When Mary’s labor pains commenced, Joseph rushed to seek help – and found it. The birth of Jesus was attended by a midwife, according to the second-century apocryphal text known as the Gospel of James.
The midwife, who remains unnamed in the text, marveled at the “strange things” involved in the birth, which the Gospel of James elaborates in detail.
Upon leaving the cave, which is where the apocryphal gospel says Mary gave birth, the overwhelmed woman encountered Salome, herself also a midwife. Dubious about the midwife’s account of Mary’s miraculous virgin birth and postnatal intactness, the Gospel of James describes in graphic detail how Salome checked Mary for herself, and found herself afflicted: “My hand is dropping off as if burned with fire.”
Repentant of her skepticism and counseled by an angel to touch and carry the infant, she did and her instantly withered hand was cured. She was told to remain silent about the wonders “until the child has come to Jerusalem.”
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The Gospel of James is a tripartite work starting with a biography of Mary and her holy infancy; the nature of the relationship between Mary and Joseph and Jesus’ conception, then the birth process (which is where Salome appears); and culminating in the death of John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah. The apocryphal text is thought to have been in circulation from the mid-second century and was apparently written originally in Greek, after which translations began to make the rounds (none of the earliest versions have survived), according to scholars.
Which brings us to this Tuesday, when the Israel Antiquities Authority announced excavation of the complex outside an extraordinarily ornate burial cave in the Lachish Forest dating to the late Second Temple period. The complex includes a magnificent forecourt flanked by shops dating to the Muslim period (the eighth and ninth century), which the archaeologists believe sold oil lamps to pilgrims visiting the cave. Numerous lamps were found in the context of the shops.
Why would pilgrims visit this cave? Because according to local Christian tradition, it is none other than the burial cave of the family of Salome.
Better than Jerusalem
We may never know if it is, because the tomb – the finest ever found from the period, finer and richer than anything found in Jerusalem, according to excavation co-director Saar Ganor – was first found by robbers about 40 years ago. Burrowing in from above, they stole the sarcophagi and presumably much more.
However, in the aftermath of the desecration, the tomb was excavated by archaeologists led by Prof. Amos Kloner of the Antiquities Department. Although the sarcophagi were gone and no names were left, there was enough evidence to determine that this had been a Jewish site from roughly the first century B.C.E. – and an extraordinary one.
The burial cave walls were an unparalleled four meters (13 feet) high and replete with Jewish imagery, including rosettes and pomegranates, Ganor says. The cave contained several chambers with multiple burial niches carved into the limestone bedrock, and some fragments the thieves left behind of the stone boxes that contained the bones (as was the Jewish burial custom in the Second Temple period).
To general surprise 40 years ago, the burial cave also turned out to feature a Christian chapel featuring crosses carved into the walls and dozens of inscriptions from the Byzantine and Muslim periods in three languages – Greek, Syriac and Arabic. This is where we learn of a belief held over centuries that this was where Salome had been buried.
“All the inscriptions are Christian, revering Salome and Jesus,” Ganor says. In other words, this was a chapel dedicated to Salome, the second midwife on the scene but the first to recognize Jesus’ nature, according to the Gospel of James.
It is the structure outside the cave, the forecourt, that the Antiquities Authority archaeologists have been digging up now. And it too is remarkable: a tiled floor made of giant hewn stones, some 1 by 1.5 meters, amounting to about 350 square meters in total area.
“I’m standing on it now, as we speak, and it’s better quality than the Cardo in Jerusalem,” Ganor says, referring to the ancient Roman street in the Old City.
Forecourts to Second Temple Jewish caves were usually hewn out of the rock, not elaborately built of ashlar masonry like this one, the archaeologists point out. Ganor confirms that this flooring is also Second Temple period, not a later Byzantine construction. It also attests to the extraordinary status of the long-gone Jewish family that evidently had the resources to invest massively in building this edifice in the forest near the biblical city of Lachish.
How this gravesite and forecourt came to be associated with Salome, we cannot know. As the Byzantine power emerged a few hundred years after Jesus and Salome would have lived, possibly adherents of the new religion sought places of sanctity for pilgrimage, Ganor suggests – and this magnificent burial cave fit the bill.
The name Salome, or Shlomit or Shulamit, was a common one at the time and to this day; maybe it appeared on a subsequently stolen ossuary.
In any case, it was here that the Byzantines created the chapel dedicated to her sacred memory and converted the magnificent forecourt to meet the needs of pilgrims. “We found shops with mosaic floors, inside of which we found hundreds of oil lamps that would have been sold to the pilgrims going inside,” Ganor says. And the shrine would remain in use throughout the Byzantine and Early Islamic periods.
The narrative of Salome
Some of the inscriptions – postdating the burials by centuries – name her explicitly: “Holy Salome, have mercy on Zacaraias the son of Cyrillus, Amen,” for instance. But who was Salome, this second midwife who waxed skeptical and would then receive the grace to bear witness? She is not mentioned in the New Testament, only in the Gospel of James.
The author claims to be Jesus’ half-brother James, but its authorship remains unknown.
“I would say – James didn’t write it. It’s an apocryphal gospel,” says R. Steven Notley, professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at New York’s Nyack College. He is involved in the excavation of the putative site of Bethsaida by the Sea of Galilee, among other things, but not in this excavation.
The Gospel of James is believed to have been written in the second century, and like much second century apocryphal material, it was constructed to fill in the blanks, Notley explains: “It’s like a Christian midrash.”
What blanks? In this case, the birth narratives in the gospels of Matthew and Luke.
“And they stood in the place of the cave, and behold a luminous cloud overshadowed the cave. ... And immediately the cloud disappeared out of the cave, and a great light shone in the cave, so that the eyes could not bear it. And in a little that light gradually decreased, until the infant appeared, and went and took the breast from His mother Mary” – the Gospel of James
A cave? This does not contradict the traditional story of the manger; it augments it and may add veracity and reliability, as Notley explains. It would be highly authentic to the place and time for Mary to have given birth in a cave. A “manger” is merely a feeding trough, which is where locals could well have put their livestock and does not negate Jesus having been born in a cave.
The limestone hills of Israel are riddled with caves. To this day, homes in places such as Silwan in Jerusalem are built as extensions from caves, which serve as cellars for storage and even residential purposes.
When told that there “was no place at the inn,” maybe the front living area was full and Mary and Joseph were allowed to shelter in the rear of the home – the cave area, Notley suggests. In his view, some details in apocryphal texts such as that of James may be fabricated, but some would have been based on persisting oral traditions.
The Gospel of James is not included in the canonical literature, which has to be apostolic. And even though James was an apostle, if it was indeed written in the second century – it wasn’t by him. Notley explains that in the second century, Christian apocryphal material began to appear, similarly to Jewish apocrypha, elaborating on canonical material.
But why was it called the Gospel of James, then? “Once the canon is closed and people feel they have a divinely inspired message, they take a well-known individual and put it in their name,” the professor explains. Gnostic gospels were attempts to rewrite the gospels with a gnostic overlay, but that was more in the late second century and early third century. It not being actually written by James does not mean it should be rejected out of hand, he adds, and it is this gospel that names Salome.
‘A strange sight’
The upshot is that the Byzantines came to identify the gorgeous tomb in Lachish Forest as associated with her, and pilgrims would come at least until the ninth century, says excavation co-director Zvi Firer.
According to tradition, Jesus was born in Bethlehem – which is nowhere near Lachish Forest. “According to tradition, Salome went into exile,” Firer explains.
“Salome, Salome, I have a strange sight to relate to you: a virgin has brought forth – a thing which her nature admits not of. Then said Salome: As the Lord my God lives, unless I thrust in my finger, and search the parts, I will not believe that a virgin has brought forth” – the Gospel of James
The gospels themselves state that Mary had never known a man. Persisting virginity is another matter, but the story as a whole builds off the Jewish source of Isaiah 7:14, Notley explains – which mentions a “maid.”
“The Septuagint translates that as ‘virgin,’” he adds – referring to an early Greek text that was translated by Jews but came down to us through the church. The text could have been adjusted to correspond with Christian tradition, he adds.
The Gospel of James with its elaborations may have been written as a reaction to questions and doubts about the virgin birth narrative – the veracity of which, as Notley stresses, is a matter of faith, not a point to debate.
The Gospel of James does not seem to have a wide following among the faithful today, and the tradition of Salome’s tomb apparently arose centuries after the event.
As Notley points out, the virgin birth narrative builds on a rich tradition of miraculous conception, such as the miraculous birth of Melchizedek as told in a Jewish noncanonical text, 2 Enoch. And for centuries and into the Muslim period, the faithful continued to ply the tomb, possibly carrying oil candles sold to them by the merchants in the forecourt outside.