Why Two Marys in the Talpiot Jesus Tomb?
by James Tabor
Yesterday I received the following note from Andrew Sills, Associate Professor of Mathematical Sciences at Georgia Southern University. Prof. Sills has a very important contribution “The Apostles as Brothers of Jesus” in the forthcoming volume, The Tomb of Jesus and His Family? Exploring Ancient Jewish Tombs Near Jerusalem’s Walls, edited by James H. Charlesworth and Arthur Boulet.
I thought his was an astute observation, and one I had not thought of before:
In our various tabulations of ancient names from the time of Jesus based on ossuary and other inscriptions the male names far outnumber the female names as many as 8-1. One can obviously point to a heavily patriarchal society that would include a cultural disregard for the value of women. Therefore, when a woman’s name is found on an ossuary, she must have been an important women indeed. In other words, the standards for achieving an ossuary inscription must have been much more rigorous for women than for their male counterparts.
In the Talpiot tomb, we find not one female inscription, but two. Thus, two very prominent women in this family. Since we expect eight males for each female, a “typical” two-woman tomb should have sixteen males. Talpiot has many less male inscriptions, thus we might infer that the women of Talpiot were particularly important. And both Talpiot women were named Mary. Yes, of course, Mary was a common name. 21% of all Jewish women of the period were named Mary. But only 4.4% of *pairs* of women (21% times 21%) were named Mary. What percentage of pairs of Marys in the same family were important enough to rate an ossuary inscription? Impossible to say, but it sounds like a very rare event.
In the case of the family of Jesus of Nazareth, we know he was associated with two very important Marys, namely his mother and Mary Magdalene, so this seems to be very strong evidence linking Talpiot to Jesus of Nazareth, stronger than just the name frequencies alone would imply, although I do not know a way to quantify this.
A bit of background here for those not up on the names and the numbers–what we call the “onomastics”–that is, the science of analyzing the proper names of Jewish men and women in the time of Jesus as to both their etymology and frequency.
First, as Tal Ilan’s work has shown, “women are greatly underrepresented” in our ancient records, constituting only 11.2% of all named persons in our sources, which give us 2509 named men against only 317 named women.
Second, not all ossuaries of this period are inscribed. In fact, inscriptions are more the exception than the rule. For example, of the 897 ossuaries included in the Rahmani catalogue only about 227, or approximately 25% are inscribed. That means that 75% of ossuaries have no inscriptions at all.
This means that the Talpiot Jesus tomb is notable on two counts. First, it has an extraordinary high percentage of inscribed ossuaries–six out of a total of ten. And second, two of those six names are names of women. Just to take one parallel example, the “Tomb of the Shroud,” in Akeldama, that Boaz Zissu, Shimon Gibson, and I investigated in 2000. This tomb had a total of eight ossuaries with only two inscribed–one Maria, the other Salome. That two women were noted seems to speak for their prominence.
All the more so in the Talpiot tomb. I have written extensively of the “Marys” in Jesus’ life here. If you missed that post take a look, and think about it in terms of Prof. Sills’s observation.
- Special congratulations to Prof. Sills who begins a new stage of his career as a tenured professor at GSU tomorrow, August 1st! [↩]
- Tal Ilan, Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity, Mohr Siebeck, 2002, p. 3. [↩]
- L. Y. Rahmani, A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuariesin the Collections of the State of Israel, Israel Antiquities Authority, The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Jerusalem, 1994, p. 11. [↩]
- “Jerusalem—Ben Hinnom Valley,” with B.Zissu, S.Gibson, Hadashot Arkheologiyot (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 2000), Vol.111, pp. 70*-72*, Figs.138-139. [↩]