One Too Many Mariamenes

In the past I made a case for a new reading of the Ossuary inscription CJO 701 in the article Mary Magdalene is now missing: A corrected reading of Rahmani Ossuary 701″. After the article was first published on this web site, but before the Associated Press picked it up, both Emile Puech and Tal Ilan stated that they had arrived at the KAI “and” independently. Several other epigraphers from around the world confirmed the reading, who also sent additional examples to support the new reading from the Egyptian papyri.

With such a response, I presumed that the difficulties in the original reading were already clear. However, to be fair, and to be complete, the following is intended to illustrate the difficult set of hurdles one must take to justify the original reading. (This may take a bit of patience and a dictionary for the armchair philologist.)

The Mary Magdalene Ossuary?

In order to maintain the previous published reading MAPIAMHNOU’MAPA, one must first accept a string of premises which are based upon a number of anomalies and exceptions.

1. One must account for the word MARIAMHNH (Mariamene, which is an otherwise altogether unattested form of MARIAMNH, Mariamne).

2. One must create an unattested morpheme -ON/OU for the neuter diminutive case ending (in place of the normal -ION/-IOU), to create the name MARIAMHNON, -OU, (Mariamenon/ou, taken as a hypocorism).

3. One must presume that the inscriber connected the two letters OU (as a ligature), a form which begins to appear regionally and only sparingly in the early second century (and which is not written in the form found in this inscription).

4. The N of MARIAMHNOU must be interpreted to be a mistaken retrograde, or backwards, form of the Greek letter nu (although this anomaly is unattested elsewhere in legible inscriptions of the late Second Temple Period), instead of a normal kappa, that is, K, which is frequently attested.

5. One must presume that a potentially accidental scratch before MARA is an otherwise unattested cryptic representation of the feminine article H “eta”, and that this, in turn, is an abbreviation for H KAI “who is also called…,” which often precedes a “signum” (i.e., an alias) or an appositive. (This suggested form is, in itself, inaccurate and should be THS KAI. See the next paragraph.)

6. One must also take the second name to be a signum for the first, and an ambiguous one, at that. Is it MARA the name, or MARA a title? In spite of the spelling and grammatical issues, one must still assert that the signum formula is being intended here, despite the fact that the earliest evidence for its use in inscriptions comes from the beginning of the second century (See, M. Schwabe, Beth Shearim, Vol. II, PUBLICATION INFO).

7. One must then forgive the improper use of Greek grammar with respect to appositives (and the signum) which, by definition, requires agreement in inflection and case endings. (Since the first name is actually in the genitive case according to this reading, proper Greek grammar would dictate that both the noun MARIAMNH and its appositive (or signum) MARA should agree with respect to the inflectional form. In this case both should be in the genitive (e.g., MARIAMNHS-MARAS; or if we take the original reading seriously: MARIAMHNOU THS KAI MARAS).

8. One must ignore the existence of two writing styles, documentary and cursive, each being characteristically clear, distinct and consistent for each of the two parts of the inscription. This is consistent with the apparent use of a somewhat sharper point in the second part of the inscription. (These factors bring into question the proposed unity of the inscription from the outset.)

9. To still accept this reading as “MARIAMHNH/ON/OU” on the basis of the only two first century inscriptions thought to bear that name (CJO 701 and 108, both now in question), one must do so in spite of the fact that the name “Mariamne” is otherwise unattested in the inscriptions and the literature before the 3rd century CE.

10. As ossuaries go, both of the scribal hands preserved on this ossuary are exceptional and betray writers who are both practiced and comfortable in writing Greek. Therefore, it is difficult to imagine that an apparently literate Hellenistic Jew of first century Jerusalem could produce such an extraordinary list of anomalies, lapses in basic Greek grammar and writing errors, all within the space of two words.

Although there can undoubtedly be rare exceptions to rules or accidental writing errors that can be proposed, that can account for any one these inherent problems, such a long series of unsubstantiated premises weakens the case for this reading considerably.

The proposed reading MARIAME KAI MARA (or its alternative MARIAM H KAI MARA) is now widely received and is not plagued with the inherent problems of the earlier reading.

For a more detailed discussion click here.

Stephen Pfann, Ph.D.

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