Calling a Mary a Mary (extensively revised)

This blog entry discusses exactly what Jesus and Mary say to each other in John 20:16, especially through an analysis of the Peshitta, the ancient Aramaic New Testament (and bear in mind that Jesus and Mary spoke to each other in Aramaic!). I also take a look at the Egyptian root of the words in question, but you’ll have to use your imagination to see the hieroglyphics, which this website will not accept. This is a revision of a section of the introduction to The Gospel of John, my restoration of that original text, free from the later interpolations and excisions of the organized Christian religion. You will find ordering information here.

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20:16 – Jesus called Lazarus forth from the tomb by name in 11:43, but here, in a dramatic reversal, he the resurrected one calls Mary by name, the one who has come to his tomb. The implication is that Mary has, in a sense, died, and he is calling her back to life and faith, hence that this is a resurrection for both of them, in one way or the other.

In every other instance in this gospel where Jesus speaks to a woman – to Mary in the verse immediately preceding, to the woman at the well (who this work concludes is Mary), and to his mother – the Greek has him address the woman as γυνη (“woman”). In that context, the intimacy of his saying “Mary” here is overpowering.

Someone, probably the amanuensis, has inserted here and at 1:38 the statement that “rabbi” means “teacher”. That is true only in a very loose sense. The root meaning is “great”, and the word was early used as a title denoting respect. In the Second Temple period the word came to mean “my master”, and was commonly used not just to refer to religious authorities but anyone whom the speaker respected as authoritative in any subject, religious or not. It would be a couple generations after Jesus that “rabbi” would begin to refer specifically and only to a Jewish religious master. The Aramaic word in this verse of the Peshitta is ܪܒܘܠܝ (rab’uwliy), which comes from the root ܪܒܢ (raban), meaning “great” or “master”.

But could Mary have called Jesus something else entirely? Mary, in verses 2, 13, and 18 calls Jesus κυριε/κυριος, meaning “master”. Only here does she appear to say something different, and there is no clear reason in Greek why she should switch from “master” to “teacher”. It is a natural question to ask whether she might have said here the same thing she says in those other verses.

To answer this question we can turn to the Peshitta, the very early Aramaic version of the New Testament. The Eastern, Syriac Church claims the Peshitta is the original New Testament, and that the Greek version on which the Western Church (including Roman Catholic and Protestant) bases its modern translations is itself a translation! Determining which of the two is the original is beyond the scope of this book. Still, the fact of the matter is that Jesus and Mary in this conversation (as is the case with every conversation in this gospel, except perhaps those with Nicodemus and Pontius Pilate) were certainly speaking Aramaic, and not Greek. Therefore, unavoidably, the Greek in this resurrection scene is itself a translation – and so, whether or not the Peshitta is the “original New Testament”, it nevertheless is far more likely to tell us exactly what the two of them actually said – simply because it is in Aramaic.

The Aramaic word for “lord”, “master”, or “husband” in the Peshitta version of this verse is ܡܳܪܝ (mary); elsewhere in classical Aramaic texts it is more often ܡܪܐ (mara). The relatively uncommon variant spelling here, not mara but mary, is surely to emphasize the similarity to Mary’s name. Some scholars say the Aramaic root means “to flap”, as in wings, such as the dove which is associated in this gospel with Mary; others say it means “to lift” or “to raise up”, which might have Messianic implications (Jesus here is raised up from death), or even “to arouse (sexually)”, which the very next verse (17), in both Greek and Aramaic, suggests is happening to Jesus. The theory has been made that the Aramaic word is related etymologically to मर (mara), meaning “death” or “delusion” in Sanskrit, and “-mare” in English, as in “nightmare”, a prophetic and even frightening dream, from mara in Old French and going back to a theoretical Indic root. Certainly Jesus and Mary have both just been through a nightmare of death and have held strong through delusion; this proposed etymological lineage again raises the thought that the “fringe” scholars who say Jesus may have spent his young adult years in the Himalayas might be right. Nevertheless, there is no clear lineage in terms of meaning between the Aramaic “master” and the Sanskrit “death” or “delusion”, just a coincidental homophony, and therefore this theory is to be rejected. Rather, the Aramaic word ܡܳܪܝ (mary), meaning “lord” or “master” in reference to Jesus, far more likely comes from a classical Egyptian root, the word mer; “overseer”. Most interestingly, it has as a homonym its own antonym, the word mer; “servant”, pronounced the same way but written with different hieroglyphics. (This Egyptian-based pun may well have been behind Jesus’s comment in 13:16.)

Curiously, the word “rabbi” would later, especially in Arabic, pick up the connotation of “lord” specifically referring to God. The etymologically related Arabic word رب‎ (rabb) means “lord” or “master”, and is used in reference to the husband/father of a household, the master of the house, and also in reference to God. But this sense comes later than the origination of this gospel, and it has never become prominent in Judaism.

We do not know whether the Beloved Disciple described his memories to his amanuensis in Aramaic or Greek; we do not even know whether the amanuensis (John the Presbyter), whose first language clearly was Greek, was even slightly familiar with Aramaic; probably no more than that, since his inserted quotations from the Tanakh come from the Septuagint, the classical translation of the Jewish scriptures into Greek. Yet certainly our eyewitness’s memory of these vivid experiences were carried in the vessel of Aramaic. And we know that the actual conversations Jesus engaged in (certainly with those closest to him, Mary and his disciples) were in Aramaic, excepting probably only those with foreigners, such as Pontius Pilate and maybe highly educated Jews like Nicodemus. It is absolutely inconceivable that Mary and the disciples would have interjected Greek into their Aramaic, Aramaic-speaking Jews describing the Jewish religious status of another Aramaic-speaking Jew, Jesus, with the word κυριη (kyrie); that foreign word, from the language (at least in the eastern part of the Roman Empire) of the imperial oppressor, would have been an uncomfortable form of address on their lips. There can be no question but that they variously called Jesus ܪܒܘܠܝ (rab’uwliy, “rabbi”, but with the significance of “master”) or ܠܒ݂ܰܥܠܶܟ݂ܝ (baal, “lord” or “master”) or ܡܳܪܝ (mary, “lord” or “master”). A handful of times in this gospel Jesus is addressed as “rabbi”, with the significance of “master”, but it most likely appears here because the redactor inserted it here in a later generation when the term was common. It is far more likely that Mary said mary in 20:16, consistent with the rest of the chapter. Not only is it her form of address for Jesus everywhere else in the chapter except in this verse (20:2,13,18), but the double entendre it would present in this critical moment, each calling the other one mary, emphasizing the closeness and even unity of Jesus and Mary, would be clear – and is doubtlessly why the redactor would have replaced the word with rabbouni, to reduce the significance of Mary to that of only a humble disciple grateful for the master’s forgiveness. Besides, similar doubles entendres are frequently encountered in the gospel, including in this very scene, with isha/isha. What is more, there are close connections between this scene and 4:1-26, wherein “the woman at the well”, clearly Mary, calls Jesus mary throughout. (And that the redactor almost certainly made a change here from mary to rabbouni makes it extremely likely that he did the same at 1:38, and that the original text there also had mary.) The implications of Jesus and Mary saying Mary! to each other may have simply been too incomprehensible or too romantic for the redactor, seeking at a late stage in the devolution of the original gospel to conform it to the dogma of the new Christian religion, which declared that Jesus was entirely lacking in sexual desire and remained a virgin lifelong; he would thus have quickly changed mary for the slightly anachronistic rabbouni. and even incorrectly adding that this is a word in Hebrew and further adding his not-quite-right translation “teacher”.

Mary’s name appears in its given, formal version in the Aramaic text – ܡܪܝܡ (Maryam) – but it was more likely on the lips of her husband in a more intimate form, ܡܰܪܺܝܰܐ (Marya) or ܡܰܪܺܝܰ (Mary). The latter is almost certainly the case, since that creates a homophony with mary meaning “lord”, “master”, or “husband”. (In either case, whether the homonyms are mara/Mara or mary/Mary doesn’t matter; in both cases, the two words, the word meaning “master” and the woman’s name, though they come from different roots, are spelled and pronounced identically.) The author of this gospel frequently uses sacred puns, doubles entendres, in order to underline the spiritual meanings. It is all but certain, then, that in the original manuscript of verse 16, in Lazarus’s recollection of what his mother later told him of this event, Jesus said her name, either “Mary!” (ܡܰܪܺܝܰ), and Mary replied with not ܪܒܢ (raban), but the homonym. This, then, is the double entendre: in the early verses of this chapter she is looking for her mary, her master and husband, and here he calls her his Mary, and she responds again by again calling him her mary. Since it is impossible to translate, the double entendre has been added parenthetically in this translation.

To drive home the point, to make sure the reader does not miss this subtlety, the Aramaic has the verb ܐܳܡܰܪ (amar; “said”) when both Jesus and Mary speak – a verb that is nearly a homonym to mary. Thus, the original verse almost certainly was rhetorically euphonious, literally reading: “Amar (Said) to her Jesus, Mary! Turned around and amar (said) to him Mary, Mary!” In Aramaic this would be: ܐܳܡܰܪ ܠܳܗ ܝܶܫܽܘܥ ܡܰܪܺܝܰ ܘܶܐܬ݂ܦ݁ܰܢܝܰܬ݂ ܘܳܐܡܪܳܐ ܠܶܗ ܡܰܪܺܝܰ ܡܳܪܝ The intricacy of this sentence is more than mere punning; this is poetry.

These doubles entendres, like others in this gospel, are of course not meant to be taken as comical, as are puns in the modern Western civilization, though the author of the gospel no doubt intended the “Mary!” “Mary!” exchange at the very least to elicit a smile from readers: it is amusing, and the gospel is laced with a good deal of this kind of gentle humor. But here, and always in this gospel, it was primarily intended to deliver a sacred message; in this case, to make very clear to us the closeness of this man and this woman, indeed their unity in God as a couple, as “one flesh”, as each a κοινωνος (companion, partner, or consort) to the other.

The intimacy of this exchange may be even deeper if Mary’s name is taken back not to the traditional but unfactual “bitter tears” explanation (as suggested by Ruth 1:13,20), but to its actual Egyptian root. When Jesus calls her “Mary” he is on one level simply saying her familiar Aramaic name in its intimate form. Yet, at the same time, he is saying the Egyptian word from which her name was derived: meri, which means “beloved” or “lover”. Her given name “Mariam” actually goes back to “Miriam”, the name of Moses’s sister, which is a Semitic garbling of the Egyptian name Meri-Amun, “Beloved Amun”. (The plural of meri is merti or mertæ, from which the name of Mary’s sister, Martha, was derived. That the sisters were given names that are closely related in the Egyptian language was probably intentional.) The ancient Egyptians often called their gods meri, “beloved”. Amun was originally the god of wind (which brings to mind the whirlwind at Jesus’s baptism, when he met Mary), but in the “New Kingdom” period (about a millennium before the first century) he was conflated with Ra, the sun god (which brings to mind this gospel’s use of sun and light imagery in reference to God); and as Amun-Ra his worship became so universal in Egypt that it was virtually monotheism. Thus, there is another level to Jesus’s use of the word here: he is calling her his beloved, but also by saying this name he is also hinting that she is godly, that she is beloved as a deity is beloved.

Therefore, Jesus calls her by her name, which means “Beloved!”; and her immediate response (as recorded in the Peshitta) is Mary!, must therefore also be interpreted as “Beloved!”, even as “Beloved Deity!”, not merely as “Master!” or “Husband!”; and, what is more, with this reference Jesus retroactively transforms her Mary! (“Master!” or “Husband!”) in earlier verses into Mary! (“Beloved!”). With one word Mary is stating what Thomas will later (20:28) exclaim: “My Lord and my God!” At the same time they are confirming their love for each other and their oneness in each other.

When Mary replies thus to Jesus by saying Mary!, she is perforce also making some subtle and sublime puns – perhaps not consciously, but Jesus would have interpreted her response thus. She intends only to say the Aramaic word that means “master” or “husband” (ܡܳܪܝ). But Jesus hears in her exclamation the identically pronounced Egyptian word for “master”, implying thereby – since this word’s antonym in Egyptian is also its homonym – that she is lesser than he, his mere servant, the then-typical wife subservient to her husband, her lord and master. But, by calling her Mary!, Beloved!, and thus turning her response of Mary!, Master!, into Mary!, Beloved!, Jesus is making it clear that she is not at all less than he, a mere servant, but that she is rather “one flesh” with him (Genesis 2:24), united with him in God (John 17:23), his κοινωνος, his equal counterpart, like Wisdom as the counterpart of God in Creation (Proverbs 8:22-30), his “better half” as people say today.

Lest anyone wonder, the answer is, yes, an educated Jew like Jesus would have been very likely to know and to think about the Egyptian cognates of Aramaic words. Jews were then and still are very aware of their cultural roots in nearby Egypt, especially by celebrating the exodus from Egypt every year at Passover. In the first century, not only educated Jews but those involved in commerce would have been acquainted with the Egyptian language, and probably able to speak at least some basic phrases. Indeed, these complexities of doubles entendres involving Greek, Aramaic, and Egyptian may well have been in Jesus’s mind during the actual encounter outside the tomb; he was clearly an extremely well-educated man. Mary, as a former Samaritan Temple priestess, might possibly have learned about these matters, but there is no reason to assume they were clear to Mary at that moment. It is not unlikely that Jesus later explained these meanings of mary to her. And later yet, Mary may have tried to explain them to her son Lazarus. If that is so, then Lazarus must have done his best to pass these insights on by third hand to his amanuensis, John the Presbyter – and here they took root. We can tell from this gospel (and his other works) that John was, like Jesus, a highly educated man, in not just Jewish studies but classical literature. Even if the subtleties in the words isha and mary, and so on, were muddled by the time Lazarus tried to explain them, and even if these linguistic connections only occurred to John and did not originate with Jesus or Mary or Lazarus, they were still evidently how John chose to put into written form the oral descriptions he had been given of these events, and they were in his mind, no doubt in consultation with Lazarus and perhaps Mary, and, because he was responsible to them to record as accurately as possible the truth about what happened, an appropriate and accurate literary framework for describing these events.

(Another possibility to mention in passing is that in chapter 20 Mary may also have called Jesus ܒܥܠ [baal], as she did at the well in Sychar [John 4:16-18]; if she did, this would be another inclusio. In both Hebrew [בַּעַל] and Aramaic the word baal, like mary, means “husband”, “lord”, “master”, and also “God”. Still, because the Peshitta has Mary call Jesus mary throughout the chapter [except in verse 16, but I conclude that the original version also had that title], I reject this possibility.)

Always in this gospel from the Prologue onward, the coming of the light of day represents the dawning of spiritual enlightenment. And so it is that at this moment, as Jesus says “Mary!” and Mary says “Mary!”, the light dawns on them, both literally and figuratively. Mary now understands. And, in the new light of day, the first thing each of them sees is the beloved other.

James David Audlin (89 Posts)

Born in the Thousand Islands. Retired; after decades as a pastor, newspaper editor, university professor, caregiver, musician, editor. Most recently lived in southern France; now lives in rural mountainous Panama; married to a Spanish-speaking local lady. Two children in Vermont. Author of 18+ books, with a dozen more on the way.


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