The Blessed Virgin Mary is the mother of Jesus Christ, the mother of God.
The Hebrew form of her name is miryam denoting in the Old Testament only the sister of Moses. In 1 Chronicles 4:17, the Massoretic text applies the same name to a son of Jalon, but, as the Septuagint version transcribes this name as Maron, we must infer that the orthography of the Hebrew text has been altered by the transcribers. The same version renders miryam by Marian, a form analogous to the Syriac and Aramaic word Maryam. In the New Testament the name of the Virgin Mary is always Mariam, excepting in the Vatican Codex and the Codex Bezae followed by a few critics who read Maria in Luke 2:19. Possibly the Evangelists kept the archaic form of the name for the Blessed Virgin, so as to distinguish her from the other women who bore the same name. The Vulgate renders the name by Maria, both in the Old Testament and the New; Josephus changes the name to Mariamme.
It is antecedently probable that God should have chosen for Mary a name suitable to her high dignity. What has been said about the form of the name Mary shows that for its meaning we must investigate the meaning of the Hebrew form miryam. Bardenhewer has published a most satisfactory monograph on the subject, in which he explains and discusses about seventy different meanings of the name miryam; we shall be able to give only an outline of his work. Father von Hummelauer mentions the possibility that miryam may be of Egyptian origin. Moses, Aaron, and their sister were born in Egypt; the name Aaron cannot be explained from the Hebrew; the daughter of Pharaoh imposed the name Moses on the child she had saved from the waters of the Nile; hence it is possible that their sister’s name Mary was also of Egyptian origin. This seems to become even probable if we consider the fact that the name Mary was not borne by any woman in the Old Testament excepting the sister of Moses. But the question why was not the name Mary more common in the Old Testament, if it was of Hebrew origin, is answered by another question, why was the name Mary chosen by the parents of Our Blessed Lady and by a number of others mentioned in the New Testament, if the word was Egyptian? Though the meaning of Mary as derived from the Egyptian Mery, Meryt (cherished, beloved), is most suitable for an only daughter, such a derivation is only possible, or at best barely probable.
Most interpreters derive the name Mary from the Hebrew, considering it either as a compound word or as a simple. Miryam has been regarded as composed as a noun and a pronominal suffix, or of a noun and an adjective, or again of two nouns. Gesenius was the first to consider miryam as a compound of the noun meri and the pronominal suffix am; this word actually occurs in II Esdras 9:17, meaning “their rebellion”. But such an expression is not a suitable name for a young girl. Gesenius himself abandoned this explanation, but it was adopted by some of his followers, e.g. by J. Grimm and Schanz. One of the meanings assigned to the name Mary in Martianay’s edition of Saint Jerome’s works is pikra thalassa, bitter sea. Owing to the corrupt condition in which Saint Jerome found the “Onomastica” of Philo and of Origen, which he in a way re-edited, it is hard to say whether the interpretation “bitter sea” is really due to either of these two authorities; at any rate, it is based on the assumption that the name miryam is composed of the Hebrew words mar (bitter) and yam (sea). Since in Hebrew the adjective follows its substantive, the compound of the two words ought to read yam mar; and even if the inverse order of words be admitted as possible, we have at best maryam, not miryam. Those who consider miryam as a compound word usually explain it as consisting of two nouns: mor and yam (myrrh of the sea); mari (cf. Daniel 4:16) and yam (mistress of the sea); mar (cf. Isaiah 40:15) and yam (drop of the sea). But these and all similar derivations of the name Mary are philogically inadmissible, and of little use to the theologian. This is notably true of the explanation photizousa autous, enlightening them, whether it be based on the identification of miryam with me’iram (part. Hiphil of ‘or with pronominal suffix of 3 plur.), or with mar’am (part. Hiphil of ra’ah with pron. suffix of 3 plur.), or again with mar’eya (part. Hiphil of raah with Aramaic fem. termination ya; cf. Knabenbauer, Evang. sec. Matt., pars prior, Parisiis, 1892, p. 43).
Here a word has to be added concerning the explanation stella maris, star of the sea. It is more popular than any other interpretation of the name Mary, and is dated back to Saint Jerome. But the great Doctor of the Church knew Hebrew too well to translate the first syllable of the name miryam by star; in Isaiah 40:15, he renders the word mar by stilla (drop), not stella (star). A Bamberg manuscript dating from the end of the ninth century reads stilla maris instead of stella maris. Since Varro, Quintillian, and Aulus Gelliius testify that the Latin peasantry often substituted an e for an i, reading vea for via, vella for villa, speca for spica, etc., the substitution of maris stella for maris stilla is easily explained. Neither an appeal to the Egyptian Minur-juma nor the suggestion that Saint Jerome may have regarded miryam as a contracted form of me’or yam will account for his supposed interpretation stella maris (star of the sea) instead of stilla maris (a drop of the sea).
It was Hiller who first gave a philological explanation of miryam as a simple word. The termination am is according to this writer a mere formative affix intensifying or amplifying the meaning of the noun. But practically miryam had been considered as a simple noun long before Hiller. Philo is said to have explained the word as meaning elpis (hope), deriving the word either from ra’ah (to see, to expect?) or from morash (hope); but as Philo can hardly have seriously believed in such a hazardous derivation, he probably presented Mary the sister of Moses as a mere symbol of hope without maintaining that her very name meant hope. In Rabbinic literature miryam is explained as meaning merum (bitterness); but such a meaning of the word is historically improbable, and the derivation of miryam from marar grammatically inadmissible. Other meanings assigned to miryam viewed as a simple word are: bitter one, great sorrow (from marar or marah); rebellion (from meri); healed one; fat one, well nourished one (from mara, s.v. miryam); mistress (from mari); strong one, ruling one (from marah); gracious or charming one (from ra’am which word does not have this meaning in the Old Testament); myrrh (from mor, though it does not appear how this word can be identified with miryam); exalted one (from rum).
In 1906 Zorrell advanced another explanation of the name Mary, based on its derivation from the Egyptian mer or mar, to love, and the Hebrew Divine name Yam or Yahweh. Thus explained the name denotes “one loving Yahweh” or “one beloved by Yahweh”. We have already pointed out the difficulty implied in an Egyptian origin of the name Mary. Probably it is safer to adhere to Bardenhewer’s conclusions: Mariam and Maria are the later forms of the Hebrew miryam; miryam is not a compound word consisting of two nouns, or a noun and an adjective, or a noun and a pronominal suffix, but it is a simple though derivative noun; the noun is not formed by means of a prefix (m), but by the addition of a suffix (am). Presupposing these principles, the name miryam may be derived either from marah, to be rebellious, or from mara, to be well nourished. Etymology does not decide which of these derivations is to be preferred; but it is hardly probable that the name of a young girl should be connected with the idea of rebellion, while Orientals consider the idea of being well nourished as synonymous with beauty and bodily perfection, so that they would be apt to give their daughters a name derived from mara Mary means therefore The beautiful or The perfect one.
- Anthony Maas. “The Name of Mary”. . CatholicSaints.Info. 15 December 2015. Web. 28 February 2017. <>