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What the Development of the Nomina Sacra Means:

How the First Christians Regarded the Holy Spirit

 

Robert Hommel

 

The development of the "Nomina Sacra" (Sacred Names) is meaningful in regard to how early Christians viewed the Holy Spirit - did they see Him as a Divine Person, or an impersonal force.  The Nomina Sacra, as the term implies, are abbreviations the were substituted for names that the Christian scribes considered holy.  They consisted of two to five Greek letters with a horizontal line over them.   Bruce Metzger lists 15 Nomina Sacra in his Manuscripts of the Greek Bible: An Introduction to Paleography.  However, this list apparently did not originally contain all 15, but grew over time.  For example, the word "mother" (mhthr - mÍtÍr) was not used until the beginning of the 4th century.  If it could be demonstrated that "spirit" (pneuma - pneuma) was represented in the earliest Greek manuscripts by the Nomen Sacrum (the singular of "Nomina Sacra"), it would indicate that the scribes regarded it as a Sacred Name.

This will be the task I undertake in this paper.  It will prove a difficult one, in that the Nomina Sacra were not uniformly used, and often they were used as mere abbreviations for common, profane words, like the Greek kai ("and").  It must be remembered that we are considering evidence from long ago, and there was nothing like a uniform practice among scribes.  But I hope to demonstrate that the Nomen Sacrum for pneuma developed over time, and eventually becoming the most prevalent practice among NT scribes, even when using it in non-religious contexts. 

The profane usage (the opposite of Nomina Sacra) is called plene.

Here Metzger's list of all 15 Nomina Sacra:

The following table lists all NT manuscripts from before 200ad with any occurrence of  pneuma, and in which form it appears.

MSS

Date Contains Nomen Sacrum for pneuma Contains plene form of pneuma
P4 150 - 225 AD Y Y
P32 150 - 200 AD N/A N/A
P46 175 - 225 AD Y Y
P66 150 - 200 AD Y Y
P75 175 - 224 AD Y N
P90 150 - 200 AD N/A N/A
P108 175 - 225 AD N/A N/A

P4 is interesting.  It contains part of the Gospel of Luke and is dated between the last half of the second century to the first quarter of the third, and the one time it represents pneuma in the plene form, it is clearly a profane usage:  

In the synagogue there was a man possessed by the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out with a loud voice (Luke 4:33 NASB).

In the other extant forms are all Nomina Sacra and they are all unambiguous references to the Holy Spirit.

P46 contains parts of Paul's epistles to the Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, and Hebrews.  It contains a mixture of Nomina Sacra and plene forms, for both sacred and profane uses.  Surprisingly, virtually all plene forms of pneuma are in the genitive case (pneumatoV - pneumatos), when it refers to the Holy Spirit.  Also, many profane uses are represented by Nomina Sacra (e.g., 1 Corinthians 4:21, 5:3, 4, 5, 14:15, 16; 16:18; 2 Corinthians 2:13, etc.).

P66 contains almost the entire Gospel of John.  John 3:6 presents two uses of spirit:

...that which is born of the Spirit is spirit (NASB).

The first is a reference to the Holy Spirit.  The second is a qualitative usage.1  The first occurs in the Nomen Sacrum form; the second in plene form.

Verse 8 is instructive as well.  In English it reads:

The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit (NASB).

The word translated "wind" is the same word as "spirit" (pneuma).  According to a footnote in Philip Comfort's edition of P66,2 the word "wind" was written in the plene form by the original scribe, but - at some point - was corrected into the Nomen Sacrum.  The second occurrence of pneuma in this verse is written in the Nomen Sacrum form.  This may well indicate a development from writing the Nomen Sacrum only when it was a clear reference to the Holy Spirit, and then mutated into the later use in which the Nomen Sacrum became the prevalent form, even in profane contexts.

P75 contains most of the Gospels of Luke and John.  In this manuscript, the scribe uniformly uses Nomina Sacra for all uses of pneuma,  including both occurrences in John 3:6.  This may indicate that the practice of using Nomina Sacra for both sacred and profane was becoming more common. This possibility is made somewhat more certain because in 3:8, it not only uses the Nomina Sacra for "wind" but also the verb "blows" (pnei - pnei) which is closely related to pneuma.3

Admittedly, the evidence is far from conclusive.  But I believe it is suggestive that the earliest NT scribes considered the word "spirit" to be special in a particular way.  It may even be indicative that the earliest Christians viewed the Spirit as a Personal Being.  It was included with "God," "Jesus," "Lord," "Christ," and "Man" (used in the phrase "Son of Man," a divine title) as among the earliest Nomina Sacra.  It was a common word in the Greek NT, but that alone cannot account for its being rendered in the Nomen Sacrum form, as demonstrated by the number of times it appears in the plene when used in profane contexts.  Finally, if my conjecture is correct about the Nomena Sacrum of "spirit" developing over time, it may also be significant in the dating of the manuscripts: P4 being the earliest, followed by P66, P46, and finally by P75.4

 

Notes 

1.  That is, "has the nature of spirit."  See here, here, and here for more information on qualitative nouns in Greek.

2P66 (P. Bodmer II + Inv. Nr. 4274/4298) from The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts, Comfort, Philip W., and Barrett, David P., editors (Tyndale House, copyright 1999, 2001), pp. 394-396.

3.  For more details, see here and P75 (P. Bodmer XIV and XV) from The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts, Comfort, Philip W., and Barrett, David P., editors (Tyndale House, copyright 1999, 2001), pp. 572 - 573.

4.  I received an email from one of the foremost experts on the Nomina Sacra, Larry Hurtado, and he mentioned P45 as a MS dated conservatively at 250ad.  The scribe, though using the Nomina Sacra in sacred contexts, also uses it of unclean or evil spirits.  According to Hurtado:  "In general, it looks to me that the nomina sacra practice developed and spread quickly, but individual copyists varied in their practice and in their skill at judging when and when not to write terms as n.s. So, a developing convention with some 'ragged' edges" (Email to Robert Hommel dated 1/9/12).