How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?

By Dr. Stephen Pfann

How do you solve a problem like Maria?

How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?

How do you find a word that means Maria?

A flibbertijibbet! A will-o'-the wisp! A clown!

Many a thing you know you'd like to tell her

Many a thing she ought to understand

But how do you make her stay

And listen to all you say

How do you keep a wave upon the sand

Oh, how do you solve a problem like Maria?

How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?

From The Sound of Music

Much has been made of two women named "Maria/Mariam" in the Talpiot tomb, whose names are preserved on the two ossuaries: CJO 701 (where Rahmani read Greek "Mariamene"), and CJO706 (where he read Hebrew "Maria").[1] In each case, the identity of the named individual was put forth as absolutely essential for understanding the relationship between the tomb's contents and the family of Jesus of Nazareth.

1) The central importance of the name Mariamne (understood as "Mary Magdalene") for the producers of the film and book is indicated in the following quotes:

The Jesus Family Tomb book: "the key to the whole story"

Jacobovici writes,

"But other than the Jesus, son of Joseph ossuary, to use Feuerverger's term, the most 'surprising' of all the ossuaries in the Talpiot tomb is the one inscribed '[the ossuary] of Mariamne also known as Mara.' From the beginning, we focused on this particular ossuary because it seemed to be the key to the whole story. Everything depended on this unique artifact." (Page 204)

"Lost Tomb of Jesus" documentary

"By the end, his [Feuerverger's] model concludes that there's only one chance in 600 that the Talpiot tomb is NOT the Jesus family tomb, if Mariamne can be linked to Mary Magdalene."

Premiere press conference

Simcha Jacobovici:

"I'll just add that the reason that the scientists involved went for DNA tests of these two, partially because Mariamne was kind of the linchpin of the cluster, but partially because it seemed that it was most easy to get DNA from this particular – there's more stuff at the bottom of the ossuaries than in others."

James Cameron:

"…according to certain Christian texts, of the early Christian texts such as the Acts of Phillip and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, Mariamne is the name of Mary Magdalene. So that's the missing piece, that's the Ringo, and that's what set this whole investigation in motion."

Discovery Channel website

"The Lost Tomb of Jesus: Simcha Interview, Part 4 -The director tells how the critical turning point in the investigation came with the discovery of the 'second' Mary."


"The thing that was used to dismiss the tomb [the presence of Mariamne] was the thing that at the very end of the day would prove that—or make the argument that—this tomb may indeed be the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth."

Jesus Family Tomb website: "Probability"

"The minute that I realized that the second Mary, Mariamne, is Mary Magdalene—that's Mary Magdalene's real name—I said, 'We've got something significant here…"

Ringo illustration:

"….What if they didn't know that Ringo's real name was Richard Starkey, and Ringo was his nickname? In a sense, statistically speaking, Mariamne, the second Mary in our tomb is 'Ringo'…..What if I connect the dots? And that's how the investigation began, because at least at that point, the evidence was compelling enough to go to statisticians, to go to DNA experts, to go to patina experts."

2) The central importance of the name Mariah, understood as "Mary (the mother of Jesus)", for the producers of the film:

Until now, we have not dealt much with the Hebrew name "MARIAH" found on ossuary CJO 706. However, the filmmakers made much of the name's "rarity" among the ossuaries. They explained the name as a Latinized form of the Hebrew name MARIAM, written in Hebrew letters.

Quotes from the film "The Lost Tomb of Jesus":

Narrator: "Maria. Mary. Found in the same family tomb as 'Jesus, son of Joseph'. Could this be the 'Virgin Mary's' ossuary?"

(Mary's name and face is made to glow from within the ossuary.)

"Throughout history, from the first Greek writings of Mark, the earliest Gospel, the 'Virgin Mary's' name has come down to us in only one form, 'Maria'. It is a Latinized version of the Hebrew, 'Miriam'.

"After Jesus' death, Mary continued with his teachings and must have gathered a large following. In those times of religious transition, Roman converts also began to follow Jesus, and so as her popularity grew amongst his followers Mary's name was Latinized. That's why the New Testament records her name as 'Maria'. Written in Hebrew, the name 'Maria' is very rare, but it's exactly what was found on the ossuary in the Talpiot tomb.

"If in 1980 archaeologists had considered - even for a moment - that they had discovered the ossuary of the Virgin Mary, what other family members might they have expected to find next to her?"

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?

So, just how much of a problem is Maria? The production team asserted that the two Marys are critical pieces of evidence for their hypothesis. In response, a clear and thorough analysis of the two ossuary inscriptions must be made to evaluate their claims.

1. CJO 701. We have treated the Greek MARIAME KAI MARA inscription in much detail over the past two months. We found that the names Mariamne (CJO 108) and Mariamene (CJO 701), as suggested by Rahmani, do not actually exist on those ossuaries. In both cases the inscriptions had been misread in the Catalogue, and in both cases MARIAME (the most common form of the name Mary among the ossuaries), should be read instead. See the article, "Mary Magdalene is Now Missing," published on this website.

2. CJO 706. The filmmaker's assert that name Maria is rare. How true is this statement? One has only to read through the CJO and Dominus Flevit publications to establish a database of the use of the name Maria among the ossuaries. Had the filmmakers taken the time to do so, they would have found that "MARIAH" written in Hebrew is actually quite common among the ossuaries, and is, in fact, preferred to "MARIAM."

The Evidence for the Name "Mariam"

The index to CJO presents 6 ossuaries inscribed with the name "MRYM" (Miriam/Mariam) in Hebrew script: CJO 31, 243, 351, 502, 559, 821. The name is preserved on 1 ossuary at Dominus Flevit (No. 7). The index to CJO presents 3 ossuaries inscribed with the name "MRYH" (Maria) in Hebrew: CJO 152, 706, 796. Dominus Flevit lists 2 ossuaries with this name (Nos. 7, 34). Therefore, an initial survey indicates the combined totals of CJO and Dominus Flevit as: 7 ossuaries with "MRYM" and 5 ossuaries with "MRYH." However, this figure is incomplete for two reasons. First of all, the inscriptions on Dominus Flevit No. 7 refer to an individual woman who is called both Mariam and Maria. She is known by both forms of the name, which has been inscribed 3 times on the ossuary (twice as Mariam; once as Maria). Secondly, a close reading of all the inscribed ossuaries recorded in the CJO catalogue reveals a number of inaccuracies in the original readings, with the result that the census is actually reversed. Let's survey the names provided by these sources.

MRYH (in Rahmani, Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries in the State of Israel Collection):

CJO 31:



This inscription was transcribed MARIAM by Rahmani. However, the final letter of the word on the right is a poorly written cursive heh, which is found elsewhere among the inscriptions (cf. CJO353 "Hananiah," CJO 801 "Yeho'ezar," and Dominus Flevit Fig. 19, for several examples). The distinctive upper stroke of the letter rising above the ceiling line is characteristic of heh in this period, and is not found on the letter mem. Thus, it is far more likely that the inscription should be read "Mariah Yohana" rather than "Mariam Yohana."

CJO 243:


= MRYN (!) 

The name should clearly be transcribed MRYN (as in the Latin CJO 497 MARION; and, in Hebrew, papMur 10A and Murabba'at ostracon MRYWN; cf. T. Ilan, p. 295) and not MRYM as transcribed by Rahmani. The last letter is a final nun, not a mem. The circle at the top of the letter is a hollow serif. (Cf. CJO 57 "Yohanan," CJO 293 "Alon," and CJO 428 "Shime'on," for similar final nuns, correctly read.)

CJO 351:



CJO 502:



CJO 559:



CJO 821:



Thus, of the 6 suggested readings of "MRYM" (Mariam/Miriam) in the CJO index, 1 is actually "MRYH" (Maria) and 1 is actually "MRYN" (Marion), leaving us with 4 certain "MRYM"s in the index. 

On the other hand, there are actually additional ossuaries in CJO inscribed with the name "MARIAM" that were mislabeled by Rahmani! The following ossuaries were mistakenly read "MARIS," instead of the more appropriate "MARYM"

CJO 820:


= MRYM ! (That is, "Mariam and Shimeon, children of Shaul")

CJO 822:


= MRYM! (That is, "Awira, son of Mariam")

In both cases, Rahmani has mistakenly read final mem as samech. However, samech in this period is more triangular in shape and does not have an extending line to the left, which is a characteristic of mem at this time (for samech, cf. Yardeni, Textbook of Aramaic, Hebrew and Nabataean Documentary Texts, Vol. B, p. 197; for mem, see p. 193).

In conclusion:

Two Mariams were removed (one as Mariah and one as Marion); two were added (both previously mistakenly read as Maris). Substituting the corrected reading of these two inscriptions for the two that were already corrected leaves the count at 7. But remember, one of the disqualified ossuaries must be added to the list of MARIA ossuaries, which now total 6.

The Evidence for the Name "Mariah"

 The Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries (CJO) lists three ossuaries with the name MRYH inscribed on them (CJO 152, 706, 796). Dominus Flevit lists two ossuaries with the same name (DF Nos. 7 and 34).

CJO 152:


CJO 706:


Final mem is used here as the first letter of the name. This is not an isolated error among the inscribed ossuaries. The practice of using a final form at the beginning of a personal name may be similar to the way that, in Greek and Latin minuscule writing, names are often capitalized (as is also the practice in modern European languages). (See also CJO 428 and 502.)

CJO 796:


Here, the name "Mary" is inscribed three times on the same ossuary, all three times as "MRYH," and all referring to a single individual.

Domius Flevit 7


'MARTHA AND MARIA." Again, the name "Mary" is listed three times on the same ossuary, once as "MRYH" and twice as "MRYM" (as noted in Part 1 above).

Domius Flevit 34:



CJO 428:



This ossuary is noteworthy for several reasons. First of all, we can see that the inscription actually reads "MRYH SHM'WN", not "QRYH". The transcription in CJO is in error; there the final memused as the first letter of MRYH has been misread as qof. Note the similarity with CJO 706 (above), where the initial "M" is the same form as that used here. Secondly, the second name "Shim'on" has actually been deliberately scratched out. The last letter in this name (which is clearly "Shim'on") provides a clear parallel to the final nun on CJO 243, the ossuary of MRYN, discussed above. 

CJO 414:



At first glance, the reading "QRYH" seems feasible. However, a closer examination of the inscribed ossuaries indicates that the more likely reading is "MRYH". A comparison of the first letter of the name with the unquestioned mem of "Shim'on" in the previous inscription (CJO 428), establishes the case for "Maria".

CJO 31:




As mentioned above, the name here is preferably to be read "MRYH."

A summary census. Thus far, we have surveyed all the occurrences of the names MRYH (Maria) and MRYM (Mariam/Miriam) in two published collections, that of the Israel Antiquities Authority (CJO) and that of Dominus Flevit (DF). We have noted all occurrences of the names listed in the catalogues, reviewed each one, and made corrections, in some cases eliminating an ossuary reading and in others adding a previously unrecognized Mary or Mariam. This is not a complete census of named ossuaries, both published and unpublished, but represents a credible sampling of the existence of these two names, based upon the largest published collections, CJO and Dominus Flevit.

The present count of the names among the inscribed, catalogued ossuaries is MRYH 10x; MRYM 8x. If one takes into account only the census of ossuaries with one identified person per ossuary (CJO 796 and DF 7 each contain only one individual whose name is written 3 times), then the actual count would be MRYH 7x; MRYM 6x; mixed MRYH/MRYM 1x. 

Along with the Greek and Latin forms of these names, whether MRYH, MRYM, MRYN, MRYWN, etc., "Mary" was one of the most popular, if not the most popular, name given to a daughter during the Second Temple Period. In this survey of the ossuaries, it is noteworthy that MRYH "Maria" has a slight edge over the use of MRYM "Mariam/Miriam", a preference that is similarly reflected in the literature of the period. And if this survey illustrates anything, it is that the writing of Maria/MRYH in Hebrew was anything but rare.

The New Testament and its Marys

MARIA (27x) and MARIAM (27x) in the New Testament

At least 7 Marys are mentioned in the Gospels, with the two personal names Maria and Mariam applied equally (27 times each) among them all. In some cases, it is difficult to distinguish which among the less prominent Marys is being referred to, especially at crucial moments such as the crucifixion or at the tomb. The name "Mary," after all, was simply one of the two most common names given to girls in 1st century Galilee and Judea, based upon both the archeological record and the literature of that day. This has led to the quandary that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the Marys because there are so many of them. This can, at times, lead to a sort of "identity crisis." However, given the ingenuity of humankind and the need for clarity in identification, a solution was often found in the application of nicknames, appositives, adnominatives, patronyms and places of origin in order to avoid the identity crisis. In the Gospels, these appellatives are especially evident when at least two Marys are identified by name in the same literary or social setting.

In one way, it is really much more of an English language problem—or an English translation problem—than either a Hebrew or a Greek problem, for two reasons.

1. A single English word "Mary" is used to translate both the Greek forms of the name, Mariam and Maria, oblivious to the differences and nuances intended by the author's choice of one word over the other.

2. Other Greek determiners attached to the names in the text, such as the definite article or near/remote demonstrative pronouns, which are intended to distinguish the various Marys, are often not reflected in the translation.

The Gospel writers have dealt with the multiplicity of Marys with varying degrees of success. Fortunately, the writers have managed to keep the various Marys straight in most settings, especially with respect to:

1 Mary the Mother of Jesus

2 Mary Magdalene

3 Mary of Mary and Martha

An initial survey would indicate that Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene were called by both names (Maria and Mariam) in the New Testament. However, on closer examination, it emerges that the individual authors preferred to use one name over the other.

For Mary the mother of Jesus:

Matthew prefers MARIA (4x, infancy narrative) to MARIAM (1x, as called by the townspeople of Nazareth).

Luke prefers MARIAM (11x) to MARIA (1x; all occurrences in the infancy narrative).

Acts uses MARIAM for Jesus' mother (1x).

Mark uses MARIA for Mary the mother of Jesus (1x).

John intentionally avoids her name (cf. John 2:1, 3, 5; 19:25-27).

For Mary Magdalene:

Mark uses only MARIA (4x).

Matthew uses MARIAM (2x) and MARIA (1x).

Luke uses MARIA (2x).

John uses MARIA (3x) and MARIAM (2x).

For other Marys:

Matthew uses MARIA 2x for Mary of James and Joseph and 1x for the "other Mary" at the tomb.

Mark uses MARIA 3x for Mary, the mother of James, Joses and Salome. (In fact, Mark uses MARIA exclusively for all Marys.)

Luke uses MARIA 1x for Mary of James. Luke uses MARIAM 2x for Mary of Mary and Martha.

John uses MARIAM 8x and MARIA 1x for Mary of Mary and Martha. John uses MARIA 1x for Mary of Clopas.

Acts uses MARIA 1x for the mother of John Mark.

Paul uses MARIA 1x for a Mary of the Church at Rome.

What does this data tell us? Most importantly that, in stark contrast to the claims of the producers and writers of the "Lost Tomb of Jesus" and the "Jesus Family Tomb", Mary the mother of Jesus is most commonly known as "Mariam" in the New Testament, and Mary Magdalene is most commonly known as "Maria". This would lead one to expect that should their tombs be found and verified one day, they would be inscribed accordingly (i.e., that of Mary the mother of Jesus as "Mariam" and that of Mary Magdalene as "Maria"–the opposite of the ossuaries from the Talpiot tomb). Or perhaps one would even find both forms of the name, as in the case of Dominus Flevit ossuary inscription number 7!

Formal and Familiar Personal Names in the New Testament

From the previous survey one can infer that Mariam and Maria were often interchangeable, as Dominus Flevit ossuary DF 7 suggests, and that the Marys of the New Testament were comfortably referred to as both MARIA and MARIAM (as the list below indicates). This is common when an individual will be called their formal name (e.g., "Mariam") in one context or by one person, but will be called the familiar name (e.g., "Maria") in another context or by another person.

Although we must not bridge history naïvely by making broad comparisons too casually, there are still some intuitive aspects of social etiquette that appear to be timeless. Although nuances of etiquette and protocol change temporally and regionally, in today's world the general rules concerning formal and familiar address still persist. An individual may struggle to know whether they know a person well enough to address them by their familiar name. They may change their usage from familiar to formal in a more formal setting when they are making introductions. When they are writing, they may use the familiar name in a private letter, but might use the formal name in a contract or when writing a history. Commonly, the social level of the individual forbids them from addressing those of a higher status in the familiar mode or may forbid them from addressing them at all. 

Evidently these social rules and sensitivities already applied during the first century with current rules of etiquette, and their various nuances, being applied in writing, in court, in gatherings, in birth and in death. The varying standards of handwriting, of naming and of social structure found in the literature and in the tombs illustrates the complexity of putting these rules into practice, if they are being applied at all.

In the New Testament these rules also apply. In making the following assessment, we must do so realizing that literary and textual issues may come into play that are not being dealt with here. In each source gospel, the appearances of Mary Magdalene are too few to make sweeping generalizations. However, the following is presented as a general set of observations which might prove to be helpful.

In Mark's gospel, Mark feels quite comfortable to call everyone by their familiar name, whether it is "Maria" the mother of Jesus, "Maria" Magdalene, or "Jose" the brother of Jesus. This may be because the author knew them personally within the context of the Jerusalem church community.

In Matthew's gospel, the writer appears, in general, to be more comfortable using the familiar name for Jesus' mother but both formal and informal names are used for Mary Magdalene (Mariam 2x and Maria 1x). He also calls Jesus' brother by the more formal name "Joseph" (as opposed to the "Jose" found in Mark's Gospel).

Luke uses the formal name "Mariam" for the mother of Jesus almost exclusively in the Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. If Luke might have known her, or even interviewed her, as the introduction to the Gospel and Acts may imply, she would have been well advanced in years, conveying a respect he felt was due to her. If she had died by then, the less familiar tone would also seem appropriate. The two times that Mary Magdalene is mentioned, the name "Maria" is used, perhaps reflecting a certain familiarity with her.

John's Gospel is unique in that the author circumvents the usage of any form of the name "Mary" for the mother of Jesus at all times. Instead he uses the term "mother of Jesus" or "his mother". Placing issues of the identity of the Gospel writer aside for the moment, if the beloved disciple has been adopted by Mary through Jesus' agency (John 19:25-27), then it would only seem appropriate that the writer would not use either personal name for his mother.

In John's Gospel, Mary Magdalene is only mentioned in the context of the crucifixion and resurrection accounts (John 19:25; 20:1, 11, 16, 18). In the first three occurrences, the familiar "Maria" was used. However, the change to the formal "Mariam" in John 20:16 might be significant. It is there that she realizes that she is looking upon the resurrected Jesus for the first time as Jesus himself addresses her as "Mariam." The passage reads: "She turned and said to him in Hebrew, 'Rabboni!' (which means Teacher)." As if a symbol of her transformation, both in character and in status as the first disciple to see the risen Lord, the formal form "Mariam" continues to be used as "Mary (Mariam) Magdalene went and said to the disciples, 'I have seen the Lord'; and she told them that he had said these things to her" (John 20:18).

Conclusion, Mary in the Gospels and in the Archaeological Record

One Mary was highly acclaimed as the woman who bore and gave birth to the Messiah. Another Mary was highly acclaimed as the first to see the risen Messiah and to do and proclaim his first words after his resurrection. Both were called by the formal personal name "Mariam" in specific contexts and by certain people. But they were also called by the familiar name "Maria" in other contexts and by other people. This can be taken to be typical of women called Mary in the first century, based on the literary evidence and on the supporting archaeological evidence from the ossuary inscriptions. A woman named Mary could have been addressed by either the familiar name Maria or the formal name Mariam, depending upon the occasion and the person addressing them.

This practice would have been the same for the two Marys from the Talpiot tomb, who were interred in the same tomb as at least one Joseph/Joseh, one Matitiah/Matiah and one Martha/Mara. Each of them apparently had an informal or familiar name that their family and friends chose to apply to them on the day of their second burial in an ossuary. As confirmed by other ossuaries that have both the familiar and the formal name of the deceased, they would likely have gone by both names during their lifetime, depending upon the context and the person addressing them. 



Bagatti, P.B. and Milik, J.T. Gli Scavi del "Dominus Flevit", Parte 1. Jerusalem. Franciscan Printing Press. 1981.

Benoit, P., Milik, J.T., and de Vaux, R. Les Grottes de Murabba'at. Discoveries in the Judaean Desert II. Oxford. Clarendon Press. 1961.

Ilan, T. Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity: Part 1: Palestine 330 BCE-200 CE. Tübingen. Mohr Siebeck. 2002.

Hachlili, R., Jewish Funerary Customs, Practices and Rites in the Second Temple Period. Brill: Leiden and Boston. 2005.

Lewis, N., Yadin, Y., and Greenfield, J.C. The Documents from the Bar Kokhba Period in the Caves of the Letters: Greek Papyri; Aramaic and Nabatean Signatures and Subscriptions. Jerusalem. Israel Exploration Society/The Hebrew University of Jerusalem/The Shrine of the Book. 1989.

Rahmani, L.Y. A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries in the Collections of the State of Israel. Jerusalem. The Israel Antiquities Authority/The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities. 1994.

Many have been given this name and it still remains a popular name today.

". . . Maria!

Say it loud and there's music playing,

Say it soft and it's almost like praying.

Maria! I'll never stop saying Maria!

The most beautiful sound I ever heard: Maria…"

From West Side Story, sung by Tony.

[1]CJO: Rahmani, L.Y. A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries in the Collections of the State of Israel. Jerusalem. The Israel Antiquities Authority/The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities. 1994.

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