When it comes to timing their big announcements, it will be tough to beat a team of archeologists in Israel who waited until a few days before Christmas to unveil the opening of a tomb they believe was the final resting place of Salome – no, not the Salome who allegedly danced with the head of John the Baptist on a plate, but the Salome who appears in some biblical writings as the midwife present at the birth of Jesus. You don’t remember seeing her in the traditional manger scenes under Christmas trees? There may be a reason for that and it is a shame because this Salome could have been one of the major female figures in biblical history.
"In the cave we found tonnes of inscriptions in ancient Greek and Syriac. One of the beautiful inscriptions is the name Salome… because of this inscription we understand this is the cave of holy Salome."
This week, Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) archaeologist Zvi Firer announced the opening of a burial cave dedicated to Salome, who appears in biblical writings and early Christian texts as someone who was present at both the birth and death of Jesus. She is best known for the accounts that she was present at the crucifixion and later was one of the Myrrhbearers, the women who found the empty tomb three days later. She is far less known for another mention in biblical texts as being a midwife who was present at the first Christmas.
“According to a Christian tradition, Salome was the midwife from Bethlehem, who was called to participate in the birth of Jesus. She could not believe that she was asked to deliver a virgin’s baby, and her hand became dry and was only healed when she held the baby’s cradle.”
That account from Firer comes from the Gospel of James, described by biblical historians as a second-century “infancy gospel” which goes into great detail Mary, her upbringing, the virgin birth, the visit of the Magi and the childhood life of Jesus. The 4th century theologian Jerome of Stridon taught that the book also claimed Joseph was also a virgin and the so-called adelphoi or “brothers of Jesus" (James, Joseph, Simon and Jude) were not his sons but cousins of Jesus. That convinced Pope Innocent I to condemn the book in 405 … however, the stories were already embedded in the religious beliefs and many are still believed today, especially in the eastern Orthodox traditions. That includes the story of Salome at the first Christmas.
“And the midwife went out from the cave, and Salome met her. And the midwife said to her, "Salome, Salome, I will tell you a most surprising thing, which I saw. A virgin has brought forth, which is a thing contrary to nature." To which Salome replied, "As the Lord my God lives, unless I receive particular proof of this matter, I will not believe that a virgin has brought forth. Then Salome went in, and the midwife said, "Mary, show yourself, for a great controversy has arisen about you." And Salome tested her with her finger. But her hand was withered, and she groaned bitterly, and said, "Woe to me, because of my iniquity! For I have tempted the living God, and my hand is ready to drop off."
The burial cave was discovered in 1982 by antiquities looters in what is now Tel Lachish national park, west of Jerusalem. It was excavated in 1984 by archeologists from the IAA but never opened to the public. Later excavations uncovered a Jewish burial chamber dating back to the Roman period that was turned into a Christian chapel in the Byzantine era and showed signs of visits by pilgrims into the 7th century. Why would pilgrims visit this particular tomb?
"The cult of Salome… belongs to a broader phenomenon, whereby the fifth century Christian pilgrims encountered and sanctified Jewish sites."
Besides the inscriptions on the walls naming Salome, the excavation team working outside the cave found the remains of a large (350 square meters or 3,750 square feet) sacred forecourt used to revere Salome. Clay lamps were found outside the tomb in what were once shops selling them to pilgrims – they dated to the 9th century when the area was Muslim, indicating that Christian pilgrims still came there to revere Salome.
“We believe that pilgrims would come here, rent an oil lamp, perform their prayers inside, and go on their way. It’s like today when you go to the grave of a revered rabbi and light a candle there.”
Firer tells The Times of Israel that the Jewish burial cave likely belonged to a wealthy family and dates back to the 6th century BCE. Besides the names of Salome and Jesus, the cave walls are carved with an inscription in Greek that reads “Zacharia Ben Kerelis, dedicated to the Holy Salome.” Archaeologists believe that Zacharia Ben Kerelis funded the construction of parts of the burial cave and the courtyard. Even without the connection to Salome, the area has historical significance, as Saar Ganor, the IAA director of the Judean Kings’ Trail Project, explains to The Times of Israel.
“This trail, which crosses the Judean Shefelah [flatlands], is the backbone of the Jewish people’s cultural heritage, and it encompasses dozens of sites from the time of the Bible, the Second Temple, the Mishnah and the Talmud. This is a really important trail that combines tourism, history, and development.”
So, do the carvings on this cave, the artifacts and its long history as a pilgrimage destination prove the historical existence of the biblical Salome and prove her presence as a midwife at the first Christmas? Firer points out that “Salome” or “Shlomit” was a common Jewish name at the time when the Nativity story was said to have taken place. The person buried in the tomb might have been named “Salome” and visitors may have assumed it was ‘the’ Salome of the biblical texts. In the patriarchal world of early Christianity, it is easy to see why church leaders would suppress the story of a woman who might have played such an important part in the Nativity story. Also, there was that ‘other’ Salome – the one who was a Jewish princess, the daughter of Herod II, granddaughter of Herod the Great, and made famous by biblical accounts of her demanding the beheading of John the Baptist and dancing with said head in what has become known (and mostly fictionalized) as the Dance of the Seven Veils. Who wants followers to confuse those two Salomes? They apparently thought it best to promote the evil one and bury the good one.
Want to impress your friends this holiday season? Add a tiny midwife to your Nativity scene and tell the story of Salome the midwife.