Or rather, why is the mother of Jesus exclusively written μαριαμ, and the others inconsistently either μαρια or μαριαμ?

I was originally prompted by a mini quest into the original meaning of the Hebrew name underlying μαριαμ in the New Testament, and so went a searching.

Now I'm using the Greek from the ISA Scriptura Analyzer because it allows me to profile usages very well, but texts will of course vary. But consulting the Nestle-Aland 28 for Matthew 27:61, however, there seems to be a real convention here, I think, not just sloppy scribal work.

Consider this:

Jesus' mother: μαριαμ

14 occurrences

Matthew 1:20; 13:55; Luke 1:27; 1:30, 34, 38, 39, 46, 56; 2:5, 16, 19, 34; Acts 1:14

Other Marys: μαριαμ

5 times

Matthew 27:61; John 11:28; 20:1, 16, 18

Jesus' mother: μαρια

0 times.

Other Marys: μαρια

15 times

Matthew 27:56; 28:1; Mark 15:40, 47; 16:1, 9; Luke 8:2; 10:42; 24:10; John 11:2, 20, 32; 12:3; 19:25; 20:11

(I've omitted instances of μαριας because sadly they don't help either way: but they are Mt 1:16, 18; 2:11, Mk 6:3; Lk 1:41; 10:39; Jn 11:1; Acts 12:12, of which the last three refer to other Marys)

Based on what seems to be a strong case that the authors of the New Testament made sure Mary was only ever written μαριαμ (for whatever reason, whether her name was actually different from the other Marys, or whatever else; this being extremely unlikely), and the overwhelming amount of times, only calling other Marys μαρια, I conjecture that writing the name of the other Mary's as μαριαμ is a scribal slip in these instances.

How is this inconsistency/strange consistency when it comes to Mary the mother of Jesus' name to be explained?

Thanks in advance.

  • 2
    Sorry, I'm not following how μαριας is not helpful, as you say. It's the genitive of μαρια. OTOH, μαριαμ is essentially a transliteration of a Hebrew name (with a vowel adjustment) and, as such, is indeclinable. Throughout Chapter 1 of Matthew, then, the mother of Jesus is called μαρια. (I'm using the NA28 also. You've included Matt 1:20 as μαριαμ but the form is μαριαν, the accusative of μαρια. Verses 16 and 18 are μαριας, also from μαρια.) Despite my quibble with your methods/preliminary conclusions, I think it's a good question! – Susan Feb 11 '18 at 4:48
  • Sola gratia you are a bible scientist, a research genius . +1 – user20490 Feb 12 '18 at 2:48
  • This probably has to do with Greek versus Hebrew/Aramaic, but I need to do the research. It seems we see similar things with Old Testament names in the New Testament. – Perry Webb Feb 12 '18 at 9:56
  • @PerryWebb But do we see the inconsistency tied to specific people (indicative of a difference in name, or at the least some kind of convention) as I believe is quite clearly shown here, that is the question! – Sola Gratia Feb 12 '18 at 14:31
  • It's so sad to see this question still unanswered. You should place a bounty! – user20490 Feb 27 '18 at 22:06

To me there is a far simpler and more likely explanation than errors or scribal slips. Especially considering cases like Matthew 27:61, which is surely no slip of the pen:

Μαριὰμ ἡ Μαγδαληνὴ and the other Μαρία were sitting there opposite the tomb.

Note that the author uses the phrase "and the other...", confirming that as far as they were concerned Μαριὰμ = Μαρία.

To me - as a Steven, but also a Steve - this doesn't sound like an inconsistency. It's entirely plausible that all of these women had the given name μαριαμ, and this was especially accorded by Luke to the mother of Jesus due to age or respect. We find Matthew and John occasionally use this full given name for other Mariam's a couple of times, context dependent. And then all other uses of μαρια would just be the diminutive or commonly accorded name.

Throughout the NT text there are characters with obviously different names:

  • Thomas, called Didymus (Jn 20:24)
  • Jude, called Thaddeus (Lk 6:16 cf. Mk 3:18)
  • Levi, called Matthew (Mt 9:9 cf. Lk 5:27)

It makes sense that when there is a stark difference in the names (or a Hebrew/Greek translated name) then the author will remark upon or explain this. However, it seems unlikely that simple contractions would receive this honour. Nobody in English would bother explaining to their contemporaries that Steve is short for Steven - such a thing is considered common knowledge. Thus, in theory - Mariam could be to Maria as Steven is to Steve - and this type of detail would be so normal and widely understood that contemporary writers wouldn't ever think to mention or explain it.

  • Thanks for your answer (+1). But it doesn't seem quite satisfactory somehow. Inasmuch as it is more or less plausible, I'm marking it as the answer for now. Thanks. – Sola Gratia Mar 27 '18 at 14:25
  • You're right enough - I should probably revisit the answer myself to do further analysis on some of the individual instances, and provide more thorough supporting evidence. Unfortunately, since the basis of my answer is that these differences are due to intuitive or assumed common knowledge, I don't anticipate there will be any evidence clear enough to move the theory beyond plausible. – Steve Taylor Mar 27 '18 at 14:53
  • Right, there won't be anything beyond 'plausible' I don't think. – Sola Gratia Mar 27 '18 at 15:27
  • 1
    You can add "Simeon" and "Simon" to the list of minor spelling differences for a name. Also Jude and Judas are variations of the same Hebrew name Judah. – Frank Luke Apr 12 '18 at 13:38
  • I agree - an excellent and simple answer. +1 – Dottard Dec 12 '20 at 9:20

Is it not simply to distinguish Mary the mother of our Lord from all the other Marys?

If what you have produced in the text is correct(?!) then all the cases where the name μαριαμ is used are for Mary, Jesus's mother, except in cases where it is clearly indicated that it is not:

So in John 11:28 it is used for the sister of Martha, (which is clear from the context (John 11:19-29).

All the other uses of μαριαμ have the surname "Magdalene". (Matthew 27:61, John 20:1, 16, 18).

The different Greek spelling is used to make clear when Mary the mother of Jesus is being referred to (and when otherwise).

If you think that this is not the case I would be interested to know why.


So, I just wanted to stop by to lend a little support to this stack exchange from the meta.

Numbers in Judaism

In terms of numbers or religious numbers, the actual number for Mary would be either 4 or 40, because those are the two numbers associated with women. In particular holy women have the number 4 associated with them (the 4 original mothers in the Old Testament).

So a numerology explanation would be that they changed Mariam to Mary for Mary to be holy. However, the problem with this explanation is they didn't have English back then. IN fact, the switch from a 6 letter spelling of Mary to a 5 letter spelling does not compute with religious numbers of the time period.

Could there be perhaps etymological reason?:

A long time ago, I remember in little bible school earning some of the authors who translated the bible did not like every Mary in the bible to the point that they treated some "Mary's" as being over-sexual and lacking-morals in nature, whereas in the original document there is no major support of that translation. This got me thinking, maybe this was true and maybe the translators had to get the ideas from somewhere. The clue turned out to be Miriam.

Mary Etymology.com

Meaning of Miriam Answer to perhaps why Mary

In the third link, one can actually learn that Mary and Miriam come from the Egyptian word "mara" or מרה. Mara means to rebel or to be beloved. Thus the name Mara means rebellion or beloved. Back then, the rebellion had a negative connotation for the translators even if it did not in Judaism as we see here. After all, who back then would want their daughters to rebel? Would you marry someone named Rebellion back then? So, in short, μαριαμ and μαρια originally were associated with being evil.

Well as you might imagine the name "Mary" cannot be evil. The literal heavens would smite any lowly church translator who would besmirch the name of the holy mother. How dare they even consider it!

Under thus understandable social pressure, they changed some of the "Mary" names in the Bible. In particular, when they felt that another Mary was being rebellious or "evil", they shortened the name to μαρια. Then, they left all the "good" Mary's alone with μαριαμ thus giving Mary name's a more positive meaning. They transformed the mean of Mary from rebellion to beloved lady, and eventually to mary-iage.(*)

I know this still might not be a satisfactory answer, but I hope you did enjoy reading it.

*Sorry I couldn't help the pun. (The marriage part is a joke)

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