IAA studies tomb associated with Mary’s midwife
A 2,000-year-old burial cave associated with Salome—a character from the apocryphal Gospel of James who some early Christians believed help deliver the baby Jesus—has been excavated in the Shephelah region of Israel, 30 miles southwest of Jerusalem. In addition to hundreds of oil lamps, the excavation team from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) discovered numerous inscriptions and evidence that in later years the site was converted into a Christian chapel dedicated to Salome.
Constructed around 2,000 years ago, the cave of Salome is an extensive Jewish burial cave, one of the most impressive ever discovered in Israel. Over time, the cave became associated with Salome, a character from the apocryphal Book of James who witnesses the birth of Jesus. A later eighth-century Latin tradition held that Salome was Mary’s midwife and helped deliver the baby Jesus.
The cave consists of several chambers with multiple rock-hewn burial niches and broken ossuaries that were used to hold the bones of the deceased. The cave likely belonged to a very wealthy Jewish family and included an elaborately built stone forecourt that measured nearly 4,000 square feet. One of the excavation’s surprise discoveries was that the cave was eventually turned into a Christian chapel dedicated to Salome. The excavators reached this conclusion based on the dozens of crosses and inscriptions carved into the wall during the Byzantine and early Islamic periods (c. fourth–eleventh centuries).
Within the courtyard, the excavators uncovered a row of shops that may have sold clay lamps. “We found hundreds of complete and broken lamps dating from the eighth–ninth centuries CE,” said Nir Shimshon-Paran and Zvi Firer, directors of the excavation. “The lamps may have served to light up the cave, or as part of the religious ceremonies, similarly to candles distributed today at the graves of righteous figures, and in churches.”
It is uncertain how the cave first came to be associated with Salome. According to the researchers, the association may have begun in the fifth century, when “Christian pilgrims encountered and sanctified Jewish sites. The name Salome may possibly have appeared in antiquity on one of the (no-longer extant) ossuaries in the tomb, and the tradition identifying the site with Salome the midwife developed.”
“According to a Christian tradition, Salome was the midwife from Bethlehem, who was called to participate in the birth of Jesus,” said Shimshon-Paran and Firer. “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.”
However, in a communication with Bible History Daily, Joan E. Taylor, Professor of Christian Origins and Second Temple Judaism at King’s College London, was quick to point out that the identification of Salome as Mary’s midwife was an eighth-century Latin tradition. As the cave does not contain any Latin inscriptions, the cave was likely associated more with the eastern Christian tradition, which does not identify Salome with Mary’s midwife.
The cave of Salome was first uncovered in the 1980s when it was entered by looters. At that time, it was partly excavated by Amos Kloner and Boaz Zissu of the IAA. The new excavations were carried out as part of the Judean Kings’ Trail Project, which seeks to build an archaeological trail across the Shephelah. According to Saar Ganor, who directs the project for the IAA, the trail will “encompass dozens of sites from the time of the Bible, the Second Temple, the Mishnah, and the Talmud. In the excavations carried out along the Judean Kings’ Trail, the Israel Antiquities Authority is creating a meaningful, deep-rooted connection for the general public between archaeology and the cultural heritage.”
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