This blog, by Richard Fellows, discusses historical questions concerning Paul's letters, his co-workers, Acts, and chronology.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Mariam became Maria and, with that name, was Luke’s source for the infancy narrative

The name Mary in New Testament manuscripts appears sometimes in its Semitic form, Μαριαμ, and sometimes in its Greek forms: Μαρια (nominative and dative), Μαριαν (accusative), and Μαριας (genitive). Whenever it is in the genitive case it is written as Μαριας.(1) Peter Williams explains this as a form to be used suppletively alongside the Semitic Μαριαμ in the other cases. The mentions of the name of Mary, mother of Jesus, in the earliest manuscripts are shown in the table below. The use of the Greek forms of the name in codex Bezae (D05), are also explicable, since this manuscript has an anti-Semitic bias, including in its text of Luke.(2) D switches to the Greek form of the name at Luke 1:30, presumably because a scribe did not want a Semitic Mary to have “found favor with God”.


 At Luke 2:19 and Acts 1:14 the manuscripts are evenly divided between the Greek and Semitic forms.(3) It is unlikely that scribes would change Μαριαμ to Μαρια at these verses. Having transcribed her name successfully as Μαριαμ many times, why would a scribe switch to Μαρια at these points? If, on the other hand, Luke wrote Μαρια at these two spots, then scribes might change it to Μαριαμ to make it consistent with the form of the name already used several times for Mary. Let us now consider why Luke may have chosen to write Μαρια at Acts 1:14 and Luke 2:19, and only there.


Acts 1:14 mentions Mary’s presence in Jerusalem, and John 19:27 implies that she became a resident of Jerusalem. The gospel spread to many Greek speakers in Jerusalem and beyond, and they may have known Mary as Μαρια. We should therefore not be surprised that Luke’s last mention of Mary refers to her by this later form of her name.


Luke 2:19, like Acts 1:14, refers to her as Μαρια, suggesting that Luke has the later time in view here too.


Mary remembered all these things and thought deeply about them.(4)


Therefore, it seems to me that Luke has in mind not only the earlier time of Jesus’s birth, but also the much later time when Mary recalled what she had remembered, and when she was known as Μαρια, at least to Greek-speakers such as Luke. He seems to be citing Mary as his source for his birth narrative.

Luke, like other ancient writers, often refers to the same person by different names according to context. Consider Saul-Paul, John-Mark, BarJesus-Elymas, Jason-Aristarchus, and Crispus-Sosthenes.(5) A good parallel to Μαριαμ-Μαρια in Luke-Acts, is the case of Simon-Simeon. Luke gives him his Greek name form, Simon, at Luke 4:38, 38; 5:3, 4, 5, 810, 10; 6:14; 21:31, 31; 24:34; Acts 10:5, 18, 32; 11:13, but he gives him his Semitic name form, Simeon, appropriately, at Acts 15:14.



(1)  Not only for the mother of Jesus, but also for Martha’s sister (John 11:1) and Mark’s mother (Acts 12:12).

(2)  See Jason Robert Combs, “The Polemical Origin of Luke 6:5D: Dating Codex Bezae’s Sabbath-Worker Agraphon” JSNT (2019) 162-184.

(3)  At Luke 2:19 NA28 cites Μαρια א* B D Θ 1241. 1424 sa bopt. Μαριαμ א2 A K L P W Γ Δ Ξ Ψ f1.13 33. 565.579. 700. 892. 2542 𝔐 syh bopt. While NA28 prefers Μαριαμ here, the SBL and Tyndale House versions have Μαρια. At Acts 1:14 NA28 cites Μαρια א A C D Ψ 33. 614. 1175. 1241. 1505. 1739s 𝔐. Μαριαμ 81. 323. 945. 1891.

(4)  Good News Translation. The NRSV, for example, says “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart”, but this is misleading, as the heart was considered the center of thought and feeling, rather than just the seat of emotion (BDAG).

(5)  For the identities or Aristarchus and Sosthenes, see my Tyndale Bulletin article here

See pages 263-4 of the same article for a discussion of name switching by ancient writers.

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