Researchers announced that they are beginning excavations in a cave that was originally used as a burial site for a wealthy family in the Second Temple era but continued to be venerated for hundreds of years as the burial site of the midwife of Jesus.
The Israel Antiquities Authority announced on Tuesday that they are currently excavating a 2000-year-old Second Temple-Period family burial cave discovered in the Lachish Forest in the Judean lowlands. The cave comprised several chambers with multiple rock-hewn kokhim (burial niches) and broken ossuaries (stone boxes), consistent with Jewish burial customs of that period.
The cave is one of the most impressive of its type discovered in the Israel indicating that an esteemed person from a prominent Second Temple-period family was buried there.The court, extending over 350 square meters, is surrounded by ashlar (finely dressed) stone walls, and has stone slab and mosaic floors. The forecourt and the cave itself indicate that the family tomb belonged to a wealthy Jewish family who invested substantial resources into preparing the cave. Courtyards leading into burial caves were usually hewn out of the rock and much more simple than was found in the Lachish cave.
The entrances leading into the cave and the interior chapel were exposed, some of the stones carved with fine decorative vegetal designs, including rosettes, pomegranates and acanthus vases, characteristic Jewish features.
The excavation of the courtyard uncovered a row of shop stalls that, according to the excavators, sold or rented clay lamps.
“In the shop, we found hundreds of complete and broken lamps dating from the 8th–9th centuries CE,” say Nir Shimshon-Paran and Zvi Firer, excavation directors in the Israel Antiquities Authority Southern Region. “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.”
The cave has been designated the Salome Cave due to a popular tradition that identified it as the burial place of Salome who is believed by Christians to be the midwife of Jesus. Researchers were surprised to find that part of the cave had been adapted into a Christian chapel. Judging by the crosses and the dozens of inscriptions engraved on the cave walls in the Byzantine and Early Islamic periods, the chapel was dedicated to the sacred Salome.
“Salome is a mysterious figure,” the researchers said in a statement. “The family tomb attests that its owners were a family of high status in the Judean Shefelah in the Second Temple period. The cult of Salome, sanctified in Christianity, belongs to a broader phenomenon, whereby the fifth century CE 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, the cave becoming venerated by Christianity.”
Salome was a follower of Jesus who appears briefly in the canonical gospels and in apocryphal writings. In medieval tradition Salome was counted as one of the Three Marys who were daughters of Saint Anne, making her the sister or half-sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus.
“The name Salome (or in Hebrew: Shalom or Shlomit) was a common Jewish name in the Second Temple-period and was also known in the Hasmonean and Herodian families,” said Paran and Firer. “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.”
The veneration of Salome and the use of the forecourt and the cave for the use of pilgrims continued down to the ninth century CE, after the Muslim conquest. It is interesting that some of the inscriptions were inscribed in Arabic, whilst the Christian believers continued to pray at the site.
The burial cave was first exposed 40 years ago by antiquity looters. A subsequent archaeological excavation was carried out by Prof. Amos Kloner of the Antiquities Department. The cave itself was excavated many years ago, and now the Israel Antiquities Authority is excavating the forecourt as part of the Judean Kings’ Trail Project in conjunction with the IAA, the Ministry for Jerusalem and Heritage, and the Jewish National Fund.