By Katie Yoder
A team of archaeologists has unearthed artifacts from an ancient Jewish burial cave associated with Salome, who according to some Christian traditions was a midwife at the Nativity of Jesus.
The cave is the site of a centuries-old Christian pilgrimage destination located in the Lachish region in central Israel, the Times of Israel reported Tuesday. Looters first happened upon the elaborate cave in 1982 before it was formally excavated in 1984. Now it’s being examined once again, and the team of researchers from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) is preparing to open it to the public.
“We believe that pilgrims would come here, rent an oil lamp, perform their prayers inside, and go on their way,” IAA archaeologist Zvi Firer said, according to the Times. “It’s like today when you go to the grave of a revered rabbi and light a candle there.”
The burial cave became a pilgrimage destination after local Christians identified it as Salome’s burial place in the Byzantine era, Firer said.
Most recently, archaeologists have discovered a courtyard at the cave’s entrance spanning almost 4,000 square feet, the Times reported. It features detailed stone carvings, high arches, a mosaic floor, and the remains of a shop where pilgrims may have rented oil lamps.
Hundreds of lamps were found, archeologists said, according to the Jerusalem Post. Of those, more than two dozen — dating back to the eighth or ninth century — were found still intact.
Salome, or St. Mary Salome, is known as the wife of Zebedee and the mother of James the Greater and John the Evangelist. She appears in the Bible as one of Jesus’ followers, who witnessed his crucifixion and death and brought spices to anoint his body on Easter.
Many Catholics express skepticism about the legend drawn from the apocryphal Gospel of James that says Salome was a midwife who came, unbelieving, to the stable at Bethlehem and converted.
“No midwife assisted at his birth; no women’s officiousness intervened,” St. Jerome, a doctor of the Church, wrote in “The Perpetual Virginity of Blessed Mary: Against Helvidius.”
“With her own hands she wrapped him in the swaddling clothes, herself both mother and midwife.”
Firer explained how the cave may have come to be associated with Salome.
“The name Salome may possibly have appeared in antiquity on one of the ossuaries [stone boxes] in the tomb, and the tradition identifying the site with Salome the midwife developed, with the cave becoming venerated by Christianity,” he told the Times.
The cave consists of several chambers, including the first room that dates back to the Second Temple period, or from the sixth century B.C. to A.D. 70, according to the Times. The inner rooms of the burial cave are from the Byzantine era, or from around A.D. 300 to A.D. 600.
The recent discoveries come as archaeologists are preparing to open the cave to the public for the first time as part of the Judean Kings Trail, a 60-mile trek featuring dozens of historical archaeological sites.
The project is led by the IAA, the Ministry for Jerusalem and Heritage, and the Jewish National Fund.