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 By Dr. Christopher A. Rollston, Toyozo Nakarai Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages, Emmanuel Christian Seminary, Tennessee


Recently I have posted on the blog of the American Schools of Oriental Research my readings, and some plausible renderings into English, of the four-line (fourteen letter) Greek inscription from Talpiyot, along with images visually demonstrating that this inscription does not refer to “Yahweh” (i.e., the tetragrammaton), but rather to “bones.”  Thus, this inscription is just the sort of thing that is well attested in Late Second Temple and Early Post-Biblical funerary contexts (here is this article: ).  In addition, I have even more recently posted on my personal blog a summary of the most useful discussions of this inscription since that ASOR post (here: ), including the suggestions by Robert Hull and Richard Bauckham.  I suspect that James Tabor and Simcha Jacobovici shall persist in attempting to see the tetragrammaton in this four-line Talpiyot inscription, but the palaeographic evidence is clear: the critical letter present at the beginning of line two is a tau, not an iota.  And the tetragrammaton certainly does not begin with the letter tau (i.e., not in Hebrew, and not in Greek either).  At this juncture, therefore, I wish to focus on the word mara, a word well-attested in the epigraphic corpus of Northwest Semitic, and I am especially interested in its occurrences in the Talpiyot inscriptions.


The Aramaic word mara (written in the Greek script in these Talpiyot tombs, rather than in the Aramaic script) occurs on an ossuary in the Talpiyot tomb discovered in 1980 (a tomb which Tabor and Jacobovici have dubbed “Talpiyot Tomb A”), namely, in the phrase Mariamē  kai Mara (i.e., Mariamē and Mara; see Rahmani 1994, # 701).  Tabor and Jacobovici assume that the inscription on this ossuary should be understood as referring to one person and so they render it “Mariam called Mara” (Tabor and Jacobovici 2012, 28).  They refer to Rahmani’s reading in the editio princeps of this inscription, namely, Mariamēnou Mara, which Rahmani translated “Mariamene, who is (also called) Mara.” Rahmani stated that he believed this name was “in the genitive case” and was “a diminutive of Mariamēne” (Rahmani 1994, 222).  Significantly, Stephen Pfann has published a particularly cogent correction of Rahmani’s reading, noting that there are two words and a very clear kai between them (which Rahmani had unfortunately misread).  Hence, Pfann renders this ossuary inscription as “Mariame and Mara” (Pfann 2006).  Tabor and Jacobovici do not accept Pfann’s corrected reading.  In any case, in terms of additional occurrences of mara, Tabor and Jacobovici note that mara also occurs on an ossuary in a Talpiyot tomb which was discovered in 1981, a tomb they have dubbed “Talpiyot Tomb B” (Tabor and Jacobovici 2012, 67).

Here are the statements by Tabor and Jacobovici regarding the Aramaic word mara: “it is the feminine form of Mar, which in Aramaic means ‘Lord’ or ‘Master’” (Tabor and Jacobovici 2012, 46).  Or again, “Mara is the feminine form of Mar in Aramaic, which means ‘Lord’ or ‘Master,’ as explained in the previous chapter” (Tabor and Jacobovici 2012, 67).  They state that “we are convinced that Mara is an honorific title, not a proper name.”  They also state that “if you add the feminine ending to Mar you get Mara” (Tabor and Jacobovici 2012, 115).  The footnote accompanying that statement is: “The Aramaic name Marta (Martha) is derived from Mar/Mara.  Some argued that Mara is just an alternative form of Martha but as we explain chapter 5, such is not the case” (Tabor and Jacobovici 2012, 221).  Again they state that “Mara, which comes from the Aramaic masculine Mar, is the absolute feminine, whereas Martha (Martha) is the emphatic feminine.  They both come from the same masculine noun and mean the same thing, but Martha evolved into a name and is common” (Tabor and Jacobovici 2012, 227; cf also Tabor 2012, 13-14).  Of course, it should be mentioned that they also contend that the ossuary with the words Mariame kai Mara (which they believe should be read Mariamēnou Mara) should be understood as the ossuary of the Greek New Testament’s “Mary Magdalene” and that the word mara is a title that “can potentially refer to her place of leadership and authority in the emerging Christian movement” (Tabor and Jacobovici 2012, 131; cf. 96).  It is striking, of course, that the word “Magdala” does not occur in these Talpiyot inscriptions, obviously a critical weakness in their argument that the ossuary in the Talpiyot Tomb discovered in 1980 is that of Mary Magdalene.  In any case, as is apparent, these statements from Tabor and Jacobovici strongly assume that mara is a feminine form in these Talpiyot occurrences.  There is no discussion by Tabor and Jacobovici about the fact that mara is also a very fine masculine form of this Aramaic word (especially the determined state, but even in the absolute state).

Here are the basic linguistic data: The word mr’ (Mara’) is an Aramaic masculine, singular noun meaning “sir,” “master,” “lord.”  It is well attested (as a masculine noun) in the Aramaic corpus of Northwest Semitic inscriptions, in both Old Aramaic and also in Imperial Aramaic (sometimes with the spelling mry).  Note that in the case of the Old Aramaic occurrence in Tell Fakhariyeh (e.g., line eight) the Akkadian text of this Akkadian-Aramaic bilingual uses (the Sumerian logogram to indicate that the Akkadian word should be understood as) bēlum, obviously a masculine form, not a feminine.  This word even occurs in Nabataean and Palmyrene (which are later dialects of Aramaic), with the masculine form spelled mr’.  The feminine singular is attested in Imperial Aramaic as mr’t, and the feminine singular determined  form occurs as mr’t’ (Hoftijzer and Jongeling 1995, 682-689).  The masculine form of this word also occurs in the Aramaic of the Hebrew Bible, with the spellings mr’ and mry (see Dan 2:47; 4:16, 21; 5:23; Koehler and Baumgartner 2000, 1921-1922).  Moreover, the masculine occurs in Jewish-Palestinian Aramaic (e.g., Talmud, Midrash) with the spelling mr and mr’, and the feminine form of this Aramaic word occurs in this corpus as martha’ (see Jastrow 1950, 834-835, s.v., Mar IV).  It is often stated that (for some of the Late Second Temple occurrences) the word mara can sometimes be a shortened version of the word martha’, and thus can sometimes refer to a woman (either as a personal name, or as a title meaning ‘lordess’ or the like).  Thus, Tal Ilan states about the name mr’ (also spelled mrh during the Second Temple period) that “this is one of the rare cases of a name serving for both males and females” (Tal Ilan 2002, 392; cf. also 423-424).

The point that I would emphasize is this: although the name mara (to use the Greek spelling) might sometimes be used as a shortened form of the name or title martha’, the fact remains that it is not methodologically permissible to assume that mara is always a feminine (i.e., a shortened form of martha’).  After all, as discussed above, the form mr’ (mara) is most readily understood as an Aramaic masculine (cf. also Rahmani 1994, #561). Thus, any historical construct built on the assumption that mara is definitively feminine must be considered a tenuous case indeed.  For this reason, I find it to be quite problematic that Tabor and Jacobovici assume that the occurrences of mara on these ossuaries must be feminine.   The philological evidence demonstrates decisively that mara can readily be a masculine form and so this certainly merited a discussion byTabor and Jacobovici in these recent publications.

In short, it is plausible to contend that in Talpiyot 1981 (i.e., Talpiyot B), the word mara refers to a man, not a woman.  Also, then, with regard to Talpiyot 1980 (i.e., Talpiytot A), I would suggest that it is entirely plausible to suggest that this is the ossuary of a woman and a man, that is, a woman named mariame and a man known as mara.  Someone might suggest that the woman’s name would not come first in this culture.  However, I would note that order of death could reasonably account for the ordering of the names.  Moreover, we do sometimes find a woman’s name first in literary texts that refer to a woman and a man (e.g., Acts 18:18; 18:26; Romans 16:3; 2 Tim 4:19).  In short, it is philologically and historically plausible to suggest (A) that the persons referred to as mara in these two Talpiyot tombs were men, not women; (B) and it is also philologically and historically plausible to suggest that one was a man and one was a woman; (C) and it is also permissible to suggest that both were women.  But it is imperative that we be candid about the fact that we actually do not know and so it is precarious to assume.


                It may be that Tabor and Jacobovici would perhaps reply that the bone fragments from Rahmani Ossuary #701 were those of a woman.  However, I would note several things in that connection: (A) Evidence from many Late Second Temple Jerusalem tombs demonstrates that multiple people were often buried in the same ossuary, and the names of all people whose bones are placed in ossuaries are often not all written on the ossuary; (B) Furthermore, the bones from the ossuaries of Talpiyot 1980 (“Talpiyot Tomb A”) were not even “available to Amos Kloner [in 1996] for study since they had been transferred to the religious authorities for reburial, in accordance with an agreement that was made between the Israeli government and the religious authorities who objected to the storage of human bones within the Antiquities Authority’s storerooms” (Gibson 2006, 120); (C) Of course, Tabor and Jacobovici were able to find some bone fragments, but the problem is that it is not possible to know if the fragments Tabor and Jacobovici sent for analysis are those of someone whose name is on the ossuary.  (D) Also of relevance are the statements by Tabor and Jacobovici about the preserved bone fragments: in the “Mariamene” ossuary “we found only tine bone chips.”  Or again, “the bone chips we found contained no marrow.”  And yet again, “There was no possibility of nuclear or gDNA with these samples due to their degradation.”  Or again, “It is unfortunate that we were not able to conduct full DNA tests on all of the bones found in all the ossuaries from the Jesus tomb.  Ideally that would have allowed one to construct a kind of provisional ‘family tree,’ at least in terms of the familial genetic relationships between those individuals buried therein.  Since the bones themselves were never examined scientifically and no one is even sure what happened to them, that opportunity is forever lost” (Tabor and Jacobovici 2012, 199-202).”  (E) This leads naturally to this final point.  Determining gender is not normally something that can be done on the basis of mitochondrial DNA; therefore, the bone fragments from the ossuary inscribed Mariame and Mara may very well be the bones of a man, not a woman! (regarding gender and mitochondrial DNA, see the discussion here on Berkeley’s page:   Thus, I would challenge Tabor and Jacobovici to publish all of the mitochondrial DNA tests.  I suspect that we will not find that these laboratory tests state that these bone fragments from this ossuary are those of a woman.

In the final analysis, therefore, I would suggest that the gender of those referred to as mara cannot be assumed.  We simply cannot be sure, and it is not prudent to make assumptions about this, in light of the dearth of the evidence.

Click to Enlarge


Gibson, S.
2006       “Is the Talpiot Tomb Really the Family Tomb of Jesus?”  NEA 69: 118-124.

Hoftijzer, J. and Jongeling, K.
1995       Dictionary of the North-West Semitic Inscriptions.  Leiden: Brill.

Ilan, Tal.
2002       Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity.  Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.

Jastrow, M.
1950       A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalami, and the Midrashic Literature.  New York: Pardes Publishing House.

Koehler, L. and Baumgartner, W.
1994-2000            The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament.  Leiden: Brill.

Pfann, S. J.
2006       “Mary Magdalene Has Left the Room: A Suggested New Reading of Ossuary CJO 701.” NEA 69: 130-131.

Rahmani, L. Y.
1994.     A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries in the Collections of the State of Israel. Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities Authority.

Rollston, C.A.
2006       “Inscribed Ossuaries: Personal Names, Statistics, and Laboratory Tests.”  NEA 69: 125-129.

2012a    “The Four-Line Greek Inscription from a Talpiyot Tomb: Epigraphic Notes and Historical Discussions.”  ASOR Blog March 15, 2012.

2012b    “The four-Line Ossuary Inscription from Talpiyot Tomb B (1981): Summary and Restatement.”  March 17, 2012.

Tabor, J. D.
2012       “A Preliminary Report of a Robotic Camera Exploration of a Sealed 1st Century Tomb in East Talpiyot, Jerusalem.”  Bible and Interpretation web site, February 28, 2012.

Tabor, J. D. and Jacobovici, S.
2012       The Jesus Discovery: The New Archaeological Find that Reveals the Birth of Christianity.  New York: Simon and Schuster.


[1]  I am grateful to medical student Rebekah Rollston for discussing mitochondrial DNA with me and for providing me with the reference to a useful, accessible discussion of mitochondrial DNA on the website of the University of California, Berkeley. Also, I am thankful to Roy Lirov (MD) for discussing aspects of DNA analysis with me. Moreover, I am also grateful to my research assistant Jared Poznich for discussing this paper with me and proofreading a penultimate version of the manuscript.


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