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Biblical Archaeology Review 49:3, Fall 2023

Epistles: What’s in a Name?: Miriam

Biblical Archaeology Review

Miriam (Mary)


mr(y) = “beloved” | yām = “sea”

The name Miryām, rendered in English as Miriam and Mary, was rare among Jewish women during most of biblical history, and only Aaron and Moses’s sister bears that name in the Hebrew Bible (Exodus 15:20). It became exceedingly popular in the Roman period, and the New Testament introduces several women named Mary, including Jesus’s mother, through whom it became one of the most common names for Christian women. Yet the origins and meaning of the name Miryam remain uncertain.

The biblical Hebrew name likely combines the Egyptian verb mrj (to love) with the Semitic theophoric element yām (sea), possibly referencing the Cannanite sea god, Yamm. The particular verbal forms “beloved” (passive participle) and “loving” (active participle, albeit both without the feminine ending, t ) produce the meanings “Beloved of Yamm” and “Lover of Yamm.” But it is also conceivable that the name Miryam comes solely from an Egyptian noun of agent mr “the one who loves”, reformulated into Northwest Semitic. A different etymology links the name to the identically spelled phrase “their rebellion” (miryām) found in Nehemiah 9:17. In the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) and the New Testament, the name is spelled Μαρɩάμ and Μαρία.

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