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Another Look At The 'Mariamenou Mara' Inscription

(Talpiot Tomb)

Disclaimer: I'm not a lingist much less a palaeographer or epigrapher. However, over the years I actively practiced law there were occasions where handwriting experts were brought into my cases. Deposing perhaps a half-dozen of these experts taught me one core principal they employ--study the flow of the hand in creating each letter. Handwriting experts pay close attention to the sequence and shaping of the strokes used to create each letter.

Focus upon last letter of word interpreted as 'Mara' (Μαρα)
The presence of the word "Mara" in a Greek inscription for a person's name struck me as a bit off. It's very close to the well known Latin word "Mare" for sea. The inscription is enclosed is a decorative figure that might be construed as a partially draw fish (ichthys), which might lead one to conclude the intention of the inscription was something to the effect of "Mary of the Sea". However, that interpretation requires the mixing of a Latin word written with Greek letters into the phrase, thus, making it problematic.

Prof. Tabor and Simcha Jacobovici argued in The Jesus Discovery that "Mar" is an Aramaic title for "Master", with "Mara" being the feminine version. ibid at pages 115-116. They use evidence from other Jerusalem tombs and the New Testament to support the argument. Further under this argument, Mara is a title of royalty that roughly equates with Magdalene. I too argued in Herodian Messiah that "Magdalene" was a title and not a reference to the Galilean town of Magdala but, rather, to the Aramaic word for tower. Under that interpretation, Mary's appellation is a title meaning towering one or great and could be construed as a royal appellation.

Although I find the conclusion of Dr. Tabor sound, it still contains the mixing of a Greek word with an Aramaic (unless I am missing a point in the argument). Mariamne is a Greek rendering of the Hebrew Miriam or Miryam. Thus, I studied the "Mara" portion of the inscription closely to see if any potential alternative reading of the letters is possible. The best photo I could find of the inscription online was in the statistical report of Prof. Andrey Feuerverger. Below is a screen shot of the entire inscription.

We are concerned principally with the last four letter. Here is an enlargement of this portion of the inscription.

The second and fourth letters were interpreted as both being lower case alpha. Just a casual glance informs one that these two letter look different. Two more lower case alpha's appear in the Mariamenou portion of the inscription. With an inscription of just two words, one must assume that all letters were inscribed with the same hand. Thus, the forming of a lower case alpha should be rather consistent throughout the entire inscription. Below are all four lower case alpha's placed side by side.

The first two alpha's are rather consistent. Each was created with two strokes. The first stroke starts in the upper right-hand quadrant, moves in a straight line diagonally to the lower left-hand corner then loops up to the left before a separate cross stroke is made diagonally left to right. The third alpha substantially follows this pattern with the exception that the first right to left diagonal downward stroke is somewhat curved as opposed to the straight line that appears in the first two alpha's. If the experts concluded this letter is an alpha, I don't see enough variation to attempt to argue the point. The fourth letter, however, is problematic. It starts with diagonal right to left downward stroke that is close to a straight line as in first two alpha's of the inscription. Then a major deviation occurs. Once reaching the lower left-hand quadrant, the figure loops up to the right. Each of the first three alpha's swing up to the left after reaching the lower left-hand quadrant. The fourth letter does the reverse. Also, the loop swings all the way back up to the starting point where the stroke started from. This does not occur in any of the other three alpha's. Here is an enlarged look.

One question in my mind is whether the diagonal left to right mark above and to the right of the main body of the letter is part of the letter or the decorative flourish? To my eyes that mark is part of the decorative flourish and could be there to form the tail of an ichthys. Let's look at the letter assuming the left to right diagonal line is part of the decorative flourish.

That letter is a lower case delta in my view if one disregards the upper diagonal left to right line as a flourish. In reaching this conclusion I am relying on the standard method for creating a modern Greek delta and perhaps that reliance is misplaced. But without another delta within the inscription to use as a guide, I thought it pertinent. Below are a modern alpha and delta with indications of the standard method for creating each.


The delta is created with one stroke starting in the middle-right quadrant then curves downward to the bottom left-hand quadrant where it then curves up to the right. Also notice that the upward sweep carries above and beyond the starting point. This is the same pattern I see with the last letter in the "Mara" inscription. See below video for further explanation of the theory. If the last letter is delta then the word becomes "Mard". Honestly, I don't know whether that reading of the inscription helps or hurts the argument that the inscription is Mary Magdalene. Could "Mard" be an abbreviation of the Aramaic Magdala? I don't know the answer to that question.


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