Nota bene: By nomina sacra, the present author is not intending to address the “sacred name” movement, but rather a practice common to the first sixteen centuries of the Common Era whereby certain words were (and in some contexts still are) written in a contracted, suspended, elided, or conflated form in order to remind the reader of the sacred character of those words or the Being they represented.
The principal work engaged in this discussion is a work about fifteen years aback of the present audience, but quite in step with current scholarship on the topic, i.e. Larry W. Hurtado’s “The Origin of the Nomina Sacra: A Proposal,” which was published in the Winter 1998 Journal of Biblical Literature (pages 655-673).
First of all, some history of the phenomenon is in order. We can find nomina sacra in use as early as the Septuagint (LXX), 3rd Century BCE, and as late as the 16th Century CE. We find these sacred notations not only in the common (koine) Greek of the early Church or Latin of the Catholic Church, but also (prominently and consistently) in the Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, and Slavonic manuscripts and, I posit, in ancient Hebrew texts as well. The Latin term we now find common as the moniker for this phenomenon, i.e. nomina sacra, seems to find its etiology in Ludwig Traube’s work Nomina Sacra: Versuch einer Geschichte der christlichen Kürzung (Munich: Beck, 1907).
Per Hurtado, the fifteen sacred epithets represented through nomina sacra are G-d, L-rd, Messiah, Yeshua, Spirit, Son, Father, David, Israel, Yerushalayim (Jerusalem), Savior, Heaven, Execution Stake (Cross), Mother, and Humankind. I would argue that the Covenent Name of Adonai (generally transliterated YHWH) should also be counted among the nomina sacra.
Certainly it is not a nomina sacra solely by nature of being presented without vowels, as that would make every Hebrew word a nomina sacra in texts predating the Masoretes, but there are instances of truncated forms of that Covenant Name in several languages which would place it into that category. The fact that once vowel indicators are introduced to the Biblical text, the vowels which belong to the Covenant Name are replaced with those indicating the kethib-qere for L-rd (Adonai) 6518 times and for G-d (Elohim) in the other 305 occurrences reflects the Jewish and early Messianic concern for safeguarding the Covenant Name from blasphemy.
We find this same concern apparent in texts rendered in other languages besides the Hebrew, establishing that this cultural concern is not language-bound to Hebrew alone. We find an interesting Greek nomina sacra standing in for the tetragrammaton (Covenant Name) in 4QpapLXX-Levb (aka 4Q120) where the Name is replaces with the three Greek letters iota, alpha, and omega beneath a supralinear stroke (the usual indicator of a nomina sacra). What is interesting about this sigla is that it will later come to signify Yeshua as a sacred shorthand representing the Greek words Iesous Alpha Omega (Yeshua Beginning and End). Cf. Epiphanius, ca. 380 CE.
Siegfried Kreuzer, whose work on P967 (LXX 4) introduced the world to a text which bears both Greek and Hebrew nomina sacra in the same document, makes an important observation:
Due to the nomina sacra, P967 is considered a Christian codex, however this is not always a good criterion since that is also a Jewish phenomenon.
Antiquity reveals some nomina sacra practices indicating that reverence for the L-rd’s Covenant Name is expressed universally, not just in Hebrew, e.g. the embedding of the tetragrammaton in paleo-Hebrew characters into Greek manuscripts (P.Oxy. 50.3522, 8HevXIIgr). Emanuel Tov notes that Qumran often replaces the Name with “four or five dots, sometimes preceded by a colon” (Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, 1992), and P.Oxy. 7.1007 and P967 both bear the replacement of the tetragrammaton with two paleo-Hebrew yods. The two yods (bearing the vowel points for Adonai) is still a common method for presenting the Covenant Name in liturgical works today… nearly two millennia after its appearance in those two First Century manuscripts.
I find agreement with Kurt Treu in my position that the Covenant Name is the original nomina sacra. He proposes this in his work Die Bedeutung des Griechischen für die Juden in vömischen Reich:
“[The phenomenon] began among Jews prior to Christian usage and initially included both theos and kurios, written as contractions with a horizontal stroke placed over them to distinguish them in Greek texts where they served as translation equivalents of יהוה.”
A few ancient witnesses also testify to manuscripts which used gold ink to letter the tetragrammaton (Josephus, Antiquities 12.89; Aristeas 176).
Hurtado, comparing the nomina sacra to other abbreviations to be found in secular sources contemporary to those in which we find this phenomenon:
“They are not intended to conserve space or labor. They appear more frequently in Christian manuscripts prepared for formal usage, such as public readings… [and are used exclusively for] a relatively fixed set of terms, all of which have fairly obvious religious meaning.”
It is also noteworthy that the indicator of a nomina sacra is different than how abbreviations are indicated in common or secular texts. The supralinear stroke does not occur in non-religious literature.
Hurtado observes the reverence which is illustrated through the use of these sacred alternatives to fully spelling out divine names and titles.
“In the nomina sacra, we encounter a fascinating manifestation of ancient Christian devotion.”
This same devotion is apparent in the Judeo-Messianic practice of writing certain divine titles absent the vowels in English, e.g. G-d, L-rd, and YHWH.
I am frequently asked for an explanation of this practice by those who perceive in it a disrespect for HaShem, and my hope is that this article adequately answers that concern and demonstrates that it is a greater showing of devotion to join our ancient co-worshipers in a custom which was the norm for Jew and Gentile alike for the first 1500 years of the Common Era, finding its origin while the Apostles themselves were still living and leading. See J. Z. Lauterbach, “Substitutes for the Tetragrammaton,” PAAJR (1930-31): 39-67.
It is problematic for me that the generation which presumed to abandon this ancient custom is the same one which was led to rabid anti-Semitism by Martin Luther and John Calvin. That fact alone should move us toward a great hesitance to follow these hatemongers in their arrogant abandonment of all things Jewish, including the nomina sacra.