Mary 101 – What does her name mean?

PROFESSOR:  Welcome class! Now, let us begin today’s lesson. Its the holidays, so I thought it would be fitting to explore some ideas of some history scholars. And as always, I want an open and honest discussion. Don’t hold back. Now, does anyone know what ‘Mary’ means?

STUDENT:  Mary? She’s the mother of God.

PROFESSOR:  Well, this is a secular class so, unfortunately, we cannot explore spiritual discussions.  I want to talk about the technical name of ‘Mary’.

STUDENT:  Oh, but does it really matter, prof?

PROFESSOR:  Well, let’s explore, shall we?

STUDENT:  Okay, but-

PROFESSOR:  Now, most of us have heard that the mother of a man named Jesus Christ was named ‘Mary’ according to history scholars.

STUDENT:  Right.  That’s from the New Testament, in the four gospels:  Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

PROFESSOR:  Please refrain from referencing the bible; we will just use the phrase ‘history scholars’ in this lesson.     


PROFESSOR:  Now, some history scholars believed Mary was a Jew living in what we now call the Middle East.  She clearly did not speak English.  She would have probably spoken and understood the early forms of Hebrew and Aramaic like many Jews of that time.

STUDENT:  So what does that have to do with her name?

PROFESSOR:  Well, in Hebrew, ‘Mary’ would most likely have been Miryam

STUDENT:  I heard that somewhere.

PROFESSOR:  Yes and in Egyptian, ‘Mary’ would most likely have been Mery or Meryt. But I think her name was the Hebrew Miryam.

STUDENT:  Miryam sounds just as beautiful as ‘Mary’.

PROFESSOR:  Well, we’re not here to learn about how her name makes us feel; we’re here to learn about the technical meaning.  And the technical meaning depends on the scholar.  Some thought Miryam meant ‘bitter sea’ because it was composed of the Hebrew words ‘mar’ which meant bitter and ‘yam’ which meant sea. 1 

STUDENT:  A bitter sea? 

PROFESSOR:  Yes.  Other scholars believed it meant ‘merum’ which is a Hebrew word for ‘bitterness’2.   And others believed Miryam meant ‘marar’ which is a Hebrew phrase for ‘bitter one.’3

STUDENT:  So ‘Mary’ meant bitter or bitterness?  Makes sense.  She experienced sorrow like no other woman ever experienced.

PROFESSOR:  Again, that is a spiritual interpretation that we are not doing in this lesson.  Please, let’s stay on track.


PROFESSOR:  Now there is another interpretation of her name:  Rebellious.  Believe it or not, some scholars believed Miryam meant ‘marah’ which is a Hebrew word for ‘to be rebellious’; or ‘meri’, which means ‘rebellion.4

STUDENT:  Now that makes total sense because-

PROFESSOR:  Sorry to interrupt you again, but I wanted to give you another interpretation of her name and that is ‘beautiful lady.’  Some scholars believed that Miryam came from the Hebrew word ‘mara’ which meant ‘fat one,’ – which was probably considered to be healthy or beautiful in her time – or from ‘mari’ which meant ‘lady’ or ‘mistress’.

STUDENT:  That makes sense, too. She was the mother of God, so she had to be beautiful.

PROFESSOR:  Don’t you want to know more about her name?

STUDENT:  Not really, prof.  I don’t know about anyone else in the class, but it doesn’t really matter to me.  She’s the mother of Christ.  She’s the mother of God and she’s my mother.

PROFESSOR:  I see, but that is a spiritual interpretation that has no place in this discussion.

STUDENT:  Prof, don’t you have a mother?

PROFESSOR:  Of course.  Everyone does.

STUDENT:  And don’t you have a different name for your mother than her real name?  I bet you called her ‘mommy’ or ‘mama’ or ‘mother’ at some point in your life.

PROFESSOR:  Yes, I suppose so.

STUDENT:  And despite what you called her, she was always mother to you, right?


STUDENT:  So what does it matter what Mary’s name technically means?  She’s the mother of us of all; and all of us don’t speak English.  Some of us speak Spanish, French, Italian, Greek, and so on.  We all call her something different but she’s still our mother.

PROFESSOR:  Yes, but that is a spiritual interpretation.  Her technical name is what is most important.

STUDENT:  Is it?  May I ask you this, prof?  I saw you in church the other day, so I know you’re Christian.  Do you consider Mary to be your mother?

PROFESSOR:  On a personal level, yes.

STUDENT:  Don’t you tell her so, especially at Christmas?  Don’t you listen to her when she advises you on what to do to please her Son?  Don’t you admire her for her boldness, for agreeing to be pregnant before marriage which could have cost her her life back then?  Don’t you admire her for the high esteem that God Himself granted her?

PROFESSOR:  Well, I suppose so.

STUDENT:  So, her technical name can’t be as important as you say, prof.  It just can’t be.  You want to keep spiritual interpretation out of it which I totally understand and respect, but I feel that’s sort of impossible since Mary is only important because of her spiritual position.  She wasn’t just a teenage girl that had a baby before wedlock.  She was the mother of a spiritual being, God.  She became the mother of a spiritual church, us.  She was absorbed into heaven and enjoys a spiritual title from God as Queen of Heaven.  Everything about Mary is spiritual…or why even talk about her if it wasn’t?

PROFESSOR:  Touché.   You have taught me something today, student.  I suppose there are some things that simply cannot be secularized.

STUDENT:  Christmas might be secularized, prof, but the whole story behind Mary and the birth of Christ will always be 100% spiritual.

1: (S. Hier. opp., t. II, Parisiis, 1699, 2°, cols. 109-170, 181-246, 245-270).

2: (J. Levy, Neuhebraisches und chaldaisches Wörterbuch uber die Talmudim und Midraschim, Leipzig, 1876-89)

3: (Simonis, Onomasticum Veteris Testamenti, Halae Magdeburgicae, 1741, p. 360; Onom. Novi Test., ibid., 1762, p. 106)

4: (Gesenius, Thesaur. philol. critic. ling. hebr. et chald. Beter. Testamenti, edit. altera, Lipsiae, 1835-38, II, p. 819b).

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