Comments of Dr. Claude Cohen-Matlofsky

“Jesus Tomb” Controversy Erupts—Again

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I participated in the panel on epigraphy at the Talpiot tomb symposium, and here is my take: I read MARIAM H KAI MARA, “MARIAM ALSO KNOWN AS MARA”. I chose to ignore the third iota before “MARA” as a slip of the nail likely to have been used by the inscriber. One has to bear in mind that the family members who usually carved the inscriptions on ossuaries made spelling mistakes and/or omissions occurred in the carving of the letters and it was too late to add and certainly not possible to erase/hide a letter. Therefore one could definitely ignore the third iota, as well, imagine that it was meant to be added in between the ro and the alpha of the “MARA”, to make a “MARIA”. There is another Greek speaking “Mara” inscribed on an ossuary of the Dominus Flevit Necropolis. Please refer to my book Les Laics en Palestine d’Auguste a Hadrien: Etude Prosopographique (2001), the prosopographic note no. 380. So even though the theory of “MARA/MARTHA” or “KYRA/KYRIA and MARA/MARIA” (Cf. Bagnall) all meaning “lady/master/teacher,” either in Aramaic or Greek, is very appealing, one should remain careful and perhaps translate “MARIAM also known as MARA” (her nickname). This being said one does not preclude the other as “MARA” could be apprehended as a nickname or the title (teacher) with my reading of the inscription. I can see two hands in the inscription as well: before and after “H KAI”. The alphas, the mus and the ros are different. Therefore I am not ruling out the possibility that the second part of the inscription was added later (not too much later), in order to further identify this particular ossuary. The earliest spelling of Mary Magdalene’s name in the literary sources is MARIA/MARIAM. The one time Jesus addresses MM in our canonical records, he uses MARIAM (cf. Schaberg). This inscription would be bilingual if read “MARIAM H KAI MARA”, with “MARA” being a title. The Aramaic “MARA”, feminine form of “MAR” for “master/teacher” would have been transliterated in Greek characters on this ossuary inscription, along with MARIAM, a Greek version of the Semitic name MIRYAM. The inscription would be unilingual if read “MARIAM H KAI MARA”, with “MARA” being a nickname. According to Christian tradition, MM spoke both languages, Aramaic and Greek, common in the North. In fact she and her family could very well have been descendants of Galilean pagans converted to Judaism during the Hasmonean conquest of the area, and perhaps MM’s first language was indeed Greek. Therefore, chances are that her relatives would have inscribed her ossuary in her mother tongue (and also because relatives would visit the tomb in the years after the burial and would need to be able to read the inscriptions or at least recognize the characters on the ossuaries of their beloved ones). Last but not least if two women were to be buried in the same ossuary it should have been mother and (unmarried) daughter (cf. Rahmani’s catalog). In conclusion, unless the negative evidence outweighs the positive evidence for the identification of the Talpiot tomb with the family tomb of Jesus, I see no reason, in light of the above, to exclude the possibility that this particular ossuary might have been the one of Mary Magdelene.

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