Thursday, February 2, 2017

Evidence for the early veneration of Jesus

Has anyone ever told you that the divinity of Jesus was a relatively late development in the history of Christianity? There are many good reasons to doubt such an assertion, but here is a very subtle one few people know about. Consider the following manuscript:
Image from the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts
Can you read it? Like all manuscripts of this era, the text is written INALLCAPITALSWITH NOSPACESINBETWEENTHEWORDS. If we use lower case letters and add spaces, the text looks like this:
πρὸς σεαυτὸν τὸν Ἰην
υἱὸν Ναυη ἄνθρωπος
ὃς ἔχει πνα ἐν ἑαυτῷ
The words in bold are abbreviated in the manuscript. If we fill out those abbreviations, the text looks like this.
πρὸς σεαυτὸν τὸν Ἰησοῦν
υἱὸν Ναυη ἄνθρωπος
ὃς ἔχει πνεῦμα ἐν ἑαυτῷ
Can you read it now? The manuscript is from a copy of the OT made by Christian scribes (Ralphs 963; CB VI). This particular text is from Numbers 27:18. Here is an English translation:
[take] to yourself Joshua
the son of Nun, a man
who has the spirit in him
So what is significant about this manuscript? 

Christian scribes had a peculiar practice of abbreviating certain sacred names including "God," "Jesus," "Christ," "Lord," and "Spirit." This practice is well-attested in the extant NT manuscripts from the 2nd century, but we have no surviving 1st century NT manuscripts to prove that this practice was present in the earliest stages of the manuscript tradition. 

The manuscript pictured above, however, demonstrates that the habit of writing “Jesus” as a sacred name was so ingrained in Christian scribes that the abbreviation for Jesus was used, even when the text referred to Joshua, not Jesus of Nazareth. (“Joshua” and “Jesus” are the same name in Greek.) Furthermore, the manuscript pictured above is dated to the early 2nd century. (For a discussion on the dating, see Philip Comfort, Encountering the Manuscripts, 121-22.) As Comfort argues, the fact that the practice of writing "Jesus" as a sacred name was so ingrained by the early 2nd century indicates that the practice was probably "in full force" by the end of the 1st century (222).

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