧⲏⲣ and ⲕⲩⲣⲓⲟⲥ can also be used in any context.(Scribal Habits of Codex Sinaiticus)

His thoughts are not to be taken lightly. Supposedly, when the scribes got to a divine reference, they abbreviated to show proper respect. But, when you actually sit down and read through the uncials it's hard to prove that pattern. Take, for example, Luke 11:24.

  • In Vaticanus and Alexandrinus we read: “ⲁⲕⲁⲑⲁⲣⲧⲟⲛ ⲡⲛⲉⲩⲙⲁ”. Note the lack of the nomen sacrum. This is what we would expect when we come across "unclean spirit." But look at some other manuscripts...
  • “ⲧⲟ ⲁⲕⲁⲑⲁⲣⲧⲟⲛ ⲡ̅ⲛ̅ⲁ̅” (Luke 11:24 GNT-SI)
  • “ⲧⲟ ⲁⲕⲁⲑⲁⲣⲧⲟⲛ ⲡ̅ⲛ̅ⲁ̅” (Luke 11:24 GNT-WAS)
  • “ⲧⲟ ⲁⲕ[ⲁⲑⲁⲣⲧⲟⲛ ⲡ̅ⲛ̅ⲁ̅ ⲉⲝⲉⲗⲑⲏ ⲁ]ⲡ̣ⲟ̣ ⲧ̣ⲟ̣ⲩ̣ ⲁ̣ⲛ̣ⲑ̣[ⲣⲱ]” (Luke 11:24 GNTPAP-C) (here in P45 "the son of man" is written out plene. The text is lacunose where "unclean spirit" would be. But by the length of the line one can safely conclude that it would have been written in the abbreviated form.)

So, since the nomina sacra were applied to both unclean spirits and the Holy Spirit, we can safely conclude that there is no consistent reverential usage. What about ⲕⲩⲣⲓⲟⲥ? Let's take Matt. 10:24 as an example:

  • Vaticanus:





  • Sinaiticus:







  • Washintgonianus:




In every example of this verse we can find, whenever we reach the generic statement, "a disciple is not above his teacher, nor is a slave above his master" the word, ⲕⲩⲣⲓⲟⲥ (master/lord) is always put in a nomen sacrum.

Those who assert that when the nomina sacra are used the scribes are doing so in a sort of reverential tone simply haven't read the uncials. If they had, they would have realized that there are enough exceptions to this rule as to make the rule questionable if not untenable.

Conclusion 1: The use of reverential tone in the uncials (and yes, even in the earlier papyri) cannot be substantiated.

Conclusion 2: Were the nomina sacra used in the autographs? We don't have the autographs. So we can't prove that. My conclusion (and admittedly it's a guess) is that the autographs were written out plene and then contracted later on when copied down into the manuscripts for the sake of saving space.

  • This question is not about the Tetragrammaton, except inasmuch as it is one of the words that were abbreviated. Though I think you've given a helpful history
    – curiousdannii
    Nov 14, 2023 at 3:40
  • Interestingly enough, what appear to be "nomina sacra" also are used for certain numbers in the Byzantine manuscript tradition of Revelation, and there is some debate if they should just be treated as abbreviations because of this, but it's only certain numbers. For example, check out the number 12 in numerous places in Rev. 7 (see footnotes): archive.org/details/robinson-pierpont-2018-gnt-edition/page/598/…
    – Dan
    Nov 20, 2023 at 22:24

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