Who is Salome?

15 01 2009

According to the Jehovah Witnesses’ December 08 issue of “The Watchtower,” Salome is Jesus’ aunt, the sister of his mother, who happens to be the wife of Zebedee, the mother of James and John. If this is the case, then James and John are our Lord’s biological (through Mary) cousins, and Salome is the mother of those boys who requested of Jesus that her sons sit next to him in his kingdom. The Scriptures the JWs point to are:
Matthew 27:55-6

55 There were also many women there, looking on from a distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him, 56 among whom were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.

Mark 15:40;

40 There were also women looking on from a distance, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. 41 When he was in Galilee, they followed him and ministered to him, and there were also many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem.

and John 19:25-6.

So the soldiers did these things, 25 but standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!”

Apparently, this is conjectured by more than the JWs as the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE) indicates, and it seems that it was Origen (3rd century) who made this view popular. At first glance, the connection with Salome as the natural sister of Mary, Jesus’ mother, and all the rest above, seems fairly plausible. But, if we step back a moment it is clear to notice that there is an opening that allows for the only consistency to be Mary Magdalene. The phrases, “many women…among whom…” leaves open the possibility that in each of the quotes above, the list of women at the cross is not exclusive to those named in each account. With this in mind, if we were to take each woman named as separate individuals we have a list that looks like the following (still not assuming exclusivity, and also different from the list of those at the burial and resurrection):

Mary Magdalene (of Magdala)
Mary, mother of James the little and Joseph (Joses)
the mother of the sons of Zebedee
his mother (Mary, mother of Jesus)
his mother’s sister
Salome
Mary the wife of Clopas.
In total, we have may have a list of 7 different women.

Each one of these women would be an interesting study in themselves, but still, who is Salome, if she is not Jesus’ aunt? This woman is only named 2 times in the NT and both are in Mark’s gospel account. Curious though, in his list of women at the cross, burial, and resurrection, she is found in the bookends and not at the burial.

If we were to stay within the canonical texts, what has been listed above is all that we have to work with, and for me making the connection of Salome as Jesus’ aunt and the wife of Zebedee is appealing in some ways, making sense of why those disciples follow Jesus leaving their father in his boat and all, but at the same time the evidence is inconclusive.

Reaching outside the canon may be the direction to go. For now, I’ll just mention one other idea that is raised if we allow extrabiblical texts to shed light on Salome’s identity. Richard Bauckham in his significant book, “Gospel Women,” points to historical traditions and works that claimed Salome was Jesus’ sister by Joseph from a previous marriage.

More on this idea later.

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