An “Eye for Form” (updated)

Written by Michael Moore

February 26, 2017

Although most of those interviewed can quickly see the difference between the two parts of the Mariame kai Mara inscription, it appears that there are a number of scholars, even epigraphers, who cannot see it. The ability to note or distinguish various letters is generally known as having “an eye for form.” Not everyone has it. Inability to see distinction in form is similar to color blindness, depth perception or nearsightedness. The individual often does not know that they have this challenge until someone else tells them that they are able to see something that they themselves cannot see. Fortunately, to a certain extent, an “eye for form” can be taught to those who lack it. The other forms of visual challenge mentioned above cannot.

An eye for form has long been known as an essential requirement for being an illustrator:

“Do you like to sketch and draw? Were you one of those kids who spent hours in school doodling in your notebook? Do you have an eye for form, color, and composition? Then you may have a future as an illustrator.”

It is also an essential skill which allows individuals to distinguish between various alphabets.

For example:

“The Russian alphabet with its Byzantine Greek letters is easily mastered by those who have an eye for form, while others may have some trouble. …”

JSTOR: “Hints for Teaching Russian”

In order to actually discern the difference between the beginning and the end of the Mariame kai Mara inscription, one must have an eye for form.

This is one case where it may be more important to have “an eye for form” than to have a background in epigraphy.

MARIAM H KAI MARA: An Alternative Reading?

It now seems incumbent upon me to address this suggested transcription in the body of the article since a few have raised the question. Allow me to do so by presenting several hypothetical, graphic examples. Each is generated using the letter forms of either the first or second scribe. The first example (in blue, below) is the complete transcription generated in the scribal hand of the first scribe who wrote the original MARIAMH.* The letter forms convey a more squared or angular appearance than that of the second scribal hand. The transcription would appear as follows, if the entire inscription had been written by the first scribe:


If all words of the inscription were in the standard Greek documentary script (as above) then the inscription could be read either as:

MAPIAMH KAI MAPA: “Mariame and Mara”

OR, alternatively

2) MAPIAM H KAI MAPA: “Mariam who is also Mara”

The second graphic example (in red, below), is how the transcription would appear had the second scribe (who originally wrote KAI MAPA) written the entire inscription. Note how the letter forms are more looped or rounded in form.


Likewise, if all words were in the Greek cursive script (as above) then the inscription could be read either:

1) MAPIAMH KAI MAPA: “Mariame and Mara”

OR, alternatively

2) MAPIAM H KAI MAPA: “Mariam who is also Mara”

In particular, note how the eta is formed like a small cursive, rounded English “h”, unlike the angular appearance of the one in inscription CJO 701 which is typical of the semicursive/semiformal documentary tradition of scripts. There is also a clear distinction between the kappa (“k”) of the the semicursive/semiformal documentary tradition and the kappa of the cursive tradition found in CJO 701 and CJO 108. The space between the eta and the kappa provides the starting point of the decisive change from one scribal hand MAPIAMH and the next KAI MAPA.

If one uses an eye for form, this inscription appears to have been written in two distinct script styles (standard Greek documentary script and Greek cursive script). This being the case, then two scribes were involved in the writing process and, we can assume, on separate occasions. In my judgment, in order not to do violence to the epigraphic evidence, the inscription should only be read as:

MAPIAMH KAI MAPA: “Mariame and Mara”


The overall appearance of cursive writing is that there is a graceful sequence of looping strokes as can be seen

in KAI MARA. This stands in contrast to the triangular, squared and rather jagged succession of strokes in the

more formal script used in the first part of the inscription (i.e., with MARIAME). Also, from the standpoint

of horizontal line space, I argue that although each scribe inscribed a total of seven letters, the cursive style of

the second scribe allowed him to write his seven letters, but within ¾ of the line space of the first.

There are certain occasions when a single scribe will inadvertently insert or mix cursive letters with semicursive or even formal letters in an inscription. However, in the case of CJO 701, the first part of the inscription is written in one consistent semiformal or semicursive scribal hand. The second part of the inscription is written in one consistent cursive hand as can be seen in the alphabet chart below. (Note that the second A and M were malformed, as the scribe apparently worked to avoid an imperfection or blemish on the surface of the ossuary between these two letters.)


The two alphabets of the inscription alongside related alphabets

Although the now established reading of the letters of this inscription eliminates “Mariamenou” as a possible first name, (thus not in favor of a possible link with the Mary Magdalene of the Coptic tradition), the reading MARIAM H KAI MARA, “Mary who is called Mara” may still be raised as a a possibility. This would allow that one woman and not two would have been named.

For example, one participant at the Symposium felt that the case was not necessarily closed for Mary Magdalene, even if the first name turned out to be a common form for any “Mary”. If one translated the last word “Mara” in an extraordinary way as “Master” instead of the normal “Mara/Martha” then the case for Mary Magdalene might still be open.

Jane Schaberg contends:

In my judgement, the tomb is not the tomb of the family or dynasty of Jesus, but perhaps of important members of the movement.

Various readings of the possible Mary Magdalene inscription were proposed: including mariam he kai mara, mariamne kai mara, and the disputed caritative or diminutive form. Epigraphers have more work to do, hopefully with enhanced techniques. I have argued that it is quite possible, even probable, from readings of NT gospels and the apocryphal Gospel of Mary, that some first century people regarded her as “mara” – master. Thus I am one of the few voices from the conference in favor of serious consideration of the tomb as providing exciting opportunities for rethinking “resurrection” and the importance of Jewish mystical tradition of this time (cf. Knohl).”

Whether one can actually discern a compelling distinction in scribal hand between the first and last part of the inscription is important for establishing whether to attribute one or two possible meanings to the inscription. Fortunately, other methods can be utilized to test this question, even aside from utilizing an “eye for form”. More to come.

You May Also Like…

Gethsemane VR

Gethsemane VR

In the light of the occasion a slight detour from Qumran but not so far from the Temple Mount. A Reflective Stroll...


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *