Monday, December 1, 2014

Bokedal on the Nomina Sacra

I've enjoyed reading Tomas Bokedal's The Formation and Significance of the Christian Biblical Canon (Bloomsbury 2013), a 'second edition' of the author's dissertation, the first edition of which was reviewed by John Barton in JTS (remarkably so, for an unpublished dissertation). I'm not quite half-way through.

He summarizes his basic argument in this way:
In the following I shall seek to demonstrate that, as part of its canon formation, early Christianity forms a closed literary fellowship in the period AD 70–120, with an in-principle closed two-testament canon at hand circa AD 200. This is the outcome of an extended process, marked by continuity and a strong ecclesial consensus as to the scriptural core, structure and approximate literary scope. (p. 20) 
I find it interesting that for Bokedal, the formation of the canon as he is describing it does not necessarily need to establish rock-solid borders for the canon, one hundred percent certainty on which books are in and which are out.

The emergence of the Christian Bible, as described here, could not have exerted a greater impact had the scope, essence or meaning of the canon been finally and once and for all defined; for instance, by way of a carefully  prescribed canonical model for scriptural interpretation, or a definite number of writings to be included. Quite to the contrary, the ongoing canon debate provides the possibility of reaching at even a better understanding of the canonical shape and function. (p. 17) 
Bokedal's third chapter is on the nomina sacra, those special contractions of theologically significant words found especially in Christian sources.
[...] the introduction of the system of nomina sacra into the biblical texts – immediately indicating a Christian context for these writings – was a decisive step in the early stages of the canonical process. (p. 83)
In this regard, he argues that the nomina sacra are a scribal system aimed at connecting the God of Israel with Jesus; that this system transforms Jewish scripture into Christian scripture; brings unity to the whole of scripture; engrafts the early Church's creedal confession (Jesus as Lord) in the manuscripts; and relates (or 'juxtaposes') the new Christian writings to the Jewish scriptures (pp. 92–93). Bokedal helpfully classifies the 15 nomina sacra according to the frequency of abbreviation, with theos, christos, Iēsous, and kurios in the top category, almost always abbreviated in NT manuscripts of the second and third centuries (surveying 74 such mss). Stauros (95%) and pneuma (89%) fall to the second category. The third category (23%–62%) includes stauroō, patēr, anthrōpos, Ierousalēm, huios, Israēl, pneumatikos, and the fourth category--hardly ever contracted in these 74 mss--includes ouranos, mētēr, Dauid, and sōtēr. As for pneuma, Vaticanus turns out to be unusual, hardly ever abbreviating the word (3%) in its NT portion (Bokedal doesn't mention what happens int the OT), though pneuma usually was contracted at that time, as seen above, and Sinaiticus has it 99% of the time (pp. 90–91, w/ n. 28).

The words are contracted in biblical manuscripts, but also in other Christian writings (p. 89; and maybe Jewish writings?--Bokedal does not address the issue, but see Hurtado ch. 3, and on non-biblical writings that include nomina sacra, see ibid. p. 98; Tuckett 442–3; on inscriptions with nomina sacra, see Bokedal 116–17; and Wicker, on whom see Hurtado; and Edwards for a Jewish example). This seems to distinguish the nomina sacra from the other peculiar feature of early Christian books, the preference for the codex. This latter phenomenon does seem to be particularly, though by no means exclusively, associated with scripture (Bokedal 125–7; Hurtado).

"The abbreviated forms occur typically only when used in a sacral sense. Although not always consistently carried out, this is especially the case for the word Θεος. A clear distinction is made by scribes between God or Lord as sacred names (written as nomina sacra) and these words as profane words in the plural (gods and lords, written in full). Almost all 50 or so Greek manuscripts containing 1 Cor. 8:4-6 included by Reuben Swanson in his New Testament Greek Manuscripts make this distinction." (pp. 99–100) 
The nomina sacra appear also in Latin, Coptic, Slavonic, and Armenian mss (Bokedal 85 n. 6; cf. p. 122) and seem to have been used in all Christian biblical manuscripts until the rise of printing (see pp. 86–87 n. 11). The universality of this practice leads Bokedal to suggest a reintroduction into modern Bible editions (apparently he means both original language editions and translations), and he proposes using all caps for each of the nomina sacra, or at least the main ones (pp. 86, 122–23).

But I wonder about this statement:
For early Christianity as for early Judaism, it seems to have been the case that a writing without a strong emphasis on the sacred name(s) could not make any strong claim towards scripturality. (p. 93; cf. p. 122)
This makes sense for the NT--it is hard to imagine a writing that doesn't mention Jesus or the Lord being generally recognized as Christian scripture. But I'm curious how such a view would play out with certain texts of the OT, Song of Songs and Esther, for instance, both famously containing no references to God (though cf. Song 8:6). Well, in the Greek Esther, there are all kinds of references to God, so for Christians (and some Jews) that problem would be solved, I suppose. Codex Sinaiticus does contain instances of nomina sacra in Esther. But I don't think there are any instances of nomina sacra in the Song. Codex Sinaiticus does contain explicit references to the dramatis personae (Bride, Groom), and maybe these could be considered sacred names. But they weren't contracted.

Bokedal follows the explanation for the nomina sacra associated with Hurtado and, earlier, Roberts, that these scribal markers have a Christian origin, and they likely started with a suspended form of Iēsous (pp. 93–97).

The payoff for canon formation comes in the conclusion to the chapter:
As nomina sacra are present in basically all Christian Greek biblical manuscripts, their seemingly universal reception by the early faith communities strongly suggests a doctrine of the unity of the Christian Scriptures, placing the emergent NT writings side by side with the Scriptures of Judaism (the OT). The Christian Scriptures contain the nomina sacra, which are being introduced also into the Jewish Scriptures, and both OT and NT writings are used together for the divine lection as part of the worship service. In this way – and of further signifance for the canon formation – the Christian identity of the Scriptures as Scriptures vis-à-vis the synagogue is emphasized. Now, if the above analysis is correct, and if we make use of an essential component from von Harnack's canon defnintion, we need to date a central aspect of the NT canon formation to around AD 100 (rather than ca. AD 200, as suggested by von Harnack), when the Christians' own writings in this way are put on a par with the Jewish Scriptures (cf. section 7.3). Justin Martyr in Rome testifies to an already established tradition in this regard, with the Gospel being read publicly alongside the Prophets (see section 7.7.4). (pp. 121–22)
A couple further thoughts that popped into my mind as I read this chapter:

--The transmission of the nomina sacra--in the actual copying of the texts--presumably would have need to be visual. That is, if we are imagining something like a scriptorium, with scribes listening to the text being read and then writing down what they hear, it seems to me that the nomina sacra would not be so standardized. This observation concurs with Gamble's statement that there is “no direct evidence that texts were replicated by dictation in the ancient world" (Books and Readers, 88; but Gamble later discusses the existence of some scriptoria in the ancient world, such as at Caesarea; see pp. 120–23, 158–9).

--It seems probable that the nomina sacra contributed to Christological interpretation of the OT. (see Bokedal pp. 101–2, 113).

One last observation: I enjoyed this footnote (p. 16 n. 55): "Cf. Zahn's remark somewhere, that it is because of the uncertainty regarding the shape of the canon that there is a history of the canon in the first place." I love the honesty of this note: I know I read it somewhere in Zahn, but I can't find it right now. It also reminds me of Hebrews 4:4.

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