“How do you solve a problem like Maria?” Part 3

The New Testament and its Marys

Formal and Familiar Personal Names

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 from 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 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).

One Mary was highly acclaimed as the one who bore and gave birth to the the Messiah.

Another Mary was highly acclaimed in that she was the first to see the risen Messiah and the first to do and proclaim his first words after his resurrection.

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

“Oh, it’s a jolly holiday

With Mary

Mary makes your ‘eart so light

When the day is gray

And ordinary

Mary makes the sun shine bright!

Oh ‘appiness is bloomin’

All around ‘er

The daffoldils are smilin’

At the dove

When Mary ‘olds your ‘and

You feel so grand

Your ‘eart starts beatin’

Like a big brass band

Oh, it’s a jolly holiday with Mary

No wonder that it’s Mary that we love!”

From Mary Poppins, sung by Bert.

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