Mary Magdalene is Missing

Have the remains of Jesus and Mary Magdalene been found on the outskirts of modern Jerusalem? Yes, say James Cameron and Simcha Jacobovici in their controversial new documentary, The Lost Tomb of Jesus.

Not only that, they say, but Mary’s coffin gives her the title of “Master” or “Teacher.” This coffin, actually a carved limestone box called an ossuary, was designed as the final resting place for someone who lived in first-century Jerusalem. It appears in the official archaeological catalogue as Rahmani Ossuary 701.

Dr. Stephen Pfann, Jerusalem-based Biblical scholar and president of the University of the Holy Land, was interviewed for the documentary. Here he takes a hard look at the evidence.

In brief:

*The original transcription of the inscription was incorrect.

*The inscription does not read “Mariamene the Master,” nor does the name Mariamene or Mariamne appear on the ossuary at all.

*The inscription reflects the writing of two distinct scribes who wrote in different forms of the Greek script.

*Based on parallels from contemporary inscriptions and documents, the correct reading of the inscription is “Mariame and Mara.”

*The ossuary thus contained the bones of at least two different women, interred at two separate times: one named Mariame and the other Mara.

*No support exists for ascribing the ossuary to Mary Magdalene.

The name “Mariamene” is of central importance to the story line of The Lost Tomb of Jesus and its companion book – because Mary Magdalene appears as “Mariamne” in the fourth-century apocryphal Acts of Philip.

Since “Mariamene” is unique (and likewise, “Mariamne” is rare) among first-century ossuaries, this name is also highly significant when creating statistics and probabilities concerning the uniqueness of the Talpiot cave and its inscribed ossuaries.

The original publication of the ossuaries by archaeologists L.Y. Rahmani and A. Kloner interpreted this inscription as reading MARIAMENOU-MARA: “of Mariamene (a.k.a.) Mara.” However, recent publications of Greek papyrus manuscripts among the Dead Sea Scrolls have provided evidence to clarify the reading of the ossuary. The following evidence challenges the existence of the name “Mariamene/Mariamne” in this tomb at all.

The first name on the ossuary was written in the contemporary Greek documentary style of the first century. It reads “MARIAME,” which is the normal Greek form of the Hebrew name “Mariam.” (“Mariame” appears seven times in the Rahmani Ossuary Catalogue.)

This name is followed by a gap that is sufficiently wide to signify a space between distinct words. After this gap, the irregularities begin. As we shall see, this is not because the scribe suddenly introduced odd letter forms, nor even changed his handwriting style in mid-sentence. Rather, it is because a second scribe subsequently added the last two words of the inscription in a different handwriting style: the Greek cursive form now familiar from papyri found at Qumran and Masada.

Various cursive forms often appeared in official documents which normally would be written in the formal Greek documentary script. These forms may be termed as cursive or semi-cursive depending upon the extent to which these tendencies were exhibited. The most common cursive tendency was to write individual letters without lifting the tip of the pen from the writing surface. Another tendency was to connect consecutive letters without lifting the pen. This tendency is known as “connected writing.”

Upon closer examination with this fact in mind, it appears that the three letters Rahmani read as “NOU” are almost certainly to be translated by the common word “KAI” (“and”).

Following normal scribal practice of the period, the scribe engraved the words of his inscription with no space between the words, writing KAIMARA. He, or someone else, subsequently provided a stroke, a word divider, to separate the KAI from the name, apparently to distinguish the two words, resulting in KAI’MARA. MARA is a common shortened form of the Aramaic name “Martha.”

The revised reading of the inscription based on contemporary inscriptions and documents would leave the words MARIAME KAI MARA “Mariam and Mara.”


The so-called “Mariamene” ossuary contained the names and remains of two distinct individuals. The first name on the ossuary, “MARIAME,” was written in the common Greek documentary script of the period on the occasion of the interment of the bones of this woman. The second and third words “KAI MARA” were added sometime later by a second scribe, when the bones of the second woman Mara were added to the ossuary. This scribe’s handwriting includes numerous cursive elements not exhibited by the first scribe who wrote “Mariame.”

In view of the above, there is no longer any reason to be tempted to link this ossuary (nor the ambiguous traces of DNA inside) to Mary Magdalene or any other person in Biblical, non-Biblical or church tradition.

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