Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

“Miriam” (Mariam) in the Septuagint and Greek New Testament

In this article, I look at the women in the Bible, and one woman in early Jewish history, who had the name Miriam, Mariam, Maria, Mariamne, or Mary. I discuss the various spellings and what these names mean.[1] It all begins with Miriam the prophetess, first mentioned in the book of Exodus.

Miriam, who led Israel with her brothers Moses and Aaron (Mic. 6:4), is a well-known Bible figure and prophetess. She is one of two people named “Miriam” (Miryam– מרים) in the Hebrew Bible, one famous and one obscure,[2] and many Jewish women were, and are, named after her.

Miriam is consistently called Μαριάμ (Mariam) in the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew verses where her name appears (e.g., Exod. 15:20–21).[3] This may reflect the Aramaic version of Miriam’s name, Maryam.[4]

(The name Μαριάμ is undeclined in the Septuagint, the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament. This means that Miriam’s name is always rendered as Μαριάμ, without variation, regardless of the grammatical case.)[5]

In the New Testament, seven Jewish women have the name “Miriam.” This name is rendered as Μαριάμ (Mariam) and/ or Μαρία (Maria), a Roman name, in the Greek New Testament, and these two words have typically been translated into English as “Mary.” I’ve noticed, however, that there is an increasing trend among contemporary Bible scholars to call these women “Miriam.”

(As in the Septuagint, Μαριάμ is undeclined in the Greek New Testament. However, the name Μαρία is declined depending on its grammatical case.)

The Seven Miriams (Marys) in the New Testament

The three most notable Miriams in the New Testament are Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary the Magdalene, and Mary of Bethany. These three Miriams are often, but not always, called Mariam in the Greek texts of the Gospels and Acts 1:14. They are sometimes called Maria too. Furthermore, how the name appears in each verse, whether Mariam or Maria, varies in Greek editions of the New Testament which are based on different manuscript traditions.[6]

A fourth Miriam in the Gospels is Mary the mother of James (Jacob) and Joseph (or, Joses). This Miriam watched the crucifixion with many other women from Galilee (Matt. 27:55–57; Mark 15:40-41) and she saw where Jesus’s body was laid (Mark 15:47). On Easter Sunday, she was one of the women who witnessed Jesus’s empty tomb and the angel’s announcement of the resurrection (Mark 16:1; Luke 24:9–10 cf. Matt. 27:61; 28:1).

Miriam the wife of Clopas, who may have been a blood relative of Jesus’s mother, is the fifth Miriam named in the Gospels (John 19:25). Many people think the mother of James and Joseph and the wife of Clopas are the same person, but I have doubts about this conflation.[7]

Outside of the Gospels, there is Miriam the mother of John Mark. Despite the threat of deadly persecution, she held a prayer meeting in her home in Jerusalem (Acts 12:12). She may have regularly held church meetings and regularly cared for church members, as it’s to her home that Peter chose to go as soon as he was miraculously released from prison (Acts 12:1–19).[8]

The seventh Miriam in the New Testament is described by Paul as someone “who laboured very hard” for the church at Rome (Rom. 16:6).[9] Paul uses “labour” words several times for his own ministry and for the ministry of others. (See here.) I wonder who Miriam, or Mary, in Romans 16:6 was. She seems to have been prominent in ministry as she is the fourth of 28 Christians in Rome who are greeted by Paul.[10]

“Miriam” (“Mary”) is the most common woman’s name in the New Testament. It is also common in other Jewish and Christian sources dating to the first to fifth centuries.[11]

Miriam’s (Mariamne’s) Name in Josephus’s Histories

Mariamne I was a famous woman and tragic figure in Jewish history. She was a Hasmonaean princess who became Herod the Great’s ill-fated second wife. No one in the Septuagint or Greek New Testament is called “Mariamne.” In fact, “Mariamne” is a later corruption of her real name “Miriam” (Greek: Mariam).

The Jewish historian Josephus (born 37 CE) wrote about Mariamne I, especially her difficult marriage to Herod and her brutal end in 29 BCE. Even though the name Mariam is undeclined in the Septuagint and Greek New Testament, Josephus added an ending which is sometimes used in feminine nouns. Mariam became Mariamē, and sometimes Mariammē , in his writings (which he wrote in Greek). The name was further corrupted to Mariamne (with an “n”) in the Middle Ages.[12] Since then, “Mariamne” is the name typically used for Herod’s wife.

Josephus used the name Mariamē with his feminine ending for five other women named Miriam too. For example, Miriam the prophetess is Μαριάμη in Jewish Antiquities 2.9.4 (221) where she is at the Nile with her baby brother Moses, and Μαριάμην (the accusative of Μαριάμη) in Jewish Antiquities 4.4.6 (78) where she dies.

So, the real name of Mariamne I, Herod’s second wife, was “Miriam,” the same name as that of Miriam the prophetess (or the Aramaic or Greek equivalent).

What Does “Miriam” (“Mary”) Mean?

The Hebrew name Miriam or Miryam (מרים‎), the Greek translations of the name, Mariam and Maria, and the English translation “Mary” are all essentially the same name: “Miriam.” What does this name mean?

One idea, often repeated, is that Miriam’s name is derived from the Hebrew word marah (מָרָה). According to Brown, Driver, and Briggs, this verb means “be contentious, refractory, rebellious.” Others suggest Miriam’s name is similar to Naomi’s symbolic name “Mara” (מָרָא) which means “bitter.” Naomi gave herself this name in Ruth 1:20, but no one seems to have called her “Mara.” A name that means “contentious” or “bitter” doesn’t appear to be suitable for a daughter of devout Israelite parents from the tribe of Levi.[13]

The name may be derived from Egyptian rather than Hebrew. In particular, “Miriam” may be derived from the Egyptian word myr meaning “beloved,” or mr (or, mer) meaning “love.” This idea seems to be favoured by some Old Testament scholars today. Miriam’s brothers’ names, “Moses” and “Aaron,” are not derived from Hebrew, and all three siblings were born in Egypt.[14]

In the fourth century CE, Jerome proposed the meaning “drop of the sea” based on what he thought was the Hebrew etymology of “Miriam.” In Latin, “drop of the sea” is maris stilla, but a ninth-century document changed it to “star of the sea” (stella maris) and this idea, still attributed to Jerome, gained traction.

The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (older edition) provides this short summary of interpretations of Miriam’s name and includes two more ideas that I haven’t mentioned.

The rabbis understood it to mean “bitterness,” while Jerome proposed “star of the sea.”
Modern interpretations are:
(a) “plump one,” from the root מרא III;
(b) “the wished-for child,” from Arabic marām;
(c) “one who loves or is loved by Yahweh,” from Egyptian ՝mer, “love”; and
(d) simply “the beloved,” from the same Egyptian word.[15]


The name Miriam, in its various forms, continues to be a popular feminine name across the globe. We cannot be certain of its derivation or meaning. We can, however, trace the name back to Miriam the prophetess, then Mariamne (Miriam) the Hasmonean princess,[16] before being recorded in the New Testament as the name of several notable and beloved Christian women, including Miriam the mother of Jesus.


[1] Some of the information in the article comes from A. Maas, “The Name Mary” in The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912) (Source: New Advent)

[2] The other Miriam, likely a son, was the child of Mered, an Israelite from the tribe of Judah, and his Egyptian wife Bithia who was a daughter of Pharoah. This male Miriam is mentioned only once in the Bible, in 1 Chronicles 4:17–18.

[3] I did not find Miriam’s name in the Deuterocanonical or Apocryphal books of the Septuagint. (See here.) And she is not mentioned by name in the New Testament.

[4] I wonder if the Masoretes were mistaken with their vowel points of מרים and that the name was closer to “Mariam” even in the Hebrew. The Hebrew Masoretic text, on which most Old Testament translations are based, as a whole, “is perhaps not earlier than the beginning of the ninth century, [but] its Masoretic portions probably go back to the sixth or seventh century.” (Source: Jewish Encyclopedia) This is roughly a millennia later than the translation of Numbers and Deuteronomy in the Greek Septuagint which was done in the third century BC. Perhaps the translators of the Septuagint had a better understanding of the name מרים (“Miriam/ Mariam”) than the Masoretes.
The name of Miriam the prophetess occurs as both Mariam and Maria in the Latin Vulgate which was completed in AD 404 or 405: Exod. 15:20 VUL; Numb. 12:1-16 VUL; Numb. 20:1 VUL; Numb. 26:59 VUL; Deut. 24:9; 1 Chron. 6:3 VUL.

[5] Blue Letter Bible shows every occurrence of Mariam. (See here and scroll down.) “Miriam” in 1 Chronicles 4:16–17, the man’s name, is rendered in Greek as Μαρων (Marōn).

[6] For example, in Scrivener’s, Tischendorf’s, Stephanas’s and the RP Byzantine editions, Mary the mother of Jesus is usually called Maria; in other texts, she is Mariam. However, in Matthew 13:55 and in the infancy narrative in Luke 1–2, she is mostly called Mariam in all Greek texts.

[7] Furthermore, some think Miriam (Mary) the wife of Clopas was one of the two disciples who travelled from Jerusalem to Emmaus. I outline three reasons why I think this was not the case in a lengthy footnote on her identity, here.

[8] Miriam (Mary) of Jerusalem’s name is Μαρία (Maria), given in the genitive case (Μαρίας), in all the Greek texts that I looked at.

[9] Miriam (Mary) of Rome’s name in the Greek New Testament is given as Μαριάμ (Mariam) in some Greek texts and as Μαρία (in the accusative case Μαριάν) in others.

[10] An annotated list of the Romans greeted in Romans 16:3-16, plus Phoebe, is here.

[11] For example, in her 1989 investigation of Jewish names in the first–third centuries CE, Tal Ilan discovered that Salome (or Salomezion) and Mary (or Mariam) were the most common names for women living in the Holy Land. According to surviving ancient sources available at the time of the study, 47.5% of women were named either Salome (61 occurrences) or Mary (58 occurrences). Tal Ilan, “Notes on the Distribution of Women’s Names in Palestine in the Second Temple and Mishnaic Period,” Journal of Jewish Studies 40 (1989): 186–200, 191. (Academia.edu)
Both Salomezion and Mariamne were Hasmonean queens. Salomezion (Salome) Alexandra (139–67 BCE) was a regnant queen. She was the last monarch to rule Judea as an independent nation.
(I’ve written articles on Salome, the conniving sister of Herod the Great, Salome, the dancing daughter of Herodias, and Salome, the devoted disciple of Jesus.)
Also, taking into account only Christian women in Egypt, Alanna Nobbs notes that “Mary [Mariam] is overwhelmingly the most popular Biblical name attested for women in the papyri [of the 3rd to 5th centuries].”
Nobbs, “What’s in a Name? Papyrus Evidence for Christian Female Onomastic Practice in Egypt during the Period of Christianisation to the Early Byzantine Period,” Byzantium to China: Religion, History and Culture on the Silk Roads, Gunner B. Mikkelsen and Ken Parry (eds) (Leiden: Brill, 2022), 374. (Google Books)

[12] A note in the Jewish Encyclopedia explains what happened.

Josephus writes the name Μαριάμη [Mariamē], adding the inflectional ending to Μαριάμ [Mariam], the Septuagint form of the name. In some editions of Josephus, Μαριάμμη [Mariammē] stood with double “μ” [“m”]; this was dissimilated to “mn” in the Middle Ages, and the name has so remained …

[13] On the other hand, Miriam’s name may have reflected the bitter experience of the Israelites in slavery in Egypt: the Egyptians “made their lives bitter with difficult labour in brick and mortar and in all kinds of fieldwork. They ruthlessly imposed all this work on them” (Exod. 1:14). The Hebrew verb for “be bitter” in this verse (מָרַר–marar) also occurs in Naomi’s statement in Ruth 1:20.

[14] “Moses” is not a Hebrew name, but he was named by the Egyptian princess who rescued him. It has been noted that some Levites had Egyptian names. For example, as well as Moses, the names of Hophni, Hur, Merari, Mushi, and two men named Phinehas are Egyptian. (Source: TheTorah.com)

[15] J.F. Ross, “Miriam,” in The Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary, Volume 3, G.F. Buttrick (Dictionary Editor) (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1962, 1991), 402. (Internet Archive)

[16] Other women also had this name in the early Jewish period. Herod’s third wife, as well as his second, was also named Mariamē, that is, Miriam or the equivalent. Josephus mentions six different women with the name Mariamē. J.F. Ross, “Miriam,” 402.

© Margaret Mowczko 2023
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Image Credit

Portrait of Miriam by artist Edward Burne-Jones (1886) in a stained glass window in St.Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh. Photographed by Wojciech Dittwald. Cropped. CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED (Source: Wikimedia)

Explore more

My articles that mention various Herodian Women are here.
Every Female Prophet in the Bible
Did Miriam only Minister to Women?
Many Women Followed Jesus … Many!
The Virgin Mary
Who was Mary the Magdalene?
Mary and Martha of Bethany
An Annotated List of the 29 People in Romans 16:1-16
What’s in a name? Deborah: Woman of Lappidoth

1 thought on “Miriam, Maria, Mariamne, and Mary in the Bible

  1. […] The Christmas story is full of interesting characters: angels from Heaven, shepherds of the temple flocks, and astrologers from Persia. But at the centre of this cast of characters is the figure of a young woman named Mary or Miriam. God chose to bring his Messiah into the world as a human baby, and he chose Mary as the mother. […]

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