The Enigma of the Signa: Since when does a Scratch become a formula?

Written by Michael Moore

February 26, 2017

The Enigma of the Signa: How does a Scratch become a formula?

Sometimes fancy terms have to be investigated before getting bowled over by them.

It doesn’t take an experienced epigrapher to see the problems in the original reading and in the film’s reading of the inscription of its key, sine qua non, “Ringo”, ossuary as MARIAMENOU (H) MARA. The erroneous deductions can be observed by any student of Greek 101, first year Greek. Very basic rules in Greek grammar have been broken here.

A signum is a fancy word for an added second personal name, like a middle name or alias. According to the experts (Schwabe and Lifshitz, Beth Shearim II, p. 64), if it is introduced by the formula H KAI or O KAI “who is also called” then the two personal names are typically foreign to one another, Jewish to Greek, Greek to Jewish, English to French or vice versa. (Schwabe also quotes SAULOS (DE) O KAI PAULOS: “Saul who is also called Paul” from Acts 13:9).

There are several immediate problems, however, in applying the above profile or definition of this term to the inscription of CJO (Rahmani) ossuary 701:

Problem 1: Mariamne and Mara are both Jewish names. This doesn’t fit the profile for the suggested H KAI + signum formula in use here.

Problem 2: The two names must be in the same grammatical (especially inflectional case) form but are not. This doesn’t fit the profile on a very basic level. (i.e., names in apposition to one another cannot be a mixture of genitive and nominative forms, as has been proposed for this inscription.)

Problem 3: If MARA is taken to be translated by the title “Master” (so Tabor and Pellegrino), then it is not a personal name. It really doesn’t fit the profile for signa at all.

Problem 4: In Greek inscriptions of the Second Temple Period, no inadvertent scratch (and there are 47 in this area in and around the inscription), stroke or “clear diacritical mark” is ever substituted for a letter, a word or a phrase (including H or H KAI). This is basic to this time and place.

Add to this the all too numerous other problems incorporated “within the space of two words”, already outlined in the preceding blogs, we really need to look for a better alternative for the transcription. According to normal methodology, the reading to be preferred is the one that accounts for the greatest amount of elements with the least number of difficulties. For example, the transcription “MARIAMH KAI MARA” “Mariame and Mara”, proposed recently has no such problems. (The only problem is of a different nature: it doesn’t fit the Jesus Tomb story). Ringo or not: it sometimes just takes common sense.

It doesn’t take an epigrapher like myself to see the inherent problems here. Sadly, the errors are basic enough that any one who has had even a very basic education in Greek, and has done their homework, should have been able to avoid these pitfalls.

It is unfortunate that such sloppy homework by the film’s advisers has led to such a waste of time for some and needless aggravation or grief for others.

A more detailed treatment of these points will soon be available.

Stephen Pfann

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