Joseph and pregnant Mary arrived in Bethlehem for the census ordered by Quirinius, the new governor of Judea in 6 CE (Luke 2). They couldn't find a place for the night (Luke 2:7) so they stayed in a cave (grotto) below an habitation. This configuration is typical of Israelite habitations in this period, built upon natural or hewn caves to keep storage away from the heat for example. But soon Mary started labour pains, so Joseph went out to seek help from a midwife. Here is how the story is told in the Protoevangelium of James. It is an early Christian writing, dated from about the middle of the 2nd century CE, thus older than the Gospels themselves (hence its name "Proto-"):
And I [Joseph] saw a woman coming down from the hill-country, and she said to me: O man, where are you going? And I said: I am seeking an Hebrew midwife. And she answered and said unto me: Are you of Israel? And I said to her: Yes. And she said: And who is it that is bringing forth in the cave? And I said: A woman betrothed to me. And she said to me: Is she not your wife? And I said to her: It is Mary that was reared in the temple of the Lord, and I obtained her by lot as my wife. And yet she is not my wife, but has conceived of the Holy Spirit.
And the midwife said to him: Is this true? And Joseph said to her: Come and see. And the midwife went away with him. And they stood in the place of the cave, and behold a luminous cloud overshadowed the cave. And the midwife said: My soul has been magnified this day, because my eyes have seen strange things— because salvation has been brought forth to Israel. 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. And the midwife cried out, and said: This is a great day to me, because I have seen this strange sight. And the midwife went forth out of the cave, and Salome met her. And she said to her: 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.
And the midwife went in, and said to Mary: Show yourself; for no small controversy has arisen about you. And Salome put in her finger, and cried out, and said: Woe is me for my iniquity and my unbelief, because I have tempted the living God; and, behold, my hand is dropping off as if burned with fire. And she bent her knees before the Lord, saying: O God of my fathers, remember that I am the seed of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob; do not make a show of me to the sons of Israel, but restore me to the poor; for You know, O Lord, that in Your name I have performed my services, and that I have received my reward at Your hand. And, behold, an angel of the Lord stood by her, saying to her: Salome, Salome, the Lord has heard you. Put your hand to the infant, and carry it, and you will have safety and joy. And Salome went and carried it, saying: I will worship Him, because a great King has been born to Israel. And, behold, Salome was immediately cured, and she went forth out of the cave justified. And behold a voice saying: Salome, Salome, tell not the strange things you have seen, until the child has come into Jerusalem.
So, from the above, we can learn that there were two midwives who came at Jesus' birth: a junior one went to call a senior one called Salome to assess the peculiar situation of a virgin. It is Salome who then attended at delivering Jesus to the world. It is not so common to see the midwives represented in Nativity scenes. Here is one from Le Louvre museum in Paris.
Although the Protoevangelium of James is not part of the canonical Christian writings, it has been known by the early Christians until today by those of the Orthodox faith. And there is one place in the Holy Land that bears witness for the respect given by the Byzantine Christians to Jesus' midwife: the tomb of Salome ! With friends, we endeavoured to go off the beaten tracks and find the resting place of the first person to have witnessed Jesus coming into the world !
Following the approximate indication of "Salome Cave" in an area of the Judean Lowlands, off the road between Lachish and Amatziya, we took a dirt road between vineyards to reach the bottom of a hill. We left our 4x4 vehicles and started to check the slopes of the hill until we found the location. The cave cannot be found directly because it is hidden by overgrown vegetation. But one must look for ashlar stones that are the remains of some ancient construction over the cave.
There, among the ashlar stones and the bushes, we can find an entrance into the ground. In the times of the burial, the ground was much below the level of today of course. To identify the entrance of a burial cave, we need to look for the presence or the evidence of a rolling stone that marked its entrance. In these times, also for the burial of Jesus, people used to roll a round stone to protect the entrance to such caves. In this particular cave, the rolling stone had disappeared but its mark is still visible.
Forgot to say: bring some torches with you in you decide to enter the burial cave ! And, of course, if you're claustrophobic, refrain from entering as all of it is in total darkness under the ground.
After crawling through the entrance, we reached a sort of underground antechamber which could have been a small chapel added during the Byzantine era (once Christianity became allowed), to pray for the dead. Initially this antechamber would have been the preparation rooms for the dead: people would wrap a dead body in a shroud (as it was done for Jesus) and it was left there for one year until a "second" burial was made when the bones of the deceased would be gathered inside an ossuary and deposited inside one of the burial niches. This was the practice for Jewish burials from the times of the Second Temple. In comparison, (important) Roman people were rather buried inside sarcophages and this method of burial was also later used by Jews in the following centuries, as evidenced by the necropolis at Beth-Shearim for example. The practice of burying people today inside a coffin probably dates from these Roman times, while Jews of these times, and religious Jews today, never used coffins.
Passing the antechamber, we reached a necropolis, with many niches suited for ossuaries as explained above. Here the necropolis probably dates back from the 1st century CE, or even earlier (such as Hellenistic period).
The necropolis is covered with Greek inscriptions and crosses dating from the Byzantine era, obviously added in this era. There are also some early Muslim inscriptions: this may seem strange but one has to remember that Mary mother of Jesus has a chapter dedicated to her in the Coran (the 19th Surat of Maryam).
And, finally, above a particular niche, there is a noticeable increase of the number of inscriptions as if to show visitors: here is The Place you are looking for ! Among these inscriptions, the name SALOME, written in Greek, is clearly visible.
It is well possible that, like it was a tradition in Jewish burials, many people wished to be buried near a venerated or important person or place. It was the case in Beth-Shearim and many other places of the Land of Israel. And it is surely the case here which explains the presence of a necropolis near Salome's resting place. Her resting place thus proves that she was somehow venerated, or at least acknowledged, in the Byzantine era. After all, she was the first human being to have physically seen the infant Jesus and the first to acknowledge his divine status, as did the shepherds who later came to the cave (Luke 2) after the birth. Also Christians of the Byzantine times were fully acquainted with the Protoevangelium of James, which was the precursor of all the Gospels, no less !
This is not a tour that can be done by everyone, or any large party of people. And it is better that it would remain in such way, to keep the authenticity of the place and the thrill to find and reach it. If interested in a private visit, do not hesitate to contact me or any Tour Guide certified by the Ministry of Tourism.
Private Tour Guide, Israel