Jean Véronis

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jeudi, novembre 17, 2005

Writing: The Nomina Sacra under the prison

It’s quite symbolic, really. A prisoner is carrying out some digging work in Meggido prison in Israel (which "plays host” to some 1,200 Palestinian prisoners), when the blows from his pickaxe uncover two beautiful mosaics, one of which represents Ichtus, a sign by which early Christians recognised each other (see my previous post [fr]):

Here in France we were distracted by other events [fr], but this story has caused quite a stir all over the world (Washington Post, Yahoo News, National Geographic). Some people believe these mosaics could have belonged to the first church in the Holy Land and perhaps in the whole of Christendom. Indeed, they appear to date from the end of the 3rd century, long before the emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in 313 and up until now believed to be a time when Christians, who were persecuted, were not in a position to build places of worship. The Israeli authorities and the Vatican immediately turned this into a major media event (the discovery could encourage tourism for the former, and strengthen faith for the latter – something which they both seem to be in real need of...) but it’s best not to get over-excited yet: the discovery is of such enormity that we ought to step back and let the experts make a calm judgement.

In any case, another picture took my breath away while I was looking through the photo albums on Yahoo and National Geographic.

Or, in modern characters:
This translates as something along the lines of "The devout Akeptus dedicates this memorial to the God Jesus Christ" (see discussion and comments on Brandon Wason’s blog).

The three sets of letters which I have marked in pink are examples of what is called nomina sacra, something which I already talked about a few months ago [fr]. The nomina sacra is a system of abbreviations developed by the first Christians, but unlike other shorthand systems such as the Tironian notes (developed by Tiron, Ciceron’s secretary) they are only used for sacred words (God, Lord, Jesus, and such). Here, we can recognize:
Θ[Ε]Ω : God
Ι[ΗΣΟ]Υ : Jesus
Χ[ΡΙΣΤ]Ω : Christ
The nomina sacra was developed very early on (probably at the end of the 1st century, since we find it in the Egerton Papyrus 2 [1, 2]— if you liked the Da Vinci Code you’ll like Egerton ;-).

Examples of nomina sacra in epigraphy (especially inscriptions on monuments) are much less common, and there don’t seem to have been any before the fourth century (it must have been risky to display your religious beliefs on the walls... [see the discussion on Phil Harland’s blog]).

As you can imagine, I am following the story with much interest, and quite frankly with great excitement...

By the way, does Meggido ring any bells? Armageddon is the location of the Apocalypse (as well as the title of a bad film) : Har Meggido means the "mountain of Meggido" in Hebrew, and the transliteration in Greek would have given Harmagedôn (but of course, as is always the case there is some controversy surrounding this…). If you want to find out more, you can always read the cabalistic thriller of a trendy French woman writer [fr], but if you want a real Revelation, you’d be better off reading the original. It’s a bit wild, mind -- history doesn’t record what the apostle might have been smoking!

And he gathered them together into a place called in the Hebrew tongue Armageddon.
And the seventh angel poured out his vial into the air;
and there came a great voice out of the temple of heaven, from the throne, saying, It is done.
And there were voices, and thunders, and lightnings;
and there was a great earthquake, such as was not since men were upon the earth,
so mighty an earthquake, and so great.
And the great city was divided into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell:
and great Babylon came in remembrance before God,
to give unto her the cup of the wine of the fierceness of his wrath.

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