Behold Your Mothers: Adopted at the Crucifixion

GOJ-front 2vol Ib From the recently published complete edition of The Gospel of John Restored and Translated, Volume II, as published by Editores Volcán Barú, available here.

This essay, taken from The Gospel of John Restored and Translated, Volume II, first discusses who the Gospel of John names as witnesses to the crucifixion of Jesus, and second considers the nature of the Beloved Disciple’s adoption by Jesus. Analysis will begin with verse 26, which tells us who were the witnesses to the crucifixion. The Gospel of John gives us a very limited number, and these will be discussed shortly.

First, however, we must discuss which witnesses the Synoptic gospels say were present. (Luke only tells us that “his friends”, including “the women who had followed him from Galilee” were there, so the women present must be more or less those in the lists given in Luke 8:1-3 and Luke 24:10, and the following is based on that assumption.) All three Synoptics put Mary Magdalene at the crucifixion, as does John. They also all place Mary the mother of James the Younger and Joses on the scene; in my opinion this is one way that Jesus’s mother was designated following her remarriage (see the essay on page 371); hence, though there is no specific reference to “Jesus’s mother” in the Synoptics, they still cohere with John, which specifically says his mother was there. Matthew says the mother of the sons of Zebedee was there, but the earlier Gospel of Mark, based on Simon’s eyewitness accounts, lists instead Salome (a garbled Greek version of the Hebrew/Aramaic word for “peace”), who I believe was the mother of Mary Magdalene (see pages 452-53). In sum, there is a reasonable coherence among the three Synoptic gospels that present were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, and either Salome mother of the Magdalene or the wife of Zebedee too.

It is not immediately clear who the women are who are mentioned in the Gospel of John as witnesses to the crucifixion. Depending on how the text is read, either four, three, or two women are mentioned in 19:25.

Four women – Depending on how it is punctuated, this would be either a: Jesus’s mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene; or b: Jesus’s mother, his mother’s sister Mary, the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. It is unlikely that two sisters would be both named Mary, and so the second alternative is rejected. The main problem with the four-women hypothesis is that the word και (“and”) appears inconveniently between the first two and second two, and not as would be grammatically correct, either only before the last (Mary Magdalene) or between all four. Also, this alternative would conflict with the Synoptic accounts.

Three women – This would be either a: a kind of acrostic involving all elements except Mary Magdalene: Jesus’s mother Mary, his mother’s sister the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene; or b: Jesus’s mother, his mother’s sister Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. Again, the second is eliminated because two sisters would not be named Mary. The first is possible, but the two-women reading that follows is much more satisfying grammatically, factually, and poetically. This option, too, would conflict with the Synoptic account.

Two women – I agree with James Tabor that this list comprises an acrostic involving all elements in the verse, including Mary Magdalene, and that therefore Jesus’s mother is here named as Mary wife of Clopas. This would cohere with the Synoptic accounts, which agree that Jesus’s mother and the Magdalene were present. (If Mark is right that the Magdalene’s mother Salome [see pages 452-53] also was there, then she went unmentioned in the Gospel of John, since the author does not include anything extraneous, and she is uninvolved in Jesus’s final command in 19:26-27.) What is more, in this reading, the two instances in the verse of και (“and”) set up a fine division of the names into a couplet of semipoetic lines:

His mother and his mother’s sister,
Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary Magdalene.

This seems typical Hebrew poetry, saying the same thing or a parallel thing twice but with different wording the second time. The problem is that Mary Magdalene was certainly not Jesus’s aunt! This glaring mismatch is undeniable proof that the redactor of the original text was as usual removing any reference to Jesus’s marital status. It seems logical to conclude that he may have changed the text at the end of the first line from νυξς (“daughter-in-law”) to αδελφη (“sister”), and removed the obvious missing parallel to “the wife of Clopas”, which would make this a perfect acrostic: “the wife of Jesus”. The redactor would then have replaced the offending phrase with her Synoptic cognomen “Magdalene”, lest it be unclear who this Mary might be.

This Clopas in verse 25 was probably known in Aramaic as Hilphai; Joseph Henry Thayer suggests in his Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament that κλωπας (Klōpas) is a transliteration of חילפ ( אי Hilphai), but that, since there is no letter for “H” in Greek, the initial ח in the name was rendered into Greek with a κ, “K”; the “p” sound, more euphonious to Greeks than the “ph”, was substituted; and a Greek-style suffix was added. Early Christian writers Papias and Hegesippus both declare Clopas to be the brother of Jesus’s father, Joseph. James Tabor is right to say that Hilphai (Clopas) almost certainly married Mary after his brother Joseph’s death, and so Mary the wife of Clopas here is Jesus’s mother, and Clopas (Hilphai) his stepfather. Since in this scene Jesus is concerned for his mother’s care, she must be widowed for the second time: Hilphai must be now dead like his brother Joseph before him.

It has often been suggested that Clopas and the Cleopas who appears in Luke 24:13-35 are the same man. If that is so, if Mary still has a husband, then why does the Gospel of John specify that after Jesus’s death the Beloved Disciple took Mary “for his own [mother]” (19:27)? Either a: Clopas and Cleopas are different men with similar names, and bear in mind that these are clumsy transliterations into Greek, so the original Aramaic names could be almost anything; or b: Clopas/Cleopas and Mary have separated; or c: the Lukan episode tells of a son of Clopas, possibly the Levi (ben Clopas) discussed in the essay beginning on page 371. I think the first and third alternatives are the most likely. More about Clopas and Jesus’s brothers and half-brothers may be read in the essay on the same page.

The cognomen “Magdalene” obviously did not come from the author of the original text: Mary has been heretofore named in this gospel only as Mary, and, other than here and 20:1, she is never once called “Magdalene”; that is exclusively the Synoptic cognomen for her. The author of this gospel must have known her, since she had to be a primary source for chapters 4 and 20, and was besides the mother of his main eyewitness, Lazarus. The redactor inserted this nickname here to fill the obvious gap in the phrase “Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary the [__]” after he had excised what the text originally said. Indeed, I am certain that the redactor inserted “Magdalene” into 20:1 as well. In both places I think he used the cognomen to help bring this gospel into closer coherence with the Synoptics.

Thus the text here may have originally read:

His mother and his mother’s daughter-in-law,
Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary the wife of Jesus.

This couplet bears the classic earmark of Hebrew verse, being a pair of lines that says the same thing twice, but wording it differently the second time. And it succinctly describes all the relationships. However, the wording is rather clumsy, especially for poetry, so let us remain open to other possibilities.

Here in verse 25, as elsewhere in the gospel, we see the Beloved Disciple’s modest reluctance to mention himself unless utterly necessary, and also how the amanuensis adds no detail that doesn’t further the story and message of the gospel. So, in this verse, the focus is intent on this couplet about the two mothers Mary, and the eyewitness does not yet mention himself. He lists the two mothers because of what Jesus is about to say, but what Jesus is about to say involves the Beloved Disciple too, and so he is finally mentioned as present in verse 26.

The conclusion that these two lines are verse is supported by the presence of another very similar couplet at verses 26-27. Jesus’s dying instruction to his relatives also comes in the form of Hebrew poetic parallelism, though as we have it it appears incomplete:

He says to the mother, “Woman, behold your son.”
Then he says to the disciple, “[___], behold your mother.”

The construction of the first line of this couplet, in which Jesus appears to address his mother as “woman” (see discussion of this form of address in the commentary to 2:4), requires a similar kind of salutation of the Beloved Disciple, but it is glaringly absent. The lacuna is best filled in with either a relationship word (for instance, “son” or “brother-in-law”) or else the disciple’s name; clearly something has been suppressed here by the final redactor of the text to hide the identity of the disciple. Certainly the original did not clumsily read, “Then he says to the disciple, ‘Disciple, behold your mother.’” Surely, and especially in his dying moments, Jesus is going to hand off that responsibility to a very close family member. It is not likely a brother of Jesus, since the wording strongly suggests Jesus is designating with his words a new mother-son relationship, while such a brother would already have the same mother. This handing-off, actually, was traditionally to a dying father’s son, no one else.

Involved in this scene are two mother-son pairs: Jesus and his mother, and Lazarus and his mother. Both mothers are named Mary; both have known the intense anguish a mother feels mother feels as she helplessly watches her son die. Both of their sons have been called son of the father (Jesus says frequently in this gospel that he is son of the father, and Lazarus was only an hour or two before the crucifixion released by Pontius Pilate under the name Barabbas, which means the same thing). Further, according to Mark 15:40, a third mother-child pair was there: Salome and Mary Magdalene (see pages 452-53 on Salome as Mary’s mother), adding to the poignancy of this scene.

All of these connections between the two mothers were certainly clear to Jesus long before he was hung on the cross. Thus quickly to Jesus’s mind would come the idea of charging his stepson Lazarus with this filial responsibility for his own mother. He may indeed have already decided that he would do this at his last moment, since a dying person’s final request would decisively oblige the survivors to carry it out.

The text makes very clear the strong connection between the two mothers, by naming them and them only as witnesses, notwithstanding who else in actuality may have been there, such as Salome. Verse 25 specifically refers to “his mother” (that is, Jesus’s) and also, as we shall see below, originally referred to “the disciple’s mother”. However, this connection between the two Marys, the two mothers of “Sons of the Father” whom they have watched die is emphasized in another, subtler way: the Greek text of verse 26, though it is typically translated “his mother”, instead actually twice says “the mother”. Normally in Greek, after the first reference to Jesus’s mother (η μητηρ αυτου, literally, “the mother of-him”), it wouldn’t be necessary to repeat the word αυτου (“of-him”) in immediately subsequent references to his mother. That is why scholars render the two “the mother” references in verse 26 as “his mother”. But, with two mothers mentioned in verse 25, Jesus’s and Lazarus’s – what is more, two mothers with several significant things in common, as noted – it is not so clearcut. Jesus could be telling Lazarus to behold his own mother, Mary Magdalene, or Jesus’s mother, or (and this is what I think) both mothers.

Quite conceivable is the possibility that the original text had the words “women” and “mothers”, in the plural form, and that the redactor either thought this was a grammatical error or, more likely, he fully understood that this was meant to refer both to Jesus’s mother Mary and to Jesus’s wife Mary and the Beloved Disciple’s mother, and so, wishing as always to emphasize Jesus’s divinity, he reduced the plural to the singular.

It is universally believed that Jesus is speaking to his mother when he says, “Woman, behold your son.” I believe that he is speaking to both mothers, affirming to each of the two Marys that Lazarus is still or henceforth her son. That is why he does not say, “Mother, behold your son,” or, for that matter, “Wife, behold your son.” Indeed, dying on the cross, he doesn’t have the breath to be long-winded! By saying γυνη, “woman”, or better yet the nearly identically pronounced γυναι, “women”, he encompasses both of these Marys with so much in common.

It is also universally believed that Jesus is referring to his own mother when he says to the Beloved Disciple, “Behold your mother”: he is requiring Lazarus to take on the duty of filial responsibility for his step-grandmother, his stepfather’s mother. Again I believe that he is referring to both mothers, asking Lazarus to take care of both of them when he, Jesus, is dead. The two mothers and the son hear this as Jesus realizing that this death may be final, that he may not rise again to take care of his wife and his mother, and their despair and grief is intensified in response.

Keep in mind how much these two Marys have in common, in their names and in their death-facing son-of-the-father sons, a close relationship highlighted by this couplet and by the use of “the mother” in verse 26 to refer to both mothers. What we can draw from this is that, when Jesus says to Lazarus “Behold your mother,” he is speaking not only about his own mother, but Lazarus’s mother, Mary Magdalene, as well. He is saying “Take care of my mother, and your mother my wife, when I am dead.”

Carrying out this final wish is the duty of a son, not a stepson, and so it becomes clear, in this Jesus’s dying instruction, that his words incorporate his formal adoption and recognition of his stepson Lazarus as his own son. Yigal Levin (“Jesus, ‘Son of God’ and ‘Son of David’: The ‘Adoption’ of Jesus into the Davidic Line” [JSNT 28.4; 2006]), makes it clear that there was then no adoption under Jewish law. Roman law allowed a more formal adrogatio, which needed several approvals in the Roman courts, and the much more informal adoptio, which was certainly the case here. It was usually between relatives, and was usually not a humanitarian gesture for the adoptee’s sake, but for the father’s, under hereditas nominis pecuniæ sacrorum, a phrase referring to the assurance of stability and continuity of the family honor; in this case, to ensure that Jesus’s responsibilities to his mother and wife were properly discharged. If Jesus was indeed a Roman citizen, as suggested on pages 376, he would likely have known about this means of adoption.

This adoption of Lazarus by Jesus, son of God, Messiah of God, emissary or ambassador of God, is also emblematic of God’s adoption of the people of Israel as his child, during the Exodus from Egypt. Thus, this adoption forms a parallel with the reference to adoption in the Prologue (see the commentary to 1:11-13).

Clearly this declaration at the moment of death was taken by Lazarus and the two Marys as binding (19:27b), and the acutely remembered and carefully transcribed recounting of this statement by Lazarus, the Beloved Disciple and eyewitness, in poetry no less, tells us just how seriously it was taken by them. In ancient times, the most important texts were in poetry, not prose – because poetry, by its nature, is more easily memorized and enunciated later, and thus can outlast such ephemeral documents as bills of lading and shopping lists, which were written precisely because they were unworthy of memorization. With his final breath of life, inhaled with great difficulty by pulling his torso up with his nailed wrists, then sagging down exhaustedly while exhaling, arousing new pain in his wrists, his very last inhalations and exhalations of the Spirit of God, and no moment to waste, Jesus was arranging for his mother and his wife to be cared for, and at the same time was acknowledging his stepson as his own son. This would have been a highly emotional and memorable moment for the two Marys, with Lazarus standing between them, and his other grandmother, Salome, also close by.

The text tells us (verse 27b) that after this event the disciple took her or them as his own mother(s). The pronoun αυτην can mean either “her”, in which case it is referring to Jesus’s mother, or “them”, in which case both mothers are meant. The preposition εις has many possible meanings; usually Bible interpreters mistakenly read it as saying “into”, and then they take the phrase εις τα ιδια as “into his own home”, with the word “home”, they say, unwritten but understood. The preposition εις clearly should be taken rather as meaning “as”, and the phrase as saying he takes her/them as his own mother(s). With the word “mother” recently written several times, the author had no need to repeat it again here, except if only to help two millennia of interpreters avoid the mistake just described. This interpretation is much more thematically united: Jesus commands the Beloved Disciple to take the two women as his two mothers, and this sentence, directly from the disciple himself confirms that he obeyed this final request of Jesus.

Also, this poetic “last will” of Jesus is again clearly meant again to establish a parallel between him and the greatest of the prophets, Moses and Elijah. Since these parallels are drawn several times in the early chapters of the gospel, this also forms another inclusio. The Torah has Moses, like Jesus, reciting poetry before his death (Deuteronomy 32-33), and the account of Elijah’s death (II Kings 2) has him likewise orating a kind of “last will”, giving Elisha his sacred powers.

As a result of all this, I conclude that this couplet originally read as follows:

He says to the mothers, “Women, behold your son.”
Then he says to the disciple, “Son, behold your mothers.”

The following would be absolutely perfect parallelism,

He says to the women, “Mothers, behold your son.”
Then he says to the disciple, “Son, behold your mothers.”

but the grammar of Greek and Aramaic would allow Jesus to address only his own mother as “Mother”, not his wife; besides, he calls his mother γυνη (gynē, “woman”), in 2:4, so this must be an inclusio that the narrative calls the two “women” here. What is more, Salome, Lazarus’s maternal grandmother is present too (Mark 15:40), so Jesus’s words could be taken as gracefully including her. Therefore, the first of these two is the one I adopt as the reconstruction.

Clearly here the redactor removed the offending word “son”, without replacing it with anything; the only option he had was “disciple” or “the beloved disciple”, both of which would sound odd if forced here into Jesus’s dying words. And he reduced “women” and “mothers” to their singular forms.

If this second couplet refers so evidently to sons and mothers, then the strong possibility follows that the original version of the couplet in verse 25 also used the same manner to specify the relationships involved:

His mother and the disciple’s mother,
Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary the wife of Jesus.

This would have perfectly set up the dual change in relationship that Jesus specifies to Lazarus and his mother: his stepson becomes his son, and his mother becomes his son’s mother. And Lazarus, as the eyewitness, confirms this dual change at the end of verse 27: “And from that hour the disciple took [ελαβεν] them [αυτην] as (his) own [τα ιδια].” The same Greek words are found in 1:11, to say that the Λογος “came into its own, but its own did not take it in,” so here, as an inclusio, it suggests that these three, Jesus’s family, have taken not only each other, but the Word as their own. The phrase τα ιδια is often translated “his own home”, with the word “home” understood, and that’s not necessarily wrong, but it is better taken to say that Lazarus took them both as his own mother – both Marys as his mothers, and also Jesus as his own father. At least here, the Word has been taken in by its own.

But all this would have been far too much of an affront to the dogma the new religion was developing, driving the redactor to change the “disciple’s mother” to “mother’s sister” and “the wife of Jesus” to “Magdalene”. The two couplets read perfectly together:

His mother and the disciple’s mother,
Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary the wife of Jesus.
He says to the mothers, “Women, behold your son.”
Then he says to the disciple, “Son, behold your mothers.”

which in Greek would be:

η μητηρ αυτου και η μητηρ της μαθητην
μαρια η του κλωπα και μαρια η του ιεσους.
λεγει τας μητρας γυναι ιδε ο υιος σου
ειτα λεγει τω μαθητη ιδε αι μητηρες σου

And, just in case anyone still should fail to see the poetry, the author placed immediately before these two couplets another couplet taken from the Tanakh (Psalm 22:18) of what is universally recognized as poetry:

They divided my garments among themselves,
And for my clothing they cast lots.

And then, in stunning chiaroscuro, immediately following this bouquet of poetry, the author gives us in terse prose the death of Jesus.

The Structure of the Resurrection Scene


What follows is a addition to The Gospel of John, my restoration of that original text, free from the later interpolations and excisions of the organized Christian religion, and translated afresh from the Greek. You will find ordering information here. But note that the book will not be available again until around mid-August, when a revised version comes off the presses with about 100 pages of new material.

James Daniel Tabor has suggested in his blog here that the account in John 20:1-10 is a separate and older story than what is told in verses 11-18, that it is essentially complete in itself, and perhaps the first written account of the post-crucifixion events. In favor of his view, it can be pointed out that 1-10 have Mary go to the tomb and then go home to tell the two disciples, but that there is nothing about her returning to the tomb. As a result, verse 11 opens rather inexplicably with Mary back at the tomb and no reference to her returning there. This may suggest a separate history to verses 1-2 from the history of the following verses.

However, unlike Tabor, my view is that the tomb narrative in verses 1-18 is a single unit deliberately structured with three main sections: verses 1-2, verses 3-10, and verses 11-18; and that the third section also has three parts: verses 11-13, 14-17, and 18. And that both sets of three parts are examples of inclusio, a kind of narrative structuring also called A-B-A symmetry.

The first of the three main sections centers on Mary. The second centers on Simon the Rock and the Beloved Disciple, and the third again centers on Mary. Each one begins with the witness(es) in question coming to the tomb, observing or experiencing something, and then returning home with information to deliver to the group of disciples.

At Mary’s first visit to the tomb in section one she just looks in and sees that the body is missing, like her son Lazarus in section two, and in section three (her second visit to the tomb) she goes into it, like Simon the Rock in section two.

What is more, the narrative itself has a home-away-home structure: Mary is the “home” character in the first section, but the narrative “goes away” from her in the second section to the two disciples, and the third section returns to the “home” of Mary’s experiences. The nearly identical phrasing of Mary’s message in the first section (verse 2b) and third section (verse 13b) again strongly suggests that this is a single narrative with a tripartite structure.

The first and second sections both convey the “empty tomb” motif familiar from the Synoptics: the first has Mary deliver the message that Jesus’s body is missing, and the second has the disciples confirm it. Verses 1-2, in fact, are a very brief equivalent to the Synoptic “empty tomb” accounts in which Mary goes to the tomb accompanied by certain other women; this is clear because she speaks in the first person plural: “…we don’t know where they have laid him!” These two verses cannot be a later addition based on the Synoptics since the narrative in verses 3-18 stems from and depends on 1-2, and is incomplete without those two verses as a preamble.

The third section (verses 11-18) repeats in miniature the same inclusio or A-B-A symmetry of the whole passage. The first part of the third section (verses 11-13) begins with Mary alone in her “home” position in front of the empty tomb, looking into it, in a parallel to verse 1. Then she apparently goes “away from home” into the tomb (a verb is missing, as will be discussed below), just as in verses 2 and 18 she goes to the disciples. There in the tomb she sees two angels, equivalent in number to the two disciples, and delivers to them the same message that that she delivered to the two disciples in verse 2, in very nearly identical wording. Thus the narrative of this first part is close to that of the first part of the overall text (verses 1-2).

The beginning of the second part (verses 14-17) is signalled by a typical Greek transitional summary phrase, “Having said all this,” and also by her act of turning around, an action that was traditionally used in narratives to signify a new section; after this the text introduces Jesus. She delivers to him the same anguished message about the missing body, but in a new wording. Jesus identifies himself to her, and she runs from within the tomb (in a phrase preserved by a few manuscripts, including the Codex Sinaiticus) to her “home” position in front of the tomb, to the home of her heart, Jesus, just as in the first major section she had run home to the two disciples and they had run to the tomb. But where the disciples found only an empty tomb she finds and embraces Jesus. Thus the second part of this third section has narrative parallels to the second section about the two disciples.

The third and final part of this third section (verse 18) has Mary again go home to deliver a message to the disciples, just as she and the disciples went home again at the end of the first two sections – however, this time it is not with mystified concern over an empty tomb and a missing body, but that she has seen their master (and embraced him, though she does not mention this)!

This structural integrity is also confirmed by the use of “Mary!” in all three sections. In the Peshitta and the Codex Syriac Sinaiticus, two very early Aramaic New Testament versions, Mary refers to Jesus as mary, which means “master/lord” in Aramaic, and which is of course a homonym with her name. This pun is clear in the Aramaic versions (but not in the Greek), and it could well have been part of the actual original conversation between Mary and Jesus, since of course both of them spoke Aramaic. The pun was, either on Jesus’s part or by the intention of the gospel’s author, meant to imply Jesus’s prayer in 17:22-23 “that they may all be one”.

Specifically she refers to him as mary in the message that concludes the first section (verse 2b) and that concludes its parallel, the first part of the third section (verse 13b), that the tomb is empty and the body missing, and again in the message at the conclusion of the third section (verse 18), that she has seen Jesus alive. In the second and third sections, another example of A-B-A symmetry has her refer to Jesus as mary (verse 13b), then has Jesus call her “Mary” (verse 16a), and then has her again refer to Jesus as mary (verse 18).

Given all of this intricate inclusio structuring, it is hard to conclude as others do that certain verses have a separate history and were clumsily stitched together into chapter 20.

A problem remains, which is that verse 11 opens rather inexplicably with Mary back at the tomb and no reference to her returning there. It may be that the three sections were narrated at different times by Lazarus to the amanuensis, John the Presbyter, and that therefore the narrative gap was an oversight as the latter assembled these sections and wove them together into a narrative whole. Another possibility is that the author left it for the reader to assume that Mary returned to the tomb with the two disciples. A third possibility is that there is a lacuna in the text; as discussed in the Introduction, the author left the gospel still in a draft, and the redactor (probably Polycarp of Smyrna) may have neglected it during his work of refining prior to publication. I personally lean toward the second option, the reason being that the author intended to keep the focus in the second section strictly on the two disciples, and so not mentioning Mary’s return to the tomb is deliberate.

Much of the foregoing will be explained and expanded upon in the verse-by-verse commentaries that follow [ìn the book].

The Mary in the Talpiot Tomb

This blog discusses the many-layered controversy over an approximately first-century tomb discovered in Jerusalem that may contain the ossuary (bone reliquary) of Jesus and other ossuaries with his closest relatives. It comes from my commentaries to the Gospel of John, appended to my restoration of its original text. The gospel as generally known today, suffered a hatchet job by early Christian leaders to conform it to their dogma that turned Jesus into a Roman-style godling. The forthcoming book will include a fresh translation of the gospel from the original Greek. This is a work in progress; feedback is most welcome, and people are encouraged to get the book when it comes available, by the end of this year.

The famous Talpiot tomb includes ten ossuaries, six inscribed with names bearing a curious similarity to Jesus and his immediate relations: Jesus son of Joseph, Mary, Joseph, Matthew, Judah son of Jesus, and one more. Debate rages whether this is just coincidence or possibly in fact Jesus and part of his family. The most significant weakness with the latter proposition is that there is no known relative of Jesus named Matthew (except, I would add, the Matthew who was a son of Hilphai [Alphæus], the latter being the brother of Jesus’s father Joseph), and there is no reference to a son of Jesus named Judah (Judas).

The other inscribed ossuary is the focus of the greatest amount of debate. Making it difficult to decipher, the words are run together without any space between them. Some experts see “Mariamenou Mara”, others “Mariamenou η Mara”, others “Mariamenou | Mara” (a “stroke” between the two words), and yet others “Mariam ή και Mara” or “Mariame και Mara”. The scholars who see the “stroke” or the η say this represents ή και, which was the equivalent to the modern English “aka” or “also known as”. The και (literally “and”) in the final reading is also taken to signify the same thing, “aka”.

The name “Maramenou” is the genitive (possessive) version of the the quite unusual name “Maramenon”, which is a Greek intimate diminuitive of the Hebrew-Aramaic name “Mariam”. Thus the inscription would mean “Of” or “Belonging to Mariamenon, also known as Mara”.

The two main problems with the “Mariamenou” readings are that there is no cause to suggest that a primarily Aramaic-speaking family would refer to Mary by a very rare Greek diminuitive form of her name, and the Mary associated with Jesus is never called by this diminuitive in any of the early texts. A few works do refer to Mary as Mariamme (the noncanonical Gospel of Mary and the Pistis Sophia do, as does Celsus, a second-century pagan critic of the Christians). Hippolytus in his Refutation of All Heresies (written between 228 and 233) interchangeably calls her Mariamme and Mariamne, and the Gospel of Philip (manuscript from the late fourth century but probably originally written between 150 and 300 C.E.) refers to Mary as Mariamne. But none of these texts was composed earlier than a century after Jesus and Mary were alive. Nor are the names Mariamme and Mariamne exactly Maramenon. All three are Hellenized variations on the Hebrew-Aramaic name, coming from later Hellenic writers. The most we can definitively say is that these texts increase the number of variations of names by which Mary was known to later generations.

There is also much controversy around the last word, “Mara”. Some experts deem it the feminine equivalent to the Aramaic word for “lord” or “master”, sometimes written as ܡܳܪܝ (mary) and sometimes as ܡܪܐ (mara), such that this inscription would say something like “Belonging to Mariamenon the lordess/masteress”. However, the Aramaic word ܡܳܪܝ (mary) or ܡܪܐ (mara) is masculine; the feminine version of the word is ܡܪܬܐ (martha), sometimes in the late Second Temple period shortened to ܡܪܐ (mara), but by no means can we definitively conclude that this is “lordess” or “masteress” in Aramaic. In chapter 20 of the Gospel of John in the Peshitta, the ancient Aramaic version of the New Testament, Mary calls Jesus her mary three times (and, I hypothesize, a fourth time at 20:6), using this Aramaic title, and of course Jesus famously addresses her as Mary (a homonym in Aramaic, coming from a root meaning “bitter”). If the Talpiot ossuary could prove that Mary also was known as a mary, that would add further dimension to 20:16. Mary and Jesus would each be addressing each other as a mary, with her name as a third double entendre!

But an unjaundiced look at the Talpiot inscription does not readily give us that possibility. Some scholars read the final word, “Mara”, as this Aramaic term written with Greek letters. However such a reading requires us to accept an inscription that blithely mixes Greek and Aramaic. Since “Mara” was a common enough name, and this is after all an ossuary and the custom was to inscribe names on ossuaries, the most likely conclusion is that “Mara” was a name.

Some scholars point to the Gospel of Philip in support of calling Mary a mary. This noncanonical work refers to her as Mariamne, and calls her the κοινωνος of Jesus (his companion, consort, coworker, with an implied erotic connection as well). This is somewhat similar in meaning to, but not quite the same as calling her a mary, a lord/master. A κοινωνος takes a secondary role as an assistant (like Wisdom in Proverbs 8:30), while a mary takes a leadership role. Some scholars dismiss this gospel out of hand as pure fiction (pointing out, for instance, that it refers to Mary as the sister of Philip the disciple, which has no other foundation in early texts, and certainly runs counter to my thesis that she was a daughter of Simon the Leper), and others, including Tabor, suggest that it might record surviving oral traditions regarding Mary. I agree with that latter assessment: I find that this gospel contains valuable information not so much as regards the details of the life of “the historical Jesus”, but as regards how his nature and message was understood and interpreted in the earliest decades after him.

After studying the available photographs of the inscription with considerable care my reading is “Mariame και Mara”, “Mary and Mara”. I think two women’s bones are in the ossuary (something that was commonly done), and like Claude Cohen-Matlofsky I see another hand as having scratched in “and Mara” later. It is far likelier that “Mara” is a common name than a very uncommon feminine form of the word for a very uncommon designation, “lord” or “master”, and it is far likelier that the entire inscription, which is in Greek letters, includes Greek versions of certain names, and not a mix of a Greek name and conjunction with an Aramaic title. Therefore I think “Mara” might be an abbreviated form of “Martha”, as Richard Bauckham suggests. And, yes, the “Mary and Martha” that results might refer to the sisters from Bethany, and the whole group might be Jesus and relatives (notwithstanding the problems with the “Matthew” and “Judah”), but this is several steps more than I wish to take into the land of conjecture.

Mary and her Mary

Following is a heavily revised section of my commentaries on John 20:16, in reference to what Mary and Jesus call each other at the resurrection. This is part of my ongoing project of establishing the original text of the Gospel of John (before later religious authorities edited it to bring it into line with their Jesus-as-Roman-godling dogma), and translating it from the Greek with commentaries.

The Aramaic word in this passage of the Peshitta for “lord” or “master” is ܡܪܝܐ, which is pronounced mary. Her name, “Mary”, is either ܡܪܝܡ (Maryam) or, more likely on the lips of her husband, in its familiar form, ܡܰܪܺܝܰܐ (Marya) – this name, though from a different root, is spelled and pronounced identically to mary, the word for “lord” or “master”; only the vowel markings differ. Therefore, if this was what Mary said, then these verses contain a kind of sacred pun: she is looking for her mary, her master, and he calls her his Mary. Very possibly, in the original verse 16, or in the recollection of Lazarus of what his mother later told him of this event, Jesus said “Mary!”, ܡܰܪܺܝܰܐ (marya), and Mary replied with not ܪܒܢ (raban), but “Mary!”, ܡܪܝܐ (mary).

This pun, like others in this gospel, is of course not to be comical, as are puns in the modern Western civilization – though the author of the gospel no doubt intended the “Mary!” “Mary!” exchange 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 would primarily be 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 as a couple, as “one flesh”, as each a κοινωνος (companion, partner, or consort) to the other, to cite the term the Gospel of Philip uses in reference to them.

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 Greek-speaking amanuensis (probably John the Presbyter) was at all familiar with Aramaic; probably not, since his Hebrew was so weak that 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 carried them 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 perhaps only those with foreigners, such as Pontius Pilate. It is absolutely inconceivable that Mary and the disciples would have interjected Greek into their Aramaic, calling Jesus κυριη; that foreign word would have been uncomfortable on their lips. There can be no question but that they called Jesus either ܪܒܘܠܝ (rab’uwliy, “rabbi”) or ܠܒ݂ܰܥܠܶܟ݂ܝ (ba’al, “lord” or “master”) or ܡܪܝܐ, mary. The first was not yet common as a term of respect for religious leaders; thus, the possibility that Mary said mary is very strong, not only by the force of the pun it would present in this scene, but in that similar punning is frequently encountered in the gospel, including this very scene, with isha/isha.

What is more, given the complex inclusio of this entire conversation with that in 1:38-42, this strong possibility raises the question whether the word in 1:41 was originally mary as well, to preserve the several parallels. Indeed, μεσσιας is simply a Greek transliteration of the Aramaic ܡܫܝܚܐ (meshiha), which is in its spelling and pronunciation not far from ܡܪܝܐ, and quite conceivably the redactor could have been reminded of this near-homonym and near-synonym when he was deciding what to substitute for the latter. Strengthening this possibility is the fact that, out of the entire New Testament, the transliteration μεσσιας is found only here and at 4:25,29, where Jesus first meets Mary. It seems extremely likely therefore, that here, 4:25,29, and at 20:16 (and perhaps verses 2, 13, and 18) the original text had mary.

Again, as with isha/isha, this sacred pun would be to emphasize how Jesus and Mary, as portrayed in this gospel (as in the Gospel of Philip), were each the other’s κοινωνος (companion, partner, or consort). And again, this may have simply been too incomprehensible or 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, who would have quickly changed mary (“lord”) for rabbouni, and even incorrectly adding that this is a word in Hebrew.

Supporting this possible mary/Mary reading is the fact that, as James Daniel Tabor has documented, the Talpiot tomb includes one ossuary marked “Marya”, and another marked “Maramenon he [known as] Mara”, two affectionate diminutives of the name Mariam (Mary). The organic material in the latter ossuary bears no mitochondrial DNA relation on the mothers’ side to the material in the ossuary marked “Yeshuah bar Yehosef” (Jesus son of Joseph), raising the strong likelihood that these are the remains of the one Mary significant in Jesus’s life who wasn’t blood-related to him: Mary Magdalene. (The first ossuary, Tabor concludes, contains the remains of Mary the mother of Jesus.) Add to that the fact that the noncanonical Acts of Philip refers to her as Mariamne (a slightly different Greek spelling of “Maramenon”), suggesting an oral remembrance of her being called that during her life. Add to that, as Wayne Johnson points out, the fact that the word mari (“husband” in French) and the English word “marry” are etymologically rooted in this woman’s name; etymology, i.e., linguistic archæology, often reveals facts that have otherwise been lost to time.