A couple weeks ago while preparing for the webinar deep dive into Mosiah 3:8, the verse ends with this declaration of Christ: “…and his mother shall be called Mary.” What was surprising to me was learning that her name means rebellious. Why on earth would her name have that meaning and why was it such a popular name among the Jews?
As I prepared for the webinar I wanted to understand each phrase in the verse so when I encountered this phrase, I wanted to know the meaning of the name Mary. I started with a filtered search in the New Testament. The name appears 46 times in the books shown here:
I went to the first result and clicked the links button and then the Blue Letter Bible link, one of my most used resources for understanding the Hebrew and Greek meaning of words.
On that site I clicked the Strong’s button at the top to reveal the Strong’s Concordance references, then G3137 next to Mary to see the meaning of the name.
Here I learned that Mary in Greek is actually Maria and is of Hebrew Origin.
I control-clicked the Hebrew origin link to H4813 to open it in a new browser tab and saw that Mary/Maria, actually derives from Miriam, the sister of Moses.
I went back to the G3137 page on Mary/Maria, and discovered some interesting things. First, in the New Testament, there are 6 women named Mary. For as few women as get mentioned in scripture, this is inconceivably high, and reminded me of something I’ll share in a moment.
Second, I was very surprised to discover that the name means obstinacy and rebelliousness (coming from the Hebrew word for Miriam).
Here is Miriam’s meaning in Hebrew:
I then clicked the H4805 reference which Miriam’s name derives from and found this word, Meri:
Which word means bitterness or rebellion.
I clicked to go to the root word H4784 and finally discovered the root word.
I was a little surprised to see that this word gets translated in the Old Testament into the following words:
Why in the word would Miriam and Mary be named something so negative? It didn’t make sense to me.
Above I mentioned that when I saw the number of women with the name Mary, it reminded me of something. That something was a rumor in my mind. I seemed to have a memory of someone stating that lots of Jews named their daughters Mary because there was a tradition that a woman named Mary would give birth to the Messiah. I have no idea where I heard that but I thought this was a fine time to turn to a search engine to try and find an answer. (If you know of this tradition or something like it, please post a comment below.)
I did several searches on DuckDuckGo (not that other search engine that must not be named…), and I found a couple very interesting things.
First, I found this interesting paper in the Journal of Jewish Studies, volume 40 from 1989, pages 186-200, titled, “Notes on the Distribution of Women’s Names in Palestine in the Second Temple and Mishnaic Period.”
This paper studied the representation of names in the period of 330 BC to 200 AD, from available sources such as the writings of Josephus, the New Testament, Rabbinic literature, various papyri, and other sources.
The author acknowledges the risks of drawing conclusions from the study because only 247 women could be identified by name, and of that number, there were only 68 unique names.
Of that total figure, there were only 145 Hebrew origin names, of which there were only 11 unique names. Removing the lowest 9 names leaves 2 names representing 119 unique women. In other words, of all the names of women in that period of time, 2 names represented 48% of the population (119 / 247). Of course you know one of them which is Mariamme/Maria/Mary/Miriam. The other is Salome, a name that appears only twice in the New Testament, and it’s longer version Salomezion.
The distribution of the names Salome (61 instances) and Mary (58 instances) is roughly equal in that time period so both were extremely popular and each account for nearly 25% of the women you might meet according to this paper.
The author of this paper attributes the popularity of the names to the people naming their children after the Hasmonean Queen Salomezion Alexandra, and Mariamne the wife of Herod and identified as “beloved” to the people, by the paper’s author.
I’m not very familiar with the history of this age so I looked up some basic information on it. I read (ok, skimmed) several articles a bit till my eyes glazed over from so many names and dates. Here’s a really brief summary:
The Hasmonean period was from 140 BC to 37 BC. It was named after Hasmon, I think an ancestor of the Maccabee family who were leading revolts against the Greeks and won independence for Israel for a time. Eventually the Jews were overthrown and the ruling family deposed. One of their descendants though was Mariamne (a Hasmonean princess) who Herod the Great, the Judean king (73 BC – 4 BC) took to wife. Herod later had her put to death, one source stating for adultery, and another that Herod’s sister Salome poisoned his mind against her until he had her murdered. When Herod the Great died, his territory was split into 3 separate regions for his 3 sons to govern. Herod Antipas was the ruler over Palestine when Christ was born.
It seems unlikely that Miriamne (born in 57 BC, married to Herod in 37 BC, killed in 29 BC) was the cause of so many women being named after her, and more likely to me that it’s tied back to Miriam the sister of Moses, for the following reason.
Miriam was born into slavery with the other Hebrews in Egypt. We have very little information we on her in the Old Testament, but Jewish writings give us some additional indication about her history.
From this article about Miriam on the Jewish site Chabad.org, I learned that in the Talmud, there is a tradition that Miriam’s mother was one of the midwives and Miriam started helping her mother when she was 5 years old.
We know in Exodus 15:20 that Miriam was a prophetess, but the Talmud records that at a very young age she displayed this gift by announcing to her mother that she would give birth to a son that would free the Israelites from bondage (ie. Moses). The article shares some other amazing stories, but being that this is oral tradition and history passed down and then recorded in the 3rd to 6th century AD, I don’t know how much stock to put in some of the miraculous stories where there could have been embellishment of a story for centuries to make it better as the tellings went on. Who knows, but feel free to read the article for some cool stories that might be true!
Now imagine for a moment that you are living in these conditions and a daughter is born to you in slavery. You are bitter and oppressed and desire to rebel. Do those words ring a bell? They should because they are the meanings of the name Miriam and a perfectly valid reason for parents to give their child such a name. Then I started thinking why so many Mary’s if that was the meaning centuries after freedom came to Israel?
I think it’s because Miriam was one of the strongest women in Israelite history. She came out of bitter oppression, supported her brother Moses, and was herself a prophetess. Yes, she did have that incident of criticizing the Lord’s prophet Moses and got a temporary bout of leprosy, which I’m sure made a lasting impression upon her not to make that mistake again, but still she was a strong and faithful woman.
For this reason I think many women in the Israelite lineage named their children Miriam, or Mary.
And now you know, the rest of the story… :) But if you have additional information on this (like that rumor in the back of my mind that there was a tradition a “Mary” would give birth to the Messiah) or any corrections for me, please share a comment below.
P.S. You may also be interested to know that the name Salome means “peaceful.”
(Featured image by Christos Georghiou @ 123rf.com)
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