Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Salome in Gospels

The name “Salome,” derived from the Hebrew word shalom (“wellbeing” or “peace”), was a popular feminine name among the Jewish people in the first century. Its popularity was due to it being the name of Queen Salome Alexandria who ruled Judea from 76 to 67 BCE. [1] On my website, I have an article about Salome the shrewd sister Herod the Great (here) and an article about Salome the daughter of the conniving Herodias (here). In this article, I look at Salome a disciple of Jesus.

Salome in Mark’s Gospel

There are many figures in the Bible who we know little about. Salome is one of them. She is mentioned by name only in Mark’s Gospel. Mark tells us Salome was among the many women who accompanied Jesus as he travelled and ministered in Galilee. These women appear to have been free from domestic ties and were financially independent; as well as travelling with Jesus and the male disciples, these women were financial supporters of Jesus’s ministry (cf. Luke 8:3).

Salome was one of the Galilean women who also accompanied Jesus to Jerusalem where they witnessed his crucifixion. She is not named with Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses who watched Jesus being placed in the tomb (Mark 14:47), but Salome was with them when they brought spices and ointments on Easter Morning in order to prepare Jesus’s body for a proper burial.

Here’s what Mark says.

At the Cross
Some women were watching from a distance, including Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James (the younger one) and Joses, and Salome. When Jesus was in Galilee, these women had followed and supported him, along with many other women who had come to Jerusalem with him. Mark 15:40-41 CEB.

At the Empty Tomb
When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they could go and anoint Jesus’ dead body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they came to the tomb. They were saying to each other, “Who’s going to roll the stone away from the entrance for us?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away. (And it was a very large stone!) Going into the tomb, they saw a young man in a white robe seated on the right side; and they were startled. But he said to them, “Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He isn’t here. Look, here’s the place where they laid him. Go, tell his disciples, especially Peter, that he is going ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you.” Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. Mark 16:1-8 CEB.

Salome saw the empty tomb. She heard the report of the angel. She and the other women were given a message to tell the other disciples. However, they were initially too frightened—overwhelmed, perhaps— to do this.

Is Salome the mother of James and John? (cf. Matt. 27:56)

In Mark’s Gospel, Salome is not identified as someone’s mother, daughter, or sister. However, there are a few theories about her identity. These theories come from comparing verses in Matthew’s and John’s Gospels that mention women at the cross and at the tomb with the verses in Mark’s Gospel where Salome is named.

It has been suggested Salome is the otherwise unnamed mother of James and John (the sons of Zebedee). This idea comes by comparing the similar list in Matthew 27:56 with Mark 16:1.[2] Both verses identify (1) Mary Magdalene and (2) Mary the mother of James (and Joses), but Matthew mentions the mother of Zebedee’s son as the third woman, whereas Mark mentions Salome.

If Salome is the mother of James and John, she is the woman who speaks to Jesus in Matthew 20:20-21.

Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons approached [Jesus] with her sons. She knelt down to ask him for something. “What do you want?” he asked her.
“Promise,” she said to him, “that these two sons of mine may sit, one on your right and the other on your left, in your kingdom.”

After the mother speaks, Jesus addresses the young men which may indicate James and John had asked their mother to petition Jesus on their behalf (Matt. 20:22ff). Whatever the case, this woman recognised Jesus as the Messiah and believed in his coming kingdom. But she may not be Salome.

The Diatessaron, written by Tatian in 170-175, is a harmonisation of the four canonical Gospels and it distinguishes Salome from the mother of the sons of Zebedee.

And there were in the distance all the acquaintance of Jesus standing, and the women that came with him from Galilee, those that followed him and ministered. One of them was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the little and Arabic Joses, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee, and Salome, and many others which came up with him unto Jerusalem; and they saw that.
Diatessaron 52.21.

Is Salome a blood relative of Jesus? (cf. John 19:25)

Some believe Salome may have been one of Jesus’ sisters.[3] Compiled in around 375 to 380, the Apostolic Constitutions state that Jesus’ sisters were among his followers, but Salome is listed separately from the sisters.

For there were with us the mother of our Lord and his sisters; also Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Martha and Mary the sisters of Lazarus; Salome, and certain others (Apostolic Constitutions 3.6).

Still others believe Salome was an aunt of Jesus, Mary the wife of Clopas, a woman mentioned only once in the New Testament, in John’s Gospel. This idea comes by comparing the three women listed in Mark 15:40 with the three women in John 19:25.[4]

Mark 15:40: Some women were watching from a distance, including Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James (the younger one) and Joses, and Salome.
John 19:25: Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.

There are three Marys in John 19:25, and the idea is that if Salome is Jesus’s aunt (the sister of Jesus’s mother), she was also known as Mary or as Mary Salome. In some Catholic and Orthodox traditions, Mary Salome is included in the group known as The Three Marys.

The third-century Gospel of Philip refers to three Marys in this (slightly confusing) statement,

There were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary, his mother, and her sister, and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion. His sister and his mother and his companion were each a Mary. Gospel of Philip 36.

Many works of art depict Mary Magdalene and two other female figures at the empty tomb with their containers of spices. However, the myrrh bearers, which included Salome, were a larger group of women. They went to the tomb on Easter morning with their spices and perfumes to prepare Jesus’s body for burial.[5]

Salome the Witness

It is not clear that Salome was the mother of James and John. It is equally unclear that she was the sister of Mary the mother of Jesus. What is clear is that Salome in Mark’s Gospel was one of the witnesses of Jesus’s death and of the empty tomb (cf. Deut. 19:15; Matt. 18:17). And we can safely assume she was a witness of Jesus’s resurrection and ascension, and of Pentecost also (cf. Acts 1:14-15; 2:17-18).

Many Galilean women were such witnesses, but the Gospel writers seem to have chosen to identify only three each. Richard Bauckham suggests variations between the lists are because the Gospel writers “were careful to name precisely the women who were known to them as witnesses to these crucial events in the origins of the Christian movement …”[6] If Bauckham is correct, the author of Mark’s Gospel knew Salome personally and had confidence in her testimony.[7]

Another suggestion is that Salome may have been well known to the community Mark wrote his Gospel for, but not as well known to the communities Matthew and John wrote for. So Salome was switched with a different woman in Matthew’s and in John’s accounts of the crucifixion and of the empty tomb scene.

Salome in Non-Biblical Christian Documents

There are references to Salome in several apocryphal early Christian writings and in ancient Gnostic writings. In a few of these works, Salome has a conversation with Jesus. I add these references merely to show that Salome was a prominent figure who was used by later writers connected with early Christianity especially in Alexandria where Mark and his Gospel was especially esteemed.[8] I do not regard these other texts as sources of reliable information on Salome.[9]

Salome in The Gospel of Thomas

The Gospel of Thomas is a collection of sayings supposedly spoken by Jesus. This work may have been written as early as the mid or late first century. Saying 61 records a short dialogue between Jesus and Salome where she announces her allegiance to Jesus as his disciple.

Jesus said, “Two will recline on a couch; one will die, one will live.”
Salome said, “Who are you mister? You have climbed onto my couch and eaten from my table as if you are from someone.”
Jesus said to her, “I am the one who comes from what is whole. I was granted from the things of my Father.”
[Salome says] “I am your disciple.”
[Jesus says] “For this reason I say, if one is whole, one will be filled with light, but if one is divided, one will be filled with darkness.”
Gospel of Thomas, Saying 61.

This saying alludes to a statement of Jesus recorded in Luke 17:34 but with a twist. I won’t try to decipher this saying, but it does indicate Salome was recognised by some in the early church as a prominent disciple of Jesus. Mary Magdalene, another prominent female disciple, is also mentioned in the Gospel of Thomas (in sayings 21 and 114).

Salome in The Gospel of the Egyptians

Salome’s name occurs in the Greek Gospel of the Egyptians, a work written in the late second century. This Gospel has been lost but Clement of Alexandria quotes from it. In Stromata, written around 200, Clement provides this quotation.

Salome said, ‘How much longer will people continue to die?’ . . .
The Lord answers: ‘So long as women bear children.’
Salome answers, ‘I have done well, then, in not bearing children.’”
Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 3.6.45 (cf. 3.9.63-66)

Some Christians associated procreation with death. They believed that sexual renunciation (virginity and celibacy) broke the cycle of birth and death. (I write about this here.)

Clement of Alexandria’s name is also linked to the spurious Mar Saba letter that mentions Salome.[10]

Origen’s Against Celsus

In around 248 CE, Origin of Alexandria was sponsored to write a response to a criticism of Christianity written by Celsus. According to Origen, Celsus asserted that certain women, including Salome, were founders of various sects of Christianity. Origen disputes this but it is possible a group of Christians claimed Salome as their founder.

Celsus knows, moreover, certain Marcellians, so called from Marcellina, and Harpocratians [i.e. Carpocratians] from Salome, and others who derive their name from Mariamne,[11] and others again from Martha. We, however, who from a love of learning examine to the utmost of our ability not only the contents of Scripture, and the differences to which they give rise, but have also, from love to the truth, investigated as far as we could the opinions of philosophers, have never at any time met with these sects. Origen, Against Celsus 5.62

Furthermore, in two Gnostic works, The Sophia of Jesus Christ 90:17-18 and the First Apocalypse of James, Salome is one of four female disciples. For example, she is mentioned in this line from the First Apocalypse of James: “When you speak these words of this perception, encourage these four: Salome and Mariam and Martha and Arsinoe.”[12] And Salome is one of several interpreters of divine mysteries in the Gnostic text Pistis Sophia (chapters 54, 58, 132, 145).

The Book of the Resurrection of Christ and the Infancy Gospel of James

In a fifth or sixth century writing known as The Book of the Resurrection of Christ, which claims to have been written by Bartholomew, one of the Twelve, the author lists women present at Jesus’s tomb on Easter morning. The first three women in his list match Mark’s list and the author adds a few extra details that are not found in the canonical Gospels.

Early in the morning of the Lord’s Day, the women went to the tomb. They were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James whom Jesus delivered out of the hand of Satan, Salome who tempted him, Mary who ministered to him and Martha her sister, Joanna the wife of Chuza who had renounced the marriage bed, Berenice who was healed of an issue of blood in Capernaum, Leah the widow whose son he raised at Nain,[13] and the woman to whom he said, “Thy sins which are many are forgiven thee.”
The Book of the Resurrection of Christ from The Gospel of Bartholomew) (Italics added).

The author gives no indication of what he means by the word “tempted” (or should it be translated as “tested”?) in the line, “Salome who tempted him.” This reference may confuse Salome of Mark’s Gospel with a woman named Salome in The Infancy Gospel of James 19:18-20:12.

According to the story in The Infancy Gospel of James (written in the late second century), this other Salome doesn’t believe the report of the midwife who assisted at Jesus’s birth. The midwife claims that Jesus’s mother Mary is still “intact” after giving birth. Because of her unbelief, the hand which Salome then uses to give Mary an internal examination begins to burn away. Salome cries out, “Woe for my lawlessness and the unbelief that made me test the living God. Look, my hand is falling away from me and being consumed in fire.” (Italics added) Her hand is later healed.[14] (The Infancy Gospel of James is respected in some church traditions but regarded as fanciful fiction in others.)

There are still more early texts that mention Salome, such as this psalm.

Salome built a tower upon the rock of truth and mercy. The builders that built it are righteous, the masons that hew stones for it are the angels. The floor (?) of the house is Truth, the beams of the house are alms, faith is the … the Mind is the … of its door. That they go into it rejoice, that they come out of it, —their heart seeks after gladness. She built it and gave it a roof, Salome gave a parapet to the tower….
Psalms of Thomas 16 [15]

Conclusion

The Salome who is mentioned by name in Mark’s Gospel was one of many devoted female followers of Jesus. She was a witness of Jesus’s ministry and of his crucifixion. She seems to have been an independent woman (single, widowed, or divorced) and was one of the myrrh bearers who brought spices to anoint the body of her beloved Lord. This much we know. The fact that she appears in later works may be an indication that Salome was prominent among the first followers of Jesus. Certainly, she was prominent enough to be mentioned by name in Mark’s Gospel

Salome has been sainted and is commemorated in the Roman Catholic Church with feast days on April 24th and on October 22nd. The Eastern Orthodox Church commemorates Salome, Joanna, and Mary (the mother of James?) on August 3rd. The Eastern Orthodox Church commemorate the myrrh bearers on the second Sunday after Resurrection Sunday. The following is a hymn sung on the Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women

You did command the myrrh bearers to rejoice, O Christ!
By Your Resurrection, You did stop the lamentation of Eve, O God!
You did command Your apostles to preach: The Savior is Risen!

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Footnotes

[1] In her 1989 investigation of Jewish names in the first – third centuries CE, Tal Ilan discovered that Salome (or Salomezion) and Mary (or Mariamne) were the most common names for women living in the Holy Land. According to surviving ancient sources available at the time of the study, 47.5% of women were named either Salome (61 occurrences) or Mary (58 occurrences). Tal Ilan, “Notes on the Distribution of Women’s Names in Palestine in the Second Temple and Mishnaic Period,” Journal of Jewish Studies 40 (1989): 186-200, 191. (Academia.edu)
Both Salomezion and Mariamne were Hasmonean queens. Salomezion (Salome) Alexandra (139-67 BCE) was a regnant queen. She was the last monarch to rule Judea as an independent nation. Mariamne I (died 29 BCE) was a wife of Herod the Great

[2] A few times when mentioning the Galilean female followers of Jesus, only three are identified from a larger group. But the lists of the women at the cross and/ or at the tomb aren’t identical.
Matthew 27:56
(1) Mary Magdalene, (2) Mary the mother of James and Joses, (3) the mother of Zebedee’s children.
Mark 16:1
(1) Mary Magdalene, (2) Mary the mother of James, (3) Salome.
Luke 24:9-10
(1) Mary Magdalene, (2) Joanna, (3) Mary the mother, or wife, of James (cf. Luke 8:3).
John 19:25
(1) Jesus’s mother Mary, (2) Mary’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and (3) Mary Magdalene. John only mentions Mary Magdalene in his story of the empty tomb (John 20:1ff).

[3] Writing in the late 300s, Epiphanius gives “Mary” and “Salome” as two names of Jesus’s sisters in Panarion 78.8.1 and 78.9.6, and the names “Anna” and “Salome” in Ancoratus 60.1. According to Epiphanius, and in keeping with a church tradition that Joseph was previously married and Mary is forever a virgin, these sisters were born to Joseph before he married Mary.

[4] Some read four women in John 19:25, but the Greek grammar (kai x2) indicates three women.

[5] According to Orthodox tradition, this larger group of myrrh bearers includes Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, Salome, Mary the wife of Clopas, Mary and Martha of Bethany (the sisters are not mentioned in accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection in the canonical Gospels), Joanna, and Susanna. It sometimes also includes two men, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus (John 19:38-42), and other unidentified people.

[6] Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2006), 51. (Google Books)

[7] In his Church History (3.39.15), Eusebius quotes from a presbyter who stated that Mark wrote as the “interpreter” of the apostle Peter. Certainly, Peter would have known the real Salome.

[8] According to tradition, Mark founded the church in Alexandria, Egypt, in the year 49 and became its first bishop.

[9] Eusebius (3.25) disparages the Apocryphal Gospels and Acts.

Writings published by the heretics under the names of the apostles, such as the Gospels of Peter, Thomas, Matthias, and others, or the Acts of Andrew, John, and other apostles have never been cited by any in the succession of [orthodox] church writers…. The opinions and thrusts of their contents are so dissonant for true orthodoxy that they show themselves to be forgeries of heretics. Accordingly, they ought not to be reckoned even among the spurious books but discarded as impious and absurd.
Paul L. Maier, Eusebius – The Church History: A New Translation with Commentary (Kregel, 2017), 115.  (An online translation can be found here.)

[10] The Mar Saba letter is a document, now lost, that many believe to have been a hoax rather than an actual ancient letter. The letter makes the claim to have been written by Clement of Alexandria to a person named Theodorus. In the letter are quotations from the Secret Gospel of Mark including this line: “And he comes into Jericho … And the sister of the youth whom Jesus loved and his mother and Salome were there, and Jesus did not receive them.”

[11] Mariamne here probably refers to a composite of Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene. The two Marys are conflated in many early Christian works, especially in Gnostic works.

[12] This group of four also occurs in the Manichean Psalms of Heracleides. See Bauckham’s discussion on the grouping of these women, and variants, in his paper “Salome the Sister of Jesus, Salome the Disciple of Jesus, and the Secret Gospel of Mark,” Novum Testamentum 33.3 (July 1991): 245-275, 258.
About Arsinoe, Bauckham states, “There is no reason why the name Arsinoe should not be regarded as a historical memory of a disciple of Jesus whose name has not survived in other traditions (just as Joanna and Susanna are known only from Luke). “Salome the Sister,” 258-259.

[13] It is common in early Christian and Jewish texts to give made-up names to unnamed characters in the Bible.

[14] Salome’s role in the Infancy story is to provide testimony with the midwife of the virgin birth and virgin delivery. A popular idea in some sectors of the church is that Mary is a perpetual and intact virgin.

[15] Cited by Richard Bauckham in Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels (London: T. & T. Clark, 2002), 255.

Disclaimer

I hope my readers are not uncomfortable that I’ve cited from several apocryphal and gnostic texts. I’ve done this to provide a broader historical perspective, not a devotional perspective. The Protestant Bible remains my primary source for information and for devotional encouragement and inspiration.

Image Credit

Icon of the Myrrh-bearing women at St. Paul the Apostle Orthodox Christian Church (Dayton, Ohio). Photo by Ted via Flickr. (CC BY-SA 2.0) I’ve slightly cropped and coloured the photo.

Related Articles

Jesus had many female followers, many!
Partnering Together: Jesus and Women
Who was Mary the Magdalene?
Mary Magdalene and the Ascension
Mary, Martha, and Lazarus of Bethany
Jesus, Women, and Theology: “Jesus said to her …”
Chastity, Salvation, and 1 Timothy 2:15

4 thoughts on “Salome: Follower of Jesus and Myrrh Bearer

  1. Hi Marg,
    I really enjoyed this post. It’s very well written, and informative. Thanks for sharing it.

    God bless,

    1. Thanks, Nathaniel.

  2. Hi Marg
    This was really very informative and I have always wondered about Salome’s “role” as 1 of Jesus’s followers. It is wonderful to know that she was one of the female disciples.
    God Bless

    1. I’m glad you liked it, Salome.

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