Diving into the names of Joseph and Mary

“The Holy Family,” painted wood relief c. 1510s, Kempten, Bavaria

“What’s in a name?” Juliet asks in Shakespeare’s tragedy, “that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Often misinterpreted to suggest that words are empty of content, Shakespeare’s line does the exact opposite: it affirms that a reality exists behind words and, indeed, gives rise to them.

In fact, even personal names may reveal surprisingly important things about their owners. Much has been written about the greatest example of this claim, the name of Jesus, which means “God saves.”

There are more examples. Among these, two are quite relevant for discussion this year, declared by Pope Francis as the Year of St. Joseph and the Year of the Family. Also, being the 500th anniversary of Christianity in the Philippines, it’s worthwhile recalling that the Virgin Mary is the Patroness of the Philippine Church, as St. Joseph the Patron of the Universal Church.

The name of Joseph

Like the name of the Son he raised, the etymology of Joseph’s name is rather straightforward. I confirmed this recently while reading the Old Testament in its original Hebrew. Upon reaching the Genesis account of the flood as it was already subsiding, I met the verb וַיֹּסֶף (pronounced from right to left, “vayosef”). Already one hears Joseph’s name.

The general meaning of the verb is “he added/augmented,” the meaning usually associated with Joseph’s name and reflects his position in the Christian life. It suggests that if we “lack” some grace in our lives, we just have to “go to Joseph,” and being Jesus’s earthly father, he will “augment” our prayers before his Son by interceding for us.

In the Genesis verses I referred to (Gen. 8:10-12), however, וַיֹּסֶף was used with שַׁלַּח (from right to left, “shallakh”), translated as “to send away/release.” The literal rendition of the phrase would then go: “(Noah) added to release (the dove).” This wouldn’t make sense until one realizes that Noah had already sent a dove previously. One then sees that what the phrase is really saying is, “Noah did (it) again, (that is) to release the dove.”

The specific use “vayosef” here (i.e., “do again”) extends the meaning of Joseph’s name and introduces us to a deeper understanding of St. Joseph’s role in our lives. It is that he just doesn’t “add” to what we already have; he would do it again and again, if we have but the faith and patience to go to his intercession each time we need anything.

The name of Mary

In contrast to Joseph’s, the etymology of Mary’s name is shrouded in mystery. Far from being a settled issue, after centuries of scholarship, what’s considered as the best interpretation of Mary’s name is still preceded with a disclaimer like “probably it is safer to adhere to…” Strange but true, considering that the name in question is that of arguably the most famous woman who has ever lived.

Many of those who are familiar with the Bible may have learned that Mary’s name has a similar derivation as that of Moses’s sister, “Miryam.” It is tempting to think so because the Hebrew form of “Mary” is מִרְיָם‎ (pronounced from right to left, “Miryam”). Moreover, in the same way as Moses, as “lawgiver,” is seen as a figure of Christ, Miryam could be seen as a figure of Mary.

It is worth noting that scholars believe Moses’s sister name to be of Egyptian derivation. This is partly because of her brothers’ names: “Aaron” has no Hebrew explanation and “Moses” was christened by an Egyptian princess. That all three were born in Egypt strengthens this possibility. In this case, “Miryam” would have come from the Egyptian word, “meri/meryt” that means “cherished, beloved.” Admittedly, the attribute is appropriate for an only daughter, which both Moses’s sister and Mary were.

Yet it is precisely the name’s Egyptian origin that raises a difficult question in the case of the Virgin Mary’s name. Would Mary’s parents, Anna and Joachim, faithful Jews, have given their only daughter a name that was only meaningful to Egyptians? Perhaps not. The conclusion, thus, is that in all probability the Blessed Virgin’s name is not an Egyptian derivative but a Hebrew one.

Scholars believe that this particular “Miryam” came possibly from two Hebrew verbs: מַרַה (pronounced from right to left, “marah”) and מַרַא  (pronounced from right to left, “mara”).

The first means “to be rebellious,” while the other one means “to be well-fed.” Scholars agree that it was unlikely for a daughter’s name to have any reference to rebelliousness, and more likely to being well-nourished or healthy which, in ancient culture was equated to beauty and perfection. Following this interpretation, Mary’s name means “the beautiful / perfect one.”

A last comment, referring to one of Mary’s famous titles, “Stella Maris.” It’s Latin for “Star of the Sea,” the name of many schools around the world, and the title of a favorite Filipino Marian hymn by Manoling Francisco, S.J. Ironically, it’s the result of an error in explaining Mary’s name. This title is traceable to St. Jerome.

He translated into Latin one of the eventually rejected Hebrew derivations of Mary’s name מַריָם (pronounced from right to left “mar yam”), meaning “drop of the sea,” and wrote “stilla maris.”

But eventually “stilla” became “stella” because less-educated Latin speakers switched their “-i’s” to “-e’s.”  Thus, an interpretation discarded due to its hint of Mary’s insignificance (“drop of the sea”) gave rise instead to an enduring favorite title, “Star of the Sea,” by sheer mispronunciation.

It is interesting to note how the disagreements on the meaning of Mary’s name and the errors made along the way have only brought out different nuances of who she is. She is “cherished and beloved” – by God and by the faithful – and “the beautiful and perfect one” – to God and to the faithful. Also, she is an assurance of salvation amidst the storms of this rough sea called Life.

What’s in a name? Quite a lot, as we’ve seen.

Robert Z. Cortes is assistant professor of Communication Ethics in the University of Asia and the Pacific. He has a PhD in Social Communications from the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, Italy, and is completing a Certificate in Ancient Philology in The Polis Institute of Ancient Languages and the Humanities in Jerusalem, Israel.

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