Sunday, July 4, 2021

A Sacred Number in the Gospel of Mark?

The painstaking task of transcribing and collating Greek New Testament manuscripts will often bring to light many tantalizing features that have as of yet gone unnoticed. Mainly because so many of these manuscripts have not been studied in detail, or at all. Not only this, but also because transcription forces the scholar to slow down and compare the texts of the manuscripts being studied, highlighting any unique characteristics. Recently I came across an interesting feature in GA 989 which is a twelfth century Four Gospels minuscule manuscript with commentary bordering the biblical text. It has to do with the use of the numeral twelve. In Mark 6:7 Jesus commissions the twelve disciples to preach the gospel.

"And he called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits."

Mark 6:7 in GA 989 showing the number 12  Ι̅β̅ in Greek

A fascinating aspect is that in this verse the scribe chose to use the Greek numeral sign for the number twelve ( Ι̅β̅ ) rather than writing out the number in full (δωδεκα). Here also the word for "unclean" spirit is written in full (plene) rather than in the nomen sacrum form. No where else in the Gospel of Mark in GA 989 is the Greek numeral for twelve used. And there seems to be no differentiation in this manuscript in the use of nomen sacrum for the Holy Spirit or an unclean spirit. Thus it seems to be more than a coincidence that the scribe chose to use the abbreviated Greek numeral for twelve and unclean spirit is written out in full (πνευματων ακαθαρτων) in the context of this verse. It is certainly possible that there is nothing significant to this, a mere coincidence. It is also impossible to definitively know for certain. It could be, however, that the Greek numeral for twelve (Ι̅β̅ ) was used in a "sacred" sense like a nomen sacrum, preserved from an earlier tradition.

Zachary Cole recently published a monograph that discussed this topic.
Zachary Cole, Numerals in Early Greek New Testament Manuscripts
Text-Critical, Scribal, and Theological Studies
. NTTSD 53 (Leiden: Brill, 2017).
In Chapter 7, pages 175-178, Cole discusses the possibility that the Greek number twelve ( Ι̅β̅ ) was used as a sacred number (numerus sacer) when referring to the twelve disciples in Codex Sinaiticus in the Gospel of Matthew.

Codex Sinaitcus Matt 10:5 [Q74-f.5v]

There is not enough data to draw any hard conclusions in GA 989. These tantalizing remnants of scribal activity, however, may be all that remains of an early tradition of representing the "twelve" disciples in a sacred sense.  


  1. Timothy,
    As always, interesting! I appreciate your hard work and insights!

    1. Thank you Timothy! I love insightful monographs such as Zachary Cole's. A rich treasure trove of gold nuggets!

  2. Why should we assume that the "nomina sacra" were considered sacred? When I collated the data I concluded that in the earliest manuscripts evil spirits are afforded the nomen sacrum almost as much as the holy spirit. Also, Jesuses other than Christ are often written as a nomen sacrum in the early manuscripts. In my opinion the sacred nature of the nomina sacra" is often over-stated and we may need to find a new name for them.

    1. Thank you for commenting Richard. It is definitely true that in some manuscripts the so-called Nomina Sacra abbreviate both sacred and profane uses. However, there are many manuscripts that do differentiate between the sacred and profane uses. Even in the later Byzantine manuscripts this can still be found. So it seems apparent to me that the originating intent was to highlight certain names in a reverential manner. Though it has never been applied consistently across manuscripts.

  3. I just chanced upon an article: "Numeral Corruptions in Greek Gospel Manuscripts: Accidents or Apologetics?". I have not read it, but you can find it in Academia.