Bridget Supple, an antenatal teacher and author of The Birthkeeper of Bethlehem, shares her perspective on the often-neglected account of the midwife in the Christmas birth narratives 

It caused quite a stir when headlines announced in December 2022 that archaeologists had found the ancient tomb of Mary’s midwife, Salome. 

We all know the age-old Nativity story, with many of us having been entertained by a primary school production complete with singing, dancing and tea-towel wearing shepherds. A sweet portrayal of Mary and Joseph travelling with their trusty steed (cue a whole-class rendition of ‘Little Donkey’) and knocking on doors until a lowly stable is eventually offered as the birthplace of Jesus Christ. The story is as familiar to us as Brussel sprouts at Christmas, so it came as quite a surprise to many reading those headlines that this scenario probably wasn’t actually the case.


The local midwife 

If Mary and Joseph made it to Bethlehem, as the famous story portrays, then rather than birthing alone, the local midwife would have been called. In Jewish tradition surrounding childbirth, once women have had a show, their waters break, or contraction pain becomes regular, they are considered in a state of “yoledet” and must be separated from men. There cannot be physical contact with a male except in a case of emergency. 

If Mary had given birth on the road, Joseph would have been able to support her, but as they made it to the town, it would not be considered appropriate for him to care for her there. The stable, far from being star lit and isolated on a hillside, was more likely the room that most houses had for keeping animals safe.  

The Bible records the midwife present at the birth of Jesus as being Salome – who, whilst forgotten entirely in the school nativity, appears to have been venerated as a follower of Jesus and a holy person in her own right in the years following his death. In her discovered tomb, small oil lamps were found, which would have been brought as offerings just as we light candles in church. There is a Salome reported to have been present at the crucifixion. It is so often overlooked that women were there at the beginning, and at the end.

In discovering Salome the midwife, we have a chance to better understand the biblical version of the birth story of Jesus Christ. To really connect with Mary the woman, and Mary the mother. To get a feel for the historical context of his birth and perhaps even reconsider the role of the women, the shepherds and the wise men, in the formation of the young Christ.


Read more:

The faith of the shepherds: A Christmas reflection

God in diapers

Pope Francis on why we need hope


A very human experience 

In The Birthkeeper of Bethlehem, we uncover the hidden world of biblical women and consider the very human experience of Mary, a young mother giving birth for the first time far from home. Midwifery is the most ancient of professions – protecting both mother and baby through the journey of birth, using skills handed down from generation to generation to keep birthing women and their children safe in what historically could be a dangerous time. 

We see Salome care for the women of Bethlehem, her skills learnt from her mother and grandmother before her. We explore her puzzlement as she tries to support this woman Mary, who arrives on her watch, late in pregnancy and, unusually, is not known to her. Salome is there for Mary as she births in this most humble of surroundings, alone and far from home. It is Salome’s role as her midwife to ensure the rituals for the new baby and his mother are observed, and to step into the role of family and support. 

She is there to witness the shepherds arriving for this seemingly ordinary baby, and to care for Mary after the birth in the same way she does all the women in the town. Mary and Joseph stayed in Bethlehem for likely two years before their flight to Egypt. And through the eyes of the midwife, we see this story unfold.  

What would Salome have thought of men from the courts of kings arriving to pay homage to the toddler of a perfectly normal family, the son of a humble carpenter? Who were the shepherds? And what if the wise men did more than arrive and deliver gifts? It has always seemed an unlikely tale that they should travel so far to find this child, believing him to be of great importance, and then simply go on their way. Their role was that of advisors to kings, what if they brought that wisdom as their gift to the infant? 

Salome’s story includes the mothers who will lose their babies to the paranoia of Herod. Just how does a town recover from this devastating loss of their infant boys? There is so much more to the start of his story. These events shaped the life of the infant Christ, they transformed his mother and dictated her journey and, as a result, influenced his life.


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A sacred moment

The Birthkeeper of Bethlehem also connects us to a lost knowledge about birth. Throughout history, women would attend upon women in childbirth – a labouring mother would be surrounded by females she knew and trusted. Knowledge of herbal medicine, skills to help a baby’s positioning and ritual practices are commonplace in most cultures throughout history. It is only within the last 70 years that childbirth has become more medical, moving into hospitals with perhaps only the mother’s male partner as her familiar face of support. 

Even when female family members or friends do accompany a woman in labour, they themselves may never have seen a birth unfold – they may not have the wisdom or skills to properly assist. So many women are now having highly medicalised experiences of childbirth – arguably safer – yet repeated maternity scandals in the UK reveal that all is not well. Outcomes have stopped improving, and more and more women report traumatic experiences during childbirth. Birth is no longer treated as a sacred moment. Something precious has been lost.

Salome pulls back the curtain of time and gives us a window of understanding for the transformative power of the birthing journey and the ancient practice of midwifery. How not only was Jesus born that night, but so too was a mother. A very human mother, undergoing an acutely human experience – working with her midwife deep into the dark night to bring forth life.

We are presented with a model of respectful care, love and endless empathy. And a midwife who sees all childbirth as a gift from God. Ancient skills, wisdom and kindness. The rawness of the experience revealed in this book helps us to walk closer to the Bible story – it was a very human experience.

The Birthkeeper of Bethlehem reveals the life Mary would have lived all those years ago, and her journey into motherhood as a Jewish woman. Through relationships and ritual, we can walk closer to the experience of Mary and see the Nativity story in the context of history, transformation and the beautiful human experience of friendship. In the story, as in history, the midwife cares for women throughout pregnancy and for 40 days after the birth; belly wrapping, rubbing salt on to the baby, swaddling a tiny new-born frame. We follow Salome as she helps to wrap the body of Jesus Christ at his birth, and again upon his death. 

It is an empowering reminder to us all that whilst written out of so much, women were there. At the start and at the end.

For more on Mary, check out Dr Amy Orr-Ewing on Unapologetic.


Like Salome, Bridget Supple has devoted her life to supporting women through all stages of pregnancy, labour and parenting. A mother of four herself, she works as an antenatal teacher for the NCT, the NHS, in particular for Birmingham Women’s Hospital, and Birth Companions, a charity supporting pregnant women in prison. She is the founder of an information resource all about the Infant Microbiome ( and runs workshops on parenting, brain development and hypnobirthing. She has also worked on the International Journal of Birth and Parent Education ( for over eight years. Bridget lives in Shropshire with her husband and four children.