What’s Within the Burial Cave Dedicated to Jesus’ Midwife?

Archaeologists in Israel are excavating the site that was popular among pilgrims more than a millennium ago

The 2,000-year-old cave
The cave once belonged to a wealthy Jewish family before becoming a Christian pilgrimage site Courtesy of Israel Antiquities Authority / Facebook

Archaeologists in Israel are unraveling more of the mysteries, and finding new ones, surrounding a cave that for centuries was considered to be the burial site of Salome, the midwife of Jesus, while they prepare to open it to the public.

The cave—located roughly 30 miles southwest of Jerusalem in Tel Lachish National Park near the ancient city of Lachish—was originally the family tomb of a wealthy, high-status Jewish family around 2,000 years ago, according to archaeologists with the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). When local Christians came upon the site later, during the Byzantine and Early Islamic eras, the name Salome was believed to have been written on one of the stone boxes containing remains, or ossuaries, inside the burial cave. As Melanie Lidman reports for the Times of Israel, “Salome” or “Shlomit” was a common Jewish name during that period. The name's purported presence here likely led them to believe the cave was her final resting place, per the IAA.

The cave served as a popular Christian pilgrimage site until at least the ninth century. From there, the cave’s story goes silent until 1982, when looters discovered and broke into it. Archaeologists then conducted an initial excavation a few years later.

Now, researchers are revisiting the site because they hope to include it on the new Judean Kings’ Trail, a 60-mile route that will connect archaeological and historic sites throughout southern Israel.

During recent excavations, researchers unearthed an array of previously undiscovered artifacts and inscriptions. Archaeologists found dozens of wall engravings, as well as crosses and clay oil lamps pilgrims likely brought into the cave. They also discovered a row of shop stalls that probably sold or rented the lamps to visitors.

“In the shop, we found hundreds of complete and broken lamps dating from the eighth to ninth centuries C.E.,” say excavation directors Nir Shimshon-Paran and Zvi Firer in an IAA statement post on Facebook. “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.”

While excavating the cave’s 3,767-square-foot forecourt, researchers exposed its mosaic floors, stone slabs and ashlar stone walls, which serve as additional evidence that the site originally belonged to a Jewish family of means. As the IAA notes, it would have been unusual to use ashlar masonry for the court leading to a burial cave at that time—these areas were typically hewn out of the rock.

They also found intricate carvings at the cave’s entrances and its interior chapel depicting “delicate decorative vegetal designs, including rosettes, pomegranates and acanthus vases, characteristic Jewish features,” per the IAA.

As Tom Metcalfe writes for Live Science, Salome’s story appears in the non-canonical Gospel of James; it is not part of the New Testament. Per the gospel, which explores the details of Jesus’ birth, Salome did not believe that Mary, Jesus’ mother, was a virgin, which caused her hand to wither. When she touched the infant’s cradle, however, her hand was restored to health. Though this story of Salome is not well-known to today’s Western Christians, she was once an important figure to early followers of Jesus.

“Salome is a mysterious figure,” per the IAA statement “The cult of Salome, sanctified in Christianity, belongs to a broader phenomenon whereby the fifth century C.E. Christian pilgrims encountered and sanctified Jewish sites.”